Ben Bartlett An Interview with Ben Bartlett by John Mansell © 2011
An Emmy nominated and Bafta award-winning composer, Ben Bartlett stormed the UK film & TV industry with his memorable and original score to WALKING WITH DINOSAURS. Hugely versatile, his music is intelligent, yet highly melodic, equally at ease with writing symphonic scores as well as writing in contemporary, edgy and upbeat styles. It is very apparent from his credits that he is a composer who can score anything, and score it to brief, whilst coming up with a voice that is fresh, unexpected and surprising. Ben is a composer for the alternatively minded project, as well as the more “mainstream” brief. He is a composer whose talents allow him to be as versatile as the projects for which he is commissioned.
One of your latest assignments for television is the police drama VERA. The first episode which was a two hour drama, contained some really haunting and atmospheric music, I felt it evoked the style of John Barry in places, the low woodwind and dark sounding strings added much to the storyline, how did you become involved on the assignment and what size ensemble did you utilise and will there be a soundtrack album?
I became involved with VERA through my relationship with Adrian Shergold – with whom I worked on HE KILLS COPPERS and FIONA’S STORY. These two very different projects were really exciting to contribute to – so VERA was a no brainer.
Barry, much like Hermann, is a strong influence on my work. Although tipping my hat quite deliberately at times to the sound world of Barry and possibly Mancini, (unison bass flutes for example), there is a deeper influence at work. Like Hermann, Barry pares down his musical arguments to the simplest of ideas – allowing the film’s edit room to breathe and flow, rather than attempting to underline cuts and junctions. I prefer (often) to be musically offset from the editor’s rhythmic meter. It’s not a conscious process however – I know when it’s feeling right. This often lends the music the power to refer to feelings or trajectories not immediately apparent on screen.
I employed 3 flautists, bearing the full range of instruments right down to the contra-bass flute.
Staying with VERA did you score each episode separately as you would in the case of a feature film, or did you spot the series and then score certain scenes from various episodes?
Episodes were scored separately. There was a strong thematic component which appears throughout the score however.
I suppose you really became prominent and know to film music collectors via your music to WALKING WITH DINOSAURS, your scores for this and the spin off productions was excellent and gave the individual episodes and even the dinosaurs in the series an identity all of their own. Could you tell us how you became involved with these productions?
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS was basically my big break. I became involved as Tim Haines at BBC was inviting people to submit their show reels, and my agent at the time got wind of this and pressed Tim to listen to mine. That was just the beginning though. At that stage I was then asked to scores (and re-score several times) a sequence of film (from Ep 3 as it turns out). From that I think I won them over.
You have worked on feature films as well as TV productions, what would you identify as the main differences between scoring projects in these two mediums?
It’s a subtle difference to explain – let me make an analogy. TV tends to feature more close ups than film. It’s a function of the scale (or historical scale) of the medium. To see the eyes in a movie a full close-up us not so necessary. Film is more photographic, more contextual – a larger whole, or framework, is at work. TV needs to grab attention away from household (and other media) distractions. Film has a captive audience. Take what you will from this regarding music – but for me film music requires or more expansive approach than does TV. Film music has a luxury (captive audience) and this allows the score to breathe more deeply. This could translate to bigger sounds and sweeping themes. But on the other hand the tiniest idea (think Morricone and THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY for example – a simple flute figure) can be just as expansive. TV music needs to satisfy certain elements of “product” that film can largely avoid. Lately though, film has been trapped in a TV brain – perhaps an inevitable result of the merging of media delivery across on line formats etc.
I have so often been briefed in TV work to “be filmic” and the result can often seem bombastic and pretentious. Unless the TV script has a broad canvas (which VERA is inclined towards) it will work better when the score addresses “the present”. It’s very tempting to produce filmic leitmotifs in TV and I often (usually) do this. But through-connectivity or arching structural effect if this effort as a composer is at risk of being broken by an ad break or channel switch or other perils of the medium.
You have also written music for advertisements, this I should imagine is quite difficult, taking into account the time you have to make a statement with any music?
The challenge of Music for ads is understood in part, by taking the contrast between TV and film I just outlined and multiplying by ten. Many tricks are necessary to concatenate a musical argument with a time frame too short for it. Partial phrases, slipped meters, and pastiche are vital. The last especially as, to evoke a time frame larger than we have, subliminal references to pre-existing music genres allows the illusion of scale by drawing upon the viewers pre-learnt musical baggage.
What musical education did you receive, and whilst studying did you focus upon a particular area of music and also on any one instrument?
I went to London University and then Guildhall School of music. My original goal of being a concert pianist was soon swiped away by a series of reality checks. Scoring numerous dramas for student productions was a vital learning process.
Do you come from a family background that is musical?
There is some musicality in my family but I was never honed or pushed. My family is very visual – both parents are designers and my mother also worked as an actress. I think this is why I am so comfortable or even dependent on visual contexts for my work.
When you worked on WALKING WITH DINOSAURS, were all the effects in place when you got to see the rough cut of the film, if not did this make it difficult to decide what type of music you would write etc?
By effects I guess you mean sound effects. Largely they were in place – although thankfully Kenneth Brannaghs’s voice over was not. If it had been I would have felt very cornered. I ignored the sound pretty much. I was scoring the emotions of the creatures. That was my intention – to facilitate emotional investment from the viewer in an essentially inanimate artifice.
