Christmas, Gruyère and Abbey Road

Waking up yesterday morning to a sweeping snow-laden London landscape, it felt like Christmas had gotten lost and come a little early to the party. But, not at all a shamelessly tenuous segue, I thought it’d be a good opportunity to hark back to the end of last year. Right? right..?

I capped off 2017 with an orchestral, ’50s crooner-inspired arrangement of Shakin Steven’s Merry Christmas Everyone for BBH’s festive Tesco ad campaign; with music supervision by Dan Neale of Native. It was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with a 55 piece orchestra.

From Studio 2's control room

From behind the glass in Studio 2’s control room.

Turning the clock back on such a catchily-simple and punchy pop song wasn’t just a case of adding a 7th to the chords and a few saxes. In fact, there were no saxes (I know, very daring!). The vocals were warmly delivered and given a real crackle-by-the-hearth vibe by Big Band veteran Joe Ringer. Instrumentally, keeping in flavour of the old recordings, where lush harmonies are carried by sweeping top-line supporting melodies, strings did most of the heavy-lifting, with a formidable yet held-back brass section providing the warmth and weight to the sound. Lower woodwinds, often misunderstood in the realms of the (ahem… a story for another day) epic cinematic idiom, provided the deep warmth to the seasoning (expertly advised by orchestrator Colin Skinner); the higher woods a chewy yet supportive centre.

Abbey Road Studio 2, with Jake Walker

Going through the score with conductor Jake Walker.

But the stars of the show were the players themselves – The very hands behind the much-loved scores of the cinema, in one of the world’s most iconic (and I don’t use this term lightly) live rooms. It’s at this point one realises that those notes on that page will never sound better than this – different maybe, but this far up the echelons of sound and musicality, we ain’t going up any further! Then there was the room. Studio 2 is one of those rooms with such a characteristic sound, it’s almost like an instrument in itself…

Abbey Road s2 - orchestra tuning

Abbey Road Studio 2 – orchestra tuning up; with conductor Jake Walker.

Getting there in the morning, after sorting through the session with the engineer, I went into the empty live room. The baffles on the walls and their placement had a “I think that’ll work” look about them and the room’s acoustic wasn’t state-of-the-art mathematically and algorithmically designed – it evolved through time and music in such a way that no room could ever sound like this. Empty, the air felt still but excitable. During the session, overlooking the room at the top of the stairs to the control room…

My grandmother used to make the best pasta – macaroni to be exact – in that buttery-cheesy Swiss style (she was Swiss). It was wonderfully naughty, addictive, amazingly gooey and had something magical to it. One day she gave us the exact recipe (she was a very exact woman, after all), and with the same pan, the same spoon and on the very same hob we tried to make it… It was great, but there was one ingredient missing. That inexplicable magic that can’t be replicated, no matter how much gruyère, butter or reverb you put on it.

…There’s no sound like it – and it was wonderful.

Abbey Road studio 2 - group photo

With music supervisor Dan Neale (Native Music Supervision), orchestrator Colin Skinner, composer / conductor Jake Walker, producers / creatives from BBH and the wonderful orchestra.

Writing Silence – Composing Payne

I highlighted two-and-a-half minutes’ worth of music and hit DELETE. Brutal.

We (the director and I) had been going for the nth time through the nth pass of the score, of the nth iteration of a particular scene. A solitary, intimate moment for our protagonist –  alone with his thoughts, free of distraction, antagonists and guns. Just him.

This scene was important; VERY important. In a Memorial hard-drive laid previously composed cues for this scene – hard fought but not won. It had been discussed in all manner of combination: This section needs music, but this next bit must be silent; no, we definitely need music during the next scene to convey x emotion; maybe half way through and then silence; no, I think silence only at the very start; music everywhere; maybe nothing at all… It must have been around 4 hours into a particular session when the realisation dawned that the notes ceased to matter and the ghost of Miles Davis was getting out his bag of I-Told-You-So‘s…

“It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” – Miles Davis

I hit Play. 

