An Interview with Richard Harvey by Marco Werba
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson and Marco Werba
How did you get involved in film music and what kind of musical background did you have?
I started writing music by accident. Although I tried very hard to write music when I was in Music College, I found that I didn’t have the dedication to produce pieces because I found that I wasn’t satisfied with what I was producing. I was working in such short spells that I produced pieces which pleased me in some respects but not in others. During Music College I formed a classical pop group and it fell to me to write and produce the music for the group to play. And so, having done that, I felt less bad about writing. I felt very happy that I could write.
When our second LP had come out, I was contacted by some directors. My first commission was for the National Theatre to write the music for a Shakespeare play. After that I was approached by some small film companies, who’d heard my record and wanted me to write some music for them. And after doing this one or two times I felt I could enjoy this very much. And then, by accident, I started writing music for television commercials. And after a while I thought it was more satisfying to do something bigger and grander. I was very successful in commercials when I was 24-25 years old, but I found that film people wouldn’t trust somebody so young. (This was 1975 or 76). I’ve gotten my best and my biggest work since I was 30. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, but I feel that people, while they may understand your creativity and your technical understanding, they tend not to trust people who are too young. So although I did quite a lot it wasn’t always very special work.
What other types of music have you written besides film music?
I don’t like country music, and I don’t like Schubert much; but beyond that I’m enormously fond of all types of music. I play renaissance, medieval and Baroque music, both authentically and as I wish, and very regularly. I play classical music very regularly. I used to be in a rock band, and I’ve written on film and for commercials. The reason I became a writer, in the end, is because my musical interest is so broad, that by being a writer it was the only way I’d be satisfied. And in a way, being a film writer gives you more opportunity than any other to satisfy that broadness of scope.
Some composers who come from classical backgrounds think that film music is something to be disdained.
Well, it’s a percentage art. You can’t judge film music beyond the scope of the film. Okay, sometimes it’s very nice to buy a record of “The Greatest Works of Morricone” or whoever, but for the most part the film music has no life without the film. Not always, because sometimes people like such a good tune that it lives beyond the scope of the film, but there are many very good classical composers who tried to score a film and failed. It’s a special kind of art, and you only need to see the different way which two good people can score the same film to know what an individual art form it is.
Now I don’t care about that anyway. I mean, I see nothing of interest in modern serious composition. I think most people are incredibly lacking in talent, and of course there are film composers who lack compositional talent, in one area or another. Some people can’t orchestrate, some people have very little harmonic sense but great melodic sense, some people have great sense of texture but no sense of harmony, and everybody who writes for a film has to have one or two highly developed talents, whether it’s being able to see a piece of picture and immediately find in his own mind what that picture needs, or whatever.
What do you feel about having someone else orchestrate a composer’s music?
I think that if you’re a bad orchestrator or if you were very busy, then fine, give it to someone else. But if I were working with an orchestrator, (God forbid, because it’s my favorite part of composing), then I would orchestrate three very important sections as examples, and I’d say “this is the style that we work in.” So much the mood that you create is made in your orchestration. You can have one note, literally one sustained note, and you can orchestrate that one note and make it do a hundred different things. Now I’m not talking about somebody writing a short score and writing on it “horns, flutes, whatever”, I’m talking about composers who really don’t have the first idea, they just play out the tune with their finger, virtually, and they say to an orchestrator “you take over from here.”
You scored a film called THE ASHAM GARDEN, which was directed by Mary McMurray and won a prize on an Italian film festival. Your music is very melodic. How was that approach decided on?
We both discussed it. When I see a film, I have a strong instant musical approach. I have an instinct which tells me what I know I can do with that film. It’s more to do with the complimenting the visual style, it gets more difficult and sophisticated when the director says, “Ah, but you see, what we didn’t do in this film is make it frightening enough, so you must use music to make the film more frightening” or “the film should be sadder so please can your music make the film more sad?”. Then it’s different because that will take away from my instinct because my instinct is based on what I see.
My first instinct for THE ASHAM GARDEN was that it was an incredibly English film, a rural English film, and it was also a fairly sad film, not overtly so, but it had an undertone of bereavement and sadness. And I knew that we wouldn’t have fortunes to spend, so my feeling was to use a small string orchestra, but with everything shifted down one – so there were no violins, there were first violas, second violas, first cello, second cellos and double bass. It’s all very much lower and richer. We also needed to have some Indian sounding music, just a distant echo, when the Indian woman was thinking about going back to India. There’s a harmonium sound, just a flavor of India. That to me was a good form of contrast. But it took me a long time to write the tune, the melody for that.
It was very good! I saw it at a film festival with many other low budget films and when I heard your music I could not believe it was from such a low budget film!
Oh it’s very low budget. But my specialty is making low budgets sound like big budgets.
I remember when I saw the film, near the end, someone from the audience said “Oh, what beautiful music!”
Well I’m very pleased to hear that! I’ll tell you that a lot of the time; I either do completely electronic scores or completely orchestral scores. I don’t very often mix them up. Occasionally, though, I’ve made a score which is half real instruments, which I’ve played myself (I have an enormous collection of instruments), and half synthesizer. I used this approach for a new American film called HALF MOON STREET, and before that, a small film called PING PONG, which was actually made for British television but will go in cinema somewhere, and before that DEFENSE OF THE REALM.
