Lost in Space!
The quality of life of a classical musician will vary dramatically, depending on which part of the world he or she lives in.
Historically, there are certain countries and cultures that treat the Arts and those involved in them with respect and admiration, realising their worth, value and contribution towards society. The world of classical music is included in this. As such, funds are made available, either through central or local government, through philanthropic schemes, or a combination of all of these, to financially enable those classical musicians at the top of their respective fields in symphony orchestras, to carefully plan the course of their lives, at the same time enjoying the status of those at a similar level in other highly regarded professions. Realistic salaries are provided for these orchestral musicians, along with highly favourable conditions of employment, including health and musical instrument insurance, paid holidays and pensions.
In these countries in general, those involved in the Arts are admired, embraced and deemed to be important to humanity.
Then there are other countries where actions, or more precisely, lack of actions speak far louder than words. These are the countries where a government’s understanding of and concern for the Arts is minimal and where philanthropy extends as far as to shelling out vast amounts of money to build a personalised football stadium, but not to the construction of an acoustically advanced new concert hall. Such a project just isn’t popular enough for those people wanting their name to be remembered, along with their vast wealth!
Classical musicians are far from recognised, considered to be of little value to society and as such, in the eyes of those in power, become nothing more than irritating scavengers. In short they are a nuisance to governments, who would prefer to exercise their vanity by spending tax payer’s money on colossally expensive and often dead ended infrastructure projects, rather than put aside a fraction of these costs to contribute to supporting the Arts.
In turn, any potential to provide nourishment throughout the country for those people in the population craving creative experiences, becomes infinitely more diluted. With little in the way of appropriate funding, salaried jobs are few and far between and even then, when they do exist, conditions cannot begin to approach or be compared favourably to those found at the top of the ladder in other areas of employment.
I herald from a country that historically and resolutely places itself in the latter category, stubborn to acknowledge the true worth of the Arts in terms of their contribution to the economy and ignorant and oblivious of their highly positive benefits to society.
Please note though, that I didn’t put the word ‘unfortunately’ at the beginning of that last paragraph. Whether or not my cup is half full or half empty, is immaterial in this instance.
More important is the fact that I am a firm believer in silver linings.
Many of you I am sure, will be surprised to discover that my twenty year stint as Solo Principal Flute of the London Symphony Orchestra, was not as an employee of the orchestra, but as a self-employed musician. In other words, there was no salary. Put very simply, this meant that unless the orchestra was working, I was not receiving any income. Whilst there was a covering single paged letter of engagement, a contract was nowhere to be seen.
The primary reason for what most would consider to be a curious state of affairs, is down to taxation issues. In the absence of significant funding, combined with the exorbitant and close to financially suicidal outlay of putting the membership onto ‘pay as you earn’ schemes, most of the symphony orchestras in London are obliged to operate as registered charities.
Although this situation is far from satisfactory, it does tend to encourage aggressive thinking and action by those at the top of orchestral management, as to how respectable incomes can be realised for their players and those working in their offices. Additional money needs to be found on top of that generated solely from hard fought for grants and concert ticket sales, which unfortunately could never be sufficient to cover all costs. If further work beyond giving performances cannot be realised, without fees for both players and management, these non-salaried orchestras would not be able to survive. It therefore becomes very much a hand to mouth existence.
To this extent, in the UK at least, beyond local engagements, the extra contributions to most symphonic orchestral purses come from a combination of classical recordings, touring internationally, and from studio work.
And this is why the word ‘unfortunately’ does not appear at the start of that earlier paragraph.
Naturally enough, there are aspects of a salaried existence that other more mainstream occupations offer that would have been rather wonderful to have been able to tap into over the years. In particular, at this stage of my life, I wouldn’t exactly struggle too much to turn down the offer of a healthy pension pot! Some weekends off, when I could have relaxed more and met up with family and friends, would also have been a novel, but equally pleasurable way of passing time.
On the opposite side of this though is the grateful acknowledgment that in order to realise an acceptable level of income, the variety of work that has been necessary to take on has been, absorbing, wide reaching, often unusual and on occasions, quite extraordinary.
From playing at the opening ceremony of the annexe to the Sultan’s palace in Muscat, Oman, to performing on an open-air tennis court in Boston, to meeting Audrey Hepburn in London, shaking hands with Prince Charles and Princess Diana, enjoying lengthy and in depth conversations with Leonard Bernstein, to ‘gigging’ with Deep Purple and to being in the same small studio control room as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and John Williams and all at the same time (with the three of them standing no more than a few feet away from me, I couldn’t help but wonder what their combined wealth would add up to at that precise moment), I have been subjected to the most wide ranging of experiences.
This has all come about as a result of being at the core of a profession that many would have little grasp of and consider to be far out on the fringes of recognisable employment.
It is the studio work that I have been involved with that is very much the theme of today’s particular journey. It also happens to be an area that I have found and continue to find utterly captivating and on so many different levels.
Why is it that so many soundtracks for Hollywood blockbuster movies end up being recorded in London? This is the first question that I am asked with regards to this particular topic. If it is me asking the question, those listening will tell me that they believe it is because London musicians are superior, or that we can sight read better over here, implying that we are quicker workers, equating to less expenditure for the production companies.
