An Interview with Jocelyn Pook by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.18/No.71, 1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl
Born in Birmingham, England, and brought up in London, composer Jocelyn Pook never dreamed that one day in 1997 she would get a phone call from director Stanley Kubrick asking to hear more of her music. The next thing Jocelyn knew, she was chosen by Kubrick to score his newest motion picture EYES WIDE SHUT. Now, two years later, her original soundtrack to EYES WIDE SHUT is complete.
Jocelyn is a graduate from England’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she studied viola. She toured for years with ‘The Communards’ has performed with Laurie Anderson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and P.J. Harvey, as well as recording with many other talents including Peter Gabriel. She has a list of British television credits including THE ALIEN, HALF THE PEOPLE, BLIGHT, which won nine international awards and BUTTERFLY COLLECTORS. Her first film score to STRANGE FISH was the winner of the 1994 Prix Italia. In this same year she wrote and performed ‘Deluge’, her solo album commissioned by the Canadian dance company. She’s also the co-founder of the Electra Strings who work regularly in television and film as well as some its members being part of The Jocelyn Pook Ensemble. Our interview took place during the midnight hour as Jocelyn’s energy overwhelmed the moment. It became obvious that this wonderful energy drives her creativity forth.
This is the story of how she got to score her first major motion picture and an exclusive inside look at her score to director Stanley Kubrick’s final film, EYES WIDE SHUT.
What were your first memories of film music?
TV music was quite important in my childhood. There were some wonderful European and English children’s television programs with excellent music. Children from the sixties and seventies really remember these things; they seemed to be so rich in melody.
How did you get into film music?
I progressed quite naturally into doing this, purely because I was asked to do things. One of my first film scores was to STRANGE FISH by the DV8 Physical Theater. This originally was a stage production and won the 1994 Prix Italia. I’d already written the music for the theatrical version, but I adapted it for film. Also I was quite involved composing music for dance and did a large TV drama in England, BUTTERFLY COLLECTORS with Pete Postlethwaite. This all started with STRANGE FISH and evolved from there, but EYES WIDE SHUT is really my first proper feature film.
How did you get involved in EYES WIDE SHUT?
Yolande Snaith, a dance choreographer who had my album ‘Deluge’, was working on ‘The Masked Ball’ scene and playing it at rehearsal when Stanley happened to hear it. He contacted me very quickly and wanted to hear more of my music like this. We had a chat on the phone, then two hours later a car arrived to pick up a tape he wanted me to make for him of my other music.
What did it feel like scoring your first major motion picture with Stanley Kubrick?
I was pretty nervous, but also incredibly excited. I’m very inspired by meeting Stanley. It was a mixture, at certain points I felt quite daunted, but he was very encouraging and warm. It was a really lovely experience.
What was your approach in scoring a dark film like this?
I’m very at home with darkness. All my stuff tends to be quite melancholy. Even though it seems to be changing a bit, it’s more on the dark side. It’s when I have to do something really cheerful that it’s more of a problem. With a lot of the music in this score I had to do a lot of work and I was learning as I was going along. I had to learn a lot about scoring. Looking back on this, it was a real learning curve for me. The music under the dialog particularly is very different than anything I’d done before. Not the style because it is recognizable as me, but I was quite surprised with what came out. Some of the stuff ended up being based on old material that I’d already written, but the new stuff, the music under the dialog, I found that very challenging.
Would you explain the details of your score?
There is twenty five minutes of my music in the film. I recorded the score in different stages really. The instrumental cues with just strings were recorded at Abbey Road Studios, which was absolutely wonderful. I’d never recorded there as a composer before. I recorded there for four days with about twenty-seven string players. The other cues were done in different studios. Some of it was recorded at The Church, located in Crouch End in London, which is owned by composer David Stewart.
I noticed that you didn’t use any brass or woodwinds in your score.
There wasn’t a conscious decision made here, in fact at one point I was really toying with the idea of using an oboe or a horn. I’m very at home with strings and I’m very concerned with anything sounding like clichéd Hollywood film music that you’ve heard before. I did experiment with some other instrumentation, but it just never seemed right to me. I was quite surprised that I ended up with purely strings for these instrumental sections. I just couldn’t justify these other textures. If I’m going to use a texture, I’m going to use it for a good reason.
