DEBBIE WISEMAN: TV & Film Composer Extraordinaire

Interview | Composer

Published in SOS March 1998
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Debbie Wiseman has been described as Britain's most prolific and emotionally charged film composer, with a long list of TV and cinema credits, including the recent Oscar Wilde biopic, that belies her age. BIG GEORGE pays a visit to a woman of some importance...

The high point of most media piss-ups is watching departmental accountants experimenting with alcohol and raiding the company stores for whatever booty can be found. At one party I saw a highly-paid numerical whizz kid throw up all over his boss, wet himself, burst into tears and apologise to everyone. Everyone, that is, except me, as I was busy availing myself of one copy of everything from the promotion stock cupboard - well, it's the only promotion I'll ever get, whereas the Technicolour laughing boy is now a director of one of the top record companies in the world.

Anyway, just before Christmas I was at a superior class of shindig thrown by BBC Worldwide. It was full of composers and copyright clearance people -- my favourite people: one lot are who I am and the other lot are the people who send us our cheques -- when who should walk in? Only the wonderful Debbie Wiseman. I knew it was her, as I'd been an avid viewer of the Channel 4 series Backtracks, which she presented a year or so ago. I also knew her by reputation, as the most romantic and lyrical composer alive in Europe today, and by the fact that she's done a good deal of the serious film and TV music work in this country over the last five years, her most recent high-profile soundtrack being for Wilde, starring Stephen Fry and Vanessa Redgrave.

We got chatting, and, as an avid reader of Sound On Sound, she flattered me by saying how much she enjoyed my articles. As we were getting on so well, I asked if I could write one about her, and to my delight she agreed. A couple of days later I went to her little demo studio in London, to see her put the finishing touches to the music which accompanied the Carlton TV bio-documentary of the late Princess Diana, Diana's Story, and to hear the story behind Debbie Wiseman's career.


Debbie started playing the piano at the tender age of seven. It was during a family holiday, while all the other children were out splashing in the water, that her Mum noticed little Debbie in the hotel parlour thumping away on the piano. So the family bought a piano, and within a few years Debbie had steamed through her grades. She became a Saturday exhibitioner at the Trinity College Of Music, which is where gifted children up to the age of 16 spend their Saturday mornings -- learning theory, playing in chamber ensembles, and basically getting an all-round music education of a higher standard than can be given at school. This was where she first felt the desire to compose: "When I was nine years old, when most children would be at home watching cartoons on TV, I'd be sitting in a circle with lots of wonderful musicians at Trinity. One person would start to compose a tune and the next person would add to it, and so on. It w

"I would never replace a flute player, or any musician, with a sample, but I will quite often use an atmospheric sound and hang the orchestra around it."
as absolutely brilliant; we all felt we were learning the craft of music in a very simple but accessible way. It was those little circles that got me really interested in composing; it seemed so easy to get a germ of an idea, a little hook, then build it up into something substantial, which is really what music composition is all about."

After doing a special A-level course at Morley College she went to the Guildhall School Of Music and Drama in London. Although the drama side of the school didn't really cross over into the music side, it did mean that there were a number of theatrical ventures that needed music. Debbie was the first person to do a joint first study of Composition and Piano, and by the end of her course she was writing and conducting music with the excellent in-house orchestra, as well as being musical director for most of the drama department's output. She studied composition under the tutelage of Buxton Orr, a contemporary avant garde classical composer who taught her the discipline of serious orchestration. "One of the most important lessons he taught me was: compose something every day, even if you throw it away, as it's important to keep your compositional sharpness. After having a couple of weeks' holiday it may seem that you come back to the manuscript fresh, but it can sometimes take a week to get back into the full flow of writing fluid music."


After graduating with a GGSM diploma (which allows her to teach music anywhere, if she ever so desires) Debbie fell into the wonderful world of function bands, playing top tunes at weddings, anniversaries and Bar Mitzvahs, where her most detested tune was Stevie Wonder's biggest hit, 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' (which is also, in my opinion, the worst thing he's ever done, and ever since it came out and made him a fortune everything he's released has been completely useless).

