@peterhowelltalk mediawriteprojects@gmail.com

Your Music on Film (the eBook for aspiring film composers) - New Music (recent compositions mixing the acoustic with the electronic) Lecturer at the NFTS - BBC Composer 1973 to 1998 - Early Compositions (Music for Collectors) - Still to Come (the writing)

March 18, 2012

Is The Rest Just Noise?

When does sound become music in a film soundtrack?

Way back in the last century, but really not that many years ago, the thought of a composer
dirtying his hands with anything other than pure sound was the stuff of nightmares. Like
high priests of some divine order we handled the most perfect of waveforms emenating
from the most perfect of constructions, the musical instrument. The perfecting of the body of a guitar required the touch of a master craftsman, and the flow of pure music from it, bestowed a sort of
exclusive excellence on player and maker alike. I remember a classical muiscian coming into
my studio in the seventies and staring irritatedly at an electric guitar propped up in the

“Hundreds of years went into removing the impurities from the sound of a classical guitar,” he said. “Now all they do is work out ways of distorting it again.”

When I first joined the BBC in 1971, even the altering of recorded music from its original form by passing it through a tone control was called ‘distortion’. The BBC was there as a mouthpiece for artists in the real world to reach a wider public, it was intended to be a transparent channel of communication, and the broadcasting of music was to be unadulterated and pure.

In short, there was music and the rest was just noise.

Of course these days the mixing of manipulated sounds and music is commonplace in contemporary genres of music such as electronica. Some very innovative work is in evidence on Soundcloud. I particularly like 'Pineptones', but there are many others. However this free expression is not so readily available to the film composer. After all, If the audience cannot determine whether a sound is part of the music or part of the effects, then they will lose his way. It blurs the soundstage for them and breaks the spell. Music operates on a more subliminal level than sound FX and the brain deals with it in a different way.

In some ways of course there is indeed just sound. Music is sound, is waveform, is a pulse down a wire, is a movement  of air, is sound. New technology has been a great leveller, it really couldn’t care a fig if it transmits the crunch of a gravel path or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Science has triumphed over art, by reducing it to zeroes and ones. But still the question remains, why do we need to tell the difference?

From a purely mercenary point of view, it is vital to be able to tell them apart. Music attracts royalties, sound doesn’t. There aren’t very many rich Sound Designers. But then even our perception of what is music and what is sound is constantly open to question.

There’s a hoary old example that I still use in lectures, when this question arises:

Scene One:
We are with a factory worker as he relentlessly drives rivets into a car on a production line. All around him is noise, the deafening pneumatic clatter of the tool he is using, the scream of the lifting machinery in the middle distance, the dull roar of the whole factory beyond. The klaxon goes, and it’s home time.

Scene Two:
He’s walking home, crossing a bridge, there is the soft water  sound from the river below, the cry of birds in the distance, but in his head he is still at the factory; a battery of noises assaults him, we feel some sympathy for him, he can’t leave his mindless work behind.

To me it highlights the difference between sound as effects and sound as music. The sounds in his head are different from the same sounds in Scene one, because they are not really happening. We are using them to inform the listener on a subliminal level, we are using them musically. To put it directly, if you had been there would you have heard these sounds? If yes, they are effects, if no, they are music.

In fact of course, other elements come into play. We tend to hear music when sounds play in a recognisable rhythm. Even sounds actually taking place in a scene, if delivered rhythmically would sound like music, but in that case, because we would perceive it as happening live, it would sound comical as if these real sounds were playing some sort of trick.
So, for the film composer, there are many strands of sound in play; the dialogue, atmospheres, spot sound FX and music, and for the audience, these layers of sound need to be delivered with some precision. In some ways, it's a pity that there can't be more free expression in the soundtrack. I have recently gone back to writing music for its own sake, rather than to feed into a film, and it has been a liberating experience. The interplay between sound and music is ever present, and the absence of the picture has given the creativity a shot of adrenalin.

Here's a burst from a sound/music piece based on the inventions of Thomas Edison. The spoken word content features extracts from his patents and moves gradually from sound used as music through to out and out jazz with a shot of gospel on the way...

Edison Clip 1 by Peter Howell Music

February 21, 2012

Music for the Big Bang

Epic events need careful handling.

It's tempting to think that the more impressive the action in a film, the easier the music is to compose. Here's an excerpt from the eBook, about the power of associations in the audience's mind, which proves otherwise...

I have included playable sketches of the unpublished failed attempts at  the title music (one of which, if remade, would make a good Radiophonic piece).

I remember with some trepidation the long search for a suitable musical style for a documentary series for Channel 4, Reality on the Rocks. I had worked for the director many times, but on this occasion my initial sketches were unfavourably received.
Ken Campbell by Richard Adams
The series featured comic actor, Ken Campbell, playing a hapless ‘everyman’ lost in the vagaries of quantum physics, the big bang, string theory, and multiple universes and who finally meets the renowned Stephen Hawking to help put it all together.

