An Interview with Christopher Slaski by Randall D. Larson
Exclusive to the CinemaScore & Soundtrack Archives, Autumn 2016
Born in 1974, Christopher Slaski built a truly international career over the last few years by sharing his time between his studios in London and Spain. Christopher graduated in Music from Cambridge University where he studied composition with Robin Holloway, and then he obtained a postgraduate diploma in Composition from the Royal Academy of Music in London. Slaski also studied conducting with Lawrence Leonard (conductor of the Halle Orchestra) and attended film scoring master classes given by Ennio Morricone at the Academia Chigiana in Sienna and José Nieto in Madrid. [bio via Quartet Records]
You have named Ennio Morricone, Michel Legrand, and Philippe Sarde as three composers whose music has “always been an inspiration.” What is it about their music that has attracted you, and what influences have they had upon your own compositions?
All three composers, aside from complete technical mastery in any style, have an instantly recognizable and authentic musical voice, a supreme melodic gift, the ability to create moments of overwhelming emotional intensity and a deep understanding of the language of cinema and how to use music to suffuse film with deeper meaning. As a teenager, Ennio Morricone’s score for CINEMA PARADISO drew me into the world of film music and around the same period I attended his master classes on film music at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Sienna, Italy. Soon after, I discovered Michel Legrand’s scores to LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and also Philippe Sarde’s LES CHOSES DE LA VIE. I think, when you take an overview of their output, these three composers have reached levels of artistry perhaps never to be surpassed in film music. Furthermore, they have all expressed the view that film music can and should succeed independently, even away from the images. That’s an ideal to which I aspire.
I certainly feel that I have been influenced by these three but also by many non-film composers including Bach, Ravel, Poulenc, Satie, Astor Piazzolla, Stravinsky and Steve Reich. Another big influence has been modern Jazz from the 1960s onwards, in particular the pianist and composer Bill Evans and the music of the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. I would say that it’s the elegant lyricism and the exquisite harmonic sophistication of their music that hooked me from the very first.
What lessons did you learn from working as an orchestrator that you have found useful as you have gone on to explore the art and science of film scoring on your own?
For three years, I had an academic education as part of my degree at Cambridge University, comprising harmony, counterpoint, fugue and musical analysis. Surprisingly, orchestration wasn’t offered as a separate study and neither did it make much of an appearance at the Royal Academy of Music where I spent two further years as a postgraduate in Composition. I think we were expected to pick it up as we went along! After completing my academic studies, I was introduced to Anglo-Italian composer and orchestrator, Carlo Martelli who had worked mainly in British cinema in 1960s and 70s, especially for Hammer Films. We became friends and observing him orchestrate impressed upon me the importance of writing idiomatically for each instrument, ensuring that every line can be heard even within complex textures, combining instruments in imaginative ways, and above all, writing simply and transparently. Orchestration and composition has always been a simultaneous process for me and I can’t separate the two.
I believe your first feature score was for the 2000 horror thriller THE ASYLUM, for British indie director John Stewart. What are your recollections of scoring this film and how did you support the film’s psychological elements and its visceral suspense with your music?
A year earlier, I had scored a short film for Stewart, a psychological thriller called THE BREAK-IN. For THE ASYLUM, I was invited to watch a few scenes being filmed on location at Cane Hill Asylum, an abandoned Victorian psychiatric hospital built on a hilltop in the London greenbelt. Being there certainly helped me find the right mood for composing the score and I remember being intrigued but also pretty unnerved by that grim and haunted looking place. The theatrical performances from the actors, including the legendary Ingrid Pitt of Hammer Horror renown, inspired some dramatic music from me. Some critics remarked that they could hear the influence of Bernard Hermann in the score, even though I didn’t know his music at all well at the time.
Having the opportunity to compose a traditional orchestral horror score early on in my career was very fortunate. If you lack experience writing to picture, which I certainly did at the time, horror and suspense are possibly the most straightforward emotions to evoke in music and there are so many precedents to guide you. There were many scenes of characters creeping around dark corridors – long periods without much action – so the hardest challenge was maintaining a level of tension over long stretches of time. Actually, it was a relief when the few moments of action arrived as it meant I could write something more rhythmical and sophisticated. Much of the score used a 60-piece orchestra, and there were opportunities to write some really emotional pieces too. I scored one such scene for 12 solo cellos. When we recorded it, the sound was so intense that I worried it might overpower the scene, but when played back quietly beneath the dialogue it worked surprisingly well. This taught me an important lesson: that dialogue can take quite impassioned music, so long as the register of the dialogue is respected in the music. So, the intensity, captured in the musical performance, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will overpower dialogue, especially when mixed sensitively; on the contrary, it can add colossally to the power of the spoken voice.
