The History of Film Recording at Abbey Road Studios as told by Abbey Road's Mirek Stiles - Part Four

The History of Film Recording at Abbey Road Studios as told by Abbey Road's Mirek Stiles - Part Four

25th March 2024

Some scores were heatedly thrown across the control room, some scores were a bittersweet emotional finale, some scores were publicly painfully rejected, and some scores went on to win Oscars.

The first decade of film music at Abbey Road Studios in the 2000s was sometimes astonishing, sometimes disturbing, but always exhilarating. For me personally, it was the most riveting time in the studios and taught me some unique valuable lessons about my chosen profession. For the composers, engineers, music editors, recordist and runners, there were times of career defining joy, soul destroying agony and genuine musical shock and awe.

During this rousing decade I was a budding assistant engineer at the studios, and I too witnessed the ups and downs and felt the striking highs and ruthless lows. Looking back at the legendary directors and composers who visited Abbey Road in the early 2000's, it’s quite mind blowing to think of the lightning captured in a bottle during those character-building years at the studios.

Read the previous instalments here: Part One | Part Two | Part Three
From Jedis' to Gangsters and from Hogwarts to Stalingrad, it’s astonishing to think that pioneering cinematic visionaries like Paul Verhoeven, Ridley Scot, Peter Jackson, Alan Parker, Brain DePalma, the Hughes Brothers, the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wolfgang Petersen, George Lucas, Anthony Minghella and Alfonso Cuaron, all walked up the celebrated stairs into No.3 Abbey Road NW8 during an intense ten-year period. Within those walls the fabled movie makers added the final magical ingredient to some of their most memorable and innovative work.

Being mindful of the directors chosen collaborators, the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Howard Shore, Phillip Glass, Anne Dudley, John Williams, Mick Jagger, Carter Burrwell, John Tavener and Atticus Ross, it’s easy to understand how, in my opinion, the early 2000s was one of the most inspiring and significant periods of Abbey Road’s 90 plus year history.

It’s also important to note that technically a lot changed during this key decade. The transition from analogue and digital tape formats to the computer based Pro Tools system changed the scoring landscape forever. The engineer no longer had to concern themselves with tape running out mid take. Recording onto hard drives meant you could just keep going without interruption. The software enabled composers to record sections of the orchestra separately from one another and create orchestral “stems”. This meant the director had complete control over the various musical elements in the final dub. If the French horns are obstructing the dialogue, it’s no problem, as you can just bring the French horns down in level or even remove them completely. And crucially the software meant the picture could be directly loaded into the music recording device and run seamlessly in synchronisation. It also allowed for quick “on the fly” editing with an undo button in case the edit didn’t work out. In many ways computers made everything easier, but also massively increased the workload and responsibility expected from the assistant engineers who ended up running the Pro Tools systems.

There was also a pivot from the traditional Studio One “Portrait” orchestral layout, with the film projected onto a huge hanging fabric screen at the rear of the studio, to the wider “Landscape” orchestral layout, as the trend switched to larger string sections and Pro Tools video files displayed on smaller screens placed around the studio area. This trend, in my opinion, sadly continues to this day as there is nothing quite so awe inspiring as witnessing the power of a full orchestra performing in Studio One against a cinematic backdrop of huge proportions.

I must emphasise I feel truly honoured to have personally played a very small part in some of these very big projects and have massively enjoyed researching the films I didn’t. In this fourth blog of the series, we will explore the creative minds and the thrills and spills that produced the stuff of legends.

Hollow Man (2000)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
Engineer: Bruce Botnick

“It’s a very strange process because you have to hand your film over to them. The film will never be the same anymore after their music is added.” - Paul Verhoeven

The first film we will explore is director Paul Verhoeven’s dark and voyeuristic sci-fi horror starring Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue. It tells the tale of a scientist who volunteers to be the first human test subject for a serum that renders the user invisible. When unable to restore himself back to normal, the scientist becomes increasingly unhinged.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith made his Abbey Road debut in 1981 with the cult sci-fi movie Outland. Hollow Man was sadly to be Goldsmith's last film at the studios before passing away in 2014. It was also Goldsmith's third and final collaboration with the great Dutch director, after Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992). Verhoeven himself had visited Abbey Road previously for his 1987 sci-fi classic Robocop.

The score for Hollow Man is almost back-to-back music resulting in one of Goldsmith's lengthiest scores of all time, and there is so much here to love. Dark synths, lush strings and atmospheric harps arpeggios open the film with a compelling musical architecture enduring throughout the picture. The music is suitably moody and largely unsettling, but sometimes serves up moments of light relief and romantic contributions when appropriate. The textures on display are deep, rich, full of energy and had obviously been penned with a large orchestra in mind. It certainly delivers with some ferocious action sequences, punchy brass and dynamic ranges that keep the listener on their toes. The recording by legendary engineer Bruce Botnick presents a gorgeous sonic palette that’s imbedded with that magical Studio One sonic fingerprint. It’s good to know Goldsmith finish on such a high at Abbey Road Studios.

On a side note, there is a fantastic rare opportunity to see Goldsmith working in Studio One here captured by engineer Allen Snelling. In retrospect it would have been amazing if more footage like this existed of film scoring sessions at Abbey Road. Understandably, it wasn’t seen as cool to just pull out a video camera and start shooting random footage. Film studios are rather sensitive of Guerrilla style image capturing during their multi-million $ investment. It’s only because Snelling had such a close working relationship with Goldsmith he could do this. It’s a sad fact there is surprisingly little footage of film scores recorded at Abbey Road during the '80s and '90s and even blockbuster classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi are remarkably poorly documented.
Bruce Botnick (front left left) and Jerry Goldsmith (front right) in Control Room One

Bruce Botnick (front left left) and Jerry Goldsmith (front right) in Control Room One

“A good string section and an orchestra are the first things I think of when I start a project. The strings are particularly important to me. With them I can do any kind of picture. After the human voice, they are the most expressive instrument I know.” - Jerry Goldsmith

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Composer: James Horner
Engineer: Simon Rhodes

“James read the script and said he liked it very much, came to see me on the set, and I could see that he had an incredible connection with the movie. He then was my first audience. I was quite scared to show the movie to him because it was very unfinished. The good news is he really loved it for the right reasons. Loved it is one thing, but for the right reason is more important.” - Jean-Jacques Annaud

Enemy at the Gates is a war film co-written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and loosely based on the William Craig 1973 non-fiction book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad. Jude Law and Ed Harris star in this tense portrayal of celebrated snipers in Russia during World War Two.

