Sean Wilson chats to the Emmy-winning composer behind the music of the hit Benedict Cumberbatch series Sherlock…
What does it take to nail the tone of an iconic literary character? That’s what I wanted to find out from renowned composer Michael Price when I caught up with him recently.
Amid a long-ranging and diverse career that includes contemporary dance and a stint as the late Michael Kamen’s assistant, he has also found the time to define the sound of the BBC’s enormously successful Sherlock series. Working with friend and fellow composer David Arnold, he nails the nuances of Benedict Cumberbatch’s engrossing performance.
In the following interview, we also discuss the challenges of scoring for film, dance and television, and, in another string to Michael’s bow, what it means to be a successful music editor.
So, to take it back to the beginning, what was the film score that ignited your love of this genre?
I think it’s really interesting because when I was a kid, I was the wrong age for Star Wars and John Williams. I remember hearing those triumphant scores in the cinema and but not really making a connection with them. They felt amazing but distant. I grew up in a small town in Yorkshire so we were a long way from the places and the people who made those kind of scores.
So big movie scores were pretty distant until my mid-20s, when I started working as an assistant to Michael Kamen. At that moment there was this shift in me from someone writing music for contemporary dance and artsy stuff to a person who found himself right in the middle of the Event Horizon film. Michael of course wrote the score for that and I realised this is how it gets done. Amid this enormous, fabulously chaotic circus, this is how the music for these global cinema releases gets made.
It was that transition and, fast forward 25 years later, those two elements still factor into my work – still having roots in Yorkshire, and at the same time being around some of the biggest music that’s been created in the last 20 years.
You mentioned the dance side there, which is really fascinating, and you also became the musical director of DNA Dance and Music. I wondered, how does it compare writing music in that context versus writing music for film and television?
It’s a really interesting question because when I chat to young composers now, I often recommend they try and get involved with either dance or theatre. Projects that give immediate feedback, depending on how it’s going.
The standing joke is, if you play as a piano accompanist for a contemporary dance class, which I did for quite a few years, and you get it wrong, people fall over. So there’s no lengthy review process where you get notes or three weeks later a memo saying it could be a little slower or faster. If you’re not playing the right thing at the right time, people immediately stop and turn around and throw things at you or shout at you. It’s a very visceral sort of process. It’s wonderful for a young musician because you kind of get this direct connection between what you’re doing and, in the case of contemporary dance or modern ballet, with the movement that is physically happening in the room around you.
A lot of the time early on, and also later on working in film and tv, you’re relying on your instincts a great deal, because there isn’t time to over analyse the process that you’re in. You’re in the middle of it. You just have to get through that particular day. Also, it’s not until later on when you look back and you see patterns, and realise the music for this particular show or that particular album reflects back on music I was writing in my early twenties for dance. Like most people I’m preoccupied with the same things, and you just keep coming back to them. You keep working at them and worrying about them and trying to express yourself, but yeah, it was a wonderful place to start.
You mentioned earlier your collaboration with the late, great Michael Kamen, who we lost far too young. How did that come about and what was the nature of that collaboration?
Sure. Basically, the two strings I had to my bow as a young musician were I had a pretty solid classical training, and also I was a proper geek. I was really into the technology and the computers and the sequencers, something everybody has to be well versed in now, but less so back then. I was working in contemporary dance but I also met the people who had developed a program called Sibelius. It’s a music notation package, and is now the industry standard.
So I started helping them out with that and doing demonstrations of it down at the Royal Academy of Music on a Sunday morning. And Michael had an association with the Royal Academy, and so when he was looking for a new assistant, somebody down there must have recommended me. I got a call from his office asking me to show up on Monday morning, and it’s slightly gone down in legend that, despite the many wonderful things about Michael, he was a dreadful timekeeper. So he was expected to turn up on Monday morning at ten o clock and he turned up, if I recall, on Thursday afternoon! [laughs]
I then got to meet the rest of his crew when he was setting up for Event Horizon and there were a few awkward, what are you doing here moments. But you just join in, make yourself useful, and five years later, we’d travelled the world together, working on these extraordinary projects, including The Iron Giant.
