THE ART OF SHORT MUSICAL PIECES - On Chesil Beach, Dominic Cooke’s film based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, is filled with music. Between several string pieces by great composers like Schubert and Beethoven composer Dan Jones weaved an original score that stresses the psychological state of mind of a young couple that drifts apart on their wedding night and later meets again in a concert hall. Jones spoke at length with Score about his score for On Chesil Beach, but also about his music for a little seen Dutch film from three years ago.
British composer Dan Jones (1970) may perhaps be relatively unknown in the Netherlands, a couple of films with his music has been released here like Shadow of The Vampire (2000), Max (2002), In Tranzit (2008) and My Scientology Movie (2015). Last year he was nominated for The Discovery Award at the World Soundtrack Awards for his score for Lady Macbeth (2016). The classically trained composer has also worked extensively in television (Any Human Heart, 2011) and in the triphop scene in his hometown of Bristol.
Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle in On Chesil Beach.
On Chesil Beach features a young couple named Florence and Edward (played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle) who in 1962 struggle with each other during their wedding night to consummate their marriage, after which they continue their lives on separate paths. If there is one instrument that characterises both the classical pieces and the original score of this film, it’s the violin. Jones: ‛Florence, the central character, is a violinist in a string quartet in the film, something that takes her right through her life. It is arguably the greatest love of her life. We wanted to have a sort of musical manifestation of Florence’s musical soul on the soundtrack.՚ Jones had been looking for somebody very special to be able to play the violin. American violinist Esther Yoo came up and he found it amazing to work with her. ‛She’s a brilliant musician, but what was interesting about working with her is that she also took a huge interest in the drama and the story. Dominic Cooke came to the recording we did with Esther, and it was as if he was able to direct her like a member of the cast because she’d read the novel and understood the story so well. I think by that stage she had also had conversations with Ian McEwan, so she was a dramatic collaborator as well as an amazing musician.՚
Did she give the film or the music an extra dimension with her playing? ‛Definitely for me. If you’re working with a really great musician, then you can sometimes write very simple material, and these performers will lend it a charisma and beauty that it wouldn’t have otherwise. The music can rely to a much greater extent on the musicianship of the performer. Some of the score is orchestral, but some of it has involved electronics, and one of those elements was to digitally stretch out the sound of the piano version of Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninov which has a central dramatic function in the story. This piece of music was chosen by Ian McEwan for the story both in the novel and the film. I stretch that out and it’s kind of a thread of sound in the middle of which I place Esther’s playing. I relied on her expressivity to make it work, because sometimes it’s just a phrase, or two or three very long notes. Ultimately that’s Florence’s voice, her anguish, her cry for help.՚
The soundtrack for the film features string pieces from Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. Initially there’s not much original music by Jones. ‛In the score as a whole half of the music is by me, and half of it is classical music. A lot of it is chosen by Ian and is in the script, it’s the music we hear Florence playing. But Dominic and I decided that we should also reflect Florence’s existence as a classical player in some of what we call the non-diegetic music, music that is underscored as film music. Death and the Maiden, Haydn’s First String Quartet, all of this quartet music is Florence’s food and water as a classical musician. I deliberately kept my music very simple around that to create a lot of space. I think otherwise it would be an overcrowded score. But in the course of the film there were definitely conscious choices we made about wanting to reflect Florence’s world. There were other times where we were seeing which piece of music would serve the most useful function, whether it was going to be a classical piece or a piece by Dan Jones.՚
Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach.
Towards the end of the film the original score features longer pieces. ‛That’s right. Once the relationship has died and they’ve gone their separate ways, it is no longer a playful romance. We see what happens to Edward down the line, and I think in a sense the end of the film has a much stronger point of view from Ed’s character, and my music was made to represent that. Florence is really in love with her string quartet, and we discover the full impact of how successful that’s been at the end of the film.՚ Is it right to state that the classical music is meant for Florence and your music for Ed? ‛To some extent that is the case, but Ed is also shaped by Rock music, by Blues. The opening conversation of the film, as they’re walking down the beach is such a playful, brilliant and insightful conversation about two worlds colliding, each character seeing everything through their own musical experience. Florence is translating Ed’s description of a Blues chord progression into classical terms. We hear quite a lot of music from that time alongside the classical pieces.՚
Dan Jones is a master of very short pieces of music, that sometimes consist of no more than a simple chord. A sense of unease about the main characters is stressed in these snippets of music. ‛It’s amazing how much work you put into getting those chords right. For example, some of them are simple tones, played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. We worked very hard in the sessions to get the colours right. I think modern listeners as well as modern cinema-goers are very demanding people in the sense that we have become very finely attuned to the clarity of modern recording. Today we have digital transparency which will carry you all the way through and it means that we can work with much smaller details, and smaller gestures tell more information. I think modern audiences are less convinced by anything which speaks too loudly to them. I mean, it depends on the circumstance: we have these amazing action films with incredibly elaborate, impactful scores, but obviously in a film like this a sensitivity towards the actors’ performances needs to be maintained.՚
How hard is it to write such a short effective chord? ‛Well, it can be difficult. I think all music has its challenges. I recently heard John Powell’s score to Solo: the amount of detail and bravura orchestration that went into that is extraordinary. There’s obviously much much less going on in a short small piece, but how do you make it work, that’s a good question. It’s important to think about exactly where the music is placed, where it comes in, just as what the sort of psychological flashpoint for it is. I think for all film composers music means to be very specifically attached to the psychological motive and if you start to get that right, then the music will have some power in any case. It will start to say something, then you have the focus on whether what it’s saying is helpful to the story.՚
Billy Howle in On Chesil Beach.