There are many moments I will never forget at the studios during this decade, some of which will be explored in this blog. High up on the list of mind-blowing experiences was my first (and last) film session with the old school set up. The wide screen, cinematic full-blown method of working – by this I mean projection. It was simply incredible to witness James Horner conducting an orchestra with full projection of the movie on the back wall of Studio One. Each of the orchestra members had a little lamp over their sheet music and the house lights where dimmed. It was like being in the best cinema in the world and I can fully understand why Horner liked to work this way and I’m surprised more composers don’t do it. The whole room just oozed this incredibly infectious atmosphere, it felt magical. As a young and keen studio runner during my first year at Abbey Road it was always strongly impressed upon me that the vibe in the studio was paramount to the creative process. The vibe on this session this was on steroids and it’s a shame film scoring sessions don’t do this more often. In my experience it pushes everything to the next level for everyone involved, the director, the composer, the musicians, everyone!

Aesthetical vibes aside, the score has a truly epic feel with both orchestral and choral elements, but not in the typical Hollywood war movie tradition. There is a profound sadness, subtle reflection and an understated beauty to the music that compliments the images perfectly. The opening fifteen-minute cue of the Battle of Stalingrad takes the listener on profound musical journey that’s rather beautiful, considering the horrific subject matter.
James Horner conducting in Studio One with the film projected onto a huge screen on the back wall.

James Horner conducting in Studio One with the film projected onto a huge screen on the back wall.

"I am a romantic. I look for it wherever I can. Even in Stalingrad or whatever it is, I look for it." - James Horner

The Lord of the Rings (2001)

Director: Peter Jackson
Composer: Howard Shore
Engineer: John Kurlander and Peter Cobbin

“When I start a film, I can sort of shut my eyes, sit somewhere quiet and imagine the movie finished. I can imagine the camera angles, I can even imagine the type of music. Without knowing the tune, I can imagine the type of music it needs to be.” - Peter Jackson

I remember the first time I watched the documentary Heart of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now, a film crowned with an infamous 238-day shoot. There is a scene during a press conference where director, Francis Ford Coppola, tells the journalists “There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.” and I thought to myself, that sounds exactly like the music sessions for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Even before the project started studio manager Colette Barber and New Line music executive Paul Broucek called a meeting with the UK music team to warn us that we were in for a bumpy ride. None of us knew just how bumpy it would be…

It’s difficult to gather all my thoughts as I type because I’m convinced a few paragraphs could never capture the emotions and hard lessons we all experienced on these ambitious sessions. Working with Peter Jackson and Howard Shore on all three movies was an inspiring once in a lifetime opportunity, but my god did they take us on a journey.

The music sessions started in New Zealand to score the teaser reel previewed at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. The sessions were recorded onto Pro Tools, which was now fast becoming the industry standard, but was still in the early days of recording directly to a computer. During this shift from tape to computer at Abbey Road we still didn’t rely 100% on Pro Tools, as it could sometimes crash mid-session, which when you’re recording an orchestra can be a very expensive crash. So, we always had a trusty digital reel to reel tape machine running in the background as a back-up. Unfortunately in New Zealand, Pro Tools did indeed crash and there was no trusty back-up, which caused the sessions to run a little on the un-smooth side. So much so that when the project came to London, Pro Tools could only be used for editing and not recording. As the assistant engineer to music mixer Peter Cobbin, I remember spending much of my time knee deep in reels and reels of digital tape boxes. This was a three-hour movie with pretty much wall to wall music and more versions than you could shake a stick at, so that meant lots and lots of tape.

The fact I’ve mentioned this small detail seems silly and totally unimportant, because around two weeks into the six-week project the entire mix stage team were staring at a TV screen in utter shock and disbelief. I’ll never forget the moment one of the music editors entering the control room, having been stuck in traffic for the best part of an hour, to ask what we were all watching and then breaking down as she witnesses the images of her home city come under attack. Most of Howard's music crew lived in New York. I don’t think we could comprehend or process it all at the time, but watching those harrowing images on the news channel placed a massive dark cloud over the rest of the sessions and tensions, understandably, rose. Sometimes those tensions became unbearable.

This was the first time I experienced the new, and now totally normalised realities for the film composer - the picture is never locked. Film scoring up to, and the during the 90s, had a workflow that meant it was relatively safe to assume the picture the composer scores to is 90% locked. Sure, some of the effects might not be finished and there might be a trim here or and a trim there, but on The Lord of the Rings that just wasn’t Peter Jackson's style. It would have been impossible for a film of that magnitude and ambition, with its ever-looming cut-off date to print master the film for cinematic release on the 21st Dec 2001, to work in any “conventional” manner.

