Brynmor Jones: A Welshman in Berlin

An Interview with Brynmor Jones by Günther Mülder
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.11/No.43/1992
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven

The German film industry frequently gives the impression of lying in a sort of permanent but not fatal agony. There is not often much happening. Still, the industry is not dead and after the reunification – with the DEFA Studios in Babelsberg near Berlin – there are hopes for a new start. Hopes, also, for German film composers.

One of them is Welsh composer and conductor Brynmor Jones. He was born in London, received his education in Norwich and Milan, and in 1979 came to Berlin where he has lived since. As to why he is composing music for films, Brynmor Jones states that he is a complete film freak and that he wanted to write music for films since he was in school. “I love the cinema,” said Jones. “I never had anything to do with the visual arts. I was always a training musician, so that was the obvious thing to do. It’s also very interesting to see how you can change things and support things psychologically in film music, and that’s really the challenge.”

Having settled in Berlin, Jones soon started to write music for Hans-Henning Borgelt’s children’s TV series. His first film contract was for BELLA DONNA (1982), by director Peter Keglevic, who hired Jones to write not original music but arrangements of songs. “The original music consisted of all sorts of Tango music by Astor Piazzola, which was actually very good and was a good choice for the film. And there were several songs which Christine Janger sang. I arranged something like five of those and I wrote a little striptease, little things on the side. The songs were very well received and I had a couple more films with the same production company on the basis of that.”

In the meantime, Jones and Peter Keglevic became friends and went on to do five films together. “By the time it gets to that stage it becomes sort of a team,” said Jones. “Peter always tries to put together the same sort of team for most of the films he does – the same editor, same composer. That’s the one stable element in the film side of it all. I work for lots of other directors, but that remains. It depends on how you get along with the directors, of course.”

Besides composing music for films, you’re also a conductor with a certain interest in contemporary music, and musical director of the Berlin Chamber Opera, so you don’t earn your living strictly as a film composer. Still, do you think you could make a living composing only for films?
I think I could. I mean, I would have to do a lot more in terms of finding contracts. In Berlin the volume isn’t big enough. I think in Berlin there are about twice as many known film composers as there are films made in a year.

So what is it like to be a film composer in Germany?
I’m not sure that I can speak for Germany in comparison with another country, because I’ve only written film music in Germany. The problems are for a composer to find the films in the first place. There aren’t as many as one would like, but now perhaps this is going to increase with the triangle which is now beginning to include Hamburg – so it’s Munich, Hamburg and Berlin and now with the Government coming to the DEFA Studios, perhaps more people will come to Berlin to film. Who knows.
Financially, there are far too many producers who say “please do it with synthesizers”, then it costs 5,50 DM [$5.00] and that’s bad. There are some films which I think would be awful to do electronically and other films which think require it. And there is a mixture – for instance, in DER SKIPPER [Bloody Sea, 1989], I think it was right to do the big sea scenes with orchestra. And one has to say that the budgets are very, very tight. They’re too tight because there aren’t enough orchestras, certainly not in Berlin, who are good enough in reading, quick enough to record, like a first rate American orchestra. We just don’t have anything like that. People read slower in Germany than they do in America. The result is, when your budget is tight and you only have one or two recording sessions, things have to be recorded too quickly.
And a lot of these film orchestras are slung together, in Berlin, for example, from the Deutsche Oper and The Radio Symphony Orchestra, and for them it’s a gig and you have to get through this mentality. You have to impress the orchestra enough within the first ten minutes of the recording session for them to want to play well for you. If they don’t think there’s somebody standing up there that’s worth anything, then it’s very difficult.

What kind of budget do you get?
It depends. A normal budget for a TV film is around 30000 DM [$18,500], because in TV you can use every record that’s on disposal – you’re not specifically required to write every note. So if somebody plays a record in the TV film you can just play the record (as source music) because they pay this lump sum to the GEMA [German ASCAP]. As far as cinema is concerned it’s more expensive, depending on what the production company is, depending on how big the film is going to be. Then the sky’s the limit, but it’s not very high in Germany. It’s not as high as in either England or America.

Does this mean that you also have to organize most things yourself?
No. I don’t put orchestras together any more. I don’t copy notes any more. Basically, my function is to write music, which is the hardest thing! I also produce pre-tracks electronically so that we know exactly whether they fit on the film. Sometimes those are used in the click track when one’s working with a live orchestra, sometimes not. It’s just a reference or a way of showing the producer and director what you want to do.

You have told me about an orchestra of young players whose work is devoted to film music. How are they doing?
It’s called the Berlin Film Music Orchestra. They appear on a record of Christopher Franke’s, of film music or rather generally of instrumental music he’s done – where I was conducting this orchestra. And we’ve done a film, MCBAIN (USA 1990, directed by James Glickenhaus) with Dennis Hopper. We have done some recordings for an American children’s TV series, a 13 or 14 part series. We’re trying to build a reputation for the orchestra itself. The young players enjoy that. In our Spandau studio we now have production facilities for showing the film on a big screen while they play, and that sort of thing.

The critics didn’t like DER SKIPPER, did they?
Well, the end is a huge problem. It was completely opposite to the original script. They switched girls.

Did the score give you some trouble, then?
The problem with that was, in the original book it was quite logical. The relationship built between Lou and the skipper to the point where she kills him out of envy, out of frustration. For some obscure reason the end of the script was completely altered. And the problem then was, of course, that we had to try and suggest Lou’s madness from the beginning of the film. I wrote a little theme, which is altered and made strange, the harmonies are strange and it gets stranger every time Lou looks at the captain. The looks that originally were intended to show bewilderment or wonder, I had to turn into approaching madness with my music. That’s very difficult to do when the visuals don’t go along with it. But that’s what I was asked to do.

How early do you like to be brought into a scoring project?
As early as possible. In fact, nowadays for a film start by reading an early version of the script, let’s say the third or fourth to last version. Then occasionally another script will come in with the post and I’ll read that and notice what the changes are and then I’ll get a final script that is still usually changed a little in shooting. There is usually enough time to think about the music, at least until it comes to the final editing. The time between the final editing and the final mix is always very short, and that’s when you get into stress.

How much time do you usually get to wrote a film score?
For DER SKIPPER, for example, I wrote some of the themes beforehand, but for the actual music I had about a month. And that means writing, having the notes copied, recording, everything. That is quite tight. On the other hand, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI was done in ten days…!
I hope now that people are coming around again to see what effect music can have on a film. The selling aspect is still hugely important. For instance, for DER BULLE UND DAS MÄDCHEN, with Prochnow, I was told after I had signed the contract that, of course, there would be a title song by somebody else and an end title song by somebody else, because at that time Alphaville was fairly big in the charts, and you have no say in the matter. So I wrote all the illustrative music, and there some a couple of songs along with it. The producers argue that it gets another 200,000 people to see the film.

Another thing that has been criticized about film music is that it is not modern enough.
They certainly have a point. A lot of it is the market-oriented attitude on the part of the producers, who are scared when people write modern music. Unfortunately, then you get into this rut that every time there is sort of love scene it has to be romantic and only when something brutal or mysterious happens do you get to do something a little bit disharmonic. It’s very, very difficult to develop one’s own film music style with that sort of restriction. You can only go as far as you can and then you’re told, “that’s too far.”

Are you trying to push more of your own style into your film scores?
I haven’t up to now because the last films I’ve done were intended for large audiences, even if they didn’t reach them! On the other hand, I’ve done films like that Tango film. There was no dialogue in the movie – it was over an hour’s worth of music and then one can do all sorts of things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: