An Interview with Xavier Capellas by John Mansell © 2011
Xavier Capellas, born in Barcelona, Spain, started his music career as a jazz pianist and took a detour towards composition in his twenties, studying Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music and the University of Southern California. Since 1990, Capellas has been composing for films and TV, and worked with directors such as Montxo Armendáriz on OBABA, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón on LA VIDA QUE TE ESPERA and UNA ROSA DE FRANCIA, Mariano Barroso on HORMIGAS EN LA BOCA, Laura Mañá on LA VIDA EMPIEZA HOY. He has written music for Javier Mariscal’s animated TV-series THE COBI TROUPE and TWIPSY, and for Manuel Huerga’s OPERACIÓN MALAYA.
You were born in Barcelona, and your career began as a jazz pianist. Did you come from a family background that was musical and when did you decide to move towards composition rather than being involved with music as a performer?
My father and his brother played piano and violin from a very early age, and I heard classical and some jazz standards at home since I was a kid. My father also liked to do some music editing to the family Super 8 films, and the tracks that he chose for those family clips really made an impact on me. I specially remember some Wes Montgomery and Barbra Streisand tunes. After playing some jazz in hard bop bands and liking Thelonious Monk above all, my brother Sergi who is a commercial director asked me to play along on my synthesizer to a video he was making, and a new window opened in front of me, I thought that was very creative to do these kind of collaborations.
You studied composition at Berklee College of music and also at The University of Southern California. Were you already living in the United States or did you travel there specifically to study music?
I travelled to study at Berklee, I thought that I could do their Film Scoring program and still play some jazz. I graduated in four semesters and got a scholarship to continue my studies in Los Angeles, were I did what now is called “Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV” one-year program.
As you were already a pianist – is this the instrument you favour to use when working out your musical ideas?
Like most of composers of today I work on my keyboard directly to the computer, but using samplers sounds that emulate some orchestral or electronic instrument rather than thinking as a pianist. Sometimes when I’m looking for a theme I leave the studio and play on my acoustic piano, just to get away from the computer environment.
BRUC has a very powerful score, it is also a varied work and contains a great deal of differing elements in the way of instruments, (duduk, female voice, bouzouki) plus these were supported and augmented by the use of an almost growling, electronic sound design. Did the director have any specific instructions for you when you were writing the score and could you describe the role of the many musical elements within the film?
The director Daniel Benmayor gave me some good ideas for me to use, like mixing some electronic sounds with the orchestra to reflect the French army presence in Catalonia, and the pressure they were making to get Bruc. He also had the idea to use the female voice and relate it to the mountains of Montserrat, one of the main characters of the film.
How did you become involved on BRUC?
I had worked with director Daniel Benmayor on his movie PAINTBALL and I approached him to score this film because I could use a wide range of orchestral colours and different musical ideas.
Do you score a project in any particular order – I mean by this, do you begin with a theme and then develop this into a core piece that you build the score around or do you tackle smaller cues first and then work on the theme?
After trying some ideas and seeing how they work on certain sequences of the film, I define the main themes that will be the material for the main characters. Also there are some music ideas that only apply to specific moments and won’t appear again in the film.
BRUC is released on Movie Score Media. Were you involved in the selection of the tracks that were to be put onto the compact disc?
The record producer Mikael Carlsson did a first selection and sequence order, and from there I adjusted and did a final selection of tracks that could work for listening without the visuals.
Do you orchestrate all of your film music or is at times not possible to do this because of time schedules etc. Also I noticed on BRUC you utilized a conductor, do you conduct at all?
Although I’ve been an orchestrator for other composers, in my projects I like to have someone with me and make a team, orchestrator and conductor. Composing is a very lonely job and it’s nice to interact with other professionals, it’s like playing in a jazz quartet again, reacting to what the other players do. I would like to conduct again as I have done sometimes, but normally I like to control the sound on the studio to have a more cinematic reaction to the performance.
You worked on two animated TV series COBI TROUPE and TWIPSY, for Javier Mariscal. How does scoring TV and animated films differ from live action?
The animation I have worked on are TV series for kids, with weekly episodes. I think that the work differs a great deal between TV series and feature film, maybe because of the time allowed and this is for animated or live action. In the series that you have mentioned, once I had the main themes I would adapt them to every sequence on every week episodes. The drawings of Javier Mariscal are very distinctive because he is a very original artist. It’s always a pleasure working with him.
What do you think is the purpose of music in film?
I think that the music has to make a film better if that is possible and also gives a stronger identity to it.
How do recording facilities and also the availability of musicians in Spain compare to facilities in the rest of Europe or in the United States?
When it comes to a regular symphonic orchestra sound, right now is easier for Spanish composers to record in Eastern countries, because there is more production flexibility. There is a new generation of excellent players in Spain, and I hope that some high level recording orchestras can be set up for recording projects. When I need a special sound or soloist I prefer to know the players directly and work less in a rush than in a typical orchestral session, and in those cases I prefer to record in Spain.
What composers would you say have been most influential upon you and your approach to composition?
Although I admire the great film composers, I like being influenced by listening to concert music. I love the Russian composers of the 20th century, as well as Bartók. I think you can get great ideas from the Bartók Mikrokosmos piano pieces, because with very simple ideas he creates very interesting sonorities and harmonies.
How much time were you given to score BRUC, and how many times do you like to see a movie before you begin to get fixed ideas about where music should be placed and also what type or style of music is required, or do you become involved before filming has started and see a script?
I was working in BRUC for 12 weeks. But it varies from movie to movie, it really depends on when you are hired, before or after shooting. The script can be an early inspiration, but when you have the picture assembled you stick to that, because it helps you to achieve the appropriate tempo and mood.
In the past five years or so we have seen so many great Spanish movies and an equal amount of wonderful scores. Do you think that Spanish film music has become popular because of the definite lacklustre Hollywood soundtracks of recent years or do you think it is because Spanish film music is at times evocative of some of the older film scores that collectors and aficionados are turning to Spain?
I think that we have less pressure in Spain in terms of commercial approach to music. We can risk a little more because we don’t make blockbusters and there is more space for creativity.
Are you happy working on any genre or is there a particular type of movie you prefer?
I like working in different genres because that way you can try new composing approaches and also it stops you becoming repetitive.
Have you ever been asked to work on a project and after seeing it decided to decline the offer or have you ever had a score rejected at all?
It happened to me sometimes because I was busy, but generally I’ve liked the projects I’ve been offered. So far I’ve been lucky and have not had any of my music rejected, but we all have to be prepared for that moment when it comes.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing a TV miniseries called VOLVEREMOS about exiled Spanish republicans fighting in the French army in the 2nd World War.