Last month of July, renowned composer Trevor Jones attended Malaga International Film Music Festival in Spain (MOSMA) as main guest, panelist, and conductor of one of the concerts. Gorka Oteiza (SoundTrackFest) had the opportunity to interview him there, and in a very friendly and relaxed interview, full of humor by the way, they talked about many things such as his beginnings, his creative process, when does he like getting involved in a movie, a famous Spanish New Year advertisement for Aquarius a while ago, and his thoughts about music and education.
Here’s the interview, and we hope you like it!
Good morning Trevor. Thank you very much for finding time to answer some questions from SoundTrackFest.
My pleasure, I’m enjoying very much my time here, sharing my stories and my music with fans and professionals alike.
Let’s start with a compulsory and introductory question. How and why did you decide to study music? Why didn’t you choose any of the other branches of education/arts? Is there a moment you remember saying, hey, it’s not music what I like to do, ¡it’s precisely Film Music what I want to do!
Well, the thing is that my family is connected to theatre and film in various forms: actors, producers, directors and so, but I was first attracted to my current job when I went to the cinema and I saw my first film. When I was 9 year old I saw “Limelight” by Charlie Chaplin and I fell in love not only with films but with that particular time they depicted. So I came back from cinema and I told my mother I wanted to write music for the movies, because that inspired me.
You started very soon then! You had a clear idea of what you wanted to do!
Indeed! At that time, I used to play truant from school, so I would see the same program several times. They had the same feature movies, the same cartoons and movie news, but I loved watching them over and over. So I would pretend going to school, but instead I went to the cinema and stayed there all week. But because the cinema was so old, sometimes the projectionist, who let’s say was “sleeping”, wouldn’t notice that the light would burn out and the image would fade and you’d just hear the soundtrack. Then on other occasions you’d just hear noises, because the loudspeakers would cut out.
So when you’re watching a picture and listening to the soundtrack because there’s no picture or you’re watching a picture but there’s no soundtrack, you begin to understand the relationship between image and soundtrack, and that becomes very critical and important. That’s when I learnt that what I was feeling was coming from the soundtrack, but particularly from the music of the soundtrack. So that was having an effect on me and I thought, “This is fascinating, this is what I want to do! I want to create music that has an effect on people”.
So you liked the effect music could have on people while watching a movie and that made you pursue the goal of becoming a composer.
That’s it. When I was older, I continued my music education, went to university, and my PhD research in sound was about relationship of music and image, and how what you hear affects what you see. An audience’s perception on what they see is governed by the parameters of music. At that moment it was very interesting for me intellectually, but now I get to practice it, because I get to do movies where I can actually see if it’s working on us, the public. It’s the practice that I’m more interested on than the intellectual side. It’s fascinating and I love working on it. When I’m scoring a movie, I always think how I can entertain an audience to the maximum extent.
When you’re composing for a movie and you get the rough cut, there’s no music (unless it’s “temped”), and you have to make up everything in your head. What’s the first thing you think about when you’re trying to compose for a movie? The characters, the story, when and where the movie is set or the instruments that would fit in the story? How do you approach the creation of the music?
For me, it’s first a question of trying entry points into the subject. You’re trying to create a glove that fits the hand, so where do you start? With the thumb or with any other finger? It doesn’t matter, but you need to make sure that the glove fits. For example, with a movie like ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ where I knew that the genre would be like westerns, where there’s this militaristic aspect of colonial Britain going to the new world, and the conflict that’s colliding with native American Indians, well, I though percussion would have to play a very important part on the soundtrack.
And what was what they were listening at the time? Scottish music and welsh music, so there’s this British feel in the themes, combined with the military aspect, so you get the fusion of the percussion coming together with melody and that’s it.
As you can see every project is different, but for me, it has to be derived organically from the visual material that you have, from the narrative material, from the story. You have to be able to say…this is what this movie is about! What the music is trying to do is bring up the meaning in each of the scenes, to make them clear to an audience, so there’s no ambiguity about what it is the director wants them to see and feel. Because music is a direct emotional line to the audience, it goes straight to the heart, it bypasses the brain.
