Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I had never collaborated with another composer before Tales from the Loop with Philip Glass last year, so I had no idea what to expect. But it seems to me that fundamentally, if you are on the same wavelength as someone and you can put egos aside, it’s a pretty great thing.
After meeting in person, it was all subsequently down to sending files back and forth over the internet, with both of us adapting the other’s melodies and chords. With Cyberpunk there are two composers in Warsaw, Marcin and Piotr, and me in LA. We will send tracks back and forth. But with that it is more a case of stylistic collaboration. We write mostly our own tracks, and then give each other feedback on what we think/what other elements does it need. Occasionally we will add parts to each other’s music. Collaborating with instrumentalists, obviously, I do all the time. Again, it is about making them understand what you want. Sometimes I am incredibly prescriptive, as I know exactly what it is, I want. Other times I just guide them and let them do their thing – point them in the right direction and let them run with it.
I am so fortunate as a composer in that I get to work with all these wonderful artists, and what they bring to my tracks really bring it to life. Often on film and tv scores I am really up against it for time, so my assistant sends out rough stereo mixes to one of my guitarists, Ross Hamilton, in Glasgow, and he sends me back maybe 3 tracks per cue. These get loaded up and half the time I do not hear them until we are mixing. If they are working, they stay in the mix, and if they are not I mute them, there’s not enough time to experiment. Fortunately, most of the time they are spot on!
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Typical day (actually including during lockdown – it’s pretty similar!).
5:45 go for a run
6:45 get kids up.
7:15 in studio, catch up on notes from other time zones. Get into composing about 8 am. Listen to any parts which have come in from around the world and looks at the to picture, to get my head into gear.
If I get time for lunch, I’ll nip back to the house and grab a bite.
I always try and stop for dinner with family at 6pm, read with the kids, and see the wife. Then normally back into the studio at 9ish and write til I collapse into bed about 1 or 2 am. Repeat. I do not get out much! I used to be great at working on various projects in the same day. Now I find I like to get a first pass of one film out the way before getting my brain into the next project, while waiting for feedback on the other ones. That way I can really get in the zone on each project.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a soundtrack or album that is particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Limitless was a pretty cool one, as it was my first major Hollywood film. I had just got back to Scotland and got the chance to pitch for it. They had loved my ideas, so it made it quite easy to get into the vibe. It was not a typical soundtrack for me, though. I had recently been doing some synth programming for producer Spike Stent for No Doubt’s latest album, so I had these really cool 80’s keyboards programmed up and the sound of it really fit the score. I had a bunch of guitars which I had recorded in LA for the demo. As the film progressed, I was chopping them all up, time-stretching them like crazy. The warped samples I had created ended up sounding quite Daft-Punk like. At the end I re-recorded them all, but it sounded too glossy and perfect, so I ended up using the heavily processed samples. I had 2 weeks to score the entire film, so there was no time for sleep! I then got 8 double basses in at Air Studios in London to create a bunch of glisses as Bradley Cooper imagines himself falling down the side of the building, slamming into the main titles. And there were maybe 20 other string players which I recorded, crunched up, distorted, and reversed. I remember the producers saying to me afterwards – “you recorded an entire string section just for that?!” But I could not have achieved those sounds without that session…
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I have to have a clear head and be in a positive frame of mind. Any distractions or bad things going on, and I find it extremely hard to focus and get into creative gear. I have found switching off computers and phones and leaving them at the back of the studio really helps. I’ll open them up while I’m loading a new cue but try to stay away from them when I’m composing. I like walking back to the house from the studio to make a cup of tea mid-afternoon. Just those 5 minutes out the studio are good to stretch the legs. The running in the morning while listening to a podcast is the perfect start to the day for me – really gets my brain awake, clears the head, and gets me into a good frame of mind for writing.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of film music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I’ve kind of covered that above. I am trying to focus more on composition, as I know I can produce stuff up fairly quickly. I would say, though, that an over-reliance on samples can really kill off your work and make it soulless. Get a solo violin in, experiment on natural sounds to go above your samples – it really elevates your music. I blend two or three sample libraries just for strings, then add other players on top, so it never sounds generic, at the moment I am really into using live string quartets, as there’s something so personal and intimate about the sound.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
The fact that a melody can transport your mind to a completely different place is mind-blowing. The power of music which you listened to in your teens and 20’s, while growing up, is such that I can picture EXACTLY where I was or who I was with. But just as smell can be such an amazingly powerful sense, there is something magical about the way that the brain works, how music can trigger such intense emotions. I wish I understood it more. All I know is when I get into the zone with writing, I hate stopping and going to sleep until I’ve finished a first pass of a score, as I worry that adrenaline rush which has got my brain going might stop.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
When I was starting out as a composer and a producer, I never really through about it. I was working with bands, going to live gigs, having stuff played – it was just a wonderful music community in Glasgow, and I was having the time of my life. Over the last 4 or 5 years I have thought of it less as a job, as more of how music can be used as a force for good. Whether it is Gustavo Dudamel with orchestras in Venezuela, to Education Through Music in LA, it is about the force of good that music can have. It should not be about money. Playing with an orchestra, whether you can play one note on a recorder or are an established soloist, is such a great way to realize the power of humanity and working together. And my mission is very much in helping people discover the joys that music and art have brought me. Collaborations are wonderful, working with a poet, an artist, a musician, just getting to work with other people gets your mind going off in directions you wouldn’t necessarily have thought about, and that’s what art is about for me. Creating an emotional connection to other people. We have a responsibility in this day and age to show people that working together is a positive thing. Society is important.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of soundtracks still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what film music could be beyond its current form?
John Williams said it best earlier on this year, when he said that he feels that soundtracks are still in their infancy. I think it is such an incredibly exciting time for music in all media. What exactly IS film music? Its just music set to film. People are more willing to experiment now with soundscapes, weird tones, combining real instruments with weird samples and synthesizers. It no longer matters what or how you do it, so long as the music works with picture. Hopefully, it enables more people to try it and have fun. Brave new world!