  There's a world of difference between a soundtrack CD and the CD of the original score. The first is pumped full of cheap-to-acquire '70s chart hits and dodgy disco remixes, whereas the second is modern-day classical music of the highest order. Sadly, this music is almost completely ignored by the likes of Classic FM and Radio 3. Debbie has three albums and a single which fall into this category, available at all good record shops.

Wilde MCI Presents (MPRCD-001)
Haunted Filmtracks/ Silva Screen (TRXCD 2002)
Tom And Viv Sony Classical (SK 64381)
'Children's Hospital' BBC/BMG 74321475892; also available on World Of Sound, BBC (CD 33635-2)

But our Debbie was keen to get out of the social club scene and onto the TV screen. While at Guildhall she'd amassed a healthy body of recorded orchestral work, which she packaged up into a showreel and sent out to various people in the television and advertising world. Out of the 100 or so she sent out, she got two replies. One was from an ad agency asking her in for a chat about her music: the result was a commission for a Pringles crisps jingle -- not a bad start. The other reply was from a chap called Paul Bryers, a director from Brooke Productions, who was making a programme called A Strike Out Of Time about the dire plight of British miners. He'd always used library music before, but was looking for something more individual. She got the job, and has subsequently completed over a dozen major documentaries, series and feature films for the company.


By now I was up to speed with Debbie's background and influences, and the story of how she made a start in commercial music, so we began talking about the working methods and approach which have made her so successful in her chosen field. Debbie told me that there are no hard and fast rules at the start of a project: "It varies from director to director; some might call me in because they like something I've done before and they ask me what music I think their film needs. Other directors (and this is more often the case) have a very strong idea of what music they want. They've often 'temp tracked' the film themselves [see 'Just for Atmosphere: The Temp Track' box] and we'll spend time talking about what they want me to convey emotionally with the music. On Wilde, I was brought in after the film had been completely shot and the first chance I got to talk about the music they wanted me to compose was after I'd watched a rough cut at a screening. The director had temp tracked the film with music he liked from other films and music he'd grabbed from his own record collection. With the miners documentary, on the other hand, I was brought in very early and they hadn't shot any of the film yet, so I was more involved in talking about how dynamic the film was going to be, how the music would be approached stylistically, and which instruments would be appropriate for the subject. After these initial meetings I go back to my little studio and sketch out the main themes on piano. I take these back for their approval -- there's no point in doing too much work at this stage, as they might hate what I've done and I'd have to go back to the drawing board."


Even someone like Debbie Wiseman, classically trained and using the best orchestral players to realise her musical vision, calls upon music technology to make her life a little easier. The centrepiece of her studio is a full-size Yamaha Grand Piano (not a MIDI Grand) where she composes her masterpieces. She has an IBM PC-compatible computer running Cadenza sequencing software for Windows, and her master keyboard for inputting information into the sequencer is a Roland JV80. She hand-writes her scores beautifully, before voicing her rich orchestrations with the aid of two Emu samplers (an E3 and an E4). An extensive library of sample CDs, including the superb Miroslav Vitous orchestral sample CDs, is used for demo purposes only, "I use these to mock up the score before I go into the studio. I would never replace a flute player, or any musician, with a sample, but I will quite often use an atmospheric sound and hang the orchestra around it. On the score to the film Haunted, the lead instrument was a weird percussive icy harmonic sound which I could never have got from an orchestra. Alongside I had an ensemble of 35 strings playing around the lead part."

  More often than not, a film or TV company will invite a composer in after all the filming has been completed. During the rough-cut editing stage of the process, music will have been laid down to cut the pictures to. It's there as a guide, to show where the film needs music to lift the pictures and what mood or tempo the director wants. Music for the temp track can be supplied by lame library CDs, which are available for anyone to use, and this music could be left in place for the final release version of the film or TV production -- but although this would save the production company the cost of a recording budget, it's never a good idea. Why? Well, the producers of the film might use a particular piece to highlight the plight of a refugee, or to heighten the effect of a spectacular natural phenomenon like a volcanic eruption. Then the very same piece of music could quite possibly be used by Jeremy Beadle to accompany film of a dog hilariously biting off an old lady's nose.

Another source of temp tracks is major film scores, like Schindler's List or Robocop, where the rights to the music are completely unobtainable, but for the purposes of a temp track are perfect -- and as it won't be going out on commercial release there's nothing Hollywood can do about it.