We sat back and, for the nth time watched this scene. For the very fist time, though, we felt it.

The Sound of Payne

When most of your time is spent either doing the work or, in those awkward in-between stages, planning the work, there is little time to actually write about it. so make time

The last 3 years, a new film of Max Payne has been in the works; a film that is faithful to the thriller-noire sensibilities of the original game franchise. I was on-board as the composer from virtually the word GO; and present-day short-gaze nostalgic musings with director and mastermind behind this, Leroy Kincaide, inevitably drift back to that initial meeting in a central London café, where I first heard the voice of Max Payne emanating from the first few pages of the script.

So what took three years, then? In short, the development of the film’s voice. It had to be right and, imperatively, faithful to the original story and franchise. Time and care was taken, without reserve, on the pre-production: finding the right tone, pacing, colour, character, story. And for the music too.

I went through countless iterations of the overarching theme, in order to find the right tone. With each new image, paragraph and conversation, the direction became clearer, and so another piece to the cutting-room-floor. This film is all about tone – an underlying, invisible character that embodies everything the film is – and finding this tone within the music was as crucial to Max’s character as those first few words on the page and doing the film’s meticulously crafted world justice.

The score is a result of sound-soul-searching, music-picture synergy, Kincaide’s aesthetic and tonal vision, and finding the voice within this.

Max Payne: Retribution – out now

MPR

Scoring On-Set: Film Composing along the Production Timeline

 

“OK, here is the brief. We need the score finished yesterday.”

— is a common request to film composers; understood and well-accustomed-to by veteran composers, and rabbit-in-the-headlights panic to those newer on the scene. And understandably too. Music is often found, understandably, to be the icing on the cake for a production, particularly in advertising, and you’d have to be mad to build a cake on top of icing!

The Deadline

I recently did an advert: orchestral piece, requested in about 36 hours, sync nicely to picture and build as the narrative does. There are techniques one learns and discovers to make this quick turnaround a seamless process, whilst also being able to compose something musical and emotive at the same time. It’s the norm, it’s typical of film & media’s production paradigm, and you know what? Deadlines are inspiring. Not enough time to deliberate, just create from the gut, the heart and hone it with the head. It’s honest and immediate.

Deadlines are inspiring. Not enough time to deliberate, just create from the gut, the heart and hone it with the head. It’s honest and immediate.

 

And… From the Top!

It’s a rarity to be brought in at the beginning of a production, or even at the script stage. Honestly, there is too much at stake at this point to start worrying about the, albeit essential (I’m not bias), luxury that is music. But to any composer starting out who has the opportunity to attend a day of filming – DO IT! I cannot stress how important this is to get another angle on the story, characters and production. Yes, it is what’s on-screen that will be eventually scored, not the cameras and crew, and it’s unlikely that a composer will have anything useful to do on-set but watch. But watch.

Benchmark shoot, march 2015, Quarterly Shorts

Benchmark shoot, march 2015, Quarterly Shorts

I had the pleasure of attending a shoot in Bristol back in March. It was for the inaugural short film of Quarterly Shorts, a production initiative headed by Seven Tenths Motion Pictures and Hanover Pictures. I’d read the script, had an idea of what I’d do, made a musical ‘sketch’ and we were all on a similar page. Something that occurred to me after seeing everyone in action a the shoot:

The composer’s role, conceptually, amounts to an always-off-screen (supporting) actor.

The music is another character; one which moves with the cast, telling their story and stories unseen by them, following the protagonist’s motivation, reacting to the twist at the end and finding solace in the resolve of the supporting characters.

Benchmark shoot. Quarterly Shorts 2015. Image processing: Kika Pierides

Benchmark shoot. Quarterly Shorts 2015.
Image processing: Kika Pierides

As the shoot went on, more and differing musical ideas evolved – a few I don’t think I’d have come up with had I not been there, and most of them saw it to the final score. Seeing the actors go in and out of character, and seeing how they approach their roles gave a massive but inexplicable insight to the film’s vibe.

The score / post-production sound.

The score / post-production sound.

