Great Scot: Patrick Doyle's Life in Music
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June 17, 2013

Great Scot: Patrick Doyle's Life in Music

Patrick Doyle

Over an acclaimed composing career stretching nearly 25 years, Scottish composer Patrick Doyle has brought many of the world's most beloved characters to musical life on the silver screen – from Hamlet and Elinor Dashwood to Bridget Jones and Harry Potter. A few weeks before he earned the prestigious Henry Mancini Award at the 2013 ASCAP Film & Television Music Awards, we asked him to reflect on his journey so far.

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What was it like growing up in the Doyle household, musically-speaking?

I was brought up in a household that listened to great, classic singers like Jerry Vale, Vikki Carr, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald…and my father listened to Caruso, Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland…all these great opera singers. And also my father sang Scottish songs. It wasn’t long before I became the church organist, and ended up accompanying my father at various parties, soirees, charity things and weddings, etc.

What was your first musical memory?

The very first thing I remember playing on was a little tiny glockenspiel. It was only about an octave and a half, and I remember playing “Catch a Falling Star” in thirds. I used two old-fashioned wooden clothes pegs that my mother used to hang up the wash. I’d intertwine a clothes peg with the other clothes peg, and I measured it the exact width of a third on this little glockenspiel, just a toy one - and the joy of discovering a harmony! I also remember I thought to myself, “Well, that wasn’t half-bad!” I ended up sneaking into the school hall and played the school piano. This is pre-school. So that was my earliest memory of playing.

My earliest memory of a film score was Bridge over the River Kwai. I was about four or five. I’ll never forget the whistling tune of the train that was blown up. It was spectacular seeing it in a local cinema. I was always surrounded by music, especially singers.

You studied piano and voice at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Did you have any inkling back then that composing might be in your future?

I always wrote sort of surreptitiously, and I was very shy about composing. I did not believe that I was writing music people would relate to. It was for my own amusement. But I remember I wrote a tiny string quartet when I was seventeen. There was no formal training. I was completely blown away that it sounded like a string quartet! In fact, this piece ended up as a piece of garden background music in a film called Indochine. I believe it may be on the actual soundtrack. It was very much in the style of the early 20th century French music, the Ravel/Debussy school. I had been playing a lot of Debussy and Ravel at the time when I was studying piano.

The school had free violin lessons, but my brother used a violin one day as a guitar and broke the bridge, and my mother said “That’s the last violin that’s ever coming in this house.” I definitely wanted to play the violin, but I never asked her again because she usually meant what she said.

Patrick Doyle conducting

Patrick Doyle conducting

I entered the Academy as a pianist. I was a junior student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and I played in the junior orchestra there. I did harmony and counterpoint lessons on Saturday mornings and then there was a wind class. I played tuba in the orchestra. I couldn’t afford to buy a tuba because they’re very expensive, so that’s why I suddenly ended up doing piano and singing; because I couldn’t afford to keep the tuba going.

Halfway through my years there, I was enjoying singing so much [that] I switched from piano to singing. I remember the only composition I wrote was a mock punishment. I was being a bit “comically inclined” in the music theory class taught by Stanley Thompson and he gave me a punishment which was, “I want a trio by next week.” So I wrote this trio for piano, violin and cello, and Wilson Hainey, violinist in the trio, said “Did you f**king write this?” And I said “of course!” We played it for Stanley and Stanley couldn’t believe it. So Stanley claims to have discovered my compositional skills, and I never ever studied composition there. I was too shy, really.

How is it that you became so involved in the drama world while you were studying music?

I was so interested in the drama department, because they had a theatre there. The very first play I ever saw was a play called Gas Light. It was a very famous play, and it was a thriller. The [main character] is terrified because the gas lights suddenly come up and down. They used the actual gas lights in the theatre, these wonderful yellow and green gas lights. And in this beautiful, entirely Victorian theatre I saw virtually all of the productions from the drama school next door to us. I always was interested in the music they used in the productions.

And then we had a theatre that’s still there, it’s the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. That theatre produced some of the most amazing avant-garde theatre in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. And I saw the most incredible avant-garde and innovative theatre. This was right in the middle of what was a very poor area of Glasgow – it’s all been gentrified now. But it was an amazing experience to see one amazing show after the other, and I ended up working in that theatre as a musical director and also as a performer. So I was very lucky in that the city had, and still has, great theatre.

You’ve actually had quite a bit of acting experience, starting out with the TV show No. 73, and of course you have bit roles in a lot of the movies that you’ve done with Kenneth Branagh. Has your acting experience made you more sympathetic to how dialogue and music interplay in film and theatre?

