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Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

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Saturday, 5 May 2012

What passion cannot Music raise and quell? Film music at Sundance

When Edward Scissorhands was first in cinemas I vividly remember watching the opening sequence with that incredible soaring music from Danny Elfman (he also scored The Simpson's theme tune) and I suspect that was possibly where my explicitly acknowledged love affair with film music and film sound began.

A few months ago I spotted that I was being followed by the Twitter account for Sundance London (possibly cos I talk about open air cinema festivals quite a lot and live in Greenwich). I’d heard of THE Sundance fest but had no idea they were planning a London visit. To cut a long story short the one thing I decided I couldn’t bear to miss from their programme was an event on the Sunday afternoon (29 April 2012) with people talking about composing and making music for films. Heaven.

Dramatis personae
  • Peter Golub (Director of Music for the Sundance Film & Music Festival) – introduced proceedings
  • Harry Gregson-Williams (composer of music for film among other things)
  • Hugh Marsh (electric violinist)
  • Martin Tillman (cellist / electric cellist)
  • Peter Cobbin (balance engineer / sound engineer, Abbey Road studios)
I don’t think I’ve ever counted so many festival volunteers in yellow jackets at an event but they were all friendly and helpful – I am officially jealous of them as I did apply to be a volunteer but sadly didn’t make the cut. While wandering around before the event I spotted a guy walking past with a solid looking case – it turned out to be Peter Cobbin with a case full of microphones, we got to pass these around later (heavy!).

Once in the auditorium I checked what the policy was about taking photos or tweeting and there was some discussion before a polite, friendly and very reasonable ‘we’d rather you didn’t’ came back. There’s been some discussion within the film industry about encouraging young people back into cinema by making it more friendly for them, eg by permitting texting in theatres. In addition to price considerations omeone came up with the bright idea of letting them use their phones to text but the problem with that bright idea in a dark room is that everyone else is annoyed by it, let alone any threats of piracy. Although it’s pretty hard to pirate films that are filmed and screened in 3D… Having seen some of the #sundance tweets however I realise that my mistake was asking permission in the first place ;)

Anyway, Harry Gregson-Williams was fascinating and entertaining, and he brought with him musicians and a sound engineer dude which was a great idea. If he / they do any more talks I recommend popping along.

I’m writing this a few days after the event so I’m going to give up on remembering which order things came in so if you were there and spot any errors my email address is at the top of the page.

Harry started by telling us about Gone Baby Gone (dir Ben Affleck) where he used a four note motif and varied it for different points within the film. I’d not seen the film and the music is rather lovely – here it is with Casey Affleck (Ben’s brother) doing the voiceover.

He also mentioned (I think in response to a question at the end) the concept of spotting a film in that the composer watches the [I presume the not fully finished copy of the] film with the director and that decisions are made as to which bits of the film need scoring. This is effectively the contract and those are the bits that the composer needs to supply music for.

With Shrek Harry was asked to come up with the theme for the character Shrek and what was wanted was a piece that was a bit ‘lumpy’. He came up with a tune that everyone loved but the decision-makers decided to make that piece the theme to the whole film which appears right at the beginning – it even has to cover the Dreamworks studio logo before the film actually starts.

To get the lumpier track for Shrek himself he asked his electric cellist to play on an instrument he’d not used before (I think it was a double-bass… should have brought notebook and pencil!) and I think it featured in the ‘red carpet’ scene.

For Chronicles of Narnia he needed a lullaby, to be played by James McAvoy as Mr Tumnus, that sounded as if it was ‘of Narnia’. Mr Tumnus was playing an instrument that looked like a recorder that had been split in two and there was some footage of Mr Tumnus ‘playing’ it for Harry to try and fit some music to. He showed us some of the footage and we had some of the track played live for us which was lovely.

This is a dubbed video but once the music starts the language isn’t an issue.

