David Hirschfelder on Film Scores, Samples and Zen Detachment

David Hirschfelder on Film Scores, Samples and Zen Detachment

By James Thompson  |  21.11.2011

David Hirschfelder is one of the world’s most sought-after film composers, whose scores include Strictly Ballroom (1992), Shine(1996), Sliding Doors (1998), Elizabeth (1998), Hanging Up(2000), Peaches (2004), Australia (2008), and recently Sanctumwith James Cameron.

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David HirschfelderDavid collaborated with us on The Conservatoire Collection, beta-testing and lending his talents for a great demo track, Rondeau A La Fondue. We took the opportunity to chat with him a little bit about life on Hollywood’s production A-list.

David – You’ve worked with a great variety of directors – are there any you particularly enjoy working with; ie:  do some place a greater emphasis on the music/score in their production process? How much do directors vary when collaborating with you over a score?

“In my experience, every director I’ve worked with have each, in their own way, placed a great deal of importance on the score, as a means of enhancing, driving the narrative emotionally, and binding the arcs of the characters and plot. In fact, I have yet to work with a director who doesn’t see music as an essential part of the cinematic art-form. The films I have worked on each seem to have different and unique “personalities”, almost a life of their own. Of course, much of this is instigated by the vision of the director, but I can’t help wondering whether or not the interdependent elements of script, cinematography, acting, editing, art direction and sound design, all contribute synergistically to the overall personality of the film, which then guides and influences the director in his or her choices in regards to how they want to shape the narrative with music. Some directors know what they want before they hear music experiments, but most need to hear experiments in the form of either newly composed demos, or references from previous recordings in the form of temp scores, to help inform them of the musical direction they wish to take. . Actually this is a BIG question. No doubt entire books could be written in answer to such a question.”

dh-films

Can you tell us about your studio & general philosophy towards music technology? Do you have a massive bank of hard drives/sample servers as many film composers seem to these days, or do you try to keep things simple?

“My philosophy with technology is that I try to make it as transparent and supportive to creativity as possible. Simple is good, but of course, deep is inevitable. Invariably one can get bogged down at times mucking around with sounds, samples, plug-ins, and various ubercool gismos, and that’s all fine when the schedule allows. Actually, sometimes, the needs of certain films  compel one to experiment with musical sound design, creating hybrid electroacoustic  textures etc. Other times, it’s all about more traditional approaches, focussing on melody, harmony and/or rhythmic motifs with standard instrumentation to paint the appropriate emotional picture of the onscreen world. Technology can imitate or demonstrate the architecture of almost any conceivable ensemble or solo instrument, but in the end, it is an audio illusion, an elaborate cartoon animation of an orchestra, which admittedly can be rather convincing … until it is replaced by the real thing. The emotional impact of the score really ramps up to a whole new level once a real orchestra is in full flight, which is why I constantly fight for the budgets that will enable me to blow the electronic demos out of the water, and ultimately serve the story better. But having said that, a good sample library certainly helps sell an idea to a director much more effectively than a mediocre sample library. ”

Where do you feel modern sample libraries are lacking in realism and expression?

“To be honest, for me, I am excited and really inspired by the awesomely powerful toolboxes currently available to the modern composer. I cut my teeth on some pretty crude technology in the 80’s, in comparison to what we have at our fingertips in 2011. But back in those days, we had to make do with what we had, and I suppose that forced us to be creative and resourceful. And today, guess what? We still make do with what we have, so I imagine in the future when we have 100ghz processors in an iPad with 50 terabytes of RAM, or our entire 500 terabyte sample library sitting in a device the size of an iPhone, we may well look back and wonder how we managed with what we had in 2011. ”

What is it you enjoy about Soniccouture products? 

“I like the fact that Soniccouture products provide alternative, off beat, non-standard instruments and brilliant reconstructions of classic rare instruments, like the Ondes Martenot, Glass Works, and the Conservatoire library, which is worth having just for the stunning Harpsichords alone, as well as the Baroque Guitar and the Hurdy Gurdy, an instrument I have wanted to have on tap in a sample library, but couldn’t find one until now. I’m also using Xtended Piano a lot, particularly the bowed piano, which I love! Years ago, I actually bowed piano strings on two scores, using viola horsehair strands removed from the actual bow. It took very many overdubs just to make a simple tune with a bowed piano back then, and I recall thinking how great it would be to have bowed piano as samples. Now I have them on tap, thanks to Soniccouture.”

Which scores are you most happy with from an overall perspective – which productions really seemed ‘right’ to you when they were finished?

“I actually have trouble picking favourites, because each score is a unique experience, and every score has moments I really like, and moments I’m not so keen on. You could always go back and redo the draft again, possible make it better, or would it end up over-cooked? Possibly … That’s why producers give us artists schedules and deadlines, otherwise we would probably dick around in the studio forever. As the saying goes, ‘works of art are never finished, they are eventually abandoned.’ ”

Do you get much input in the final editing stage of a movie? Are you sometimes frustrated with choices that directors/editors make with your music?

