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David Hirschfelder talks to Paul Tonks about Elizabeth
Australia has a remarkable musical talent in the form of David Hirschfelder. They acknowledged it with awards and praise for home-grown productions such as 'Strictly Ballroom', and the stage show of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. Thankfully the rest of the world have now been allowed to share. The 1997 Oscar winning 'Shine' spotlighted David's name brightly enough for all to see. Yet unlike the easy route many have chosen on hitting the "big time", he instead continues to seek out film projects that genuinely mean something to him. "I get so deep into them - probably deeper than I should," says David of his habit of total immersion. With Polygram's 'Elizabeth', the depth of his involvement truly awoke something within the composer. The spotlight he turned upon himself revealed a new-found confidence and prescience of his future career in film scoring.
Cinematically, 'Elizabeth' has a predecessor in the form of 'The Lion In Winter' which covered some of the same time period. John Barry's 1968 Academy Award winning score remains a favourite of his, mainly due to the religious conflict portrayed. It made him focus on his own beliefs. "I share that. It's helped me free myself from a lot of that conditioning," says David.
"It's like exorcising demons I didn't even know I had. I don't mean that as a negative or victim comment. A lot of the films I've done have been therapeutic. I believe the therapy for me here has been that I have grown up under the umbrella of the Protestant work ethic, and while there are a lot of very fine moral and spiritual values within any religious system, inevitably there's a sinister side. In its extremity that's a fanatical belief system as opposed to a spiritual support. So I found this film gave me a lot of balance, and that it's OK if I don't agree with all the things I was brought up to believe. I can confidently say I don't have to be a label. It's more about being comfortable, being spiritual. Take what religion offers with a grain of salt. There's no need for anything to be set in stone. The bottom line for me is that I feel very free after doing this film. I've gotten rid of any subtle religious demons that were hanging around. I tie that in with my sense of guilt if I'm not working. I know that now. It's told me I'm a composer and I work for films, but I don't have to do that to be a worthwhile person. I am what I am without any of those things."
The basic subtext of the film is the religious division between Catholics and Protestants, which at that time was all pervasive throughout England. Religion and politics were synonymous with each other.
"The film starts in chaos. It's a very confronting opening with heretic martyrs burnt at the stake. I guess that symbolises the times straight away: you needed to believe this or else. When Queen Mary dies, Elizabeth takes the throne - much to the chagrin of the nobility. They're frightened of her free-thinking. It's about that freedom of thought. You see her have a deep love with Robert Bradley. As the pressures of being Queen come to bear, she has to choose between her personal life and the royal responsibilities. She was initially under pressure from Mary to sire an heir, which she refused to do since she didn't believe in marrying to get an allegiance. Hence she carries on being very strong and alone. By the end of the film she virtually crucifies her own sense of individuality and becomes this shell of a person doing her duty to the country. She cuts her hair off and wears the wig and the powder as a symbol of being married to England."
In all this self-revelation (including David's own), he came to form some personalised opinions about the history and events portrayed;
" My own personal belief is that this is the birth of the Protestant work ethic. Where work comes first. I'm a workaholic, and I've definitely been conditioned by that. I think there's another deeper message in the film, about the danger of renouncing your personal freedom. The film leaves the viewer alone at the end to decide who's right or wrong. It's not saying there were goodies or baddies. It's just saying these are the people who were in power, and this is how they used religion as a tool."
After the success of 'Shine', David was in Los Angeles last year signing to his new agent Kraft-Benjamin. They immediately inundated him with about 15 scripts ("It was all very flattering - I loved it !"). Out of them all his manager picked two. One was 'Sliding Doors', and the other 'Elizabeth'.
"First a nice break with a romantic comedy, and then this powerful historical thing. Right up my alley. Of course it wasn't guaranteed I'd be chosen by them. While I was having a meeting for Sliding Doors, I had also had one with Shekhar Kapur. I met them in Soho. It was quite magical for me. They were asking the usual sorts of questions like what sort of music did I have in mind for the film ? I'd only just got the script the day before. I actually came up with a piece from reading it though, which was a good sign. It's part of a dance suite in the movie. Other than that there was no preparation. So I was really on the spot when they asked. I was saying all sorts like period music, violins, some antiphonal styles reminiscent of the period mixed with modern styles. I was floundering basically with a whole lot of waffle. Shekhar saw right through it. He described the scene from the end of the film where Elizabeth emerges from her cocoon with her powdered face and the wig. This icon they were seeing for the first time. He described it very poetically, and as he did I was hearing three boy sopranos singing these notes. Three note chords and a simple melody. I heard them so clearly and said 'Shekhar I wish there was a piano here'. And he said: 'David there's one over there.' So there in a public place I left my eggs on toast and played these notes for him. He said: 'I like those notes'. That was it - I got the job. I've never auditioned like that. Normally it's from a tape or a resume. I could tell he made the decision from just those few notes and their simplicity. They went on to become the love theme. I wonder if that will ever happen again."
