An Interview with Karl Jenkins by John Mansell
Karl Jenkins began his musical career as an oboist in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. He went on to study music at Cardiff University, and then commenced postgraduate studies in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where he also met his wife and musical collaborator, Carol Barratt. For the bulk of his early career Jenkins was known as a jazz and jazz-rock musician, playing baritone and soprano saxophones, keyboards and oboe, an unusual instrument in a jazz context. He joined jazz composer Graham Collier’s group and later co-founded the jazz-rock group Nucleus, which won first prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1970. After a period as a media composer, his return to the music mainstream was initially marked by the success of the Adiemus project. Adiemus, combining the ‘classical’ with ethnic vocal sounds and percussion with an invented language, topped classical and ‘pop’ charts around the world. His output includes the harp concerto ‘Over The Stone’ commissioned by HRH the Prince of Wales for the Royal Harpist, Catrin Finch, Euphonium Concerto for David Childs, the concertante ‘Quirk’, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Sir Colin Davies as part of its 2005 centenary season, Tlep written for virtuoso violinist Marat Bisengaliev and In These Stones Horizons Sing, featuring Bryn Terfel, Catrin Finch with the WNO Orchestra & Chorus whichwas premiered at the Royal Gala opening of the Welsh Millennium Centre in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen.
In the summer of 2005 he scored the feature film, River Queen starring Kiefer Sutherland & Samantha Morton, the soundtrack of which won the Golden Goblet award for best score at the Shanghai Film Festival.
You normally compose music for the concert hall, did you find that writing for a motion picture was restricting at all; by this I mean you had specific timings for scenes and style of music etc…?
I spent a large part of my career writing music for advertising so the process was familiar, both technically and politically! I also had a great assistant in Rupert Christie.
You utilised the London Symphony Orchestra for the music to RIVER QUEEN, what choir did you use and who was the solo female voice?
I have a close relationship with the LSO; the concertante, ‘Quirk’, was commissioned by the LSO and conducted by Sir Colin Davies as part of its 2005 centenary season and I used them on my recent release with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa so they were the best choice, both musically and because of their experience of film work. The choral singers were from Synergy, a group run by Michaela Halsam and the soloists were Mae Mckenna and Belinda Sykes.
How many times did you watch the movie before ideas of style and where the music was to be placed on the picture began to become clear to you?
The film was being cut as I was writing and indeed, some was cut after it had been recorded so it was an ongoing two way process. Style was determined in part with discussions with the director. There are two major strains in the film; the British, which here was essentially Irish/Celtic and the indigenous ethnic Maori both of which had to be reflected in the music.
The song DANNY BOY is woven into the score was this idea yours or was it an instruction from the films director/producer?
This was director Vincent Ward’s idea which he had before we ever met.
How much time were you given to write the score, and did you find the schedule difficult to work to?
I think it was done in a couple of months since I work pretty quickly. I do my own orchestration (can’t really call yourself a composer if you can’t!). I know some composers due to time restrictions farm this out but this is difficult in my case anyway since I write straight onto full score.
Did you have a set plan when scoring the film, by this I mean did you start with the main theme and work through the picture to its conclusion, or did you tackle larger cues first leaving smaller sections and musical stabs till later?
As I said, it was generally chronological since that was how the cues were edited. There was much use of leitmotifs, themes associated with characters and situations that were reused in different guises.
How did you become involved on the project?
My music was sent to the director Vincent Ward, who liked what he heard!
Are there any film music composers that you find particularly interesting, and for what reasons?
I think the standard of film music generally is pretty dire, especially in this country. The American writers are good. I saw a poll recently of the greatest scores which had LORD OF THE RINGS at 1. and GLADIATOR at 2. which is absurd. People only seem to revere the recent past, unlike classical music where the reverse is true. Standout scores for me for example would be Korngold’s ROBIN HOOD, many by Bernard Herrmann (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PYSCHO), Michele Legrand’s THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, Quincy Jones’ IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and Dave Grusin’s FABULOUS BAKER BOYS. In the UK two composers stand out, Walton and Richard Rodney Bennett. All these wrote memorable music which rarely happens nowadays unless it’s by John Williams. I don’t usually go along with the “film music should not be noticed otherwise it’s not doing its job” credo!
You were obviously inspired by the movie, as your music is superb, is film scoring something that you would like to do more of?
I would but don’t seem to get asked to do so.
Sometimes when a soundtrack CD is issued a number of musical cues are not included because of space etc on the compact disc, did you have anything to do with the compiling of the CD to RIVER QUEEN, and is all the music included on the disc or were there any cues that were omitted for any reason?
It is probably the reverse on this occasion. I pretty much had complete say over what was included and if anything there is more music on the CD than in the film. I did have some difference of opinion with Vincent in that he loved a minimalist sound and if there were a choice between a solitary harmonium and the opulent strings of the LSO he usually favoured the former.
I notice that the copyright on the movie and the music for RIVER QUEEN was 2005, when did you score the film?
I worked on the movie in 2005.
You also utilised pan flutes within the score. What made you decide to use this instrumentation?
The ethnic element representing Maori was a little strange. I was surprised the haka was not used. I suggested this since it is so obviously Maori and war related but Vincent preferred something more general and vague. I used Mick Taylor quite a lot on ethnic flutes and pipes. He also does the Irish tin whistle thing as well so he came double sided. He played on my first Adiemus album; ‘Songs of Sanctuary’ and I think he’s worked with James Horner a lot.
The temp track is a very sensitive area of discussion amongst composers who work in film, was there a temp track attached to RIVER QUEEN at all?
Yes there was and what a liability! Yet again people only seem to be aware of the recent past so I was lumbered with cues (sound wise) from recent films. I had this all the time in advertising music. People have no faith and want to hear it before it’s written. Then of course once it is in their brains there is no dislodging it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a setting of the Stabat Mater which will be my next release on EMI Classics and premiered next March15th at Liverpool cathedral as part of the city’s ‘European City Of Culture’ status for 2008 and also an album by Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells) who is releasing an orchestral CD that I’m orchestrating, conducting and co-producing.
Many thanks to Karl Jenkins for his time and also his patience.