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Music TV

No television drama would be complete without a soundtrack, but how do you write them? Nicholas Rowland tunes in to the music channel.

Hundreds of thousand of people sit and watch television every night, yet few of them really acknowledge the music that accompanies the pictures. Anyone for a career in TV scoring?

ASK ANY ASPIRING hack, be it from The Puddleton Advertiser to Packaging Week what they'd really like to be when they grow up and invariably you'll get the answer "a film critic". Put that same question to any aspiring muso with a couple of synths and a bedroom studio to rub together and the reply will sound a similar note: "compose music for film".

Clearly the big screen still inspires big ambitions, despite the fact that most people are well aware that breaking into the industry means having all the luck and twice the connections - and that's even if you just want to serve afternoon tea in the extras catering truck.

If you're really interested in writing moving music for moving pictures, then one area where you might have a considerably better chance of breaking in is television. For a start, there are simply many more hours of it to go round. At the very least, every programme needs a signature tune and, while drama and light entertainment tend to get the lion's share of incidental music, these days many "factual" programmes, be they documentary, current affairs or magazine, are using incidental "jingles" as a means of linking sections - usually accompanied by gratuitously elaborate computer-animated title sequences.

With the onset of cable TV, satellite TV and Channel 5 (and rising), there's going to be much more opportunity for new talent to make its mark. After all, even established composers are limited by the need to eat and sleep. But perhaps more significantly, extra channels may well mean a drop in airtime advertising rates as the new companies compete for business. That in turn is going to mean less money for programme making, and hence a more favourable attitude towards inexperienced (read "cheap") composers.

Until that happens, getting people to sit up and take notice demands a great deal of persistence, energy and not a little talent. It's a particular type of talent too. Forget the brilliant but erratic, suffering artiste lark. The requirement is for versatile musical craftspersons who can turn out consistent results every time, usually under considerable pressure.

For these reasons, the imitative musician is going to score a lot more Brownie points than one who may be considerably more original, but whose style is too one-dimensional. And if that suggests that TV composers tend to end up as an anonymous bunch of shadowy figures - well, how many names can you rattle off?

Since producers and directors looking to commission original music are naturally unwilling to take risks on composers and musicians whose reputations they don't know, experience (and the right contacts) tends to count for a lot. It's not surprising, then, that most composers who regularly work in television usually have a considerable track record in other areas of commercial music. That's commercial music in its broadest sense: everything from local radio to corporate video.

While there are a multitude of different true life answers to the question "How did you land your first job in TV, darling?", a view from one who has scrambled to the top is offered by Richard Harvey. His extensive list of credits include: Shroud for a Nightingale, A Taste of Death, Tales of the Unexpected, Crossfire, Hideaway, The Living Body, First Among Equals and countless episodes of Gerry Anderson's Terrahawks. He's also the man behind the music behind Granada's current blockbuster epic, an adaptation of Len Deighton's spy trilogy Game, Set and Match.

Harvey also has a number of film scores under his belt, including Defence of the Realm, House of Long Shadows, Half Moon Street and The Martian Chronicles. Not bad going for a man of 35 who claims that to work in films these days you need to be over 60, American and have at least one Oscar collecting dust on your mantle-piece.

His road to TV soundtrack writing began with session playing for film scores, with Harvey "odd-jobbing on the instruments no-one else wanted to play". By training, Harvey is in fact a classical woodwind player: his main instrument is the recorder. Of those session days, he says "It gave me the confidence to decide I can do better than that'."

Meanwhile Harvey was writing music for his band - early '70 folk rockers, Gryphon - in the midst of which someone had helpfully suggested that as his best-hewn chewns were short, he should try writing jingles. A few speculative radio jingles later and Harvey was being asked to knock on the door of a commercial music company. But even though they liked his work a lot, it still took a year for them to offer him his first commercial.

