An interview with Bruce Rowland by Jenni Gyffyn
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/Nos.34/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Anyone would think that Bruce Rowland writes music to watch horses by, given the subject-matter of his three best-known film scores, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, PHAR LAP, and RETURN TO SNOWY RIVER (known in Australia as THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER II). He also owns a magnificent property where (you guessed it) he keeps horses, as well as a large music room crammed with awards, musical instruments, tapes and records as proof of his achievements over the last twenty years.
How did you first get involved with music and motion pictures?
I never thought I was particularly musical. I was forced to learn piano by my parents, even though I wasn’t interested. However, when I was about 15, I formed a group with a few teenage mates, and we spent a couple of years playing at YMCA functions, friends’ parties, and so on. By the time I was 17 I was playing four nights a week in dance bands. Then I got into rock and roll and jazz bands. I just lived for playing the piano!
Around 1961, I did a tour with a band called ‘The Strangers’ who were backing Roy Orbison – I used to play with them whenever they needed a pianist. All this time I had a steady job at a department store. In 1962 there was a new TV musical show starting, called THE GO SHOW, where people like Normie Rowe and Olivia Newton-John got their breaks. Peter Robinson from The Strangers asked me if I would like to play piano on this show, so I agreed to.
Not long after that, a new kids’ show was about to start called THE MAGIC CIRCLE CLUB. The producer, Godfrey Philip, asked me if I was any good at writing songs. I told him I’d never written a song in my life, but he gave me the job as musical director anyway!
I resigned from my department store job the next day, deciding that I was going to make a living as a musician. I used to write 10 songs a week, 50 weeks a year, and it was all live to air. I learned a LOT from that! Then the bottom fell out of television, so I set my sights on jingles.
I wrote about 5000 of them and made a very healthy living out of them until 1981, when MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER I came out.
So you’re basically self-taught?
Until I was 26, I couldn’t read music to save my life. At that stage, I was doing a lot of work at Alan Eaton’s recording studio. Alan had a big band at Powerhouse, and I used to give him a lot of jingle work. His piano player left or dies or something, and Alan offered me the job. I’m sure the reason he offered it was to have a captive jingle writer there so I’d bring in more work to him! He was smart.
And terrible things used to happen! I remember the first night – I got there and sat down at the keyboard, and he yelled out, “17! 25! 35! 419 and 27!” and I went “Wha? What is this – rugby?!”
Everyone’s diving around for the books – and of course, he’s yelling out the numbers we’re going to play in the next set. By the time I realized, I managed to get 2 or 3 of them up. I remember one which was called STRING OF PEARLS. The orchestra’s playing away, and all of a sudden, everyone stops dead. I thought, “That’s funny.” So I looked around and looked at them, they looked at me, I looked at them, and they looked at me… and of course it was the bloody piano solo!
I couldn’t read to save my life so I didn’t know. There was much embarrassment over that one! So I picked up the part and thought “I’d better take this home and have a bit of a look at it. They’re certainly bound to play this one again!” This happened constantly all during the night so I had a pile like a phone book that I took home and laboriously went over saying “E,G,B,D,F,… yeah, that must be a C”
And this sort of got better and better. I was there a couple of years, and by the end of 12 months I could read anything. In the meantime I did a jingle for Holden in which they decided they wanted a mini-symphony. It was a symphony in 60 seconds, and they wanted this big orchestral kind of thing with the kangaroo racing the car. I’d never done anything in my life without a rhythm section. I mean, the thought of not having an electric bass player and drummer going boom-chick, boom-chick terrified me! I didn’t realize just how you could make an orchestra sound like it had movement. I didn’t have any records to go by because I never buy records. I just thought, “I’ve got to make it work somehow!”
The Man from Snowy River Well, we made it happen. I obviously wrote it down on paper. It was really one of those marathons that worked – I dogpaddled knee-deep in adrenalin and hoped a lot!
In the meantime, I was trying out my orchestrations, so I wrote a couple of original pieces for Alan Eaton’s band that worked, and then I wrote a few things that didn’t work at all. But of course I had the benefit of a captive orchestra. The clarinet player would say, “Hey if you wrote that down an octave it’d sound a lot better than where it was there. We’ll play it now and I’ll show you where it should be.”
I was fairly quick at picking things up, so I’d hear it and think, “Yeh, it sounds awful like that”, so I’d go back to the score and look at where I’d written it and think, “Yeh, that was dumb. Next time I’ll write it here.” That kind of thing. And over a period of 12 months, that helped.