“When I was younger, I would be frustrated that I couldn’t always control the final outcome of how the score was utilised, or presented in the film; but now I’m comfortable with chaos. I believe it’s important, if not essential, for a screen-composer to develop a sense of Zen detachment to the end result, but up until THAT point, maintaining a passionate commitment to the process of composing is obviously essential. Sounds contradictory, but it works. It’s all about knowing when to fight for your idea, and when to let go. Recently I was reading the Bhagavad Gita, and it expressed this concept perfectly: “You own the work, but not the fruit of the work”. Having said that, there are times when I make suggestions regarding the cut which are listened to, and implemented by the director and/or editor. So a good collaboration is a two-way street with egos taking the back seat, and open minds in the front seat.”

And of course, the question we can’t leave out : what advice would you give to anyone hoping to make it as a film composer? What do you feel made the difference in your career?

“I’ve probably answered this already in question 6 and question 2, but I would probably add the following thoughts: it’s important to be able to express yourself clearly, and even more important to be able to listen. Networking is also important. Try not to burn bridges. Today’s junior assistant may well be tomorrow’s executive producer, so be respectful to everyone at all times. You need to create or attract opportunities for yourself, but you better be ready to meet the challenge, armed with unique talent and knowledge, each strengthened in equal measure by curiosity and experimentation. Of course, natural ability is essential, but it will only get you so far, so remember to develop your skill-set as well as your artistic sensibilities. ”

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Mogwai: The Sounds and The Process

Mogwai: The Sounds and The Process

By James Thompson  |  27.10.2010

Mogwai have recently put the finishing touches to their seventh studio album, ‘Hardcore will never die, but you will ‘ – which will be released on 14th February 2011 (St.Valentines day – nothing says “I love you” like Post-Rock).

Curious about their working methods and instrumentation, we chatted with Barry Burns from the band about what goes into their creative production process,

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mogwai-thumnailMogwai have recently put the finishing touches to their seventh studio album, ‘Hardcore will never die, but you will ‘ – which will be released on 14th February 2011 (St.Valentines day – nothing says “I love you” like Post-Rock).

Curious about their working methods and instrumentation, we chatted with Barry Burns from the band about what goes into their creative production process, from a sonic point of view.

Can you tell us how a Mogwai track gets underway? Do the band all generate ideas separately then come together to develop them, or do they develop more in the studio?

“We have 4 writers in the band and we all sit at home and try to come up with something that we can all work on then send to each other over the lovely internet before meeting to rehearse (for many hours) then we get into the studio and bash things into shape a little more. I think it develops at different stages in different ways for different songs so it’s impossible to say we have a set way of realising ideas, music is too abstract and fickle for that.”

Mogwais’ music is abstract and textural – do sounds and timbres lead the creation process or is the starting point always musical?

“Personally I think a great starting point are the sounds that I find. I rarely have a set melody in my head to begin a song until i find a sound i like and then it’s just trying things out on a keyboard or sometimes a guitar with some effects pedals.”

You mentioned that Bowed Piano (from the Xtended Piano collection) features on the new album?

“We’ve used a lot of piano on most of our albums before now and often we’d plucked the strings or hit them with glockenspiel beaters but I had in the past wondered about what it would sound like to bow notes and chords on the piano. Our producer Paul Savage told me about the Bowed Piano at the beginning of the recording of our new record and we heard some samples of it. We are big fans of long drones so obviously the bowed piano fits in perfectly with our style of music. We mostly used it for the drones on a few tracks, hopefully it’ll be clear enough to hear which ones when the songs are released next year.”

Do you use the Bowed Piano instruments’ synthesis functions to shape and integrate the sounds into the mix, or do you prefer to preserve the original timbre?

“A bit of both. I like it “as-is” but I also liked the way I could use the filter to take away the high end and scratchiness. The controls were very useful and it makes your sound different to anyone else’s.”

Novachord also features on the new album – could you expand a little on how it was used, and what aspects of its sonic character appealed to the band?

“It was weird with Novachord ; I hadn’t heard of the original being such a luddite. Usually, I have to spend a little time, sometimes a minute or two, other times far too long to try and get a sound that fits a song but this actually has loads of great presets without going into “preset-hell”……the rest of the band tend not to like me flicking through too many…..so I get less daggers. I’m really into Italo-Disco and film music from Dario Argento films and this sounded like a lot of those soundtracks.”

novachord

The Novachord – ancient and venerable synthesiser

What pieces of gear are creative essentials to Mogwai and you personally?

“Well, my little studio has a Dave Smith Polyevolver, Juno 60, Logic with Kontakt and a fairly modest sample library including all my SonicCouture plug-ins, a guitar with Guitar Rig (which I put so many of my keyboard stuff through) and my Midi Controller. I’ve never been a great programmer of all things MIDI so it’s nice when I can just turn something on and start playing. Looking forward to the Xtended Piano for the next album. For live concerts I have my Muse Receptors which I use Kontakt on and loads of other plug-ins…..one of my favourite’s being Applied Acoustics Ultra Analog.”

Which other Soniccouture products have found their way into your work and in what way were they used?

mogwai-instrument“We used the Skiddaw Stones on one song; It’s been used as an ambient effect, i think through a spring reverb from the 70’s. I think we used the bowed gamelan for a similar effect. It’s the little noises in the background that can make a song, sometimes more than the main melody or chords. That’s always been something extremely important to us and those sounds should never be underestimated.

We also used the free Music Boxes which are just amazing. That was a great idea to sample them. We actually had Mogwai music boxes made for us in China once that played one of our melodies. That’s how much we like them.”

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