The workflow went something like this: Jackson would cut a scene, Howard Shore would compose, orchestrate and conduct the scene, we would mix the scene, usually made up of multiple orchestral takes ranging from ten-minute epics to thirty second pick-ups, onto a digital 8 track recorder. The digital 8 track was loaded into Pro Tools and edited to picture to make the final cue ready for the mix dub stage down in New Zealand. This all seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan except for two major points. One: The picture was never locked. Peter would cut and re-cut and in most cases entire scenes would be completely re-arranged over and over again. Two: Howard would then re-compose, re-orchestrate, re-conduct and re-record the scene. We would re-mix, re-edit and re-submit to the New Zealand mix team. This went round and round in circles until the film studio pulled the plug, and that plug wasn’t pulled until the last day of the print masters. The fact Shore had the responsibility of composer, orchestrator, and conductor, in hindsight was an insane workload under such conditions. It was gruelling for all concerned, the director, the composer, the executives, the editors, the engineers, and the runners. No one was spared the intense atmosphere of those sessions managed under the horrific back drop of the New York terror attacks.

By the second film, Pro Tools was being used as the main recording system which streamlined the whole process but didn’t cut down the capacity. I worked eighty-seven days straight, for at least twelve-hour days without a day off, during The Two Towers. I’d like to think that was something of a record, but for Howard and his music team eighty-seven days isn’t even close to the ultra-marathon they performed.

The music recording and mixing sessions for Middle Earth were longer than anything before and anything since. I think in total it was around ten months of studio time over the course of three years, when including the additional extended DVD editions in which new music was recorded. From memory only one music editor, now composer Michael Price, and myself were able to work the entire duration of the sessions. As the production goal posts moved wider and wider, other projects overlapped and bled into one another and various team members had their prior commitments to attend and at one point started to drop like flies.

I think everyone involved in those sessions from composer to runner look back on the The Lord of the Rings sessions with a mixture of pride, trauma, exhilaration, and a little melancholy. The entire crew really pulled together through some very tough times and a lot of the team are still in contact with each other today and become close friends and frequent collaborators. All have moved on to bigger things, some have become world class composers in their own rights, and even went on to win Oscars of their own.

The achievements by both Peter Jackson and Howard Shore is nothing short of astonishing. Shore’s music is phenomenal, probably one of the greatest cinematic scoring feats in history, it takes the listener on an unforgettable journey. It’s comparable to an epic opera that tells a story through the music alone. When married to Jacksons breath taking visuals and compelling story telling, you can see why it simply mesmerised audiences worldwide.

There is so much more I could wright about these sessions, maybe one day I will. I feel like I have only scratched the surface. Some of it I wouldn’t commit to paper as it’s too personal. When you spend that amount of time working with people in such proximity there are moments of sheer joy and moments of extreme pain. Cabin fever sets in. It wasn’t healthy, but then again it was a one off. I don’t think a music project like that will ever be allowed to happen again.

There were too many of us, we had too much equipment, too much money, and we did go a little insane.
Howard Shore, Peter Jackson and the 2001 Oscar for best score in Control Room One

Howard Shore, Peter Jackson and the 2001 Oscar for best score in Control Room One

“Music is essentially an emotional language, so you want to feel something from the relationships and build music based on those feelings.” - Howard Shore

Band of Brothers (2001)

Director: Phil Alden Robinson (episode one)
Composer: Michael Kamen
Engineer: Peter Cobbin, Dick Lewzey, Stephen McLaughlin and Geoff Foster

“You know what the problem is? You believe that a score sits outside the movie, looks down on it and comments on it. A score should be inside the movie, reflecting the characters and the emotions and the feelings. It shouldn't be saying, Hey, laugh here. It should be saying, this character is laughing here.” - director Phil Alden Robinson

Band of Brothers is an HBO series created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who had worked together previously on Saving Private Ryan in 1998. The mini-series is based on historian Stephen E Ambrose 1992 non-fiction book of the same name about American solders involvement in the D-Day landings of World War Two.

Back in the early 2000s TV series with big budgets and cinematic looks were still far and few between. The new format made a huge impact because it allowed for much deeper character development than one would usually find in a ninety-minute theatrical release. Today with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime this is all quite standard, but the early '00s it was somewhat of a novelty.

The project was a massive undertaking for composer Michael Kamen who scored over ten hours of music with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. The orchestral themes with addition of choir that gave the score a classic honourable sound to match the patriotic images. This was sadly to be the last recording made by Kamen before his passing in 2003 and some fans labelled the poignant and powerful score for Band of Brothers as Kamen’s best work. From Kamen’s Abbey Road debut in 1981 with the film Venom to 2001’s Band of Brothers, he will always be remembered as one of the greats to grace the studios.
Michael Kamen conducting in Studio One

Michael Kamen conducting in Studio One

"The music is the last ingredient that can help to extract the emotions from the characters. If they're falling in love, you gush for them, and if they're crying, you weep silently for them. That's why it's called Underscore. It's more like underlining an emotion.” - Michael Kamen

The Hours (2002)

Director: Stephen Daldry
Composer: Phillip Glass
Engineer: Jonathan Allen

“What's great about his (Philip Glass) score is that it works as another character in the film. I know some people don't like it, but I love it and there's a great counterpoint between image and picture.” - Stephen Daldry

The Hours is a psychological drama starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman and follows three lives that are interconnected by Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway.

Director Stephen Daldry was cutting to Philip Glass' music as a temp score during the production process. Daldry stated he tried hard to place alternative music into the scenes, as he assumed Glass would be unaffordable, unavailable or both, but he kept going back to Glass’ music and hugely missed the impact on the images if Glass’ music was removed. It supported scenes with a magic the director found very difficult to replace in any other way. Eventually Daldry did ask Glass to score his picture and to his surprise he agreed to do the project for a reasonable budget. If you don’t ask you don’t get!

Glass has a reputation as one of the greatest contemporary composers in the world and his signature composing style supports film beautifully without becoming a dominant feature. His surging and ethereal music adds countless layers of depth to the scenes and characters within the film. Some describe Glass’ art as a complex network of repetitive phrases and minimalist layers. Such a compositional style is perfect for movie scoring, as it serves to build familiarity with a character or scenario that creates more significance as the listener becomes familiar with the music. A similar effect is created when you listen to an album repeatedly, a familiarity is formed as you become more intimate with the music and lyrics.