Jones then points out what the role of the audience may be whenever emotion comes in. ‛I’m very keen on allowing the audience to decide for themselves to some extent what the emotion is, so that the music doesn’t need to be dictatorial about what emotion is. Sometimes it can be emotionally ambivalent. For example in a film I did recently called Lady Macbeth where we had hardly any music, William Oldroyd the director and myself had decided that we didn’t want to do the audience’s work for them. We wanted the audience to decide the emotions for themselves to connect with the characters and to make their own conclusions. So when the music comes in just three times in the film it said very little indeed, but the feedback we got from our audiences was very powerful. Even if there’s just this single tone, people feel that they’ve crossed a rubicon with the characters and that they have entered the next phase of the story. The way that music can trigger emotions is complicated, but sometimes the music doesn’t actually need to say very much emotionally to have an emotional effect, so to speak.՚
Drowning a film with too much music is therefore not appropriate. ‛I agree. Sometimes it’s not about how much music is used in the film. The editor, the director, the producer, all have a strong influence in that, but I think there’s an increasing realization that sometimes the use of music can be just as powerful if it’s restrained. And sometimes it does this thing of what I call putting the audience in the room with the characters. I do sound design as well, in fact I did the sound design for Lady Macbeth; the first time I had done that for a film. I have done sound design for theatre for over twenty years and I am fascinated by surround sound in particular, both for music and sound. And sometimes I like to think that music is simply creating a space in which the audience feel closer to the characters, so by wrapping the audience around with a sort of sonic atmosphere, even if that’s a very gentle atmosphere, it can help create the sort of magical spell that you are sitting there as close as possible to the characters and being pulled into their world. Music can do this, using those very gentle tones without necessarily having to say something didactic emotionally. It can simply be a sort of helping to create a conducting medium or be a catalyst for emotion and building that rapport between the characters and the audience. That’s a very subtle process. This is not to say this is the only way of doing it; there are incredibly strong, emotionally forceful scores which are very successful. But I think it’s interesting sometimes to turn the dial the other way.՚
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth.
In his house in Bristol Dan Jones has his own studio called Dan Jones Music. He only records soloists here, not a full orchestra. The solo’s for On Chesil Beach were mainly recorded in Air Studios and Abbey Road in London. The mixing of the score took place in his studio. ‛Recently I did a score called The Miniaturist, which is set in Amsterdam actually, based on a novel by Jessie Burton and adapted by the BBC. We recorded all of the musicians in the kitchen and I recorded other pieces in other parts of the house. It accommodates a few musicians, but certainly not an orchestra.՚ One of his collaborators in the studio is a young music editor with the name of Simon Birch. ‛I’ve trained him from being my assistant to becoming an experienced music editor, and it means that we can collaborate successfully under one roof. I can be working on the composition, the musical detail, while he is feeding these pieces into the overall timeline. It’s incredibly important for me to understand the context for each musical cue in the film.՚ Why is it important to look at the whole film in the composing process? ‛Because it’s very easy to think you’re working on the best musical cue ever written when you’re working closely on it. I say that ironically of course, but you can become so intensely lost in the detail of that cue that you can lose any sense of context. The only way to really know whether or not a piece of music is really working effectively for the story is to watch the film from beginning to end and see it in its place. So Simon is continually taking what I do in a parallel studio set up and putting it in context, so that at any given time we can sit down and review the whole film and get a sense of what the music is really doing, and not what we thought it might be doing.՚
Three years ago Dutch director Menno Meyjes worked with Jones on The Reunion (De reünie). This enigmatic thriller that sadly failed at the box office because of a couple of negative reviews contained a lot of original music. ‛Menno had asked for that, he was keen for the music to be on the front foot, helping guide the audience through the film because it’s quite a labyrinthine story. I think the sound design in that film played a significant role too. I wasn’t present at the final mix and in some ways I’d love to have seen that process take place; how the sound came together with the film. Having been on the other foot and done the sound design for a film now like Lady Macbeth, I’m just ever more aware of how crucial it is that sound design is part of a composer’s plan, in advance, and that these things are not simply resolved on the day of the mix. You need to have a strategy for how the sound and the music will work together.՚ Sound effects can be heard prominently in the soundtrack of De reünie and together with the music they deliver a mysterious and hallucinating sound which supports the film perfectly. Jones points out how he proceeded here: ‛If I know that the sound designer is going to create a very intense urban environment, then obviously I’m not going to write delicate music. But if I know that the sound designer and the director want to take us inside the head of a character as they are walking through that environment, and make it much quieter and more subjective, then I can write a transparent piece of music that will speak clearly and hopefully say something useful. So all of these things need to be planned before composing takes place. De reünie went through quite a different number of incarnations in the editing phase, as most films do, so that planning may have been more of a challenge. But keeping up with all the changes a film may go through is something all film composers often face, and one of the challenges that, hopefully, the audience will never know about.՚