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.