An Interview with Barry Gray by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.12/No.47/1993
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
What is your view of the role of music as an element of a film?
I think, basically, it revolves around impressionism. Impressionism, of course, gives an impression of certain aspects of life, certain situations, certain moods, and etcetera. I think the music in a film should really cover this, and create the right atmosphere and add to the film’s situations. In other words, the visual will be better with the correct type of music than it would be without.
What is your own personal approach to film scoring?
I try, particularly, to tailor not only to the visual, but to the dialog. If I’m going to keep the music going behind dialog, I write accordingly, and go into a very suitable background, very unobtrusive, very un-busy background whilst the dialog is going. Even if the action is fast, and when you come out of the dialog you go into fast action and probably fast music, I’ll usually just sustain a long hold, or very slow moving holds behind the dialog, because to me there’s nothing worse than busy music going on behind dialog.
I prefer composing and orchestrating for large symphony orchestra rather than anything, although I’ve had to go down along the electronic road many times in my career. But, generally, I like to write the correct kind of music for that which enhances the action in a film.
Your background in song writing has undoubtedly had an influence on your style of writing film themes. Does the writing of a popular melody at all conflict with the need to compose a dramatically-structured score to match the visual action?
I’ve always written songs and been a songwriter right from my early days, but throughout many of the scores that I did, particularly for Gerry Anderson, I had to write quite a few songs for various episodes. In my case, the writing of a popular melody does not conflict at all, as far as I’m concerned, with the need to compose a dramatically constructed score. Many of the great works for symphony orchestra, analyzed, are, very basically, a simple popular type of theme, and it is the orchestration that makes it sound so classical and much more involved than just a simple melody.
What is your view of the use of electronic music in the place of, or in addition to, symphonic music in film scores?
Well, I’m afraid that electronic music is mostly suitable only for visuals that are concerned with such things as laboratories, space, very weird and perhaps even strange situations, astral sequences, and etcetera. I’m not enamored of writing orchestral music and producing it on synthesizers. Much as I appreciate the use of a synthesizer today, I don’t go along with scoring ordinary music for a bundle of synthesizers. An outstanding example of this, for me, is CHARIOTS OF FIRE. A very simple musical theme, but produced on multi-track synthesizers, and although the music was very suitable to the film, because the action of the film was ‘round about 1924, I did not really care for the synthesized sound. Although it had a semblance of a large orchestra, you could still tell that it was synthesized sound. Electronic music, I feel, is suitable only for the other situations that I’ve mentioned.
What’s your opinion of the “new” style of scoring films in a pop- and rock-oriented fashion?
I think in the early start of pop- and rock-oriented scores, a lot of the producers looked at the commercial scene of pop and rock music, especially around the early start of the Beatles in the early ‘60s. I think a lot of them felt that they must have a bit of this cake, and it would be a good idea to get a pop type of score and work on it commercially as the pop groups were doing by selling a whole horde of records. I think a lot of this came about through these producers wanted to have a cut of the action.
I don’t really criticize the new style. I think it is a wider spread of the current trend of what has happened over the last twenty years. In many cases, certain types of films, certain types of sequences, the pop-oriented type of score is very suitable to fit the action.
Over the years you’ve done a lot of work with electronics in your film and TV scores. These days that’s become fairly common but when you began using them they were still fairly innovative, weren’t they?
At the time that I was starting to write electronic music for the early Gerry Anderson series, producing electronic music was a far different kettle of fish than it is today. At that time, one had to rely on tape manipulation; and on using any type of instrument to get a basic sound from which to work. In those days I had to use an electric steel guitar quite a lot, and Hammond organ, and I worked basically on tape. I also used an audio-sweep oscillator and a ring-modulator, which I had specially-built. I would get the basic sound onto tape and then I would start working on it. I used to do things like chopping the head off a piano chord, and then reversing one side of the chord and splicing it onto itself, so that one could get a very slow-sounding approach which rose in a crescendo to the top of the chord, and then would fade out again. That’s quite a lot of work, and it took a long time to do even a short section. Of course today, with the advent of vocoders, synthesizers and what-have-you, one can produce these things very, very quickly.
You’ve maintained an interest in electronics for nearly your entire career, haven’t you?
