By the time you read this, he could be clutching his first Oscar for his soundtrack for the historic blockbuster Elizabeth. David Hirschfelder discourses with Richard Buskin about the art, science and pyschology of scoring for the moving image.
"My instinct is to say, 'Well, this is the way I see it. You've asked me for my vision, you've asked me as an artist to respond to your film.' But the bottom line is that it is a collaboration. I've collaborated with other music writers before, and even as part of that process a fellow composer will ask, 'Can we try that differently?'
"So, provided that I get a clear direction or a clear case as to why this is a good idea, I'm always open to trying new things. I think the only way we can truly grow is to willingly give ourselves over to a new direction... being open like that is definitely an essential part of this industry."
David Hirschfelder is in full flow and the subject is his life and passion, writing for film. Currently one of Australia's most successful and sought‑after soundtrack composers, Hirschfelder has forged a solid reputation through his work on projects for both small and large screens. His TV credits have included the acclaimed 1990 drama Shadows of the Heart, while his feature film credits include Strictly Ballroom, Shine, Sliding Doors, The Interview and most recently Elizabeth.
A student of popular and classical music styles, Hirschfelder actually started his professional career in the 1980s as a keyboard player and composer with Pyramid, a cutting‑edge jazz ensemble which went on to gain top billing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. However, by his late twenties, Hirschfelder found himself in demand as a writer of advertising jingles and radio themes. This work subsequently led him to compose the score for the 1987 film Suzy's Story, and he has never looked back. His work on Strictly Ballroom earned him a 1991 BAFTA for Best Original Score, while the music for Shine five years later was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
Indeed, Hirschfelder's score for Shine — a neo‑classical sound that had to blend in with piano compositions by Rachmaninov and Rimsky‑Korsakov — laid the groundwork for his work on Elizabeth, the multi‑Oscar‑nominated epic about the early life of England's 'Virgin Queen', Elizabeth I. Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and Sir Richard Attenborough, and directed by Shekhar Kapur, this movie proved to be one of the most demanding projects that Hirschfelder has been involved with so far. He set out to capture the epic, religious tone of the film by orchestrating his music for an 80‑piece orchestra and 40‑member choir. The result is a combination of stripped‑down vocal solos juxtaposed with sweeping orchestral outbursts, creating a wide, dramatic soundscape.
I generally tend to start scoring after the film has been shot. But Elizabeth has moments where I was writing prior to the shoot. For example, I wrote the love theme during the first meeting I had with the director.
"With the projects I work on, I generally tend to start scoring after the film has been shot," Hirschfelder explains. "But, as with Shine and Strictly Ballroom, Elizabeth had moments where I was writing and preparing things prior to the shoot. For example, I wrote the love theme during the first meeting that I had with the director. It was in Soho and Shekhar Kapur asked me what sort of music I would write. I'd read the script and thought maybe some Elizabethan‑style instruments should be juxtaposed with a real orchestra, to which he said, 'That's all very well, but let me describe this scene to you...'
"The scene that he described was the final one — the big, dramatic moment when Queen Elizabeth walks out and shocks everyone with her image of this woman with a white face. As he was describing it to me, I said: 'I can hear music in my head. It's three boy soprano voices, unaccompanied, very simple'. He said, 'There's a piano right over there', so I went and played those notes on the piano — asking him to imagine them being boy soprano notes — and he fell in love with those notes as they were. I ended up using the same ones and the same type of gesture as the starting point for the love theme on harp."
In fact, so excited was director Shekhar Kapur by the piano notes that, for weeks after the meeting, he kept pestering David Hirschfelder for a cassette recording of them. By then, however, the composer was already working on another film back in Australia, and so he took time out to produce a synthesized demo of a musical sequence that ran to about three minutes and eventually became the film's love theme.
"That kind of triggered a thought in me that from now on I'm going to start composing as soon as I read the script," says Hirschfelder. "In the past I would read the script and get a general feeling for the film, for the story, for the characters and for the moods, but I would never write specifically to the script. I'd always wait for the film to come along. However, after this experience I'm now a firm believer in writing from the word go.
"Having said that, the more information and the more feel that I can get, the better. I mean, I love going to the set. With certain films that's not all that necessary, because as soon as I've seen the finished film I have the mood right there. However, with The Interview director Craig Monahan felt that it was good for me to visit the set and experience the intimidating feeling of this gothic‑style police station. That was great, because when I subsequently saw it on film I could actually place myself in the room. So, there are times when I would say that visiting the set is absolutely essential, and others when it doesn't matter because the illusion of the film is so grand."
Hirschfelder says that over the years he has been involved in composing for film, his working methods have had to adapt to the evolving techniques of film‑making, particularly changes in editing styles.
"In the past, I used to enjoy getting the finished structure of the film so that I knew what I was working towards. At that point, I'd know how long it needed to be and the music would evolve from the finished work. What happens more and more with non‑linear editing techniques is that scenes can change length much more easily as people try different options. I've therefore had to become more flexible, and, much as I still prefer to score to a specific length of scene, I know that I need to write music that is edit‑friendly.
