An Interview with Hélène Muddiman by John Mansell © 2010
Ivor Novello Award and World Soundtrack Discovery of the Year 2010 nominee
A new film composer, Hélène Muddiman, is yet very experienced in various mediums having provided music for the entertainment industry since she was eighteen. Writing in a style across a wide variety of musical genres, her music can be heard in film, television, radio, and multi-media advertisements.
Here score for acclaimed movie SKIN is a varied, beautiful and touching score that contains such rich melodic themes, emotive musical passages, elegant nuances and eloquent accomplished performances that one cannot fail to be impressed and moved.
Your score for SKIN attracted a lot of attention and quite rightly so. Did you carry out a lot of research into Instrumentation and sounds for this project?
Yes I was a slave to the internet, I decided the best use of the numerically challenged budget was to buy or hire some authentic instruments like Koras, Kalimbas, percussion and even Berimbau. (Not strictly South African, but we used poetic license.) I played many of these instruments myself on the score, (with the help of ProTools) 😉 some of the koras were so authentic they needed to be tuned using sugar water (which is what is says on the tin… you melt sugar in water!!!!) to glue the strings in place as they wrap around the top of the neck. I got myself into a frightful sticky mess when the phone rang and I forgot I had headphones on which yanked my head making me trip over the mic lead knocking over the cup of sugar water! So you can see why I’m not out performing with my koras! So despite my lack of African roots or any experience of ligging with the crew in SA, the internet came to my rescue and was a resource that allowed me to cover so much ground. I immersed myself in everything and anything I could find for months to help me decide on what instruments I wanted to use and how to use them.
The score from SKIN contains vocals from Miriam Stockley, which are certainly striking and unique, how did you come into contact with her?
Urban legend has it that Miriam was on a singing session with one other singer and after a take in the studio she said “someone is singing out of tune… and it’s not me!” She sounded terrifying 😉 so when I needed session singers to sing with me on an advert and they sent Miriam and I was rather nervous. Luckily there were about 5 of us so I could be a growler in the pack and she’d not know who it was who was singing out of tune… so she never rumbled me and I instantly loved her and realised she wasn’t at all scary but a lot of fun and wow what a voice! The ethos of the music for SKIN was that the music had to sound different from that expected by the look of the performers, e.g. I wanted Africans to play the violins, violas, cellos and all the western instruments etc and whites to play the percussion and African flutes and ethnic instruments and sing African lyrics, so I knew Miriam was capable of singing in many different styles from the ethnic vocal on ‘Adiemus’ by Karl Jenkins through to the sweet, beautiful and very polite tones of Colin Towns BEATRIX POTTER THE WORLD OF PETER RABBIT AND FRIENDS. I wanted her to sound big and black despite her delicate frame and peachy white skin – plus she was originally from South Africa… so an obvious choice!
What was your very first encounter with music or a musical instrument?
Guitar was my first love as, according to my mother, I “waddled” up to the TV (I was only 3, I don’t think I waddle so much now) and I pointed at a band performing, in particular the guitarist, and said “want one”. My mother luckily interpreted this to mean I wanted a guitar (and not a pair of spandex, skin-tight leggings) so bought me a ukulele. Which proved to be correct as I was then inseparable from it and even ate with it at the dinner table and took it to bed etc. Guitar and piano were my first loves though I think really it was drums! But my parents refused to buy me drums because they were too loud and big so secretly tried to indoctrinate me by whispering ‘drums are evil have a guitar’ in my ears as I lay sleeping in my crib. This seemed to work but I have flashbacks to craving a drum kit! It’s still on my Christmas list!
What musical education did you receive and what instruments did you concentrate upon whilst you were studying?
Have you ever tried to play a trombone that someone had trodden on? The subsequent dent causes it to be a semi-tone out of tune, which plays havoc with your site reading! BUT for a moment I thought I had been blessed with a rare talent! I could get the same note no matter where the slide was! Realising this limitation I quickly moved on to vaguely mastering lots of instruments to aid in composition and experimented with many instruments secure in the knowledge that I need only write for it and someone else could play it!
On a good day I play guitar and piano and various other instruments well enough to get by in the studio but I have the utmost respect for all those virtuosos out there who devote themselves to the craft of mastering an instrument.
You were originally in a pop band during the 1980s. How did you progress from pop star to a composer of music for film, and was scoring movies something that you maybe had always wanted to do?
I couldn’t afford the hair spray to put my hair into a Mohawk anymore and the guilt of having destroyed the ozone layer was weighing heavy on my mind, so I felt it was time to really leave the rigidity of playing the same 10 songs for the rest of my life and answering questions like “what is your favourite colour” and move into something that I could do into my old age of 24! Oh and it’s amazing how utter failure to be a pop star can focus your thoughts in other directions, and I remember saying one day, “I want to do music but not in the music business”! Then it struck me that I could write film music, eureka!
So I thought “I know, I’ll call Ronny Hazlehurst at the BBC” (he wrote numerous Music themes for TV including SOME MOTHERS DO ‘AVE ‘EM. Are You Being Served etc) I was a not expecting to get through to him, as I was so used to being fobbed off in the music business. But there he was on the other end of the phone! I couldn’t believe it, he was one of my heroes, I was so taken by surprise, completely bamboozled, and ill prepared that I forgot all the subtleties of what I was going to say and started stuttering and then just blurted out “I want your job!” (Oooops) He was extremely forgiving and luckily for me saw the funny side and laughed! Not quite the ice breaker I had in mind, but he was extremely kind and we talked for quite a while. He told me that I should try and write for a library company first and to send a demo to as many as I could afford to mail out to. Which I duly did and luckily for me Harry Gregson-Williams liked my demo and invited me to work on an album he was producing for one of EMI’s library companies through KPM.
