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Film Music Interview

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


AN INTERVIEW WITH JANE ANTONIA CORNISH by Gary Dalkin

    Jane Antonia Cornish is a young British film composer based in Los Angeles. On May 8 at the BAFTA’s (British Academy of Film& Television Arts) she won the inaugural Anthony Asquith Award for Best New British Composer for her score for the family fantasy film "Five Children and It", starring Tara Fitzgerald and Kenneth Branagh and based on the classic children’s novel by E Nesbit.

Ms Cornish studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music, and is a former finalist of the BBC Young Composer of the Year competition. On winning her award she said, "I'm humbled to represent female composers in accepting this honour. But when it comes down to it, I'm really representing every 7-year-old who's ever had a dream."

Gary Dalkin recently interviewed her for Film Music on the Web…
 






Gary Dalkin: You wrote your first symphony aged 12, so presumably you've known you were going to be a composer from a very young age. What is your musical background and training?

Jane Antonia Cornish: I grew up in a very musical environment. My parents had classical music playing most of the time when I was a kid, which really inspired me. I took violin and piano lessons from a young age, and adored playing so much that I would practice for hours. I also composed music from as young as I can remember. One of my orchestral pieces was being performed in a concert when I was around 11 years old, which was attended by a well-regarded classical composer, Peter Naylor. He suggested I take lessons from him, which I did right up to 18 years old. He taught me harmony, counterpoint and techniques used by a wide range of composers, and he also guided me with my own compositions.

As a teen, I immersed myself in music-I was a finalist in the BBC Young Composer of the Year competition, performed as a solo violinist with orchestras, and was in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, performing in superb venues such as the Royal Albert Hall. I was pretty certain I wanted to be a solo violinist at this time, and would practice all day every day. I won a scholarship to the Royal Northern College of Music at 18 years old, studying violin with the violin virtuoso Yossi Zivoni and composition with Dr. Anthony Gilbert, a highly respected composer and professor. One summer during my studies there, I attended the Dartington Summer School, and studied film scoring. We would analyse great movie scores each day, one of them being Toru Takemitsu's score for Ran. I was so moved by his music, that I decided that film music was what I wanted to pursue. After the RNCM I went to the Royal College of Music in London to get my masters degree, and shortly after that moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career.

GD: What sort of plan did you have in moving to LA? Was it a leap of faith? Did you have contacts already established, or some work lined up? In short, how does a young aspiring British composer break into the film music world in Hollywood?

JAC: Yes, moving to LA was definitely a leap of faith. After finishing my studies at the Royal College of Music, I worked on some indie films and commercials, but there didn’t seem to be the opportunity to write the type of big orchestral music I love to write. My mum initially suggested I move here. During a walk on a beach in Scotland where my parents live, I was expressing my interest in LA. She just said, ‘Well, move there. Your lease on your apartment runs out soon, so pack up your stuff and go then. If you don’t like it, move back! There will be nothing lost!’

I spent 10 days in Santa Monica at first to check it out, and fell in love with it. During this vacation, I had meetings with agents and composers to establish some contacts, and managed to secure some employment for my move a couple of months later. I don’t think there is a formula to breaking into the film music world in Hollywood. We all have our own path. Some composers start out as assistants to film composers, which can be very rewarding. You can gain valuable experience this way, and often have the opportunity to write cues on major TV shows and movies. Other composers establish relationships with directors from early on in their career, who go on to be very successful.

GD: You worked as an orchestrator on a few films, including Alex and Emma. This is an area where your serious classical training must have been invaluable. Have you found the orchestral craft behind traditional film scoring is still well respected Hollywood, given many films now tend towards pop and/or electronic scoring? I ask because you mention how in Britain there isn’t much opportunity to write big orchestral music, and I wonder how much of this is a matter of budget and how much a matter of taste (or lack therefore!) on the part of contemporary film-makers?

JAC: There is still a call for orchestral scores today, and from what I've seen, I believe there is still a respect for the traditional orchestral craft. Many movies now have electronic scores, and it's not uncommon to combine electronic elements with live orchestra, for example in the recent movie Batman Begins. It's also a trend right now to alternate between orchestral score and songs.

As I mentioned, there is more opportunity for me to write the type of orchestral music I love to compose in Los Angeles for various reasons. Budget is without doubt a factor-you can't record a large orchestra and choir in LA without a substantial budget put aside for music. There are more movies made in the US with larger budgets, and with the continuing desire for bigger and better special effects in commercial films, powerful orchestral music is often sought after by the director to enhance the dramatic elements of the film.

