State of Play
As film music becomes a more popular means for composers to earn a living, Tim Goodyer talks to soundtrack expert Steve Parsons about his work on the new British film, 'Empire State'.
More and more composers are writing music for films. But it's harder to get into than many think, and incredibly demanding once you're in. Soundtrack veteran Steve Parsons spills the beans about his work on the new British film 'Empire State'.
DRENCHED AND EXHAUSTED from her flight through the driving rain, Liz collapses on the floor of the cottage. She lies for several moments, catching her breath in semi-darkness. After the cacophony of the storm outside, the cottage seems starkly silent.
(Short pause then fade up eerie string chords. Camera pulls back to reveal detail of room. Dust sheets cover the furniture — the room has obviously been unoccupied for some time.)
A loose shutter blows violently in the wind, its staccato rattle subtly changing into an approaching footfall. Suddenly startled by another's presence, Liz lifts her head and looks around the room, peering into the darkness.
(A drum heat picks up the rhythm of the footsteps. As they get closer — and louder — a dramatic orchestral chord strikes with increasing frequency...)
Well, we've all wanted to score the music for a horror film at some time in our musical careers. After all, it's pretty easy, isn't it? You just surround yourself with banks of synths and samplers, and drag out all those terrific ideas that you'd never get away with in any "serious" area of music. And think of the money...
But, as with many a good film plot, the reality is a far cry from the fantasy. Even a horror film score represents a frightening amount of work and may also involve other, well, horrors.
"I once did a horror film and it gave me nightmares. I don't think you realise what it's like looking at disgusting images for hour after hour, spikes going through peoples' brains and so on. I love horror films, but to sustain that and consider just what sort of sound effect should accompany a spike going through someone's brain is completely different."
The words belong to Steve Parsons, a rock veteran grazing in pastures new. Back in the 70s, he had his own band called the Sharks, with Chris Spedding and Andy Frazer, and later sang with the Baker Guervitz Army. If asked directly, Parsons would no longer consider himself either a singer or a keyboard player, yet both disciplines play a part in his current work, composing music for television commercials and films.
At the time of our meeting, he's working on the soundtrack to a new British film called Empire State. The film is set in London's developing docklands, stars Martin Landau, and should go on general release during April. And it's the film and the nature of a film composer's work that have brought us together this afternoon. The film is nearing completion and a rough cut is running on a large video monitor as we speak, complete with scenes and music that will later be changed or even cut completely.
Parsons describes the move from rock singer to composer as "a quantum leap", and nothing like the easy number so many musicians imagine it to be.
"The first thing you have to learn is that you're not making your own music. Pop stars consider it to be that way; they think they can do the nice moody music that they don't normally get the chance to do. But I don't think they do such a good job. That's not to say they can't, but suddenly coming from pop music to film cueing is quite a leap in psychology. A lot of them treat it too lightly — as a bit of fun, a bit of a giggle, and not as the sustained piece of hard work that it actually is. After Midge Ure did the Levi's ad there was an orgy of pop people doing music for ads and most of it was thrown out. It was very embarrassing — there were all these egos involved that just weren't used to having their music thrown away.
"One of the things you have to learn when you go into film music is that 50-60% of your lovely cues are going to vanish. There's no point in raising any personal hopes or putting any feeling into it, because you'll only be disappointed. You know you're going to lose. If you feel your music's got a valid point you fight for it, but the narrative has to work first. Every film has a grain to it, and if you go against that then you're in a lot of trouble. Only if it's animation will anyone consider cutting to your piece. Normally the film's already made, and someone eventually remembers they need some music to go with it.
"In films, the music is basically there to help tell the story. If it stuns as music that's an extra, but that's not what it's there for. People come out of the cinema remembering a great movie — you don't expect them to come out whistling the tunes. If they do, that's to the credit of the composer concerned, but the point is that you're in service; whether it's a TV advert, a TV documentary or a major motion picture, you're a slave to the project itself. The film defines what you do, not the other way round.
"Fifty per cent of your job is to find out what needs to be done — what the film really wants. The other half of the job is finding out how to do it. Then there are secondary things like artistic considerations and how much money you've got to spend. Between those, the composer has to make the reality. If the film's good the music comes easily; if the film's bad you have to dig it out with a shovel."
CULTURE SHOCK OVER. Composing film music isn't a job for the faint-hearted, no matter what your impressions may be. But assuming that you don't fall into the fainthearted category, just how do you go about breaking into the world of cues, rushes and shoots?
"Probably the best place to start is on the industrial side. People like British Leyland are always making in-house films, and they want scores for them. Sometimes they use library music, so I competed in the first place by being cheaper. It's very dull though. I've done forensic science, the Department of Industry... All very boring, but you learn how to put music to pictures, you find out what fits and what flows and you're being paid to learn. At the same time I did a couple of documentaries that turned up on TV, and that helped.
"At this stage you're also working with people who're on their way up and working cheap. Some of the directors I worked with five years ago are now big advertising directors, and occasionally they'll bring me in. All these things are exclusive little clubs.
"Eventually I got what's called a 'reel' together. Once you've got your reel you're in business, because you can circulate that amongst people."