A temp track is only there as a guide: the point at issue for the composer is just how close a guide the director wants it to be for the final cut of the film. It can be quite daunting watching a film which you hope to compose the score for being accompanied by the work of Mozart, Mike Oldfield, John Williams, Django Reinhardt and The Orb -- especially when the budget you have to work with will only stretch to half a dozen players and one day in the studio to record everything!


When the basic themes for a project have been sketched out, the next stage is the so-called 'spotting session'. Debbie explained.

"In my view, this is the most important part of the process, and is where you sit down with the director and look at the film with no music at all -- just dialogue, effects and burnt-in timecode (the SMPTE code display at the bottom of the screen). This is usually quite a lengthy process, as we go through the film bit by bit, deciding where the music will start, where it will finish, what it's aiming to do in that particular scene; whether it's going to creep in gradually or come in with a strong chord, whether it will tail out or crescendo into a major hit point... Is it going to be in the background to help the drama, or is it going to work against the pictures to add another dimension to the scene? After discussing every scene, I go away with a long list of cues with timecode starts and stops, and a pile of notes which I've scribbled down during the meeting -- things the director has said, things I thought of as we were talking, little music sketches I've jotted down to remind me of tunes and phrases I might have hummed during the screening. I take all that away and start getting the piece arranged and orchestrated. Sometimes, if I'm brought in early in the project and they know they've got a big dramatic piece, the editor will ask for a demo of, say, a two and a half minute piece to accompany a montage of action, so that they can cut the film to the music. But usually I'll be composing to the rhythm the editor has cut the film to."


On a big project, the above process can take as long as a month, working from 7am until midnight, with a break for lunch -- well, a girl has to eat. In fact, the life of a highly successful composer means being stuck in a little room for weeks on end before going into a huge recording studio for a couple of hours, with ensembles of between five and 75 musicians, to record the finished article. It's far from the glamorous life one might imagine, but then things must get easier as the success piles up. I asked Debbie whether the way she's treated by the companies who commission her work has changed over the past few years as her profile has become more and more impressive.

"Not that I've noticed. Maybe people trust me a little more and don't seem as nervous about whether I can deliver on time because I've got a back catalogue, but they still like to be involved in the process of getting the music right. I don't think any company would accept anything unless it was good, no matter who you are. A lot of major composers in Hollywood still get their scores rejected if the producers of the film don't like them."

"The ego of a film composer has to be zilch, as you can't ever be centre stage."
Debbie's own introduction to Hollywood was via the intriguingly titled, but very un-dodgy film Female Perversions. The film spotting was done in Los Angeles with the producer and director, but all the recording was done in London. She maintains that she didn't find too much difference between the American way of doing things and ours -- except that the industry in Hollywood is infinitely bigger and there's a lot more money being thrown at the big major motion pictures. It's standard for named composers to have orchestras of 80-90 players and be given long periods of time in the studio.

The number of players Debbie uses varies considerably: "It can be absolutely anything; primarily it's dictated by what the budget will allow and then by what I feel the film needs. If the ensemble is limited, due to the budget, I'll try to be as creative as possible with the instrumentation. I'll make sure I write for the stuff you're really going to hear, the top-line instruments -- sax, flute, clarinet or whatever -- in their best registers, so they really sing out. Then around that I'll voice as many strings as I can afford; I feel strings are the heart of any orchestra. On Wilde, I used a 70-piece orchestra on four three-hour sessions, to record over 45 minutes of music."


When most bands can't get four people together on time for a rehearsal, how on earth did Debbie get 70 musicians together? (Apart from paying them money, that is.) "I always use a fixer, Roz Colls, who runs a company called Music Matters. She not only books all the players and makes sure they turn up at the studio for 10am, but sorts out payments and does any copyright clearance there might be. For instance, in Wilde, there's a scene where Bosie sings part of a Gilbert and Sullivan tune from The Pirates Of Penzance. Now this was filmed long before I was on board with the project, but I thought it would be nice to incorporate it into the score a couple of times, to give some continuity.

  In addition to Wilde, the recently released and highly-acclaimed feature film starring Stephen Fry, and the Princess Diana tribute mentioned in the main text, Debbie has composed, conducted and orchestrated music scores for dozens of programmes, documentaries and films. The following is necessarily an abridged list of her credits.