The story behind a piece of music used in Veronica Guerin involved a young street singer who was belting out some tunes in Dublin when Harry arrived in Ireland to meet with the director and others involved in the film. He realised when he got back home (in the US) that the child’s singing would work well for the film and wished he’d recorded him. He persuaded his UK-based brother to send an assistant to Ireland to try and record him and after one failed journey the boy (Brian O’Donnell) was found on the second visit, recorded in the middle of an alley and signed up.

After that Harry showed us the clip in which news of Veronica’s death is shared with her friends and family – there’s no or very little sound beyond the singing and, after a verse and chorus, an orchestra joins in. I thought it was incredible.

The song, Fields of Athenry, begins at ~2m10s – below is the same song but it’s either pitch-shifted down / transposed or slowed down. I can sing along to the second one a bit better ;)

Peter the sound engineer talked a little about setting things up for recording a player or orchestra and his role in placing musicians in the room to best effect and getting everyone miked up appropriately. He passed around four microphones – just the bit you speak / sing / play into. The mics wandered up and around the rows making their way to the back and then back to the front. I noticed that they seemed to have very different sockets for connecting cables – rather than USBs where everything is pretty much standardised. Also, probably not surprising given the weight of a couple of the mics, the connections would be securely clipped in rather than plugged in (eg like a bayonet fitting which is hard to remove accidentally, compared to headphone jacks). Apparently there are quite a lot of titles for the job he does but he went for ‘balance engineer’ as the best description.

Harry also told us about his work on Unstoppable in particular a scene where the runaway train is at a crucial point in its ‘will it, won’t it stop’ journey that involves scraping metal wheels against tracks as it rounds a fairly tight curve. He played us a clip which just had the (loud!) metal-grinding sound effects and then played it with elements of his track (without the sound effects). This was a pretty exciting sequence – he demoed the various components of tune and rhythym and the musicians played along and it sounded fun to play too.

The final film version has the music much lower in the mix so it’s quite hard to hear but I can tell you that having the score played live over the footage was pretty damn thrilling.

Here’s the score itself

The electric cello bit reminds me a tiny bit of the music of Zoe Keating who uses a regular cello (I think) but connects it up to a sampler / sequencer / software (not sure of the correct terminology but I think it’s Ableton Live) and plays against herself. The embedded player is cued up to play "Quantum Cello" - Zoe chatting about her work with Jad Abumrad of Radiolab and playing a few of her songs.

At the end of the event - rapt attention for one and a half hours - there was a mini stampede as he mentioned that he'd brought along some CDs and scores to give away, which was rather nice.

The title quote "What passion cannot Music raise and quell" comes from John Dryden's 1687 lyrics to a song for St Cecilia's Day. I was at a history of music and emotion seminar the other day and it came up, and I thought it rather fitting.

Further reading
An afternoon with Harry Gregson-Williams Ro's movie musings on The Views blog (30 April 2012) - a very nice review of the same event, written much sooner after the event than mine so likely to be more accurate than mine!

See also
Watching: Video Digest The Morning News (February 22, 2008)
Jad Abumrad (co-host of Radiolab) talks about some of his favourite film music including Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo. While searching for the link for this I came across a different blog post offering a commentary on the selection.

The original advert on the Sundance London festival's website
Film Music From The Composer’s Point Of View: An Afternoon with Harry Gregson-Williams
Peter Golub, Director of the Sundance Institute Film Music Program, will lead us on a journey exploring the creative evolution of one of the most successful and prolific film composers working today. Join world renowned composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia, Kingdom of Heaven, Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, Team America, Life in a Day and so many others) as he shares his process from that first spark of musical conception through to its culmination in the final delivery of a film score.

Experience a live demonstration by electric violinist Hugh Marsh and a not-to-be-missed discussion with Peter Cobbin, who has recorded and mixed many of Harry’s scores at Abbey Road. Participants will examine scenes from The Chronicles of Narnia, Veronica Guerin, Unstoppable, and Gone Baby Gone and learn how the music for each of these films was conceived and realized and ultimately discover first hand how music shapes and enhances the lifeblood of a film and the experience of the viewer.

This panel is co-presented with BAFTA.

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