That was last July. David was then hounded throughout the shoot while working on both 'Sliding Doors' and 'The Interview'.
"Shekhar was constantly asking for a cassette. So one night I set something up in a couple of hours so I could give him a taste. They actually ended up shooting a whole scene to it. I came over here earlier into the film than I have on any other, and became involved with the cut. I saw the pain they go through in throwing out stuff. Every time I froze the film while scoring it - every frame could be a Rembrandt painting. It's just beautiful to look at. So it must be painful to be throwing these Rembrandts out all the time. I was in London from late February through to April. It was then decided I should score it in Australia. I worked through to late June. The cut was changing a lot, and the music editor was often chasing the cut. But that's part of the job."
Of the other aspects of the job, he has equally fond memories. Especially in deciding upon how to mix his musical palette.
"Some of the music I've written, you'll wonder how it could fit in Tudor times. I've even used surreal synthesised textures. But it's very subtly modern. It's been quite a challenge to work musically from the 20th century back to the 16th. I was finding that some of the antiphonal music of the time was very modern.. There are some notes there that are outrageous. Antiphonal for me is almost like the seeds of atonality. It became very contrapuntal, and when you go back and bypass the progression of baroque, renaissance, classical, romantic - you can actually see similarities to today. We live in huge circles. It's been done before in different ways. Maybe we are at that pre-renaissance style once again. Another revelation on this film for me. A lot of that music titillated my ears. We can get so jaded with how much we hear. We're bombarded with music from the radio etc. all the time. We've become numbed to the subtleties of music, and so for things to jump out at me was fantastic. I can understand why there's a fascination with world music now - a need to return to our roots almost. We've been as poly-rhythmic as we can get, as atonal, as poly-tonal. Now we need to strip it all back to the simple music gesture."
So what were his own gestures toward 'Elizabeth' ?
"It was a combination of hand-picked musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and also from a group of young string players who are more fringe dwellers. Their leader plays Celtic styles and improvises. He's from New Zealand and led the strings, so they have a very fresh sound. Generally the best session players I could get. It ranges from about 50 pieces on some cues to 76 - which was as many as we could fit in the studio. Allan Eatons was like a comfortable old shoe as far as recording is concerned. It's not the most modern facility in the world. As an artist, for a score this challenging, I needed to be in my own environment. I made the decision not to record in London, because with the time pressures and artistic requirements I needed to be with my familiar team. Robin Gray has been mixing there for years - that's where I recorded Shine. He really knows the room well, and sets up the mikes in a configuration known as 'The Decca Tree'. We were talking about that in the dub. Shekhar wanted the harp to be faded in gently during a piece, but the music editor said 'that's a part of The Decca Tree. I can't separate it'. The engineer mixing asked him to draw a Decca Tree, expecting a nice diagram - but he just gave him a picture of a tree with the word 'Decca' on it ! It's a set of mikes above the orchestra that simulates the human head. It's supposed to be how the conductor would like to hear it sound as he dies and floats up from his body ! It allows the orchestra to balance itself acoustically. Spot mikes are just used to highlight solo instruments if needed. I did most of the conducting, but in the first two recording sessions I wanted to hear it from the booth, so I had my orchestrator do it. After I was rested from the onslaught of writing, I went in on the third day and did the rest. I don't have a disrespect for conducting, but I share Stravinski's view that it's overrated. He describes it as being the person who fires the gun to go at different points. You are literally doing that. There is a discussion about subtleties that can occur, but I'm not precious about conducting at all. I'm actually just as happy to employ someone else. I couldn't help myself on this one somehow. We had 26 singers. Soprano, tenor, alto, and bass. We had the sopranos separated into mezzos sopranos and sopranos. I was very spoilt and happy - many of them were soloists. All aspiring opera stars."
'Shine' demonstrated that David is a fine piano player himself, and is delighted that a cue featuring his playing will appear on the album.