How did you become involved with scoring the “incidental music” for Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic, BEYOND THE SEA, and how did you accentuate the film’s dramatic moments while reflecting, or leaving room for, the movie’s abundance of songs?
John Wilson, the musical director, asked me to score this Kevin Spacey directed biopic. It had been assumed during the spotting sessions that the original songs would be sufficient to cover the film’s musical needs, however, once the film had been edited, it became pretty clear that certain scenes would require an original score. The new music would have to be in keeping with the period and to blend in seamlessly with the existing songs.
The orchestra sessions were already booked and I had ten days to compose the score. It was a challenge at the beginning to find the right tone for the film. Composing is never easy, but searching for the right musical atmosphere for the film is usually the most difficult part. For this, you can’t rely on musical technique but rather on your intuition as a dramatist. Eventually, after some nervous experimentation, always with those lingering doubts that I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything in time, I found some harmonic progressions that felt right for the retro 1960s American style of the film and I developed the music from there. I wrote mainly for strings, harp and a few woodwinds with occasional piano and celeste for color. I felt my task was to gently support the scenes, making sure that the musical entries and exits were imperceptible.
The type of scoring required was more subtle than anything I had attempted before, and the film was the highest profile one I had worked on in the sense that it was a Hollywood studio picture with a stellar cast. We recorded at Air Studios in London and I sat in the control room listening, whilst John conducted. Unhindered by musical budgetary restraints and supported by an experienced music director, a music editor and a team of copyists, working on BEYOND THE SEA gave me a taste of life as it must have been for a studio composer from bygone days, with the sole task of scoring the film music, and with nothing else to worry about!
The first score that gave you some widespread notice, and your first soundtrack album release (from MovieScore Media), was for the Quay Bros.’ dark fairy tale, THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES… What were your primary challenges in supporting this film’s abstract design and skirting around the pre-existing music of Vivaldi and Trevor Duncan that the Quays had put in the soundtrack?
THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES, stylistically speaking, was as far away from anything I had ever seen before: a dark and surrealist vision from two highly original film makers, Stephen and Timothy Quay. From the outset, I decided to compose freely, inspired by the images and the script rather than composing to picture. Increasingly, I find that when I compose away from the film, but with the atmosphere of the film in mind, the musical results are more interesting than if I slavishly compose in synch with the picture. The end product was a suite of different pieces that gave the Quay Brothers what they were looking for. Pre-existing music by Vivaldi and Trevor Duncan I re-arranged and used dramatically, as part of the score. The former provided a set piece for a concert scene and the latter, a love theme. The Vivaldi, the Duncan, and my own original music had quite separate functions within the film, and were used in quite different scenes. Therefore I never felt I had to skirt around them, they were simply another integral part of the film with which I had to work.
The challenge was, as always, how to find the most fitting musical mood to complement the abstract and sensuous images. The Quays introduced me to music by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke and we decided to use the Aeolian Harp and Alphorn in the score and even a fairground organ to create the sound world of the automata, the mechanical machines that dot the film’s landscape. I used all kinds of rarely used instruments such as crystal glasses, glass harmonica, prepared piano, contrabass flute, and many kinds of percussion instruments to add unusual colors to the score. I explored altering sounds electronically, changing their velocities, reversing them and combining them with vocals and a touch of specially made electro-organic sounds. The final result was an eclectic, avant-garde score that reflected the strange, dreamlike world of the Quays’ creation.
You’ve also scored a number of short films. Generally, how do you contrast the needs of these short films with the musical opportunities in the longer span of a feature film? What are some of the most memorable short films you’ve scored and what has made them significant for you?
