x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Great compositions

You may not be familiar with the name Harry Gregson-Williams, but you are almost certainly familiar with some of his work.

Harry Gregson-Williams often begins a composition on his piano, which is attached to a device that allows him to record the melodies.
Harry Gregson-Williams often begins a composition on his piano, which is attached to a device that allows him to record the melodies.

In 1995, Harry Gregson-Williams arrived in Los Angeles with "nothing". The former music teacher became, almost overnight, a major figure in the world of film composing. He now has more than 50 scores under his belt, spanning film, television, video games and commercials. You may not be familiar with his name, but you are almost certainly familiar with some of his work.

Gregson-Williams came to Los Angeles by way of his mentors, the British composers Stanley Myers and Richard Harvey, with whom he became involved in London and who introduced him to a previous protégé, the film-music maestro, Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight), who told him to get a one-way ticket to Tinseltown. Working at first under Zimmer's auspices, Gregson-Williams quickly notched up dozens of credits. They include the Shrek franchise, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His recent films include X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Taking of Pelham 123, which is his seventh collaboration with the director Tony Scott.

"It feels like I have only been here five minutes, but it's not five minutes," he said. "I don't kid myself. It is a lot of hard work and good fortune." This morning, sitting in his office chair in his darkened Venice, California, recording studio, he has a new mission: to compose the music for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for his-long term collaboration with the producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "This is the bit I like," he said. "It is before I have done anything wrong."

Gregson-Williams met with the director, Mike Newell, in London to do what is known as "spotting" the movie, which is how most scoring begins. "We talk conceptually about the music and then I take a closer look at the picture," he said. "I'm wondering about doing some traditional Middle Eastern music or Persian orchestration." The actual composing process begins with his shiny black Yamaha grand, which is fitted with a recording device under the keyboard that he is greatly impressed by. "Look at this," he said while twiddling some knobs and effortlessly playing some impromptu melodies on his piano.

Once the melodies are in place, most of the work will be done with the machines blinking green and red lights from various corners of the room. There are also a couple of large screens on which Gregson-Williams watches the films as he scores. One shows a frozen image of a desert scene from Prince of Persia. Gregson-Williams calls up the opening sequence from Wolverine on another screen and proudly plays his intro after spending 10 minutes lamenting the pre-release leak of the film onto the internet, which went out without his score. "It was like showing an art work that was only half-finished," he said. "Thankfully, the pirated copy was not taken from this office or it would have had my initials on it."

When I tell him the Wolverine score reminds me of Peter Gabriel's soundtrack for The Passion of the Christ with influences from the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (think the choral voices that burst into the opening number) he says with a smile: "I will take that as a complement." The influence, in fact, comes from his early years as a choir boy, he quietly points out. Once upon a time, film scores would be composed, where possible, with a live orchestra, which would play notes on demand for the composer as he scored.

Gregson-Williams, who had never even used a computer before he moved to Los Angeles, has quickly adapted to modern composing techniques using machines. He has built a solid reputation for combining orchestration with modern-day technology. The development has a lot to do with the influence of Zimmer, who is a known technology fanatic. The turning point, he said, was Zimmer "sampling" the London Symphony Orchestra, which means recording every possible note and instrument so that it can be called up at the press of a button. "Zimmer was beginning to do stuff that you could only do in your imagination," he said. Now even the studio photo of Gregson-Williams's two kids is displayed on a computer screen in a far corner of his studio.

Still, he insists that these developments are a practicality for him and his directors. "I am sure John Williams is afforded the luxury of tinkling a few notes on the keyboard than going off to score," he said. "But for mere mortals like me we have to show the directors what we are planning to do. This allows us to do that." Hollywood film composers love to tell you how the first person to get fired on a film, if the director doesn't like the finished product, is them. For Gregson-Williams this has meant, in some cases, composing an entire replacement score in eight days, which is a bit like running a marathon in an hour.

"A score is not going to change what is missing in a film but with some good editing it can change a film," he said. "Sometimes you are compensating for the film. Sometimes, you can overcompensate." For Prince of Persia, he has been given a total of three months to score 90 minutes of music. "I think we are cracking it when we do two minutes a day," he said. "Eight weeks is a good amount of time to compose; 12 is better."

The music will be recorded with a live orchestra at the end of August in London in his favourite studio, Abbey Road. "When I was assisting Richard Harvey, I had a chance to work there. It was such a hallowed place," he said. "I wondered if I would ever have a chance to score there myself." In London, he is often reunited with many of his former classmates from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. "The double bass player swears that I went out with her but I can't remember," he said. Although he will do most of the composing sitting alone in a studio, as the score comes towards completion he hopes to get the director in a few times a week.

"Having got to the stage when I am synchronising music then I will get the director to come here," he said, adding that the Wolverine director Gavin Hood came in three or four times in the last month of composing. "There is no reason for misunderstandings if you bring someone into your world," he said. "The studio is no replacement for the final recording, but it allows us to make great sounding demos to let the director into our world."

For Gregson-Williams, a score does not have to be composed chronologically. "I might go to a critical scene in the film first," he said. "With The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I began with Lucy stepping through the wardrobe. With Shrek, I started with a reflective moment when Shrek was eating supper alone. It doesn't have to be chronological, just thematically consistent." Sometimes the composer gets additional hints about what the director wants from a temporary soundtrack typically put on a film by a music editor while a film is being made and before the score is embarked upon. "This can be indicative. If they have chosen a track full of African drums it is probably an indicator that they don't want a symphony orchestra," he said.

Although he ignores a question on whether or not film music has become more epic with advances in technology making for larger-than-life pictures, his music speaks for itself. He has, Variety notes, "composed some of the largest-scale choral and orchestral movie music of recent years, and also created the most cutting-edge electronic music in modern-day movies". And he established a reputation early on for being a versatile musician.

His influences include African beats from his time spent teaching in Africa, choral sounds from his childhood, and also the influence of his Venice neighbourhood, which still retains a hippy-ish vibe. "I have always loved this area and the music scene around here, which is very Bohemian," he said. "Huge artists have lived around here, such as Jim Morrison." In the last 12 months, Gregson-Williams has also worked, in addition to the above features, on several passion projects. He produced his first film. "I financed it, helped with the script and then scored it," he said. "The bummer was at the bottom line there was no money for the music."

His other extracurricula activities have included working as a producer on the Hybrid album I Choose Noise. It is hard to know how he finds the time. "To do film music is 100 per cent commitment," he said. "Film music is deadline driven. It is not Schubert sitting in an attic room quietly composing. One has to plan one's time carefully and make sure there are no mistakes. We have a noose around our neck and spend a lot of time in a darkened room."