Conversations with Screen Composers – Michael Price
In association with BAFTA, the Royal Albert Hall continued its Conversations with Screen Composers series last night (31st March) with a wonderfully interesting and insightful chat with the lovely Michael Price, composer of both film and TV and of course now most notably Sherlock (which he scores with David Arnold). Over the course of two hours we learnt about his early career and how he came to write for the BBC’s phenomenally successful show. For those unable to attend I thought I’d provide an insight in to the evening in this blog.
The early days
Michael began by recalling his university days at the University of Surrey, at which he completed the Tonmeister degree (which combines elements of music, physics and maths) and how he had a wonderful university experience, making many friends that he still keeps in touch with today. He didn’t have a master plan for his career and it was touched upon that he was the first of the composers included in this series to complete this specific course, with others studying music in different degree forms.
After initially working in the sphere of contemporary dance, Michael went on to work with American screen composer Michael Kamen, whom he first came to work with on X-Men, quite randomly, after he began giving talks around the world for the creators of the leading music notation software Sibelius and his name was suggested when Mr Kamen was looking for a new assistant. Hilariously he was not the only person to be offered the job and Michael fondly recalled arriving on a Monday to start work only to find another person there too, James Brett, and how the two of them had plenty of time to bond seeing as Mr Kamen didn’t arrive for three and a half days! He continued to work for Kamen for five years on projects including the live Metallica concert S&M (Symphony & Metallica) and we were shown an amusing clip of a young Michael in the background of a docu-style behind the scenes film about this project. His final project with Kamen was the HBO series Band of Brothers and Michael commented how the producers were able to get something glorious from Kamen (I have always thought that the score for the series is very impressive indeed and compliments it perfectly). Michael spoke about Kamen’s improvisation during the process and how he and James Brett would tidy up the composition around the edges where necessary. He also noted that he felt this was the start of a growth in high-end television and that that has resonated with him from a career perspective.
Michael then went on to be a successful music editor, working on a number of celebrated films. In order to give us a better insight in to the role of a music editor in film we were shown three clips from different scores Michael worked on. These were Love Actually, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Michael explained how the role of the music editor is to listen to the director, producer and composer and provide diplomatic solutions in order to achieve the best music for the film.
It was interesting to hear that Richard Curtis had a huge number of songs that he was interested in using in Love Actually (some of which were referenced in the script) and how Michael was involved in the cutting room, deciding what track would work for a certain scene in order to realise the soundtrack in Curtis’s mind. The clip we watched was the moving moment Emma Thompson’s character receives the gift she thinks is a necklace, but which is in fact a Joni Mitchell CD, and goes to listen to it as she cries upstairs. Michael talked about how the music underscoring the moment she opens the gift references the music of the Joni Mitchell song that immediately follows in the bedroom scene, weaving the film together.
Courtesy of Working Title
Courtesy of New Line Cinema
We were also shown the famous fight in the Serpentine fountain scene from the Bridget Jones sequel as an example of when the editors have to dramatically cut a song in the edit for a film and finally the scene from The Return of the King in which Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is crowned and reunited with Arwen. Michael spoke further about the process for creating the score for The Lord of the Rings films (he worked on all three of them) and how it was true that Howard Shore’s team had indeed taken over a whole floor of the Dorchester hotel during the process! There were scores of people working on the films and so unlike a smaller film (such as Love Actually) you couldn’t become personally familiar with everything that was happening. No one had all the answers and, although it had been an incredible experience and Howard Shore was an incredible man, it was not Michael’s style of working as a musician.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
One of Michael’s last jobs as a music editor was the film Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Michael recalled that this was the most incredible interview he ever had for a job ad talked about how Alfonso genuinely cares about every detail of his films. The project also meant Michael had the opportunity to work with his favourite composer Sir John Tavener and how the film was changed to fit the music tempo once Tavener came to Abbey Road and recorded his piece of score for it, as he did this at a different tempo to how Cuaron had imagined it. Michael also hilariously spoke of having to come up with the sound of the music of the future, which included audio of a screaming German student found online (who is credited in the film)!
Composing (and a certain TV show)!
Courtesy of the BBC
Michael spoke about how, as a screen composer, there is a spectrum from artisan to artist and that he is more interested in the artist end of this spectrum. He is always trying to find artistic expression that is authentic. He spoke about first meeting David Arnold more than ten years ago, when he wrote additional music for him and how, although an unlikely pair, they had become firm friends. Michael then moved on to discuss the music he is now most associated with – BBC’s Sherlock (which he scores with David Arnold). David already knew Mark Gatiss and Michael remembers him and David watching the pilot of Sherlock and having just ten days to write the score. They divided up the characters between the two of them in a pub in Soho and set to work. I thought it was particularly nice to hear that they never say who writes each part of the music as it is a shared voice.
