A talk with Søren Hyldgaard by John Mansell © 2012
In April this year (2012) MovieScore Media will release a compilation of film music by Danish composer Søren Hyldgaard. This is one compilation which is way overdue. The composer has written numerous film scores and has always created appealing musical tapestries which work more than adequately in the films they are penned for. Hyldgaard has been unjustly neglected by collectors but hopefully this wonderful disc will make collectors and critics realize just how versatile and talented this Maestro is – and will be able to savour and appreciate his outstanding compositions for the world of Cinema and Television. The CD boasts music from no less than 18 scores and is the first in a series of albums called “The Spotlight Series” which focus on the talents, originality and versatility of certain film music composers. This first volume is overflowing with luxurious, highly thematic and beautiful symphonic music. It includes highly dramatic and sumptuous examples in the form of EYE OF THE EAGLE but also showcases the composer’s work for more romantic and intimate motion pictures such as SOMETHING IN THE AIR and THE ONE AND ONLY as well as comedic and grand-sounding works, including the animated films HELP I’M A FISH and JESTER TILL. Then there are dark and serious offerings from the horror genre such as ISLE OF DARKNESS and ANGEL OF THE NIGHT. The album also features the composer’s music for RED (or REDEMPTION as it has been re-titled for its international release) which was Hyldgaard’s first foray into scoring a film in Hollywood. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is a landmark release and a collection which will be very much welcomed and enjoyed.
This compilation is long overdue. It contains so many great themes and an array of musical styles; were you responsible for selecting the cues that appear on the CD? And if so, how difficult a task was this considering the amount of music which you have composed for movies, television etc.?
I concerted the actual cues selection with album producer Mikael Carlsson. He has followed my work through the years, and I trust his instinct for selection and sequencing better than I trust myself on these matters. The tough part about selecting, of course, is that you always end up omitting ten nice pieces for every single one you include. And then there’s the limit of the CD, which is 700mb or just around 80 minutes. For the ”download” version of this album, we can potentially include however much we want – and we can link too much more extensive liner notes, etc.
The compilation opens with a suite from the animated movie JESTER TILL. It begins with a Korngold-like fanfare, and parts of the suite reminded me so much of the work of Erich Korngold, and of Franz Waxman’s Prince Valiant and the very grand sound of the Golden Age of movie music. Of course it also has some comedic styles mixed in but it largely gives an impression of lushness and opulence. Was this something you set out to do when working on the picture or did the director have specific ideas regarding the music?
Mr. Eberhard Junkersdorf, the director and co-producer of JESTER TILL had co-produced another large-scale, pan-European feature animation film, HELP! I’M A FISH. Junkersdorf loved the dramatic-symphonic angle to the scoring and he particularly liked the humour that I sprinkled it with – for instance, the lazy-sneaky jazz theme for Alan Rickman’s bad guy of a fish. But for Till Eulenspiegel – the great historical-fictional hero – I instinctively looked in the direction of Korngold and saw a rare opportunity to pay tribute to one of the truly original masters of classic film scoring. Another reason was that I love to embed musical inside-jokes whenever I can get away with it; so how could I not quote Richard Strauss’ familiar E-flat clarinet motif from his lush and in some places downright cartoonish Merry Pranks og Till Eulenspiegel?
You have worked on television productions and also feature films, including animated movies. What would you identify as the main differences between working on live action productions as opposed to scoring an animated feature or television productions?
As far as working experiences go, live-action films are from Mars and animated films are from Venus. The editing or rate of montage is inherently so much faster and wilder in animation as opposed to even an action-packed live-action movie, and jolting tempo and mood changes, known as “Mickey Mousing”, are still valid in animation but rarely so in contemporary live action. I love to work in animation and I am a big fan of the art of animation, but anyone who has done just a three minute animation score will agree with me that it’s a lot of work. I couldn’t do what I do in feature film animation without my skilled Music Editor (Berklee-trained Thomas Lester), who does all the math and the timing required to catch the “hits” of the action.
