Tuesday, October 04, 2016

How to turn a film into a concert

If you were among the thousands of people who last Thursday lapped up the Royal Albert Hall showing of Independence Day with the score played live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, you'll probably know by now that live film music is the concert trend de nos jours. The advance of digital technology has made it possible to strip out the music from the soundtracks and replace them with live orchestras while retaining the dialogue. Experience is proving there's a real appetite for the results.

Now classic after classic is being adapted. And one of the people at the forefront of the craze is the producer and presenter Tommy Pearson. I wanted to find out how it all works, and he's the man to tell us.

North by Northwest, coming up fast

Ahead of the first one to be done at the London Coliseum with the orchestra of English National Opera - Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest, with its blistering-hot score by Bernard Herrmann, coming up on 27 November - I asked Tommy a few questions...

JD: You're involved with a magnificent series of live film score concerts. It seems there's a huge explosion of enthusiasm for big-screen films with live orchestra at the moment. What's your role in all of this, and why is now the time for it to happen?
TP: I’ve been involved in film music concerts for a long time now, presenting and producing, and it’s been fascinating to see just how popular film music has become in the concert hall. When I first started in broadcasting (at Radio 3 in 1993) film music was still a dirty word and a lot of orchestras were nervous about performing it, simply because the people running the orchestras were either completely ignorant of it in the first place or didn’t think it was any good. 

There was also the problem of access to the music itself; since film composers recorded the music for their film in a studio and then left it at that and moved on, the orchestral parts and scores were packed away and often never seen again (and studios were terrible at looking after them). But slowly and surely, film music started to appear more in concerts, the composers would often attend, and orchestras saw that a new audience was coming to see them - an audience that might not have ever been to an orchestral concert before. Now almost every orchestra in the world performs film music in concert at some point in the their season, which is fantastic. On Saturday, I’m hosting two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall with the RPO featuring the music of John Williams - both performances are sold out. That’s a lot of people!

The Live Film genre has really developed out of this renewed popularity. Technology has had a lot to do with it (see below!). But the hunger for hearing film scores performed live has naturally developed into hearing entire scores played live to a whole film, which is ironic since that’s the way movies were presented before sound was invented! And as audiences demand more for the their money and are looking for more ‘event’-like shows, this genre is a great way to enjoy a film they love, with an orchestra playing the score live, creating a very special experience. And the studios are finally realising that this is a very effective way of reminding audiences about their back catalogues!

JD: What's involved in preparing these massive works for public presentation? For instance, where are the scores held, and how are they reconstructed?
TP: It differs from project to project. North By Northwest has taken about 5 years to get off the ground, working with Warner Bros, the rights holder, and dealing with the various estates to get the right to do it in the first place. But we also discovered that a lot of Herrmann’s score, because the film was originally mixed in mono, appears on the dialogue track. When we perform scores live, we have to remove the actual music soundtrack so that we replace it with the live musicians playing it instead. With modern films this is relatively easy because the music is on its own, separate track; so we can simply remove it without losing anything else (like sound effects and dialogue). But with earlier films (NBNW is 1959), this isn’t always the case. So, we have an amazing company in Los Angeles, Audionamix, who is, as we speak, digitally removing all the music on the soundtrack. It’s an incredible process and I don’t pretend to understand how they do it. They also removed the orchestra from the soundtrack to West Side Story so it could be performed live, but with the singing on the film completely intact - amazing. 

Herrmann’s music in NBNW, though, needs very little editing. There’s quite a bit of music that he recorded that wasn’t used in the finished film and there are quite a lot of cuts in the cues that are in the film. But nothing complicated. 
That’s in complete contrast to my most recent production, Independence Day Live, which was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last week. That score took 9 months to reconstruct! David Arnold, the composer of the score, wrote and recorded the 2 hours of music in LA 20 years ago. So everything we had was handwritten by David’s orchestrator, Nicholas Dodd. And, once the score had been recorded, it was then often hacked to pieces by the editor, as the film was re-edited or the director made different choices about which bits of music to use where. So when we came to do Independence Day Live, we had to work ‘backwards’: we had all the original scores and the final movie soundtrack and had to make them the same, so that when we performed it live it would all work in synch. It was a huge, very complicated job and I asked a friend of mine, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, to do it - he reconstructed the score and put it into Sibelius, then the copyists produced all the scores and orchestral parts. 

The other important element is the conductor and how he/she synchronises all the music with the film: the score must fit the film exactly. This means creating a version of the film that only the conductor can see (on a screen in front of them on stage), which has all sorts of things on the screen: timecode, which is locked exactly to the version that the audience is watching; a visual click, which is a counter showing bar numbers and beats in that bar, so the conductor can always be in time; and various visual aids that also mean the conductor can ‘hit marks’ in the film (for example, when a door slams and the music also plays a big beat at exactly the same time). 

Most of these projects take about a year to put together and I spend a lot of time working with the studios, not just on the legal contractual stuff (and there’s a lot of that!) but also preparing the film itself and making sure it looks as good as it can. We almost always use computer files these days and play the films out via laptop. Amazing really. 

