Photo: Paul Taylor
Have you ever muted the sound while watching a scary movie because the scene was getting way too intense? And because you just can't look away, the scene becomes way more bearable? Music for film and T.V has a huge impact on your viewing experience: it can change the mood quite rapidly, from not much happening to all of a sudden feeling tense or from feeling overwhelmed with sadness to really happy in a few short bars of music.

Karl Steven has created soundtracks for many documentaries and commercials, and composed original music for such T.V series as The Blue Rose' and 'Harry' (a finalist for best original music in a T.V series - APRA Silver Scrolls 2014). This week, I talk to Karl a bit about making music for film and T.V.

How did you get into making music for film and TV? Was it a career that you had in mind when you started making music or was it something you fell into?
I was super keen to do movie music as a youngster but I didn't know anything about it and just focused on music by itself. Then when I was 16, my uncle was working at an ad agency and asked whether I could make him a cheap jingle for a cat food ad. I borrowed an ancient sequencer from the music shop I used to vacuum in the weekends, hooked it up to my synthesizer, and took the first step along the road of music to picture.

What's the process? Is it collaborative between you and the director? Does the director have something in mind or is the director like RUN FREE?
It depends on the job how it works, but yes it's very much a collaborative thing...people come to me with a story and lots of hard work already done, so then my job is helping them to realize that project from a musical perspective. That's part of what I like about screen composing; it's about telling the story, not about individual egos, so we all only get to run as free as will be of benefit to the big collaborative story we've embarked upon trying to tell.

What kind of deadlines do you work to?
The deadlines can be pretty brutal. On an episodic TV show, for instance, once things are in the groove there's often a weekly turn around. So if there's a lot of music, it can be exciting times churning out up to 40 pieces and getting them approved, tweaked, and delivered in a week. It's definitely a job for workaholics.

Do you make all the music yourself, or do you pull in other people to do bits and pieces, i.e:...have you ever used an orchestra?
Most of the music I make myself in the studio, but nothing beats working with live players so I do it whenever budget and timeline allow. I've never done full orchestral "tutti" with everyone playing all at once, but I've been lucky to get to do little component parts like string quartets, brass sections, and various woodwind, percussion, and string ensembles. I worked with a harp player recently, which was a thrill, and this week I'm recording a bassoon and french horn, so I'm looking forward to that very much.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Who are your influences in terms of composers that make music for film and T.V.? 
I'm a total geek for this stuff so I could go on and on but a few favs are... From back in the day:
Masaru Sato who did a great job on many of Akira Kurosawa's films (and the Godzilla films!).
Quincy Jones, often overlooked, but a very clever and daring film composer who did especially cool things on "In Cold Blood" and "In the Heat of the Night".
And Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone of course...they are total giants.

More recently:
Mica Levi's soundtrack to "Under The Skin" was amazing.
Daniel Pemberton ("The Counselor") is always worth listening closely to, as is Nathan Johnson ("Brick" and "Looper").
Disasterpeace made cool music for "It Follows", and The Chemical Brothers did a good job on the film "Hanna"...great film too.

TV folks:
Martin Phipps (who did Brighton Rock and recently BBCs War and Peace).
Cristobal Tapia De Veer made some great stuff for the series "Utopia"...John Lunn did "Downton Abbey", "Shetland" and "Bleak House" and is a class act and great at using strings, woodwind, and piano.

Then there are all the usual suspects who are unquestionably great and worth spending hours with....Carter Burwell, Philip Glass, John Williams, Mychael Danna, Anne Dudley, Cliff Martinez, James Newton Howard, Howard Shore, Michael Giacchino, Hans Zimmer, and the list goes on and on and on...

Can you list me some of your favourite soundtracks?
Again there are too many to mention but...

Vangelis - Blade Runner
Ennio Morricone - Fistfull of Dollars
Bernard Herrmann - Psycho
Cliff Martinez - Only God Forgives
Johnny Greenwood - There Will Be Blood
Carter Burwell - In Bruges
Henry Mancini - Touch of Evil
Again it's difficult to reduce them to a meaningful list!

Do you have any dream collaborations?
um...Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch...I don't know, anyone making good stuff that would go well with good music really.

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  1. Karl Steven, followed his works for some time now. Thank you for this piece