People don’t question the music. They just feel it.
Excatly! You listen to the dialogue, you have the sound effects, and they’ve taken your ear, but the music slips in and makes you feel about what you’re looking at, and could change completely the perspective. And that ability to change the way people feel about the story they’re just experiencing, that’s the power of good film scoring.
Very interesting… Composing a soundtrack, it’s part of a big process that’s creating a movie. At what part of the process do you enter the movie? These days that everything is in a rush, the time for the soundtrack usually arrives at the last moments, nearly at the end of production with 3-4 weeks to compose and record the soundtrack. Do you prefer to start earlier in the creative process, or you prefer to have a final cut to get the visual reference of what the movie is going to be before composing?
For me the ideal way to work is like when I worked with Jim Henson after we finished Dark Crystal. We were promoting Dark Crystal junkets in different cities in America, and we were in Atlanta and he said “what type of movie should we do next?” We’ve done this big symphonic orchestral score for Dark Crystal and I said, “Let’s do a rock movie. Your muppet formula works for the big star and the animatronics and puppetry, so why don’t we find a rock star and build a movie around? We could use a couple of human beings and the rest animatronics”. And that’s how Labyrinth came about. I said “We could use Mick Jagger or David Bowie or whatever you like”. And then we approached David Bowie, who accepted the project.
So as you can see, in that project we started with the idea, and that’s my point. I like to be involved at the idea stage. With the film “Brased off”, which is another movie I scored; that movie is an idea hanging around with a friend of mine, a director friend, who said “What film would you like to do next?”. And I said, “We’re going to lose traditional brass band because Maggie Thatcher, the prime minister, is shutting down the mines, and a whole national type of music that belongs to Britain is going to die”. So we jumped into that new project, and we did actually protect the music from a whole genre from disappearing completely, by making a movie about it and showing the world that incredible music in brass bands, where bands were playing competitively.
That said, usually I’m given 3 or 4 weeks to compose, but in an ideal world I’d like to start right from the screenplay. I want to be part of the process. With Labyrinth, Terry Jones came in after this conversation with Jim and I, and the story was written, the script was done, and the film evolved from that. I’m sure you’re familiar with those mornings in the shower that you think… “Hey, this is a good idea to cope with”. And then you have the chance to start developing it. That’s the perfect situation. It’s all about building up time that you don’t have in 2 or 3 or 4 weeks of scoring. Because that way, ideas aren’t evolved properly, they don’t develop properly and you cannot reach the full potential of an idea.
So essentially it’s a bad move to put time limits to a creative process.
You need limits, deadlines are necessary, but writing what a movie needs means putting a lot of stuff on it for the sake of it, and that needs time to mature. So for me, I’d like to start as early as possible and that’s the perfect way to do it.
Let’s jump to something different. In 2015 you became quite famous in Spain for an advertisement for Aquarius, a sports drink from the Coca Cola Company. It was the first advertisement of the year, right after midnight, the one that gets most attraction (like Super Bowl ads get in USA). Do you remember that?
I do! But I didn’t realize I became quite famous! (*laughs*)
Yes you did! Film music fans in Spain were quite amazed to see a film music composer on TV in an advertisement, sharing space with well-known actors, politicians, or famous football players. Could you tell us how did you get to that project and the feelings you have from that experience?
I’m still amazed, but what happened was that my management in Los Angeles called me and said: “There’s a Spanish company in Madrid who’ve been asking about whether you would want to become involved in a commercial project from the Coca Cola Company”. And you know what, I hate to say it but I’m a hypocrite (*laughs*). I thinks there’s too much sugar in Coca Cola and it’s not good for the body, but then the first thing I do when I go to a foreign country is not drinking the water, I buy Coca Cola. (*laughs again*). Whether it’s Africa or Patagonia or Australia or whatever, I have a Coca Cola because it tastes good and it’s refreshing, but I shouldn’t because it has too much sugar, my dentist says I shouldn’t (*laughs*).