I think that all the arts intertwine. I can’t remember what the German was that Wagner uses in terms of that...

Gesamtkunstwerk?

Yes. Well that has always been my attitude, that you can’t separate all the arts. And of course in opera, that clearly highlights the point that Wagner makes – one interplays with the other. And I’ve always found the spoken word fascinating, and I’ve always been fascinated with performing. Even as a kid at school, I was always a bit of a show off. I loved being involved in the school choir, I loved being involved in the school plays, I just loved the whole theatre experience, and it was a natural thing, when I went to school to study music, the effect that being next door to the drama department would have on me.

Music was always my first love, but any time they use music in the plays, I find the interaction between them completely fascinating. Actually I saw a play last night with Judi Dench, called Peter and Alice. The use of music is beautiful in the play, and the dialogue just comes alive in a way. Certainly when you hear the music coming behind the dialogue, it puts some extra impetus, some gravitas behind it. It emphasizes the line a lot more. So I suppose [with] my experience as an actor, when I’m watching a film, I actually think I can get under the skin of the performer slightly easier than most. Although there are hugely successful film composers that haven’t been performers. It’s not a prerequisite, but certainly, I think it helps.

Do you think to be a great film composer, you have to love and understand film as a medium as much as you love and understand music?

Yeah, absolutely. I think you’ve got to be passionate about it, and I’m very passionate about film and I’m just passionate about a great story. I’m passionate about a great performance, and great artwork, great design and great effects, visual effects, and great sounds. I suppose to sustain a career you have to sustain an interest, and it has to be an interest that comes from an actual place, not some place of necessity. I think if I didn’t enjoy doing it, I wouldn’t be doing it. I know the kind of personality I am. I love doing it, and it’s a highly pressurized job for all composers, but I think if you love it in the end, if you love it as much as I do, then you transcend all the technical difficulties and everything else, the kind of pressure that goes in order to produce your best work for this incredible medium.

Patrick Doyle, conductor Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Kenneth Branagh at the Henry V recording sessions

(l-r) Patrick Doyle, conductor Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Kenneth Branagh at the Henry V recording sessions

The Renaissance Theatre Company of the late ‘80s sounds like a remarkable creative environment, with all of these current and future stars of the stage and cinema working and collaborating. How did it shape the music that you write?

It was an extraordinary experience, and it was right at the beginning of Kenneth Branagh’s career as a producer, a director and an actor, and also a writer. He and David [Parfitt, RTC’s co-founder] fortunately asked me to be the musical director and composer, and also to perform. By that time I really wanted to start focusing on my music alone. But you know, it’s kind of tradition that if you’re choosing theatre, you have to do everything. I suppose I was a traveling player in that sense. I had to learn to play these instruments for each production. I needed to accompany myself in As You Like It, so I learned to play the autoharp. It’s not that difficult, but I actually had to learn to play it, and find the keys without looking, and you know, that was difficult. And Kenneth would suddenly say “I love this speech. Set it to music. Can I have it for tomorrow afternoon?” or “Can I have it for this afternoon?”

You were required to think on the spot and create in the moment. Suddenly, an idea would come into Kenneth’s head or Geraldine McEwan’s head or Judi Dench’s head and off you go. And you’d come back and suddenly you’re teaching the cast a song you’d just written that morning or the previous day and you’re throwing the harmonies up – it was fantastic training. And at the same time you’re involving yourself with one of the greatest writers that’s ever lived.

To be amongst all of those actors, those great directors –Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan, Derek Jacobi – was an extraordinary thing, and the cast was amazing. I’m still very good friends with everyone in that company.

Given the amount of creative control that Kenneth had over so many of the films you made together, how hands-on was he when it came to the music?

In the very first picture I did with him, Henry V, he described the shot that followed the aftermath of the battle of Agincourt. He described the shot in great detail and gave me the words of “Non Nobis Domine,” and said “I want this set to music. I want a solo voice to start this – that would be yourself – and to build up and build up.” And throughout it would move from diegetic to non-diegetic – or as you call it these days, “source to otherwise” – and then ultimately, it would be a mixed choir. And we’d have four minutes to build this choral symphonic work. So he would describe in detail that shot.

Kenneth is up for your ideas and suggestions at all times and he’s very, very fond of lyrical film scores. He loves a good tune, as they say. I think that’s what he particularly likes about my writing. He likes the melodic element that I bring to his scores. But you’re given a tremendous amount of lenience, artistic input. If he sees me fired up or enthusiastic, he realizes it’s because I have some passionate idea or something, and he allows me to run with that. For example, in Hamlet, he said “I’m just looking for a main theme for Hamlet. It’s got to be this really strong theme. After that, do your thing.” As long as it has a strong theme for that character, and I know how it works with him, it will actually be the foundation for the rest of the score.