My love in music is scoring and orchestrating for large symphony orchestra. But from early days I have had an interest and a great curiosity for electronic instruments. There was an electronic instrument produced in 1929 by the Beckstein piano company and it was called the neo-Beckstein, and virtually it was the forerunner of the electric guitar, because the piano, instead of having three strings per note as an ordinary piano has, it had five strings and on each set of five strings there was an electromagnetic pickup, which fed an amplifier. I never had the opportunity to hear this, although my old friend Stanley Black at one time did a demonstration of it.
Another instrument I was interested in was the theremin, which of course produces its notes by capacitance, moving the right hand closer to a rod to get the note and moving the left hand closer to a silver ball to get the volume. But the theremin was so very difficult to play in tune, because you had no indication at all of pitch. So a French electronic musician, Maurice Martenot, invented the Ondes Martenot, which was virtually a better variation of the theremin with more pitch coritrol, and I acquired one of these instruments in 1959. I studied in Paris with Martenot for a month to get the basic idea of the instrument. And I’ve used it throughout all our series in various ways.
Your particular use of electronic scoring seems dominated by a melodic structure. What’s your view of atonal scoring, in which melody is forsaken in exchange for weird atmospheric effects?
I am not partial to actual melody in electronic music, when it’s supposed to be creating weird or astral or spacey effects. In the case of some of the electronic music in things like U.F.O., I’ve used and perhaps done a slight melodic connection with the previous orchestral music that’s gone on in the episode or in the series. But generally most of my electronic music has been what I call electronic effects rather than music.
Did the fact that Gerry Anderson’s marionation shows were aimed at a juvenile audience affect your music in any way?
In the very early days of the Gerry Anderson shows it was Gerry’s idea not to write kiddie music for the puppet shows, and I should not let the fact that the shows were puppets affect the music at all. I should write as one would for a film, in the normal way, and, this is what I always did. I never wrote down to children. I scored as I felt, or in other words, I treated the puppets as if they were real people. And that was what we did more or less throughout the whole of those series.
On THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, you had the opportunity to write a symphonic score for a large orchestra. Did this allow you to approach the film any differently than you did the TV series?
It’s a rather humorous little story that when THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO was going to go into production, Gerry called me into his office and he said, “Barry, I’d like to get the real sound of a symphony orchestra for THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO. How many musicians would we need?” So I said, “Well, if you want a real symphony orchestra sound you’ll want about a hundred and twenty.” So, when Gerry had picked himself up from the floor, he said, “Well, how many could you do it with?” I said, “I’ll do it with seventy.” So it was decided then and there that I would have a 70-piece orchestra. A lot of the music in that score was not connected with the TV series because it was for different situations, but I did use and orchestrate the Thunderbirds theme and called upon it in snippets throughout the film.
I must say that it was a most enjoyable score to do, and we had most enjoyable sessions. We got a very, very excellent recording which was done by my old friend Keith Grant at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London. We also recorded the THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO LP at the same studio, although on this I used a 54-piece orchestra.
SPACE: 1999 occasionally called upon classical music in addition to your thematic material. How closely were you involved with each piece?
My involvement with each episode was very, very slight. Because of the musical budget, they only recorded the minimum number of sessions for the series as were required by the musicians’ union. So the music editor used to lay music for different episodes either from music that we’d done before for other episodes, or he was allowed to call on library music when he was short of music. This is how the other pieces of music came into the series.
For DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS and ISLAND OF TERROR, Malcolm Lockyer wrote the score while you provided the electronic music. How did this collaboration work?
In both cases I was given the sequences where electronic music was going to be required, and I supplied the music on tape to the film editor. It was a simple as that. After being transferred to 35mm magnetic film, he laid them in accordingly to each film. I think they worked quite well, though I didn’t particularly like the idea of ISLAND OF TERROR. It wasn’t my cup of tea at all!
Lastly, have you any plans for more film scores, having been absent for so long?
I would like to do a good film score, should I be asked to do it. I would prefer to do a meaty story rather than a space theme film. I would like to do a really good, meaty film. Gerry Anderson asked me a few months ago if I would compose and direct the music for a new series that he’s hoping to get off the ground in this year (1982). Whether he will get it off the ground, I don’t know. I hope he does.
- The preceding interview was conducted during February of 1982 and is published in its entirety for the first time.