Bill Whelan on Scoring Dancing at Lughnasa

An Interview with Bill Whelan by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.68, 1998/99
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Bill Whelan With the international success of RIVERDANCE behind him, Irish composer Bill Whelan’s future in theater music seems assured. With successful film scores such as SOME MOTHER’S SON and DANCING AT LUGHNASA, Whelan is also carving out a notable sideline as a composer for films. DANCING AT LUGHNASA tells the story of five sisters who barely survive on a hardscrabble farm in 1930s Ireland, and the powerful moment that changes their lives forever. Whelan’s music, released on CD by Sony Classical, retains an Irish flavor appropriate both for the film’s locale and the sensibility of its composer, while also providing a notable underscore to the film’s drama. With a background as a composer, producer and arranger/orchestrator since the mid 1970s, Whelan was a member of the Irish pop band, Planxty during the 1980s. He composed his first major orchestral suite in 1987, commemorating the film music of Irish composer Sean O’Riada, which was conducted by Elmer Bernstein and performed by the Irish National Symphony. In 1994, he was asked to compose the music for an Irish dance sequence for the Eurovision Song Contest. The show was broadcast internationally to an audience of 300 million, and Whelan soon found himself expanding the orchestral material to a full-length stage presentation called RIVERDANCE. The phenomenal success of that show, along with Michael Flatley’s LORD OF THE DANCE, did much to enhance worldwide interest in Irish dance and Irish music, and gave Whelan a well deserved following. Interviewed in September during the New York opening of RIVERDANCE, Whelan described his work on LUGHNASA and his feelings for film music.

How did you get involved with DANCING AT LUGHNASA?
I was asked by the producer, Noel Pearson, to write the music for the film. I had done a number of film scores already – I had done LAMB, with Liam Neeson, and I had done SOME MOTHER’S SON for Jim Sheridan – and Noel Pearson was aware of this and he asked me to see the film. I saw the film and I fell in love with it, and was just drawn to it.

How would you describe your musical approach to the score?
My music was driven by the actors and their performances and by the emotion of the film. It’s not a kind of high-action film with car crashes. It’s an emotional film, and I let the emotions of the script drive my music.

It’s a very lovely score. Did you find this project challenging in any way?
I enjoyed responding to the amazing performances of Meryl Streep and the cast. The toughest part of the film was a dance sequence that was actually done to another piece of music during the shoot, and I had the rather interesting task of having to write the music back onto the dance! I don’t think it comes much tougher than working backwards like that!

What kind of instrumentation did you use on the score?
Mostly it’s a traditional orchestral score, but for the dance sequence I used the uilleann pipes, fiddle, and barong (the drum). For that particular part of the film it was a traditional Irish orchestra.

How did the Irish influence fit into the film, dramatically? Beyond fitting the locale and the Irish dance?
Pat O’Connor’s instinct as director was to almost not do an Irish score, for the most part, and to just keep it for the particular dance sequence. When you see the film you’ll see why he had that instinct.

Irish and Celtic music have certainly become very fashionable these days, not only in popular music but in films too. How would you describe its prominence?
I think there has been an overall world interest in “World Music”, people going back to their roots, in other words, and I think the whole interest in Irish and Celtic music is part of that movement. There is a wealth of music and dance and literature in the Irish tradition. It’s just a lucky happenstance that as the whole world interest is going back towards ethnic music, Ireland happens to have a large store of that.

How closely did you work with the director on scoring the film?
We met and identified the points in the film where we felt there would be a need for music, and then Pat discussed the character of each of those music cues with me. I ultimately went away and wrote them, and then he came back and listened to them, and that was it. He was an extraordinarily perceptive and supportive director, musically speaking.

How much music did you compose for the film altogether?
Probably about 45 minutes.

How long a time did you have to work on it, and did that feel sufficient?
It was short. I did it in about a month and a halt. With film music normally there is a very tight schedule, because the pictures always get finished just in time for the print to be made and the editing to be done and everything. It is normally a bit of a rush, but I don’t find that a particular pressure.

Did you orchestra the score yourself or did you work with somebody else on that?
I orchestrated some of it, and I worked with an orchestrator called Geoff Alexander.

How did that work out?
It was fine. Geoff Alexander is actually one of the most careful orchestrators I’ve ever come across. He was very careful to deliver the tone and the mood of the original sketches that I did, and I can’t compliment him enough.

Other than the dance sequence, was there are temp tracking in the film, dramatically?
No.

What was the first film score you got involved with?
I’d written a piece of music when I was 19 years old which happened to make its way to Richard Harris, and it became the theme music for a film he was directing at the time called BLOOMFIELD (1972, aka THE HERO). So I began to believe that I was now established as a film composer at 19! However, it wasn’t to be, and I spent a number of years learning my craft and the first feature film I did was LAMB, with Van Morrison. That was an interesting project, it was a strange film in some ways, about the life of a priest who worked in an orphanage with children and fell in love with one of the kids. It was a strange film. That was, again, a very raw, emotional story with starred Liam Neeson. I enjoyed working on that very much with Van Morrison. The only other feature film I’ve done, really, is SOME MOTHER’S SON, which was an IRA story.

What can you describe about that score?
Compared to DANCING AT LUGHNASA, it was much more of an action score. There was a lot more going on, if you like, cinematographically. The usual kind of shooting and explosions! But it was a very heart-rending tale of two mothers who had two sons who ended up in the IRA, and it becomes the story of their life.

What kind of music did you write for that?
It was orchestral, but with an emphasized percussion and rhythm section. It also had a lot more use of Irish traditional music.

Coming from your own background, out of Ireland, and with the wealth of musical tradition in Ireland, what is your personal take on composing a film score, as opposed someone who’s out of Europe or Hollywood? Do you think your background gives you a different sensibility for writing for films?
It depends on the subject of the film. I work in a number of music forms. I’m perhaps more comfortable and at home when I’m working with Irish traditional music, so if the film requires that kind of score, well then I’m one of the names to ring. I think Irish music, because of the sort of emotional nature of the music, is suited to film. It’s picturesque, it’s impressionistic, it draws up images.

What do you see for the future? Would you like to do more of this?
Yes I would, but currently I’m writing a new stage musical, so I don’t seem my work in film being extensive over the next couple of years. I’m very involved in theater, and that’s what I like doing, so that’s where I see my emphasis over the next few years.

What’s the new show going to be?
Rather than RIVERDANCE, although there will be Irish dance in it, it’s more of a show about the life of two people. It will have a South American aspect as well as Irish aspect, and that’s as far as I am at the moment!

What can you tell me about the popularity of RIVERDANCE, and something like LORD OF THE DANCE, which has obviously brought Irish dance and Irish music to the forefront of American culture now?
Well, all I can tell you is that it’s been an amazing experience for all of us involved in it. It’s quite gratifying that Irish dance, which, even in Ireland, was really something that was in kind of a ghetto, has been brought to the attention of the world, and that’s been a great experience for all of us.

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