An Interview with Dominik Scherrer by John Mansell © 2011
An extremely original composer, Dominik has now emerged as one of the most talented score composers of his generation. An incredibly fresh, innovative and resourceful composer, his music has received all-round great acclaim including an Ivor Novello 2011 Best TV Score nomination following the phenomenal success of Agatha Christie’s MARPLE (ITV/WGBH), starring many of the most established acting talent currently working today. His MARPLE scores are full of life and vibrancy, amply illustrated by their amazing and colourful orchestrations and, as a result, Dominik was awarded a Gold Medal for Best Original Music at The New York International TV Festival 2006. He has continued to create imaginative scores for all five seasons of MARPLE.
Dominik created a hugely dynamic and compelling score for PRIMEVAL, the very successful CGI monster adventure series from Impossible Pictures/ITV which starred Dougie Henshall. He most recently scored MONROE (series 1 & 2) for Mammoth Screen, ITV1’s engrossing hospital drama starring James Nesbitt, as well as BBC’s RIPPER STREET and JUST HENRY for ITV. Prior to this he scored MONROE for Mammoth Screen, ITV1’s engrossing hospital drama starring James Nesbitt, and went on to score the latest series of INSPECTOR GEORGE GENTLY for the BBC, and the taut thriller U BE DEAD, (based on real events and starring David Morrisey), as well as CHRISTOPHER AND HIS KIND, the BBC drama based on the memoirs of Christopher Isherwood’s early life experiences in Berlin in the run up to WWII. His scores also include the supernatural love story LIFE LINE, directed by Jamie Payne for the BBC, and an eerily haunting score for Granada/BBC’s reworking of DRACULA, which starred David Suchet and Marc Warren. His latest film score was for Alina Marazzi’s compelling TUTTO PARLA DI TE which received a red carpet premiere at the Rome Film Festival and was awarded the Taodue Camera D’Oro Award for Best Emerging Director and Film.
He wrote an eclectic score to the complex, dark and funny feature film SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE starring Ewan McGregor, Hugh Bonneville, Gina McKee and Sophie Okonedo for Tin Pan Films. He wrote a wonderfully original score to the dark and twisted feature THE TRUTH, which received rave reviews, and then went onto score the feature RIPRENDIMI (US title – “GOOD BYE HEARTACHE”), which was accepted to premier in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Other features include the award winning THE NINE LIVES OF TOMAS KATZ (Strawberry Vale/UA) for which Dominik received the Best Music Award at Spain’s Estapona Film Festival; the Italian comedy IN PRINCIPIO ERANO LE MUTANDE (premiered at the Berlin Film Festival); ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (Projector/Channel 4), starring Kate Beckinsale and Ian Holm; and APPETITE (Loud Mouse/J&M), starring Trevor Eve and Ute Lemper. Dominik also wrote the end title song for this film, sung by Ute Lemper, which featured on the album ‘The Best of Ute Lemper’ (the album reached No. 2 in the UK classical charts).
How did you become involved on the Italian productions you have scored, for example LA DOPPIA VITA DI NATALIA BLUM?
I had worked with the Italian director Anna Negri on numerous occasions when she was based in the UK. When she returned to Italy, we continued working together. I speak basic Italian but each time I am there it improves a bit! It’s enlightening to go into a completely different working environment occasionally and it’s lovely to be in Rome anyway!
What musical training did you undertake and did you concentrate on any particular instrument whilst studying?
I am a trained flautist and play the piano. When I moved from Switzerland to the UK over twenty years ago, I came to study film and then specialised in soundtrack work. Later I studied composition privately with various composers.
Was writing music for films or television something that always had in your mind to do?
As a teenager I was attracted to both music and film, and I started to make films – fun animations or intricate literary adaptations for which I always composed my own soundtracks. The combination of film and music still thrills me, and occasionally I direct my own films too. They are either my own operas, for example the a motorbike opera called HELL FOR LEATHER composed for the screen, or animations set to music, which I produce in collaboration with my Christoph Hefti as part of our art-pop project ‘Taxi Val Mentek’. There are various ways in which music and moving image can work together. In fiction, the music could sit more in the background, and a lot of people may not even notice it. In other genres, in art-film, or an opera-film, the music is more dominant. In either case though, what I find exciting is when everything gels into one: a story, an energy, a feeling.
You have worked on numerous television series i.e., MISS MARPLE, PRIMEVAL and more recently MONROE, do you think that it is important to create a theme for the beginning of the programme so that people can easily recognise and identify the programme via this. I think it was Jerry Goldsmith that said he wrote a theme for a TV series being conscious that when people heard it when they were in another room they would stop what they were doing and go and watch the show?