The process of composing for a short film or for a feature film is the same for me. Short films, while often low budget, are not the poor relation when it comes to compositional challenges. Indeed, there can be certain advantages. Since you are not bound by commercially driven decisions and as there are fewer people involved making those decisions, the process can be easier and allow for more spontaneity and risk taking. I believe some of the most personal music I have written has been for shorts because I was unhindered by the extra-musical distractions that can become ubiquitous on bigger projects. Although the condensed nature of a short means you rarely have the opportunity for extended development of musical material, it always surprises me how much variety one can cover in a 15-minute film. One of my most popular compositions comes from an elegant short film called CUADRILÁTERO directed by José Carlos Ruiz and starring French actor, Mathieu Amalric. Another short film I very much enjoyed working on more recently is a black comedy called TÚ O YO directed by Javier Marco. I decided to compose an energetic jazz-bebop and bossanova score which I recorded with some superb jazz musicians in London, including John Barclay, the flugelhorn player on John Barry’s early Bond scores.
Many of your short films have been for comedies. You also scored the 2005 Spanish-UK feature film comedy SEMEN, UNA HISTORIA DE AMOR (SEMEN, A LOVE STORY). How do you approach scoring comedy, as far as playing it straight musically or, in the case of SEMEN, actively participating in the comedy with slapstick music, and how do you walk that fine line to make the humor work in both types of scoring?
Comedy may well be the most challenging of all genres for a composer. A single comedy film will often encompass a myriad of different shades of drama, emotion, and styles. So, in addition to the slapstick scenes, of which there are bound to be some, there will often be sad, dark, or ironic moments and quite possibly fast paced action cues too. There may even be moments of mock suspense or horror, and certainly some melodrama. So, essentially, in a single film, you may well find yourself writing for every possible genre. In that sense, scoring comedy can be a fantastic learning experience. I am not too keen on music which tries to force jokes on the audience. Assuming the film has a good script and has been well directed, the comedy ought to work by itself, so that music can be reserved to subtly support the humor.
On “Semen, Una Historia de Amor”, I worked with Inés Paris and Daniela Fejerman. They were clear and precise as to what they wanted from the music and it proved to be a very rewarding task scoring their film. Admittedly, there were one or two scenes which took a few attempts to get right. My intuition warned me against going too obviously comical but, for certain specific scenes, the directors were sure that they needed the music to really push the comedy. Despite not feeling a hundred percent comfortable with that at first, I nevertheless found a way to do it whilst satisfying my own conditions. I do think it’s important to put forward your case, especially if you have strong feelings about a scene, but ultimately, it is the director’s film, and they will quite understandably have the final say. True to comedy scoring, what I particularly liked was the way I was able to combine all kinds of musical genres, from circus and gypsy music, to 60s espionage to silent film music styles and even Argentinean tango. It was a real challenge musically, and on a personal level, opened a door into the world of Spanish cinema.
Your contemporary score for the Spanish action film PROYECTO DOS (Project Two) acknowledges the influence of the Media Ventures/Remote Control Prods style in current action film scoring while at the same time giving greater emphasis to acoustic instrumentation. What were your considerations when beginning this score and how did you develop it into a full-blooded and multi-faceted score that fits the film’s action as well as the romance and the espionage intrigue?
Personally, I don’t feel I have been influenced much by contemporary action scores as my points of reference are so different. It could be, in this case, that the use of electronic rhythms and pulses mixed in with the orchestra to create energy lends this music a certain contemporary action feel. The original title for the film was MIRROR MAZE and from that came the idea of glass, reflections, and a labyrinth of intrigue. That, in turn, gave rise to the orchestration, colored by crystal glasses and string harmonics and some contrary motion arpeggios on the harp, suggesting reflections. Some of the cues were inspired by a style of agitato string writing that had impressed me in the film scores of Alberto Iglesias. A contrabass flute, the lowest instrument of the flute family, provided the intrigue and a melancholic solo cello lent the emotion. Combining subtle electronic pulses and percussive layers into intricate chamber orchestral music was a new direction for me, and one that I recently revisited and developed in A GOOD AMERICAN which has just been released in Europe and will be on screens in the USA from February 2017.
For the Lebanese film RUE HUVELIN, a true story of the student resistance to the country’s 15 year occupation by Syria that began in 1990, writer-producer Maroun Nassar asked, rather than an ethnically Lebanese score reflecting the story’s setting, for a score that would give the students’ struggle for freedom more of a universal sense. With that direction, how did you proceed in scoring the film and developing its main theme through the arc of the story?