"When I first saw the picture I was able to record several pieces very quickly, and get an immediate reaction from the producer."
His initiation over, his audio-visual portfolio assembled. Parsons' list of credits expanded to include everything from radio jingles for Pampers disposable nappies, through television and cinema ads for the Daily Mail and Fat Frog ice lollies, to Grab Bag, an Australian TV computer show. But how about the big time — feature films? Again, it's a case of starting small and moving up. And for Steve Parsons, small meant Howling II and Recruits, both secured through the company whose tea we're now drinking: Filmtrax.
"Musically I'm very pleased with Howling. It's a little bit different from normal horror film music, a bit more pagan. I had the idea, discussed it with the director and he said 'go ahead and do it' — I had very little discussion with him after that. Consequently I think I did too much, I filled every corner of it in my enthusiasm. Fortunately we cut out quite a bit of it, and that left the stuff that worked best."
And it was good enough to get Parsons first refusal on Empire State. The chance was too good to miss.
"Good projects are very rare so I was happy to be involved from the start. The film's very intelligent, very hard — there are no likeable characters in it at all. It's rough but it's good.
"My mind started to generate ideas from day one when I read the script. The script is the initial source of interest for me: if the script's good then I'm off. I got the feel of it as we went along and developed my relationship with the producer and director at the same time."
But Parsons isn't the only one with fingers in the musical pie of Empire State...
"The Communards were originally going to do quite a lot of the music and I was going to do the bits and pieces. That was before their recent success; things have happened in such a big way for them since then that their input's been cut right back. As it is I've done most of the music, but we're still hoping that the Communards will provide the closing title piece, and that will then be released as a single.
"I also brought in Sarah Jane (from the Happy End and the Communards' guest on 'Don't Leave Me This Way') to do the vocal on my featured piece; I've laid off one piece to Paul Hardcastle who was very keen to get involved; and a band called A Bigger Splash have also done something. I'm not a name that will help sell tickets but Paul, the Communards, and Sarah Jane probably will. There's to be an album too, but we've got so much material that I really don't know how it will turn out."
SO MUCH FOR the personalities involved. But regardless of your status (financial, artistic, or otherwise), you've still got to get involved with the business of putting music to moving pictures? It's a simple enough idea in theory, and with today's technology, it's not too difficult to realise in practice, either.
"One of the nice things about working now, as opposed to ten years ago, is that you can make lovely demos very quickly using this..." (With a casual wave of the hand, Parsons indicates a Fostex 4030 SMPTE Synchronizer lying on the mixing desk.)
"When I first saw the picture I was able to go away and record several pieces very quickly on 16-track, and get an immediate reaction from the producer. Sometimes it's even simpler than that: I just sit with a tape recorder and sing my ideas straight into it; being an ex-singer, I can improvise more freely like that than I can on keyboards.
"This time, I started working to a VHS copy of the film that ran about 20 minutes over length and had yet more scenes to go into it, so it was pretty rough but it was enough to get things going. Most of it was done with quick front-room demos. I probably haven't got a much more sophisticated setup than some of your readers, except that I've invested about two grand in the synchroniser so I can run it to both VHS and U-matic videos. U-matic is preferable because it slips less than VHS."
Moving on to the equipment being used to make the music, it's reassuring — though hardly surprising - to discover that Steve Parsons' considerations are basically the same as those of any other musician working with new technology. Where a soundtrack commission does differ from a pop session is the choice of sounds. Parsons confesses to being unsure of the equipment available to him at any time (he's thoughtfully brought a list to prompt him), but is decisive when it comes to the demands he makes of it.
"I'm only really interested in achieving effects, not in what they're achieved on. I employ a technical assistant to help with the rhythm programming and sequencing and I have a keyboard player, Simon Etchel from Boom Boom Room, helping out with the playing and arranging. On this particular project we've used a Roland MC500, a Prophet 2002, and an Akai S612 controlled by a DX7. We've also used a Roland GR300 guitar synth, a Roland Super JX and the Roland Digital Piano. The piano really is unbelievable — I defy anybody seeing this film to recognise it's not an acoustic.
"I use an RX11 for drums, although it's rare that its sounds appear in the finished cues — I use it to get things going and then sample in the drum sounds I need afterwards. I do use an old TR808 though; I love all the top-kit stuff on that - claps, cabasa, claves - it's much sharper than the RX.
"I avoid writing music out. There's no point presenting a sheet of manuscript paper to someone who can't read, but everyone's got a pair of ears..."
"I find I replace a lot of things as the score develops: I'll bring in real drummers, bass patterns become lead passages, and so on. Every sound has its own idiosyncracies: a pattern you've set up for bass will sound quite different with a tom sample, for instance.
"I suppose syncopation is a very important part of my writing, having worked under Ginger Baker. Every piece is like clockwork in that it only works in relation to all the other pieces. My rhythm parts often don't work without the guitar or keyboard part, for instance. Not a lot of pop music is done that way.