That’s such a lovely score.
Yeah, it’s wonderful music, and we also worked on Metallica S&M with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Then we went on to Band of Brothers, which in many ways was the forerunner of the high-end TV series we get now. A groundbreaking series.
It’s interesting you mention Event Horizon because, hands up, I really like that film and think it’s very underrated. As I understand it, was that quite a challenging post production process on that movie?
There were a lot of changes. In a way, whenever I or anybody else ends up talking about difficult post-production schedules, these days I wonder what we’re comparing them too. But certainly there’s an intensity working on studio films, the hundred million dollar-plus films, which, in a way, has to be experienced in order for one to understand. The perception of a film’s success or failure feels like it’s resting on the shoulders of a very select group of people right at the end of the process. And because it’s at the end, music is one of the last things to get finalised.
It then becomes the focus of everybody’s neuroses, from the top of the studio downwards. It very rarely happens that it’s a smooth and harmonious process. I was incredibly lucky just spending those five years with Michael and just being part of his team and having people to share those really challenging experiences with. The first X-Men film we did with Michael was physically challenging to the extent where myself and fellow assistant James, who is now a fine composer in his own right, really became Michael’s left and right hands. It was like that pretty much every day for that five year period. We still to this day will catch up for a beer and reminisce about being under fire.
Again, X-Men was a strikingly challenging film to be on because there were often multiple opinions and directions that needed to be explored, all in a short period of time. I can remember coming out of LAX Airport and you exit underground in an underpass. And the first thing I saw when I came blinking out from the arrivals area was a massive billboard saying, ‘The X-Men are coming’. And there wasn’t a note of music that had been written. No pressure then. [laughs]
How terrifying is that! You’ve also established yourself as a music editor across some astonishing titles like Lord of the Rings. As a separate discipline, what had that taught you about the importance of spotting and timing music in a film?
I’ve got a huge amount of gratitude for the opportunities that have come my way and it’s all fallen into reasonably neat five year blocks: five years out of college doing contemporary dance, and five years working with Michael, which naturally finished after we worked in Band of Brothers, when I wanted to concentrate on my own composing again.
But because I was going in and out of all these studios in London, I got a call from the studio manager at Abbey Road explaining that there was this film coming out and they needed an extra pair of hands, to be proficient with Pro Tools and not cry when they get shouted at. Is that a qualification? [laughs] And that turned out to be the first Lord of the Rings film.
It sounds ridiculous now but at the time, a lot of these movie trilogies had a tendency to come and go. Very often the second and third didn’t even get made, so when we were working on the first one, no one had a sense as to whether it was going to be big or not. That was just an extraordinary experience of just being a hired hand, really, to be part of the team and Abbey Road and to work with Howard Shore. Just really seeing how Howard’s concepts for the whole world of the music of Lord of the Rings started to grow, again under immense pressure, how it started to grow and expand. It was probably just accidental that I didn’t get fired. I was probably out of the room when everybody else was being fired!
I found myself going out to New Jersey, where Howard’s crew are based, for the extended director’s cut of The Fellowship of the Ring. And from a musical point of view, that’s an extraordinary job because it’s already a three hour film, so let’s add 50 extra minutes of footage into it in a hundred different places. And what does that do to the score? In the end, a lot of people much more accomplished and smarter than I am were looking at each other thinking, where do we begin? Maybe it’s that Yorkshire grit and determination. Whatever it is, I found myself being part of the team for all three of the films and all three extended versions too.
We used to do the main films in the run-up to Christmas and the DVDs were released in the spring. But there was a gap and somehow, because I was one of the music editors, I got a call as to whether I would music edit Love Actually. I was like, OK, I haven’t done anything like this before but somehow I got hired. Then, in the gap between The Two Towers and Return of the King, I did Bridget Jones 2 and again, thanks to a fortunate set of circumstances, I was able to choose what films I was doing as music editor, leading ultimately to Children of Men, a masterpiece.
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