Although the Lebanese setting might have suggested a Middle Eastern flavored score for the resistance of students, the producer, Maroun Nassar, who had heard the score I had composed for the short film “Cuadrilátero” asked for music that was similarly nostalgic and classical. So, instead of creating music that could have made the struggle seem like a local issue that only affected a handful of students, the theme I composed suggests a more universal concept: yearning for freedom. I composed the score with this sense of nostalgia and then I recorded it with a number of different solo instruments, including a cello, played by the outstanding British cellist Josephine Knight, an oboe, a viola and flute supported by a small string orchestra and piano. With several different alternatives, the director had the choice of selecting which instrument resonated with him the most. RUE HUVELIN is an important film, touching on themes that are especially relevant today.
Your ambitious score for the noir thriller I, ANNA unfortunately wound up being excised before the recording date when the director decided to use licensed songs as well as hybrid tracks from his temp track for his score. Fortunately your music was preserved in a suite recorded subsequently. Would you describe your original intentions in scoring this film and how you have conserved your music into a Film Noir Suite for performance?
The original idea was to compose an orchestral score inspired by French film music of the 1970s. This was a dream come true for me, and I quickly came up with a retro European film music style but with a modern twist that the director and producer liked very much and encouraged me to explore. The film’s editor, Academy Award nominee Peter Boyle (THE HOURS) was also extremely positive when he heard my mockups. This was so encouraging for me, coming from someone as well respected as Peter.
Two weeks before the orchestral recordings were due to take place at Abbey Road Studios, I received an apologetic call from the producer to inform me that a decision had just been taken to explore an entirely different musical route from the one thus far, and one much closer to the original temp track. So, the film ended up with a non-orchestral, ambient-electronic soundtrack, plus some pre-existing songs. In other words, it couldn’t have been more different in style to the original concept on which basis I had come on board. This outcome was very disappointing for me and I still believe that the score I had composed for the film would have worked really well. However, far from being a waste of time, those months of intense work and experimentation turned out to be a very useful period of development for me and I subsequently reworked one of the cues from I, ANNA into my latest score for A GOOD AMERICAN (a cue called “2 Disc PC”) . You can hear some cues from my version of I, ANNA on the CD compilation album Film Works (Quartet Records).
Your most recent score, and also the subject of your latest soundtrack album (from Quartet Records) is that feature documentary, A GOOD AMERICAN, which tells the story of former code-breaker and Technical Director of NSA, William Binney. Would you describe your music for this intriguing nonfiction film, which also sees you working with Guy Farley.
A GOOD AMERICAN, though it’s a documentary about true life events, has the look and feel of a contemporary thriller. So too, the music is cinematic and rich in thematic development. It was recorded at Air Studios in London and was performed by a 50 piece session orchestra and augmented by specially created electronic sounds which interact seamlessly with the acoustic ones. As with all the projects I work on, I like to challenge myself, try out new ideas and always avoid repetition. Although the main objective is always to furnish the film with the best possible score that satisfies the director’s wishes, I also view each project as an opportunity to grow, to improve my own writing and try out new compositional methods. Elements of cold war intrigue and espionage afforded me occasions to compose a number of tension cues, permeated with cool jazzy inflections and minimalist pattern making, whilst the personal story of the analyst Bill Binney, gave rise to a nostalgic melancholy that positions the score between tension and lyricism.
Guy Farley and I have a long established friendship as well as partnership writing music for commercials, but this was the first time that I asked him to collaborate with me on a feature film. For the most part, we kept our music separate, just as we do when working on commercials, electing to score scenes that appealed to each of us whilst acting as useful sounding boards for each other’s music.
What were the challenges of scoring a documentary and giving it the proper contemporary sense of drama and relativity?
The usual challenge of documentary scoring is to avoid swaying the audience; that is, to remain neutral. However on this occasion, the director was quite clear that this was not what he wanted. In particular, he didn’t want bland, featureless music which accompanies so many documentaries, and he asked for a cinematic sound with themes and emotion. This made composing a whole lot easier and indeed, I think I would have found it impossible not to get emotionally involved in such a powerful film. The challenge was how to draw the audience in and keep them focused through the many interviews, reconstructions, archival footage and complex scenarios. The music had to ebb and flow with the subtle changes of dynamics in the interviews and bring to life what the subjects were describing but which could not be shown. So, I tackled it as I would a fiction film, scoring the changing moods, the personalities of the characters and locations, and adding tension and atmosphere here and there. Having already been screened at the European Parliament and at the House of Lords in London, and praised as a must see film by director Oliver Stone, this is the first time I have ever been involved with such a politically important and relevant film.
