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Of Rock
and Hard Places
A conversation with composer Edward Shearmur

"It is too easy to write things in film music that are harmonically simple and the musical language is reduced down to essence.  That, to me, is not satisfying. I like to write music that has a little more sophistication than that. It is something composers from previous generations have done, but these days there seems to be a trend in film music to be so simplistic that the music is almost childish.
I am trying to avoid that."

» Edward Shearmur

 
       
   

The Interview - July 29, 2002     

 
   
Reign of Fire by Edward Shearmur

 

General Info:


Born in London, England

Resides in Los Angeles, CA.

Studied at Cambride University.

Music director and keyboardist for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

Has worked with artists:  Annie Lennox, Bryan Adams and Pink Floyd
 

 
 

Composition Credits:


Reign of Fire

The Count of Monte Cristo

K-Pax

Charlies Angels

The Wings of the Dove
 

 
 

 

 

 

 

With Edward Shearmur's latest project just hitting shelves, the ever-popular composer shares about his experience composing for Reign of Fire, working in the genres of rock and roll and film music simultaneously, and the similarities and differences between the two.

CC: There seems to be a growing population of musicians from the world of rock music that have migrated over to now compose film music. What would you say the allure of film music composing is to musicians in the rock/pop world?

ES:  Well, that’s not really happened in my case. My musical background was pretty balanced between rock and roll and classical education. I got into film music in way that works for a lot of people. I worked with Michael Kamen for about ten years and that was really my entry into film music. It wasn’t really through rock and roll. Rock an roll was really just another musical outlet for me. I was doing keyboards and string arrangements for people, but film music, in fact, was always a primary focus for me.


CC: So you have had film music in your mind from the very beginning?

ES:  Oh yes. Absolutely.


CC: How would you compare your experience working with people like Bryan Adams, Eric Clapton and bands like Pink Floyd with composing in the film music genre?

ES:  From a purely musical level, my approach for both is really quite similar, especially if I am doing a string arrangement for somebody. You are always trying to bring something out of a song that is already there. You are trying to help an artist express his vision and I think a film composer has to follow the same kind of approach. In film music, your primary concern is trying to help the director reach what he wants to achieve with the film.

As a composer, hopefully, the reason you keep getting hired is because you bring something to the table that isn’t necessarily immediately obvious. I think great film music, although it can transcend the film, it simply illuminates and elevates what is already there. There are many examples of great film music where it has taken a conventional scene and then shown us something about the scene or the characters that wasn’t evident. With film music, you are simply scoring something that is already there. You’re taking the audience and nudging them along. The film music for me is heightening the experience and taking it places that we wouldn’t get to otherwise.



CC: Do you think working in one genre helps you work better in the other?

ES:  There is definitely something to be said for concision. When you working in rock and roll very often the simplest ideas translate best. You can also learn how to do something with sound as opposed a very complicated musical idea. Those kind of principles absolutely translate into film.

One of the things I have found is that you could write the most complicated piece for days and days - it could be the most expert and brilliant piece of counterpoint demonstrating your absolute mastery of the orchestra – and there’ll always be something needling in the back of your head, “Well this isn’t quite right.” Then you decide after four or fives days of struggling with this, to throw it out and try something simple…and it works everytime!

The other thing I’d say is, as someone who has grown up with, listened to and played inrock and roll bands, absorbing all of those sounds, it’s nice to have another palette available to you.


CC: Would you say that it is more liberating creating within rock music or film music?

ES:  I think, depending on the film, you have a wider range composing film music. From a musical point of view, the canvas here is blank. On the other hand when I worked with a band, like Page & Plant, with their great legacy with Led Zepplin, they very specific in what they wanted, which was to take their existing material and “re-invent” it. So when we were doing the “unplugged stuff” and the tour that followed and have a chance


CC: Your latest project is REIGN OF FIRE, but early on there were some rumors that composer Mark Snow was lined up to score this film. Was there any truth to that?

ES:  I really don’t know. All of that was before I came on board, but I know Mark Snow is a fine composer and would imagine that he had other commitments or something.


CC: How did you come into the project?

ES:  I had worked with the producers, Spyglass, on The Count of Monte Cristo and that proved to be a very satisfying experience for both parties. They mentioned REIGN OF FIRE to me while we were scoring Monte Cristo. It’s really one of those projects you leap at as a composer because of the scope of the film and the opportunity to do something interesting orchestrally was one that can’t be missed.


CC: What sort of challenges does a film like REIGN OF FIRE present you with being so visually intense.

