Image & Inspiration
Keith Emerson outlines his guide to cinema soundtracks.
Film and video can be a great inspiration for creating music. Keith Emerson puts the medium into focus to Sean Rothman.
Film. It's funny how that one syllable word still remains the ultimate artistic objective for today's musicians.
Whether it's a desire to act (David Bowie), or produce (George Harrison), or simply write the accompanying soundtrack, the genre has attracted established composers as diverse as John Barry and Giorgio Moroder, all of whom have used popular music as a springboard and learning ground for their celluloid careers.
With the proliferation of home video and the emergence of cheap SMPTE code generators like the new Roland SBX-80 Sync box, the door is opening for the first time to the semi-pro musician and artist.
With this in mind, I spoke to Keith Emerson, who, following the self destruction of ELP in 1978 and more recent reincarnation, is beginning to carve something of a niche for himself as a film score composer. In London to promote his most recent film to reach completion, Best Revenge, a Midnight Express-type drugploitation movie brought to you courtesy of Lorimar, the people responsible for Dallas, I asked him a few questions about the disciplines involved in writing a film soundtrack.
"The most important thing is to have a lot of patience, because anything can change at the last minute. The main problem is timing — you have to play to a click track so that the music and film are exactly in sync, and that can sometimes be frustrating if you've written a fantastic piece of music and then have to add a few more bars to match the action on the screen. It might help dramatically but make no musical sense. Of course, it can be useful, you think of things which you otherwise wouldn't have thought of."
Earlier you mentioned that you feel frustrated when you have to alter a piece of music to suit the film. Do you set out to write music that will stand up on it's own, or just try to accentuate whatever's happening on the screen?
"I find myself — and this is probably not a good way of becoming a successful film score writer — always consciously thinking of the ensuing soundtrack album because I know that when my music gets to the sound stage to be dubbed onto film, it will lose a lot of impact.
"When people come out (of a cinema) after seeing a film and you ask them 'What do you think of the music?', they say 'What music?' They're not aware that there's maybe a whole orchestra there that's taken you months to get together."
Isn't there a danger that the soundtracks on a lot of films actually overpower what's happening on the screen itself?
"Oh, sure. You have to learn to underscore sometimes. It took me a long time to learn that, because coming out of a heavy rock band, the last thing you want to do is to play yourself down, you want to push yourself forward. I've had to alter a few of my beliefs and it's been a long job."
How do you get the initial idea for the mood of a film? From the script or the early Rushes'?
"Normally, they give me the script and I read through it. Maybe there is something in the script that happens which triggers off an idea. Then, they send me a working copy on video without any sound and once I've got my main title theme and it's been accepted by the producer, I'm all set to go.
"The difficult job is finding an angle, the direction that the film music should go in. You have to ask yourself questions — what is the style, what is the period the film is set in, is it an adventure, is it a love story, is it a comedy? If it's a comedy, is it a black comedy or is it one all the family can enjoy?' After you've asked yourself all that, you try and find something suitable!"
How did you decide what direction the music should take for Best Revenge?
"The film takes place in Morocco and Tangiers, so I bought a whole load of albums on Arab music. It was very interesting — not the sort of stuff I normally listen to, but rhythmically it's very exciting, sort of syncopated..."
Yes, there's a lot of percussion in the soundtrack. What's that, the CMI?
"No! (laughs) I did all that in my home studio. Most of it is the Linn, treated. Like, I tuned the tom toms really high, as high as they would go and then fed the output through a DDL. I got this brilliant flanging effect which made the toms sound like tablas. It's very effective!"
You said that you work to a click-track. What do you use as a SMPTE generator and reader?
"I've had this gadget built for me which provides SMPTE code and at the same time synchronises my Linn together. I use the drum machine to supply the actual click (usually the hi-hat) but sometimes I program it to provide the timing for the actual orchestration, so that the music is right on cue, all the time."
Were there any particular difficulties with the music for Best Revenge?
"There were a few problems! One of the heads of Lorimar's music department wanted a grand orchestra, so I said 'All right, I'll see how much it costs' — you have to work out a budget, see.
"Anyway, it cost a lot! I used the National Philharmonic, got back to LA and found that this bloke had been taken off the production and two younger guys had replaced him. They listened to what I had recorded and in their opinion it was too traditional. They wanted more synthesisers so I had to try and cover up all the orchestra with synths!"
So, what you're saying is that it's a misconception that one has more freedom with the music. The producer still has the ultimate say.
"Yeah. I'm quite pleased with the end result, though. I came up with a very interesting sound, really. It's kind of a nice marriage between electronics and conventional instruments."
The ideas and techniques of creating a film soundtrack as espoused by Keith Emerson can also be applied to less adventurous and well off individuals. Video is a medium that has come to feature large in the home and many of the films shown, or that can be hired, can be used purely as conveyors of inspirational images. A film such as Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a notable example that could be used to good effect for this purpose both as a visual inspiration or as a disciplining factor with the keyboard player constantly having to accurately complement the images of holocaust on screen.
Large format back screen projectors can even produce semi-cinematic effects in the comfort of your own home. Alternatively you could revert to using standard 8mm Super 8mm as the means to give yourself an image to work up to.
Interview by Sean Rothman