Interview with Leigh Phillips
Interviewer Ley Bricknell - IMFCA & Filmic Radio
On June 12th 2014 I had the pleasure to meet composer, orchestrator & conductor Leigh Phillips at the London College of Music and present him with an IFMCA Special Award. Leigh was recognized for his outstanding work in manually re-creating Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Salamander for its re-recording by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and subsequent premiere release on the Tadlow Music label.
Now, is this the first reconstruction you’ve done?
It’s the first full Goldsmith reconstruction that I’ve worked on, but not the first film score reconstruction.
What I’m most interested in is how did you get into the reconstruction of scores? How does anybody get that sort of project?
That’s a really good question. I think it started off with just a general interest in film music and really wanting to be a film composer. I sort of fell into the orchestration work. I began by composing for short films, animations, and for theatre projects; but I was then lucky enough to get hold of a few film music sketches, composer sketches from some older film scores, I think they were ‘Omen 3’ and possibly ‘Hollow Man’.
From that point, my interests, kind of, transferred to reconstructions and I began working more sketches into full scores with the intention, I suppose, of getting them performed at some point, and I really enjoyed the process. I particularly liked getting into the mind-set of the composer’s work that I was dealing with at that point. I appreciated the insight that the music gave me into their working process and the details of the compositional techniques that it revealed as well, it all just ballooned from there.
I began to do it more and more often, sometimes it was commission based, sometimes I’d be doing cues just for my own enchantment. I quite frequently used to send James Fitzpatrick [Tadlow Music] these random cues. I would just type in an email, “I don’t know if this is gonna be any use to you but here it is”. I did this for a couple of years and I think, eventually, he just gave in [laughs]. The first reconstruction James actually approached me to work on was, was ‘Exodus’, the Ernest Gold score.
A beautiful score.
Oh, absolutely fantastic. At some point there was some sort of confusion, the deadline for the recording dates had to be shifted. So it ended up there were something like three other orchestrators working on that particular reconstruction. I got the cues which were right at the end of the picture, the score was divided up evenly, between the four of us.
I think it was probably that assignment, I’m not sure, that set the trend for me doing stuff via takedown because, although I had one Gold sketch to work from, the remaining parts of the score, eighteen minutes or whatever it was, had to be done via transcription, either from film or from the original soundtrack recording.
Here’s my next question – I guess The Salamander was a little tougher, I should imagine, because there was no music archived anywhere, none of Goldsmith’s music had been saved.
The master tapes were lost and so you actually reconstructed the score, so it says on the sleeve notes, from watching the film. Now, to me who has no academic background whatsoever, that just blows my mind. I mean, just take me through that process.
It was actually during the ‘Quo Vadis’ sessions that James first broached the subject of ‘The Salamander’. He said that Luc [Luc Van de Ven, executive producer on The Salamander] was interested in producing it but – as you said – there were simply no materials available. But there was a Czech DVD, which he literally picked up in a shop just down the road from the studio!
My, my first reaction was, “Yes!, This is what I’ve been waiting for”. It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to work with Miklos Rozsa’s music and with Ernest Gold’s, who we’ve already talked about. But, obviously being a lifelong Goldsmith fan, when somebody asks, “Reconstruct a Jerry Goldsmith score”, it’s yes, yes, yes!
You didn’t have to think about that one?
No, no, so the first reaction was, “I can’t wait to do it”. Then reality creeps in a little bit later on. Quo Vadis was newly finished and, literally, just a few weeks later James sent ‘The Salamander’ DVD across and I started watching it. While I was watching it what I would do is go through a cataloguing process; every time a cue would come up, I’d take a listen to it, listen to it a few times on repeat, and then mark things down like ‘70% okay’, ‘30% cloudy’, or ‘80% okay’, ‘20% explosion’, or ‘can’t hear a thing’.
