An Interview with Tuomas Kantelinen by John Mansell © 2014
Tuomas Kantelinen, is one of the brightest stars within the cosmos of film scoring, his highly original and innovative music has ingratiated numerous movies and television productions. Born on September 22nd in Finland, he won the Finnish Jussi Award for Best Film Music in 1997 and 1999 and was awarded the Finnish Art Critics’ award for “Most impressive Artistic Breakthrough of the Year” in 1999 for his achievements in the fields of film music and classical music. He is known for his beautiful orchestral film themes, but has also scored ads for well-known mobile operators, banks and consumer products, as well as the theme music for MTV3 (Finland) news. in addition to film music, he also composes concert music,ballets and even operas. His opera about long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi was performed on the Helsinki Olympic Stadium to 22.000 spectators per night in summer 2000.
THE LEGEND OF HERCULES is one of your most recent film scores, how long was the scoring process on this project from start to finish?
I met Renny for lunch in the beginning of February a year ago he had just gotten the gig – so for a big film with so many effects THE LEGEND OF HERCULES was completed in record time. I don’t usually get involved that early in the process, but for this film we started right away, by making a sort of teaser for which I wrote some music, it was shown to buyers at the Berlin market a year ago. I also composed some cues for the set so they could have action music or music for some emotional scenes while they were filming. I was also working on the temp score of the movie, both helping to choose temp music and writing little atmospheric and transition pieces while they were editing the movie. We spotted the movie around the beginning of October, and then I started composing in earnest. Recording was in the beginning of December, final mix from the second week of December, and the movie came out on January 10th. All in all a very compact schedule, especially since the release was changed to an earlier date fairly last minute!
You worked with director Renny Harlin on MINDHUNTERS did he have specific ideas or instructions for you regarding the music on this and HERCULES or was he happy to let you create the score and see what you had produced?
From the start Renny knew he wanted an ‘old-fashioned’ epic and orchestral score in the vein of classic swords & sandals movies. I have learned to know his taste he really goes for the melody – the more memorable and ‘hummable’, the better. He isn’t one of those directors who think that everything or anything is ‘too much’ where you might end up with a drony music for the duration of most of the movie. Renny wants it big, and epic, and unashamedly massive. When spotting, we were laughing a lot, because for almost every scene him or one of the producers would say: “and this one has to be really huge and epic” – there are so many action scenes and each is bigger than the previous one.
What size orchestra did you utilize for the score and where did you record?
We had a big orchestra with almost 90 players in Budapest, where we recorded for a couple of days. We then continued to London, where we recorded all the brass for the score and also a smaller string ensemble for some cues that needed the accuracy of the London players. Those we recorded at Air Studios, and also mixed there for about a week. We were unfortunately in quite a hurry due to the final mix starting two days after our last recording day, so we mixed all day and delivered reels in the evening when it was the start of the day in Los Angeles.
The female vocalist on the score for HERCULES plays quite a large role on a number of the cues, who is the vocalist?
There are actually three female singers in HERCULES – one of them is my own sister Karoliina Kantelinen, who is a singer and ethnomusicologist. She is one of the three singers in the Finnish folk band Värttinä that is quite popular all over the world among folk music fans. Then there are talented twin sisters Nicki and Tanya Wells, whose singing we can hear in a couple of key scenes like when Zeus visits Queen Alcmene in her bedchamber. Nicki and Tanya are very well versed in many musical styles and have studied singing in India, so the base of that cue is a ‘shloka’, a sort of mantra that they sing in harmonies. On top there is more melodious singing by then. This was the last cue that we hadn’t recorded. Nicki and Tanya came in around midnight to Air Studios, where we had just recorded a full day of brass and strings. We were watching the pictures and talking about how we wanted to layer singing and give the scene a sort of ‘divine intervention’ feel without being too ‘angelic’. In about two hours we were done, and super happy with the result. It is such a privilege to get to work with such creative people.
Your music is I think very unique as you create many highly original passages and are inventive when it comes to orchestration, do you orchestrate all of your film music when possible or because of schedules do you find it a better arrangement to use orchestrators at times?
