God in America
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God in America: Behind the Music

An interview with series composer Philip Sheppard

 

Philip Sheppard is a composer specializing in film and television soundtracks, as well as large-scale theater and events. He is a solo cellist and a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Recent films he's scored include In the Shadow of the Moon, Henry Mind of a Tyrant, The Tillman Story, Juliette Binoche: Sketches for a Portrait and Sergio. He was commissioned to compose and produce the music for the London 2012 handover sequence at the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony. This included a new version of the U.K. national anthem. His website is philipsheppard.com. Click here to download the God in America sountrack from iTunes.

How did you begin to immerse yourself in the subject matter for God in America? Researchers begin reading books about religion. What do you do to prepare?

I was supplied with a wealth of reading matter and recorded material -- mostly collated by Marilyn Mellowes at WGBH, Sarah Colt and David Belton. They pointed me in the direction of works by Steve Marini and David Stowe, which were pivotal in my research, as well as obvious texts such as the Harvard Hymnal. I also spent at least a day per week in the music research facilities of the British Library, which were invaluable in delving into the history (and prehistory) of American religious music.

One of the first pieces of Lincoln's writing you studied was his Meditation on Divine Will. What did you discover about Lincoln through that letter, and how did that help you shape the music for that section of the film?

I remember sitting on a long-haul flight turning the ideas for the meditation scene over and over in my head -- whilst reading the texts Lincoln himself had written. I was very aware that I was trying to write a theme for one of the most important figures in American history -- a much-revered secular saint.

Yet the words he had written seemed so very direct -- far from archaic -- I suddenly felt I had a clear sense of what his voice may have sounded like. It seemed avuncular and yet full of resonance. After all, this was a man who could address vast crowds with no amplification! I found myself really liking him.

Once he'd taken tonal form in my head, I ran his words through over and over and (sacrilegiously) started to cross out phrases that didn't stick in my mind. The two answering phrases that remained on my pad were:

God wills this contest...
Yet the contest began…
God wills this contest...
Yet the contests proceeds...

These had such a clear sense of phrasing that it was very easy to draw the rise and fall as two arches. From this I could notate the rhythm and the melody.

His voice was that of a mid-range cello line. Fortunately -- and perhaps unsurprisingly -- I happen to be a cellist. I quickly wrote the tune down in a notebook before the flight landed!

One of the things I love about working with music is the many layers you can work with. I knew I wanted Lincoln's voice to be foreground and yet internalized, but I also wanted to sonically represent the room he was in and the natural world beating against the windows.

The day I got back to London, there was a message from my favorite recording engineer, Jake Jackson, asking me if I wanted to drop into Air Studios a couple of days later as the main orchestral hall was very unusually empty due to a cancellation. Air Studios is George Martin's incredible cathedral of a recording venue -- my idea of paradise.

I recorded the cello line I'd heard clearly in my head.

LISTEN (1:18)

Then separately I recorded the piano chords and string harmony to replicate the warmth and ambience of an old paneled room that would underpin it.

LISTEN (1:20)

Air Studios is an extraordinary large old church converted into the world's greatest recording studio. It's where Batman, Gladiator and numerous other extraordinary scores were recorded. It's ridiculously inspiring.

In the Lincoln scene, I wanted to develop a sense of the outside world with which to frame his thoughts, so I sat in the center of this enormous hall with my cello and recorded a few lines of harmonics and oscillating lines that matched the rhythm of the branches I could see through the stained glass windows.

LISTEN (1:32)

I sent the track to the directors Sarah Colt and David Belton and waited for them to ask for changes. Oddly enough, the track seemed to work when it was all thrown together.

LISTEN (2:52)

Thereafter, the track seemed to survive the sometimes merciless stages of editing and trimming. So I went back into the same beautiful studio about five months later and recorded a full string orchestra into the track. If you listen carefully you can hear a couple of the phrases switch around to match the picture -- but this is one of the few tracks that sailed through the editing process unscathed!

LISTEN (2:02) Free download right click this link and save as...

You get the first draft of a script that the director wants you to write music for. What do you do to start? Have you established a general tone and instrumentation with the director?

When I'm starting out with a director I always try to set a palette that is versatile and yet transparent, full and bombastic where necessary. The tricky challenge with this project was to find a tonal range that would work with a huge historical and thematic range.

I knew that strings would be a central core as they can be emotive, narrative and yet plain -- a tabula rasa -- if necessary. Other instruments that sat happily in this palette were treble viol (like a violin with frets), clarinet, horns, cimbalom, prepared piano and glass harmonica.

In documentary films the music often has to drive and propel from one scene to the next whilst somehow maintaining a sense of detachment so the viewer does not sense they are being manipulated.

How long does it take you to come up with a first track to send back for the producers' comments? Do you pay more attention to words or visuals or both equally?

I normally find that after thoroughly absorbing myself in the subject matter I can begin to "audiate" -- that is to aurally dream a soundworld and themes that are quite vivid and definite. This can take up to two weeks -- but once I'm rolling, I can write three pieces a day, with the odd break for gallons of coffee.

I'm very visually driven, but I tend to prefer working from images at first which come from material I'm reading. I normally wait until I have at least five of these pieces thoroughly developed, written and recorded before sending anything to a director.