Styles have changed since Goldsmith scored the CBS shows in the 50s and 60s. Title sequences are now only thirty seconds long, at least in the UK, whereas in the old days the were elaborate affairs of over a minute. I think the audience doesn’t want to be told too much anymore that they are buying into a “product” when watching a series, but just want to be drawn into the story.
The same has perhaps happened with commercials: a chorus of backing singers used to sing the product’s “theme tune” on the old commercials and radio jingles. Now it may just be an instrumental song that gets faded at the end. The audience doesn’t want to feel manipulated perhaps. An extreme example of all this may be the LOST titles. It’s just that warping sound on a synth played by director J.J. Abrams. That said, nearly every time my instructions for a theme tune are to compose something that people can hum afterwards, so yes, there is still a need to identify a programme, but it’s not just the theme tune itself. I am always striving to create a musical signature style for a series, so even when people are in the next room and hear any part of the score, can stop what they were doing and come and watch the show!
The Miss Marple series certainly approaches the stories and central character from a different angle to that of the original Miss Marple movies, with Margaret Rutherford. Did you have a specific brief from ITV when you were asked to score the series because maybe I imagined it but there is something of a very subtle reference to Ron Goodwin’s theme within your music and did you watch the old movies at all?
I grew up on the continent where the Margaret Rutherford movies were more popular than the Joan Hickson series, and I always was always a fan of Ron Goodwin’s Miss Marple theme-tune. So when ITV phoned up and said they were doing a new Miss Marple series and asked to see me, I replied that they should just re-use the Ron Goodwin music. But that wasn’t the production assistant’s call and they insisted I come in anyway… So that’s perhaps how there is a bit of Ron Goodwin in my theme tune – it’s probably the lightness and agility of the strings, which juxtaposes nicely with the elderly spinster Miss Marple. The films are a challenge to score however. The storylines are complex; there are often back-stories that go a few decades back, intricate family relations and so on. Agatha Christie had a very definite style in writing a murder mystery. They are intellectual puzzles and initially it looks like a jigsaw that will never come together. But gradually there is order and in the end it looks like there is only one possible solution. All that needs to be reflected in the score, sometimes simply to make the story clearer, or to give a particular atmosphere to a certain strand in the story. This means that every film has its own set of themes. The films also are quite individual in style, as they have different directors, writers and a completely new set of cast, apart from Miss Marple herself.
You scored an interpretation of DRACULA in 2006, it was slightly more focused upon the sexual connotations of vampirism and I think that this was reflected within your score, the more intimate scenes between Mina and Harker were scored by a particularly romantic cello piece. What size orchestra did you utilize for this score?
It was quite a small ensemble of around 25 players, the cello solos were played on a Stradivarius by the great Josephine Knight, and there were three vocal soloists, including the counter tenor Christopher Robson with whom I’d worked with a few occasions before.
For example he was “the voice of god” in my opera ‘Hell for Leather”. While the interpretation focused on the sexual connotations, it also introduced the idea that Dracula was invited at the centre of an occult who invited him to England. The script-writer, Steward Harcourt, developed his own language for the member’s of the cult, a kind of twisted Romanian, and he supplied with me with lyrics to set to music. So the solo voices, sometimes used as a trio, came to represent the cultish side of the story.
PRIMEVAL is a great series and your music plays a big part of the proceedings, how did you become involved on the series?
I had worked with Cameron McAllister, the producer of the first PRIMEVAL series, previously when I scores the series JERICHO, with Robert Lindsay starring as the 50s Scotland Yard detective, so it felt natural to carry on working together.
Staying with PRIMEVAL, the theme is quite outstanding, when you worked on the series did you begin with the opening theme and work through the remainder of the score thus developing it from the principal theme, or was it the score first and then the theme being created from what you had already written?
The search for a theme came quite early on. The first thing to establish was the overall style of the score, including theme tune. This could have been completely electronic, with the show being a sci-fi show essentially, or a more traditional orchestral score or a sort of horror score etc. The idea at the beginning was very much that the show was about adventure, entertainment for the family, perhaps not too scary. So my first few sketches tried to embody that, and quite soon I arrived at this heroic, majestic, tune, played on French horns, with trombones blasting out broad harmonies below, a little bit John Barry style. This felt like a good direction to go, and rhythmical and harmonic elements of it, for example the galloping 6/8 rhythm could be used also for underscoring duties. Other themes soon followed, a theme for the appearance of “anomalies”, for the protagonist’s lost wife (and later adversary) Helen Cutter. Then each episode focuses on a particular creature, so they will always get their own themes as well.
