September 1998

Composing for film – time is of the essence

How do you approach composing a film score? Debbie Wiseman writes about her very successful methods.

When writing music for film, a timetable is by necessity imposed on the composer to fit in with the other essential cogs in the giant post-production wheel; the editing, sound dubbing and so forth. Thus I am always under a certain degree of pressure to get the score delivered on time. Pressure is, of course, an initially negative stimulus that can be turned into a positive one by its application to the situation. I cannot make up my mind whether an open-ended commission would be a pleasure or a curse. On one hand, the attractiveness of being drawn to the piano only when the muse takes gentle hold is enticing; on the other, the prospect of constantly honing and fine-tuning and re-shaping and generally cyclically demolishing and reconstructing the perfect piece - which in any case is always just out of reach of the committed perfectionist – as the weeks become months and the months become years are to me total anathema. No, I have to plump for the roller-coaster ride of film; the ever-changing rough cuts, fine cuts, new scenes; first, second, third, fourth drafts of music cues; as the date of the recording hurtles towards me at Thunder Mountain-like speed. Adrenaline is a big factor in my creative drive. I think I produce some of my most intensive, intensely personal work under threat of deadline – to me, a little stress is a good thing.

I also realise my responsibility to the film I'm working on. Music has an incredible power over the images – it has the potential to infuse a deftly-crafted scene with just the right amount of emotional underscore, or it can tip it over the edge into parody. It's an audio-visual tightrope act.

The final phase of the whole composing process is the music recording session, where the whole score stands or falls on what ends up on tape. The session musicians play an enormous part in film scoring. It's their interpretation of the notes I put in front of them which makes or breaks a piece. All the written dynamics in the world can be placed instructionally, helpfully, pleadingly upon a page, but if the players are a yard or two off the pace, the result can be disastrous. Luckily I live and work in Britain where the musicianship is second to none. The superlative contribution of these dedicated and skillful players to my work over the years has been recognised and admired not just by me but by the directors and producers I collaborate with.

Debbie Wiseman will be exploring this subject further on Saturday 12th September in the first part of spnm’s Composing for film project, presented with Performing Arts Education at the Royal Festival Hall and supported by the Performing Right Society. Admission is free by ticket in advance – call the RFH Box Office on 0171 960 4242.

A full concert of Debbie's music will be performed at the Purcell Room on Saturday 19th. See events listings for the month for details of both events.

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Event listings for this month

July/August 1998:
Gavin Bryars on new music on old instruments

June 1998:
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998:
spnm looks to the future

April 1998:
New Music 98 in Manchester