1. My first idea for the main theme centred around the character of Campbell himself, a maverick comedian who relished the combination of the mundane and the absurd. A Jazz feel seemed appropriate but the result was unsatisfactory. It lacked any relationship with the subject of the programmes, quantum physics…

Here it is then. The very rough demo, featuring a rather crass Saxophone sound, but it was just a sketch...
R on the R 1 by Peter Howell Music

2. So on to idea No 2. Still with the Jazz feel, but mainly in the top sax line, the rest now had more of a scifi feel, but with the original rhythmic content from version 1. It sounds a mess, and it was a mess.

R on the R 2 by Peter Howell Music

3. Time to regroup. Perhaps the problem was to try to associate with the presenter at all. So Version 3 was an out and out electronic, deep space experience. I still like it to this day. Quite innovative and dramatic, but it seemed horribly out of place against any of the pictures. Far too ‘Bladerunner’.
Here's the unpublished demo which features that hardy parennial the Eventide Harmoniser, a mainstay for experimental composers for many years, and referred to affectionately as 'fairy dust'... 

R on the R 3 by Peter Howell Music

4. Three failed attempts, and although the director, who I had worked with before, was amazingly patient, I did feel under pressure to solve this problem. The solution, as is often the case, was in taking a sideways step from the main ingredients of the series (the presenter and the subject), and finding something that, because of its associations in the audience’s mind, lit up the whole debate.
This ‘something’ was a choral sound. I had resorted to laboriously working through hundreds of samples to see if something stood out, and came across a quasi choral ‘dooh’ sound made with only a handful of singers.

R on the R 4 by Peter Howell Music
In a few minutes, I had written the theme that would feature throughout in various guises. A rich and melodious anthem, consonant and apparently rooted in the ecclesiastical world, but with a steady measured rhythm.
Kings College Chapel, Cambridge

In retrospect, it is easy to see why it worked so well. The beginning and end of the series were set in Cambridge, in fact Kings College Chapel appeared in a few of the shots, with Campbell walking in the foreground. We were to meet Stephen Hawking in the last programme, one of the University’s most famous fellows.  Other parts of the films were set all over the world, such as Cern in Switzerland, and had at first distracted us from the core idea, the big bang and the man who know more about it than anyone else.

Our newly found choral solution has other associations; the mysteries of space time. Although not religious in themselves, they do make us think of the unknown, and in turn our insignificance and powerlessness. So in thinking about that choir we are being given a safe platform from which to observe the unthinkable and awe inspiring universe. Add to that, the slow rhythmic meter which reminds us of an old clock, and you even have an association with another core subject of the series, time.

All the right boxes were ticked, and looking back on it, my initial enthusiasm for writing music for the presenter, just because he had a strong presence, was misplaced. The subject of the whole series had a much stronger presence, and to see him pitted against it, was in essence what the whole series was about.
In the audience’s minds, the associations were made. When they were looking at a graphic animation of the Big Bang, and hearing that chorale, somewhere in a back room of their brains the associations were being forged, and realisation and satisfaction were being created.

An edited excerpt from my eBook 'Your Music on Film'...
available now from Amazon

February 10, 2012

Eleven Feet

Has anyone else written a march in 11/4?

It's a cold night in Oxfordshire. I'm standing in a tent, in the middle of a quarry with Mark Ayres, trying to get the computer to lock with the timecode (a bit geeky I know, but quite honestly the cold was a great deal more urgent to me than the timecode). We were engaged in a rather special project. Playing new compositions by Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Mark and myself to a valliant band of fans who had somehow worked out how to get there with no public transport and little guarantee that anything meaningful would happen anyway. But somehow it did. It was something to do with the sheer desolation of the place and the fact that we had hired in massive surround sound speakers, and a guy who usually did festivals to set them up.
For composers who had previously only heard their work coming out of speakers the size of a dinner plate, or in some cases a small saucer, this was an injection of pure andrenalin. The sound was big and it was everywhere, there was even a speaker on the top rim of the quarry for occasional shocks and the rather realistic hovering of a helicopter. Together with the visuals from Jon Rogers and Rory Hamilton, who with Sarah Rogers provided these pictures, it really was something rather different.

But what of these eleven feet? I wrote four new pieces for that concert, entitled, purely for our reference purposes, 'Desolate Landscape', 'Robot March', 'The Creature', and 'City of Gold'. The last one will probably re-appear as part of 'The 2012 Collection', but the others will become available on Soundcloud. We're talking about the march though, the one in 11/4. It's probably common knowledge amongst musicians but less obvious to others that the main reason that marches are written in 2/4 (in other words two beats to the bar), is because we have two feet. It's quite simply a case of 'left, right, left, right'. Imagine then, what sort of creature or android, would be able to march to this.

Here's an extract from the piece then (also available on Soundcloud)...

We had decided to write pieces that drew their original inspiration from previous scifi music that we had provided for the BBC, but were entirely new compositions. This piece has that very filtered start that hides the details of the marching rhythm similar to the entry of the 'army' on the LP 'Through a Glass Darkly', whilst the brass theme has the same feel as some of the music from 'The Leisure Hive', especially the replication sequence.
Since we were using very dramatic surround sound over large distances, the tail end of the piece moved the robot army behind the audience whilst a new contingent emerged (sonically) in front of them.

