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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I have included playable sketches of the unpublished failed attempts at  the title music (one of which, if remade, would make a good Radiophonic piece).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Here's the unpublished demo which features that hardy parennial the Eventide Harmoniser, a mainstay for experimental composers for many years, and referred to affectionately as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

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr Howell,

    Thank you so much for responding to my tweet. I couldn't find an email address for you on here, so I'm leaving a comment instead.

    Firstly, let me say how lucky I am to have been a child at a time when CBBC was producing such well-crafted, thoughtfully-produced drama - programmes which really captured the imagination.

    I've been having a little bit of a trip down memory lane recently (courtesy of YouTube), and I was reminded of how superb the music for Children of Green Knowe was. Not only the wonderfully warm and evocative theme music, but also the brilliantly stylised music for the children's masque performed for Charles II.

    If you would be willing to send or email me the theme music, purely for my own personal use and satisfaction, I would be most grateful - if indeed you are able to transfer it digitally. Of course, I would be more than happy to pay you for whatever costs may be involved.

    My email address is magid.elbushra@gmail.com or you can leave me a message via the contact page of my website www.magidelbushra.com

    With all best wishes,

    Magid El-Bushra.