An Interview with Barrington Pheloung by Daniel Mangodt
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.13/No.52/1994
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Some of Nostradamus’s prophecies must have rubbed off on me. I just knew that the music for this new film was going to be marvelous. NOSTRADAMUS could have easily been destroyed by an inappropriate score, but thanks to Barrington’s musical expertise my great expectations were fulfilled.
This interview took place on October 8 after a lecture by Fred Karlin and when it was done we talked for another two hours. It is a sheer delight to listen to a driven composer who has a musical knowledge that surpasses all credibility. At the age of 40 (he was born on 10 May 1954) he has already written more than 300 hours of music – a multi-faceted composer of film and television music, ballets, concertos and a conductor and performer as well.
Having delved into Nostradamus’s teachings and life he is a strong believer in an optimistic historical view. After several months of research the actual score was written in a mere 4 days!
You were born in Australia. Why did you move to England?
I went to London to study the classical guitar, which is my instrument. I started playing when I was 5 years old. In those days (1972) there were very few conservatories in the world that had a classical guitar department. It so happened that John Williams (the guitar player) was the head of the guitar department at the Royal College of Music. He was my idol, but the year I got in he decided to stop teaching. That’s showbiz. Anyway I had great teachers there, e.g. Carlos Bonnell, an internationally acclaimed guitar player. The wonderful thing is, 20 years later he premiered my guitar concerto, which I conducted in Nottingham in 1992.
Do you also play the guitar in some or your film music?
Almost all of it, and nowadays because of the new technology I can play that in my own home and studio before we add the orchestra. It’s a lot less stressful to do. I use the guitar quite a lot in my compositions.
Especially in INSPECTOR MORSE. How did you approach that series?
I was very happy to get that job and I got it thanks to a great friend of mine, Anthony Minghella, a famous playwright and director now. He came to Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and saw one of my ballets. He loved the music and came backstage afterwards to meet me and asked me if I would write some incidental music for one of his new plays; the next day he brought his friend Kenny McBain, a young producer with Central Television and he asked if I wanted to work on this project MORSE. So I was working with 2 very powerful and important writers and producers.
That collaboration has lasted a long time. We all sat down and we all read the books (the original novels by Colin Dexter) and then Anthony’s screenplay and we decided that Morse is a very melancholic character. So the tune had to be melancholic, and he was a lover of classical music, so it should be an orchestral score and not synthesizer (anyway I don’t like to write synthesizer scores, I’m not interested in that). The final thing is that he has a very cryptic mind, he loves doing crosswords; we came up with the obvious idea-his name is M.O.R.S.E and we use morse code in the music; it spells out his name in the main theme and that formed the rhythm. It fits nicely in a triple compound time and that suggested a harmonic structure and I picked up my guitar and there was the tune.
There is a good story if you want to know. In those days I didn’t have my own studio. The television company wanted a deadline like they do increasingly these days, so I spent almost all the fee doing a very good demo on synthesizer to show the producer what this was going to sound like. He was a very good friend of mine by then and a very accomplished musician as well, and he wanted his pound of flesh and I took this piece of music to him and he had a very strange way of making sure that I’m working hard enough. He said: “Bas, this music is wonderful, but it’s too modal.” It was in A minor, which you could consider one of the modes. “Morse is a more romantic character, I think it should be more Brahmsian”, so I went away and wrote another completely different theme, which was very Brahmsian; it had the hemiolas, it had the rich orchestral spirit and I brought it. He said: “This is fantastic music Bas, but it’s a little too Brahmsian!” By then I had spent the whole fee on the first episode. It was gone just making these 2 demos. So I went back to the studio and remixed the first one and brought it back to him. “That’s perfect, Bas. That’s exactly what I want.” I didn’t change a note, I just remixed it.
How many episodes did you score?
I think 29, over a period of 7 or 8 years, sometimes 2, sometimes 3 or 4 or 5 a year. They all are 2 hour films and almost have up to an hour of music. They are feature film scores and they are made like feature films. It was a great break, in television to have a 2-hour format. Everyone said it would never work, that people aren’t intelligent enough to concentrate for that long. Well, in Britain alone it got 26 million viewers.