RED is, I think, your first Hollywood movie? The score is a rather understated one, but none the less it enhances the movie greatly, adding another dimension to the storyline and creating a brooding atmosphere. How did you get the assignment; where did you record the score and do approaches and attitudes differ greatly between Europe and the United States when it comes to scoring a movie?
Yes, RED, which has now been internationally re-titled as REDEMPTION, is my first experience with a U.S. produced film. In terms of musical approach and work process, there isn’t much of a difference. Contracts, publishing and copyright is an entirely different matter! Anyway, the assignment came by because of another movie that I did years ago as my second feature film, a Norwegian thriller called ISLE OF DARKNESS. The director was Trygve Allister Diesen who now has an agent in L.A. and was offered RED as his first American film project. We approached the film as sort of a modern, urban western, and it called for an almost underplayed score that was mainly focusing on Brian Cox’s sad, mellow character. When he has “had it” near the end, the shock and revolt is even more powerful… We had some debating going about how to approach the scoring of the nasty execution of his dog, the title character ‘Red’; though tastefully executed and edited, we decided not to score this sad scene. Rather, I chose to underscore Cox’s emotions after-the-fact when he has to bury Red.
By the way, I utilized a rare instrument on RED, the Glass Harmonica, as a voice for the sentiment and the longing in the score. Ostensibly invented by Benjamin Franklin, the Glass Harmonica is a rotating roller with glass discs, played much like a glass-player performs by gliding his fingers on the rims of crystal glasses. It produces a beautiful, ethereal sound –- almost otherworldly in quality.
Because the movie was a non-union production, we were allowed to and chose to record the music at ‘Smecky’ in Prague. With the proverbial 20/20 hindsight, though, I think the country – and especially the folk music fiddle playing would have been more authentic-sounding, had we recorded it in L.A. – but there were also financial issues to consider.
How many times do you like to see a movie before you begin the process of writing the score, and do you like to be involved at the script stage or is it better for you to wait until the rough cut of the film is ready?
I’ve found over the years that, after viewing the picture by myself, it gives me a lot to go through the movie – usually a rough cut – with the director. You could call it an early spotting session, I guess; we talk tentatively about where to use music, we deal with any temp pieces the editor might have used. Based on this, I usually commence writing demos – to demonstrate tone and style, thematic ideas, etc.
What are your earliest memories of music in film, and when you became interested in music did you think of becoming a composer that would write for the cinema straight away. Or was this something that just happened as your career progressed?
Apart from remembering noticing and humming and playing the music from shows like Yogi Bear and Flipper in the middle/late sixties, the Rosetta stone for me was really when my mom took me to what must have been a second run of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, the movie. I was around seven; fell in love with all the girls of the Von Trapp family. And I demonstrated my “photographic memory” for music by being able to recall and play at least three or four of the wonderful songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even today, I am enthralled by and in awe with the magnificent arrangements Irwin Kostal did for shows like this, Disney’s MARY POPPINS, and others.
The next cathartic flash for me was the summer of 1972 when Swedish television broadcast a cavalcade of the classic Universal horror films. I was nine and I literally cried for Boris Karloff’s monster when he was put through the ordeal and torments of the villagers. And I noticed – and again learned by heart – the different motifs for Karloff and for Elsa Lanchester, the Bride. I remember playing the Bride theme on the piano, and my mother would tell me it was Bali Ha’i from SOUTH PACIFIC. The themes are virtually identical, but Franz Waxman actually wrote it first! Of course, many years later I was instrumental in reconstructing Waxman’s score for the world premiere CD recording of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
As I grew up I had – and I still have! – a foot in each camp. I love movies, drama, and I love music.
Your first movie score was THE LAST FERRY, which was not a commercial movie, but a graduation film by Peter Flinth at the Danish Film School. How did you get this assignment and what budget if any did you have?
