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Score values: making music for the movies

‘John Williams always refers to the music as a character in the film.’ Dan Carrier talks movie music with composers Daisy Coole and Tom Nettleship

10 September, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Tom Nettleship and Daisy Coole, composers of music for the movie Clay’s Redemption

CREATING the sound and fury to accompany a neo-noir sci-fi film about ancient gods and immortals was the challenge that two Camden-based music teachers have been grappling with over lockdown.

Daisy Coole and Tom Nettleship work at the Young Music Makers college, a weekend arts programme that has for decades provided group and individual music lessons.

But their day job, at their composing firm Two Twenty Two, is to write film scores – and next week, the premiere of Clay’s Redemption, a film they have worked on, takes place at The Drive In cinema in Edmonton.

The pair have been performing and teaching for many years, and seven years ago decided they wanted to compose together, too.

“We are both obsessed with film music,” says Tom.

They cite the likes of John Williams – whose scores for Indiana Jones, Star Wars and ET have become earworms for millions – and John Barry, the man who gave us the James Bond theme, as inspirations, and say the richness of a film can often be linked to the music chosen.

The process of composer changes depending on how the screen writer and director work, they say.

“We are storytellers who happen to be musicians. We work with the writers and directors to find out what is happening in each scene and consider the subtext when we are composing,” says Daisy.

“Sometimes the producer and director bring you in when they are still writing the story with the idea of the sound in mind. It is part of building the landscape. Other directors finish off their edit and then start working on music. There is no set way of doing it.”

The same rule applies to what genre they use, and how it reflects a theme: for example, for John Wayne-style Westerns used grandiose scores.

“In the mid 20th century, large orchestras were being used – while the advent of Spaghetti Westerns saw much smaller ensembles,” says Daisy.

“It was a way of separating the feel of the films from those of the likes of Wayne. It fitted in with Sergio Leone’s themes of the anti-hero, while previous Westerns told stories that tried to portray American history in a more glorious light.

“The key thing is to ask why a piece of music works, what is the music’s application to the story? Williams always refers to the music as a character in the film. They are not just whimsical moments to fill in time. There has to be a reason for every piece.”

The music acts as a story guide, they add.

“There are many different ways of making a character recognisable, from collection of notes used or an instrument,” says Tom.

“You can use a recurring motif. Whose character are we with now? It is about telling the audience whose perspective we are considering.”

Clay’s Redemption, by director Carlos Guerra, is a story about an enforcer working for Old World gods and immortals.

“He wanted the viewer to recognise characters through music, but you would not want to fatigue the audience with a set bank of themes connected to each.”

It was important to avoid cliché, too.

“Because of its genre, the immediate idea is to write something like Blade Runner,” says Daisy. “Its score is so well known – so we wanted to differentiate ourselves from that.

“We wanted to manipulate the music we were writing – using effects, we had a lot of fun with it.”

Carlos starting shooting the film without sound and before it was wholly written.

“We created mood boards for each character – there were heroes, villains,” she says.

“Visually it is very strong and that made it an easier job. The film is not subtle – so there was no tip-toeing around.”

And while composing, Daisy and Tom had to find new ways of working with YMM students.

Moving to online teaching involved co-ordinating 38 different choirs, ensembles and groups, as well as one-to-one music tuition.

It meant gauging how students could learn new ways of study.

“It was, of course, a different experience for them from being in a studio,” she says, and teachers found it encouraged self-evaluation.

“It meant the students trusting their skills, and bringing out their performance. It was a new way of working in terms of attitude towards study. We have noticed students coming out with more self-confidence, better able to undertake self-directed learning. We saw them be very focused – and they have done so well in very difficult circumstances.”

The tutors posted up scores, added piano accompaniments, and backing tracks for musicians to use and set up a video project over the summer so each student could create work. With more than 150 musicians, they created individual parts across 23 performances – with an age range between four and 80 – and the result was a virtual concert that was broadcast on YouTube.

“We had videos made of parents and children singing together – we found it a way of uniting generations,” says Daisy.

“I challenge anyone who watches it to hold their emotions in check – it felt so euphoric.”

Next weekend the college, based in La Sainte Union School in Highgate Road, opens it doors once again.

“We can’t wait to see how everybody is doing in person,” says Daisy, adding the role music played in so many people’s lives during lockdown underlines the importance of the arts in the curriculum.

“Music is all about togetherness – it brings people together,” says Tom.

“It is the universal language,” adds Daisy – a fact made even clearer this year for the students the YMM team have supported.

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