GD: You must have found it a little ironic that having moved to LA your first major score turns out to be for a British film. How did you come to score Five Children and It?

JAC: Five Children and It was produced by both UK and US companies. I became involved in the project through a music producer friend, who has a studio at Henson here in Los Angeles. He mentioned that they were making this wonderful children's fantasy film, and were looking for a composer. I submitted my music to a producer here in the US and the director, John Stephenson. Fortunately, it was just what John was looking for. This lead to a fantastic collaboration. It was a great experience working with such an insightful director who shared my musical thoughts in relation to the film.

GD: How closely did you work with John Stephenson? Did he have very clear ideas of what he wanted for the film before he heard your music? Did he give you specific direction in terms of themes, style, particular instruments he wanted you to feature? Did you ‘spot’ the film together, or had he already decided where the music should go?

JAC: John and I spotted the film at my studio in LA. We watched the movie from the very beginning, and agreed on where the music should come in and out. I had already written the main theme for the movie, so we established when it should appear. The main theme tends to feature in the highly emotional moments, such as the flying scene and the return of the children's father. John also requested that it appear at the beginning of the film, to set the tone right from the start.

We also focused on establishing where the rest of the thematic material would feature. Uncle Albert and Martha needed a crazy theme, Horace's dungeon needed a dark atmospheric theme, and so on. John didn't express any preferences when it came to instrumentation-he just requested an epic orchestral score. We discussed emotions and textures within each scene, and the moments which could be enhanced by the music. I composed the score, based on the notes made during our spotting session, in Los Angeles, while John was based in London. Each day I posted my audio files onto his FTP server with the exact start times of each cue, allowing him to line the cues up to the movie. It was a fantastic collaboration, as we both agreed on virtually everything musically, which resulted in a very enjoyable creative experience.

GD: Having heard the score now I can certainly say that it is as you describe an epic orchestral score, very much in the Hollywood mainstream, perhaps for sake of reference somewhere in the tradition of John Williams’ more family orientated films such as Hook, Home Alone and Harry Potter. The melodies are bold, strong and emotional and the orchestrations are very colourful and rich. I enjoyed listening to it very much, and imagine many film music fans would as well, so I have to ask, is there any chance of a commercial album being released? What are the considerations when it comes to releasing a soundtrack album at the moment?

JAC: Thank you for those lovely comparisons! Unfortunately, there are no plans at present to release the soundtrack commercially. Though the film was a hit in the UK and Europe, it only got a DVD release in the states. The soundtrack labels weren't as interested, because it didn't have a wide US theatrical release, even though they liked the music very much.

Films promote soundtracks, but DVD releases don't - so even though there are more and better films coming direct to DVD, like sequels to some of the big Disney animated films, record labels are still very cautious about releasing the soundtracks. I hope that digital distribution, like iTunes, will help solve that problem by making it less expensive to put out a title.

GD: Given that you say you and the direction John Stephenson agreed on virtually everything, and having only heard this score of yours I’m wondering how close the music is to your own personal style of composition? Obviously a film score is dictated by the style and demands of the film on screen, but is this big, romantic, magically glittering sort of music something you would write for yourself? Indeed, do you have the time and inclination to write music for yourself or the concert hall at the moment, and if so how would you describe your personal style

JAC: I wrote the music for Five Children and It in response to the characters, the emotional content and the detail in each scene. My concert music for orchestra doesn't have these restrictions, so I enjoy creating sounds and images in a much more adventurous way. My concert music is mostly atonal, and follows no rules or organised patterns or structures. My aim when composing music is to create sounds which move the listener emotionally. I love to create orchestral colours, evoke strong images and generate a reaction in the listener. This applies to both my concert and film music, despite their stylistic differences. I don't have a lot of time to write music other than for film at the moment, so I have a number of unfinished sketches from the last 12 months. I definitely see my composing career expanding in the future into live works as well as film music.

GD: Do you have any new projects that you can talk about? Any new film or TV scores coming up?

JAC: My next feature project is for Lars von Trier's Zentropa. It's a dark magical fantasy/action/thriller called Island of the Lost Souls, directed by Nikolaj Arcel. I am very excited to be a part of this film. I'll be writing for orchestra, and the music will be much darker than Five Children and It, with ethereal, atmospheric colours and strong thematic material. I'll be recording it in London, which is a fantastic opportunity.

Gary Dalkin


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You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers:
Reviews from previous months


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