He's been lucky enough never to have looked back. He's also lucky enough to own his own commercial studio, Snake Ranch, located in darkest Chelsea. And while his true ambition still remains to write exclusively for the big screen, he concedes that a prestige series such as Game, Set and Match is just about the next best thing.

DISCUSSING GENERAL approaches to composing for small squarish pictures, Harvey is at pains to point out that just as there's no one route into it, there are no common working practices. Each composer approaches the task in hand differently, as does each producer. Sometimes he is merely asked to provide a "jolly bit of something" to get the characters from A to B, other times there are extensive discussions with the producer or director having a great deal to say about how they want the music to be.

The main criterion is what function the music is going to serve. Obviously, where signature tunes are concerned, that function is to convey the nature of the programme, reflecting its subject matter and (to a certain extent) its target audience.

"The main theme is always where you tend to start because it's usually the method by which you 'audition' for the job in the first place" comments Harvey. "It comes after having lots of chats with the director and producer about what they think they want. Sometimes you get it exactly right, sometimes they may say, 'It's not what we were expecting, but give us time to get used to it'. Very occasionally you might get sent back to the drawing board, but at least you're then sure of what they don't want.

"For long programmes or series I tend to write a theme which can easily be split to make several variations. For the 13 hours of Game, Set and Match that was the only practical approach to give the show coherence, though different sections were then rewritten to fit specific timings.

"Generally though, if you need to give a programme a certain unity then the theme and variations approach works best."

Although not all programmes are completed before the music is added, there's usually some visual material to base musical ideas on. In the case of the "big drama series", one or two episodes will be presented as complete entities, apart from last minute fine cutting.

"You watch a video for the first time and you will immediately pick bits out which are just made for music. You know instinctively that they wouldn't be complete without it. And similarly you know that certain bits definitely don't need it. But the director might come and say, 'I want music there', usually because something's gone wrong. The point of the scene which has been underlined in red in the script just hasn't come across, either because the actors haven't done it properly or more usually because the director hasn't directed it as well as he wanted. And at this point it's a struggle because you're really trying to write music that will make the point but which won't be noticed, which will really have no cutting edge at all."

In general, Harvey says that he finds himself responding differently according to the original medium that the programme was shot on - that is, video tape, or film.

"Most people don't even clock that the two formats exist side by side, that a drama series, say something like Crossfire can be shot half on video and half on film. Yet to me it makes a tremendous difference.

"Film by definition has richer colours and much more depth with slightly softer edges. And even though TV films are shot on 16mm stock, the connotations with the cinema and the big screen are still there. So music - especially the grandiose theme - seems much more natural. They go together.

"With video the images are a lot flatter, a lot less vibrant because the nature of the medium means that for a start the lighting has to be stronger. So those shadows in an attic room which on film were mysterious and threatening and gave a lot of atmosphere to the scene, become on video just murky corners without much light in them."

Does that mean that in a case like that the music has to inject the atmosphere which the video camera just isn't able to capture? The answer is an unqualified "yes... and no".

"That is often the job you'd like to do, but again the nature of the medium means that the big orchestral approach is not really appropriate. I think with video - and this is a personal view - music has to put on its slippers and creep around a bit, especially when you're dealing with small, intimate interior scenes. You can't really have big orchestral climaxes in someone's kitchen.

"Besides", Harvey adds, "videos are slightly on the lower end of the budget scale, so you wouldn't get the money to use a big orchestra anyway. I think with video generally I'd tend to go for more soft and synthetic sounds: french horns, flutes or the synth equivalents of those."

WHILE THE QUALITY of image may have a great effect as far as the orchestration and instrumentation go, in practical terms the two formats will be presented to Harvey in the same way - videocassettes striped with SMPTE timecode.

It's here that the routine work begins, timing the cuts and fades both within scenes and from one scene to another to determine what structure the music is going to follow.

These calculations are vital as to whether a piece of music "fits" a scene or not. In some cases, the scene may have been originally edited to a click track, in which case whatever music is composed will have to stick to the original tempo and start and stop points. This usually occurs in high action sequences like car chases.

