Score! Insider tips for writing soundtracks

Exploring the relationship between music and the moving image to unearth new opportunities for composers.

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 17 Sep 2013
  • min read
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes, ‘bout sound and vision,’ sang David Bowie in his hit of the same name. Jim Ottewill does exactly that, exploring the relationship between music and the moving image to unearth new opportunities for composers.

‘The relationship between sound and image is completely plastic,’ enthuses Coldcut and Ninja Tunes main man Matt Black. ‘It’s totally flexible. Any sound and any image can be put together, which means the possibilities when working with the two are enormous.’

Over the last 20 years Matt, alongside Coldcut partner in crime Jonathan More, has explored many of these possibilities, blazing an irreverent trail through the audiovisual world with his cut ‘n’ paste aesthetic.

Their experiments and mash-ups have only been limited by their imagination and the technology they can get their hands on. In other words, anything goes. So where does that leave today’s screen composer?

While the work of Coldcut and their Ninja Tunes record label spearheaded the creation of new channels for experimental musicians, composers and filmmakers, the world of Hollywood is an obvious starting point when exploring the relationship between sound and image.

The BBC’s current Sound of Cinema season is celebrating and tracing this union through film history and classics such as Blade Runner, Star Wars and Inception.

Silent film composer Neil Brand is presenting a three-part series on BBC4. He picks out Alex North’s riotous jazz score for Tennessee Williams’ sizzling Hollywood classic A Streetcar Called Desire as a personal favourite. It’s a fine example of a powerful score where musical subtext can say much more than image.

‘It’s a film about sex made at a time when you weren’t supposed to be talking about sex. But all the sex is in the music. And boy is it. It is the hottest score,’ he says. ‘You need to be a good dramatist – you need to see a scene from a film, understand it and think you’ve got the perfect bit of music to go with it.’

Speaking volumes

Don Letts, Grammy Award winning filmmaker, music video director and DJ, is also presenting a show in the series. Weaned on punk-rock rather than classical styles, he believes a good soundtrack needs to leave an impression without distracting from what’s happening on the screen.

‘A good score needs to be both utterly captivating and totally forgettable at the same time,’ he says.

Don should know. He’s worked with the two for his whole career with the Clash documentary Westway to the World and Jamaican hit Dancehall Queen being highlights. His work with film also fed into his songwriting as a member of Big Audio Dynamite alongside Clash guitarist Mick Jones.

‘Our hit E=MC2 was a homage to Nicolas Roeg. We employed dialogue from Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now as a twist. When I used film dialogue, it was because I couldn’t play an instrument. But using my film knowledge I wrote lyrics with Mick in the same way I’d write a synopsis or treatment for a film,’ he says.

A foot in the door
Composing music for films, TV series and indeed increasingly any form of visual media is not for the faint hearted. In fact it’s like going into battle if you listen to Neil Brand.

‘You need to be thick skinned and incredibly self assured to enter this world’, he warns. But with such risks come potentially great rewards. ‘It’s something that requires the best you’re capable of – and will eventually be the most rewarding music you can do. Thousands, even millions of people could hear your music. But with it comes a hell of a lot of pressure.’
There’s a big bouncer on the door. You somehow get through him thanks to a friend or director.

Pressure can come in many different ways. For those composers starting off, finding work and getting paid in an increasingly competitive sector is a major challenge.
Daniel Pemberton is an Ivor Novello Award-winning composer (for Best Television Soundtrack for BBC drama Desperate Romantic) whose latest work is with director Ridley Scott on his film The Counselor. This new blockbuster features Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt with a soundtrack recorded between Dan’s flat and Abbey Road. He believes that many directors are unwilling to take risks on new composers.

‘It’s difficult to get your foot in the door. I always liken it to a party. Once you’re in, you need to hang around as long as possible. There’s a big bouncer on the door. You somehow get through him thanks to a friend or director. Then as long as you don’t mess up, people will keep speaking to you.’

Tight deadlines
Debbie Wiseman has huge experience of writing music for both film and TV. She’s scored a variety of TV drama, documentaries and films with credits including Stig of the Dump, Land Girls and Wilde. She was also awarded an MBE in the 2004 for services to the film industry. Debbie suggests a composer’s ability to work to brief and collaborate with all those involved in the production of a film can be crucial.

‘When you’re writing for film, you’re constantly involved with the editor, producer and director,’ she says.

‘All have a say on the music. So you need write to please this team. You’ve got to ensure you’re creating a soundtrack they feel is helping their film, helping tell the story and shaping the characters and drama.’

For producer Jon Hopkins, collaboration is almost second nature having adopted numerous musical guises over his career. His experience includes working as a producer with Coldplay and Brian Eno, as an experimental electronic solo artist and an Ivor Novello Award-winning soundtrack composer with British science fiction thriller Monsters. Despite the success of his latest acclaimed solo album Immunity, it’s clear that film scoring is something Jon loves.

‘When you write your own music you are the star, the director, you do everything. I find films really refreshing by contrast,’ he says. ‘Working for screen is much easier as the story is already there. Your job is just to augment the visuals and bring it to life. It’s the star and the music is secondary so the pressure is off.’

Jon’s experience is typical of the screen composer world. His latest film scoring project — indie film How I Live Now — came about due to the director loving his work on Monsters. It shows how seizing an opportunity stands composers in great stead for future projects.

‘Monsters did a lot for me,’ he explains. ‘As a film it went really far. The director Gareth Edwards is now working for Legendary Pictures making Godzilla. Everyone in the movie industry has seen it. I was incredibly lucky to have been asked to write on that.’

Outside film and TV, ever-evolving technology has created many more opportunities for composers away from traditional media platforms. Yati Durant, music director and conductor of the Edinburgh Film Music Orchestra and programme director of Edinburgh University’s MSc Composition for Screen, believes the industry is changing at rapid pace.

‘The field of media for composers to work in is almost a different creature day-to-day. It’s changing so fast it’s almost impossible to take a snapshot of the current picture,’ Yati explains.

He goes on to single out videogames as a new lucrative and creatively stimulating area which could rival cinema for composers. ‘Something that has literally exploded in the last year or two is videogame music. It’s probably the most important and emerging field for a film composer to be involved in because the narrative and dramatic demands, combined with the technological capacity of consoles, are asking composers to really create outstanding scores.

‘It’s no longer eight-bit, mono-synth melodies,’ he continues. ‘It’s full orchestral scores with huge budgets, dramatic projects with complicated narrative. It’s interactive music which changes depending on how you play it.’

Content overload
Interactive platforms certainly offer an intriguing new area for music-makers to work in. While technology opens up these new mediums for aspiring sound composers, the easy access has led to a glut of composers looking to make careers from music. It means a composer looking to write for the screen needs to be as persistent as possible to develop a reputation as a writer who can work quickly, efficiently, to brief and to tight deadline.

Nick Ryan from the Screen Music Network and sound designer and composer in his own right, says that while this makes it tougher for aspiring composers, it also means there are more ways for composers to sustain a career.

‘People need content to be made. The technology which is creating more composers is also creating more content at the other end of the chain. So there are more channels on TV, interactive channels online, games — just more content being made which requires music.’

So while competition is stiff, Nick believes that if you’re good at what you do you’ll get a chance to prove yourself. ‘Ultimately there are many more opportunities out there if you work hard enough to get them.’