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From silver screen to symphony

Ahead of Star Wars in concert, conductor Nicholas Buc takes us through his favourite films to perform, the process of arranging 'live scores' and the future of the phenomenon.

Dominic Ellis

If you’ve ever seen a Star Wars film, you’ll know the hold-your-breath moment when George Lucas’ teasing blue words (“In a galaxy...”) fade to black and the iconic logo takes flight with an explosion of brass fanfare. It’s a moment that's been giving sci-fi nerds goosebumps with each new film since 1977. When the trumpets blare, so too do theatres full of fans.

Star Wars was the bedrock of an era of blockbusters when action was deeply intertwined with symphonic music. When Star Wars was finally given the ‘live score’ treatment in New York late last year, and the New York Philharmonic blasted those opening notes up close and in person, fans were reminded just how greatly indebted their fandom is to John Williams’ score. Performed in person, the films are brought to life in ways that they never have been before.

One Melbourne-born maestro knows the live scoring game better than most. Nicholas Buc is a composer and conductor based in New York. But these days, when not working on his musical adaptation of David Copperfield, Buc hangs his hat wherever there’s a Symphony and a Concert Hall. He’s the go-to guy for live scores, and in 2019 he’ll lead the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in performances of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens at the Sydney Opera House.

Image: Robert Catto
Nicholas Buc and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing Star Wars: A New Hope in concert. Image: Robert Catto

SOH: Is there any one film or series that has been a particular career highlight to work on?

NB: If we're talking purely musically it's really hard to go past Star Wars. It’s been the benchmark for so many years. In 1977 that score was really quite groundbreaking. And it's actually one of the more recent films to come out as a live score.

I did a six week tour recently with the Tokyo Philharmonic around Japan and we kicked off the tour by doing all three original Star Wars films in one day. It was incredible. We had the first film at 11am, then 3pm and 7pm and the audience bought marathon tickets, so the audience would be there for the whole day. It was a really special event.

Just a few weeks later, I met John Williams in Los Angeles. I had a huge fanboy moment and you know, when you get given a minute or two to speak to your idol, what do you tell them?

SOH: What does he think about the whole live scoring phenomenon?

NB: I think he's into it. It took him a while to come around to the idea, but I think he's seen that the industry has attracted so many new people to the orchestra. His scores have a large part to play in that.

The same year Star Wars was released, so was the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which couldn't be a more different score to Star Wars. I was very fortunate to be able to conduct the world premiere of that earlier this year in Brisbane, as part of the World Science Festival. It's a bit of a niche film. It's not a film that would have huge resonance with everyone, but it's a fascinating film and a fascinating score. Very different from the big brassy Star Wars, it shows another side to Williams' 'compositional pen'.

SOH: Close Encounters is a particularly interesting film, given how much it relies on music, even in the plot.

NB: It's one of those films that's a slow burn. And the ending is all music—there's nothing happening except all the music. Whereas in the beginning, the music's quite sparse and atonal and dissonant. And it's not easy listening. But it slowly ramps up and up and up and up—it's really satisfying.

SOH: Are there any film scores that you've been involved in that are more challenging for the orchestra?

NB: Yes. Without fail, the most complex score for the orchestra is the very first Harry PotterTM film. Especially for the strings—the violins. It's fiendish. And I think when we did it with an orchestra last year we did the first and second films back to back and people were taking time off with tendinitis and arthritis in the fingers, because there are so many notes and it's quite frighteningly difficult.

You get other films that are relatively straightforward, where there's not a lot of music in them. A film like Jaws actually has very little music in it. Even classics like Back to the Future. Great score, but, you know, there's only 42 minutes written for that two hour film. It seems like such a shame to have this wonderful orchestra sitting there for over an hour not playing anything. So they actually wrote more music for the live presentation, they've inserted extra bits that you'd never heard in the original release.

Nicholas Buc with Star Wars villain Kylo Ren and a squadron of storm troopers before a performance. Image: Nicholas Buc via Twitter

SOH: Is that common practice for live scores? Tell me about the process of arranging these things.

NB: Step one is actually convincing the studios to allow you to produce these concerts. And then it involves everything from getting a pristine cut of the film to separating the dialogue and the sound effects and music. Sometimes the films are quite old, and in the 60s and 70s digital archiving didn't really exist, so they have to dig up handwritten scores and reconstruct them.