You also wrote interesting music, together with Stanley Myers, for LADY CHATTERLY’S LOVER. How did this collaboration work?
That one had no electronic music, it was all orchestral. Maybe a tiny little bit of electronics, but not very much, just for special effects. The first time that Stanley and I worked together was on a TV film called THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. On that I did some of the orchestration and all the electronic music, because Stanley is not good at electronic music – he’s interested in it but he doesn’t do it, he can’t approach a synthesizer and know really what to do with it, so he works with people who do know that. I was able to help him out with orchestration and help him out on the electronic side, so we did several films on that basis. But with LADY CHATTERLY’S LOVER we just decided we’d just split the film up, and we said “I’ll do these bits and you do those bits.” We had a pot of themes in the middle that we’d use when we wanted.
Was the main theme by Stanley?
Stanley, yes. In the early days he always wrote the main theme.
There were also a lot of other dramatic scenes…
It was dramatic in places. It’s a very French version of a very English story. Very often, though, composers get pushed down the road that they don’t want to take, you don’t always get to write the music you want to write. But I enjoyed doing this one because we had quite a good sized orchestra, and I remember doing a love scene where it was very much like Vaughan Williams, with a string quarter. That was one of mine if I remember correctly.
It seems that, at the beginning of your musical career, you were quite interested in electronics and then you switched to a classical way of writing. How did your style develop and by whom were you influenced?
I’m very interested in electronics but unfortunately, at the moment, it’s such a huge boom time that so many people have synthesizers. My window cleaner has synthesizers! I’m getting bored with the constant use of the same sort of sounds. When I use synthesizers, I have a big combination of very modern, new synths and very old ones that I’ve had for years. A lot of people have been using synthesizers to make cheap film scores, and as a result they’re getting double cheap film scores, because they’re not only getting the slightly boring sound of synthesizers trying to pretend they’re real instruments, but they’re also getting composers who really don’t have much experience.
I feel that I can do a very good, synthetic, orchestra, because I can orchestrate. I don’t know how it is in America, for example, but there are very few people in this country who really know how to orchestrate and who can also operate synthesizers. I think if you could carry an orchestral sense through into synthesizer work it’s much more interesting. But I would never change from one to the other; I will always keep an interest in both sides.
What film score are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a film called HALF MOON STREET, directed by Bob Swaim, whose previous film was called LA BALANCE. And it stars Michael Caine and Sigourney Weaver. I’m just starting on a big series for the BBC, which is a play that is set in a cathedral, so I am going to write a Te Deum, and a Magnificat, and I’m looking forward to that very much.
You’ve written music for many television series. Do you have any favorites?
I enjoyed the most a series called SPY SHIP; it’s a story of a fishing boat that is actually a surveillance ship for the British Navy which has to be torpedoed by an English warship to prevent an international incident when it tangles with a Russian submarine. It’s the story of one man’s investigation into what happened. It’s supposed to be a semi-true story, and it was shot in the North of England and in the very north of Norway.
What kind of music did you write?
We had two types of orchestra. We wanted a folk song for the main title, because it was like a mother singing “My boy’s gone away to sea and has never returned.” I wanted something that would complement folk music, but I find that a normal orchestra sounds terrible playing folk music. It always does because most people have no understanding or respect for folk music, so they can’t play it properly. So I used a Baroque style orchestra, with catgut strings, not metal, and that sound is a lot nicer for a woman folksinger to accompany. So half of this series we made using a Baroque orchestra, and half we made using a modern orchestra.
I love films which are outdoors. I like big spaces, and I like movement, and I get very bogged down with films where everything happens indoors and are very still. It’s very difficult to score English television. Television drama, particularly, but also the lot of English films, are obsessed with reality, and a film that is made by somebody who is obsessed with trying to convey reality is a very difficult film to write music for, particularly to write synthesizer music for. At least if somebody hears violins, their instinct is “ah, there’s music” because music is violins. But they’re not necessarily used to synthesizers.
Do you consider yourself a very British composer?
Yes, but then again, I’ve spent a lot of time working in France. I spent quite a bit of time working in Scandinavia, but my time working in France was a lot more interesting. I’m British, but I absorb a lot from elsewhere. A lot of my favorite music is Italian. I’ve made a big study of music of different countries, particularly ethnic music, and I play a lot of ethnic instruments. Very early in my career, because of my interest in renaissance music, I was playing on a lot of historical films. I did many sessions for Maurice Jarre, I did POPE JOAN with him, and I played on Zeffirelli’s BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON with Ken Thorne and Donovan, and many others that needed medieval and renaissance instruments. While I was doing all that, I said to myself “I can do this. I would rather be up there than down here.” I’m a very lazy person when it comes to day-to-day matters, you know, but when it comes to important things I’m very dedicated, and if I decide something I’ll always push for it.
I think that, in this type of music, particularly, there’s a call for different kinds of talent, as I said before. You don’t have to be a great composer to be a good film composer. It may be a disadvantage in some respects. I’ve often worried about the quality of my work, everyone does, but I’ll tell you, particularly on television, there is so much really bad music, I’d say “well, I’d be a fool to stop doing this just because I don’t think my work is good enough, because my work, however bad it may be, is a great deal better than a lot of the work that I’ve heard!” And who knows, I’m still half the age of some film composers who are still working very hard. I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’ve got plenty enough time to do it.