The author of The Hours, Michael Cunningham, stated he often listened to the works of Philip Glass whilst writing the book, so when he learned that Glass had agreed to contribute music to the film adaptation of his book it seemed both inevitable and too good to be true. The author even adopted listening to The Hours soundtrack album to help him finalise his next novel.
Phillip Glass

Phillip Glass

“What you hear depends on how you focus your ear. We’re not talking about inventing a new language, but rather inventing new perceptions of existing languages.” - Philip Glass

Star Wars EP2 Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars EP3 Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Director: George Lucas
Composer: John Williams
Engineer: Shawn Murphy

“The sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie.” - George Lucas

Between 2002 and 2005 John Williams' music was recorded at the studios on four separate projects. The first being Star Wars Episode 2 Attack of the Clones and the final being Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Regarding the Star Wars universe, Revenge of the Sith would be the final film in the saga in which George Lucas had any creative involvement or control. Since the sale of Lucas Films to Disney in 2012 for the healthy sum of $4 billion, all subsequent entries into the space opera had zero involvement from Lucas.

Since the establishment of the Star Wars franchise in 1977, music has been the complete support system for the way in which Lucas tells his stories and he has always relied on John Williams to make that possible. Since Return of the Jedi in 1983 all the Lucas Star Wars films had been scored in Abbey Road Studio One, with some of the later Disney spin offs and sequels also making a visit to the studios.

The final instalment, Revenge of the Sith, was the darkest and most intense of all original six films. This episode brought the trilogy to a suitably exhilarating and emotional conclusion and is generally considered the best Star Wars film directed by George Lucas.

The London Symphony Orchestra performed episodes One to Six of the Star Wars series, which is a massive point of pride for both Williams and the LSO. Revenge of the Sith would be the final Star Wars score played by the celebrated orchestra and hence concluding one of the most iconic musical collaborations since the genesis of the moving picture. The score for Revenge of the Sith is a sensational tour de force of enormous depth that provides a critical connection to the original 1977 film A New Hope. It’s a truly superb, if bittersweet, finale to some of the most important musical scenes in history of cinema.
John Williams (left) and George Lucas (right) in Control Room One

John Williams (left) and George Lucas (right) in Control Room One

“Any good thing that comes to an end, there's a bitter-sweet aspect to it. But in this particular case, and for me, it's a sense of real pleasure in having been able and given the opportunity and the energy to complete this whole picture. I feel very lucky and very happy about it.” - John Williams

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Director: Chris Columbus
Composer: John Williams
Engineer: Simon Rhodes

“John Williams and I have done five or six pictures together, and he has truly just taken my films and just given them new life. And he's honestly, I think, the greatest living composer.” - director Chris Columbus

The second instalment to the Harry Potter franchise was a little darker than the first but still a massive commercial and critical hit. John Williams was asked to return and expand on the much-loved themes he established in the first film. The previous score was recorded by our friends at Air Studios in Hampstead, London, but for this second outing the music was recorded at both Air Studios and Abbey Road. For bigger film projects this scenario happens quite frequently, as the composer needs to balance out the availability of London musicians on certain dates against available studio time. It’s quite common for Abbey Road Studio One to be booked for up to a year in advance, sometime more!

Scoring the second Harry Potter film proved a difficult task for Williams, as he had just completed Star Wars Attack of the Clones and was about to start Catch Me If You Can. The greatest living composer was still very much in huge demand. To assist easing the pressure, American composer William Ross was brought in to arrange Williams' themes from the original film and orchestrate any new material Williams had composed when he found the time. Ross also conduct the LSO at Abbey Road Studios as Williams was unable to personally attend the sessions. In the busy world of Hollywood scoring this situation is quite common. There are many instances of composers being overwhelmed with the workload as project timelines get moved around and the strain from different projects starts to merge. This is the moment when a composer might score the main themes and motifs and then work with a trusted collaborator to help expand and adapt those themes to picture, especially if the picture edit is constantly being changed.
John Williams conducting with projection on the back wall in Studio One

John Williams conducting with projection on the back wall in Studio One

“Any working composer or painter or sculptor will tell you that inspiration comes at the eighth hour of labour rather than as a bolt out of the blue. We have to get our vanities and our preconceptions out of the way and do the work in the time allotted.” - John Williams

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Composer: John Williams
Engineer: Shawn Murphy

“As a director, you’re only as good as your collaborators. You surround yourself with collaborators that are going to understand what you’re trying to do. Not only that, but they are going to push and fight for what you’re trying to do.” - director Alfonso Cuaron

Chris Columbus directed the first two Harry Potter instalments but didn’t return for the third movie as we wanted to spend more time with his family. Guillermo del Toro was approached to direct, but decided the project wasn’t for him as he felt the first two films where too “bright and happy and full of light”. When Alfonso Cuaron was asked to direct, he was initially reluctant as the hadn’t read any of the books or seen the films. Ironically it was Del Toro who suggested he read the books and convinced Cuaron to give it some thought.

John Williams returned for his third, and final, contribution of magic to the franchise. This time Williams was able to supply his usual full services of composing and conducting for what many fans considered the finest music for the entire Harry Potter series. Williams had to adapt his previous compositions and themes to compliment Cuaron’s very different directional style, making for a soundtrack with a significant departure from the previous two films. There’s a noticeably more withdrawn and understated accompaniment to the onscreen action in this third journey into Hogwarts. This is another fine example of how composers need the skills to adapt their output, even with music that’s already been established and very much loved, to compliment a director’s taste. Williams did this in such a way that he created an Oscar-nominated score that is both recognisable and full of new surprises.
John Williams conducting the LSO in Studio One

John Williams conducting the LSO in Studio One

“To continue to work, to continue to love what you do, is certainly a contributing element to one's longevity and health.” - John Williams

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

Director: Peter Webber
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Engineer: John Timperley

"He (Desplat) had a sense of restraint and a sense of lyricism that I liked. I remember the first time I saw the cue where Griet opens the shutters. He was really describing what the light was doing, articulating that in a musical sphere.” - director Peter Webber

For his feature film debut, Peter Webber directed a historical drama based on a fictional account of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeers. Girl with a Pearl Earring was adapted from the book of the same name by Tracy Chevalier. Critics were particularly positive towards the film’s striking visuals, excellent performances, and the magnificent music.

