An Interview with Christoph Zirngibl by John Mansell © 2011
Born in Regensburg, Bavaria in 1980, Christoph Zirngibl got in touch with music at a very young age, taking drum and piano lessons. Always being a passionate performer, Christoph soon developed another musical interest: His compositional talent was already discovered and rewarded during his high school years. After his graduation in 2000, he joined the German Army Band “Heeresmusikkorps 4” for the duration of two years. His dream of composing film music started to take shape, when Christoph was accepted at the highly acclaimed University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich, to study “Scoring for Film and Television” under famous German composer Prof. Dr. Enjott Schneider in October 2003. Since then, Christoph has been writing loads of scores and orchestrations for various short,- tv- and feature films, some of them in collaboration with well known German composers Andreas Weidinger and Helmut Zerlett.
Working on many orchestral scores lately, Christoph’s musical skills embrace a diversity of styles: As a performer, he is used to a wide range of genres, from country and pop over any kind of rock, jazz, blues, songwriter stuff and big band music. Christoph’s personal philosophy implies that composing music demands an experience in performing. The origin of all music is emotion, and its authenticity makes the difference.
You began your musical journey very early on in life and studied both piano and drums. When you were studying did begin to think about writing music for the cinema or did this come later as your career progressed?
I started on the drums at the age of 5 and had no idea about the existence of film music back then. When I started to study piano at the age of 12 my teachers had to learn that I was not interested in playing what the notes wanted me to play, but in improvising and inventing my own stuff. My first teachers were not used to deal with the situation; it was later in school, when this kind of talent was supported. The first film score I took notice of was Peter Thomas’ score of the German sci-fi series SPACE PATROL (RAUMPATROUILLE: DIE ABENTEUER DES RAUMSCHIFFS ORION) which was produced during the 60s. But the day I realized that I wanted to become a film composer was at the age of thirteen, when I watched JURASSIC PARK at the cinema. The more I listened to John Williams incredible music, the more I was aware of what an incredible knowledge and ingenuity had to be at the basis of composing that kind of music. So I concentrated more on being a drummer and piano player in different bands and projects and did some song writing and music for theatre plays. I also joined the army to play drums in the army band in 2000 and after that I started to study music education until in 2003 after long talks with my best friends I decided to at least try to pass the entrance exam at the University of Music in Munich.
In Munich there are permanently only 7 places for students of film scoring, so you only can enter the study path if someone of the actual students graduates. So I spent 3 months in composing some pieces in different styles, in scoring a movie excerpt and in preparing for the other tests. Today I can say that every minute I had spent in preparing for the exam was worth it: I passed the exam, got one of the 7 places to study and therefore decided to put all efforts in becoming a film composer.
What musical studies did you undertake and who was your tutor?
I started to study ‘Scoring for Film and TV’ at the University of Music in Munich in 2003 under the German film composer Enjott Schneider (Stalingrad, Stauffenberg, Brother of Sleep, 23). During the first two terms composer Andreas Weidinger filled in for him. One day, after a few weeks in the 1st term it was that Andreas needed someone to support him for a current project with a demanding schedule. So I became his assistant starting with cooking coffee, doing music preparation, preparing logic environments, and creating sounds until after some months I started some co-composition and orchestration stuff. Until today we are close friends and also share studio rooms. We are still doing some projects together from time to time. So besides university I very early had the chance to get to know the real life of a film composer with all its different facets, which was, in some cases, even more important than the courses at the university.
Two of your scores LETHE and DAYS LIKE YEARS have recently been released on KRONOS records. Did you have an active role in the compiling of the compact discs, i.e.: did you select what music was to be released?
Godwin Borg of KRONOS Records left it all up to my choice. So I restored all the original data and completely remixed the scores with one of my favourite engineers for orchestral music: Michael Schubert. Also the end titles song from DAYS LIKE YEARS was remixed by Stephan Ebn, one of my best friends, who is a drummer and producer. When compiling the disc I tried to retain as much music as possible but also to create a comprehensible musical journey even for those listeners who might not know the movies.
What was your first scoring assignment and how did you become involved with the project?
My very first assignment was a short movie called EYES IN THE CITY, which I did in 2003. It was the very first movie of Konstantin (Ferstl) who at that time already was a long term friend and with whom I had already done a lot of live music and song writing for e.g. our project TWO DRIFTERS before we started to “enter” the film business.