And has that artistic leeway remained even to this day? Let’s say on a film like Thor?

Yes, absolutely. The main theme for Thor was written as a little folk tune that becomes a symphonic theme at the end. And again, he wanted a melody that actually harked back to Asgard – this noble theme that reminded him of where he came from. It had to have a touch of melancholy as well as nobility in it. So once I had that theme, I played it and he loved it instantly. And then knowing the process, he said “I know you’ll fly with that – it’ll be all over the picture in some form or other.”

Recently, in [the forthcoming film] Jack Ryan, he wanted a piece of music for this scene and I had the theme the following day for it. I actually wrote the main theme of the movie, just sitting there watching it. This is the expectation of a person you’re very close to. There’s no pressure in that you’re so relaxed, especially someone like Kenneth. He brings out the best in you because he creates such a casual, relaxed, but hard-working environment at the same time. One produces one’s very best work.

And I don’t think I’ve met anyone smarter on the planet earth. But what’s endearing is he’s a very funny person and he never takes it too seriously. Never.

What I hear in a lot of you scores is an incredible command over the melody, the color, the texture, the dynamics of the great Romantic and Post-Romantic classical composers, but not a lot of jagged or avant-garde edges. How did you develop your composing vocabulary?

I have to be modern, I suppose, and I have to bring modernity to the score. When you listen to some parts of Hamlet, it’s very modern. And parts of Frankenstein and parts of Harry Potter. But I suppose I just have a catholic taste in music. I have a great interest in how all music is constructed and how it evolved. And I do love the great 19th and early 20th century composers like Mahler, Wagner and Liszt. Berlioz – I’m a huge fan of Berlioz. And I also love Prokofiev and Debussy. As a piano player, of course you play all these great peoples’ work. Very fond of Ravel. And of course I adore Mozart. My assistant and I keep teasing each other. He’s a Beethoven freak and I’m a Mozart freak, and I’m always saying, “Well, Beethoven is second in relation to Mozart.”

Gentlemen, there doesn’t have to be only one!

I also love opera – Verdi, Puccini, Rossini...I love all music, and recently, I’ve also embraced the world of electronic music, which is absolutely crucial because it is completely present in all film scores now. I like the fusion of 1920s and 21st century harmony and modern electronica, so I enjoy creating whatever palette is necessary for the job at hand. I like to diversify as much as possible. It keeps me interested. It keeps my music interesting, hopefully.

What would you say is the most unconventional score that you’ve worked on?

For Sleuth,I had to write what we would term as a minimalist score. I am completely aware of the minimalist world and that genre, so I enjoyed writing and embracing that world. And I suppose the movie I’m working on at the moment, Jack Ryan – the depth to which I’ve immersed myself in the world of electronic music is quite a departure for me. So I’m hoping people appreciate it. La Ligne Droite was a very unusual score for me. Again, almost a minimalist score, with a very small chamber group. Great Expectations was quite an eclectic score. That was an interesting project, looking back at it. I worked with many pop artists. They produced a lot of interesting, different styles.

Gosford Park director Robert Altman, Abigail Doyle, Patrick Doyle and Noula Doyle

(l-r) Gosford Park director Robert Altman, Abigail Doyle, Patrick Doyle and Noula Doyle

Many of your best-known scores feature large orchestras. What’s it like stripping it down for a film like Gosford Park?

I remember with Gosford Park, you see the film and you think “This is the world of Weimar, the early ‘20s had just passed.” So all I would be doing is nodding my hat to Kurt Weill and that early jazz period. It was obviously pre-bebop. There was a limited budget – I had maybe a dozen players. And I love the challenge of a chamber group, because you really have to know your onions when you’re writing for a smaller group. It’s very exposing. With a large orchestra, you can hide behind this enormous sound, but when you’re writing for these small chamber groups, you really have to know the string quartet. You have to know how to make these instruments create the maximum effect.

I like the idea of a close chamber recording of these instruments. You discover simple things – like if you double a sustaining line in the accordion with the strings, it makes it sound like you have extra string players. It’s those little discoveries that you make that are quite exciting. Then, of course, you start to rearrange other cues that you’ve worked on.

A lot of your films – from all of the Shakespearian adaptations to Frankenstein, Needful Things, Eragon, Harry Potter – are based in the world of literature. Is that complete happenstance?

