Saturday 28 August 2021

Creating the musical language that belongs to the film: I chat to composer Benjamin Woodgates about writing for film, notably his first feature film score for 'Dream Horse'

Benjamin Woodgates
Benjamin Woodgates

Scoring your first feature film is a big deal, particularly for an up-and-coming composer. And the British composer Benjamin Woodgates has done just that with his score for Dream Horse, Euros Lyn's 2020 film. Decca has just released the original motion picture soundtrack, whilst the film is about be released on digital. This isn't Benjamin's first film experience of course, and he has worked widely as an arranger both for film and for artists such as composer/cellist Abel Selaocoe, as well as writing concert works for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and St Paul's Cathedral Choir. Benjamin and I met up by Zoom last month to chat about writing film scores and more.

Dream Horse, starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis, tells the story of a group of ordinary people who buy and train a winning horse, mixing scenes in the Welsh valleys with those on the horse-racing track. Do you have to be interested in a subject like horse racing to write music for a film like that? Benjamin laughs at my question and says he hopes not as, until starting work on the film he had never been to or watched a horse race. But when he knew he was in the running for doing the score he went to the races at Chepstow (one of the locations for the film) as part of his research and began to understand the thrill that people get at the races.

When he first started getting ideas for the music he worked on using a different cadence based on the way the horses run. Not a lot of this work ended up in the final result, but it was an important part of the process. The horse-racing scenes in the film are scored for strings, so de started by asking himself what instruments you might hear to accompany a race and decided that the elements of horse-hair (in bows) and animal skin drums provided a tangible animal quality to the music. 

Dream Horse - original motion picture soundtrack - Benjamin Woodgates
When Benjamin started work the film more-or-less existed in a rough cut, though this was constantly evolving. He had four or five months in which to write and record the music, though he also had to revisit music already written as the film was edited. Again, this is all part of the process, though it does play havoc with tempos and time changes.

Writing the music was a mixture of planning and free-thinking. Whilst he thinks through a film score, to limit his musical choices, he also has to accept that there will be scenes where the planned music just does not work and he has to go back to the drawing board. With Dream Horse this meant, for a couple of scenes, creating music with less structure and concept behind it.

There is about an hour or 50 minutes of music in the film. There are a lot of bitty moments lasting a minute or 90 seconds, but there are also set pieces lasting five or six minutes that have a self-contained musical structure. There is also 15 minutes of other music, such as songs from South Wales bands of the 1990s, and Benjamin had to be aware that his music needed to sit alongside this. 

Benjamin's way of working is somewhat old-fashioned, as he writes the music out as a score and then records it. He has done a lot of work orchestrating for other composers who create the music using a sequencer and a keyboard, and this can be sent to the director as a demo, with Benjamin then translating this into a written score for orchestra. But when he is writing his own music he admits that he struggles to think vertically and needs to see the score horizontally, so he sketches out in manuscript, very shorthand, and then writes out the music in full.

But nowadays the director and producers usually want to hear demo versions of the music which sound very close to what it will sound like when played live. This is Benjamin's most painstaking (and least favourite) part of the process as he makes a demo recording of each cue, generally using MIDI but creating sounds as realistic as possible. Some music lends itself to this, but often more athletic writing does not and he might use real musicians to improve the sound.

Benjamin feels that he was lucky with Dream Horse, the director Euros Lyn is a musician (evidently a capable trombone player and a lover of music) but Lyn didn't let on at first; he never used musical terms when describing what was needed and understood the difference between the synthesized version of the music and the final, live version. So that Benjamin was sent a broad range of musical references, from Welsh folk-music to Nick Cave, but never told the score should sound like this. 

Dream Horse: LCO strings at Air Studios (Adam Miller engineering)
Dream Horse: LCO strings at Air Studios (Adam Miller engineering)

With a British film which is both the story of the underdog and a community story, certain musical conventions often apply and Benjamin wanted to avoid this and tried to find another way of approaching the music. So the score is largely built from smaller motifs and musical fragments rather than big sweeping themes. 

Benjamin has no idea whether his score might have a life outside the cinema, his goal was for the music to live within the film and anything beyond is secondary. He also finds that a lot of film music struggles to work in a different setting. Partly this is because the music often needs to emerge seamlessly from out of the action. In concerts, music needs a beginning, middle and end, whereas for Benjamin, film cues often have a middle but no real beginning or end. That said, the racing scenes give a more symphonic structure to the music and Benjamin wonders whether a suite might be possible, and would love to give the music an airing in public. In fact, the music is quite tough, with plenty of rhythmic challenges for the string players.

They deliberately tried to create a musical distinction between the scenes in the Welsh valleys (generally enclosed spaces, with a homespun feel to the music with rough edges yet warmth and depth) and the racing scenes (in a more wide-open landscape with more sophisticated, expansive music yet also aloof). This was done partly to emphasise the way the characters from the Welsh valleys felt like fish out of water in the race scenes, giving the sense that they were not part of that society.