Whilst either of these concepts would be flattering in the extreme, sadly neither of them are in any way close to being correct. The more basic, truthful and downright blunt answer I am afraid, is that we are far cheaper to employ than our Los Angeles counterparts!
In the 1980s our Musicians’ Union introduced the buyout system for film session engagements, meaning that after one ‘enhanced’ payment for the work undertaken, there would be no further fees due to the players from the studio in question. Irrespective of how well or poorly the film subsequently performed at the box office, there would still only be one single payment.
Naturally enough, with films that were destined to be financially successful, erasing any obligation to make further royalty payments to those musicians involved, was a highly attractive proposition to the studios.
I know of certain Hollywood session musicians who, having played on the soundtracks of big box office earners, have regularly taken home healthy six figure numbers from residual payments each year. Nice work, if you can get it!
When I first started out in the early 1980s, there were numerous large studios in London, where entire symphony orchestras could be housed for these film recordings. Now, only two remain that are large enough to comfortably hold such large ensembles, Air Studios in Belsize Park and the one that most people have heard of and seemingly everyone has visited, Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood.
At any time and on any day of the year, outside the studio building and slightly further up the road, you will find groups of Beatles fans congregating to have their photographs taken, as they walk across the most famous pedestrian crossing in the world. On one occasion I witnessed four young Japanese men, arriving in a limousine, sporting appropriate length wigs, flared suits, already dressed up as the Fab Four, with a mission to create an identical version of the cover photo from the album Abbey Road, that as good as guaranteed immortality to this crossing.
I find working on soundtracks enjoyable and thoroughly engaging. Until you sit down in your chair in the studio, prior to the first recording session getting under way, there is no indication as to what treats or terrors lurk within the music pad in front of you. This is the first time that you will be able to take a sneak preview and practice anything that might appear on the technically challenging side. On day one, most people arrive quite early!
These days in all studios, large projection screens have gone, in favour of a single, albeit quite large monitor in front of the conductor and there will be no indication as to the final title of the film. For a while now, to avoid any form of spoilers and to prohibit any interesting content or information from leaking out, the release title of the film will be kept secret and the working title will be completely (and more often than not amusingly) different.
The music for a film is only recorded in the final stages of production, once the film editing is finished or at least very close to that point. Apart from the score requiring finalisation by the composer, the arrangers and copyists then have to swing into action, to ensure that the music is ready and in order for day one of the recording sessions.
When I worked on Star Wars, Episode One, I arrived at the studio on a Monday morning, opened the first flute pad, to discover that John Williams had decided it was time that I did some extra work on playing scales fast. This really was a moment to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in and I absolutely loved the challenge. Although the music for Monday was all there in front of me, the pad to be recorded the following day was yet to be printed, so any form of further advance preparation was impossible.
There can be quite a lot of dead time during these sessions, when the director engages in conversation with the composer, discussing exactly what he or she is looking for at any particular moment in the film. Having something to truly sink your teeth into and quietly practice away whilst these often intense discussions take place in the control room, helps the less interesting moments in a windowless studio day pass by swiftly.
As a regular freelancer before my time in the London Symphony Orchestra, I would occasionally be engaged to play for film recordings, but it was only once I joined the orchestra that there was a rapid crescendo in terms of work of this nature. People like recognisable names and to have the London Symphony Orchestra playing on your film, certainly looks good on the end credits.
Playing the flute, you can imagine my excitement back in 1985 on discovering that the LSO had been booked to work on a movie with a score composed by Henry Mancini. Already well-known for his love of and writing for the flute, I had an inkling before arriving at Abbey Road Studio 1 for the first day of recording that in front of me on the music stand, there would be plenty to keep me busy and in a thoroughly enjoyable way.
In those days, a symphony orchestra was at Abbey Road almost every day of the year. Projects could range from classical recordings (CD had just arrived, so record labels were re-recording their entire catalogues for the digital era), to cross over projects (Hooked on Classics and Classic Rock) and on to film soundtrack recordings.
For the purposes of putting music to film, at one end of Abbey Road Studio 1 (which is shoe box shaped) there was (and still is, although now hardly ever used) a drop down screen, of a size that would be appropriate in a large cinema. The orchestra, mostly facing into the studio sat in front of it, with the conductor having full view of the screen. This was necessary, not only to see the action taking place, but also to follow the various signals embedded in the working reels.
The two most common of these are flashing circles and streamers. The former tend to be used at various points in long scenes, to give the conductor an idea as to where he needs to be in the score at that point. He would then slightly quicken the pace or pull it back, depending on whether he was behind or ahead. The latter, moving slowly across the screen from left to right, are more often than not used to emphasize the moment of a change of scene, or new section of music. In action and horror movies, they might also signal the exact moment of a cymbal crash or violent drum strike, as something unexpected takes place on screen.