The piece was used again in our concert at the Roundhouse in 2009 about which more later...

January 26, 2012

In Two Minds

Our brains have already been cleft in two; but luckily there is a bridge between the halves

For some of us, the bridge seems more robust than others. If you are one of those whose bridge between the left and right brain is in danger of falling into the ravine; where the only way that the data can make the trip from imagination to method is by using the services of an elderly peasant and a rickety old cart, then this is for you.

Our brains simply don’t work properly without that bridge, despite some who dispute the true function of each half.

I remember writing the music for a documentary series on the Human Brain which contains a sequence about a woman who suffered from extreme epilepsy. It had been decided, and this now seems a severe solution, to disconnect the bridge between the two halves of her brain. An operation was performed and was, in their terms, successful. As a result of the operation the woman stopped suffering from epilepsy but was left with some curious side effects. There was a scene in which she was choosing clothes to wear for a night out.

She would go to the wardrobe, pick a top and skirt, return to the bed where she laid them on the bedspread to decide whether she had made the right choice. But instead, without pausing, she returned to the wardrobe and selected two more items. This sequence repeated itself over and over until all the clothes from the wardrobe were on the bed, and no choice had been made.

The explanation for her strange behaviour was that the left side of her brain, responsible for the organising, was dealing with the fetching and carrying, and the right side dealing with the aesthetic decisions about colour and suitability was in charge of her preferences. Both sides were working as normal, but because there was no link between them, the left side never got the message that the right side had made a choice, and so continued to fetch more clothes.

It seems fairly conclusive to me, different types of decision are divided between the two hemispheres of the brain; and this ‘division of labour’ seems never more pointed than in the creative arts.

We clearly can create ideas on the right, but cannot deliver them without the skills handled by the left, the nuts and bolts of making the ideas a reality.

If we turn our attention to the audience, something else is happening.

They are really only using the right sides of their brains to experience a movie. After all, the movie is simply a projection, everything they see and hear is an illusion, but it has meaning. Apart from a minute amount of left brain activity dedicated to keeping them upright in their seats, and managing their popcorn, the whole experience is a right brain one.

As creators of the movie we are having to compute on two levels, intuition and craft. This is why we so desperately need to consider the means of delivery as well as the idea, otherwise we will end up like the poor woman in the scene above, constantly making choices but never knowing when we have finished, never meeting a deadline.

An excerpt from my eBook 'Your Music on Film'...
available now from Amazon

Here's the spoken version of this post

January 20, 2012

Looking Back, Keeping Your Balance

Was analogue really better than digital.... that depends

Way back amongst the jack cords, the vinyls, the hums and the buzzes, when tape hiss enveloped everything you did, things had a physical presence. You stood in a room full of bits and pieces, some of which made good sounds, others just good trip hazards, hoping that in this 'take' nothing would fall off, and that the man next door wouldn't start using his lawn mower and add an unwanted drone to your recording. Your audio life was lived on the edge, making use of whatever was to hand.

Howell and Ferdinando recording 'Alice'

For example, in 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' from the 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' album of 1969 (yes really 1969),  we used everything lying around the studio, including an old telephone receiver, seawash effects played off an old gramaphone, speeded up voices for the oysters, and some early reversed sounds achieved by turning the tape upside down and playing it backwards.  Pretty rough, but clearly a good time was had by all!

Much later Dr John Chowning, the inventor of FM synthesis on a visit to the Radiophonic Workshop, talked to us about the need for a sense of effort in synthesized sound, to avoid it becoming just glitz without substance. No problem, Doctor, just go back to the old ways; to the dirty tape heads, the edits held together with sticky tape, the feeling that maybe you should have stuck to the desk job after all, or just played the harmonica.
H&F's Vintage Site
Despite all the obstacles, there was something special about that era, the sense that once you had the idea, there is a good chance of being able to hear it, however roughly. Everything that made a sound was at your fingertips. It is tempting to suppose that it has always been the case but sadly there was a period when our means of expression was severely limited, and many people were often frustrated because their subtle ideas were being compromised by a lack of facilities. 

The digital revolution was sold to those who worked in audio as a great new dawn. The end of tape hiss alone would convert millions, but this new era was not all plain sailing; it brought with it many baby and bathwater related problems. For example, it's difficult to believe now but for several years there was no digital ring modulator; that would mean no Dalek voices, no end of episode stings, no electronic music as we knew it.  We wanted to be enthusiastic digiphiles, but our toys had been taken away from us. I'm no great supporter of plugins when used as an alternative to recording the right sound from the start, but a world without them, that world of early digital audio, was a barren landscape.

How times have changed. Enter a bright new era where everything is possible. I have as much on my laptop as the Radiophonic Workshop had in twelve rooms; but the ideas still need to feed the machine....

Listen to the excerpt above from a new piece of mine, 'Yours Today'. Plenty of digital manipulation at play here, as well as the wonderful plugin module 'The Mouth' from Tim Exile and Native Instruments.

Here's the spoken version of this post with the examples included