An Interview with Christer Christensson by John Mansell © 2011
Composer Christen Christensson has mainly written music for stage plays and theatre productions and makes his debut in the world of film music with a spellbinding and melodic score for Swedish horror movie PSALM 21. The soundtrack is a mix of experimental and melodious styles and one which will become popular amongst film music aficionados.
Your latest work is the score for the horror movie PSALM 21 and this is your debut on the film music stage. The music is certainly atmospheric and also very emotive in places; how did you become involved on the movie?
I’ve worked with the director before on several stage productions so when Fredrik told me that he wanted to make a movie I was of course very interested to participate and he wanted me to.
What size orchestra did you utilize for the score, and how many voices did you use as there are a number of choral passages and also solo performances within the score, which I think make it even more chilling and atmospheric?
I wrote it for a chamber orchestra size and all the rest is my own recordings, samples, electronics and stuff. In some parts I beefed up the brass with lower brass sample instruments as we couldn’t afford to hire additional musicians but I think it blends very good with the acoustic recording. The voices I used are various different vocal instruments that I played and mangled to my needs and taste. I would of course have loved to have a real choir but this movie was done with a very slim budget so….The fact that we got the Swedish Chamber Orchestra to participate with such a small budget was almost too good to be true.
PSALM 21 is scored in an almost luxurious style. I say this because most of the Swedish movies I have encountered are scored very thinly or do not have a great deal of music in them, PSALM 21 however, has quite a large sounding soundtrack. It’s more Hollywood than Stockholm. Did the director have specific ideas as to what kind of music he wanted for the picture, or were you left to create the soundtrack without a great deal of hands on involvement from the director?
Fredrik (HILLER) always had a clear vision of what the music should bring to a production, so before they started to shoot the movie we went through the script a few times and discussed the style etc. We discussed different ways of how the music should be approached and came to the conclusion that we wanted a Hollywood approach but in a Swedish way. I don’t know if we succeeded but it has a more international appeal than the traditional Swedish films. I always like to become involved as early as possible on a project and to send out my scouts and to be able to influence the production.
How much time were you given to compose the score for PSALM 21 and how did this time scale compare with writing for the theatre?
The orchestra could only participate the first week of June, because of their schedule, that date couldn’t change for any reason at all whatsoever. I got the first raw cut of the movie during the latter part of January, but also at that time I had started to rehearse and write for a big theatre production in which I also participated as a musician which was due to premiere at the end of March. That gave me just nine weeks minus the time for my live gigs. In Sweden an ordinary theatre production rehearses for eight weeks. The way I work with a drama etc the first couple of weeks I have to attend the rehearsals to see what I am writing for etc so it’s a bit less.
What musical education did you receive?
I’ve studied on a higher level for six years, piano as main instrument. The focus was mainly on improvisational music such as jazz etc.
Was music for film and theatre something that you had always wanted to be involved with?
As a kid I loved theatre and film. When I started to play the piano at around the age of thirteen, I often turned off the sound of the VHS and put new music to the particular film I was watching, so in answer to your question, yes I guess so.
What would you identify as the main differences between working in theatre and scoring a motion picture?
The main difference is that theatre is live. Even if it’s really well rehearsed, it’s always different from the night before. For me it means that the tempo, for example, is slightly different from night to night. Also, dialogue in a play is usually with acoustic voices which has its consequences for the music in terms of getting the desired dramatic effect without drenching the actors’ voices.
What is your favoured routine when scoring a project. Do you at first tackle larger cues or maybe begin with smaller intimate pieces and then move onto the more lengthy cues, and do you like to firstly come up with a central theme and build the score around this?
It really depends on the project. Sometimes I first hunt for the main colours because I find that’s most important and on other occasions I’ll go for the central theme.
What composers or artists have influenced you or have played a part in the way that you approach composition?
I have a lot of different influences from all genres but to name a few there is Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, Arvo Pärt, Björk, Henryk Gorecki, Peter Gabriel, Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, Bernard Herrmann… and quite a few more.
Do you conduct all of your own music, or do you at times enlist the assistance of a conductor?
Conducting larger ensembles is not what I do best so those I leave for a conductor, but smaller ones yes I will conduct them.
Also do you orchestrate all of your own music and do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
I orchestrate all my music because for me that’s a big part of the composition. But I always call for another set of ears and input from others too.
When you are working on a project what is your favoured instrument when it comes to arriving at your musical solutions, keyboard computer etc?
Most of the time I’ll start with piano and my voice to find the themes and main harmonics. From that I orchestrate and continue in DP or Logic with samples, synths or whatever needs I have. If a part needs to be recorded by another musician I write that on paper or in Sibelius.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m writing a production for the stage and finishing up a Swedish drama for the cinema called OCH PICADILLY CIRCUS LIGGER INTE I KUMLA.