The Journey From Pop to the Screen

Monday, 10 Dec 2012

David Hirschfelder, David McCormack, Roger Mason: they’ve written the scores to some of our most successful films. ADAM LEWIS spoke to all three about that curious space that film composition inhabits in the songwriting landscape and the different pathways that led them there.

“I sort of fell into the pop/rock world in my late teens, but actually I dreamed of being a film composer ever since I was a young child growing up in the 60s,” says David Hirschfelder, the BAFTA and Screen Music Award-winning composer of films such as Shine, Elizabeth, Strictly Ballroom and Australia.

“I loved watching the old epic movies on TV, and I loved the music in those films. I was attracted to the soaring melodies from scores such as Spartacus, Ben Hur and Exodus.”

While pursuing a successful career in pop music – Hirschfelder performed in John Farnham’s band, Little River Band and Dragon – he was constantly looking for opportunities in film and television. And yet, his first film work opportunity took him completely by surprise.

“I got the gig purely by accident. I had given a cassette of my piano and synth compositions to a friend who, unbeknownst to me, happened to be sharing a house with the director of Suzy’s Story, who, upon hearing the music emanating from the portable cassette player in the kitchen, said ‘Who’s that? That’s the kind of score I want for my documentary.’ My friend said ‘that’s David Hirschfelder, keyboard-player of The John Farnham Band. Would you like his phone-number?’”

One thing leads to another

David Hirschfelder

A pop song is a short story set to music.

Already possessing a classical background, Hirschfelder found the progression from pop to film scores a natural one. “In many respects,” he says, “a pop song is a short story set to music and, being a studio musician in the late 70s and 80s, often my role was to ‘underscore’ a song, to enhance the song’s narrative with synth textures, electro-percussion effects, keyboard counter-melodies, motifs etc. Scoring film is pretty much a longer form of a very similar process. Conversely, you might say I was already thinking like an orchestral film-composer when I was a young pop musician.”

Like Hirschfelder, Roger Mason dreamed of being a film composer, believing as a teenager that he’d be better at it than pop music. It wasn’t necessarily a dream that his band-mates shared. “When I started playing in bands from about the age of 15 I used to arrive and setup earlier than the other guys when possible so I could play these great sweeping romantic themes without being exposed to their taunts,” says Mason.

Mason took a side-step from his role as keyboardist in The Models to compose his first score, for what he describes as, “a very cheesy telemovie for Ten about rampaging sharks terrorising the beach-goers at Surfers Paradise.” Mason also found the transition to be natural, relishing the opportunity to be autonomous and in control for the first time. It was the beginning of a career that would see him receive a scholarship at the Sundance Institute for Film Composition and win ten Screen Music Awards for film and television works including My Place, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, The Extra, MDA and many more.

While Mason and Hirschfelder always hoped to write for film, David McCormack had no such plans. “I had absolutely no inkling that one day I’d be making up music to go with moving pictures,” he says. “My world view was fairly limited. It consisted of rehearsing in a rundown old house in Spring Hill and trying to get a gig in the Valley.”

McCormack was the lead singer for Custard, a well-loved Brisbane indie group. His first foray into writing for television was similar to the pop music that he was known for.

Dave McCormack

I am very happy sitting in the studio and tinkering with my devices and instruments.
Dave McCormack

“In the late 90s, I was asked to write a Custard-esque ditty for an ice cream advert. It was great fun and a very quick process. A couple of weeks later, I was asked to do the same thing for a shampoo advert. Things just ballooned from there.”

While he says that there was no practical difference between this early work and pop music, he slowly learned compositional techniques as the nature of his projects broadened. These projects have included Garage Days, West, Wild Boys, and the Screen Music Award-winning, Rake.

Collaboration: finding common ground

All three composers comment that the process of collaborating with a director is often far removed from that of a band. While their output converges into the final product, film direction and musical composition are different disciplines, and it can take time to find common ground.

Roger Mason

It’s like two people collaborating to create something that communicates emotion and narratives – without actually having a common language.
Roger Mason

Mason describes the challenge: “It’s like two people collaborating to create something that communicates emotion and narratives – without actually having a common language. Directors wear many hats and are creating a visual and literal depiction and can rarely be expected to embrace all the language that is the currency of the musician. Part of the job of the composer is to guide and explain while the other duty is to listen and decipher what the director wants.”

It’s this skill that’s perhaps the most unique to screen composition – the ability to collaborate effectively within a broader, non-musical context.

Hirschfelder says filmmakers mainly communicate using the vernacular of dramaturgy and film culture. “It is necessary for a musician to, in a sense, become a film maker as much as a composer of music. Indeed, a film is in itself an audio-visual composition, comprising many layers of co-existent art forms, of which music is one layer. So, the film score composer needs to be able to appreciate all the layers and to be able to listen to and respond to the language of the film director, the ‘lead composer’ of the band, if you will.”

It’s this collaborative space that appeals to McCormack: “The great thing about working with a director is that he or she normally has a good idea of what they want. Other musicians are often just trying to impress or confound each other,” he says.

Audiences: live vs unseen

In contrast to the very public, tour-focused nature of a pop career, film composition finds musicians working in private, conjuring music for an unseen audience. Hirschfelder says he misses “the real-time feedback and palpable ‘spiritual energy’ of the live audience”.

It’s a change that Mason welcomes: “Live performance was fun in its day but too time consuming. I found that so much time was taken up either travelling or waiting around. I don’t miss playing live.”

McCormack still performs live with his group, Dave McCormack & the Polaroids. But that doesn’t mean he’s nostalgic for the lifestyle of a full-time touring act. “As I get older and enter my third act, I don’t have the desire to perform on stage as much as I did when I was a young buck in the 90s,” he says. “I am very happy sitting in the studio and tinkering with my devices and instruments.

“It is all just the same funky gumbo to me.”

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