If you have sometimes wondered how film music is created, rehearsed and recorded, now is your chance to learn. The CCSO has conducted an exclusive interview with the remarkable flute player, composer and improviser, Jan Hendrickse (JH). Jan has provided music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, Chocolat, The Passion of Christ, Apocalypto, Beloved, Narnia and many other films besides. He is sometimes referred to as an ‘ethnic woodwind specialist’ because he can play virtually every flute in existence, often providing eerie and exotic sounds so beloved by film composers.
CCSO: How is the orchestra seated during a recording session?
JH: The seating is based on the layout of the concert platform in the sense that the orchestra needs to see the conductor, and the traditional locations of sections tends to be similar. Sometimes the orchestra will be more spaced out to accommodate microphone stands, and they may need sight-lines to video monitors as well. Quite often specialist instrumentalists, like mine, are usually not seated in the orchestra but are in a sound-proofed booth to the side following the conductor on a monitor. This enables the engineers more control to adjust volume levels in the post-production process and even use different takes that might not be the same as the orchestra take.
CCSO: Can the players see the film while they are playing? Can the conductor see the film while conducting?
JH: Sometimes they can, yes. Sometimes it’s essential, and other times only the conductor can see the monitor. In some processes the orchestra will need to refer to what are called ‘streamers’ which are vertical coloured lines which pass across the screen from right to left. When they hit the left of the screen, this could be a cue for something to happen in the music, but it’s another tool for synchronising sound to image.
CCSO: Is the music rehearsed a lot; a little; not at all before being recorded?
JH: Usually the music is rehearsed fast, but this also depends on the budget of the movie and the music budget. A large expensive production with very involved music such as Howard Shore’s Lord of The Rings scores will involve a lot of rehearsal and a recording process that will go on for months for just one film. Other movies will record much faster and rehearsals will be cue by cue – rehearse the cue and record immediately. This is often standard practice because the engineers can hear everything as it will be in the take, and any problems can be ironed out immediately before recording. It’s said, but I can’t confirm whether it’s true any more, that a lot of the soundtracks for American films are, or were, done in London because the studios are good and the players sight-read well and can rehearse and record very fast and accurately, keeping studio costs and fees down.
CCSO: Does improvisation play a part?
JH: It can do, especially for me and other specialist instrumental players. An example will be a composer wanting an atmosphere of Indian music. They may chose to indicate a mode and allow the player to improvise (you can decide if its composing) the actual phrases. Generally I’m very happy to do this as it can sometimes capture the idiom in a way that a more composed phrase may not. I have done whole movies with no written notation so everything was improvised with verbal instructions from the composer. I have also done films with what could be called aleatoric writing for orchestra. An example is The Cell – an amazing score written by Howard Shore, which sometimes allows the players to chose their notes within a certain defined range of pitches.
CCSO: Is the conductor also the composer, as a rule? If not, does the composer have any input during the sessions?
JH: The composer almost always has an input. Usually they are present, and if not they are on an open line in LA or wherever, so that they can comment on each cue and each take in real time. It’s a very hands-on process usually and very pragmatic. Things either work or don’t, there is no time for niceties or deference to the score. Instrumental doublings, harmonies, orchestration and arrangements will often be changed at a stroke if they don’t work to picture. Some composers to chose to conduct, Howard Shore is one example, but many use experienced session Musical Directors.
CCSO: At what stage in the production of the film is the music recorded?
JH: This almost always happens at the end of the film production process, in commercial films anyway. This should allow the composer to be composing to a finished edit, but sometimes the editing continues, and parts of the music get re-recorded as a result. In some cases movies have run out of money and this has compromised the music budget, or has meant that sessions are cancelled or the whole project falls through. This is the reason that film session fixers will never book players until money has been transferred to their account, otherwise they could be personally liable.
CCSO: Is it true that players receive a generous fee even if they are not used?
