Music

Top image: LCO from the Phantom Thread rehearsal at Southbank Centre, Jan 2018, photo by Atherton-Chiellino

With their ear for amorphous string sections, sweeping melody, and unnerving electronics, the London Contemporary Orchestra have been quietly altering the sound of cinema over the past decade.

Establishing themselves as Jonny Greenwood’s go-to orchestra, they have recorded on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, as well as collaborating on Greenwood’s scores for films The Master and most recently The Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here.

It was their score for The Phantom Thread that earned them and Greenwood their first Oscar nomination. A melancholy, piano-led suite of instrumentals, the score perfectly accompanied Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance as the controlling couturier, Reynolds Woodcock.

Always pushing boundaries, the orchestra have also worked on a number of contemporary electronic projects including a collaboration with techno producer Actress for Boiler Room and a ‘deconstructed jungle’ set of orchestral compositions at last year’s Printworks GABA-Analogue show.

We spoke to the orchestra’s co-directors and conductors Robert Ames and Hugh Brunt about the nuances of film scoring, the annoyance of some films’ ‘nonsense music’, and finding their space between the electronic and acoustic.  

Ammar Kalia: You’ve recorded a number of film scores written by Jonny Greenwood for Paul Thomas Anderson films, how does the process usually work?
Hugh Brunt: One of the most enjoyable aspects of those projects is that there’s often more time in the sessions to really get to the heart of the score and understand how it’s working to the film, as well as pushing the sounds and experimenting with new ideas. There’s always a positive, collaborative atmosphere where everyone’s giving their best – and that ultimately stems from Jonny and the quality of both the music and the film. That’s been our experience on The Master, Phantom Thread and, most recently, on Jonny’s score to Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, that explores a very different soundworld of synths, guitars, drum machines and microtonal strings treated in a very brittle, percussive way – it’s an incredibly powerful score.

AK: Was the process or development for The Phantom Thread any different?
RA: The Phantom Thread process was really exciting because Paul Thomas Anderson was at the recording sessions as well as Jonny Greenwood. The wonderful thing about how Paul uses music in film is he gives it a lot of space and there’s a lot of trust between him and Jonny. Also, most film music soundtracks now are recorded to a click but most of The Phantom Thread was done off click, so the music had room to breathe.

AK: What are the differences between working on a film score, as opposed to recording for an artist or band?
HB: Due to the nature of film production schedules, the process of delivering a score often needs to happen on an incredibly quick turnaround and there’ll be a sizeable amount of music to get through. We’re fortunate in having an amazing group of musicians who can sight-read anything, play beautifully and approach each session with open-mindedness and a collaborative spirit. For an album project, there’ll often be more breathing space both logistically and creatively and that’s a very enjoyable way of working. Equally, we’ve been involved in a number of films (such as the ones mentioned above, plus our collaborations with Jed Kurzel), where a similar freedom has been afforded, so it can be different from project to project.

AK: Do you see film scores as accompaniment to the visuals or a form of storytelling in itself?
RA: I see it as a form of storytelling in itself. When music is used really well in films it can carry a narrative, it can heighten tension and emotion. That’s what Jonny does incredibly well. The kind of film music that I don’t like is when it’s underscored, rattling away as an annoyance alongside. I’m thinking of the Avengers movies where you just hear ‘crash/bang/wallop’ nonsense music and that annoys the hell out of me.
HB: It depends on the nature of the film. Some scores are ‘in the seat’ with the viewer, amplifying the emotions in step with the picture. Other scores can be used to subvert the narrative; the music becoming a character in its own right. An incredibly effective example is There Will Be Blood where Jonny Greenwood uses stripped-down chamber forces for the intimate scenes centred around Daniel, HW and Henry, and then a larger orchestral palette to accompany the wide, vista shots, almost giving voice to the forbidding hills at the opening of the film. Those shots coupled with the music play an important role throughout, offering a commentary on what’s about to ensue.

AK: Do you feel like film scores are changing to incorporate increasingly eerie, electronic-influenced elements, such as in Mica Levi’s work on Under the Skin?
RA: I don’t know whether they are eerie, but there’s definitely a change. I’m seeing a new wave of really interesting film composition and it’s great that LCO are a part of that. There are people like Jonny and Mica Levi and then also other younger composers like Anne Nikitin, Paul Saunderson, Ben Lovett and Dan Mulhern that we’ve worked with. In film music it’s really easy to get pushed either by yourself as a composer or by a director to fill a formula of what has worked in the past and people like Mica, and Jonny and Jed Kurzel instead spend time improvising and discovering new sounds.

AK: For your collaboration with Actress, how did you interpret his music and blend his electronics with acoustic sounds?
HB: It’s been a process of workshopping, improvisation and creating arrangements of existing Actress material, as well as developing new tracks with him. In many ways, the collaboration is about exploring an ambiguity of sound that sits between electronic and acoustic spaces; something that we’re aiming to push further as part of the live shows. For much of the set we look to realise the timbres and colours of Actress’ electronics through acoustic means, which he in turn responds to. That involves utilising various accessories: plastic bags (for white noise or to emulate an EQ’d hi-hat); keys; Blu-Tack (to dampen the piano’s upper strings); and milk frothers on harp strings!

AK: You’ve also recently created a strings sample library – what inspired you to make it and how do you hope it will be used by artists and producers?
HB: It was a conversation that started with our friends at Spitfire Audio around three years ago and was born partly out of frustration that there weren’t already the tools out there for us and many of the artists we work with to draw on. It can be challenging when, for example, a film composer is trying to get a cue signed off by the director or producer and they’re not able to clearly communicate in audible form how some of those integral, more ‘experimental’ sounds are going to live within the scene. Hopefully something like this sample library eases that process a little.

AK: Do you think sample libraries will ever replace having real musicians in the room?
RA: No, because there’s so many variants when you’ve got real people doing their thing. For every sample we did for that library there are infinite variations and ways you can combine them. Sample libraries will get better and better but there’ll always be a need for the real thing.

AK: What other projects are you currently working on?
RA: We have an album with Actress coming out and a live show at the Barbican in May. We also have another show we’re really excited about in October, Other Worlds. It’s two ginormous symphonic pieces of music, one by John Luther Adams and one by an Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. We’ve commissioned these two incredible films from immersive visual artists Universal Assembly Unit that are going to be interactive to the music and projected onto a screen which is stretched over the whole stage – should be a special show.

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