Sound choice

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Tom Deveson hears what happened when would-be composers were invited to write a film score

We watch the flickering, century-old black-and-white images on the screen.

A bank clerk is wrongly accused of robbery; he escapes from prison to take refuge with his beloved; the true villain is unmasked; and even the police are glad when all ends happily.

We follow this 10-minute tale from the earliest age of cinema, but what should we hear as we watch the pictures? Does the music scurry or shudder - presto or agitato - as the hero evades the guards? Do we want a sparkling piano or a sad flourish of strings as the lovers are finally reunited?

Ideasfactory was launched by Channel 4 last November. Following a screenwriting talent search in 2002, this new project looked for people without experience but who wanted to see whether they could write film music. Free workshops and screenings provided initial experience. Two hundred competitors submitted their own version of a soundtrack for a one-minute film clip. Nineteen of these were then selected to attend six master-classes while working on a score for the 1905 movie Falsely Accused.

Generous amounts of time with expert technical advice were offered free in Blue Whale Studios, Birmingham.

Tom Lingard is 16, and in the throes of GCSEs at Baverstock School, Birmingham. He saw an advertisement for Ideasfactory: Soundtracks in a magazine and got his entry delivered just in time.

Margaret Vickery is in her mid-sixties. She has retired from her job as a university librarian and has been composing with the program Sibelius on her home computer. She saw a paragraph in her local newspaper about the project and felt it was just what she was looking for.

Gurbindur Aulah and Alice Trueman are in their twenties. Alice is a clerical worker, but would like to do more with the music she studied at university. She hasn't done much composing before, but a visit to one of the preliminary workshops persuaded her to have a go.

Gurbindur is a software engineer, but he has given himself a career break to find out whether his passion for music can lead to a change of course.

He saw a poster for the project while he was doing an exploratory course.

They are perceptive in speaking of what they learned. Tom Lingard describes how he came to appreciate the discipline of slicing the film into one-minute sections, giving a title to each and writing his plans down.

"You couldn't just enjoy your ideas and let one tune overlap into the next section, even by a second," he said.

Margaret Vickery was also fascinated by this problem of flow and synchronisation, but what struck her more was the speed at which professionals need to work. "You have to have the music ready by yesterday," she said.

Alice Trueman found that "silence is eloquent - a postponed chord can have more impact than an immediate one."

She watched the film several times before composing a note, setting out the order of events in detail. She then began in the middle with a sad melody for the love scene that grew and became the leitmotif for the entire piece.

Gurbindur Aulah also realised that "each scene has its own vibe, but also has to sound coherent with the others." He kept the timbres fairly constant, but used harmonic shifts to express change and continuity simultaneously.

Their music for each scene is wonderfully different, something that Dan Jones (regional co-ordinator) and Andy Anderson (project co-ordinator) drew attention to. A Wurlitzer organ in the studios allowed Tom Lingard to create a powerful crescendo during the bank robbery, with tentative piano chords and melancholy violin at the start. Another entrant persuaded friendly instrumentalists to create full orchestral effects, while Margaret Vickery relied mainly on her home computer.

Margaret Vickery is now writing a soundtrack for a charity presentation about butterflies (her other passion, after music), while Alice Trueman has been commissioned to compose the music for a drama-documentary at the Lighthouse Media Centre, Wolverhampton. Gurbindur Aulah is putting his own studio together and doing demo recordings of his work, while Tom Lingard, GCSEs notwithstanding, is collaborating on the title music for a programme to be shown on the Discovery channel.

The young composer Nitin Sawhney - the influences on whose latest album Human range from urban Ramp;B to classical Indian music and the Velvet Underground - led a workshop that contestants spoke of with appreciation.

He said: "I was struck by their sheer enthusiasm, and by how techno-savvy they were. That meant we could move quickly to the creative aspects."

He offers some observations derived from his own work in film and television: "You have to retain your identity and also have the humility to suppress your ego. You're being asked to work as a composer, but you have to be able to listen, to hear what other people might need from you."

* www.channel4.comideasfactorywestmidlands

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