An Interview with Miguel D’Oliveira by John Mansell © 2011
Self taught and with a passion for playing and collecting every musical instrument known to man, Miguel started to score more and more projects that went on to play at Cannes, Edinburgh and other main film festivals around the world. From TV commercials to feature films and from documentaries to installations he has scored for big live ensembles and studio based electronic productions.Miguel has vastly increased his collection of musical instruments by now – always trying to incorporate them in a fresh and original way into his scores. He is also a baritone/deep bass singer. His knowledge of instrument playing techniques, electronics and audio software allow him to push the envelope of experimentation with each score that requires a new approach.
There has been much interest in your music for THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, (deservedly so) which is a documentary made by the BBC, and aired to commemorate the anniversary of the battle, how did you become involved on this project?
Thank you. The director had heard my music on a couple of TV shows that I had scored. I think it was THE QUEEN and THE AIR HOSPITAL. And so I was asked to submit a reel, along with many other composers.
I think I am right when I say THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN documentary ran for around an hour, how much music did you write for the film, and how much time were you given to score it?
It actually run for 90 minutes and it had just over an hour of music. Although I was supplied with the ever-changing edits for a month or so, the film was locked on a Friday and the orchestra recorded the following Monday morning. That wasn’t a peaceful weekend.
Is working on a documentary more difficult than working on an actual movie or TV score, because in a documentary I suppose you have to be aware of the narrator or dialogue more because that is an important part of the production?
The score’s main job is to serve the picture in a myriad of ways. In this, I find it is the same for TV or films. In TV documentaries, however, you usually have and lot less room and time to let the music grow and create an impact. Which means that, if you want to be a counterpoint to whatever is being said or shown on screen, you need to say it with very few but efficient musical gestures. You also need to be aware that average TV speakers could not care less about your velvety sub bass or complex quiet textures. And, aside from dynamic and frequency range limitations, you should also remember to stay clear of the commentary frequencies most of the time.
What size ensemble did you utilise for BATTLE OF BRITAIN?
The live ensemble was around 23 musicians, give or take. All recorded at the, now unfortunately defunct, Hear No Evil studios in West London.
I understand you attended medical school. When did you decide that this was not the career for you?
Shortly after graduation I realised that you should never postpone your dreams. Nor attempt two dreams at the same time. So I set aside 6 years of college education and got busy reinventing myself. I would like to think that all that knowledge comes in handy every now and then. But, not really.
You played in a band for a couple of years called ‘Lapland’ where you performed keyboards and also trumpet, whilst doing this did you think about writing music for film at all?
No. When I came to London, my intention was simply to play in a rock band – and later write for it as well. ‘Lapland’ was a lot of fun and hugely educational. Unfortunately it started to look like a dead end so, two years later, I left the band, and the rock’n’roll dream. Around that time I was getting more and more fascinated with the role music has in moving images. And so, the sleepless nights of study began.
You have an extensive collection of instruments; do also perform on your compositions for film?
To my wife’s despair, I have a perpetually expanding collection. Which I play on my scores, as much as possible, with various degrees of expertise (expertise, in the broad sense of the term). I think that, aside from THE INCUBATOR which required an all-electronic approach, all my other scores have me playing at least one instrument live.
There are sounds you cannot get in any other way and, for better or for worse, your sound becomes very unique if you go way beyond factory presets. When I am playing I usually welcome the odd mistake and it sometimes that opens up all sorts of new concepts.
You are self-taught I know, but did you have any type of formal training at all?
Not really. Around 1997 I enrolled in a jazz school in Lisbon, but because I had founded and directed a jazz school at the University of Coimbra (while a student at the faculty of medicine) they thought I must be a pretty solid performer, and so, insisted I was put in the advanced classes. Six months later I left under the impression that jazz was taught in Sanskrit.
As for my MA in composition at the National Film School, this was almost exclusively film orientated. You learnt by scoring a great deal of projects.
Do you come from a family background that is musical?
No one in my family plays or owns any musical instrument. Nor were they very keen music listeners. That has changed now, as I torment them constantly with CD compilations of my scores.
When preparing a score do you like to work out your musical ideas on any particular instrument and do you have a set way of approaching a project, e.g.: larger cues first or maybe start with the central theme and build score around that?
Except for scores that I feel need to be guitar-lead, I tend to write on the piano. I find that the daddy of all instruments makes it easy to build that first scaffold, as the ideas start forming in your head. It also speeds up the process, since time is usually a luxury. In case I get stuck on the keyboard with no decent ideas I will try one of the 20 or so instruments lying around.
I normally start with the key moments in the film, and once these musical sketches are sorted I try to draw material from them as I begin to tackle the project in chronological order.
More often, unfortunately, I have to move forward alongside the edit. Which means I don’t get to see the complete arch of the story until a few days before I have to deliver the score. The start of the film may be shot at the last minute and land on the cut as they lock it.
What are your thoughts on film makers use of a temp track on a movie, do you think that this practise can be helpful to the composer or maybe it can be a little distracting?