Sometimes, the editing might have been done to an existing piece of music and at the last minute clearance for use of that music has been refused - making it necessary to write music which corresponds to the original "sync" where the picture has been cut to a specific beat or sound.

In other scenes, it may have been decided that the flow of the music is the most important thing. It doesn't matter whether it corresponds with the cuts or not.

"But it's always irritating to miss a cut by a tiny amount. So either you do your calculations to make sure that you miss a cut by miles or, in that one instance you hit the cut spot on."

Either way a huge number of calculations are involved to correlate the cuts which Harvey has decided are significant enough to coincide with the bar lengths and time signatures of the various pieces.

"Not so long ago, if you were writing a score for a group of session musicians people would get round it by using a fairly fast click track which thrashed away at something like 150-160bpm. Then they would compensate for things which didn't quite fit by throwing in the odd bar of three four or seven eight. Or you could prepare elaborate click tracks with different tempos by splicing together different clicks on quarter-inch tape.

"Now I use an RTL Event, which can not only produce tempo changes every beat, let alone every bar, but can also work in hundredths of a bpm. So I work out time elapsed from one big hit point to a next, work out where in the bar I want to hit it - on a big downbeat, say - then divide the time by the number of bars to get the tempo.

"People laugh at me when I produce a score and write crotchet equals 83.91 and then a tempo change to crotchet equals 83.63. Yet it makes a tremendous difference when scoring a theme which is supposed to take its own course and have a life of its own and yet making sure that it hits a dramatic cut at the end of the scene."

On live sessions when Harvey has scored for a groups or small orchestra, the Event gets trundled out to handle the click track from which, as conductor, he takes his timing. And for complicated scenes, where there's a lot going on, preparing the click track takes longer than scoring the music.

But how do musicians cope with a tempo which is constantly changing by very small amounts.

"Providing they can all change together there's never really any problem. And the music seems to end up more human as a result."

Obviously, when using machines rather than people, the same applies, only this time the Event is controlling sequencer and/or live overdubs.

"For Terrahawks, it was a case of plugging the Fairlight straight into the U-matic and then syncing the two directly, running up tempos against the picture and seeing which fitted the best."

Either way it tends to be a long drawn-out process, after which Harvey says the composition is a bit like "painting by numbers".

"The positive side is that at least the form and function of the music has been decided for you. Since, creatively speaking, the most taxing aspect of writing music is deciding the form, then it's an ideal medium for lazy composers."

Regarding form, is it the case that certain tempos and types of instrumentation always work best for certain types of scene? Or to put it another way, are TV composers really in danger of recycling the same cliches time and time again, just because they know they are going to work and prove acceptable?

"I don't think that's a danger. I think that's really what we're paid to do. It's like the way that certain actors will always be hired because they have a trademark which they are known for and for which they can be relied upon. And that's really why experience as much as talent is the key to this business.

"But on the other hand, directors and producers don't just like to play it safe. They like to think that they're getting something which is a little bit out of the ordinary. For example, the score that I did for Game, Set and Match, which is mainly string section, uses an abnormal combination of string players, while mixed in are some very personalised samples, which sound very string-like but which are in fact all sorts of bowed objects. In fact, it's amazing what you can bow."

However, Harvey makes it clear that, while sounds in themselves might add interest to a score, a long career in television writing rests on the ability to write good music, rather than worry about the technical minutiae of production or recording. Like any other area of commercial music, the technology is there to support ideas, not replace them.

But those of you seeking fame, be warned. Even if you do make it, your best efforts will probably be completely overlooked.

"When I tell people I compose for film and TV their faces go blank, because apart from opening themes, it's amazing how few people notice music on TV. You really have to draw people's attention to it. But then, that's the test of a good score. If you write music dramatically, it shouldn't be noticed."

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Nov 1988

Feature by Nicholas Rowland

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