From there, I built up the little list of cues with info about what state the cues were in – I sent it over to James and said, “Well, you know, the majority of it, luckily enough, is there and the music is mixed relatively high. There are a couple of moments where you can’t hear a thing”. But I said, “It could be doable”. I said, “I might have to take some artistic licence with one or two bits, and sort of compose sections, which are going to be in a Goldsmith style, to link things at the points that are just impossible to hear. But aside from that”, I said, you know, “It should be okay to do”.
And when you’d done your bit, were you involved in any of the orchestration? Did you see it being played and recorded?
Yeah, yeah, I went to the sessions. The first session I actually attended, despite the fact that Becky [partner] and myself had actually worked on a few Prometheus/Tadlow projects before, was ‘Quo Vadis’, simply because I’d spent so long working on it. Following that, ‘The Salamander’ session was an absolute must. There was no way I was going to miss it. So yes, I attended the sessions for that and also had to produce some of the additional electronic work for the score.
Oh that’s right, I’ve, got it down in my notes that you’re listed as playing the Vintage Keyboards
What are those?
Well, Salamander essentially is a PM score: pre-MIDI. So any keyboard work would have been done manually, on the recording stage or over-dubbed afterwards. It wouldn’t have been pre-recorded and synchronised to a Pro-Tools system as it is now.
So the majority of synthesisers on the original ‘Salamander’, I don’t know whether they were analogue or (barely) digital, but, either way, they would have been pretty retro. Oddly enough, although technology has advanced to the point of ridiculousness, with current VSTI technology what’s becoming en vogue are actually retro-style modular synths. So on a sequencing programme, say Logic or Cubase, you can buy virtual instruments, which are designed to replicate these old analogue synthesisers.
I’ve got a few of those on the system I use, Cubase; and it was a case of trying to emulate the synthetic sounds that he used on the original score on newer technology, but getting it to sound relatively authentic. I mean, it wouldn’t be identical; you could never really capture the true sound, I don’t think. But, I suppose, the essence of it is there and it’s close enough.
Also in the sleeve notes, it describes you as ‘Goldsmith expert and enthusiast’. Is that correct?
Yeah, total geek. [joint laughter]
He is your composer of choice?
What was the first thing you heard that got you into Goldsmith? Can you remember?
Yes, I can but it took me years to realise what it was. This is the thing, this was the great cathartic moment. I don’t know if you know the scene in Blues Brothers, where John Belushi has that epiphany in the church?
It was quite similar to that. I think it was sunny that day at least. What happened was, and just to make a long story even longer, when you’re a little kid and you’re out playing with your friends, it was always good to have a theme tune. Quite often kids will sing when they’re playing. I had a killer theme tune. I never knew what it was, I never knew where it came from, but it was a very good theme!
Anyway, years progressed. I got to comprehensive school. I started taking more of an interest in music. I took up trumpet, as my first instrument, and had the opportunity to have brass lessons in school. I also joined a local band, so I became quite active, musically speaking, from about the age of 12 onwards, and I began to notice music more on television and especially in films. One day, I must have been about 13 or 14, and one day Star Trek: The Motion Picture came on TV, and boom!
And was it your theme?
That was it, and seven or eight years previous, I’m trying to think, what’s the timing on that? Star Trek was ’79, wasn’t it? So I would have been six. So yes, seven or eight years previous, I’d been running around the valley, or riding around the valley on my bike, singing like an idiot and not knowing what this thing was! Years later, there it is on television! I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe this!!”.
So from, from that point I tried to locate as many Goldsmith soundtracks as I possibly could. I couldn’t get hold of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as I just didn’t know how to get hold of soundtrack albums. I mean, we didn’t have the Internet, everything was obtained by mail order. I think that was the first time I actually came across Silva Screen Records; I sent a little slip off to get the physical paper catalogue listings with this amazing stuff in it. The first Goldsmith album I actually bought, which wasn’t long after the cathartic ‘Star Trek’ moment, was ‘Alien’. Boy was that a shock. I hadn’t seen the film at that point. I was too young to watch it. Mum wouldn’t let me watch stuff like that. I was expecting or something similar to ‘Star Trek’ but when I played it; what the hell?!
