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Writing Music for a Documentary

Composing music for television can be both exciting and frustrating, as Ian Assersohn and Stephen Frost of Sequenza Music Production discovered when they began writing music for a documentary film about India.

Composing music for television can be both exciting and frustrating, as Ian Assersohn and Stephen Frost of Sequenza Music Production discovered when they began writing music for a documentary film about India.

As a music production company our main line of work until now has been in TV commercials. But, although writing music I that lasts exactly 29 seconds is an interesting challenge as far as it goes, after a while we did start to yearn for the wide open spaces. Then one day...


We were proceeding along Covent Gardens in a westerly direction knocking on advertising agency doors with our begging bowls, when we stumbled across an agency who needed help. They were working with an independent production company on a commercial and thought we could do the music. In the end, the production company used library music for the commercial, but instead invited us to pitch for a much bigger project: a documentary for ITV in the series Viewpoint '88, about a journey across India and featuring the historian Michael Wood.

We were sent a copy of the 'promo' (a short 'promotional' film assembled from various shots to give potential backers an idea of the film's content) and a selection of 'rushes' (assorted unedited shots). These two videos were enough to enable us to get a feel for the film and to concoct a musical style. We wrote a couple of contrasting demo pieces and sent them off.

As it turned out, they didn't quite hit the nail on the head, but they were good enough to convince the production company to give us the job. In fact, one of the demos evolved to become the main theme of the film. And so it was that on a Monday morning the director came to call...


First of all the director explained what the film was about, and, more importantly, we built up a picture of how he felt about India. We spent several hours just talking around the subject and this helped us to tune into his attitude towards documentary making in general, and this film in particular.

Then we talked through the film with him scene by scene, discussing details such as the length, the mood, and any special moments which needed emphasising. So far so good. We only got into deep water when, after explaining what effect he wanted to achieve in each scene, the director went on to offer us suggestions about how to achieve those effects.

This immediately presented us with several problems. Firstly, it's very hard to hear what is in somebody else's head, especially if that person isn't a musician and has no vocabulary with which to describe what he's after. Secondly, if you can understand what he wants, and you give it to him, there's no guarantee that he'll like it after all. And thirdly, even if he does accept it, that doesn't necessarily mean it was the right thing to do in the first place.

These problems prompted us to ask ourselves exactly what our working relationship with the director was, or should be, and how much real say we had in the music as musicians. Should we follow the director's dictat at every point? Or were we justified in pursuing our own ideas of how music could best work with the film, even if they were at odds with those of the director? At this early stage we had no answers, so putting our qualms to one side (but within easy reach so that we could find them when we needed them), we decided to just get down to business and see what happened.


When we began the job we didn't know much about Indian music but, fortunately, the director was quite adamant on one point - he didn't want us to write authentic Indian music for the film. Rightly or wrongly, he decided that the genuine McBhaji would be a bit of a turn-off for the average western viewer. So our brief was to invent a new musical language (by 4 o'clock this afternoon please) - one that would immediately sound Indian without in any way actually being it. To help us achieve this we listened to a lot of Indian music of different types, and even bought a couple of fairly cheap and rudimentary Indian instruments: a shehnal (a sort of shawm with a double reed) which Ian, being a bassoonist, was able to coax into life; and an ektana (a one-stringed thingummyjig with a resonating drum skin) which Stephen, baffled, decided to play with a violin bow. Both instruments sounded dreadful when we played them live, but a lot better when multisampled on our Emax sampler.

Our solution to the stylistic problem was to retain some of the more obvious sounds of Indian music - sitar, tabla, drones and flutes - and offset their unfamiliar timbres with more familiar ones, such as D50 pads, sampled choirs and strings. We wrote melodies using a mixture of Indian and western scales, and 'Indianised' them with plenty of pitch bend! The biggest concession to the western ear was the fact that we used harmony and harmonic structures to shape the music, whereas in authentic Indian music harmony doesn't exist. Our percussion rhythms, although they had an Indian feel to them, were far less complex than those a real tabla player would employ, and retained the western concept of bars and time signatures. Once or twice we made them sound more complex by passing them through a digital delay line, with the delay time set to complement the pulse of the music, giving the illusion of two or three tabla players.

We were forced by the nature of the music to be more inventive with our samplers than normal. Writing jingles rarely demands, or leaves time for, the use of much more than factory presets; but in this case we sampled everything we could think of. This included some nice vocals (Stephen going 'Eeeaaaaggghhh' and Ian going 'Mmmm') and our favourite, some violin harmonics (courtesy of Stephen), which we often used to provide drone/harmonium effects by replaying the sample a couple of octaves down.

Writing the music on a sequencer (the Version III update for our Steinberg Pro24 arrived just in time) gave us a flexibility which turned out to be absolutely vital and enabled us to make changes as the film progressed which would have been extremely time-consuming, if not impossible, just a few years ago.