Dream Horse: Tabwrdd drum made by Marcus of Newport plus other percussion
Dream Horse: Tabwrdd drum made by
Marcus of Newport plus other percussion
Benjamin has written music for film and for multi-media projects as well as for concerts, he feels that his concert music does not have much in common with film and multi-media scores, and he enjoys this difference. With a film, he is starting from scratch and he plays a role in creating the musical language and ethos that belongs to the film. In many ways it is easier, writing music for someone else's vision.

Ironically, one of his major concert works is also different from anything else, because it was written for the choir of St Paul's Cathedral and the piece takes account of the echo and huge delay in the acoustic. So Benjamin's piece needs that type of acoustic to work, and would not go well in a much drier concert hall. So for St Paul's he uses the wash of sound from the building's reverberation to obscure elements of the music so that the choir might enter softly covered by the organ.

Returning to film music, but more generally, we chatted about the role of music in film and whether Benjamin was influenced by other films. He points out that if music in a film is doing its job well, you won't be distracted by it. But in other people's films, he can't help but notice and evaluate the music and also the dramatic choices being made, how they use the music to sculpt a scene. He feels he can learn from such processes, though he admits that he doesn't listen to film music on its own.

Benjamin's route to film music has been somewhat circuitous and it took him a while to work out what he wanted to do. So he was conducting ensembles and community groups, arranging and teaching, and he realised that he wanted to write music. Whilst he had always been interested in film music he worked out that if he was to make writing music the primary use of his time, he had a better chance of making a living if he was writing film music. He would dearly love to do more concert work and currently manages to keep a toe in that sphere. But his goal was to write music full time and that is difficult in the classical world, most composers mix composing with being academics or teaching.

There was, however, also the issue that he felt something of a disconnect between contemporary classical music and the music he wanted to write. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he was disillusioned by contemporary music there. Whilst much was of a fantastic high standard, the music he wanted to write would not sit alongside it. And he has found a lot of stigma on both sides, with a lot of unimaginative film music and a lot of inaccessible contemporary classical music.

Dream Horse: Benjamin Woodgates at small ensemble sessions, Livingston Studios
Dream Horse: Benjamin Woodgates at
small ensemble sessions, Livingston Studios
Benjamin did the arrangements for cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe's BBC Prom (15 August 2021, available on BBC Sounds). Benjamin worked with Selaocoe last year and finds him a fantastic musician. As a cellist Selaocoe is astounding and there is a crossover element to his performances. Benjamin admits that crossover is something of a dirty word, but Selaocoe incorporates classical, South African music, church music and pan-African musical traditions into his performances. And Benjamin is fascinated by the point of intersection between this music and writing for orchestra and chorus. Last year, Benjamin worked on UlibambeSelaocoe's Leeds Sound Walk for Opera North and the orchestra and chorus found the level of rhythmic precision in the music difficult. 

For example, in terms of time signatures, Selaocoe might be thinking in 3 and 4 at the same time, so the music would be notated in 3/4 but actually be 6/8 or 12/16 or something else! This makes it tough to notate, and Benjamin has to get down to the nitty-gritty of the right beaming for the music so that it makes the best possible sense for the performers.

As a teenager, Benjamin's father ran a wind band and Benjamin grew up around music. Whilst being a composer was in the back of his mind, at 17 or 18 he wanted to be a percussionist in the mould of Colin Currie or Dame Evelyn Glennie. But then he went to university (rather than music college) and there was no percussion on which to practice, so he ended up doing a lot of choral music and being an organ scholar. This meant that he returned to singing every day; he had been a chorister as a boy treble, but from 13 to 18 he barely sang, concentrating on playing bassoon and percussion. So at university, he found himself back in the choral world, and he followed that thread, though it took him a while to get confidence, to write music and find outlets.

What kept him going was doing orchestration for others. He still enjoys doing it and tries to achieve a balance between orchestrating and arranging for others and writing his own music. He admits that it has been a whilst since he has written much concert music and doesn't really know what his music would sound like. This is one reason why he enjoys writing film music, he does not feel bound by his own perceived musical persona.

Whilst last year was, inevitably, rather quiet things have started to move. He was musical director and arranger for Terence Davies' film Benediction, which is about the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Benjamin loved the film, and it was his first experience of working on a film set; generally, all his work is done remotely. Music plays a big part in the film, and Davies had a clear vision of the music. Usually, in films, the script is written, they shoot it and then the director edits the results into the film. But with Terence Davies, he has seen the film in its entirety before he starts shooting it. The piece is a biopic of Siegfried Sassoon and he led a very interconnected life and knew Walton, Ivor Novello, the Sitwells and more. So a lot of the music is diegetic music, but they had to balance between what was authentic and what worked with the storytelling. There was a mix between music recorded before filming began, music recorded on set, and music recorded afterwards. 

Benediction is will have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2021.

The original motion picture soundtrack of Dream Horse is available on Amazon, Spotify, and the DVD of the film is available to pre-order from Warner Bros.

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