From CGI dinosaurs to cult BBC cooking shows, best-selling video games to hard-hitting war documentaries, there's precious little that Ivor Novello Award-winning British composer Daniel Pemberton (PRS/ASCAP) hasn't scored – and that's not including the loads of journalism, book-writing and avant-garde electronic music he's contributed to popular culture. So it's a pity his profile isn't higher in the United States. We wouldn't be surprised if Pemberton's eerie score to the supernatural horror flick The Awakening is the one to turn a few American ears across the Atlantic. On the eve of the film's August 17th US theatrical release, we called him out of a mixing session at Abbey Road Studios to answer a few questions.
It's hard to find a single genre or medium that you haven't written music for. How is it that The Awakening is your first horror film, and what convinced you to work on it?
Well firstly, I didn't really need much convincing - not only was it a great cast, script and director but it was also my first chance to properly score a feature film! I've had a long-standing relationship with the director Nick Murphy for quite a while now, and when we work together I'm always really proud of what we end up with, so it was fantastic to be invited on board. I haven't done a lot of horror before (although I had done one very obscure TV movie, The Haunted Airman, starring a then unknown actor called Robert Pattinson in the lead role...wonder what happened to him?) purely for the fact that no one had asked me to, which in this case was probably actually quite handy as I was experimenting a lot more than I probably would have if it was my tenth movie in that style.
You've filled your past scores to life with huge orchestras, outré electronics and kazoo ensembles. Can you describe the instrumentation you used for The Awakening, and how you figured out the kind of sonic palette to use?
For a modern film score I think the sonic palette is now one of the most important aspects of creating a memorable score. I try very hard to make every project I work on have a unique identity. Sometimes that can be through the sound, the melody or both. The Awakening was crying out for a strong and powerful orchestral score but I also wanted to try out some other ideas...especially as I like to try and create as much temp music as I can so the director is playing with my ideas rather than getting me to copy someone else's.
On this one the very first sound I played with was a swanee whistle - you know, the sort of thing you'd use to pretend someone was getting an erection in a Benny Hill film. Not the first instrument you'd probably think of for a turn of the century English period drama about the supernatural. But I wanted to invoke the sound of the wind and spirits as this was referenced a lot in the script - the idea of something in the air. I'm very into stuff going in and out of tune at the moment, so I multi-tracked a load of notes altering pitch incredibly slowly on top of each other, put this through some very extreme pitch shifting gear and then I ended up with a very cool, unique eerie sound that we called “the fog” which we added to a lot of the more traditional orchestral cues to give them a slightly fresh and unsettling edge. On top of this there were a lot of other sounds I created just for the film, and then we used things like a recorder trio, a young male soprano and a weird zither-like period instrument called a Marxophone as well as a full orchestra and choir. What I find interesting is that even though you have this amazing power and emotional weight with an orchestra, sometimes it is the little bits of experimentation you do in your own studio that can give your score that edge.
To what extent was this score a collaboration between you and the film's director Nick Murphy?
Nick is incredibly hands-on with the music process. He totally understands the power it can bring to a film and likes to get very closely involved. But he also has a lot of trust in me as a composer too, and respect for my opinions, which is depressingly rare as I'm sure many of us know! Every film we've done has had a great score at the end of it and that is what I care about the most. Sometimes the process can be quite grueling but I am always very proud of what we achieve, especially in the case of The Awakening. We're literally mixing the last few notes of our second film together - Blood, a thriller with Paul Bettany and Mark Strong - and yet again we've got something that I hope stands up on its own as a unique score. It hasn't been easy but we always get to somewhere great by the end.
What would you say was the most creatively challenging part about scoring The Awakening?
There is a very big cue near the end of the film over a major reveal. These were my parameters: it had to sound like a piece of opera music they could have listened to at the time, it should have the musicality, expression and freedom that a piece of music (as opposed to score) would have, it had to be memorable, it had to reference its ideas through the rest of the film...AND it had to hit a number of key moments in the picture. Nightmare! Not only that but this was possibly the key cue to the entire film!
I immediately had that age-old problem: do I write a piece of music that I will be able to convince the producers with that relies on the limitations of samples to make it work, or do I try and write a piece that will sound fantastic when realized but awful in demo stage? I went with the latter. I had a soprano line and the only way I felt I could get it across to my liking was on a basic sine wave sound. Likewise, a four-part choral part. On sine waves. I just couldn’t get the clarity and expression with choir samples. It sounded awful, but I knew that it would be great when it was recorded. When it popped up in a screening the producers were a bit "what the f**k is this?" but luckily Nick was able to convince them to trust me. He could only do that because we had done so many things together before in a similar way and that, I think, is how you get to the stage where you can write a potentially great score - through trust and respect. That piece turned out to be one of the musical highlights of the film and that was because I was always writing for the audience, not the producers. I hear too many scores where you can hear things have been done to appease people who didn't have faith in a demo and so on - it's a very tricky situation. It was great to have got through that on this film at least.
Did you ever freak yourself out while listening to your own music for The Awakening late at night?
Not really. I think Ray Parker, Jr. put it best when he said "I ain't afraid of no ghost." But then he also said "Bustin' makes me feel good" so I don’t take everything he says as gospel.
Do you think it's important for a composer to constantly test his/her own limits? Why or why not?
Yes and no. I have a theory. There are two kinds of jobs: girlfriend killers and cruisers. A girlfriend killer is the kind of job that engulfs you, pushes you to the limit and takes over your entire life. You also rarely make any money from them because you spend it all on the process, it destroys your social life and by the end of it your girlfriend wants to dump you. This has happened a lot! But at the end you hopefully have produced something from yourself you were never sure you could. Then you have your cruisers - these are the kind of jobs you can do in your sleep, make nice money from and have a life in the bargain. Now that is not always a bad thing - in some ways it is a more genuine reflection of you as an artist at that point. You are writing based on all the values and thoughts you have amassed over the years. Stuff you do as a cruiser today may have once been a girlfriend killer. Do too many cruisers in a row and you will become a tired hack. But do too many girlfriend killers and you become a burned out cynic. So you got to mix it up. For the record, The Awakening was very much a girlfriend killer - but luckily for me she is very understanding! Now I just got to see how she will be after this next movie. I suspect it's another killer...
The Awakening opened in limited release in the US on August 10th.
The Awakening original motion picture soundtrack album is available on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify and everywhere else.
Find out more about Daniel Pemberton here: www.danielpemberton.com.