I do love to orchestrate myself, and try to get into detail whenever it is possible. Even when someone orchestrates, I like to work with the cue quite a lot before giving it forward, so there usually aren’t that many ‘surprises’ for me. That said, I have a wonderful long collaboration with Matt Dunkley from the UK, a great orchestrator and composer who really understands my way of creating music (both in the artistic and logistic sense – meaning I tend to be a bit last minute sometimes). I wouldn’t use an orchestrator for my classical concert pieces, because I feel the craft is in all those intricate details. But in film music often there is just not enough time to go that deep into it, especially when dealing with the US way of doing things which is much more a group effort of a number of folks giving notes and the composer addressing them, sometimes until the recording. A lot of time is used into honing cues, and for Hercules I certainly couldn’t have pulled it off without Matt’s endless patience and talent.
What musical education did you undertake and did you concentrate on any one instrument whilst studying?
I played a number of instruments from when I was a child, but my main instrument when I’m composing is the piano. I went to Sibelius High School and then to Sibelius Academy, where I studied composition for about six years. As you probably guessed, we Finns are proud of our countryman Sibelius, that’s why these two specialized music schools are named after him! Sibelius Academy is a serious university, so most of my composer colleagues who studied at the same time only work in concert music. When I’m working I’m ok with the life of a hermit, sitting alone and composing but I like the added benefit in film music of meeting other people and collaborating with them. I guess I’m just too sociable to just work on my own all the time. With scoring for films, I strike this nice balance of being able to work with people, while the core part of the composing is of course done alone.
Do you come from a family that has a musical heritage?
My grand mother Liisa used to be a kind of ‘grand old lady’ of music education in the area of Ostrobotnia. She made us sing, dance and play instruments when we were little and three of us four siblings have ended up in the music industry. We all played piano but got to choose other instruments as well. I played the oboe, my sister plays the ‘kantele’ – a traditional Finnish instrument, my brother Kustaa played the guitar and became a rock musician. My brother Johannes played drums, but he didn’t end up choosing a musical profession, he directs news broadcasts.
In a number of your scores you use human voice which has returned effective and original results do you look upon the voice as another instrument within the orchestra?
You could say that. I find the human voice a very suggestive instrument, it can touch emotions – maybe we relate to it because it’s the instrument that we all have. In addition to film scores I have written concert and stage music, also choir pieces, song cycles and now recently, a musical. So I guess I am fascinated by the human voice!
Do you have a preference when it comes to a particular orchestra or maybe a studio when you record your film scores and what would you say are the main differences from recording in the United States and Europe?
My first preference for long as been Air Studios in London, with the sublime musicians that can be contracted there. I have recorded in the U.S. a couple of times, but recordings tend to be more in Europe due to the flexibility of a buy-out deal, usually the producers don’t want to worry about royalties and residuals to musicians afterwards. L.A. musicians are great though, so I hope I will be able to record there again!
Did you always think that you would like to write music for film?
Originally when I started seriously studying music and composing, I think I thought I would become a ‘classical composer’ and would write symphonies and concertos. I still do that on the side and enjoy writing concert music as then you are really the artist – no one is going to send you notes or reject your piece, you are at liberty to write anything you want. I love beautiful music, so I try to make everything beautiful and harmonious, both when I write for concerts, the stage of for the screen.
At what age did you first begin to take an interest in music and what composers or individual artist, bands etc do you think have influenced you at all?
When I got into film music, it was still the golden age of adventure movies in the vein of ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Goonies’, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Star Wars’ etc. – the sort of 80′s crowd-pleasing big films with good old film music. Growing up and watching those, I looked up to John Williams, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Michael Kamen, among many others. On the classical side my heroes are still Tchaikovsky, Rahmaninov, Shostakovich, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
You composed the music for the ballet SNOW QUEEN, how does writing a ballet differ from scoring a motion picture?
I worked together with choreographer Kenneth Greve, the artistic head of the Finnish National Ballet, so he was my ‘director’ on this one. We went through the story and I would compose on-site at the National Opera House, he would come in and give me comments. I learned a lot about how to structure music for dance. For instance there always has to be a sort of ‘prologue’ for each piece, to facilitate the dancers’ entry on stage. I didn’t even think about it before, but got quite good at it towards the end of our collaboration! Ballet has a lot of repetition as many a times you’ll have 20 or 30 dancers in several rows who will be doing some dance moves by the row with the next row following etc. All in all it was a fascinating experience and I look forward to working on another ballet in the future!
How much time do you normally have to write the score for a movie, maybe you could use THE YEAR OF THE WOLF as an example?