Girl with a Pearl Earring was Desplat's debut score at Abbey Road Studios and was hired by director Webber after he heard his work in the wonderful Jacques Audiard film The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

Desplat created a haunting and beautiful recurring melody that perfectly evolves and flows throughout the picture. The captivating atmosphere generated by the majestic score was considered his breakthrough project and propelled the composers film scoring career to new heights. At the time of writing, Desplat currently holds the record for most scores recorded Abbey Road Studios with over thirty-five titles to his name and counting.

The score was engineered in Studio One by the legendary John Timperley, who was the senior recording engineer at Angel Studios during the '80s and early '90s. Angel was acquired by Abbey Road Studios in 2021 to save the historic building being developed into flats. It now acts as an additional recording space and a home for the Abbey Road Institute.
Alexandre Desplat conducting in Studio One

Alexandre Desplat conducting in Studio One

“Because I work so much, people think that I have a team writing for me, but that's not why I chose to write music for films. I chose to write music because I like to write music. So every single note that comes out of my studio is written by me, and I wouldn't be able to do two movies at the same time.” - Alexandre Desplat

A Man Apart (2003)

Director: F. Gary Gray
Composer: Anne Dudley

“You grow up listening to music and I think there’s a rhythm to all art. It doesn’t matter if you’re a painter, musician or filmmaker, there’s a rhythm and people respond to rhythm. I think growing up in an environment where you listen to a lot of music and growing up in that cultural bubble that you live in pays dividends in the future and sometimes people take it for granted.” - director F. Gary Gray

There is very little information available regarding Anne Dudley’s score for the vigilante action thriller directed by F. Gary Gray and staring Vin Diesel. I can only assume this is because the film was largely panned by critics, and so unfortunately the score didn’t get much attention either. This is a shame because the expansive electronic score is expertly crafted and nicely supplemented with lavish strings that creates an energetic, dark and atmospheric mood.

Anne Dudley was the keyboardist and arranger in the ground-breaking avant-garde synth group The Art of Noise. The group were early adopters of digital sampling mainly using the Fairlight keyboard, the first commercially available digital sampler on the market. The groups output often ended up being used on films and adverts, which was a natural progression to film makers approaching Art of Noise to do create tracks for specific picture projects. Anne Dudley particularly enjoyed working to picture with directors and went on to become an Oscar-winning composer.

“There’s no reason why more women film composers can’t be doing the good jobs. It will change. It is changing. But we need to keep our eye on the ball.” - Anne Dudley.

Dudley composed around 25 minutes of music for A Man Apart which never received an official release. The only music release connected to the bombastic film was one of those rather dubious “music inspired by” albums.

Even though Dudley background is in music technology, she composes film scores using the traditional piano, manuscript paper and pencil method. Dudley has stated she thinks through her pencil as she hears the orchestrations in her head. Even though Dudley is obviously a massive fan of synthesis and music technology, she avoids letting the tech becoming the main driver and choses to focus instead on getting the music right.
Anne Dudley

Anne Dudley

“Film music is constantly evolving. I think it will continue to do so. Because it’s still quite a young art form anyway when you think about it. People have only been doing it for 100 and a bit years. Individuals like Hans Zimmer are continually moving the goalposts and trying things that are very bold.” - Anne Dudley

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Director: Mike Newell
Composer: Rachel Portman

“If you are going to do a film about the South Pole, the chances are that you will film it in Hawaii! Whatever is most difficult, you will get to do it.” - director Mike Newell on the challenges of working in the film industry.

Mona Lisa Smile is a drama film directed by Mike Newell that was often lazily referred to as a “female Dead Poets Society”. Julia Roberts received a reported $25 million for her performance in the film, at the time the highest ever earned by an actress. Mike Newell’s next directional outing after Mona Lisa Smile would be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the first HP film not to be scored by John Williams.

This is another excellent score that sadly never received an official release. There was an Academy Award “for your consideration” promo CD of Portman’s score sent out that didn’t seem to work, as it didn’t receive a nomination. The official soundtrack album released featured only a five-minute Rachel Portman suite at the very end, but unfortunately that’s all.

Portman’s Oscar-winning scores are usually based on one central motif with a strong emphasis on melodies that is then arranged into supplementary themes that run throughout the movie. For Portman, the purpose of a score is to illuminate the images using various orchestral instruments as colour. As expected, the main theme for Mona Lisa Smile is beautiful and memorable, supplemented with warm lush orchestrations.
Rachel Portman in Studio Two

Rachel Portman in Studio Two

“I step in when all of the elements of the film are close to completion. I start to extract from those elements the world in which the music should live. It’s very important for me to spend a long time just soaking myself in the film. Because the music has to fit the scenes, I watch each scene again and again, to look at the pace of the film, and to see how long each scene is. For me, composing is completely intuitive. The thing that gets me going is emotion” - Rachel Portman

The Life of David Gale (2003)

Director: Alan Parker
Composers: Alex & Jake Parker
Engineer: Peter Cobbin

“When music and images blend well they can take the audiences to another place emotionally and dramatically. Bad film music intrudes without complimenting the action. A great score gets under your skin, triggers your subconscious, enhances the drama and helps drive the emotional power train of the movie.” - director Alan Parker

There are four films projects I worked on that had a lasting impact on me. Two I have already elaborated on in this blog, the other is next in line, and then there is this one…

The Life of David Gale is a crime thriller directed by Alan Parker. It stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet and acts as a commentary on the controversial US capital punishment system.

