Not a Christmas album.
Mid November, then, and the year is running away. It has clearly had enough. It is upstairs now, stuffing things into a case with as much hurried dignity as possible. Of course, as it rushes around the bedroom trying not to freak out completely in front of you, you might be able to stall it with some Can’t We Talk About It line. Or an instinctive Baby, It Will Be Different This Time, even though you’ve no idea why it will be different this time. But essentially, the writing’s on the calendar.
A Dear Jan, if you will. Hand delivered.
The point is, 2010 is soon to dump you. And you had such plans.
I certainly had some plans. But I didn’t imagine that one of them would be to decide in mid November to write an album in time for Christmas.
Something has dawned on me this week with a little extra clarity. Not the fact that as the year approaches its end I am still inexplicably an idiot and not a sudden clever person. I have this written over my desk in case I should forget. Simply says: ‘You’re an idiot.’ I find it relieves the pressure.
No, this dawning realisation was about the job of writing music, given that I’ve written a fair bit of it in the last eleven months.
Catching up with director Ben and nosing around the cool new offices of Rampage Studio in an impressively central bit of London town on Monday, our conversations left me with something to think about. Namely, that I’m not writing two telly scores for him – I’m writing a telly score and a fully-fledged, sun-drenched, deep-vibed chillout album.
What’s the difference?
We have two little TV shows on at once between us, to say nothing of any other work, and I marvel that Benny boy is still functioning with such customary politeness, having had about eight hours of sleep since May of last year. I’m not sure how he’s able to stand. Or blink.
But in discussing the two projects, I began to see something of why he was yet to fall in love with the tunes I’ve been writing for the second show, a travel doc around Greece. Given that a couple of the first tunes out of the box have me smacking my lips with vain pride and foolish ideas of blowing the whole budget for bazouki and flamenco guitar on them. ..Why the ‘meh’?
There is a subtle difference between the two in the way they use music. One uses it like a TV show score – snapshot atmospheres to place you in various different locations emotionally. And I have been having some loosely chaotic fun with penny whistles, mandolins, tambourines and ukuleles over the past few weeks as this first project is set in the UK. The almost dozen tunes written for that edit are finding homes fast.
The second show, however, uses music like picked tracks from existing artists. The Oh Good It’s This One approach, showcasing slick shots of beautiful Aegean scenery.
The upshot realisation is this. And I think you’ll find it a profound one: This second approach takes sh**loads more work.
Now, of course it’s all work. And it’s all fun. And what I’ve just said there isn’t really true. But a very great deal of screen music has to be deceptively simple.
I mean, a very complex mix of sounds and rhythms can’t half get in the way sometimes. I’m a big fan of Less Is More to picture anyway – and not just because it makes you look a lot more egotistically restrained and intellectually creative just by getting to spend a little more time in the local caff. I like this.
Very simple tunes can still have a magical effect on screen. One big riff with a beat feels fab in the cinema. One hummable string line from the orchestra repeated enough times pulls at the tear ducts in a very satisfying way.
Of course, where budgets are bigger, the composer has more work to do to create the atmosphere an audience may be expecting. As Bond composer David Arnold recounted, a sound engineer once told him he should hope not to write any more machine gun chase scenes; The orchestra has to make a very involved, big noise for minutes on end just to sound appropriately like a big budget action film, only to be almost drowned out by explosions and gunfire and metal screeches. But that’s what’s needed.
With budget telly, however, you’re not getting to score umpteen parts for an orchestra. It’s you and a box of tricks and a little sweat and half your fee going on a clever soloist of some kind that delivers. And typically, the work is in sheer numbers of cues per half hour, rather than depth of arrangement in each tune. Often, TV will bounce from one mood to another to segue through the time cheerfully – up to 40 bites of music in 22 minutes of screen time in some cases. Eesh.
When you’re talking travel docs in particular, the most vital job you’ll do is make sure the viewer feels very instantly like they’re in Hong Kong, or Marakech. The really obvious thing to do is, in some clever way, what you do. You just do. And I find working up a local flavour like this great great fun; writing simple atmospheric tunes rather suits Momo, as you might imagine. But it’s not the place for production as deep and laboured as a Momo:tempo album. All those complex beats and layers of production would just get in the way.
..Except, I may now be wrong on this. Cranking out tunes to a deadline and a budget is one thing. And I’ve rather loved the work that’s come out of doing this all year.
But our Greece project is, it makes me realise, different. What, I dawningly realised on Monday, walking through London’s chilly evening lights to the Tube, Ben wants me to do… is write a new Momo album, from which he can select tunes to showcase.
Deadline’s mid December.
I am now, as you might imagine, sitting down with a layout pad and a keyboard and a gigantic pot of coffee and a prayer cushion.
What I am not doing under any circumstances is writing a Christmas album. Just an album for Christmas. One that sounds like a big bath of Greek sunshine.
Feeling the heat a bit here. But no running away; just a spot of sweat.