Usually time is short from locked picture to final mix in the worst case scenario I only have a couple of weeks or less. If I have two months I consider that pure luxury. With THE YEAR OF THE WOLF I had way over a month, so it wasn’t too bad. As the music for the film is sort of minimalist, it was fairly easy to produce in that time. We recorded at Air Studios as well with engineer Geoff Foster, who made it sound great, as usual.
How much music did you write for HERCULES and how much of the score made it onto the CD release, do you also have any input into what music will go onto any CD release?
I wrote about 85 minutes of music and a lot of it is on the soundtrack CD, but not all. CD’s are always difficult to compile as cues are short and it could sound very ‘fragmented’. This time Geoff Foster made the selection for me, and we changed a couple of things, but it’s mostly his ‘vision’ on the soundtrack. I find it hard to make play lists as I am probably too close to the music that I have just composed. I probably wouldn’t leave anything out and would be attached to some strange little cues… All in all it’s important that the music flows and provides a nice listening experience to the film music fans that get the soundtrack.
I think LIPTON COCKTON was your first movie score, how did you become the composer on this movie?
I was studying at Sibelius Academy at the time and met with director Jari Halonen, who is a very interesting, intense and talented guy. His movies are of the ‘true indie’ type, he really isn’t going for a commercial appeal, but follows his own intuition. Lipton Cockton is a futuristic conspiracy drama and has become a kind of cult film with time. Jari trusted me with the music and was very demanding, he has a reputation of being demanding towards everyone in his projects, but I enjoyed the challenge and trying to come up with exactly what he wanted for his film.
I think before that I had only made the music for one other film, Helsinki City Symphony, which was an ambitious documentary about moments and facets in the life of Helsinki and its inhabitants.
MONGOL is a highly original sounding score, what research did you do for the music before you began to write the score?
I listened to a lot of music from Mongolia and Kirgistan, and acquainted myself to the local instruments and traditional music styles. The score itself was a hybrid of those Mongolian sounds and a traditional epic orchestral score. We really had all the western musicians and traditional players and singers in the same hall, playing together. It was the most inspiring process and the movie itself is great, I never get tired of watching it. The Mongolian musicians, who participated, Altan Urag, are an amazing group of people and it was such a privilege to get to know them.
What is your opinion of the increased use of electronics and also samples within film music, and how do you arrive at your musical ideas, do you use keyboard, piano, computer or pencil and paper?
I like to compose on the piano, and scribble things down with pencil on paper. But then of course I move to the computer and work with Pro-Tools and Logic and all those mod cons. As my final outcome is usually the orchestra, I find it challenging to use a lot of time and resources into mock-ups, but that is how it works nowadays. If they don’t sound good enough, the client can not imagine what it will sound with the real orchestra, beautifully recorded and mixed. I like the flexibility of adding things with the computer, but am a big fan of the traditional orchestra sound and don’t see myself writing only electronic or sample music, it complements all my scores but alone it really isn’t my thing.
Do you agree with the use of temp tracks by directors, or can these at times be distracting, especially if the director has grown fond of it?
I am sure all composers have struggled with the dilemma of the temp track. In Europe, we don’t have this tradition that much – sometimes I will even get a cut movie that doesn’t have any music other than source. But in the U.S. system everyone works with temp, and it can be both blessing and curse. The good thing is that with temp it’s easy to understand what kind of music the director wants in each scene, so in a way it sometimes helps to understand what musical style they are after. Of course when you work on a movie with a limited music budget, it is sometimes frustrating when they use super expensive music as temp. They sort of expect the same from you, even if with the funds at your disposal, you can hardly afford a fourth or third of the sessions and musicians this big expensive movie score has. Of course, if asked to do it, I will try to ‘copy the temp’, but I bet none of us composers do that happily as it’s wrong to both the composer of that original cue, as well as your own artistic integrity. But we’ll all try to make the director and studio happy and think of the big picture, to make the movie work and the best it can be…
What is next for you?
I am now writing for a Russian epic movie based on a popular book, and this spring I will also work on a Finnish-Swedish co-production with a comedic premise. Some projects in the U.S. are ‘bubbling under’, but I can’t say anything official yet. I hope to be able to continue this sort of eclectic mix of US based bigger movies, European art house, Indies, concert and stage work. After a hectic film music gig it’s nice to sit a couple of weeks at the countryside house, look out of the window and write something of my own… After doing that for a while, I crave another crazy adventure in the film music world!
Many thanks to the composer for answering my questions and also a big thank you to Beth at Cine media promotions for making the interview possible.