I’m a fan of Alan Parker pictures such as Midnight Express, Birdy, The Commitments and Angela’s Ashes so I was justifiably excited for a chance to work on one of his movies. Sadly, The Life of David Gale was to be Parker's last film before his retirement. The story centres around a condemned man on death row in Texas. Some critics accused the film of being pro capital punishment. This is rather strange, especially as long-time senator and 2022 presidential hopeful of the Philippines, Ping Lacson, credited this film as changing his mind from pro to anti capital punishment, so Parker must have done something right.

The film's music was interestingly composed by Alan Parker’s sons Alex and Jake. Both of Alan's sons had previously assisted their father on his films, mainly with temp scores and spotting sessions, but this project was to be their first composing outing. Over his career Parker has collaborated with greatest musical forces in the business from Peter Gabriel to John Williams, adding The Commitments to his impressive resume, it’s fair to say Parker knows a thing or two about music. Parker was keen not to be showing nepotism towards working with his sons on this project “I certainly wasn’t going to mess it up just to give it to my sons.” During the film preparation and subsequent shoot in Austin, Texas, Alex Parker was experimenting with music cues in London and sending them over to his dad. Alan was looking for a modern rhythm-based score and something a little bit different. Once back in London Alan showed his sons the footage and the score started to blossom from there.

The two composers made a perfect team as Jake is classically trained and Alex has a more contemporary multi-instrumentalist approach to composition. This resulted in a very original mixture of pop, rock and traditional score with Alex providing vocals, synths and guitars recorded in Studio Three and Jake composing and orchestrating the score for overdubs in Studio One. The whole project sounded very fresh to my ears and quite unlike any film I had worked on previously. Tragically, I feel this score has been forgotten or missed by many, but for anyone interested in alternative film music this is worth checking out.

One moment in my career I will never forget is Alan Parker talking about how much more complicated film sound had become over the years. He went on to explain that during the final sound dubbing mix for Midnight Express (one of my all-time favourite films and hence I was hanging onto his every word) they had one fader for dialogue, one fader for sound effects and one fader for music, and you had two options for each fader, louder or quieter. It really did make me smile.

It's worth noting some of the cues from Alex and Jakes score went on to feature in a number film trailers over the following years including Munich, Milk, The Artist, and The Iron Lady.
Peter Cobbin (left) and Alan Parker (right) in Control Room Three

Peter Cobbin (left) and Alan Parker (right) in Control Room Three

Alex Parker in Studio Three

Alex Parker in Studio Three

Jake Parker in Control Room Three

Jake Parker in Control Room Three

“Music has always been very important in my films, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of brilliant composers over the years. I’ve tried different things from conventional brilliant scores of John Williams to Andrew Lloyd Webber to many other kinds of music. On this film, I experimented with my two sons who happen to be musicians and who have helped me over the years doing temp scores and things. I wanted an original and different score. I didn’t want the conventional score, and so I needed to experiment. And so I did experiment, and the easiest way for me to experiment is with these very inexpensive composers.” - director Alan Parker

Alfie (2004)

Director: Charles Shyer
Composer: Dave Stewart & Mick Jagger
Engineer: Stephen McLaughlin

“The whole thing about Mick is that you realise that he is an incredibly hard worker and he’s a perfectionist and for a guy who has been doing what he’s been doing for as long as he’s been doing it, we would be at Abbey Road and he would listen to it and go ‘let me just go back, I can do those three words better...’ I mean, he and Dave Stewart just worked and worked.” - director Charles Shyer

This is another unusual scoring session I will never forget. Dave Stewart, Mick Jagger and a room full of the most amazing sessions musicians in Studio Two recording rock and roll music to picture. I was very used to seeing a composer and an orchestra working to picture, but this felt and sounded very different. To record an entire band all at once is something you witness less and less in the studio, but to experiment with that set up, to picture, with the director in the studio is something else. I remember thinking at the time that the songs they were working on sounded amazing, especially the track Old Habits. To witness the recording of those songs with such musical legends is a real privilege and those sorts of experiences have a lasting effect.

The film itself was a remake of the 1966 classic starring Michael Caine. This time round Jude Law stared as the womanising man leading a self-centred life. On a historical note, the original films title song Alfie was written by Burt Bacharach became a hit for the Cilla Black. It was recorded in Studio One Abbey Road with Burt Bacharach on piano. There is a fabulous video here showcasing Cilla’s powerful voice and a rare opportunity to see George Martin and legendary engineer Stuart Eltham in the control room behind the REDD desk.

When Stewart was approached by director Charles Shyer to provide the soundtrack for the re-make, Stewart listened to the original score by Sonny Rollins and loved the amazing solo saxophone work. Shyer’s brief was to somehow create a feeling of the sixties within the context of a contemporary setting. Mick Jagger instantly popped in Stewart’s mind, almost like working with Jagger's voice as a Rollins saxophone.

There was a great moment during the recording session in Studio Two where we had some technical issues getting the headphones working for Jagger, Stewart and the band. Jagger comically remarked down his microphone “it’s quite hard this recording live isn’t it, no wonder they gave it up."
Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart in Studio Two

Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart in Studio Two

“I knew we’d have to write at least three really good songs, Old Habits Die Hard, a bitter-sweet rocker about the film’s philandering title character, that phrase works really well for Alfie, it characterizes his life. The songs have to be right. It’s a lot of intellectualizing and crafting, and I’m quite pleased with what we’ve accomplished.” - Mick Jagger

Cold Mountain (2003)

Director: Anthony Minghella
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Engineer: John Richards

“The great voice of music is that it can speak of the inner self, of the inner being. It can draw out the soul of a character.” - director Anthony Minghella

Cold Mountain is a war film of epic proportions written and directed by the incredibly talented Anthony Minghella. It tells the story of an American Civil War deserter who travels home to find the woman he loves.