THE LAST FERRY was a ”No Budget score for a No Budget movie!”. We had a crate of red wine to bribe people with, and that’s about it. Peter Flinth was and is an ambitious guy, and he had heard some of symphonic music and had this ambition to have an orchestral score for his graduation project. The orchestra was the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Copenhagen, spiced up with members of The Danish Concert Band, for whom I have unofficially been the composer-in-residence for a long time. The choir, on the other hand, was the renowned Tritonus Choir led by the now retired maestro John Høybye. For decades he and the choir have been working for Disney on the Danish versions of their films. So when I called Mr. Høybye about helping out on THE LAST FERRY, I remember being summoned for what was really an audition, to present themes and ideas for him. As I presented my scores and sketches at the piano, John went, ”So who wrote this for you?”. ”Well, I did!”, I said, asking him why this question. He wryly replied that he wasn’t used to working with film composers who actually knew anything about music and who actually wrote their own stuff! That was so hilarious. Well, later I found out what he meant…
You have worked with the film maker Peter Flinth on a number of occasions, THE LAST FERRY, THE FAKIR, EYE OF THE EAGLE, and others, does he have a hands-on approach when it comes to music in his films, or does he have discussions with you at the spotting of the movie and leave you to create a score?
I haven’t worked with Peter for a few years now, but he remains one of my favourite collaborators because of the balanced mixture of high expectations and respectful distance to the composer. He has an innate ear for music – in fact, as a kid he wanted to become a conductor ”Because the conductor looked great standing in the limelight in his white tie and tails, and all he has to do is follow the musicians!”. With Flinth, we have the agreement that the film is our master; if the movie tells us it doesn’t want this sound or that cue, then we will follow it. That’s something I like, when it’s not just the director’s (or composer’s!) ego that’s setting the rules. I am fine about ‘sacrificing’ my best cue in the film, if it’s because the film is ”telling” us so.
How much time are you normally given to work on a score, I mean how much time do you get to prepare, write and then actually score a production, or does this vary from assignment to assignment. Maybe you could use ANGEL OF THE NIGHT as an example?
Well, ANGEL OF THE NIGHT is not necessarily a good example simply because it’s so many years ago now. I remember having ample time and the extra benefit of being able to hire William Motzing as orchestrator. The movie was very low budget but great production value none the less – and it boasted a good old fashioned main title sequence that truly called for a broad, melodic theme. I am still very proud of this ”vampire theme song” as performed by Louise Fribo, who also contributed the semi-mock Hungarian lyrics. ‘Iubiere infiniti’, eternal love…
Though I am a pretty fast writer, there certainly is a congruence between how much pressure there is and what kind of overall experience I have on a project. I prefer, if at all possible, to orchestrate everything myself. It takes more time, of course, but not that much extra time because I can write a score almost as fast as I can deliver a detailed demo. That said, however, in this day and age where directors are very media savvy and tend to expect more or less perfect sounding mock-ups, a lot of time can go into producing these. So, provided there is money for it, I either do fulfilling demos using sample libraries, and then leave the orchestration to someone else – or vice versa!
And then there’s the new trend of the financial set-back where there simply isn’t money to hire a big orchestra – or any type of orchestra – and the score ultimately is delivered as a polished version of the symphonic demos. I have done this a couple of times now; taking extreme pains to create a score that practically no one can detect being a ‘plastic’ score. One such example is a film I did in 2010, MY SISTER’S KIDS, which featured a real guitar in one single cue, and the rest was samples. I actually deceived some musicians who saw the movie and were sure it was orchestral.
You are obviously happy to work within any genre of film, from comedy THE ONE AND ONLY, through to tales of adventure THE EYE OF THE EAGLE, drama THE SPIDER plus enchanting movies such as TOMMY AND THE WILDCAT and ULVEPIGEN TINKE (Little Big Girl) plus a number of romantic and animated projects, but is there a particular type of movie that you warm to more than others and is there any genre that you have not worked on that you would like to?