The first unexpected hitch arose when we realised what an early stage the film itself had reached. All the shots existed but the film was, as yet, almost completely unedited. That meant that we had only a very vague idea of the order of scenes, and their lengths. Because we had agreed early on that our music was to be more than just 'mood' music, and so would need to have a shape and structure of its own, we didn't see how we could start work without properly edited pictures. However, the director and editor were already screaming for some finished tracks because they wanted music to cut to as badly as we wanted pictures to compose to. Added to this dilemma was the fact that Michael Wood couldn't start writing the script until he had seen the edited film, so nobody knew where the music was going to be overlaid with commentary and where it was going to be carrying the pictures alone.

It was becoming difficult to know which was going to give first - our heads or the wall! But when we stopped banging the first against the second long enough to think, we realised that somebody had to start the ball rolling and that it might as well be us. So we began writing, averaging about two minutes worth of music a day, which we sent by Red Star to the film edit suite in Manchester.

At the suite they would cut the pictures to synchronise with our music. Well, sort of... In practice, we found that at this stage all the timings would change, as new shots were included or old ones dropped, and this invariably meant that we would have to write the music all over again. By this time the wall would need re-plastering and, just as the plaster was beginning to dry, Michael Wood, having now seen the rough-cut, would deliver his script. So the pictures would be re-edited to fit the words, which made the music wrong. Then... well, you get the picture.


The process was very frustrating. But as we became reconciled to the idea that the first tape we came up with represented just one stage along the way, we began to admit that there really is no other way of doing it if your aim is to produce a film in which pictures, words and music slot together as a unified whole.

We also came to realise that although most directors appreciate the importance of music in a film, they don't always understand the creative process behind it. And why should they? That's what the composer is for. But since a director always likes to have total creative control over his film, it's very hard for him to hand over such an important creative input to somebody else. Let's face it, all directors wish they could write the music themselves, so when they call in a musician to do the job they find it difficult not to interfere, and rather easy to take important decisions about the music without discussing it with the composer.

We feel sure that the widespread use of off-the-shelf 'library music' is largely to blame for the cavalier attitude towards music and musicians that exists in the television industry, although we must admit that composers themselves are often quite happy to be treated as cannon fodder, provided they get paid. For our part, we never got used to the shock of hearing a piece of music we had composed for one scene popping up in a completely different part of the film instead!


We're harping on the problems we encountered because they contrasted so strongly with our expectations, but in fact, for most of the time, things went pretty smoothly and the end result is an exceptionally moving, interesting and watchable documentary. Everyone concerned was so pleased with the music that there are now plans to release an album to coincide with the transmission date. (At the time of writing, no firm date has been set; and indeed even the title of the film may yet change). Already there has been a lot of interest in the film and we have recently been approached to write the music for another documentary - this time for the BBC - which will start sometime next year.

Most importantly, we enjoyed writing the music to 'Darshan: An Indian Journey' and got a big thrill out of seeing it working with the pictures. We have gained some valuable insights into the world of documentary film-making and, despite all the hassle, are eagerly looking forward to the next one.


Sequenza Music Production, (Contact Details).


Ian Assersohn and Stephen Frost tirst teamed up in 1985, writing and producing music for TV commercials and corporate videos before moving to London in 1987 to found Sequenza Music Production. Their past work includes music for the BBC, McCann-Erickson, Saatchi & Saatchi, Wadlow Grosvenor, British Aerospace and National Westminster Bank.


The equipment at our disposal was as follows: Emax and Korg DSS1 samplers, Roland D50, Yamaha TX802 and Korg DW6000 synths to make the sounds, plus a few outboard effects units including an Aphex Aural Exciter, Alesis Midiverb II, and Korg DRV3000.

We used a Steinberg Pro24 sequencer, synchronised to the video by a Steinberg SMP24 SMPTE-to-MIDI processor and Fostex synchroniser. When necessary we recorded tracks on our wonderful Akai MG14D 12-track tape machine, and mixed down to a Tascam ATR60.

The most indispensible item was the Emax, because we were able to produce some very original samples and use it in 'Supermode' to play eight of them at once. We used the DSS1 mostly with factory samples of Indian instruments and the D50 with those preset sounds we all know and love, plus a couple more of our own making. The TX802 was particularly useful for its wide variety of percussion sounds.

Because the pictures were cut to the music we rarely needed to sync the two elements together; it would have been nigh impossible anyway because we were working from an assembly of shots rather than an edited film. Most of the music was recorded directly on to 2-track, and it was mainly the D50's lack of multitimbrality which made us occasionally have to lay down tracks on the Akai multitrack.

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Village People

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How It Works: the Power Amplifier

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Nov 1988

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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