I wrote an opera once for Paintmart which ran for 30 seconds, and involved a 40-piece string section and 180-volce choir! Good fun!
I took a conductor’s course after writing PHAR LAP, because I was getting to the stage where I was neglecting to write things because I wasn’t sure how to perform them. I thought “This is silly, it’s holding me back. I should be learning how to do this.”
How did you make the move from doing commercial jingles to full-fledged film scoring?
I found it was necessary to move into film work because I was becoming too complacent with what I was doing in jingles. I heard they were making MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, so I rang Geoff Burrowes and asked him if I could submit some music. He sent a script to me as well as to nine other composers. I read the script a few times, then one morning I got up – I remember it was raining outside, and the toast was burning inside! I read the script again, and suddenly out came Jessica’s Theme. I got the job from that piece of music.
How did you first approach writing the music for THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER? When you first saw the film, what kind of music did you feel the film needed, and how did you accomplish this?
I think when I saw it first, it needed big expansive music. It needed wide-open spaces music. Originally the producers kept saying they wanted traditional Australian music like ‘Click Go The Shears’ and ‘Botany Bay’ and I said, “That’s Irish! There’s no such thing as traditional Australian music.” They said, “Like folk songs,” and I said “99% of those folk songs are either English or Irish.” Anyway, I took one of those folk songs, ‘Click Go The Shears’, and I wrote a look-alike – literally identical – and I played it to the guy and he said “That’s Irish!” I said, “I know!” So I wrote the style I felt it needed – big expansive music. Not Western, but in that genre.
How closely did you work with the film director on creating the music for the first SNOWY RIVER? How much input did he have on the way the score turned out?
Very closely. That was the first time I had worked with George Miller, and he was a very knowledgeable man. He was able to brief me in the manner that he would brief an actor. He would tell me what he wanted the music to do emotionally, and that’s the way the music came out. I value George’s input to a huge extent.
How long did you have to score MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER?
I was given six weeks to write the score. Because I didn’t know how long it’d take, I went full bore and finished it in three weeks.
How large of an orchestra did you use on THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER?
The orchestra used was about 80-85. In PHAR LAP it was about 100 pieces.
With your limited practical experience (at that time) in composition and conducting, how did SNOWY RIVER achieve such a rich, lyrical symphonic sound?
Because I wrote it that way! I had only done a certain amount of conducting and the same for composition for large orchestras like that, but I’d done a lot of that kind of thing in jingles for about 12 years. I’d just never done a film score. My first symphonic kind of jingle was in about 1970. It was after SNOWY RIVER that I had to start thinking “How do I perform some of these things that are going through my head?” So before I got myself into strife I felt that I should learn a bit more.
You gave PHAR LAP a fine sense of meaning and importance; the music carries a great deal of emotional impact. Do you recall how the musical style for this film came about?
Part of the film was set in Mexico, so a lot of the music had a lyrical Spanish flavor. The music for PHAR LAP was far more interesting, I think, than the music for SNOWY RIVER because in PHAR LAP it had to take sides. SNOWY RIVER’s music was just a big bombardment of “Iyricosity” if you like – a man and his horse set in the beautiful mountains. I mean, it’d be hard to go wrong!
PHAR LAP was different in that there was an interesting situation where we watched the rushes, and there’s a scene where Harry Telford is really upset because the horse hadn’t won, didn’t know how to win, etc. And he bursts out crying and says “If the horse doesn’t win, we’re all finished!” When we previewed the picture to audiences without any music in it, everyone used to laugh at that point which was very worrying because we wanted people to be sympathetic to Harry Telford, but instead they thought it was funny. So what I had to do was change the meaning of that scene and show the pathos and sadness of it.
In many areas, the music had to reflect different things and perform a varied function. In the 1931 Melbourne Cup where Phar Lap loses, the music had to be proud and then it had to be sad. The music had to show that the horse was injured, particularly as there was a spot where they did all these opticals with supposedly blood on the horse’s foot, and it didn’t come across. So the music had to say, “Hey, it’s uh-oh time!”
Was PHAR LAP easier for you, as a composer, having had the experience of SNOWY RIVER behind you?
No. it was a hard score in that the music had to do such a complex job.
Were there any problems or challenges you encountered while scoring PHAR LAP? How were these overcome?