The Oscar-nominated score was penned by regular Minghella collaborator Gabriel Yared. This is a partnership that started with The English Patient, for which Yared won an Oscar in 1997. Yared has stated that he sees Minghella as his “soul mate”, a fine example of how directors and composers build a special bond that can last entire careers and create very special moments.

The widely available soundtrack album for Cold Mountain is a mixture of Appalachian and roots music from the films period, produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring the likes of Alison Krauss, Jack White, and Sting. Comparatively, Yared’s lovely score was only given four out of nineteen tracks. There was a limited one thousand copy run of the full score that’s long out of print, which is another shame as the score has this beautiful introspective and melancholy approach to the characters emotions, with haunting orchestral arrangements and memorable themes. It’s another incredibly poignant achievement in Yared’s long time collaboration with Minghella.
Anthony Minghella (left) and Gabriel Yared (Right) in Studio One

Anthony Minghella (left) and Gabriel Yared (Right) in Studio One

“I am not proud of any film score per se. I am most proud of my collaboration with Anthony Minghella, as from one film to another we always reinvented ourselves and explored different paths together.” - Gabriel Yared

Troy (2004)

Director: Wolfgang Peterson
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Engineer: Peter Cobbin

“The movie theatre is one of the last places where we can still gather and experience something together. I don't think the desire for that magic will ever go away.” - director Wolfgang Peterson

Without question the most controversial score recorded during the early 2000s at Abbey Road Studios was Gabriel Yared’s often praised, but ultimately unused, music for the epic historical war film Troy directed by the equally-praised director Wolfgang Peterson.

Yared spent over a year working on the score after being hired by Peterson early in the production stage. This was an unusual situation for a composer to find themselves in, as sometimes only a couple of months is available or possible to compose and record the music for a film. Yared used this time to his advantage and began to explore ancient and modern musical styles, combining Bulgarian choirs and Macedonian soloists into the themes of Trojans, Spartans and ancient Greece. By the time the recording sessions started at Abbey Road, Yared had spent considerable time and resources in sculping a sound pallet that was authentic and epic.

One month before the theatrical opening of the film all this effort came crashing down abruptly with Yared’s music being removed from the picture. This was due to a poor reception at a test screening where the audience claimed the music was too "old-fashioned" and "brassy and bold". I’m not sure quite what the audience was expecting from an epic historical war film, perhaps some light hip-hop or smooth jazz? To get the test screening print ready on time, some rough monitor mixes and incomplete cues were used as place holders. Yared was still finessing the final music deliverables when the test screening was conducted, which didn’t help the situation. This scenario is all too common in the world of film scoring and has, in some ways, become an accepted part of the gig. If a test screening doesn’t go well, and it’s decided the film needs tweaking, the music is usually the most convenient and budget friendly element to change. This is both a curse and testament to the power of how music can carry a film and completely change how the audience feels about what is happening on screen.

Yared was understandably upset by this decision and the rejected score gained much attention from film music fans after various bootleg versions appeared on the web. Some fans subsequently praised the score as being the pinnacle of Yared’s career and it is well worth a listen if you can find it. It’s epic beyond all proportions, furnished via a huge orchestra, full choir, mammoth percussion and thrilling ethnic-style vocals. This is what Studio One was made for and there is never a dull moment throughout the entire experience. The rights to the score are held by Warner Brothers and unfortunately it might never see an official release, which only adds to its mystique.

The replacement score was composed by James Horner in no less than four weeks, which is an epic achievement in itself. As I have noted in previous instalments of this blog, most composers have at some point in their career had a score rejected, including both Horner and Yared. This is 99.9% absolutely no fault of the composer, but more akin to circumstances way beyond their control. As Yared was brought onto the project at very early stage he must have felt close to the film and spent considerable time researching, exploring, and consequently scoring the film. It must have been particularly painful to have his work overruled after one fateful test screening.

In my opinion it’s one of the most adventurous and epic scores ever recorded at Abbey Road Studios and it’s a real shame it didn’t work out. If you can give it a listen, you won’t regret it.
Gabriel Yared in Studio One

Gabriel Yared in Studio One


Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Director: Ridley Scott
Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Engineer: Peter Cobbin

“I always shoot my movies with score as certainly part of the dialogue. Music is dialogue. People don't think about it that way, but music is actually dialogue. And sometimes music is the final, finished, additional dialogue. Music can be one of the final characters in the film.” - director Ridley Scott

Sticking to the topic of epic historical scores recorded at Abbey Road Studios, Kingdom of Heaven is another fine example of impressive widescreen cinematic forces. To this day I often use the cue The Battle of Kerak as an audio test piece when trying out new gear. It has an amazing soundscape that’s big, bold, dark and menacing. The percussion does the driving and the choir is almost biblical with additional complex layering of ethnical and solo voice elements. Perfect for Ridley Scott’s heavily fictionalised and ambitious cinematic version of the events that lead to the Third Crusade in the late 1100s’.