However, when it came to this drink and I told them my thoughts about Coca Cola, they said, “no no, this one is different, it’s a healthy drink, it’s good for your body, it’s got vitamins and all sorts of good stuff”. So I said, “Ok, let’s try it first before getting involved”. And they sent me a bottle, I put it in the fridge, and when I tasted it… I loved it! I loved Aquarius! This is good stuff! And so I called them and told them “I’d love to be involved in anything I can contribute to this project, because I can see it’s a positive drink”.
They asked me to come to a meeting in Madrid, with the Coca Cola Company and the advertisement company, so I got on the plane and I got off in Madrid, and let me tell you one thing… I thought this was a set up! A pilot, a navigator, a whole air crew with the air hostesses, came towards me in Madrid airport and they were all holding an Aquarius! Very early in the morning, they were going to take their flight and they were all having an Aquarius. I was trying to find where the hidden camera was! I really thought somebody was making a joke on me! But no, this was a real flight crew that were drinking Aquarius. No set-up. Well, so I arrived to the meeting and everyone was very positive about it and we shot the music, recorded it at Abbey Road with the London Symphony, and we also did recordings in Madrid, and some choirs in Bratislava… it was a big production!
“Venirse arriba!” (Trevor suddenly remembers the words and shouts them in Spanish. It’s the slogan of the campaign, meaning “To arrive to the top!”)
Yes! That’s it. “Venirse arriba” (To arrive to the top!). You still remember it! It’s the slogan of the advertisement campaign, which shows regular people doing unpredictable things due to the energy Aquarius gives them. And let me tell you one thing, what a nice story what you just told!!
Well, it was a wonderful project and I really enjoyed it. And you know, I still keep in touch with the people. In fact, this particular Spanish commercials company went to shoot a commercial in South Africa in Cape Town, and they were out there in a place I stay, because I do educational projects there. It’s such a small world. Everything is quite connected!
NOTE: You can watch Aquarius videos with Trevor Jones’ music here (Long version Ad and short version Ad):
Ad – Long version
Ad- Short version
Now that you mention education, let’s talk a little bit about the educational projects you’re involved in. You have stressed that education is the key to a better world. I suppose you were talking about education in all aspects of life, but what role can music take in that education?
I think that music is like all the arts, it’s very very important. For me it’s an essential language. So when I do this education program, music is important to me, but it’s on the same level as painting and arts and other cultural aspects. I know that at the school I work at in South Africa – Cape Town, they have 750 children, all from deprived areas all over the city, and they bust in, and they all play an instrument. Some of them play the triangle, and we’ve got like 40 tubas, which is a big tuba section (*laughs*). I mean, there’s 750 children and 40 tubas, and they make an amazing sound! But the point is that everyone plays an instrument. I think it’s very important as part of their education to be able to speak and write other languages (English, Spanish, French…), but it’s also important to be great musically and artistically.
For me music is such an integral part of my life, that on a daily basis I am interested in how to put that appreciation across to the next generation, so they can have the same pleasure that I get out of listening to music. Also the diversity of music is very important. It’s not just classical or rock, or pop or whatever. It’s important to introduce people to a very wide range of music. In fact, for me there are only three types of music: good, bad and indifferent (*laughs*).
Nice appreciation! Talking about education and composing, which advice would you give to young composers trying to get a place and a voice in the world of film/TV/game music world?
For me you have to define what is specifically what you want to do, or you are just going to be lost. If you’re going to concentrate on games then you want to equip yourself with those techniques needed for games, if you want to score film music, and you want to do all the genres, then you need to know how to write for an orchestra, conduct, orchestrate and so on. But then you also need to understand the different genres. If you want to work in film then jazz, pop, rock, folk music, ethnic music like Indian, Balinese, Javanese, etc… all this different types of ethnic music are necessary, and you need to equip yourself with as much knowledge about the different genres and types of music that you can.
