When you see your work on the big screen, in the context of a film like Children of Men, what does that feel like?
There’s an incredible sensory reaction to what the experience of making the film was like. I think lots of my colleagues would express this in the same way, but it goes back to the relationships you forged while working on the film, whether it was fun, or challenging. That’s what those particular songs, or that particular bit of score or that particular transition will bring back. So intensely and physically, you can almost feel it on the back of your neck. I knew every note of every song in Love Actually because I would go round and round in circles trying to find better ones.
Obviously it’s on every Christmas so it brings everything back, like a smell does, the smell of cooking or perfume. Likewise, music stimulates your memory so vividly. I think it circumvents your mind and goes straight to your soul.
We’ve already covered a massive amount of territory but we have to talk about Sherlock. You won an Emmy with David Arnold for your work on what is an astonishingly successful series. Clearly Sherlock Holmes is an enormously complex character who has a very rich history and he’s embodied to remarkable effect by Benedict Cumberbatch. How on Earth do you distil all of that into the tone of the music?
That’s a really good question. To be honest, I really don’t know. [laughs] My relationship with David, with whom I’m still incredibly close friends, is another one of those joyful, lengthy experiences. We first met just after I stopped working with Michael Kamen and there’s a sort of unspoken set of rules as to how people work in London and L.A. It’s not really done to poach people from other people’s teams, you know? Everybody tries to play fair, so when I’d left Michael I got a call from David, whom I’d never met before but he’d already done three out of his five Bond films and Independence Day. I went to meet him at Air Studios and, I don’t know if you’ve had the experience of talking to him, but he’s one of the driest, funniest people you’ll ever speak to.
I haven’t and I’m gutted, but I have seen his Twitter bromance with Michael Giacchino!
[laughs] If you think his Twitter feed is funny and surreal, then he’s even more so in person. So we hit it off and I helped him out on a couple of films where schedules had shifted around. Because he’d written and arranged every note in his scores, and because he’d worked with Nicholas Dodd, a genius orchestrator, I found myself wondering how it is we would work together. And so I did additional music for him on a couple of other projects and we found that we got on and enjoyed the process. We found we could work sympathetically as a team. I could take something he’d done and do my own thing, but it still sounded like the voice of the film.
By the time Sherlock came along, we both independently knew Mark Gatiss – David knew him from the darkly comic League of Gentlemen days. Of course, Sherlock is now major global TV series but at the time, we got a call for the pilot episode and either Mark or David told me we’re doing this Sherlock Holmes thing. At the time, we weren’t sure whether it was a good idea. David called me and said that we should have a go at it together as it would be fun. We went to watch the pilot episode and there was something extraordinary there, but it wasn’t fully formed. And then I just did a quick overview in a couple of weeks, just as a proof of concept, really. And then it went away for a year to eighteen months. The pilot was never broadcast.
We then got a call saying it’s been turned into three 90-minute episodes with Paul McGuigan directing. We then watched the actual first episode and it was like the best telly we’d ever seen. The combination of Benedict and Martin Freeman with Paul McGuigan’s amazing visuals was unlike anything we’d seen before. In that instance, your job as a composer is just to instinctively respond to all that as well as you can, really without intellectualising it. You can’t calculate the speed of a scene, you can only feel the speed of a scene. The answers themselves are always within the picture itself and the performances and the writing and the editing. So David and I took our best shot at season one and just watched as this worldwide phenomenon started to develop. It was as surprising to us as it was to everyone else.
In particular I love the main theme containing, I think, an olde-worlde harpsichord. Is that what it is?
Yeah, we used those kinds of twangy sounds, which is a combination of homemade things. David and I are both slightly obsessive vintage gear collectors and we also like homemade things. That main theme is the sound of an auto harp, which is almost like a children’s toy that you can pluck. It sounds very much like a harpsichord but we double it with a couple of other things so eventually it becomes that indefinable noise.
TV is of course by its very nature serialised, so how much of a challenge is it juggling the various instrumental ideas and motifs across multiple episodes?
It’s a really good question. You don’t know how large the scale of the world is going to be. When you start on season one, you know it’s going to be three lots of 90 minutes so you try and construct a world that is coherent and developed. You kind of hope there’s going to be a series two, which may happen or not. In the case of Sherlock, new characters are introduced and established characters find themselves in new situations and that generates the changes.
David and I have like to go to script read-throughs because they’re enormously helpful in terms of helping the cogs turning. I think the most helpful period is us walking out of the read-through with both of us gossiping, speculating about whether we could possibly use choir and so on. In the case of each episode, you’re trying to find a balance between familiarity and supporting the characters when they end up going to a new place.
For instance, the first episode of season two is the Irene Adler episode. She’s such an iconic character within the canon of Sherlock Holmes that she definitely needed her own theme. Also, that episode is relatively self-contained so the score from it is only ever heard in later episodes as a callback. And there are other episodes focusing on how Sherlock and Watson are dealing with a particular situation. Subsequently, you’re going to be spending more time with their music and their themes, so you can hear how they’re transformed.
After writing the music, is it really hard not to give away spoilers?
[laughs a lot] We’re basically enormously paranoid, from the first time we get the script until it’s on the telly. It’s a burden not to share it with your loved ones as well. I tell my wonderful other half, and all my friends and family, don’t ask and I won’t tell.
I can remember once on the way to a session for either season two or season three, I tweeted a picture of my batons in a cheesy, we’re going to record with the orchestra kind of way. But we’re ultra-careful about no spoilers. But the fact we were recording the music made it front page news of the Radio Times! Even before I got to the session, by the time it took me to drive there, there were thousands of comments.
Lastly Michael, what can you tell us about your new solo album?
I’ve done two albums now for Erased Tapes. I’ve done Entanglement and the newest one is Tender Symmetry. It came out four weeks ago so it’s a relatively new release. Working with Erased Tapes is, in a way, a return to what we were talking about at the start, which is writing music for contemporary dance, but combined with those years of experience working on film and TV scores.
With Tender Symmetry I went around to seven different locations throughout the country, six of which were National Trust, and I was lucky enough to get access to the properties out of hours. I went to visit them to find out their stories and soak up the atmosphere, before going home to write the piece. I then took the musicians back out into these historic sights – we recorded strings in Fountains Abbey and we also recorded in some tunnels cut into the cliffs of Dover during the Second World War.
It’s very natural for musicians and composers, when working on a film or tv show, to illuminate someone else’s story. With Entanglement three years ago and now with Tender Symmetry, I wanted to tell a more personal story, with regards to the architecture of the music. Both facets of my musical career contrast with each other. Sometimes I’m a recording artist, and other times it’s how do I do this car chase?
Many thanks to Michael Price for taking the time for this interview.