I’m not sure. I’m just very fortunate – I’ve been given some wonderful projects in my career. You know, I don’t try to design anything. I’m a great believer in things just happening. It sounds very hippie-ish, but it’s true: you have to follow your own field, do your own thing, try to make sure you do things that – if you have any choice in the matter – you can choose and say, “I really want to do that. That’s enjoyable.”

I’m working on a silent movie at the moment. I’ve been asked to do that for Syracuse University, and I have a strong association with that university and that city for almost 25 years. And it’s fascinating. I’m just working on finalizing the orchestration over the next two weeks, but the score is complete, and it’s a 60-piece orchestra, and I’m absolutely thrilled with the whole job. It’s been wonderful.

If I’m not mistaken, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the first film you scored that might qualify as a “blockbuster.”

I think it was, yes. I believe they call them “tent-pole” movies? It was John Powell that mentioned this “tent-pole” movie and I said “What is that, John?” I really had no idea I was doing “tent-pole” movies!

So Harry Potter was the first “tent-pole” movie that you did. Did it feel like a creative turning point?

No. I mean, it was fantastic to be able to do it, but for me it was another job to do, another movie. I worked with the director before, and I had three or four films that I was working on at the same time. It was a very intense period, but I worked on the film for over a year on and off. It was pressurized in the sense that I wrote these things that Mike [Newell, director] wasn’t sure about, and there were some rewrites involved, in terms of the initial thematic material to get the tone established.

There’s always pressure in writing another theme, but you always find through these themes that you may write something and it ends up in some other part of the score. Certainly, the work is not wasted. I’ve done a few “tent-pole” movies since, and it’s just the way it has happened at this point in my career.

Brave must have been a huge hoot given that Merida and you share a homeland. Did that have anything to do with your getting the gig?

Well, I think it was part of it. I brought something that was unique to it, in that I played in those castles as a kid. We had a castle called Bothwell Castle. It was actually destroyed by Edward II. It’s still there – this is two and a half miles from my home, and there were kids who would go there regularly and play like Peter Pan would in this castle. And I’m not just painting this idyllic thing - it was absolutely extraordinary, as a child, to be able to play in this dilapidated, ancient medieval castle.

I remember the caretaker would show us the drawings of how the castle used to look and give us the whole story. You know, cannonballs are lying about the place – now they’re in glass cases but, I kid you not, they were lying about the floor in these ruins. You could have walked off with them! They were so blasé in Europe. So this was my local playground.

I grew up listening to Scottish songs, and listening to my dad singing Scottish songs...folk music. You were taught to dance highland party dancing in school as part of your education in the country. So it all came very naturally. And of course, I remember as a kid, the local government used to pay for pipe bands to play at all the public parks in Lanarkshire, where I come from. And you would hear the pipes in the distance, and you’d run as fast as you could the half mile into this park. Suddenly you’d get into this park, and there’d be a whole pipe band in all their finery, and there’d be all these big, burly guys, big red cheeks, blowing these bags up.

To be immersed in a film like that was very exciting. And I’m really delighted to be part of such an historic film. It was a great honor.

You just released your Impressions of America album – a cycle of pieces about the United States, written by a Scotsman and recorded by a Hungarian orchestra. What inspired you to write a cycle of music about this particular country?

I mentioned in the sleeve notes that my grandmother would tell so many stories of her year and a half in America as a young girl. And it completely fascinated me, of course, to grow up in a world of cowboy movies, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Bonanza – all these amazing films and TV programs. Before cable had gotten to Scotland, you would just have one or two channels in our country. And every Sunday, they would show a Hollywood movie. I think I saw every musical, every James Cagney film, Lost Horizon, White Heat, Psycho, Fantasia...and to be raised listening to American things like Jerry Vale, Vikki Carr and the Beach Boys – each kid would have a different generational love of pop songs and American music. Having worked so often in America, visiting so many different places in this incredible country – your incredible country – and with half of my family settled in Ohio, I got this great urge to capture my memories of the place and write an homage to your culture through music.

Are you planning to use themes from it in any films in the future?

Nope. It’s unique for that project. It’ll stay for that, and that’ll be it. To be honest, I sketched the entire project in two weeks. It just poured out of me. I suppose it had been [stirring] for years and years.

I’m doing a lot more writing away from film, for fun. There’s a piece for actor and orchestra “Tam o’ Shanter,” which is a great narrative by Robert Burns, our national poet. And I wrote a piece for Emma Thompson’s birthday, a violin concerto for her.