And that’s what I did; I studied four years at the Royal Academy of Music on classical music training with conducting, composition, orchestration and so on, but then after I worked for the BBC, I went back to university and I was interested then in the psychology of image and music, how what you hear affects what you see. And I studied that but combined with music styles that I didn’t know: jazz, pop, rock, folk, ethnic music… styles I didn’t get that at the academy, which I did in my post-graduate years. So to make an understanding of as much styles of music as I could was important in my career.
My first recording session at Abbey Road was with the London Symphony Orchestra but I also had 12 Indian musicians. And we had the situation where I’d written a cello base, and the 12 Indians musicians didn’t have music that you can write down on paper. So if I hadn’t been trained in Indian music, I wouldn’t be able to use Indian verbal communication of music (*trevor sings/talks indian style rythms*) to explain them what I needed, so I gave them the instructions and immediately they understood me. And that’s very exciting! So bottom line is, get all the input you can so you can use it in the future.
You’re working on a new movie now, but is there a dream project, some project you didn’t have the chance to work on but you would like to do in the future?
Let’s start with actual projects…. I’m doing a project at the moment for my son. I just finished one movie with my daughter, who is a screen-player and actress and director, and she has just finished a movie I have scored, and then I’m doing a commercial and then I’m finishing my son’s movie. This is his first feature. I worked with him on three shorts, animations, and I loved working with him because even though he’s my son, and I shouldn’t say it, he’s very talented and I love the way he communicates with musicians. He was brought up in a musical household, and he has been with many musicians and composers, so it comes naturally. When he asked me to score his movie I told him, “work with your own generation, I’m too old, too old” (*laughs*) and he said, “no dad, I still have to learn one or two things from you”. So I’m enjoying very much working with him, but it’s very hard to, because I want to do the best for his movie.
After this movie with my son, I’ve got some big projects I need to do. First project is that I’ve got about 35 orchestral suites I just completed about various movies I composed the music for: Sea of Love, Cliffhanger, and more… 35 big suites and they all run for about 13-15 minutes. That’s a lot of music which can be played in the concert halls, because I think in the future people will want to hear the music without the images (or maybe some images), but in a different way, detached from the movie, getting to hear what you don’t hear under the dialogues. I think the way I write it’s not repetitive, so I’m very keen to finish that as a big project.
But then there’s also another project I want to do with orchestra in the future: having a narrative to the music and a narrator live with the music. It’s just fantastic to do that format. Not too long ago I had the good fortune to see a performance of Romeo & Juliet in the Barbican in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the ballet dancers danced between the orchestral players. The whole ballet was set in and around the musicians. So the whole drama was set around the music. It was spectacular. I’d love to do something like that where there’s an immersion sensation, where you can feel yourself involved. My feeling was to have something in and around, where the musicians are part of the experience, like in a home cinema where the sound comes from many different angles. Something where the audience is more involved in the whole experience, in the whole audio-visual experience, and they feel part of it.
Nice projects. Let’s hope we can enjoy them in a near future. And a final question before ending…. Yesterday after the concert you said you’re considering coming to Spain to live and learn Spanish. Is it true, or just a joke? (*Laughs*)
Hahaha! (*laughs*) It’s not a joke. I have a wish list and it is part of it to learn Spanish in the near future. Some Spanish friend said to me, “you know Trevor, if you’re serious about learning Spanish, go to Spain and speak!”. So I thought about this and then I came to Malaga, that has a lot of life. It’s totally a different world from Britain! It’s a beautiful city and it’s fantastic culturally… So who knows what will happen in the future (*laughs*)
That’s fantastic. So Trevor, we’re hoping to have you soon back in Spain: as a tourist, as a Spanish student or as a composer with your music! Any way you like!
Thank you! It’s been fantastic! Thank you so much!
Interview by Gorka Oteiza
Pictures Gori Martínez