SOMETHING IN THE AIR, a romantic comedy that came out late in 2011, is an example of something I really like to do. I am not exactly a sucker for ”Rom-Coms” as a genre, but as a writer this is a platform where my knack for melody and tunefulness can unfold almost unlimitedly. As with suspense and horror, romantic films really need music to enhance emotion, and that makes it a lot of fun to do. Again, the same with horror films – they’re DEAD without music and sound effects. Try watching a horror flick with the volume switched off!
A true aficionado ‘Americana’, I have always dreamed of scoring a real western. I came pretty close with my scoring of RED a couple of years ago, but I wouldn’t say no if someone approached me with another SILVERADO under his arm…
How do you arrive at your musical solutions. By this I mean what instrument or technology do you utilize to work out your ideas?
I can see myself changing bit by bit over the years – I will use more hands-on sampled comco sounds now than before because of what technology is offering us. If I select, say, a Piano + Strings patch, I can still ad lib freely while at the same time convey the style and sound of the music more realistically to the director, than if I just play a simple piano sound. Then again, if I wish to present a theme as ‘neutral’ as possible to someone, then it’s back to old drawing board – the piano! And since black and white keys are all I know how to play on, the piano remains the place where I feel most at home.
You were involved in the restoration and re-recording project of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN by Franz Waxman a few years ago. How did you become involved with this particular project and would you at some time like to re-record any other classic film scores by Waxman or any other composers and if so which ones?
As I said, BRIDE as well as Waxman’s music, is part of my backbone in terms of film music. When I actually approached Silva Screen Records around 1990, it was out my own frustration with not being able to find anything from BRIDE, apart from the splendid but over-orchestrated ‘Creation of the Female Monster’ on the Charles Gerhardt Classic Film Scores LP/CD series. James Fitzpatrick and Reynold da Silva took up the challenge and got John Waxman, Franz’s son, on board. It was a baptism of fire to me – having limited experience and working with a mixture of piano sketches and doing take-downs of orchestrations, based on a low-fi VHS tape. This is why I hugely admire people like Patrick Russ and all the work he’s done with reconstructing the scores of Dimitri Tiomkin. Or John Wilson and his behemoth feat of building from scratch the old, lost MGM musical classics. It’s a huge undertaking, huge!
I must say I haven’t looked back much since completing the BRIDE project, but on the other hand I am much more experienced now, and if another pet project came by, I might be tempted. But then again, I should probably just call up Pat Russ!
EYE OF THE EAGLE is a rousing and proud sounding score that contains so many wonderful themes. When working on a project, do you like to try to include specific themes for each movie’s main characters, if it is possible to do so?
There’s a historic bond between the late-romantic idiom and the Wagnerian leitmotif approach, and EYE OF THE EAGLE is a typical example of this. The movie was even labelled ”Wagner for Kids” – heroes and dark knights set in pre-medieval times in a story based on true events in Danish history. For this type of film, I think that themes and motifs for different characters will never go out of fashion. In EYE, we have a theme for the boys – a friendship theme, and The One-Eyed, the avenging dark knight and his eagle have their sinister, brooding theme in the minor key etc. It’s a classic recipe, a proven approach that can help focusing the story-telling. I wouldn’t want to use it for a kitchen sink-realism social drama, but it’s great for TILL EULENSPIEGEL, HELP! I’M A FISH, fairytale stuff!
Do you conduct and orchestrate all of your music for film, and do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
I don’t conduct, I’m not a conductor. I can ”wave my arms” in 4/4 and 2/4 time, but I have too much respect for friends of mine who have studied for years at the Sibelius Academy to call myself a conductor. And in films, the job of conducting is such a specialized craft where you have to deal with performance and interpretation PLUS having to worry about the timing! I have worked a lot with Mario Klemens at the Smecky studio in Prague. He is amazing, probably as experienced as any Alfred Newman or Muir Matheson out there.