When I saw EYES WIDE SHUT, quite often I could tell when your music was happening versus the classical cues Kubrick so often uses in his films – cues like ‘The Masked Ball’, ‘The Dream’, and ‘Naval Office’ which seemed transparent or subliminal.
Yes, these cues were more subliminal in the film, which was another reason why I basically used strings and not any other textures in the score. The oboe and horn would really stick out here. Thinking back on it, this was partly the reason why I stuck to the purity of the string sound, because it had to be quite subliminal, quite low in the mix in the end with these sections. I actually added the solo cello for the CD version of ‘Naval Officer’, which I couldn’t use in the film version because it was too intrusive. It was very delicate actually. In terms of the process, it’s such an intuitive thing. In the end all you can do is infuse yourself into the film, ideas, and images of the particular scenes. You have to see how you respond; it’s a very funny process.
In ‘Naval Officer’ you were scoring for feelings like jealousy, betrayal, torment… Do you approach this emotionally or from an intellectual point of view?
A mixture really, because the work kind of builds. If I had my way it would have been much louder because it’s so much in the background. However, it couldn’t be because Nicole was speaking very quietly in this scene. When I played this in my studio, the sketches, there were real dynamic rises, particularly with Tom, because ‘Naval Officer’ is the beginning of a completely pivotal point. It’s really loaded, but suddenly his face becomes darker and darker. That’s the beginning or the whole pivotal point of the film. Actually I spent a hell of a long time on this playing with different ideas. It’s just something very, very delicate and in the end it could only be my response to the film.
Your sound and style in ‘Naval Officer’ bleeds over into ‘The Dream’.
Jocelyn Pook: Very much so and also into other parts of the film like the reoccurring sexual fantasies between Nicole and the naval officer. It’s all supposed to connect to this inner world inside the film.
In ‘The Dream’, what techniques were you using?
The overdubbing is the rhythm section here. That’s one overdub and everything else is done separately. They’re done in two parts, the auto rhythmic section is always done separately because we wanted complete control over that because sometimes they need it to be brought down a bit because the dialog is almost whispered, it’s a very delicate balance between the music and the dialog. That’s why I did it so specifically, so there was absolute control. I could have used an even bigger string section, but it’s the same composition no matter how you look at it. This creates a mesmerizing hypnotic quality which I call clocking.
Your cue, ‘The Masked Ball’, has some very dark religious overtones in it. Is this one of your most effective cues in the film?
It’s really the one that everyone mentions. The music’s used very differently in that scene, it’s very foreground. It’s actually being mimed to in the film, the keyboard player was actually miming to my score. It’s quite amusing to me because I’m a string and viola player, the amount of times I’ve had to mime to synth strings, you wouldn’t believe it. In EYES WIDE SHUT the keyboardist is miming to real strings, he’s playing his keyboards to real strings. I find that really amusing. They actually shot this to the music.
What was that bass voice turned backwards in this cue?
It’s Romanian actually; it’s a sample of a Romanian priest singing. The only thing I’ve done is turn it backwards; I haven’t altered the pitch or anything. It’s a technique that I use a lot, backwards singing, but mainly I’ve done it with something that I’ve written. I just happened to try this piece backwards and it became this new piece which is going to be on my next album. It really worked so well and I became really intrigued by the kind of unusual sort of quality, the textural quality, but also I use this as a melody. Often people think that you use this as a texture, but I’ve used this a lot and people often don’t know this is actually backwards singing because it sounds just like another language.
Was composing ‘The Masked Ball’ sequence like scoring for dance?
It was a mixture of stuff, surprisingly. Scoring for dance isn’t about rhythm. Often, these days especially, they don’t need to always have a rhythm. My use of the backwards priest isn’t very rhythmic. My imagination had a very vivid picture of what was happening in this scene. Stanley told me what was happening and had a very strong idea of exactly what was going to happen with the atmosphere and the imagery. In that way I had a very vivid picture to compose to.
How does religion fit into your music?
