Moving past ambience

An accomplished guitarist and session musician, Jim Williams also excels as a film and television composer, having written work for a range of British television series including Minder, Harley St and Lock Stock; his work on Hotel Babylon scored him a nomination for a prestigious Ivor Novella award. Williams has worked with producers Alex Sadkin, Stuart Levine, Bob Sargeant, Gary Stephenson and played on recordings with Go West, This Mortal Coil, Terry Hall, Breathe, Bros, Wet Wet Wet, Republica, Cindy Lauper and Paul Weller but it's his work with British independent director Ben Wheatley, composing the scores for cult indie films Kill List and A Field in England that has bought Williams' work to a whole new audience.

When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

When we were kids, my sister and I were obsessed with film music from a young age and we would sing the big themes from films shown on television;  The Big Country, The Magnificent Seven,  Exodus, Doctor Zhivago and musicals too like South Pacific, West Side Story, Singing in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis. I would lap up Hitchcock movies because the score worked so well with the whole film experience, pretty much because it made you want to climb behind the sofa; that and the Ron Grainer/Delia Derbyshire masterpiece that was the Doctor Who theme.

I started writing score style stuff on my own (I didn't have a gig!) and I was very into Morricone, Rota, Schifrin, Goldsmith, and the less large-scale Bernard Herrman and Elmer Bernstein stuff.

I didn't write "production music" as the Americans call it, 'till I was in my early twenties, when I arranged a number of classic songs for a Channel 4 series of satirical animated shorts that lampooned politicians and celebrities.

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?

"Incisive" suggests that I have input into the inception of each given artistic endeavour, but as a music-to-picture composer or maybe just as Jim Williams; the jobbing musician – I’ve tended to be reactive to what the work requires in terms of score or musical material. This seems to work well for me though, the drama is there to be served. I have written from my own conceptual notions, but the music tends to be difficult for the listener, as it's always rather intense! 

I read an article recently where a composer recollected early "musical" recognitions such as a squeaking gate; my favourite sound as a very young boy was the propeller-drone of aeroplanes overhead, because they made me feel sad. I'd love it. I'm an emotional junkie really, but people often point out that my music is terribly sad, bleak, melancholy etc., and therefore a bit difficult to listen to on its own!

What are currently your main compositional challenges?

At the moment, I'm referencing Arvo Part, Ligeti, experimenting with the Phrygian and Lydian Modes; using sub-sonic sound design ideas; and conjuring up a bit of diegetic cheese - oh yeah, and I'm trying to do something with those elements that is not only wild and different, but compelling and appropriate.

As a soundtrack composer, one must usually adapt one's ideas to the film, the director and the audience. How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, being professional in your job? How do you find a sense of freedom within these structures?

I don't write music that I have to dilute so that it works when collaborating with others – I just write music.

Is there a bit of an assumption in the above question suggesting that a composer who writes purely their own stand-alone music is following a higher path than a collaborative musician who works with directors, sound designers, cinematographers etc.? Hmm….

As a young composer of stand-alone musical composition, I wrote some music that was angular, edgy and completely new, until a short while later, I realised it sounded a bit like Poulenc. I took to Jazz and Pop, and came up with a fusion of Gil Evans, the Gang of Four and James Blood Ulmer: nobody seemed to engage, as it was difficult to categorise. I've struggled with initiating my own stand-alone musical concepts for the reasons mentioned above, but the journey of finding the right mix in a movie is fascinating, absorbing and often inspiring.

Having said all that, sometimes one must be a bit of a hack, but that’s a challenge in itself. Thankfully, in the movies that I tend to work on, it's not often I'm asked to copy the pizzicato string frolicking so beloved of rom-coms since Norah Ephron first hit the scene.

What do you usually start with when composing? At which stage of the movie production process do you prefer to get involved? 

The sequence of events depends on the director really. 

Traditionally, you'll "spot" the drama with the director and/or the producer and/or the executive producer(s) - and all decide upon a forward and often ever-changing path. More recently, however, the process might be more like this: I deliver some material early on after some discussion with the director/producer, (i.e. before the edit) so that the director/editor/producer can then shape the cut around the music and vice versa. 

This works well, however, I feel the key for any drama is really to find a musical palette that includes aspects of style, genre, period and musical language, that works well for the film as a whole, as well as for each scene.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

Improvisation, when it's of quality, is a very high form of musical construction and musical expression.

Composition, when it's of quality, is a very high form of musical construction and musical expression.

Both can work well to picture, and I reckon most composers use both in the process of finding a suitable musical palette.  The issue with composition when writing to picture is the strictures of the composition's bar structure: if your theme is in 4/4 and eight bars long, then there will be lots of truncating when anything has to be changed in the cut etc. There's much more freedom with an improvisational structure in terms of time. Bernard Herrmann steered clear of composed melodies per se for these reasons, though I get around it by using a time signature that drifts away from the obvious, much like in traditional Folk music.

Over the decades, film music as a whole, despite the radical differences of genre or style, has developed certain traditions, techniques and thematic development. How would you describe your relationship with these traditions and what role does it play in your work? 

I think film music has become more passive over the last twenty odd years or so, and I think that's due to the trend for using - for want of a better word - ambient material, and the fact that this ambient material is used in the way that library music is used. This allows the director more control over the music, but it usually means that it has one main function, which is to alert the viewer to the fact that they're witnessing something more profound/pivotal/magical than they might witness in real life. 

Ambient music can suggest to us for example Ryan Gosling is not an inarticulate, shy man-mountain, but a mysterious character in whom we, the viewer, should invest. But with a richer musical language and some emotional intelligence, many more levels of the drama can be explored with the soundtrack. The music can flesh out a character, explore the recesses of a character's psyche, offer a red herring, make a dull scene seem profound and so forth. 


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