Its success probably had a lot to do with Morse’s character: a romantic, but nevertheless sometimes stern and severe…
Yes, and very sad. It’s the story of his life. He had a very bad experience when he was at Oxford University; he had an emotional problem with a woman he was going to marry. In the end he never got married.
Did the music change during all these years?
Yes. Imagine, it’s like doing 29 films on the same character. It became a lot easier to write. By the last 4 years, when I was watching the final cut with the director, I could already hear the music that I was going to write. The great thing is, we stuck our neck out and told the executive producer we really wanted to have an orchestral score. And that was very rare in television, especially for a detective series. The core idea was to treat the audience as intelligent and not as idiots and that’s the big difference. I’m not really interested in writing music for trash entertainment. I want to reach people. The series was seen all over the world, it sold to 111 territories.
Because of Morse’s love for classical music, there is a lot of classical music in the series. Did you choose that yourself?
Yes. That was one of the great parts of the job. They asked me what music he would be listening to and in almost every case it’s one of my favorite pieces of music, and all of them were especially recorded for the series. They weren’t taken from records and we got to work with some of the best musicians in the world. It’s a great job. I’m also a conductor and it’s a joy being able to work with such great performers on a regular basis and playing my favorite music with my best friends.
The musical pieces, are they Morse’s or your choice?
They are my choice. There is a little story here. Colin Dexter is a very nice man and a great friend of mine and he loves Wagner and secretly I don’t. Over the course of the series, Morse became a great Mozart lover. That sums up my musical taste. In my car CD player there are usually about six Mozart CD’s. I believe Mozart is one of the greatest geniuses, if not the greatest genius. It’s not the intellectual genius, but it’s the spiritual love. He left us with about 300 hours of joy and beauty and he lived at a time when there was horror, plague, political intrigues and he had syphilis. He didn’t leave us with a dark, introspective analysis. His music is a joy. Even when there’s tragedy in his music, it’s preceded by comedy and that’s joy to me. You’ll never go wrong with Mozart.
You’ve just said that you don’t like scoring trashy movies. Have you ever refused films?
Yes, many times. Not because I’m a snob (the money might be tempting and very good), but if there is an artistic incentive and maybe the director is a fantastic director, then you’ll think twice. I don’t see anything wrong with the film industry being an entertainment. Some of the films I love most are romantic comedies and very entertaining. So I’m not saying everything should be serious and dark and morose, but there should be artistic integrity. A good romantic comedy is one of the hardest films to make, especially in the 90s.
You’ve worked for the BBC, as well as ITV and Channel 4. Is there a difference in approach?
Less so now. Not necessarily in quality, but a lot more productions for the BBC are done independently now. They don’t have to be made in-house any more. I’ve never worked for a certain company, I’ve always free-lanced. But I’m doing more films now because I’m becoming disillusioned with the way the media are going. It’s being run much more by accountants and ex-advertising executives. It’s not the penny-pinching, but the crassness of style I don’t like. There have been times I walked out of a project because the director or the producer felt so insecure about their work that they needed to play it to the commissioning editor and I don’t care what the commissioning editor thinks. What does it matter to me what his taste of music is! I know a hell of a lot more than they do; I’ve been doing it for 35 years. It annoys me a lot when you have that interference. When it comes from competent people, I’ll compromise; I’ll bend over a million times. But they have no concept of the creative work. In my opinion at least one third of the creative perception is built by the music, whatever music is used, whether it’s existing classical music or a new score. Consequently a film can be destroyed by a bad score, by a tasteless score. It happens so often. The big decision makers are basing their decision on what music should be…
In 1990 you scored the 6-hour television series PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE about the life of Vita Sackville-West and based on Nigel Nicholson’s book. It was the story of a married woman who has a lesbian relationship. It’s a dramatic true story, and the fact one could believe in it as a spectator was partly due to the music.
That series was a wonderful experience and I’m glad that you say that. What we tried to do with the music is to establish the period and also the lushness, the life style and the very strange society around 1914-16. There was a lot of research involved in that also I had to find out what music, what records, what bands were playing in the jazz cafes in Nice and Monte Carlo at the time. There is a very important scene where they’re dancing a tango in Nice and we found the exact bands and old 78’s and I had to write some original tangos and pieces but use the exact sort of style and tempo of that period.