Yes, particularly that 1931 Melbourne Cup scene I mentioned. The other major problem was that sequence at the end, called ‘Hero To A Nation’. That theme didn’t exist until about two days before recording. I normally reprise all those themes in the closing credits, and that theme never got reprised. The main reason was that it didn’t exist when I wrote the end credits! I’ sat up working with the director, Simon Wincer, until about 6 a.m. one night, where I just felt that we needed another theme.
I liked PHAR LAP very much in the way it worked with the pictures. I’d also learned a hell of a lot myself in doing SNOWY RIVER, and I was able to make things fit better on PHAR LAP.
At what point during production do you normally start work on scoring a film like SNOWY RIVER or PHAR LAP? Do you feel you generally have enough time, or not enough?
I started on “Day One” of shooting in SNOWY RIVER I, II and PHAR LAP. As far as whether I have enough time or not, I’ve done almost a complete reversal. I used to always say that I preferred to be involved from the ground up. I’m not sure any more whether that is such a wise thing. On pictures as complex and big as SNOWY RIVER I and II, certainly. Plus there was music involved in both of them as source music that had to be done before they were shooting. On something like PHAR LAP, I don’t think I would have needed to… but I did.
I’ve just finished a film for Disney called CHEETAH, which I recorded here. I had four weeks to do the music; the picture was all shot and finished, and I think musically it’s bloody good! But I didn’t get involved in it earlier on. The director was a clever one, the picture was cut intelligently, and it wasn’t too difficult for me to write the music.
Because SNOWY RIVER II kept getting recut and recut, there was as much music that finished up on the cutting room floor as there was in the picture.
So there are pros and cons. Up until about two months ago I would have always said, I Iike to get involved in the beginning. Now I would say it depends on the project, but probably now when the picture is at least rough cut.
How did you approach scoring ALL THE RIVERS RUN? What kind of style did you feel the film needed and how did you try to achieve that in your musical score?
ALL THE RIVERS RUN was interesting because nobody had enough money to do anything. I wrote 100% of the music without seeing one piece of footage, and wrote 90% of that from reading the script and thinking, “Gee, I might write a theme for that… Gee, I might write a theme for this.” I went on location twice, and I adjusted my thinking a little bit.
The problem with ALL THE RIVERS RUN was that it was a mini-series that they didn’t have enough money to score, so everything was written virtually as library pieces that were supposedly snipped up by the music editor to fit the pictures. Not a very satisfactory way of doing it. ANZACS was done the same way, and that was even worse. Musically they were both very strong and have lived on apart from the series, but it was difficult because of the confines of the budget.
How did you get involved with writing music for the Olympics?
Somebody asked me! Channel 10 were going to cover the Olympics, and they were going to do a big opening ceremony, and they wanted to have a big opening piece of music that was written around the Prime Minister and the Premiers from each State who were going to have a bit of a spiel. Channel 10 wanted the music to go soft and when each speech had finished they wanted he music to go huge and patriotic till the next one came along and then soft again, etcetera. It was a montage that was developed between them and me, and then they wanted to top it off with a 5-minute ballet. So I figured well. I’m just filling in time till I die, so I might as well!
What challenges did you face, as a composer, on MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER II?
SNOWY RIVER II was nicknamed “The Never Ending Story” because it kept changing. Everything kept on changing! For example, you’d finish one piece of music in one scene, and then you’d have a phone call from the director saying, “Well, we’ve just changed that! A new cassette’s on its way to you.” The new video cassette would come and you’d find out it was totally bloody different. And then, of course, you’d get halfway through that and they’d say. “Ha ha ha! We’ve changed it again!”
Did you have a larger budget to work with on SNOWY RIVER II than you had on the first film?
The budget for SNOWY RIVER II was realistic, bearing in mind the huge amount of music that was in it, that the whole thing was symphonic and it was alt big orchestra. By American standards the budget wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t bad by Australian standards. SNOWY RIVER II had a crazy small budget, which was why everything had to be done very quickly.
How did you musicality approach SNOWY RIVER II? How did you balance the use of music from the first film with new material?
There’s about 65% of new music and 35% old. You have to have the old – you can’t not do it. The beauty of a sequel is that, just by playing little phrases, you can instantly remind the people who went to see the first one (which is probably about 60% of your audience). You can play tricks. For example, you can have a love theme between Jessica and the new love, and you can play Jessica’s Theme In a slightly off-key way, which instantly telegraphs that Jessica’s going to get it on with the guy, but you’re playing it in this sour note because it’s really Jim and Jessica’s theme.