These form a suite of pieces that I feel may approach the tone of the film -- its mood rather than its specific scenes. This is equivalent to a painting a set of watercolor sketches before embarking on a canvas of oils.

I'm quite happy if these sketches are entirely discarded along the route towards a perfect film. It can give a director something to anchor their likes and dislikes. I'm very emotional about music, but if something doesn't work it literally goes in the recycling box and my children use it for coloring!

I'm really cautious to try to avoid samples (i.e. synthesized representations) at this early stage, though they are extremely useful to test orchestrations later on. I like to define as many real instruments as possible on the tracks so will spend a long time recording and mixing at this initial sketch stage.

When the producer responds, what does he or she say that helps you create a new and revised track?

OK, I'm going to show a track not working and the debate that goes with it. In the first film there is a beautifully shot sequence depicting the spread of faith from village to village, town to town during the First Great Awakening. By this point I had already developed a great working relationship with the directors -- in this case, David Belton whose immense skill is matched by his refreshing honesty.

This was a scene which had to be really driven by a strong piece of music. There's always one cue in a film which is elusive and haunts your every waking moment -- and this was it.

I knew exactly what would work, so having gone for an inspiring walk in the sunshine I wrote, recorded, mixed and sent a sketch called Gates of Heaven, which I felt captured the shape and build of the sequence. I recorded real violins and viols, cellos, etc. onto it and built the remainder of the orchestra from samples. I posted the track off and waited (hopefully) for a trans-Atlantic e-mail requesting some tweaks.

LISTEN (3:34)

But it just wasn't working. The notes were essentially that it was too lavish and not personal enough. (I'm paraphrasing -- it was a huge e-mail full of euphemism and a level of politeness that could only mean it was a disaster.)

So I went for a very, very long walk around our village (at this point smothered in snow) and wrote a new cue when I got back half-frozen to my studio. This became Look Up. (By the way, you can tell a lot from working titles. I was clearly trying to cheer myself up at this point.) The response from David was great at first, but at that point it hadn't been tried with the pictures. The second response once it had been tried in the cut with the film was essentially that it wasn't working with the pictures. Therefore, turkey number two.

LISTEN (3:43)

Rather than chop it about and rewrite it, I decided to start all over again. This time, I went for an extremely long walk in the rain (I was in blustery Monterey by this point) and wrote a new cue when I got back to my hotel room half-drowned. This became The Flood. Success! This finally hit the mark and after a few timing tweaks I scored it for full orchestra and recorded it at Air Studios, mixed it, printed it and sent it.

LISTEN (3:28)

It's still in the film (I think) and David and I are still talking. The worst part of the whole process is that he was right.

What is the process of scoring like?

I like to develop pieces in my head when I'm out walking or running. When I get back I jot things down in a little Moleskine music notebook. The vast majority of these sketches never turn into anything, as it's often clear at this point what will work and what won't!

I then write longhand at a piano onto score paper, then transfer the sketches to Logic (a sequencer) where I can lock the music accurately to every frame. I transfer all the technical data to Sibelius (a music typesetting program).

I then go into a studio and record the instruments -- often a whole orchestra -- into ProTools (industry standard recording software), then re-import everything back to Logic, mix and master the tracks, and then print each track with a timecode, which shows the sound mixer where the track needs to sit to picture.

Tell me about the process of recording the musicians. What is that like for you as a composer?

It's the most fun you can have without breaking the law.

I am totally relaxed and wired up at the same time when I'm conducting an orchestra. I'm an instrumentalist myself so I'm very conscious of how not to behave with a group of my peers.

I'm know I'm lucky to have friends and colleagues who will play what I write -- so for me it's the ultimate form of chamber music.

Technically how does that process work? Do you bring in a full orchestra or do you record musical groups together? In this track, how many different groups of musicians performed?

I normally record solo lines separately from the orchestra. I tend to prefer recording the strings in a session of their own, then woodwinds and brass in their own sessions. You have to be obsessive about pitch when working in this way but it gives you a much greater degree of flexibility when mixing. But by the end of the process there may be 50-60 people performing on any single track.

How are all the tracks combined? Do you do that yourself? Do you oversee an engineer? How involved are you in the final mixing?

I am a total control freak. I do it all myself (including printing the parts for the orchestra). I don't sleep very much. The only job I entrust to someone else is that of engineering the sessions when I'm conducting, and I'm lucky to have the best in the business for that!

What do you find interesting/valuable/rewarding/tedious about the process?

I know I have the best job in the world. Music is my hobby, my passion and my life.

I'm also someone who loves the mechanics of the abstract so the experience of shaping a cue from sketch on the page to studio recording and broadcast is my idea of heaven on earth -- particularly when working with such a great team as David Belton, Chyld King, Sarah Colt, James Rutenbeck, Mike Sullivan and David Espar. I hope the music is half as good as the films!

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Major funding for God in America provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John E. Fetzer Institute, Inc.  Additional funding provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. God in America is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.
The Pew Charitable TrustsFetzer InstituteThe Arthur Vining Davis FoundationsWGBH
Exclusive corporate funding for American Experience provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance.  Major funding provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  Major funding for FRONTLINE provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Additional funding provided by the Park Foundation.  God in America, FRONTLINE and American Experience are made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Television viewers.
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Published October 11, 2010

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