ES:  The only challenge that you face as a composer in that situation is that, most often, you don’t get those visuals until very late in the process. A lot of the time you’re working with a blank screen or wireframe composite, which doesn’t really give you any information on what the character of one these creatures is. You’re really flying blind until the you get close to the very end. The other challenge with a film like this is the that sound effects are going to be really “killer,” so you have to find a way to get the music to work within that.


CC: So in this case you didn’t have worry about the music overwhelming or competing with the visuals.

ES:  Well, my approach to writing was the same. You focus on the drama and what is motivating the characters to do what they are doing.


CC: This score definitely minimized discernable themes and was, to some, surprising in its dissonance.

ES:  Yes – deliberately so. When Rob (Bowman) and I were talking initially about the nature of the music for the film, he had a definite affinity for music that plays texturally rather than presenting over musical ideas. For example, he said very specifically, “Don’t give me violins! I don’t want violins.” Then a couple of days later I tried to sneak a couple of violins in there and he said, “Hey! What are those violins doing in there???” (laughs).

It is very interesting as a composer to have those sorts of intellectual challenges. They give you the opportunity to solve problems musically and in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily think of initially. So we ended up putting an orchestra together where none of the colors in the orchestra coalesced together. The string did their own thing. We had a huge brass group, sixteen horns and trombones doing their own thing. With the woodwinds, we eliminated oboes, and had 8 flutes, 8 clarinets, and 4 basoons – all used in a very textural way. We also had a huge percussion section. All of them were used to paint in a very primitive, coloristic manner. As far as the language was concerned, we weren’t going to rely on melody per se.


CC: Would you say you or the director were influenced by Goldsmith’s Alien at all?

ES:  I know that people have made that comparison, but for me, no. It wasn’t really in the forefront of my mind at all. It would be purely coincidental if there are any similarities. As a film composer, you absorb so much film music just through osmosis. Sometimes an idea will come and its because you’re looking to solve a problem in certain ways that inadvertent similarities are the result.


CC: Your music seems to indicate that you are equally comfortable writing synth scores as well orchestral. Do you have a preference?

ES:  If I could say, “I prefer both.” That is what I’d say! I really think it comes back to what your listening tastes were growing up. I was equally happening listening to very experimental, atonal, 20th century classical music as I was with punk rock music. So I think your early listening tastes form who you become later. As a musician, what it teaches you is that you have to be open to as many new sounds and ideas as you can. As soon as you start closing doors, you are closing doors artistically and creatively.


CC: To date what has been the most satisfying project you’ve worked on?


ES:  There all satisfying in certain ways, but I think Wings of the Dove will always have a special place in my heart. I was very close with the people involved in making the film. The score was written very quickly. I think there are very satisfying musical ideas in it. One thing that I am always keen to do is to write something that has a sort of musical integrity away from the film – not that this is always possible. Certainly Wings of the Dove, Monte Cristo and K-Pax have ideas which are contained within those scores that I consider “whole ideas.”


CC: So you’re actually considering, to some degree, how your music will play outside of the film?

ES:  Not at the time, really, but I like to write something that has “meat on the bones” as it were. It is too easy to write things in film music that are harmonically simple and the musical language is reduced down to essence.. That to me is not satisfying. I like to write music that has a little more sophistication than that. It is something that composers from previous generations have done, but these days there seems to be a trend in film music to be so simplistic that the music is almost childish. I am trying to avoid that.


CC: So you want to continue to the legacy of a Herrmann, Waxman, or North.

ES:  It would certainly be an aspiration of mine. There are so many great practioners of film music and each one has something to teach and as a student of film music, you are always amazed by the standard of writing that was achieved. Of course, now you have a John Williams, a Jerry Goldsmith or an Elmer Bernstein and it would be a shame if that level of musical sophistication and mastery of the orchestra was lost and buried under a rash of effects and samples.


CC: Do you think it is possible to reach the “mastery” level of a Waxman or Williams on the orchestral side and also stay proficient with the electronic side?

ES:  I don’t know. I’m still trying to find out! (laughs)


CC: You’ve had a great year so far with The Count of Monte Cristo and now Reign of Fire. I think you have pleasantly surprised a few within the film music community. What is coming up for you?

ES:  Well, you know I’m just looking at a few things now, but nothing I can talk about right now. My goal is just to keep improving, keep learning and make something that people will want to listen to. It certainly is gratifying to hear that people are seriously listening to what you are doing.


CC: Well thank you for your time and all the best to you in your upcoming projects and we look forward to hearing more intriguing music from you in the future.

ES:  Not at all. Thanks Chris.

 
       

   Reign of Fire by Edward Shearmur available at Varese Sarabande.com

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