My first commercial project was a feature called TKKG, a thriller for kids in 2005. And that’s when I got to know the dark side of the business very early: I got fired after 3 months and nearly 300 minutes of composed music due to some strange circumstances. But afterwards some of the music found its way back into the movie’s score and soundtrack album…
You have also written works for the concert hall, is working in this area of composition easier do you think, I ask because when scoring a movie there are timings, dialogue and maybe sound effects to deal with, whereas music for concert performance is free of these.
That’s true. But for me personally, in most cases, it’s much easier to write music for a film. When I write music for the concert hall, as I’m doing right now for example for a symphonic brass band festival in the U.S., it takes me so much more time because mostly there are no restrictions or standards I could get my ideas and inspiration from which for me is an advantage of doing film scores. You have to deal with a lot of things that at first don’t seem to fit in your musical grit but finding solutions for such situations is really interesting creative process and you then often compose music that never would have done without the film. Composing concert music demands a completely other, but also very interesting, way of thinking, creating your own “script” with an interesting dramaturgical bow.
Do you like to conduct all your scores for film and television, or is it at times more productive to engage a conductor and supervise the scoring from the recording booth?
I’d like to do it more often, but the truth is: I’m the worst conductor of all time. Besides that fact in today’s scores there are a lot of elements that are pre-recorded and as a film composer you are also the music producer and you have to stay on top of things. All the different elements have to be in perfect sync, timing- and sound-wise. And therefore for me supervising the recording session from the booth is the most effective way to work. That’s also why I have 2 or 3 conductors I work with most of the time and who know me and my music very well.
Orchestration too is an important part of the composing process, but because of deadlines etc. in film scoring it is not always possible for composers to carry out all of the orchestration, have you at any time utilised an orchestrator or do you try and do these all yourself?
I work together with the team of Tilo Heinrich at HEIKO Music most of the time who do both, orchestration and music preparation. They have become very reliable and important partners through the last 7 years. But the thing is, in my way of working the orchestration is already part of the composition process. When I compose a cue, I track down every single voice in my sequencer. So the orchestrators of HEIKO “just” have to check my orchestration and make suggestions on how to create special sounds in other, more effective ways. When the schedule is very tight I omit some of the doublings in the orchestration and just leave some notes in the sequencer so that the orchestrator knows which phrases I wanted to be doubled by which other section. That’s a little time saver from time to time. But I think, orchestration is part of a composer’s personality and sound and therefore I wouldn’t want to work in another way.
Do you have a preference for any orchestra or group of players or any one recording studio when you are writing for film?
In the budget ranges I’ve worked so far the most important partner is the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg, which has its own superb scoring stage in Berlin and a very nice and professional infrastructure and team. Most of my orchestral music has been recorded there. Concerning other instruments I have a very good friend, Stephan Ebn, who is my favourite partner concerning all drumming stuff. But there are a lot of other friends all around Europe, that I involve as often as possible as soloists in my scores. Of course, like for any colleague of mine, recording in London once is a dream. But we have a lot of talented people all around here in Germany, Italy, and Spain that just wait to be involved in our projects.
You worked with filmmaker Konstantin Ferstl did he have a hands on approach or any ideas in regards to the music in his films?
With Konstantin it’s a very special way of working as we know each other for a long time. We first met at our high schools’ theatre group and since then have also written many songs together. He’s a composer and musician, too, which makes communication very easy. But the way we work, and that’s the way I prefer to work with any director, is at first to talk as much as possible about the story and the characters, because I’m not good in finding intellectual solutions. The first ideas have to come out of the heart and then can be treated in a more intellectual way. That can happen only if you can identify with something in the story. The way we talk about music is always abstract and very respectful; he never would say something like “I don’t like the melody”. It’s always just about the story and the characters and he trusts me to find the right notes/musical words to express what is needed for the film.
How many times do you like to view a project before beginning to get firm ideas about the style of music and also how much music is required and where it should be placed within the film?
In general I watch a new movie’s rough cut or final cut once as a “normal” spectator, and when I watch it for the second time I go through the film making my list of where to put music. Sometimes that happens together with the director, sometimes I do it alone based on the talks I’ve had with him. The time when I do get firm ideas about the music depends a lot on the point of time I get involved in a project. Normally, when I’m contracted during the script phase I already have a good idea and even some thematic material when the picture editing starts.