Temp scores can be very useful. Music qualities are abstract and hard to define in practical terms. A director’s idea of relentless or melancholy may be miles away from yours. Even his idea of what a bassoon sounds (when he asks for one to play a solo, like on the track they are using) may not match an actual bassoon. Therefore a temp score can help communications a great deal. It can flag up potential problems (usually followed by the composer’s question “is this what you really want?”) and it can even open new approaches – accidentally or not, they might have used a track that does wonders for a particular scene, and it may be stuff you probably wouldn’t think of writing.
There were a few instances, however, where I got the director permission to delete the temp track without listening to it.
But, every now and then, you get an unlucky throw of the dice and the temp becomes a curse. This happens when they fall in love with a temp cue or cues and you have to sail too close to the wind.
You have worked on both TV and motion pictures, what would you say were the main differences between the two mediums when it comes to the scoring process?
From what I have experienced, time is the main difference. I cannot comment on budget disparities, since my feature films were quite unusual. In film (short or feature) the time afforded usually allows you to build up a stronger relationship with the director and fine-tune the intentions of both parties. The score evolves a great deal from that first concept. And this (in moderation) is usually a very welcome scenario. You may then have the luxury of trying crazy ideas as well. You often feel there is no pressure to get it right on the first sketch (I imagine other composers may read this as absolute sinful heresy, but that’s where I have been so far).
Whereas in a film, the director is usually your only port of call, with TV programmes you often need to quickly gauge what you think the film needs, what the director wants, what the producer and the commissioning editor want and then frame that with the network’s target audience in mind.
Finally, when you are working on a film, you usually have a pretty good idea of the whole story from script stage, unlike TV where things may change quite radically at the last minute. I have actually sat on a dub with my laptop hooked up to the desk, so that I could tweak some cues to the newborn locked cut.
What composers classical, film and popular (vocalists, bands etc.) have influenced you at all?
A huge range of mostly obscure people, but I’d say that the ones with more impact on my writing are probably: Debussy, Stravinsky, Wagner, Nino Rota, John Powell, Adrian Johnston, Miles Davis, The Beatles and Massive Attack
Your score for The TOYBOX is soon to be issued on Movie Score Media; did you have a hand in the preparation of the compact disc release?
This score was released a couple of years ago. Unfortunately most of it never made it onto the film, as the computer it lived on, was stolen at the time I was beginning to mix the cues.
We recovered it a few months after the dub when the DVDs were already being pressed, and BrandnewFilms decided it would be a good idea to release it soon after.
The score on the CD features me playing around 14 instruments, plus singing basso profundo and whistling (not at the same time). I had an inspiring 50 pound budget to score the whole film. This allowed for a violin player to come in for an hour only, so I really had to think outside the box.
A number of collectors and also critics have commented recently that film music is going through a rather uninspiring period. What do you think of the state of film music today and what film scores by other composers do you find particularly interesting and why?
I think there are still innovative and inspiring scores lighting up a hard-to-keep-up-with, film music horizon.
Alberto Iglesias or Carter Burwell scores, for example, rarely disappoint me. They can be challenging and reasonably unorthodox.
On the other hand, that is also a very valid argument. I think plenty of great composers have fallen victims of their own success, and are asked to imitate their previous scores ad nauseam
I also imagine (an educated guess here) that there are plenty of fantastic scores being killed by committee. To the composers, and music lovers, despair and loss, respectively.
When scoring a movie or TV project do you conduct at all?
Conducting is a serious kick of adrenaline and I absolutely love it. But it is also serious business and best left to those who can do it well. Therefore you usually find me sitting in the control room. I also think my judgment is best applied, at that stage, producing the recording instead of looking like I am about to lift off.
You worked on MERLIN with Rob Lane, what did you contribute to the project?
Merlin was great fun to do and Rob Lane is a terrific and inspiring composer to work with. He thought I would be ideal to be in charge of the Druids, and so I started working from episode 8 – when Mordred first makes his appearance. Unfortunately a bike crash meant my collaboration was limited to a couple of episodes on series one. But my cues and motifs (with me singing deep bass and playing a modified viola, amongst a few other bizarre instruments) and have since then infiltrated series 2 and 3.
You have worked on a number of advertisements; it must be very difficult to come up with music that serves the advert as well as being attractive and striking to grab the attention of the viewer?
My experience here has been very limited. TV ads are a completely different kettle of fish. Although I have had a reasonably nice time, my recollection is that they always want something very vague, for yesterday. And then you look around and see everyone sitting on the fence.
Do you go to the cinema at all?
I try to. Saw CHICO AND RITA, a brilliant animated feature, last month and highly recommend it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am finishing a BBC4 documentary about the Icelandic sagas and a 2 part for BBC 2 about ‘Children in Care’ with Neil Morrisey. Later this week I am starting a ‘Cutting Edge’ documentary for channel 4 about that paedophile ring uncovered in a Plymouth nursery last year.
I have also been asked by the Horniman museum in London to conduct a series of master class’s on sampling, which I have started this month.
Many thanks to Miguel for taking the time to talk to us.