JH: Once you are confirmed for a session and the fee is agreed, you will be paid but it’s very unusual not to be used. However, I have had days in exceptional circumstances where I didn’t do any playing, but was paid to be at the studio, but this is very rare. I don’t think anyone would really describe the fees as generous, they haven’t changed all that much in 20 years, and players work very hard under a lot of pressure. If you think of it as an hourly rate it can seem generous, but for me this will often involve significant preparation of the music and the instruments. However, it is true that in the context of musicians fees (which are generally very low) it is some of the better paid work.
CCSO: If the players are an ad hoc group rather than an established orchestra or band, how are they recruited?
JH: If they are not an established orchestra (which also does happen for bigger films) they will be recruited by the session ‘fixer’ or contractor. This is quite a specialist field and in the film world there is one main contractor and some smaller companies.
CCSO: Is there a lot of pressure on musicians to ‘get it right’ first time?
JH: Yes there is pressure, absolutely. Although it’s not necessarily pressure to always get it right first time. However you really don’t want to be the person everyone is waiting for. If you make a mistake it’s generally OK, but if you make several and cause an orchestra have to re-record an otherwise perfectly good take, tempers will start to fray. This is the reason I prefer not to record non-orchestral instruments live with an orchestra, because it can make the process very stressful.
CCSO: What effects are computers having upon (a) the employment of musicians; (b) the music itself?
JH: This is a huge subject. Digital technology is now the industry standard in all areas of media production. If we are discussing large budget movies, I think it doesn’t have as much impact on employment, because these films (if they want an orchestra) will not want to use orchestral samples or any kind of synthesis. Even though well-edited samples can now often be very convincing. I think it has had a huge impact on TV budgets, and nowadays fewer TV composers, other than really expensive productions, will use a lot of live playing. I think music is definitely composed differently now because of digital workstations, which encourage certain types of compositional thinking, but still the most interesting composers find their own way of working. Stephen Warbeck, for example, who wrote the score for ‘Shakespeare in Love’ prefers to compose direct to manuscript paper. The changes in film music style may be to do also with wider cultural tastes changing. The orchestra arguably no longer defines the emotional palette for all audiences. The really exciting changes are perhaps in the area of the synergy between sound design and composition. This is a relatively new field and these two, previously separate fields, can now be interwoven in new ways due to digital processing, spatialisation and sound design tools.
CCSO: Although film music seems to be here to stay, will it eventually be reduced to one person and a computer. Put more personally, could a computer replicate your contributions to the sound track?
JH: I think that digital technology has proven to be a very powerful technology that has transformed the ways that people think about film and music production. So it is definitely possible for one person to write a TV score alone with their computer and home studio and this has become the norm in many areas. Whereas this may have affected some performers, arguably it has democratised access to composing for media, but not everyone will agree that this is a good thing. Some of these performers have now become media composers! Certainly there have been sample packs made of the instruments I play (these are idiomatic phrases and notes in a range of registers and moods for composers to use include in their compositions) One of the best ones was made by a friend of mine who plays these instruments very well. So, this is a source of income for him now, even though some players will lament the fact thinking that it will result in less session work, I’m not so sure. Most films, however, will still tend to want to be more bespoke and distinctive and it is very difficult to use synthesis to create the kinds of inflections that acoustic instruments can provide. It is difficult to describe how much the human performance element contributes to the emotional impact of a film. If the film and the composer and the performer all converge in the right way the impact can be amazing. One story from years ago, that I was told by an old hand in the business, is that when John Barry was recording the famous James Bond theme (there is still a dispute between John Barry and Monty Norman as to who originally composed it) the guitarist, Vic Flick used a rather special old 1939 semi-acoustic guitar in combination with a certain Fender amplifier which gave the theme this amazing iconic sound. Apparently this sound was immediately recognised in the session. Very often I have experienced that there is a collaborative atmosphere in these situations in which composer, performers and engineers all contribute to solve problems and produce the final result.