The question of where music should be placed depends on one hand on the dramaturgical concept and also really a lot on the rhythm of the picture editing. A few frames more can destroy a very emotional moment created by the teamwork of picture and music. The concept often evolves during the talks about the script and that’s when you get a rough feeling about how much music there will be needed in the film.
Of course another important aspect is the use of sound design when deciding where the music should start or end or which kind of music I use at which point of the film. But in Germany most sound designers are not that much used to working directly together with the composer so it’s often not easy to reach the 100% of the possibilities on the sound track.
When writing for a TV series, do you think it is important to create a theme that can be easily recognised?
It’s not easy to answer that question. On one side, it should of course be easily recognizable. For people watching part of the series for the first time it should be catchy and interesting but for people watching the whole or most part of the series there should be a way to discover more. So in such context a theme has to be “catchy with an musically ambitious touch”, I think.
So far I have only done one children TV series called RUDI THE RACING PIG, together with a friend of mine, Helmut Zerlett, with 3 seasons and 39 episodes in total. In case of this series we wrote an easy main theme that was also used as the title music and it worked out very well in that case.
Staying with television scoring, when you work on a series do you at times re-use cues or parts of cues?
Good question! That’s always an argument producers use when they want to give you less money for follow-up seasons. But the fact is: most of the time the series have an evolution from episode to episode, from season to season and the music mostly has to follow that evolution. That might imply slight changes in the arrangement, a whole new sound or even changes in the themes, which are all combined with changes in the picture editing or general dramaturgy. In the majority of the pieces I’ve been working on it was almost impossible to reuse cues besides some small bridges. When you’re doing a more song-orientated score, like it happens especially on sitcom-type series, it might be easier to re-use material.
You scored JERRY COTTON recently, this was a collaboration with Helmut Zerlett who you have collaborated with before on a number of projects, when you co-compose a score with any other composer is this a straight collaboration or do each of you contribute your own cues and compositions to the score separately?
In this case it was a straight creative collaboration. Helmut has a lot of experience with band music and I’m more specializing in orchestral pieces. Our first project THE VEXXER (NEUES VOM WIXXER) required exactly that sound combination, so we joined forces and networks. At the beginning of a project we meet at one of our studios, each one bringing along his ideas, and then we work on them together. During the rest of the composition process we only communicate via Skype and ftp. We then meet again later for the recording sessions.
For the project I’ve just finished, called VORSTADTKROKODILE 3, I had been asked to join the team as a separate second composer due to some time issues and that was quite new for me. I worked as an independent second composer with no real musical connection as the score can completely be separated in two parts, the underscore with a “bandy” sound, which has been composed by Heiko Maile, and the “action” score which I did. We were talking a lot during the project but barely had the chance to hear the other one’s music.
How long do you normally get to score a feature from start to finish and do you have a set routine in which you work, by this I mean do you start with a main theme and go from there or do you tackle shorter cues first and then develop a theme from there?
As for the time thing, there are pretty big differences, ranging from 5 weeks (including the orchestra and band recording) for THE VEXXER to 2 months for JERRY COTTON. For some TV movies I only had 10 days for composing and producing the score.
Concerning a routine: for me there is no possible routine way of starting a new movie. Every movie is different and the circumstances are so different too, every time. Finding a convenient theme or sound for the movie is not always easy and can happen in many different ways. Some themes come to my mind when I’m taking a shower, a long walk or even while I’m working on something completely different. Depending on the kind of movie, I then start scoring the key scenes to check if my concept works for these parts. After discussing these ideas with the director I mostly start from the beginning of the movie. For time reasons I once even had to start on a movie without having a real concept or theme, I just began to write and to see what would happen and then made some thematical adjustments to some earlier scenes afterwards.
As well as film music and composing for the concert hall you work on arrangements etc for other artists, is this very different from your two other musical avenues?
No, there’s no big difference. I’m mean, once you have invented the theme(s) and worked out a dramaturgical concept for a movie, your job is more the one of an arranger. And it’s fun skipping the composition phase and starting right off with arranging. And basically when working on a movie you have to deal with a lot of stuff, such as temp music and the wishes of the producers and directors and that’s pretty similar to doing (orchestral) arrangements for pop/rock artists.
What is your main instrument when it comes to demonstrating or working out your ideas for music?