What kind of instrumental palette did you have for this score and how did you use it to complement the narrative?
I wrote for 40 strings, 8 woodwinds, harp, and piano augmented by non-orchestral, synthesized pulses and textures to add a modern, technological feel to the music. Fast, agitated string passages provided the pace and tension whilst the woodwind I used either for solos or for 8 part chords that swelled in and out over the top of the orchestra. I used two bass clarinets quite often for some repeated staccato effects and I also used a bass flute for solos. Something about the gentle character of the protagonist, Bill Binney, the location of his home near a forest and his love of nature suggested writing for the lower woodwind, especially the flutes, with their woody flavor. For the interviews, the challenge was to compose intricate and absorbing music that was still transparent enough to allow the dialogue to come through clearly.
What’s next for you that you can talk about? And where would you like to see yourself in another five years – scoring what types of films or working with which directors?
I am currently waiting to hear on a couple of films, both of them European co-productions as well as a Spanish TV drama. I am also writing tracks for a library album which will be recorded at Abbey Road in the coming weeks. Over the next five years, I am guessing my work will likely continue in those areas in which I have been working up to now. Apart from film scores, I also compose music for commercials. These tend to be filmic in style and require music to help tell the story. Some of the companies I have written music for are Mercedes, Carlsberg, Ancestry, O2, Hiscox, Unilever and Marks & Spencer. One of the longest running series of commercials I have scored has been for “Compare The Market” whose Russian accented Meerkats have had such extraordinary success in Britain that they have attracted stars such as Nicole Kidman and Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear in them.
Working in film music has given me a breadth of musical experience that I simply wouldn’t have gained elsewhere and at this moment in time, I feel very motivated to write my own compositions. Composing concert music not only allows me to fully express myself but it also keeps my film music fresh and invigorated. I am currently working on a triple concerto for Bandoneon, Guitar, Piano and orchestra which I hope will have the same trajectory as my Frank Lloyd Wright Suite, which was recorded some years ago by the London Symphony Orchestra and released on CD. I have to say, I am definitely not one of those split personalities who suddenly turns into an arch-modernist when writing my own compositions! My concert music still has the lyricism, orchestral color and romanticism that is present in the music I write for film, yet it has the freedom to develop over far longer stretches, unlike the one or two minute cues that make up a film score.
At 41 years of age, I have experienced moments in my professional life that I could only have dreamed of: recording orchestral film scores at world class studios, working with the London Symphony Orchestra, winning the prize for Best Young European Composer at the World Soundtrack Awards, having soundtracks and albums released on CD, compositions broadcast on radio and television and performed live in concert, and having had the opportunity to work in every possible media: film, television, theatre, video games, commercials, library music and concert music. Considering some of the directors with whom I have worked, I have been very fortunate. However, if there is one dream I still have, it would be to meet one or two special directors with whom I could share a unique collaboration and work with time and time again. Gabriel Yared found that connection with Anthony Minghella, Morricone with Sergio Leone, Alberto Iglesias with Almodovar and so on. Of the talented directors with whom I have worked, I could easily imagine some of them becoming that person, but until their careers take off, I have to remain patient. We film composers, after all, are reliant on being swept along on the coattails of film makers. What seems to be true is that many composers’ most fruitful periods often begin in their fourth decade. With that in mind, and with all the experience I have acquired along the way, I am really looking forward to some busy and fulfilling years to come.
Thanks to Jose M. Benitez for assistance in facilitating this interview, and especially to Christopher Slaski for taking the time to respond to my questions in such detail. –rdl.
Watch these short films, scored by Slaski, on vimeo: CUADRILATERO and TU O YO
The entire Quartet album on yotube “Christopher Slaski Film Works” – or on – Spotify
For information on, and some sample tracks from THE GOOD AMERICAN
THE GOOD AMERICAN can also be listened to on Spotify
For more information on the composer : www.christopherslaski.com