Is it difficult scoring episodes of PRIMEVAL because it has a lot of FX and I am guessing if these are not in place when you are spotting the episodes you must at times work blind almost?
It can be difficult. Not so much on a technical level, but more in terms of finding the right feel. As mentioned, the creatures have their own tunes, but often when I develop those themes, the creature on my copy of the film may me just a little more than a wire-frame. This helps to see how it moves approximately, if it’s agile and quick, or heavy and powerful for example, if it’s quirky or just plain evil. But I always appreciated to have extra supporting material from the FX people, for example stills of detailed renderings of its skin, colours etc. All this will help to create thematic elements for the episodes. For the actual scoring of scenes working blind is not really a problem though. If necessary it’s possible to work just with a timing sheet.
It’s normal for anybody working in film to constantly imagine the final outcome in your head and then to work towards that. At the moment for example I starting to work for a film that’s not even shot yet, I just have to script to work with.
You have worked on TV series, one off dramas for TV, advertisements and also feature films, what would you say were the main differences from scoring television dramas and working on a full length feature?
Working on a theatrical feature is always more attractive on the surface. Sitting in a cinema is a more intimate experience, there are less distractions, the sound quality is superior, so there is room for the music to breathe, more room for subtlety. The music has a better chance to counterpoint the story, can be more playful, as the audience is more attentive. Orchestrations can be more delicate, the music is played through at least six channels of audio. One perennial problem for us composers is we put a lot of care went into writing, orchestrating, recording and mixing a piece of music that in the end it’s hardly heard, because other elements such as sound effects are more dominant at that point in the film. We should get used to it but it’s frustrating every time. This happens less in cinema, as there is more room for all the different elements and there is a much bigger dynamic range. However, scoring for television has its own benefits: One of the great things about a TV series is that a story and its associated score and themes can be developed over many episodes. It can be, story-wise, an altogether deeper experience, akin to reading a book perhaps. A 100 minute feature film will always have the problem of a story that is compressed into the available time. Television is freer in this respect, and I always enjoy working within this bigger framework of let’s say 8 hours screen-time with its opportunities to repeat themes, slowly vary them, and gradually work towards en ending.
When working on a project, how do you work out your musical ideas, do you utilize piano, keyboard, and PC or write straight to manuscript?
I develop themes on a piano at home and write them down on manuscript. In my studio I do electronic mock-ups, using samples, of individual cues to present to the director and producers, before recording them.
MONROE was an entertaining and interesting series, your score came across very well and supported and enhanced the programme without intruding, how long do you get to score a series such as this and do you score all 6 episodes before they are aired or do you score each episode one after the other as they are due to be aired?
MONROE had quite a tight schedule. I had about 2 weeks each for the first few episodes, then only one week each. Normally I would tend to group the recording episodes into at least 2 together, for practical reasons, but the schedule was so tight on Monroe that I just had to complete them one by one, as transmission was always imminent. In the end this was a blessing in disguise: In meant I was recording almost every week and there was a more immediate interaction between the players’ performances and the composition itself.
When a soundtrack CD is released do you compile the tracks and decide what is going to be released etc?
Often one track of a soundtrack album is a composite of a handful of short music cues, and as I am generally more familiar with all the cues it’s easier for me to have an involvement in the compilation. I welcome however, the label’s input for the selection of themes. They may point out some cues that are perhaps insignificant for me, but may be entertaining for an album.
SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE contains an interesting score. What line up of instruments did you use on this?
The line up was rhythm section, brass, strings, flute, and vocals. The idea was to give it a bit of a sixties and British feel. The film is set on a summery day in London’s Hampstead heath and the music hopefully helped with that fun outdoor feel.
What composers would you say have influenced you, these can be film music composers, classical and contemporary?
I grew up in a family of Bach fanatics and as a child was dragged to a lot of choral rehearsals. German romantic composers were also an early influence, as well as Russian composers – Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich. Then a lot of pop, rock, and dance music. I have a particular interest in Eastern European and Balkan music. And there are so many great film composers: Carter Burwell, Jon Brion, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, Bernard Herrmann, Alexandre Desplat, Miklos Rozsa, and so on. It could be a very long, pompous list, but I guess we are influenced by most music that we listen to.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music and do you feel that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
Finding the right orchestral colour is an essential process, particularly for film music where the composition itself is often quite simple. Sometimes when time is tight I have somebody fill in on additional orchestration.
What are you working on at the moment?
Too early days to say!