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Your Music on Film (the eBook for aspiring film composers) - New Music (recent compositions mixing the acoustic with the electronic) Lecturer at the NFTS - BBC Composer 1973 to 1998 - Early Compositions (Music for Collectors) - Still to Come (the writing)

February 21, 2012

Music for the Big Bang

Epic events need careful handling.

It's tempting to think that the more impressive the action in a film, the easier the music is to compose. Here's an excerpt from the eBook, about the power of associations in the audience's mind, which proves otherwise...

I have included playable sketches of the unpublished failed attempts at  the title music (one of which, if remade, would make a good Radiophonic piece).

I remember with some trepidation the long search for a suitable musical style for a documentary series for Channel 4, Reality on the Rocks. I had worked for the director many times, but on this occasion my initial sketches were unfavourably received.
Ken Campbell by Richard Adams
The series featured comic actor, Ken Campbell, playing a hapless ‘everyman’ lost in the vagaries of quantum physics, the big bang, string theory, and multiple universes and who finally meets the renowned Stephen Hawking to help put it all together.

1. My first idea for the main theme centred around the character of Campbell himself, a maverick comedian who relished the combination of the mundane and the absurd. A Jazz feel seemed appropriate but the result was unsatisfactory. It lacked any relationship with the subject of the programmes, quantum physics…

Here it is then. The very rough demo, featuring a rather crass Saxophone sound, but it was just a sketch...
R on the R 1 by Peter Howell Music

2. So on to idea No 2. Still with the Jazz feel, but mainly in the top sax line, the rest now had more of a scifi feel, but with the original rhythmic content from version 1. It sounds a mess, and it was a mess.

R on the R 2 by Peter Howell Music

3. Time to regroup. Perhaps the problem was to try to associate with the presenter at all. So Version 3 was an out and out electronic, deep space experience. I still like it to this day. Quite innovative and dramatic, but it seemed horribly out of place against any of the pictures. Far too ‘Bladerunner’.
Here's the unpublished demo which features that hardy parennial the Eventide Harmoniser, a mainstay for experimental composers for many years, and referred to affectionately as 'fairy dust'... 

R on the R 3 by Peter Howell Music

4. Three failed attempts, and although the director, who I had worked with before, was amazingly patient, I did feel under pressure to solve this problem. The solution, as is often the case, was in taking a sideways step from the main ingredients of the series (the presenter and the subject), and finding something that, because of its associations in the audience’s mind, lit up the whole debate.
This ‘something’ was a choral sound. I had resorted to laboriously working through hundreds of samples to see if something stood out, and came across a quasi choral ‘dooh’ sound made with only a handful of singers.

R on the R 4 by Peter Howell Music
In a few minutes, I had written the theme that would feature throughout in various guises. A rich and melodious anthem, consonant and apparently rooted in the ecclesiastical world, but with a steady measured rhythm.
Kings College Chapel, Cambridge

In retrospect, it is easy to see why it worked so well. The beginning and end of the series were set in Cambridge, in fact Kings College Chapel appeared in a few of the shots, with Campbell walking in the foreground. We were to meet Stephen Hawking in the last programme, one of the University’s most famous fellows.  Other parts of the films were set all over the world, such as Cern in Switzerland, and had at first distracted us from the core idea, the big bang and the man who know more about it than anyone else.

Our newly found choral solution has other associations; the mysteries of space time. Although not religious in themselves, they do make us think of the unknown, and in turn our insignificance and powerlessness. So in thinking about that choir we are being given a safe platform from which to observe the unthinkable and awe inspiring universe. Add to that, the slow rhythmic meter which reminds us of an old clock, and you even have an association with another core subject of the series, time.

All the right boxes were ticked, and looking back on it, my initial enthusiasm for writing music for the presenter, just because he had a strong presence, was misplaced. The subject of the whole series had a much stronger presence, and to see him pitted against it, was in essence what the whole series was about.
In the audience’s minds, the associations were made. When they were looking at a graphic animation of the Big Bang, and hearing that chorale, somewhere in a back room of their brains the associations were being forged, and realisation and satisfaction were being created.

An edited excerpt from my eBook 'Your Music on Film'...
available now from Amazon

February 10, 2012

Eleven Feet

Has anyone else written a march in 11/4?

It's a cold night in Oxfordshire. I'm standing in a tent, in the middle of a quarry with Mark Ayres, trying to get the computer to lock with the timecode (a bit geeky I know, but quite honestly the cold was a great deal more urgent to me than the timecode). We were engaged in a rather special project. Playing new compositions by Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Mark and myself to a valliant band of fans who had somehow worked out how to get there with no public transport and little guarantee that anything meaningful would happen anyway. But somehow it did. It was something to do with the sheer desolation of the place and the fact that we had hired in massive surround sound speakers, and a guy who usually did festivals to set them up.
For composers who had previously only heard their work coming out of speakers the size of a dinner plate, or in some cases a small saucer, this was an injection of pure andrenalin. The sound was big and it was everywhere, there was even a speaker on the top rim of the quarry for occasional shocks and the rather realistic hovering of a helicopter. Together with the visuals from Jon Rogers and Rory Hamilton, who with Sarah Rogers provided these pictures, it really was something rather different.

But what of these eleven feet? I wrote four new pieces for that concert, entitled, purely for our reference purposes, 'Desolate Landscape', 'Robot March', 'The Creature', and 'City of Gold'. The last one will probably re-appear as part of 'The 2012 Collection', but the others will become available on Soundcloud. We're talking about the march though, the one in 11/4. It's probably common knowledge amongst musicians but less obvious to others that the main reason that marches are written in 2/4 (in other words two beats to the bar), is because we have two feet. It's quite simply a case of 'left, right, left, right'. Imagine then, what sort of creature or android, would be able to march to this.

Here's an extract from the piece then (also available on Soundcloud)...

We had decided to write pieces that drew their original inspiration from previous scifi music that we had provided for the BBC, but were entirely new compositions. This piece has that very filtered start that hides the details of the marching rhythm similar to the entry of the 'army' on the LP 'Through a Glass Darkly', whilst the brass theme has the same feel as some of the music from 'The Leisure Hive', especially the replication sequence.
Since we were using very dramatic surround sound over large distances, the tail end of the piece moved the robot army behind the audience whilst a new contingent emerged (sonically) in front of them.

The piece was used again in our concert at the Roundhouse in 2009 about which more later...