Even now it is truly one of the most tense scores you could listen to.
It’s utterly savage and it’s one of those scores that’s remarkable in every sense, exactly the same way that Planet of the Apes is remarkable; both using electronics, but only from a recording-technique perspective. There are no electronics per se in it. Everything is done acoustically, just by extended instrumental techniques or by incorporating instruments that have no business being in a standard symphony orchestra.
I think that’s one of his big marks, isn’t it?
As you say acoustic and he used, well it wasn’t really sound effects was it? He made those sound effects.
Now we have databases full of SFX but then he had to actually make-compose them, didn’t he?
It was remarkable, the sounds that he dragged out of that orchestra. If you played some of the music from ‘Alien’ alongside some of the music from the late 1950s avant-garde movement, Penderecki or Berio for example; depending on the cue, I think that someone would be hard pressed to clock which was the piece of film music.
It’s just a shame that it got so butchered in the dubbing process. The score was chopped and changed, it was chucked about from left, right to centre and of course they replaced the end titles with Howard Hanson, saying they wanted something much more romantic? How much more romantic can you get than the original end credits?!
It just makes no sense. Of course, in hindsight, Goldsmith was really on the money with this. Because, although it’s a beautiful theme and it does represent the romanticism or the romantic ideal of space travel, it does start out in a very sinister fashion, and that, of course, would have been a great precursor to the sequels….
That’s right. The one thing about his scores, it perfectly mirrors the ‘no-one in space can hear you scream’ tagline.
Because the opening of it is, you’re already in space, aren’t you, and it’s eerie and there is something out there, and his music makes you feel like that instantly.
Oh, definitely. I don’t know what your view is on this, but it’s really interesting that he couldn’t stand the replacement Main Title that he wrote. He was sited as saying, “Oh it’s a load of rubbish. I wrote it in 20 minutes”, he preferred the original version much more.
I suppose I’m a little bit on the fence with it because, on one hand, the original version would have worked because it would have set everybody up for a curveball, “This is gonna be a grand space opera” and then all of a sudden there’re aliens jumping onto people’s faces and all manner of horrible things happening.
Ridley Scott commented on the film that it had no point except for terror and more terror that it operates on a completely visceral level. Now I know that lots of people have said that Ridley Scott doesn’t have a clue about what he’s doing with music, and this may be true in some cases, but I do think they actually made the right call on the main titles with ‘Alien’, having it set us up for something weird, other-worldly, cold and barren.
Well, the other thing is, I watched ‘Alien’ not so long ago and I was amazed at how important sound is in that film. For example, the opening sequence where you’re seeing them wake up and the computers coming alive.
Even the sound of Mother, the computer.
There’s all sorts of noises in there and it, to my mind, it’s a partner to what Goldsmith is doing.
Sound design is paramount in that film. In some ways it’s an easy tool for creating tension, it really gets you to focus on things that make you feel uncomfortable. The sequence that particularly stands out to me is when Brett is looking for Jonesy and goes into the room where the cooling towers are; you just hear the heartbeat of the ship, the chains clinking, and then he starts to get water dripping onto his cap.
And the sound of the water hitting the brim of his hat is really aggressive. You know, it’s just really unsettling because it’s all so quiet and all of a sudden you get that (Sound).
Yes, and then I always think about the scene where a crew member is being killed but you only hear it, you don’t see it. It’s using sound to terrify and it works.
And it’s more terrifying than actually seeing it, I think.
Yeah, Lambert’s death, isn’t it?
You’ve got Sigourney Weaver tearing through the corridors and you hear these horrific howls coming across the monitors. I mean it’s brutal stuff. I think that, despite the filmmakers and Goldsmith not, completely, seeing eye to eye on what the final project was going to sound like, he certainly had the presence of mind to leave those parts untouched. The scenes literally rely on, pure, diegetic sound.