As for the original score, it was about creating the sense of opulence, but also the sense of slight danger and this is a personal thing: relations break down whether is is because of gayness or straightness. People that are married can have a serious breakdown because of psychological problems or any number of reasons. What’s extraordinary is that their marriage lasted throughout their lives. It was not a happy marriage but there was love, there was a common ground; that’s what the music was all about. It was a crazy life, but isn’t life anyway? The brief was to create a cinematic image, not to create television music, but to make cinema music, because there are beautiful expansive shots of English gardens and the bi-plane arriving; all these wonderful images. The film caused a lot of controversy, far more than I thought it ever would. I mean, this day and age, for god’s sake. Most of the love scenes except one weren’t explicit, but it still shocked so many people. My little boy wasn’t shocked either. At the time I was writing it, I showed my little boy Anthony, who was 4 then, the scene where the father lands in the bi-plane and he loved the music and asked to play it again. And I forgot he was sitting there and I went on to write the next piece of music, which was underscoring a lesbian love scene. It was just loving, it was genuine passion. After I had finished the scene my little boy (Oh! No!) didn’t ask what they were doing. He asked: “Daddy, why are those two mammies not wearing any pyjamas?” Great guy! “It’s very hot that time of the year in Nice!”, I answered.
You also scored SHOPPING, a bleak and basically very negative film about juvenile delinquents. Most of the music was by modern groups like U2, Stereo MCs and The Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy.
Actually most of my music wasn’t used. The film ended up with a lot of grunchy music. If there was any feeling or catharsis in the picture it was in the original score, which did show some humanity and passion, but all those cues were left out. I would never use music to glorify any sort of violence. It all comes down to my hero Mozart about whom Haydn said: “He has everything, he has a great control of counterpoint and not only has he got a great control and facility in harmony, melodic structure, development, form and morphology, but most important he has great taste.”
Let’s talk about NOSTRADAMUS. A solid picture with splendid music. I do have to admit I’m a sucker for period music and choral music. How did you work with the director Roger Christian?
It was a beautiful collaboration because Roger had an intelligent and intellectual approach to the whole research in Nostradamus’s life. When I was asked to do the score, neither Roger nor the producer Edward Simons knew that I also happened to have an expertise in the music of that period. It was lovable. So straight away I was not only asked to incorporate some instruments of that period but also some of the music from that period. Using that and incorporating it in my own score, my original music, I believe that is the right approach.
I can’t stand some of the films that are period costume dramas that have a synthesizer score (it doesn’t relate to that period, unless it is making a different artistic statement.) It’s a historical film and based on the life of Michel de Nostre-Dame, who I think should be called Saint Michel de Nostre-Dame. That’s my own feeling and if it hadn’t been for the Inquisition he would have been a saint. On the evidence that I have seen, he is every bit as worthy as John the Divine. The Revelations are more ranting and more schizophrenic than any of Nostradamus’s writings, but that’s an academic opinion. But the fact is that the director and I both approached his work with a very thoroughly researched background. I got to work with experts in the field – I play the lute myself in the film and other instruments as well and what’s interesting, Roger completely appreciated the authenticity of the music. Some of the music has never been recorded before, for instance the Susato music. And there are so many wonderful musicians to work with in London and they are used to doing everything in one take.
So we both went into this film really believing in the subject, this truth and its overriding thesis, which in my opinion is the optimism at the end of the film where he sees paradise. This is a critical part of his philosophy, that there will be a time of over 1,000 years of global peace, that man can survive and that earth can be a beautiful place. I’ve got 2 children and I want that to be possible, I want that to be true and the music at the end was set on Nostradamus’s own text (sed quando sub movenda erit ignorantia) and tries to reflect that hope, the spaceship and the sun rising over the horizon.
It looks a bit like 2001…
Yes, but it doesn’t sound like it. The visual metaphor is saying – this is the way I interpret it – that we can use technology to save our world, just as easily we can use it to destroy it. There could actually be a pollution-free and a war-free world and I want that to happen. That’s why I quote “L’amour de moy”, which is a beautiful anonymous love song, in this case, a setting by Josquin des Prez, which is very erotic and very beautiful and sung by thousands of people during the inquisition. Secular music was forbidden, especially in the vernacular. A lot of illicit arrangements were made and the funny thing is I first played a variation of that little love song when I was a teenager at college. Similarly, the other main love song, “Allegez moy” again by Josquin, in various lute transcriptions – they would take a popular song and make a set of variations on the lute. It’s so funny that 20 years later I’m actually using the original songs setting within the texture of the score. It’s great fun; it’s almost as if it came down from heaven.