For battle scenes, where synchronisation between sound and vision is paramount, invariably the musicians all wear single sided headphones and play to a click track. One memorable occasion when this was the case was in a battle scene from Aliens. The late, but brilliant James Horner was the composer of this film and he tended to write cues building to a climax in the way many people approach putting a novel together! It would be nothing for him to compose a twelve minute cue in Aliens, steadily building sound and activity to a climax, when in the final moments a severed head could be seen flying across the screen.
As and when at all possible, he was also a firm believer in recording large parts of the film score without the click track. As we all know, there is a rigidity implied in an enforced pulse that can on occasions be quite detrimental to our abilities to express freely. James Horner preferred to allow music to take its more natural course. The results were often spellbinding and although difficult to describe, added extra emotion to the action taking place on screen. Something special was most definitely created. Call it the sixth sense of music.
Times have changed. These days, precision is everything, so it is extremely rare in studio work not to wear headphones the entire time.
Almost immediately in front of the conductor in the first flute chair, my back was to the screen, so unfortunately, when the reels were rolling, I had no idea as to what was taking place behind me. The best seats in the house for this purpose were those to be found in the first violin and cello sections, which were side on to the screen on either side.
When the studio lights were dimmed, we started recording and as heads gently swivelled around from players in these sections, I had good reason to believe that something interesting was taking place on screen. All was not lost though, as invariably at the end of a good take without any errors or need for corrections, a scene was subsequently played back, to be viewed either from the other end of the studio or on the television screens in the control room.
Henry Mancini was a genuinely warm man to be around. It was clear from the start of the sessions that he thoroughly enjoyed life and in particular his work. He happens also to be the only composer/conductor that I have encountered, who has managed to conduct and smoke an enormous cigar simultaneously. This of course, was before smoking was banned inside public places. I seem to recall that the project took perhaps six or seven days to record, with two three hour sessions every day. During this time, I never saw him once without a cigar wedged between his fingers. It was difficult to know which one to follow, the baton or the plume of dense smoke rising from his cigar!
With his obvious passion for the flute, Mancini had written numerous beautiful melodies for me to play. As this was a futuristic science fiction film, when I began playing my gently weaving solos, I envisaged scenes where spaceships would be journeying majestically but slowly in the void between planets and across the universe.
Having rehearsed, the main lights of the studio were dimmed and we started recording. A few bars into one of my solos, I could not but help noticing that the heads of my first violin and cello playing colleagues were once again swivelling towards the screen. This time though, something was decidedly different. Such was the depth of concentration on their faces, coupled with almost contorted neck angles, it seemed as though many of them were about to perform an Exorcist reminiscent 360 degree head turn.
I was correct about the visuals of floating through space between planets, but I was completely wrong about there being any spaceships. When playback occurred and I was viewing the screen from the other end of the studio, as my solo began and the sound of the flute glided through the cavern that is Abbey Road Studio 1, there I was in outer space, no spaceships to be seen anywhere, just a procession of entirely naked, nubile young women floating in front of me. They were The Space Vampires!
I could go on and on about this film. One of the stars was a young Sir Patrick Stewart who looks exactly the same in this film as he does today. He either looked too old then or today he still manages to look younger than his years, but in 36 years, he just doesn’t appear to have aged at all.
The Space Vampires was made way before Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) came along, but in the mid 1980s they were still trying to stretch and push the boundaries of visual technology, or special effects. Quite often, it looks as though they were trying just that little bit too hard. Clearly wanting us to be gawping in amazement at their wizardry, which they don’t quite manage to pull off, we can only end up sniggering.
The film was a huge flop, but has today gained something of a cult status. For those of you who might wish to experience the various cultural and artistic stimuli that pour forth from this film, it is easy enough to find on the internet. Based on the book The Space Vampires, by Colin Wilson, the final title of the film became Lifeforce. For a film which was hoped to be a box office success, the original book title was deemed to be dangerously too low budget sounding.
The following link provides an interesting guide as to why the film was such a disaster at the time. However, at least I met Henry Mancini and played his beautiful music, with the man himself conducting. Irrespective of the lack of success of the film, this experience was another absolute highlight of my professional life.
Over the years, I have played on more than 140 film soundtracks, many of which you are unlikely to have heard of (Le Bossu or Madame Sousatzka as possible examples), alongside some that are extremely well known (Star Wars, Episodes One and Two, Who framed Roger Rabbit, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Braveheart, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Wonder Woman).
There might even be films that will provide some of you with memorable flashbacks to treasured moments from childhood.
When I gave classes and made those people attending aware that it was myself playing on the dinosaur animation movie The Land Before Time from 1988, the glow of happiness on their faces and gasps of joy were nothing short of wonderful to behold. So many people remembered this film from the days when they were small children, their parents putting them in front of a television screen, in the hope that they might get a break from the mayhem youngsters naturally bring with them and some much needed space, peace and quiet!
The good fortune to have played the flute on a long and varied list of movie soundtracks over the years, has most definitely become a major silver lining of my career as a professional musician.
On my personal website, https://pauledmund-davies.com/film-soundtracks/ I have listed the movies I have played on, although it is not currently quite up to date. Yet to come out and a matter of weeks before Covid-19 forced us into the first lockdown in London, you would have found me at Air Studios in Belsize Park, playing on the soundtrack for the latest James Bond movie!