"There was a wonderful Bossendorfer piano at a London studio, and Shekhar wanted to play with me - to repeat the experience we'd had at the interview. I'd literally write something before his eyes. I made little baby cues from those sketches. One of them ended up surviving as solo piano for the film. Now you'd obviously be asking what the hell is a solo piano doing in a Tudor film, but it actually works in the context of the drama. There were low notes, which Shekhar called 'Conspiracy Notes', then high notes which were 'Intrigue Notes'. In three parts of the film we used those Intrigue Notes with harp - which is a more acceptable timbre from the time. So I did get a chance to exercise my skills - and it does survive to the album. It's quite a simple piece, but quite disturbing. I remember the look on the editor's face; she said: 'that music makes me feel dizzy'. I took that as a great compliment." He is also a great exponent of synthesisers, and enjoyed experimenting with them in his youth. "I didn't think I'd be needing them in this film - but I guess anything goes at the end of the day."
Some very interesting choices were made in source music adapted for the film. Choices which supported one of the director's wishes.
"Shekhar liked the idea of contradicting the sound of the day. We ran out of time at the end of the film, and experimented with a recording of Elgar's 'Nimrod Variation' from the 'Enigma Variations', and it worked so well. When I played it to Shekhar, he had tears in his eyes. That decided in me that it would be counter-productive for all of us for me to compose a new piece. It had a sadness, yet a nobility. All the hit points worked emotionally. In the recording period I had some soprano pieces of my own. When Shekhar heard her he asked if we could use her in other places. So added her to the Elgar, and it sounds almost like Puccini. Quite operatic, beautiful and surreal. I was surprised at how well that worked. The other well known piece is the Mozart Requiem, which we recorded with the best choral singers available from the Australian Opera. They were put together by David Hobson who's a very good friend of mine. He's a very well known tenor, also of English extraction. I've changed the structure of the Requiem to suit the needs of the film. Hopefully Mr Mozart won't be turning in his grave, but I feel confident from the way it worked out. The idea of having this requiem when Elizabeth makes this decision to become a virgin - which sounds like a contradiction - it worked to have this hopeful death embracing sound. She was quite calmly allowing herself to be carried away. In the scene where she gets her hair cut, her life literally flashes before her eyes. At that point you're not aware that it's Mozart, because you're so carried away with what's happening. Yes, it's a populist idea in putting Mozart in a modern film, but there's nothing clever about it. It's not trying to be smart."
There's a sequence in the film called 'The Night of the Long Knives', when everything comes to a head. Elizabeth presses the button that sets off a horrific chain of events. Heads get chopped off left, right, and centre.
"It was here that I thought Shekhar made one of the most inspired decisions I've ever seen in a film. Instead of putting dramatic music in, he used the music of William Byrd. That's boy sopranos complemented with counter tenor. I orchestrated it with violins in a very neutral way. That piece of Byrd carrying through all these horrific images, is juxtaposed with Elizabeth praying. She knows what's going on. It's up to you decide if she's praying for forgiveness. The music is so pure - not gentle. So there's quite an eclectic mix. But it's all bound together by the spirit of the film."
The film is very confronting and complicated. Mind games are played perpetually. For instance Wallsingham - the Queen's bodyguard - is ruthless and will do things quite coldly and without remorse.
"Shekhar describes him as the voice of reason. At any given moment he has calculated what is the right thing to do. What Shekhar has tried to maintain is that you follow your destiny. That there is a certain amount of acceptance for the way things are. You can see the people who are trying to kill Elizabeth, but you can see why they believe in doing it. In the end, one of the perpetrators as he's about to be beheaded says: 'I did it for my faith'. There was no hate in her eyes when she faced him and his family. She says: 'know that we will care for your children.' There is no negative legacy on his children just because of his acts. I thought that was a very beautiful moment, and it's one of my favourites."
In summation, David is confident of both his and the film's approach by the relationship he developed with the director.
"One of the bold, wonderful, audacious things about choosing an Indian to direct a picture about English history is that he doesn't carry any baggage. He's outside the culture. He's a very learned, bright, sensitive man, and is able to see it from outside of the goldfish bowl. I think he'd be the first to admit he wasn't an expert on the period. But then I'm not a specialist on early music either ! We've all relied on experts when we've needed to. We've made sure you're grounded at the right moments. But Shekhar always liked the unpredictability of stepping back and viewing from the 20th century almost like a time traveller. A lot of the camera moves feel like you're an alien time traveller circling them watching these events from now. It's intimate without being intrusive."
He is having a small break from films now to prepare himself for the next therapeutical intrusion into his own psyche.
"I do also like days where the biggest decision is what shall we have for lunch ? Next time I'll approach it quite differently. The pain and pressure for film composers is linked with time. Fortunately on this film we were not compromised. It's turned out brilliantly."
'Elizabeth' is therefore going to turn another brilliant spotlight on David Hirschfelder, and at the heart of it all his score offers a very simple truth: he did it for his faith.
© PAUL TONKS 1998