When you work on a series such as GHOST SQUAD, which I think was 13 episodes, do you ever for want of a better word re-cycle any of the cues you have written for early episodes in later parts of the production, or do you try and score each episode as a separate assignment?
I won’t deny it – let’s say TV has it’s pressures at times. However, I refer to the word recycle in it’s true sense – cues will be re-processed and altered for sure. No two scenes are ever the same. Otherwise, it’s re-use – better still for the planet but not for a score, and best avoided.
At times though, a recurrent theme is exactly what’s needed. HE KILLS COPPERS is my best example of this, where less really is more.
When you start work on a series or a feature film, how do set about it, by this I mean do you start with a central theme and develop the remainder of the score from this or do you write individual cues and then develop any theme for the project from elements of the score?
That’s too tough a question. It is different every time. I do know though, that I am searching at the outset for a musical “engine” that is right and unique for the drama. This engine can often come before the theme. But not always!
You have worked with Adrian Shergold a few times, (HE KILLS COPPERS and FIONA’S STORY) Did he as a director have a hands on approach with the placing and type of music he wanted or did he leave you to get on with the job in hand ?
Adrian is one of the cleverest directors I have had the honour to work with. By a bizarre positive feedback effect, his total trust of whomever he has chosen to work with seems to engender the most inspired output -certainly in my case anyway. I have worked with some very hands on directors of great talent but almost OCD levels of interference. But one has to deal with all these possibilities – it’s part of the job description.
What composers either contemporary or classical would you say may have influenced you in your approach to either scoring films or maybe have had some influence in the way you actually write music?
That’s a potentially huge question. I’d like to just state Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Bartok, Hermann, Mahler, Bach… oh and Artur Koechlin.
Do you perform the orchestrations on your music for film, or do you always or sometimes use an orchestrator. Likewise do you conduct at all?
I ALWAYS orchestrate my work fully. Obsessionally. Conduct – 75% of the time.
Were any of the projects you were asked to score temp tracked, and do you think that this is a practise that is a help or hindrance?
A help for the client. A hindrance to the composer. That’s as plainly as I can put it.
What do you do musically away from film?
I conduct a small chamber choir; try to keep my Chopin Etudes in reasonable shape along with the Goldberg Variations. Would love to direct a crazy huge Latin/Tango/Salsa band but have never gotten around to it. I do teach too.
Your music for WALKING WITH BEASTS etc, did get released onto CD, did you have any involvement in what music tracks would be going onto the release?
THE BEASTS soundtrack album was so fast tracked that they wanted it realised before the last 2 episodes were scored. It was a sad fact but that was the way it was. I wasn’t happy about that at all.
You have worked on many differing genres, is there any genre of film that you have not worked that maybe you would like to?
Full on period drama has oddly eluded me to date. Watch this space!
At what stage of proceedings do you like to become involved on a project, do you like to see a script or do you prefer to see the film at the rough cut stage for the first time and how many times do you tend to watch a film before you begin to get any set ideas about the music?
I MUCH prefer to wait until a fine cut. By this I mean a completely locked film. My reason is many folds – but mainly because I want as little baggage from the film making “process” itself. I want to enter the films world with as much of a virgin mind as possible. Producers often don’t get this – and I find a score can suffer when it starts to be fed in to the editing process. It’s not just the cues that get scrambled – my brain gets scrambled too. I need to take an overview and get my plan for the score sorted in the knowledge that nothing will change. The slightest tweak to a cut can have a MASSIVE effect on the drama and the score’s goals.
Do you think that a good score can save a bad movie?
No. But it can help a lot! I think a bad score can really ruin a good movie though. It happens all too often.
At the moment in British television I am of the opinion that the musical scores are of a high standard, although at times they do tend to lack the presence of a stand out theme as in vintage television programmes. What is your opinion of the state of British television and film music at this moment in time?
I agree with you. But the lack of stand out themes is I believe a symptom of producers shying away from anything retro. And also wrongly reacting to solid orchestral writing as if it were a retro statement. There are exceptions (e.g. Vera actually, where the producers were brave about being orchestral) but in the drive to be modern, cutting edge, a strong theme is often hard to fit in to that musical environment without it jumping out. The style statement seems to outweigh the musical one sadly.
In your opinion what is the purpose of music in film?
That’s a huge question and it needs a book to answer it. A good approach to understanding it though is to remember that film is a supreme artifice, and although experts at it, modern viewers still need assistance to maintain their suspension of disbelief. Another answer is, well music is powerful and available, why avoid it? That sounds a little cynical I know, but my point really is that film, like it’s precursor, opera, is a total art form. It combines design, prose, acting, cutting, sound and music. The “purpose” of music is almost an empty question. Film is not really complete without it 99% of the time. It provides an emotional argument running in parallel to the script, intensifying the engagement of the viewer. True. But “how it does this” then becomes the next, more interesting question if you follow me.
What are you working on at the moment?
My family. Next project unknown! That’s the joy accompanies the perils of being freelance!
Do you produce what I call show reel discs to send out to prospective directors and producers, a sort of best of Ben Bartlett?
Yup. You need to be Williams or Zimmer not to need too. And I bet they get asked too.
Do you perform at all on any of your scores?
In all of them. The modern computer is an instrument and it’s present in almost every one of my scores. If not, I’m waving a baton.
Thank you so much.