You mentioned that SNOWY RIVER II was called “The Never Ending Story”. What kind of changes were being made? Timing and editing changes?
(laughs) How long have you got?! I’ll give you an example. There’s a section where there was Mrs. Darcy, who was this mysterious bar maid. In one cut Mrs. Darcy was Jessica’s mother; in another cut Mrs. Darcy was Jessica’s aunt, in another cut she was Harrison’s lover, in another cut she was Jessica’s wet-nurse. At one stage the picture was two and a half hours long. There was some fairly monumental changes. I mean, where Jim rides off, the whole montage of Harrison helping Jim track down the bad guys was all totally juxtapositioned. They had to push a shot where they had Jessica standing in Eureka Creek because next to her is Harrison, but Harrison didn’t exist then! That end shot where Jessica comes in was pulled from halfway through the picture. Everything was changed around.
How large of an orchestra did you have to use on SNOWY RIVER II, and what length of time were you given to compose and record the score? Was this sufficient?
I was given about 5 weeks to compose and record the score for SNOWY RIVER II, but the problem was that the score kept on growing. I think there’s an hour and six minutes of music in the film. There was at least another 20 minutes of music that never made it in. I had the same sized orchestra as in SNOWY RIVER I, 80-85 players.
Would you describe some of the other, lesser-known film or television scores you have done? Are there any that especially stand out in your mind?
I think one of the nicest pieces of music I’ve ever written was in a picture called BACKSTAGE. It starred Laura Branigan, and was called ‘Choices’. It had very epic Jewish connotations – an Exodus kind of thing. There was a song that I wrote with John Farnham called ‘Love Just Took Me By Surprise’ – it’s a lovely song. The score for CHEETAH, which I’ve just finished for Disney, is probably, I think, if not my best then certainly my favorite work to date.
I did a score for a thing called BADLANDS 2005, which was to be a television series, and I think it’s been thrown out. I don’t think it’s going to go ahead as a series. And that was a whole lot of fun and very interesting, because it was a 9-piece band that was all electronic – a real drummer playing electronic drums, a real percussionist playing electronic percussion instruments, and so forth. I’ve never seen so many flashing lights in all my life!
A lot of the films you have scored have had to do with horses, and I see that you keep horses yourself. Do you think your own fondness for horses has given you a special feeling for scoring these types of movies, or is hat just a happy coincidence?
I never knew anything about horses. All I knew about them in SNOWY RIVER I was that if you jump on one you face the pointy end. I live on a property and my kids ride horses. My daughter goes to a pony club and we have a couple of horses on the property. I like horses – I like cows too. I’ve sort of been cast as an animal composer – there’s CHEETAH that I’ve just finished, and I think the next thing I’m doing is called DOLPHIN BAY, so I’m into dolphins currently!
You’ve won several awards for your film scores, haven’t you?
I have 3 Australian Film Industry awards, one for MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER I, one for PHAR LAP and one for REBEL. I think the film composer gets recognition for the part he or she plays to some degree. It does depend on the music and the role it plays in the film. Sometimes, however, it would be a nice to get an award for music that was very subtle in a film, but in that area it tends to become overlooked.
It is difficult to become a film composer In Australia?
I believe that to get into writing music for films, unless you’re a friend of the director, you start out playing in a band and you’ve got to learn alt the different facets of music. There’s absolutely no point in just being a rock-and-roller saying “I’ll write rock-and-roll music for film.” Like, in my case, you have to be able to write a believable string quartet, a believable piece for Scottish bagpipes, Chinese music, an Elton John or AC/DC look-alike. You’ve got to be able to do everything. Otherwise, you become so pigeon-holed and specialized that it’s Impossible to make a living in this country. The industry’s too small.
What is your overall view of the film music field here in Australia?
Bruce Rowland: In Australia we have very little help with facilities, so I became a music editor, music contractor, musical supervisor/co-coordinator as far as organizing copyists, and that kind of stuff. I do all my own conducting, orchestration and arranging.
I think the Industry here In Australia has suffered very badly in the past because of television, where there was no such thing as live or specific music, and it set a terrible precedent. Fortunately, it’s now starting to change a little with the advent of specifically written music for mini-series and documentaries and television shows. Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the music came straight off a disk, and the next week you’d hear the same track for a different product. There were always original effects dropped in – the only thing that was lacking was music.
It’s put music back an awful long way in this industry, but it’s now starting to grow and come into its own. MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER is a classic example where the music was very successful and certainly helped the film, and the film helped the music.