I think it’s good for you to just close your eyes and use your imaginative powers to conjure images. I’m very much a dramatic writer. I like to have a story and a narrative, or make up my own narrative, or a visual. I like to have something that I can write to.

In the late ‘90s, you were diagnosed with leukemia. Did the diagnosis make you consider your career in a different light?

Yeah. When you’re going through something like that, you don’t even think of anything other than surviving. I say that, but bizarrely, I completed a film score in my hospital room. My builder came in, and he built a little wipeable [board], with a keyboard and a video – at the time it was VHS. The music editor would send it to me by fax, and I would build it by hand. And I would write 20 or 30 seconds a day over a period of two months, maybe the odd minute or minute and a half.

I managed to complete the film score for Quest for Camelot before I got very, very ill. I was still ill, but I wasn’t very very very very ill. Before I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. I would sit up, once I got my blood – you would hanker after blood, like Dracula – “May I have some blood please? It’s so bad, I need some blood.” And as soon as they give you this injection of blood, from some lucky person who gave it away, then you’d feel fantastic and get some music written.

The bizarre thing was that I couldn’t listen to music, I couldn’t read books, I couldn’t really watch television or videos. But I could write music. It was a very strange thing. And the professors had never seen anything like it. They’d never seen anyone with an intellectual pursuit that they could actually achieve...

Régis Wargnier, Patrick Doyle and Kenneth Branagh

(l-r) Régis Wargnier, Patrick Doyle and Sir Kenneth Branagh

I did East/West for Régis Wargnier shortly afterwards, then I worked with Kenneth Branagh on Love’s Labour’s Lost. They were very gentle and understanding. But it took me five years before I was really over it. I think I suffered what you call post-traumatic stress for quite a long time without realizing it. It’s an extraordinary thing to go through that. And it’s hell on earth. Because I had an aggressive form of leukemia, the chemotherapy was extremely intense. You’re in isolation more or less for six months. That’s very difficult to live with.

Psychologically I can imagine.

The battle is psychological as much as it is a physical battle. Had it not been for my wife and family, I would not be talking about it. But you know, it certainly has changed a lot of my attitudes towards things in life. I am aware of my surroundings and nature...I’m much more appreciative. You really do smell the flowers, and smell ‘em a little longer. I can sit now and look out the window and stare at grass and a little lovely stonework, and they ask, “What are you doing?” “I’m just looking at this wall. This beautiful wall that wasn’t there before my friend built it in my house in France. All those stones were in that field, and now it’s a wall!” You do No. 73 think these things. It does change a lot.

You’ve received so many awards and nominations for your scores over the years. Is there one achievement or experience that stands out from all the rest?

I suppose there’s two things. There was my very first film I ever scored with Kenneth Branagh, and that’s got to be the most special thing. But then there was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, it was a benefit for leukemia research. All my friends from the theatre and film, Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson...Kenneth directed it with the London Symphony Orchestra, my daughter sang, my other daughter introduced a particular piece of music written for my wife especially for the concert, and my whole family came down from Scotland. It was a sell-out concert. Judi Dench said some beautiful things, and all the actors...it was completely overwhelming, an extraordinary evening. And the charity made lots of money, but more importantly, the profile of the charity was raised enormously. They said they couldn’t put a price on what it would cost to advertise the charity that way.

Lying in my bed when I was ill, all those years before, I never thought for a minute I would end up in the Royal Albert Hall with all of these people coming out and showing their enormous support for this enormous charity. I think if that was all I’d achieved in my life, I’d be the luckiest person on the planet. To have my whole family there, my huge family from Scotland...the whole thing was an extraordinary evening.

Henry Mancini is one of those quintessential American composers. Is his music as well-loved in Great Britain as it is over here? And what does it mean to you to be earning an award named after him?

Oh yes, he is very much loved over here and very much remembered. Those Pink Panther movies, for example, really put him on the map. And “Moon River,”of course, and many others. I was brought up in a house that was acutely aware of the power of his music. My family are singers, and both my mother and father loved singing “Moon River.” I remember the Henry Mancini Show on television when I was young. I remember being impressed he was always so suave and sophisticated.

I think I was the second person to use the new Air Lyndhurst music studio after Henry. He was also very kind to let me come and meet him in his office on Sunset Boulevard – I was over there for my first film, and a friend of mine knew him. I had a very nice meeting with him and we chatted about music and all sorts of things, and he was very complimentary and encouraging. So I have a great admiration and a wonderful memory of his terrific music. It’s an incredible honor to be given this award named after him. I never thought that would be the case one day, but I’m certainly delighted.

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Read more about Patrick Doyle at his IMDB page.