I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite composers perform selections of his work live a few weeks back, and to say it was a magical evening would be an understatement. But before I went completely over the moon (pun!) from the experience, I was given the opportunity to speak with the man himself about the evening, what led him decide to bring his scores to the stage and his process as one of the industry’s most successful and innovative composers.
Keep reading for my interview with composer Clint Mansell (Moon, Black Swan, Requiem For a Dream) and keep your eyes (and ears) peeled as it sounds like these live performances may just be the start of a whole new way of experience film scores.
What made you want to take on this challenge of bringing your music to the stage?
(Laughs) Well I suppose there’s got to be some amount of ego involved in there somewhere – the Mick Jagger in all of us that just can’t be contained. I used to play in a band [Pop Will Eat Itself] and I used to really enjoy playing live so I had thought about it for quite a long time and an opportunity came up a few years ago when I had won a couple of awards at the World Soundtrack Awards in Belgium. They invite you back to perform the following year if you’ve won and usually what composers will do, they’ll use the Belgium State Radio Orchestra, which always plays at the festival there, and either they’ll conduct or maybe sometimes they’ll just sit in the audience and hear arrangements of their music.
I wanted to do something a little different.
A lot of my scores aren’t big orchestral things, orchestra is part of it, but it’s not totally what it’s about so I figured maybe with some friends here in LA I could put together a sort of working band that could play and interpret my music and hopefully retain that special character that I hope (Laughs) is in my music!
But there are things that are important to me, that make my music my music to me, so I wanted to retain that so you’re hearing the music as it is. So the festival organizers in Belgium were really accommodating with us and they flew the players over that I wanted to use here in LA and we also rehearsed over there and that was just brilliant, that really set us up, and then I always wanted to play here in LA and we finally got a chance to put something together for the Last Night release.
But I’ve always enjoyed playing live – there’s something about just hearing that music live, I don’t get to hear it often, I don’t really watch films that I’ve worked on and I don’t sit around playing my old CDs of scores so it was sort of cool to do it, but I also really love the guys and gals in the band so it’s good to hang out with them as well so it’s really just a nice holiday from our day jobs.
And it definitely came across in the performance that you guys were having a great time.
Which is sort of weird because I don’t think my music is the type of thing you would pigeonhole with the “great time”! But I feel there’s even a certain amount of celebration and joy in the dark and the melancholy, I suppose. It’s just different emotions and hopefully, with the combination of the different film projections, we can give something that’s a moving evening or an evening you can connect with.
I think you guys definitely succeeded at that.
How did you go about developing the performance? Were there certain songs you knew that you would want to include or was it more of an organic process trying to figure it all out?
Well, I mean, you know there are obviously the “hits,” for lack of a better phrase, that if I’m going to do it, it would seem sort of foolish for me not to do Requiem for a Dream because you think, “Oh you hear that everywhere” or whatever people might say. To me, because I had never done this before, it wasn’t a case of like if you’ve been in a band for twenty years you might get sick of playing your hits, but obviously I’m not at that stage so it was a bit of a no brainer to some degree.
But then there were just a few extra bits to try and build a set that has some sort of ebb and flow to it and that sort of had more of an impact in the arrangements within each piece that we did. Moon in particular, which is like a 13-14 minute piece, to try and get the arrangement for that that works, not just within itself but within it’s place in a set, it takes a bit of working out. Like I said, we’d done gigs in Europe before, but we learned from those gigs, we had sort of re-worked the set a little bit this time and re-worked some the arrangements and like anything that you do a number of times, you gain some experience and you can develop because of that.
By the time we did these LA shows I thought that we were not all the way maybe, there’s still plenty that we could do, but it was still a good step forward from last time we played so I was really pleased. And the audience response just blew my mind. I could not believe it.
You definitely seemed surprised by the response! But having been in the audience we were just so thrilled to be there, I think everyone was just ready to take in whatever you guys had planned.
You know it was just the attention! Because there are a lot of quiet passages within the music and you could hear a pin drop! It was incredible. Just brilliant, I loved it.
You mentioned Requiem for a Dream, which of course was featured, and I noticed those were some of the pieces that didn’t have visuals accompanying them – was there a reason behind that decision?
There were a number of factors – I did have some film footage for it, but I just felt that – the idea with the film footage in general was – I suppose it was just like a continuation for me, really. Obviously the film footage had nothing to do with the films from whence they came, but I sort of wanted to create a similar, not necessarily the same emotion, but a similar emotion that would feel right and organic with the music played in that sort of setting.
But the thing with Requiem for a Dream is I felt it’s so bold and it’s so connected to that film, I mean I know it does get played here and everywhere else, I just felt like there was nothing that we could really do that would help sort of transcend it a little bit. I just felt that everything would kind of fight it a little bit so I just thought that was maybe the place to go for just the pure musical experience.
When you performed some of the music from Pi, you had mentioned that with that particular film it was early on in your career so you were basically left to your own devices and it ended up being some of your most memorable work – do you find that less restrictive environments allow you to be a little bit more creative or do you actually do better under more constrictive demands?
Well you know you always need a bit of discipline and a deadline to focus the mind I suppose, but for me there is nothing more satisfying than being able to find the film in my music or my music in the film. Obviously when you start working with a filmmaker or the producer, they’ve been involved with the film for a long time and got certain ideas about what they need. But it’s the same as any relationship if you were sort of on the same page and the relationship is fertile it’s really exciting when things start making sense and organically this piece of music fits the film and know that it’s now part of the film.
And not all films would respond to that – certain films are a bit more, I don’t want to say formulaic, but some films can’t sort of handle anything other than what it really needs so I prefer films that have a certain sort of poetry about them already so they’re looking for the music to join in with them and help support. I’m always looking for films like that really rather than the big action sequences or “here’s the sad piece” or whatever. So it’s really more about me just fine tuning my choices that I make and finding the areas in which I think I can do the things that excite me most which will hopefully result in me doing the best work that I can do.