People often forget that these things are changed when they record the music. So John Williams may have watched a scene and written some music but then they get to the scoring stage and the director, whether it's Spielberg or Lucas, might say: 'look that's great, but this little section here, I’m not happy with it, so can we cut and paste this ... or rearrange this ... or take out the cellos ... or remove the French horns'. So the musicians will write little changes into their music on the fly. And often those things are the things that were never recorded and have been lost in time, and only by really carefully looking at the films in hindsight can we go back and actually make it into the film version that everyone knows.

Once that's done, the show is packaged, they print out a gazillion copies of the music scores, an orchestra will get a laptop with a movie file — high res, 4K, pristine, beautiful version of the film with isolated dialogue and sound effects which someone has to mix live. And the orchestra plays the score. And it's really the conductors job then to make sure it all syncs up.

SOH: When orchestras record these scores in the first place, they often use a click track to help sync the music to the film. Is that something you or the performers use for the live scores?

NB: I probably do 80 percent of my shows without one. Primarily, because most classical orchestras and symphony orchestras around the world just don't like using them. For me, it takes away the organic nature of playing music.

The second reason is that, especially in the case of someone like John Williams, this music has a lot of freedom inherently sewn into it. And so, rather than using a click track, you'd use a little visual monitor in front of your conductor's podium which has all this visual information and cues to help you keep in time. I find that's a much more inherently musical way of performing, because it means you can ebb and flow and breathe and move with the orchestra in an organic way... Have you played Guitar Hero?

SOH: I have.

NB: This is like conductor hero. I have these lines come across the screen called streamers, and then you get these flashes of light, white circles in the middle of the screen, and they're called punches. They're basically updated digital versions of what they used to use back in the 50s where they would stamp holes and draw lines on reels of footage. Same technology, 60 or 70 years later, and it works! It requires quite a lot of concentration and keeping time, but it's a brilliant system.

SOH: Until recently, these orchestras have played a particular type of music to a particular type of audience. How satisfying is it for the musicians to play these more accessible concerts to new audiences?

NB: It's changed with the shift in perception of film music. For many years, film music has struggled to gain the same level of respect commanded by more ‘serious' contemporary classical music. But people like Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, all these great composers of the last 50 years, have really gone a long way to making it more accessible and part of mainstream culture.

The attitudes to it are not only changing from the public's perspective, but from the musicians that perform it. I've had players say to me, “I would be happy if we did this every week, if we became an orchestra that just did live film scores. It's so much fun and challenging, it's great music, the audience love it, we're getting 4000 people a show and selling out four or five shows in a row ... what's not to love?”. Everyone likes playing to a great crowd who are appreciative of them. And while many people who come to the shows maybe either haven't been to see their local symphony orchestra or maybe are there purely for the film, if they go away with a bigger appreciation for the music, and they're telling their friends 'god, I had a great experience with the Sydney Symphony or the Adelaide Symphony or whoever’ then I think that's a win in any orchestra's books.

SOH: Do you think the live scores are acting as a gateway to a deeper dive into classical music?

NB: That's definitely the hope. The big multimillion dollar question is whether people who come to these shows are having enough of a good time that they'll come back for something non-film related. Will they come back and see Beethoven No. 5? Or an opera? Or some Stravinsky masterwork? That's all we can really maybe hope for.

I still think that the primary demographic for your average symphony orchestra attendee is your 50+ age range. Even if the young kids are coming along, seeing Star Wars, having a great time, maybe in 20 or 30 years, they'll have those great memories and they'll come and see Mozart. But I'd definitely say that the orchestras are getting more eyes on them through these other avenues like film concerts than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and that can only be a good thing.

Nicholas Buc conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Image: Robert Catto

SOH: How indebted are artists like John Williams to classical and Romantic composers?

NB: Hugely. In many ways. That's why so many composers have been derided, but at the same time, that's sort of their genius. They've taken the classical greats… and by classical great I’m really talking Romantic era onwards — guys like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Holst. Most film music doesn't bear much resemblance to Baroque and Classical periods.