JD: Bernard Herrmann is one of the all-time greats as far as I'm concerned. Please tell us something about him and why you feel North by North West is a prime candidate for this treatment? Might this showing help to cast new light on his music?
TP: Herrmann is one of the greatest voices in film music, no doubt about that. And the films he did with Hitchcock are surely the best work of both men. Herrmann is very well represented in film music performance and orchestras have been playing his scores for years: you’ll often hear the Vertigo overture, the Psycho suite and the North By Northwest overture in concert. And there are full versions of Vertigo and Psycho as live film performances which have been done all over the world.

 I came to North By Northwest in a roundabout way. A friend of mine works at Warner Bros and he’s a huge film music fan. We were just talking one day about live film concerts and I asked which classic films Warners owned; NBNW came up and I immediately seized on it since it’s one of my favourite films and has such a terrific score. Of the three greats - Vertigo, Psycho, NBNW - it is easily the most family-friendly and funny, so I went for it. When deciding which films to present in this way, I’m always trying to look for a great film which also happens to have a great score; it’s not enough for the film to just have an amazing score, it’s got to be something a general audience will want to go and see (since these projects are always quite expensive to produce). 

For me, North By Northwest is the perfect film. And Herrmann’s score is a masterclass in musical economy and drama. It’s been fascinating looking at his original scores and seeing what he does with the tiniest amount of material, how he develops it, uses it in so many different ways. There’s only 50 minutes of music in the entire film, yet it’s used so well, in exactly the right places for all the right reasons, that it makes a real impact, dramatically and artistically. I wish a lot of modern scores were like that!

It will be great to hear the detail of Herrmann’s score. At times in the film, the music was mixed quite low so it’s often difficult to hear it. But when we do it in the Coliseum, we’ll hear every detail which is an exciting prospect.   

JD: Why at ENO? Is it a one-off, or might they do more? 
TP: I work with U-Live, the promoters; we put these projects on together. The idea of doing one of these projects in a London theatre came up and I think there had been a casual conversation about it with someone at ENO and it all developed from there. I think it’s a great idea; the Coli is a wonderful venue, with a decent number of seats, and the screen will look fantastic, filling the whole front of the stage. It’s going to be like the early days of film, with the orchestra in the pit playing the score. If North by Northwest works well, we are definitely looking at making it a regular relationship. 

JD: It seems extraordinary that we still have to combat snobbery towards film scores when so much great music is contained in them. What are your thoughts on that? 
TP: To be honest, I don’t really care about the snobbery. There’s room for everything. Back in the days when the snobbery actively stopped film music from being performed, it was definitely a problem. But now film music is everywhere, so who cares about the snobs? In my experience, most people in classical music who are snobby towards film music are doing it through ignorance: they think they know about film music, but probably haven’t actually listened to any for decades. The main accusation thrown at film composers is unoriginality. And it’s certainly true that film music does, a lot of the time, have a sound of its own (taken from Strauss et al and fashioned for the cinema by Max Steiner, Korngold, Alfred Newman and the other early masters); plus, the extreme time-constraints that film composers have to work to are astonishing: 2 hours of music written in 3 weeks is not unusual, so of course there are going to be musical shortcuts.  

But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat, Tom Newman, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Michael Giacchino, Johann Johnannsson (I could go on) will know that there’s a lot of brilliantly original music out there. 

And are we really saying that none of the great classical composers ever took influences (or even stole) from other composers? 

There’s also the question of money: many people in classical music think that every film composer is fabulously rich and therefore cannot be a proper composer. Of course, film composers can do very well, but it’s only a tiny fraction of them. And in fact there’s never been less money in film music than right now. 

All the greatest film composers manage to combine creative and artistic credibility with huge popularity, which is not easy when dealing with a large number of studio suits, all of whom have an opinion on the music, the demands of the director who often knows nothing about music and cares even less, a producer trying to save money, and virtually no time in which to actually create the music. I have a huge amount of respect for film composers and I love working with them. 

There’s a lot of great film music and a lot of crap film music. It’s the same as any other genre of music. 

JD: Which other films would you most like to see reconstructed for live orchestral performance?
TP: ’m always on the look out for new projects and I have a few next year that I’m really excited about (but can’t mention yet!). I’d like to do a Korngold score since it would be a great play for the orchestra, but accessing the music and dealing with the films themselves (technically) might be rather challenging. And I’d do anything by Elliot Goldenthal because he’s a genius. His score for Batman Forever is, in my opinion, one of the finest (and certainly one of the most outrageous) scores of the last 25 years; trouble is, I think the film is awful!

Last year I produced Planet of the Apes (1968) live in concert at the Royal Festival Hall and that was a dream come true as Jerry Goldsmith’s celebrated serial score is my all-time favourite. It’s a true original. I can’t wait to do that again. So I’d love to do more Goldmsith too. 

But stay tuned, because next year will see some really diverse projects coming your way!

North by Northwest Live, London Coliseum, 27 November 3pm and 7.30pm. Booking here.