In your opinion what is the purpose of music in film?
Apart from keeping musicians out of bars, it can be one of the best ways in film to say so much with the minimum of visuals or dialogue.
Such is it’s subtlety and slight of hand it can even appear to be absent in a scene when really it is holding it all together. Other times we want to be aware of the music as another character in the movie and to come home humming the tune. Not every movie needs a brilliant score for it to be brilliant but for me a movie is so much more enjoyable when it has an amazing score. Music has the ability to reach inside you and touch all your emotions without you even being aware that you are being manipulated – it’s the cheapest therapy on earth!
As well as scoring films, you have also worked on animation series such as THE CRAMP TWINS for cartoon network, working on 52 episodes. Scoring animation and writing for live action movies must be very different; could you maybe highlight some of these differences?
Animation is a blast. I used to think it was a bit of a poor relative to live action feature film, but after the CRAMP TWINS I realized just how it is the ultimate in imaginative thought. If you can imagine it then just draw it, no need to worry as the cost of a flight to the moon is about the same to draw as a trip to the detergent aisle of the local supermarket!
One difference is that the visuals can arrive as an animatic through to the completed item and I have worked to all forms. Another difference can be coming home from my first spotting session with pages of notes – for just the first 12 minute episode! (One can only assume the rainforest must have suffered due to animation before they invented the laptop!) In amongst these vast details of required mood swings over a nanosecond there were only 2 moments that they did not want me to score and I could “pause for a second”.
Some movies require an “animation” type of score but usually this is way too over the top for most movie scores and the key is to be subtle and unobtrusive so one would approach it in a totally different way.
What always amazes me is if you score something and then the director decides to re-cut the scene, sometimes the music needs completely rewriting as it no longer remotely fits the film even though many of the pictures are the same. The rhythm of the edit and the chronology of the picture can change the mood entirely so then the music appears like a man arriving at a party with clothes that are either too tight or baggy in all the wrong places, with one arm longer than the other and shockingly out of place in a sixties sequined boob tube when now a tailored Armani shirt and jeans are required.
You have worked on numerous advertisements and provided TV productions with opening themes, this must be quite a difficult job, do you think it’s important to try and create a musical hook of some type when writing music for something that has to grab a viewer’s attention in a very short time period?
Music in advertising can be exquisite, innovative and cutting edge or cheesy and nauseating and so annoyingly catchy that I’m sure many domestic accidents have been caused by people rushing for the TV remote when the ad break comes on.
Ads have 30 seconds to move you… so you better have a hook! Music for advertising can have a reputation for being more vulgar and manipulative than in films, but the difference between a 2 hour film wanting to make you cry and 30’ Ads wanting to make you buy is… is…? Well one could suggest that films can be excused as they don’t seek to sell you anything but can have pretensions to being a concept of art with no ulterior motive other than to educate, provoke or simply be the purest form of art that exists only to please the senses. But then there are those movies that pander to the lowest common denominator and just seek to make shed loads of money and sell sponsors items. I hope there is room for both to coexist.
When you are working on a project do you go through your musical ideas using a synthesiser, computer or piano etc?
I always start at either the piano or the guitar or the computer and generally move around my studio from one instrument to another until inspiration strikes. I have had some experience of most of the music software options, and fantasize about being that all knowing geek fluent it all genres of music software, (only without the beard.) But the sad reality is that Logic and Protools have been my mainstays for years now, as I am not so fascinated with the software for it’s own sake but as a means to an end, so “it ain’t broke don’t fix it” has become my lazy mantra… But Sibelius is calling me now with protools…
You have worked on a number of films for Elysians films, ie; CANDY, JEAN and SKIN, how did you become involved with the company?
Karen Elliot, my agent, got me the meeting with Director Tony Fabian and Elysian Films back in 1994, and we’ve worked together ever since. We’re like family now after all this time, we’ve worked on so many films together now and SKIN was such an amazing achievement by Tony and all the people he chose to work with, I am very proud of him and all the movies he’s made.
Do you conduct at all?
Only on buses! But I am hoping to change all that with the help of Eimear Noone who is a wonderful composer and conductor who I am hoping to work with in the future.
Do you always do your own orchestrations and do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
I have always done my own orchestrations and scoring and everything from start to finish, including engineering and producing on a lot of my own compositions. I do think so much of the final sounds depend on so many elements, orchestration being a massive one and even the mix! But having help in orchestrating or mixing can be a wonderful way of enhancing the vision and making it even better.
How much time were you given to score SKIN?
LOADS! Tony Fabian first mentioned it to me at about the turn of the millennium! We worked on a pilot which turned out to be so different in every way from the actual movie, (even though the script was the same) but the final rushes arrived on January 11th and I delivered April 19th, so I had a long time with the final film, most of which was spent organising singers and orchestras around the world, especially in SA the time difference and phone and internet communications were so poor that it did take a long time each day to progress even the smallest amount.
What composers or artists would you say have been big influences upon you?
Bela Bartok, because when I was a kid I thought Bela was a girl! Which was a HUGE inspiration!
The Compact disc containing the music from SKIN is now available, did you take an active part in selecting what tracks were to go onto the CD and in what order they were to be programmed?
Yes I produced the CD but I always ran it past the Director, Tony Fabian, and he helped me to finalise the order, and even suggested a track I had forgotten to include.
John Mansell: Where and when were you born?
Hélène Muddiman: In England, in the swinging 60s!
What are you working on at the moment?
THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX for UK ITV, a movie called THREE SIXTY, songs for Simon Cowell’s ‘Il Divo’ and ‘X Factor’. And having fun with my husband, kids, family and friends… music is the food of love… play on!