The 1920s, 1930s, is really the Golden Age of Film Scoring. And that's because all the composers there were dudes straight out of the Viennese schools. Guys from Germany and Austria and France who basically wrote Operas and were peers of Stravinsky and these guys. They came to America and they were the ones writing all this music. Look at Gone with the Wind, Max Steiner. And Erich Wolfgang Korngold. All these great European composers who have written fantastic classical music that is performed in concerts by the classical orchestras just as is.

And from there, then you get people like Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herman who might have played piano for these guys when they were boys. And then all of a sudden, that European sound of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky has permeated one generation through and then onto Williams.

SOH: It's funny how that's paralleled by the films themselves. A film like Star Wars being so deeply indebted to classic Japanese films from the 50s and earlier.

NB: Totally. Kurosawa's. And even Westerns. And mythology. It's history reinventing itself through literature over and over again. And even the great filmmakers today are probably reinterpreting Star Wars, which in itself has reinterpreted something else.

SOH: Do you think live scores are a fad? How much longevity does the idea have?

NB: Excellent question. And it's the question everyone is asking: And to be honest, it's a real fear. One of the reasons is, when you look at contemporary films, you wonder what's going to replace the great films from the 70s, 80s and 90s that we look at now. One of the problems is that contemporary film music is more and more going 'digital'.  It's very minimalist. It might use a lot of synthesizers and samplers and basically 'fake' instruments in some ways.

Look at a film like 'The Social Network'. It had a great score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. An orchestra just simply couldn't perform that live. There's almost nothing orchestral in it. Even the music of Hans Zimmer, another great big genius of the film music world. A lot of his scores are multilayered with orchestras with 50 cellos being recorded three times and layered up to sound like hundreds of cellos. It's a real gutsy sound that doesn't really replicate how a natural symphony orchestra sounds. So a lot of those things you can't perform live and we're really limited by what's available that fits the symphony orchestra mould. And that's going to run out eventually. It really is.

We can't start pulling out every B-grade film. And that's starting to happen. Sure there are nostalgic films from our childhood or films that have cult followings, but that doesn’t always mean the scores are great. Will we start getting into fad territory and just start picking any films that have a cool pop culture vibe? I don't know.

SOH: How much room do you think there is for developing the concept? The Opera House for example has had various rescorings of classic films by contemporary bands and orchestras in recent years.

NB: To develop the concept you probably need to look at more obscure older things. When you think of Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' from the 1920s — it’s had like 200 or 300 rescores throughout time. Everyone's tried something with it, and that's interesting.

The next thing that might come forward are all the Marvel films. The big problem there is that, I just don't think the music is as memorable and it suffers a bit from this contemporary style of writing, where a lot of it is electronic synthesizers and less organic symphony orchestra stuff. More of a hybrid and that could be quite tricky to put together.

One thing we haven't talked about is video game shows. I worked on one last year for a game called Metal Gear, which we did in Japan, and I just did it again in France a couple of weeks ago and it's coming to America next year. Again, it's more of a niche thing, because you're targeting people who are fans of the game and the music. Game music. Woah. It's come leaps and bounds since Mario Brothers. *Hums Mario theme*. Now you're getting 80-piece full symphonic scores with choirs to rival any contemporary Hollywood blockbuster. And you reach people - the gaming community is huge.

SOH: I saw on Twitter that the creator of Metal Gear came to your Star Wars concerts in Japan.

NB: Hideo Kojima! I saw that as well. But I didn't meet him unfortunately. He came to all three!

SOH: Are you excited to revisit the Opera House?

NB: My very first professional gig was in the Opera House. And my first film gig was in the Opera House. It really has a special place in my heart, especially for these types of films. It's a great room. It's not too big. It's not a big arena with 6000 people where you can get a bit lost. Especially with these film shows, you want a certain amount of intimacy, a sense of comradery with the audience. Many people say that seeing these film things is like seeing the film for the first time again, especially when you're there with people who are like-minded and are really enjoying the novelty of seeing it with a live orchestra. That alone is enough to create a real buzz, where you can 'geek out' together, so to speak, and enjoy the music together.

Nicholas Buc conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for their 2019 performances of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in Concert and Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Concert. You can hear more film music analysis from Nicholas on his podcast Art of the Score.

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