I think it does subliminally and seems to be an influence. It’s the same as subliminal interests, more in terms of alluding to perhaps its reference. My music isn’t like John Tavener, it’s not religious music. His music is very religious, devout Greek Orthodox, and that’s certainly not what I do, but I do allude to different cultures or different religions from different cultures. People often say there’s a religious quality in my music. I use quite a lot of text from the Catholic Latin Mass, so I do certainly allude to religious music.
Your cue during the orgy, ‘Migrations’, had very exotic and far eastern overtones in it. What direction were you going in here?
I think the music is acting as a counter layer to what’s going on here. It’s not underpinning or illustrating what’s happening, it’s not that kind of film music which underpins the character’s emotion. It takes its own path. Particularly the Indian singing, it’s ornate and mesmerizing. I think this kind of vocal quality is quite sensual.
The singer, Manickam Yogeswaran, sings this piece in Hindu. It was quite accidental how his singing ended up on this particular track. In fact he had done vocals for something else, another piece, and I had lifted them off and put them on this and found out they fit really well. He thought it sounded awful because to his ears it’s not in the right key, it’s quite atonal. To me, I really loved this. It had this slightly strange kind of unsettling quality which I really like. I tried some other stuff with this and started off with more of a backing track. I don’t normally do that first because I usually start with a vocal melody, but with this particular track I start it with the backing as it were and the percussion.
What direction were you given by Kubrick and how did he communicate the type of score he wanted from you?
He was very open to what I had to bring and offer. He would be very descriptive about what was happening in certain scenes. He’d also refer to other music that I’d written which he’d heard. He listened to all the music that I’d sent him and was very familiar with it. Stanley was very warm, lovely about my work, and interested in how I’d work on things. Also he might play a couple of just doing ‘The Masked Ball’ and ‘Migrations’. As I progressed into the score I learned more about the other music being used. I really needed to know more about what he was using and felt I needed to know certain things in order to decide how and whether it needed balancing in anyway or referring to. We were working together since ‘97, so it was a very gradual thing. Eventually he discussed his other music with me because when I started to compose other cues I felt I needed to know more. I’d always been aware that there were a couple of pieces he had decided on very early on. So in the end, yes I knew exactly everything that was being used.
Knowing what the other music was, did that influence any of your writing?
No, in the end it didn’t. It might have, but it didn’t in this case. In fact there’s a Liszt solo piano piece (‘Grey Clouds’ which he played me right at the beginning, he was really intrigued by that piece. I did a sketch which was actually using the first four notes of that piece and then taken somewhere else, but it just didn’t work out in the end. Also somebody pointed out that four of the first notes in ‘Migrations’ sounded like the first notes in the Ligeti solo piano piece, but this is a complete coincidence. You know, maybe the instrumentation was probably influenced knowing the sparse effect of the solo piano or the Shostakovich thing with strings. After taking this into consideration, I think the instrumentation might have been influenced by some of the other music Stanley used.
What was your greatest challenge in scoring EYES WIDE SHUT?
It’s definitely the challenge of writing underneath dialog, not being foreground, which I’m used to being. My music has always been previously used as a very strong voice rather than as a background texture. I’m not used to illustrating emotions in my music; it was very interesting and I learned a lot from doing that.
Tell me about your future plans?
I have a mixture of projects on the go really. A big part of me is very interested in my live work with the ensemble, which we’ve got quite a few things coming up now. On November 3rd of this year we will be performing at New York’s Wintergarden, which will include music from EYES WIDE SHUT. We’re going to be touring next year as well to promote the new album. We’re also interested in developing my concept into having a visual side to it as well.
Also I’m doing this millennium project for East London; I’m writing a symphony for two thousand players which involves a choir. This will be performed in the summer of the year 2000 in the east end of London, Newham.
Then I’m doing the string arrangements for Peter Gabriel’s next album and his millennium project. Tomorrow I have a meeting about scoring another film, but there’s nothing definite in film scoring at the moment. I’m not desperate to get involved in scoring another picture right away because it certainly takes a lot out of you. After EYES WIDE SHUT, it’s very hard act to follow. I will just have to wait for something equally exciting, hopefully.
A personal note
A personal note of thanks goes out to Jocelyn for her generous cooperation.
This article was made possible thanks to Ronni Chasen and Jeff Sanderson of Chasen & Company.