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.
And when it comes to creating the scores themselves, do you have a process that you usually follow or is it different with each project?
Well it’s essentially the same, which is watching the film; talking about it and just starting to see what ideas it leads me towards. I ultimately just start jamming to film really on either the piano or guitar, just to get a feel for the pace of the film, any movement that might work. But all films are different so there’s always like a few days or a week of just having the film re-working your ideas for you because you might go into it with a whole set of things that you’d like to try to do and you do a couple of those and the film instantly rejects them because it’s just not right and that forces your brain to think in a different way. It’s just really getting in there and start swimming.
Are there certain things that consistently inspire you or sources that you routinely draw from for inspiration?
I don’t know… I’m sure there probably is, but if I could be as understanding of how I found inspiration I think I would be firing on all six a lot more than I do. I think that often things that you have rejected as inspiring before can take on a whole new light when you see them under difference circumstances, or hear them under different circumstances. Things that you had not considered 3 months ago might now be at the forefront of your mind and leading you down a completely different path. I’ve sort of, over the years I guess I’ve just never really forced how I feel, I try to be honest with how I feel and connect with myself in that way if you like, without sounding weird.
But to understand where I’m at at a certain time – that sometimes might not coincide with the sort of music you’re needing to write that day – but that doesn’t worry me too much because I just think that you should be honest with where I’m going with my emotions. But if you’ve got enough time on a film, over the course of two or three weeks you’ll go through many different emotions while you’re sitting in front of the computer, or whatever you’re using to write with, and you can mine these different emotions and different periods. And if even today I don’t actually achieve much, but I may have jammed out a few pieces that come tomorrow I’ll look at it in a fresh light and think, “Oh well that’s pretty interesting.” So I just kind of go with it really, it’s not exactly like the opening or parting of the clouds, there’s actually no real replacement, there’s no substitute for just getting in there and working at it.
You can’t always be inspired, you can’t always be at the top of your game, you know, you’re just doing it.
Definitely. And you had joked during the show that in order to be a good composer you just need to surround yourself with talented musicians, but those musicians are performing the music you have written and created – do you usually write for each instrument or is it more of a collaborative effort with the musicians themselves?
I don’t get too involved in what each person plays, I mean we’ll obviously talk about it, but they sort it out amongst themselves what their parts are because the music was obviously already written. We just sort of put it together with these basic instruments and everybody takes a part that’s relevant to them.
But then it becomes more about the execution and the performance – the string players working their bits out between themselves and then blending in with us. To some degree it’s a little bit more like a rock and roll band at that point – I mean if there’s something I don’t like I’ll say, “I’m not into that,” but by and large, I think I said one of the nights that I love the way these guys play the music, but they also imbibe it with themselves and it becomes a whole new experience and I like the way they do that. Like the guitar player figures out different elements and textural stuff that really works with what I’ve already done, it’s bringing more to the table and I think that comes from just having the right people there who are receptive to what I’ve done and know how to bring it to life.
And it clearly worked – the performances were so successful they ended up adding a third night. Do you see yourself doing more performances like this or was this more of a “once-in-a-life” experience?
No! No! I ‘d love to do more because it’s fun basically. We all get a couple of nights out, which is pretty rare for me, so I’m totally up for doing more. I’d love to – there are some great venues here in LA and wherever. I mean I probably wouldn’t do that many, but it would be nice to do one like in the summer and then again in the fall.
How did you choose the Largo as the venue for these performances? Did you seek it out or did they approach you?
When we doing the gigs, the first one we played in Belgium was in a beautiful fourteenth century theater that was all renovated and refurbished so it was beautiful. And this next gig we did was at this place called Union Chapel which is a church in London and it was beautiful, a proper, working church and we played there and it was just great playing these special venues rather than when I was in a band – you just play any shit-old old club you can get and that’s kind of the vibe of rock and roll!
But we wanted something that spoke a little bit more to the atmosphere. Obviously I had been to the Largo many times, both the new place and the old one, and we also had no idea if anybody would want to come, you know, so we just thought it was this lovely theater and it’s got a big stage, and there’s nine of us [in the band] and we needed that, and it’s seated and every time I had been there it’s just got this great atmosphere about it and JC at Milan Records reached out to the guys there and they were up for it and it went really well.
Is there a project or type of production you haven’t created music for that you might want to? You’ve done films, you’ve done video games, obviously you can put music to anything so is there something that you’ve ever seen that you thought, “That might be cool to make music for”?
I would like to do something in the live theater or something world –I’m not entirely sure what yet, but something with a live performance within a dramatic setting would be interesting. But I have no idea what shape or form that would be, but I’m sort of open to interesting ideas, see what’s out there, you know?
Of course. And final question, how do you go about selecting the different projects you work on? Is it something where things come your way and you pick through that or do you seek things out that you would want to work on?
A bit of both really. Just keeping my ear to the ground if you like, but I do get approached a lot as well. You know it’s just trying to sift through things that feel right for me. I think I have a pretty good gut instinct on things and I usually get in trouble when I ignore my gut instincts, but you still sort of go, “Well, you know, I’ve never done that before, I should try it” because if you don’t try something, you can’t say that you don’t like it.
So there’s always a certain gamble that a project will turn out the way you hoped it would, but that’s also part of the enticement of it. You just don’t know where it’s gonna end up and when that ends up in a good place or a great place, it’s brilliant.