And I think that the periods of silence in the film, - also made it didn’t it?
Just thinking on it now - and you can’t say this about very many films - if you watch it again there’s nothing you would want to change. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect-
But it is just an astonishing piece of filmmaking, it really is.
Absolutely, I think it’s a seminal piece of cinema, and certainly, in its way, reinvented the genre; but it also gave the genre a new twist. Is it a horror? Is it sci-fi? Well they always described it as being a ‘haunted house in space’ film, but yeah-
(Laughter) I think it’s a bit more than that.
Moving away from Goldsmith. So I’m here in The London College of Music, just tell me a little bit about what you do here, do you actually touch on film composition in your role?
It’s actually what I teach.
I work with two groups of students. I work with undergraduate composers on their BMus in Composition course, but I deal mainly with the composers who are interested in approaching things from a filmic slant. On the BMus for Composition there are various strands. It includes concert composition, there’s jazz composition and popular composition too. They’ve all got their own specific portfolio requirements.
At this moment I’m teaching on the concert pathway but with a filmic slant. The objective is that we were going to create a film music pathway for the three years, which means that the students will actually be scoring pieces of film for their portfolio. But pieces of film that are broad enough, in their scope, to allow for the compositions to be fully developed and still stretch their skills as composers, as well as having to acknowledge certain dramatic requirements of the footage.
So that’s something that we’re hoping to implement next year. From what I can gather it will actually be the first BMus Composition course to have a film music pathway for the full three years, and to have people specialise in that pathway for three years.
So it’s been very exciting to work on developing that, and the other group of students that I work with are at Masters level; they specialise in composition for film and television. We’ve literally just spent the last few months re-writing the course for that to bring it up to date and that’s just been revalidated by the academic board, with advice from external advisors; we’re now ready to go with that in September.
Well, it’s really good to know that you’re doing this and it’s really good to know that people are being encouraged to score for films.
Yeah, I think that’s the one thing – I don’t know, this sounds like we’re blowing our own trumpets here - I think it’s the one thing that is going to be quite unique about this course is that it approaches things from the perspective that these guys have got to operate in the professional arena when they leave here, and it’s not just a case of simply scoring to picture.
Things like studio protocols, for instance - they’ve got an exam where their studio technique is assessed, how they interact with musicians, part preparations, communication with the engineer, how they manage the time that’s been allotted to them. All this is taken into consideration with the Score Production exam.
Even the orchestration module isn’t a straightforward orchestration module; it’s not simply ‘take a piano piece and arrange this for full orchestra’ or ‘arrange this in a few different styles’. Sure, they’ve got one of those pieces in there, they’ll choose a piano work and they’ll arrange it for a set ensemble. But, due to the nature of the work that I’ve been involved in over the years, we’ve almost got unprecedented access to original score materials; so their other two assignments on the orchestration module will be orchestrating into full score from a composer’s handwritten sketch. Some of these are problematic at best because information is missing or the handwriting is really appalling. They’ll have to negotiate these sorts of problems. And then, looking on the more current side of things, they’ve also got to do a full orchestration from a MIDI sketch. So something that a composer’s input into Logic or Cubase, which is pretty much the norm these days, the students will have to orchestrate the full score from the resulting MIDI file and from an additional MP3 reference, because things like articulations, dynamic contrasts etc. don’t come out as part of the MIDI transcript. It’s just the basic dots. This way, they’re simultaneously improving their aural skills, as well, because they have to listen to the reference track to get the expression and to get the feel. That’s got to be communicated properly and fully on the full orchestral page. So that’s just the orchestration module. As I say, it’s quite rigorous.
It sounds wonderful, and I think I’m going register straight away.
It’s been wonderful talking to you, it really has, and congratulations again on your award.
Oh, thank you very much.
And it’s been lovely to meet you, thank you.
You too, thank you.