Haunted Feature film for Lumiere Pictures.
Tom And Viv Feature film for Samuelson Productions/IRS media (nominated for a BAFTA).
The Good Guys Drama series for network ITV (winner of best original theme music of the year, TRIC awards 1993).
The Upper Hand Sitcom for network ITV.
Death In Yugoslavia Documentary for the BBC (nominated for best commissioned score, Ivor Novello awards and Royal television society awards 1995).
The Second Russian Revolution BBC (winner of best documentary series, Broadcasting Press Guild TV awards 1991).
Female Perversions Feature film for Map Films/Trans Atlantic.
Is It Legal? Comedy series for network ITV.
A Week In Politics Channel 4.
The Cuban Missile Crisis BBC (winner of outstanding historical documentary, Emmy awards 1993).
Postcards From The Edge Channel 4.
Tales Of The Serengeti PBS.
The Dying Rooms Debate Channel 4.
Auntie: The Inside Story Of The BBC BBC.
Seekers Of The Lost Treasure Discovery Channel.
'Cheryl's Trail' (Modern Times) BBC.
Jackanory BBC title music.
SelecTV Station ident music.
'Incredible Evidence' (Equinox) Channel 4.

Plus adverts for Oxfam, Procter & Gamble, Kraft Cheese and The Sunday Observer.

Debbie's diary is full to bursting, and just some of the programmes featuring her work in 1998 are: Dear Nobody, a BBC drama film starring Sean Maguire, all about a young female composer (coincidental); Survival School, a BBC/Discovery Channel natural history series; Bloom, a Channel 4 series; Legend Of The Lost Keys, a BBC drama series; and Children's Hospital for the BBC.

"With regard to musicians, there are certain people who I always approach: Justin Pearson is my string co-ordinator, and I'll tell him the line-up I want -- how many first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and so on, the sort of score it is, whether it needs strong playing or a more intimate feel -- and he'll pick the best group of players for the piece, so I've got a really uniform string section. The standard of musicians in this country is phenomenal, on a par with the best there is anywhere in the world. Their sight reading is brilliant; you can write the most difficult part and they'll just read it perfectly first time."

A lot of composers use orchestrators to voice the music for the different sections of the orchestra -- someone like Jerry Goldsmith will write a nine-voice score and give it to his orchestrator, who will get it ready for up to 90 musicians. Debbie does it all herself, often by hand, although she uses Coda Music's Finale for Windows to print out the parts, which she then has to amend and re-print. "It takes a few days to actually print out the parts for 70 players, and I'm completely paranoid about mistakes in the score, so I check all the parts over and over again, because there's no time in the studio to correct mistakes.

"Once I've completed the session and delivered the master DAT to the director, the job's done, though sometimes I'll go along to the dubbing session."


A couple of days later, I went to see Debbie record the music for the Princess Diana programme at CTS (one of the top orchestral studios in Europe, situated in the shadow of Wembley Stadium). She was using six musicians, as well as herself playing piano, and conducting with her eyes and the nod of her head. There wasn't a MIDI click to be heard, and I wondered whether all her sessions were so free in terms of tempo. "Not at all, but this is a very lyrical piece, so I can conduct the players as I see fit. If I do need to hit a certain point in a film, then I will tempo-map the click track at home, which means I build a sense of flow -- slowing down, accelerandos, that sort of thing -- into the tempo track. That way, if there is a point in the action that I need to hit I can plan in some expression and know I'll hit it perfectly every time, which I couldn't if I was conducting it wild."

Watching Debbie Wiseman create such wonderfully rich and full music with only six people, and without the use of any electronic instruments, made me realise how the ability to write great classic music is a skill bestowed only on the very elite. Yet this hard-working and talented member of that elite remains modest and unassuming about her own importance in the scheme of things: "Sometimes what works musically isn't what works with the pictures. I might want to have a huge crescendo leading up to the best part of the tune, to show it off, but that doesn't work with the film because the film requires something less dramatic at that point. The ego of a film composer has to be zilch, as you can't ever be centre stage. You're there to underscore the emotion of the film and allow dialogue room to be heard. The film has to come first."

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