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Film Score Writer | Trevor Jones

Article from International Musician & Recording World, June 1985

James Betteridge goes to Hollywood, or thereabouts, to find out all about sound and vision

Trevor Jones

"As soon as you put music with pictures, by virtue of the fact that you have two art forms running in continuum, you are always going to get a reaction; but the horror of film scoring is that no one in the audience can ever know how it could have been. You make that decision for them and it's quite a responsibility."

Trevor Jones was sitting confidently behind his boudoir grand in the work room of his capacious residence in Highgate, London. We were talking about the role of the film score writer, a role in which he can justifiably feel a certain degree of confidence. Among the 42 credits currently to his name are TV scores for the recent BBC production Dr Fischer of Geneva and the Central TV mini series, The Last Place On Earth, and music for such major feature films as Dark Crystal and Excalibur. At present he is involved in the early stages of writing the music for a film starring David Bowie, which will see him working mainly in the Rock genre. Unfortunately, owing to its delicately embryonic state, this project was still shrouded in a protective veil of secrecy at the time of the interview, but it does go to show the extraordinary breadth of Mr Jones' musical sensibility.

He has invested a great deal of time and effort in learning his craft, and is perhaps uniquely qualified as a writer of music for pictures. Indeed, in retrospect it could seem that he was put on Earth solely for that purpose. After seeing his first movie at the age of five, he forsook the school classroom for the greater inspiration of the local cinema, where he was to spend most of his waking hours noting the intricate relationship between sound and vision. Even that, at an age where most of us are more concerned with playing 'doctors and nurses', it was Trevor's expressed intention to become a film score writer.

At 17 his piano playing talents won him a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music, from whence he departed four years later with a thorough grounding in composition, orchestration and conducting, plus a number of individual prizes. The next four years saw him as the classical music reviewer for the BBC during which period he was required to listen to more or less every piece of classical music ever to find expression in vinyl. With his sights still firmly fixed on the silver screen, however, Trevor knew that, though comprehensive in one sense, his education to date had left him unequipped for his avowed objective. So it was that he packed his bags and moved up to York University for a further four years where he became the sole graduate of a masters degree course in Film and TV Music that he actually helped design. Sadly, for those of a similar mind, there was apparently never such a course before it, nor has there been since. Here he was able to study every conceivable form of music, in the context of its relationship to images and induced feelings, from Punk to Persian classics, creating a truly inclusive personal repertoire that is the basis for his singular musical flexibility today.

Yet still he didn't feel completely prepared. It wasn't until he had completed yet another four years of post-graduate studies in film making techniques (including camera work, lighting, sound recording and direction) at the National Film School, that he finally stepped out of the classroom and into the commercial world to accept a commission to write the score for Excalibur.

Trevor Jones - in action


Here, then, is a man who takes his work seriously, and who considers himself one of the few people in the world qualified to present themselves as capable of writing and executing any kind of music for any type of film; and from where I was sitting, he seemed to have a point.

"Anyone can score a picture. The basic technique can be quite simple: you're given the timing for a scene, and you write a piece of music to fit the mood — making it sad, happy, romantic or whatever, and that's it. But there's a little more to the whole thing than that.

"When you're writing title music, end credits or opening sequences, that's one kind of music. When you're writing something that has to work on various levels within the picture — behind the dialogue, source music, music to uplift or enhance certain scenes, you're writing in a totally different way. You're dealing with music as an element of film making, as opposed to music per se, and it is essential that you consider yourself a contributor to an overall art form, rather than a prima donna.

"Way back in 1924, Eric Satie was writing what he called Furniture Music: when you walk into a room you're not necessarily overtly aware of each piece of furniture in it; if you want to look at the table, the chair or the bed, they're there to be studied, but generally you're just aware of a set of furniture that goes to give the room its character. This is what I'm trying to do to a great extent: creating a musical atmosphere which is conducive to totally enhancing an audience's perception of a film. So music becomes an element like furniture in a room, it becomes part and parcel of the overall cinematic experience. It's necessary that it is seen to make its presence felt, to enhance the picture, but it depends on the degree of skill which you bring to bear when you score as to how effective it will be."

Although Trevor would be the first to accept that a piece of music simply either works or it doesn't, his studied knowledge of musical structures and compositional techniques makes his approach to writing rather more precise than most. This he sees as a great asset in a business where the aim is to accurately replicate the emotional content of the pictures in a musical form:

"Sometimes a composer will put together a semblance of notes for a film, and it works beautifully, but more than likely it's hit and miss. A craftsman doesn't hit and miss. You have to go in like any craftsman does, calculate your way through it, calculate the emotional content and load the black dots accordingly. The rhythms you use, the intervals, the instruments and how you lay the music with the film — just before the cut, on the cut or after the cut etc, all go to make up the overall effect of the piece. With a big orchestral score, the scope for disaster is frightening. When it comes to the point of finally recording the music to the picture, you can't afford to have made mistakes, or misjudged a scene, there's just too much at stake. If, however, something isn't quite right you have to know your musical ingredients well enough to be able to change them on the spot, to create the desired feeling."


What about the writing process itself?

"Having read through the script, chatted with the director and viewed what might have been shot of the film at that point, I will have a good sense of how it's going to look. Then I 'spot' the film with the director: we discuss how much music is going to be required, where and what kind of arrangement will be needed. Having done that it is possible to calculate an approximate budget.

"Then I go home, lock myself away from the outside world, put the kettle on and start writing. It never gets easier. Some of the music will be written before the film has been completed, and so I'll work with printed sheets showing breakdowns of footages which tell me all the information related to the scene: details of the action, where the cuts occur, etc. Other times the scene will have already been shot, and so I will work from a U-Matic video copy, using SMPTE timecode for reference. At this stage it's vital that you're absolutely objective and totally ruthless about what you write. If it doesn't absolutely convey the character and emotion of the scene — that's what the wastepaper bin is for. That objectivity is one of the hardest things to learn.

Re-print of a music cue sheet

"The music is then recorded and mixed to picture, and at that stage I cease being the composer and become the producer/conductor. Here again you need to maintain a degree of control to ensure that the desired end result is achieved at all costs. And so you live to fight another day."

If you write music and you want to work with film, the advice has to be the same as for anyone who wants to enter any area of art: swamp yourself in the medium, experiment with home movies, writing scores to existing pictures and look into collaboration with local film making clubs etc. It's the same old story — keep knocking with enough desire and determination, and the doors will open. You might be interested in an 'On Video' article dealing with writing music for industrial videos, that was published in the December '84 issue of IM&RW.

A last word of possible encouragement from Trevor:

"At the end of the day, your job isn't really to account to the public in words; it's whether the music works with the pictures that matters. In one way, it's as simple as that."

Trevor Jones lectures at the National Film School. If you'd like more information on courses offered, you can write to the school at Beaconsfield Film Studios, (Contact Details).

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Jun 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Jim Betteridge

Previous article in this issue:

> Power Cuts

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