Courtesy of the BBC
Michael further went in to detail as to the creation of some of the iconic themes from the show and how many of the characters in Sherlock have four chord tunes, such as Watson, Moriarty, Sherlock himself and the main theme and that therefore this DNA of the Sherlock music has been set from the beginning. This was wonderfully demonstrated by Peter Gregson (a cellist and composer in his own right), who played the main themes on a cello for us. To delve deeper in to the music of the show we then watched the first of two clips, which was from the first episode A Study In Pink and is the scene in which Sherlock and Watson chase the cab across Soho. After the clip Michael said how sometimes you are dependent on a constellation of things happening around you, for example, Paul McGuigan’s direction and how so much character is in the performances of the lead actors and that you just have to join in! He also admitted that he probably played it slightly safer in the beginning of the show.
Courtesy of the BBC
The second clip was the final conversation between John and Sherlock in series 3’s His Last Vow. Michael spoke about how when writing the music you don’t want to repeat yourself as that would be boring, but that you also don’t want to alienate people either when coming up with something different and that although he and David had discussed ideas for series 3 before seeing it, none of these ideas were actually used. He kept these to himself in case they can be used for series 4 (if there is a series 4 he added swiftly, not wanting to be the one to be seen as confirming anything)! He agreed that the third series had been more about the relationship between the lead characters and he had chosen this clip specifically because it was a scene between them which contains that initial DNA of the music for those characters – those four chords, gradually moving around through the conversation, before the music reaches up with Sherlock as he disappears in the plane.
There was then time for a few questions from the audience.
1. Any rituals when composing?
On being asked about how he writes in solitude on projects (rather than as part of a collaboration) Michael talked about avoiding the blank page! He is a lark rather than an owl and so will work earlier in the morning if necessary rather than later and tries to work from 9am – 7pm. He also spoke of his belief in starting out with pencil, paper and a piano rather than writing on a computer, as he thinks writing straight on to a computer shapes how you work. By starting with a notebook the tune can develop at the speed it needs to and that once he has a book of ideas he hopes that is enough to sustain him through the score. He referred to the ability to go back to music on Sherlock and change things but that on any project if the tune isn’t great to begin with no amount of orchestration can save it.
2. Choice of instruments?
The second question came from Beryl Vertue herself (who began by saying how everyone at Sherlock was so proud of all the wonderful music, which was applauded by the audience). She asked Michael what motivates him to choose a certain instrument for a piece of score. He replied that sometimes a tune is simply a piano tune or a trumpet tune, but that at other times more than one instrument could fit and so it is decided on a cue by cue basis. He gave the example of Watson’s theme, which was used for the first time in brass in His Last Vow during the resurrection sequence when Watson is effectively saving Sherlock’s life. He also said that the Sherlock theme chords suit anything, such as low cellos under dialogue (as in the second clip) or violins and that it is great to be able to change the palette.
Reference was also made to the use of the cimbalom in the Sherlock music as this is also used by Hans Zimmer in the score of the Sherlock films. Michael said that they has actually used it earlier for the Crooked House for Mark Gatiss (where the budget stretched to only two instruments) and that the sound they had wanted to achieve with the Sherlock music had been one of hi-tech vs. low-tech, which was different from that of Zimmer’s score for the films.
3. Process for matching music to specific scenes?
Michael was finally asked how he matches music to specific scenes, to which he spoke about it being a carving process and that you need to be honest with yourself as to what works and what doesn’t work. There are big questions, such as what type of overall sound are you looking for, but there are also many micro decisions to be made during the process. Some are easy wins, however the majority need lots of polish. This takes a lot of work and he said that this is something composers respect about each other.
Michael ended by first letting us in on one of his favourite themes from Sherlock – Irene Adler’s theme (it’s like having a favourite child he said) and we were lucky enough to hear The Woman played beautifully by Peter (playing a violin part on a cello!) and Michael on the piano. With regards to the subject of soundtracks, Michael said he would rather create a 60 minute symphony for someone to listen to but that with a soundtrack like Sherlock he completely understood that there is an emotional connection to the memories of the characters for people and that when he hears certain pieces of the music played, he has the memories of working with David to create it.
Coming up next?
Michael is currently working on the next Inbetweeners film with David Arnold, as well as an Australian television show and his own record, which he is working on in Berlin at the moment. The evening then drew to a close with Michael playing a piece on the piano (I think it was from The Hope of Better Weather, but I’m not 100% certain about that) as a thank to us all.
This was certainly an incredibly interesting and insightful evening, during which it was wonderful to hear about Michael’s career as a whole and I’d like to thank him for taking the time to share his memories and experiences with us. The Conversations with Screen Composers series is continuing and I’d recommend going along to one if you can.