Words by Pascal Wyse
Well this is a bit embarrassing. I’m about to talk to a composer who has scored many natural history documentaries, and I’ve just realised that a grumpy blog I wrote for the Guardian a few years ago, complaining about the relentless use of epic music on a particular show … Yep … That was a series he worked on.
Here I am, up on my high horse – or possibly wildebeest, can’t remember:
“‘So what do you reckon I’m watching?’ I asked my girlfriend, knowing that she couldn’t see the screen from the kitchen, but could hear what was going on. ‘Is it Armageddon?’ she said. ‘That bit where Bruce Willis has to detonate the bomb?’ Not quite, but it sometimes sounds like that in the BBC series Nature’s Great Events … Thirty five minutes of tonight’s episode – on BBC1 at 9pm – has music over it. Take off the time where there is voiceover, and you have very little opportunity to just listen to the places being filmed.”
Dials number of composer Ben Salisbury …
To my relief, Ben does more than laugh it off. “I’m in total agreement!” he says. Ben has scored many of the BBC’s “blue chip” natural history shows, such as Life of Mammals, Life in the Undergrowth and Life in Cold Blood. So he’s in a good position to talk about the pains – and pleasures – of the genre.
“There’s a particular problem with the way that natural history programmes are made. As a composer, or editor, you get a film with no sound on it – apart from voice to camera. The rest is done by a team of very skilled sound editors who use foley, field recordings and so on. So, essentially, in the editing process the film is silent, and in the edit things must be approved by various executives, so lots of temp music gets put on – and once it is on, it is very difficult to remove it and say, ‘Actually, this would be great with just natural sound’. If you knew how amazing that sound was going to be, and had it in place earlier so you could compose around it, you might get something very different.”
Director Mike Figgis said that adding music to picture was like an addictive drug – once you start your habit escalates. There will always be a question of what emotions in a film you should bring out with music, but with natural history the question is a bit more fundamental. Should we be doing it at all? Overlaying the natural world with a load of human feelings such as fear, sadness and whimsy. “Putting it on emotional steroids” is the way sound recordist Chris Watson, who has worked on many of David Attenborough’s programmes, feels it. As he has proved with his recordings of the natural world, there is drama to be had in the real sounds of wildlife, and it tells a different story without the human filter.
“What natural history doesn’t do for me, which drama can, is get really underneath the motives and emotions of characters,” says Ben. “If you start doing that for a lion you are massively anthropomorphising, and in natural history it is very hard to get that judgment right. For example, here’s some animals doing some funny things, let’s have some funny music. My personal taste would be no, these are animals just doing animal things! They still bring me out in a cold sweat, the comedy animal sequences … I’ve done them, I have to admit. I haven’t enjoyed doing them.”
All these issues around the scores, though, make Ben even more fascinated and motivated by the genre. He loves the idea of finding new ways around the restrictions.
“I think the orchestra is used in natural history partly for scale and awe, but also because it has just become the language of these programmes. I suspect the audience might feel cheated if that wasn’t there. I’ve just caught up with the latest Blue Planet and I think the orchestra has been used really well there, so it is not just about what you use, it is about the way you use it. This is just a personal thing, but I think you could immediately make a real difference in natural history programmes by using about half the amount of music.
“The other interesting question when using a big orchestra is that it doesn’t always give each series a very distinct musical voice. Of course, that’s very broad brush, and the music for Blue Planet will be different from Blue Planet II because one was George Fenton and the other was the guys at Bleeding Fingers – but broadly speaking, to the punter. I think this feels like the same genre. Life in the Undergrowth was one of the Attenborough ones I did where I felt we achieved something a little different. Myself and David Poore used a maximum of 12 strings, but sometimes just an octet, harp and hammered dulcimer, plus unusual percussion.
“If you look back, the score that beats all others is Edward Williams’s Life on Earth. It is incredible, but as much as I love it, if you put that very 70s sounding, atonal, small-band sound on a show now, people would think they were watching an avant-garde movie. It is informative to watch though, to hear how sparingly they used music.”
Ben originally had his eye on scoring for drama – but with his dad producing for the Natural History Unit in Bristol, that was where his first opportunities for scoring to picture materialised when he came out of college.
“My dad worked on shows such as Life on Earth. Although he wasn’t able to give me a job, he could tell me when people in the department were looking for music. I’d done some music for a short film by Miguel Sapochnik, who now directs for Game of Thrones and so on, so I was able to send that out to a load of natural history producers. One of them, Brian Leith, liked it, used it as temp … And that got me going.”
The path from there to drama wasn’t easy – perhaps because, as a calling card, the language of natural history is a bit more constrained – “essentially to beauty and drama,” says Ben. His continuing relationship with Miguel, plus combining forces with Geoff Barrow (Portishead, BEAK>), opened the door. His first score with Geoff – Drokk – is about as far away from the natural world as you’d care to stray. Utilitarian and dark, it is the glorious sound of three Oberheim synths outputting a love letter to John Carpenter, and a very seductive one at that. It was designed – but not in the end used – for Alex Garland’s Judge Dredd movie. (In the language of Mega-City One, drokk means fuck). It was executive shenanigans that got the score kicked off, but Garland knew he wanted to use Ben and Geoff on his next big movie, Ex Machina.
“One of the most interesting things for me and Geoff Barrow, working on Ex Machina, was that we were part of the narrative of the film’s production, in there from the start, and we examined the emotional temperature of each scene in the most minute way – as Geoff said, like looking at every bit of tea in a tea bag.”
Geoff Barrow (Left) Ben Salisbury (Right)
Having someone else in the room to play material to was a revelation to Ben; a welcome step away from the introverted music bubble of the composer. Having another set of ears that you trust listening to your work can give you a more reliable compass with which to navigate the killer question: does is sound any good?
“I’ll find music by playing, or I’ll compose in my head while walking, or sat at the traffic lights. I’ll whistle them in to the phone. If anyone found my voice memos it would be very embarrassing, me humming a few notes and saying “Bass in here”. That’s your building block; your piece of marble that you chisel away at. Geoff’s a great one for stripping things away, sometimes even the thing that started the whole process off. He has a confidence that comes from great success early on in bands. He’s not worried about it not sounding brilliant at first, whereas I’d be very worried about producers, finessing and trying to make everything sound perfect. Geoff is good at the broad brush strokes and having confidence that something will turn out the way we want it to.”
Like Drokk, Ex Machina seems a long way from natural history. For one thing it is about an android in the future. The sophistication of her looks and artificial intelligence make it a challenge not to respond to her as human – and the score enjoys swaying subtly between machine and human sound. In playing with that distinction, though, the score does connect up to the natural history work of Ben. The film asks how we might end up relating to the distant species of androids that could populate our future, just as natural history – and how you score it – brings up questions of how we should relate to animals.
Asked about this on BBC Radio 3, writer Robert Macfarlane said we would do better, when we hear the whales singing, to appreciate the distance between ourselves and them, rather than try to collapse it.
“It is not a soundtrack to our lives,” he said. “It’s actually something that we interfere with, that we violate and disrupt. It is completely indigenous to these utterly other species … That seems to me to be a stronger lesson than the idea that we might sing our way into their souls.”