"Some things I record wild with no synchronisation — because as long as it's tight to picture it's OK. Another trick I like is controlled improvisation with the sequencer running. We do an improvisatory piece rather than a structured piece, and then I edit it later on. It gives a fresh feeling, whereas a lot of synthesiser music I hear has a sort of pedantic 'it took me ages to work this out' feel. TV music, especially, sounds like that. Perhaps I'm being unkind because the budgetary considerations are very poor and the time scale is tight, but that's how it seems.
"For the same reasons, I try to avoid writing music out as much as possible. There's no point in presenting a sheet of manuscript to someone who can't read, but everyone's got a pair of ears, so however untutored they are they can understand it."
Which makes perfect sense for all applications except, perhaps, those where orchestral arrangements are brought into play. Here, a further talent is called upon.
"I've got a big brass piece on this. I put all the parts on to tape and sent them to an arranger. He scores it out for me and suddenly it sounds like Alex North or John Williams. They don't score everything out themselves either - John Williams didn't score all the parts for Star Wars, he just played them out as piano themes to suggest melodies and counter-melodies to his arranger (who probably works with him all the time for an enormous fee) and he sorts out all the orchestrations. Not that John Williams couldn't do them, but time is precious and you need as much of it as possible for composing and thinking about the project, rather than performing manual tasks."
IDEAS FORMULATED AND agreed and arrangements scored, the next move is into the recording studio.
"The first thing that happens in the studio is all the timecodes go down — SMPTE, the code from the sequencer, the code from the RX - so that all the machines will talk to each other. The Fostex acts as the master and everything else follows it. Then I start replacing things, so there might not be any of the original sequencing left at the end, but you're left with an elegant but totally different feel. You can have something that feels very loose, yet will fit all the cues perfectly.
"I don't put ideas to tape until the last minute — then, when it does come out, I like to work very quickly. All the music I've done for this was prepared in two weeks and recorded in one, except for a couple of pieces that had to be shot to. It sounds punishing, and it is, but I prefer to really burn and get more stuff onto tape than I need — then I've got stuff to fall back on if I need it.
"Almost half of this film takes place in a club, so it's wall-to-wall music. The first idea was to try it with source music, tracks from well-known groups, funk stuff, hi-energy stuff and so on. At that point the purpose of the music was to provide the atmosphere you'd have in a club. The trouble is that if you use popular stuff, it's, all old hat when the film comes out because of the delay.
"We tried all sorts of things that'd work for 30 seconds and then not - the vocals would get in the way where people were talking, or the feel would change. In the end we decided not to use much source music at all, and started to construct the music in another way. It serves two purposes now: to be the music in the club, and to underscore the moods and actions that are going on. It has narrative qualities as well as being music played in a club.
"Once it's mixed down, it's transferred to mag tape and then run in on the dub. We'll mix it two ways: some as a normal quarter-inch, two-track stereo mix, and the others on four-track, where there's one track for timecode, you might have the rhythm section on one, some of the melodies on another and discrete dubs on the last. You do that where there's a lot of dialogue, because if you've mixed it on two-track, all you can do is pull the track down. We've tried to do something a bit special with the club scenes, where we can pull something conflicting down but keep the drums going, or pull the drums down and keep the rest at the same level. But you only pull it down at the section where people talk, then push it back up.
"There's a scene in the lower bar where we did an Ellington-style piece with a cocktail piano solo. Now, with some neat editing on the sequencer, the piano solo isn't playing when anybody's talking - so he's the hippest cocktail pianist you're ever likely to hear. Who's going to notice that in the picture? Nobody, but the overall effect is perfect. If everybody does their business, you should feel you're inside the club. And we'll construct the Dolby stereo so that the music comes on the outside and the dialogue in the middle, because that's the way it is in a club. The club sets were full sets too, not one side off, so that we got that atmosphere when we were filming. These are all technicalities peculiar to this film though — not the sort of thing that normally happens."
Once it's in the can, Parsons' material has to be sifted through to select the final pieces for each cue. Here, an already tricky situation is further complicated by the fact that scenes are continually dropped and altered, which means updating the music to fit.
The final stage in the musical process is the dub. From the chaos of music, dialogue and sound effects, the team must build a coherent soundtrack.
"Every piece of tape is marked with an 'M' number", says Parsons. "So reel one, cue three is '1M3'. On the dub they'll have loads of cans of my stuff, plus people walking, windows breaking and so on. It's orchestrated by a dubbing editor who has to balance everything out. I'll be there screaming for the music to be loudest, and the sound-effects man will be saying: 'no, no, no, we must hear the guy buttoning his jacket'... Then the director will step in and prevent us physically coming to blows.
"There are stories of composers bursting into tears on the dubbing room floor. And there's a story that Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock's composer, once walked out on a dub. Obviously you realise that some things will have to be sacrificed for the film to work, and if you don't firmly believe that, then it's very difficult to come to terms with. Again, that's an aspect of the job that you have to be aware of if you're contemplating getting involved in it. Sometimes you have to give up because you know you're not going to win, and there's another battle to be fought tomorrow. It's like a war zone, really."
Which sounds vaguely reminiscent of the climax of Empire State. On soon, at a cinema near you...
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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