It’s more of an emotional understanding than something tangible as words, but being on-set and seeing everyone in part and in action provided another mind-set in which to go into for the scoring process…

Almost like a way of getting into one’s own character and empathising with those characters on-screen – not as an outsider in his post-production Fortress Of Sound, but more like a ghost who experienced everything on-set.

 

The Main Theme:

 

‘Benchmark’ is the inaugural film of Quarterly Shorts. It was written by Dan Richardson, and was directed by Dan Richardson and Paul Dudbridge. The full list of credits and details can be found here: Benchmark – IMDB

And finally, here is the film. Enjoy!

Quantum Music Theory and Emotion

Schrödinger’s Cat: a fundamental point in quantum mechanics and theories, but also potential fodder for theories pertaining to our very reality being none more than an elaborate illusion (stay away from that red-herring, Nick!). You can take a look at this cat’s fate HERE, or a great little video on it HERE. To summarise, albeit crudely (Physicists, feel free to chime in / correct / turn up at my house with pitch forks and torches / etc.)

We only know the state of a photon or atom at the moment we perceive it. Until then, it remains in a state of multiple potentials

I’ll admit right off the bat that physics, although deeply interesting, is not my expertise! But music does have a lot in common with this poor cat. We’re presented with Major and Minor keys; states in which the harmony is perceived as, broadly, Happy or Sad. However, despite this fundamental, in reality this emotional state entirely depends on the context of these harmonies. They need to be individually perceived.

For example, Somewhere Over the Rainbow – very much a tear-jerker of a tune, a sad longing. This is in the most Major of keys and chords, including major 3rds, 7ths and augmentations. Happy Together (verse)- a toe-tapping song, a jaunty feel, but it’s (at least in the verse) in a minor key. As is Putting On The Ritz (chorus).

Whilst major and minor may be a theoretical constant, their emotional connotations are entirely subjective, their state only confirmed upon their application.

Using Jazz and improvisation as an example, the ways in which harmony is sometimes approached almost veers into the academic and theoretical, testing boundaries, conventions and finding hidden harmonic relationships. The barrier between Major and Minor is further diminished by the characteristic ‘Blue Notes’, the use of minor notes in major keys. This goes both ways, improvisers using major 3rds against minor keys. And to skew things even further, sometimes going into a relative key, or even implying (false) harmonies. The overall key of the tune does not change, but the notes played over it become (emotionally) anchored to their context. Their affect is dependent on the harmonies.

The happy-sad relationship correlation between major and minor becomes less relevant and the improviser is looking at the overall effect of their playing, using dissonant and the suggestion of other keys to drive tension and narrative. And just like an “Aha!” moment of revelation, there’s the eventual clear-cut resolution to the native key of the song, the result of an audible equation.

I had a thought a little while ago, whilst talking about harmony and the use of dissonance to an engineering / physics enthusiast. A Quantum Scale. For example, in the key of C:

C Eb E F Gb G Bb B C

or

Tonic, minor 3rd, major 3rd, 4th, flat-fifth, fifth, minor 7th, major 7th, tonic.

Based upon the Blues Scale, it uses both major and minor and this state will depend on the chord being played under it. Depending on the harmony underneath, the otherwise dissonant notes will be passing notes or would create interest and tension. The scale remains in multiple states, until it is perceived (or applied, in this case) to a harmony, at which point the major-minor scales are tipped.

Jazz theory (and music in general) goes much further than this and what I’ve been writing about is very much a starting point. Music has a ton of physics within its theory, in fact in its purest state it can be traced right back down to natural physics. But I’ve rambled on long enough, and that’s for another post, methinks. Happy improvising!

Quick thought on Collaboration…

…It’s good for you! It’s all too easy, especially whilst in the throws of inspiration and full-force workflow, to spend ninety-five percent of the time secluded in one’s very own bat-cave of audio-tech delights, rarely talking to another human or seeing the light-of-day.

I’ll heed my own typing ^^^ then.

Time for a bit of out-side inspiration and epic instrumentals!