The first instrument I’ve learned was the drums, second the piano. I’ve never been really good on any of them so discovering the midi-sequencer was the thing. And nothing has changed until today. For me Logic is what the piano, paper and pen were for Bernard Hermann. And nowadays there’s no chance of demonstrating a theme to a director or producer on the piano, possibly even without a synced picture. I’ve tried this from time to time but it never worked out. So I go pretty well with Logic as my “main instrument”.
What composers or artists would you say have influenced you in the way you write or score a film?
A really big influence has been and also is my friend and mentor Andreas Weidinger. His way of thinking about music, film and sound has always been very inspiring. Going back a bit in film history two guys that grow more and more important to me are Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock. The way especially Hitchcock used to think about films, stories and drama is really interesting. His thoughts on what a good story should be about and what the audience expects from a good story and seeing how he applied this knowledge when making a film are really inspiring for a film composer, I think. Following that lane there are many interesting personalities like Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, Lalo Schiffrin or Henry Mancini and of course you can’t get away without John Williams.
In terms of sound and also modern film dramaturgy Hans Zimmer is an absolute must as well as Harry Gregson-Williams. Most of the big Hollywood composers are outstanding but sometimes they seem to be a bit caught in their own Hollywood corset. More and more important to me is also Michael Giacchino, who is really great in terms of musical flexibility and thematical works.
There is of course a world besides Hollywood and people like Philipe Rombi, Christophe Beck, Fernando Velazquez or of course Gabriel Yared are always a good inspiration. Beyond the film business composers like Berlioz, Stravinsky, Bartok or Adams are constantly in my “off-studio”-play list as well as different songs out of the pop/rock/electronica/techno-genre. I try to listen to as many different stuff as possible.
Do you perform on your scores for film and TV?
As part of my heart belongs to live music I actually do perform on my scores in the majority of cases. In the first place I naturally perform all the electronic parts but for example on DAYS LIKE YEARS I did all the piano parts on my own and in the JERRY COTTON score I participated as a percussionist.
Sometimes directors and producers like to install a temp track on their movie, have you encountered this at all and did you find it helpful or maybe something of a distraction?
That depends on the way directors and producers deal with the temp track. In today’s film business temp tracks are very common and I’ve had good and bad experiences with them. It’s always difficult when the editing phase is very long and when you don’t have a chance of delivering your own temp music. In that case it often happens that people fall in love with the sound or the theme that frequently isn’t even the best solution for the film. So I try to compose some pieces prior to the editing phase and deliver them to the picture editor, together with some temp tracks out of my own earlier projects as well as some stuff from other composers.
For TRANSIT, one of my recent projects, with some minor exceptions, we didn’t use temp music. The director and I listened to some music during our talks about the script or we exchanged MP3s without syncing them to picture just to specify emotional aspects. And these tracks mostly weren’t taken from other soundtracks; it was songs or some classical music most of the time. This was a very inspiring way of working with temp tracks.
You are working on a movie TRANS BAVARIA what size orchestra are you utilising for this and do you think the score will be released onto compact disc?
Yes, that’s the new film from Konstantin (Ferstl). We talked a lot about the story before he started shooting and discussed the script. And even after we met to watch the first unedited material just a few days ago I had no clue of which sound the film would have, as it could be scored with a 100 piece orchestra as well as with a single acoustic guitar.
When I will have finished the score and someone would be interested in releasing it, I would of course be very happy about it. But let’s talk about it again when I have finished the score.
Considering the quality of your music, I am surprised that it is not more widely available on CD etc, is it difficult to get film scores released onto a recording?
Thanks a lot! To be honest, before I met Godwin of KRONOS Records I never thought my music would be good or interesting enough for other people to be released without the movie I composed it for. So I only did promotional-CDs for team members so far. For the major feature films like THE VEXXER (NEUES VOM WIXXER) or JERRY COTTON there are soundtracks available on Amazon and iTunes. But I think in general it’s not easy to get film scores released if you don’t score a commercially successful film. I mean we are happy to have people like Godwin Borg of KRONOS Records or Mikael Carlsson of Movie Score Media that take care about the less known composers, that are doing great music for not very well known movies or movies that aren’t released internationally, and there are really lots of those talented composers out there. But if LETHE is successful, then perhaps the time will have come to think about some more releases in the future, we will see.
A personal note: Many thanks to Godwin Borg of KRONOS Records for his help with this interview.