There are atrocious scenes in the film, images or the plague and the death of his first wife, but light choral music is used in counterpoint several times.
The horror and the tragedy of her death was seen from his point of view, examining the true love and the beauty of their relationship. When she is dying, rather than exemplifying the horror, you hear a female choir singing, but what you don’t see in this version is that his two little children die as well. Instead of horror and darkness I use another Josquin setting, which is “Absalon fili mi” (= Absalon my son), expressing the inexplicable tragedy of any parent losing his children, and at the same time he was curing the plague everywhere else, but he couldn’t save his own family.
Only a few people will understand this connotation. The average viewer won’t…
As soon as you start aiming your artistic idea to encompass what the normal person will understand, that’s when you’re denegrating the art. The fact is the normal people who will watch this will be very moved. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand it. It would have been very different in Hollywood. If millions of people will see this film, 90 % will hear Josquin’s music for the first time, as well as my own, but that’s not the point. It’s a great responsibility, all the more important for me to choose wisely what the music is there for. It helps to recreate the period, the time. All the existing music that was used could have been heard by Nostradamus and will probably have been heard by him. There are no anachronisms as to the existing music. That’s why it is appropriate in the film to mix the styles and the periods and it ends basically on a universal chord, a huge orchestra and choir.
The film starts with an apocalyptic view of a destroyed city (the end of the world) and it is accompanied by modern music with a weird mixed choir…
I’ve written some very distorted angular settings of Josquin’s “Agnus Dei, Miserere Nobis”, within the texture of the orchestra and using voices. It’s very scary, it’s a nightmare (it’s the first vision of Nostradamus as a boy and the world is breaking up).
Nostradamus has two wives and the music is different…
They are different periods in his life. For the first wife I used some thematic ideas. It’s a little love song I discovered, “L’amour de moy”. It’s their music. The second theme is actually a setting of Josquin’s “Allegez moy”, mixed with my music. It’s a very sensual love song of the period. It was banned. It is a very different approach of underscoring a love scene with what is basically a song which is about making love (it actually encapsulates the act, but not in a pornographic way). At that point Nostradamus hadn’t made love for many years. This is a critical point in the film, because they get married. And in the space of that one cue she faints, she confesses that she is in love with him, and then she says she’s not, she runs off and he follows her, then they make love and then they get married and then he burns the books, all in one cue. That’s the pivotal reason; he can’t endanger her life like he did with his first wife and that’s an important bit of drama and the use of the music under scenes like that is so important. You can destroy that if you write horny music at that point.
The tower of books in Scaliger’s house (Nostradamus’s tutor) also gets special treatment…
That sounds electronic, using real samples of wind, combined with human voice. It’s as if the books are speaking. It’s very subliminal. It’s the ore of this knowledge – they were all banned – and when the books are burning you hear the screams and the voices, almost crying.
What else have you done recently?
I did a really almost black comedy, a brilliant horror film called THE MANGLER, directed by Tobe Hooper. I always wanted to do a big horror film. It’s an orchestral score with some pretty weird sounds as well. I sampled the voice of a very wonderful jazz-pop singer and I send her voice through strange intervals. A very different approach for me, but I love doing something different every time.
You don’t like being typecast as a film composer?
The funny thing is I’m not just a film composer. And I think Mozart would be if he were alive today. I’ve written 52 ballets. That’s a scary amount. I’ve also written a lot of chamber music, concert music. I try to divide my time evenly between them. The power of cinema and television is its ability to communicate with everybody and that’s what our job is. And if you can get to a 100 million people instead of a concert hall with 3,000 people, that’s a very big difference. But I would never stop doing concert works or playing chamber music, (that’s my other job too, I still perform). It’s because I do all of those things that I can bring a wealth of knowledge and information to a film Score. That is my life. That’s the most important thing.
What are your next projects?
I’m up for 4 different films at the moment and I’m finishing a violin concerto for Nigel Kennedy. I’m also working on an opera based on a play by Arnold Wesker, THE KITCHEN.