"Another thing is that they generally cut a film down to size, rather than pad it out in certain areas, so I think it's probably best to score an earlier cut because you can always chop things out at a certain point. If that structure then doesn't work musically you can always re‑write the relevant moment.
"Working on Elizabeth, I learned that you can make music edits work, not only because of the technology these days but also because I try to layer things as much as I can, so that I can crossfade different instrumental layers at different points in order to get a nice friendly edit. In fact, it's better to have too much so that you can cut things out, rather than suddenly be faced with not enough time to do the job properly. In an ideal world I would like to work from the final cut, but in reality there's often no such thing as a final cut until after I've finished recording the music. So, I've got a choice; I either leave myself only three weeks at the end between the final cut and the dub, or I start writing a lot earlier and at least take advantage of the fact that I've got editing tools that are much more powerful now than those which I had in the past."
Talking of editing tools brings Hirschfelder to discussion of Emagic's Logic Audio sequencer, a product which is central to his setup at his Bedford Street studio back home in Melbourne, Australia. Created within a spacious, split‑level, open‑plan warehouse, Bedford Street offers Hirschfelder a great deal of freedom in terms of configuration, as not one piece of the modular and ever‑evolving equipment is bolted to the floor or hard‑wired. As a result, things can be changed around quickly and easily whenever necessary, while his system — or part of it — can be easily recreated in another location if required.
At the heart of the studio is a Macintosh 9500/200 PowerPC running Logic Audio, plus a 64‑channel Pro Tools hardware system. Submixing is through a Yamaha 02R digital desk which Hirschfelder says he usually uses as a digital audio patchbay alongside his MIDI keyboard rig.
"I used to have a 24:8:2 Mackie desk which was fantastic, but the allure of the programmable console was just too much to resist, especially for a composer who needs to mock up an idea that might include a certain style of reverb or a certain style of room in order to create the mood that I want. I use it not so much for automation but just to store scenes, so I can readily display my work in progress. All of this enables me to come up with a MIDI sketch which I can easily transform into a piano‑type score that will then flow into an orchestration. My preferred way of working now is to record the actual audio of each cue alongside where the score was written, so that the audio itself lines up with the bar grid of the Logic Audio sequence.
"In terms of sampling, I use everything from soundscape‑type effects to loops that I record myself, and I have a couple of old Kurzweil modules which have some faithful string sounds that often evoke the type of feeling that I want. I also have Emu Proteus modules, a Roland JV1080, and basically a little supermarket of modules which, over the years, has evolved into a pretty easy system whereby I know where all of my oboes and all of my woodwind sounds are, along with any other synth noises that I may want to incorporate."
With this technology, I love the way that you can 'touch' a note in the score and see the video jump to the frame that is in sync with that note.
Two 17‑inch monitors are positioned strategically on either side of a central 20‑inch monitor, forming a wide, composite virtual screen that enables Hirschfelder to simultaneously display music notation and MIDI + Audio track and part information, all in sync with full frame‑rate video playing off hard disk and viewed through a Sony Trinitron monitor.
"This technology makes the technical side of film‑scoring a lot less boring," he says. "For example, I love the way that you can 'touch' a note in the score and see the video automatically jump to the frame that is in sync with that note. Then, if you want to, you can move your note to the frame that you want it to hit. That stuff never ceases to amaze me.
"I like to mock up the entire score so that the director can actually hear where it's going, and at the same time it's ready for the orchestrators to fine‑tune, although, time permitting, I like to do as much of the orchestration myself. There again, when it comes to scoring and music desktop publishing, I work closely with my colleague upstairs, Sam Schwarz, who also has a Macintosh PowerPC workstation with Logic Audio and Pro Tools with three screens. So when I send files upstairs to him for note editing and fine‑tuning, we're literally on the same page. Likewise, around the corner there's engineer Chris Scallan's 64‑track Pro Tools rig which has two 21‑inch viewing screens, so when it's time for detailed digital audio editing and processing I usually pop things over to him on a CD or a JAZ drive. We have also come up with shared sets of key‑command shortcuts in both Logic Audio and Pro Tools, so we all jump on each other's rigs at any time to hack away or help each other out when the 'sausage factory' is in full swing."
Both The Interview and Sliding Doors were mixed at Bedford Street, which is a five‑minute stroll from two other facilities that Hirschfelder uses frequently: Adelphia Studio, where most of the recording and pre‑mixing was done on Shine, The Interview, Sliding Doors and Inside This Room, and Chris Scallan's Deep Red Studio, where, according to Hirschfelder, he has "witnessed every TDM plug‑in imaginable, plus some very serious outboard gear used on Elizabeth and Inside This Room for overdubs, audio editing, and mixing."
Bedford Street is, in fact, large enough to comfortably record eight orchestral musicians, enabling the orchestra to be tracked in layers if necessary.
"For Sliding Doors, I layered the whole orchestra a section at a time," says Hirschfelder. "It gave me a lot of control in the mix and it gave the producers a lot of control during the final mix. Working that way allows me to re‑orchestrate after I've recorded if I want to. I like that flexibility and the directors seem to like it too. They're able to say, 'Gee, can we try that cue without the brass in it and see what it sounds like? Wow, that's nice, that's opened it up a bit. Maybe we'll go that way...'"