Orchestration is an integrated part of my writing; I actually have a hard time trying to separate sketching and orchestrating. When I started working with the wonderful William Motzing on EYE OF THE EAGLE – my first feature film score – Bill had to teach me how to write a good sketch. Luckily, he sent my examples by people like John Williams and Laurence Rosenthal, so I was all set. The thing is, I have always combined sketching and final orchestration, particularly after I started using computer notation. I am a ‘Finale’ guy, for those who are into the religion wars of digital music notation.
I think I have now orchestrated more than half of my scores myself. Bill Motzing has done films like EYE, TOMMY AND THE WILDCAT, HELP! I’M A FISH, ANGEL OF THE NIGHT, while the Danish orchestrator Jørgen Lauritsen has worked on titles like TILL EULENSPIEGEL, BERTRAM and a few more. But I have contributed some orchestrated cues for all these projects – whenever there is time, I just love orchestrating. It’s like drawing a character and then colouring it.
Your favoured orchestra seems to be the City of Prague Philharmonic, who have performed a number of your scores. What attracts you to this particular orchestra?
Recording with the good folks at the now legendary ‘Smecky’ Studios (nicknamed after the street it’s in, Ve Smeckach in central Prague) has become a tradition. Though I have recorded more in Denmark in later years, it’s still like coming home when we go to Smecky. For most of what I have written, the rich, Bohemian tradition is just perfect. I often say that the strings sound of more, sound bigger and richer. Recording quality used to be an issue, but nowadays everyone’s using Pro-Tools, and my favourite engineer bar none is Mr. Jan Holzner. Listen to the new CD recording of Tiomkin’s GUNS OF NAVARONE, and you’ll understand why!
HELP! I’M A FISH contains a number of songs on its soundtrack. As a composer, do you feel on occasion that films rely on the use of songs rather than score too much, and that film makers also at times include songs that are really not suitable when original music would serve the picture better?
Yes and no. It sometimes happens in romantic comedies, and it happens in movies in general because producers and their record companies and publishers, who are sometimes all affiliated, have a not-very-hidden agenda where the film obviously is serving as a platform to launch or promote a potential hit song. On the other hand, we see – especially on TV – that well placed singer-songwriter type ballads can have just the right sentiment to do the job equally as good as a nice oboe – or guitar solo with strings would have done.
HELP! I’M A FISH is an example of smooth sailing in this respect. This probably has something to do with the nature of animation, where preparing, visualization and timing is everything. So we knew already during the storyboard phase where the songs would be placed, and all scoring was designed and ”woven” around it. I even took note of song keys, in case there would be tonal conflicts if a piece of scoring was placed close to a song. We recorded the orchestral arrangements for the songs in conjunction with my score – which I think is nice because you are likely to end up with a more homogenous result when the strings or orchestra has the same ‘sound’ as the score. Nick Ingman wrote most of the song arrangements and came with us to conduct them at U2’s recording studios in Dublin. We had a really great time there, and it’s a good feeling that the movie is still having a life out there and being enjoyed by a new generation of kids after more than ten years.
What composers or artists would you say have influenced you in your approach to composition?
Well, although I do think of myself having some span in terms of style, I guess I am rooted in orchestral, mostly melody-based scores. I can’t deny that the touchstone for me was John Williams’ score to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND – more so than STAR WARS, actually. So I guess it’s not unfair that I have been accused of being Williams-’esque’ at times, though it is really more a case of relying on the late-romantic stylistic approach I have used on some projects. To find the original sources of classic, you have to travel back to the Golden Age composers – Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin. But Erich Wolfgang Korngold is my top favorite of them all. What would Errol Flynn and Bette Davis be without him, what would ”adventure” be without Korngold – what would Williams be without him? My TILL EULENSPIEGEL score is an evident tribute to Korngold, though there is also a hats off to the ingenious Bernard Herrmann in the Ray Harryhausen-inspired Skeleton Fight in TILL. So there you have a few of my heroes listed! But I forgot the inimitable Jerry Goldsmith, who I think was a true chameleon who always somehow let his unique voice shine through in everything he did.