Monday 31 July 2017

Who wants to listen to a film producer's music! Melissa Parmenter on composing, playing & film producing

Melissa Parmenter
Melissa Parmenter
Melissa Parmenter has an intriguing career, she studied music at Durham University but has managed to combine this with being a film producer. She was associate producer on Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs (2004) and has produced many of Winterbottom’s films, including all three entries in the critically acclaimed ‘Trip’ trilogy and Winterbottom’s Paul Raymond biopic, The Look of Love. She scored Winterbottom’s Genova and The Killer Inside Me as well as composing and performing solo piano works for several feature films, including Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart and 9 Songs, and Topspot directed by visual artist Tracey Emin (2004). Melissa recently appeared at Daylight Music at the Union Chapel in Islington, performing some of her solo works for piano, and she released a new digital track with cellist Harry Escott to coincide with the gig. In style Melissa's music is part of the new classical movement (see my interview with composer Sven Helbig) which crosses the boundaries between the classical and pop worlds.

Melissa Parmenter
Melissa Parmenter
Melissa studied dance at the London Contemporary Dance School and music at Durham University (She has composed on the piano since she was five, and was in love with film scores including classics by Philip Glass and Michael Nyman.) Leaving university she wanted to work in film music, but was unsure how to get into films as a composer so she decided to get into the film world first and got a job at Revolution Films. The idea being that once there, she would have the opportunity to 'throw a CD at the film editor',  a slightly unconventional yet ultimately successful strategy.

She managed to get some of her piano music onto Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs and onto Tracy Emin's Topspot. She was the line producer for Winterbottom's Genova which means that she was there from beginning to end including the editing, so she offered to do music for the temp track (the temporary music to which the film is edited before the final score is added), and her music simply stayed.
The issue of film composers and temp tracks is one which reoccurs in the film business (see my interview with film composer Rachel Portman), and often the official film composer has to write music which pastiches or evokes the music used in the temp track.

When writing music for a film, Melissa tries simply to follow what is going on in the scene; tense or romantic moments are 'quite obvious'. But it is important that music is not too distracting, and Melissa will keep watching the film, trying things out. Modern technology gives the composer many tools to be able to create temporary electronic versions of the music, before the final track is recorded properly. One thing that a composer has to bear in mind is that what they think works may not suit the director, and Melissa feels she has to get away from obsessing about a particular melody.

Scoring films that she is working on as a producer means that Melissa has experience of making the film already, the emotional journey, and in effect has 'inside information', and she loves that she has experience of both sides of the process. If a composer comes in cold to score a film then it can be very hard, particular if they don't know the director, and there are worries about what the director will do with your music. But working on a film score, there are so many people to please that it can take the romance out of the process.

Melissa film music has generally had a life away from the films in cases where the original film was popular, but she adds that there was a period when film scores became so functional that no-one ever listened to them away from the films. However, if you get the music right then it can have a life of its own, and comments that there are films where she simply loves a particular 'amazing melody' (quoting the love theme from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Melissa has released an EP on Spotify, and when we meet has been monitoring the progress of the track. But this raises all sorts of issues, whilst it is easy to get music 'out there' how do you get heard, and if the track does well what does she write next, something similar or something contrasting?

When Melissa was in her 20s the idea of sitting in a room with a keyboard wasn't very exciting, and she enjoyed the life experience of travelling whilst film producing. But more recently Melissa has been concentrating more on her composing recently partly thanks to changes in her personal life. She now has a child, which means that it is harder to go away for six months producing a film. She is also able to digest the life experiences which film producing has given her, and feels that she now has more tunes in her head than she ever did.

She enjoyed putting the track on Spotify; when we meet she confesses to obsessively checking the number of plays the track has received and gleefully quotes the latest figures. She also enjoyed performing at Union Chapel. She performed a 25 minute set, with Harry Escott (a cellist/composer friend) joining her, and she found the whole atmosphere very relaxed.

She is planning to work on more solo repertoire and will be releasing another piano piece in September, and she is definitely keen to do more performing. Though in person Melissa is lively and engaging, she admits to having occasional doubts commenting at one point 'who wants to listen to a film producer's music', and whilst for her the combination of film producer and composer makes sense, it can be seen as a strange combination.

As a woman working in both films and music, I wondered whether she had experience any sexism. In films she feels that she has not, and she comments on the number of women working in the industry. But adds that in the music business, whilst she has experienced little overt sexism she has thought about the issue and feels that it is there in a non-obvious way. This is particularly true of how composers are presented, and she feels that most male new classical composers tend to be presented as 'cool guys', something which does not happen with female composers.

Melissa Parmenter's EP Scandinavia
Melissa Parmenter on Spotify:

Elsewhere on this blog:

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