As the score for Elizabeth required an 80‑piece orchestra, the recording took place at a well‑established Melbourne facility named Allan Eaton Sound. David Hirschfelder has a long‑standing working relationship with the resident engineer, Robin Gray, and says he trusts him for his ability to not only get through a lot of orchestral music within a short space of time, but also obtain the desired sound inside a small room with a low ceiling.
"He's got the Decca Tree kind of mic setup there [see pages 202 and 204], then he supplements that with spot mikes all around the orchestra," Hirschfelder explains. "I'm benefiting from 20 years of technical experience, and he's also got a great attitude... He knows when to tell the right kind of joke!"
The players were mainly from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, mixed with young musicians hand‑picked by Hirschfelder for their ability to perform contemporary music in numerous different styles. Bedford Street, meanwhile, was utilised to layer up ambient backdrops to some of the orchestral sounds, courtesy of a comprehensive musical effects library that David Hirschfelder can tune to the orchestra.
"If I just want low pipe organ notes I often use samples and I double the bass lines with those," he says. "It's that old Gustav Holtz trick where you don't even know it's a pipe organ, but it's in there adding a lot of subsonics to the orchestra. I like doing things such as that — subtle tricks that are not in your face."
Working with the director of Elizabeth led to some interesting methods of composing, Hirschfelder recalls. With a huge reputation in his native India, Shekhar Kapur was making his first English‑ language outing with Elizabeth, so one area he had to come to terms with was the method of meticulously pre‑planning a score, as opposed to the more improvisational practices prevalent in the Indian film industry. At the same time, Kapur would come up with far more offbeat suggestions for the music than the Australian composer was normally accustomed to.
I think people hire me for my eclecticism, and within those eclectic styles I have a melodic bent.
"He'd just say, 'Right, let's hear the same music with no percussion at all! I want to hear what that sounds like' and I'd think, 'OK, it's your call,'" Hirschfelder recollects. "To my utter amazement one of my favourite cues in the film now is one where he asked me to pull out all of the percussion, which I thought was an integral part. It's not the most important scene, but it's a scene where one of the ladies‑in‑waiting, Isabelle, is secretly trying on Queen's dress before she meets up with Dudley. Well, I originally had percussion to drive the scene, and when Shekhar asked me to pull it out there were suddenly all of these little disembodied woodwind figures and quirky motifs happening without anything holding them all together. That turned out to be a great effect, and something I would have never thought of.
"We didn't want to make the film a predictable period piece, and so right up until the delivery deadline there was this ongoing debate as to whether the score was going to be minimal, dark and mysterious, or large and epic. I guess we ended up somewhere between the two. We were making bold choices and happily they really worked, but at the time those decisions were daunting and difficult. For example, the opening scene where the martyrs are being burned was very challenging. It's such a confrontational piece. You don't want the music to be gratuitously horrific — that would be too literal. And we didn't want the music to be too heroic.
"In the end we sat in front of the piano one day when I wasn't even thinking of that scene and Shekhar pulled his usual trick. He used his 'method acting' technique and talked me through the feeling of what it's like to confront the evil within you — the dark things that you don't want to face. It was like having psychotherapy! He said, 'In particular now, take those feelings and imagine that you are a monk. You are indulging in a black mass that's evil and you're dancing around naked in a church. What kind of music would that be and with what kind of instruments?' I said, 'Well, I've got a piano here now. Let me see what happens,' and I just improvised this piano piece which was based on a Gregorian chant. I consciously altered the scale to be a dark, diminished scale, using the notes and intervals that were actually banned by Pope Gregory — the so‑called intervals of the Devil. I deliberately used those and created this kind of perverted religious music that emphasised the inherently sinister side of fanatical religion. That was the subtext in my brain, I played it on the piano and it built into this frenzy.
"I was playing this fantastic big Bösendorfer at the little Sarm (East) studio in London. It was the one that Freddie Mercury apparently played 'Bohemian Rhapsody' on, so that gave me a thrill. I recorded everything to DAT, took those recordings away, listened to them with Shekhar, edited together the ones that we liked, and then just orchestrated this piece from the piano and it opened the film. It was amazing how that happened. To be honest it was a cathartic experience for me, and it was not premeditated... I literally wrote that piece in three minutes."
"When I look back at my work over the last 20 years it's interesting; the actual core of the way I write a melody hasn't changed much, and the kind of rhythms that I use haven't changed much at all. On the other hand, the styles have altered radically from project to project and I like that ability to find my voice within any style. You see, I think people hire me for my eclecticism, and within those eclectic styles I have a melodic bent which I couldn't specifically describe, but whose personality provides the voice of the composer. All of the other stylistic changes and permutations of that are just a result of the composer's interaction with the cultural references around him and the requirements of the film.
"I've learned something from every film that I work on and I'm still learning. I'm 39 and I figure that I'm about halfway there."