For many film score fans, this is a great model on how the music can stand on its own two feet beyond the onscreen action. Structurally it works as a cohesive piece of art that develops, unfolds, and take the listener on a journey. Scott’s incredible and often breathtaking onscreen action presented Gregson-Williams with an opportunity to really go for it! And he really delivers with this colourful and punchy score that results in a riveting listen.
Harry Gregson-Williams in Studio One

Harry Gregson-Williams in Studio One

“He (Scott) is still cutting the film. He's still previewing it. He's still deciding. He's still massaging. He's still making the movie. I'm working, and this is not unusual, I'm working in tandem with that. I'm trying to make my score, but often playing catch up because I blink and a scene that I scored yesterday is gone. It hasn't just moved, it's just gone, which is fine. We're skirting each other. That's the process here.” - Harry Gregson-Williams

Apocalypto (2006)

Director: Mel Gibson
Composer: James Horner
Engineer: Simon Rhodes

“Music heals the hurt, soothes the pain, fills the loneliness, and reminds us that we are not alone in this world.“ - director Mel Gibson

The music for Mel Gibson's historical action-adventure film Apocalypto was composed by James Horner, their third and final collaboration together. The very non-traditional Hollywood score experiments with a large array of unusual and extraordinary instrumentations and features incredible vocals by Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios over the course of several weeks, it’s an unusual score for Horner, as it strays massively from his more traditional orchestral repertoire. The soundtrack delves into an impressive selection of ancient exotic instruments that’s in keeping with the film's time period. On vocalist Khan, director Mel Gibson states “He’s a valuable asset to our soundtrack. His dulcet tones add emotion and drama, and we have a very narrow palette as far as an orchestra. We don’t have an orchestra, so he is fulfilling a lot of the functions that would usually be supplied by the use of a full orchestra. Just all in one man; he’s a one-man band”.

Some of the instruments used on the score are extremely hard to source and had to be borrowed from historical or educational institutions. Specialist musicians were hired to play the Tromba Marina, Swedish Bark Trumpets and Ugandan Wildebeest Horns. This makes for a unique and original-sounding score that demonstrates the great diversity that’s expected from a film composer. For many directors it’s important to place the audience in the appropriate context, so the ears match what the eyes are seeing. In this case using a traditional orchestral score could have jarred the experience and possibly taken the audience out of the picture.
James Horner (Left) and Mel Gibson (Right) in Control Room One

James Horner (Left) and Mel Gibson (Right) in Control Room One

“You have to make an audience experience with the ears as well as their eyes.” - James Horner

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Director: Brian De Palma
Composer: Mark Isham
Engineer: Simon Rhodes

“I select music that I think will inspire the composer for that theme. Some composers don't want you to do that at all. Some composers don't want you to put temp tracks in, and you have to describe the music or say “it should be a little like Mahler's 3rd” or “a little of Puccini here,” you sort of describe the music to them and they go off. Morricone was like that, Herrmann was like that. But some people like you to give musical suggestions and I give them very clear musical ideas of what I had in mind.” - director Brian De Palma

The Black Dahlia is film noir crime thriller directed by Brian De Palma based on the 1987 novel of the same name. Both book and film are inspired by the heavily sensationalised media coverage of the gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles 1947. It stars Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson with the music provided by distinguished New York session player turned composer Mark Isham. The highly anticipated release, after the success of film noir hit LA Confidential, is currently the renowned director's last big Hollywood studio project after the film tragically flopped at the box office.

I have been a fan of Isham since his compelling and gritty score for the 1988 hidden gem The Beast. The criminally underrated composer collaborating with the innovative director of Carrie, Scar Face and Carlito’s Way was always going to grab my attention. Apparently, James Horner was originally hired to score the project but for reasons unknown Mark Isham was brought in to replace Horner at the last minute. Isham has a rather splendid background in jazz and is a tremendously skilled trumpeter, making him a savvy choice to match the atmospheric and beautifully shot neo-film noir setting.

The score opens with a sliky-smooth trumpet solo performed by Isham that establishes the musical voice of Josh Hartnett’s character. This opening sets the scene for a gorgeous mixture of jazz, blues, driving rhythms, irregular strings and fully orchestrated actions cues. The overall effect of the score is emotionally complex and a rewarding listening experience. Both the movie and music give a modern twist on an authentic film noir experience. It’s a fine moment in Isham’s career, it just oozes class and is one of his best scores to date.
Mark Isham in Studio One

Mark Isham in Studio One

“I build up my templates, and then along the way, ideas will presumably start flashing in front of me and I very quickly try to get them down. I don't necessarily worry about making them fit the picture or how long or short they are. If there's a good kernel of an idea, you just want to get it down. I’ll end up with maybe 20 different ideas all sketched out as a starting place.” - Mark Isham

Children of Men (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Composer: John Tavener
Engineer: Simon Rhodes

“We use music to convey the story.” - director Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men is a dystopian action thriller directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón which portrays a future of humanity in an advanced state of dilapidation and decay. It was a massive critical success and hailed by some as one of the finest movies of the decade.

For the film's soundtrack Cuarón used a mixture of rock, pop, EDM and ambient urban sound effects. Perhaps the film’s most effective element of the soundtrack is the repeated use of Fragments of a Prayer, specially composed by John Taverner as the film’s spiritual motif. This twelve-minute piece of haunting powerful music was written for the film, but unlike most composers Taverner didn’t score to picture but instead used the screenplay as his main source of inspiration. Taverner is an English composer mostly known for his deeply spiritual and religious works and provided the perfect response to the film's desolate outlook on the future of humanity. Children of Men is one of only two feature films that Taverner specifically scored for picture, although his other works have featured in films like Tree of Life and Mission Impossible. Director Alfonso Cuarón describes Tavener's Fragments of a Prayer as "a spiritual comment rather than a narrative support”.

The piece is slow and meditative with shifting textures using a sonic pallet of strings, Tibetan temple bowls, and angelic vocals by Sarah Connolly singing fragmented words in Latin and Sanskrit. Cuarón uses the piece throughout the film, editing it down into smaller sizes cues. The overall effect is a soothing, pleasant, and calming reaction to the onscreen dystopian violence.
John Tavener

John Tavener

"I am constantly seeking new ways to express the ineffable through music." - John Tavener

Eastern Promise (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg
Composer: Howard Shore
Engineer: Simon Rhodes

“The music is like an actor, another character, and adds a certain something else.” - director David Cronenberg

Eastern Promises by the highly polarised director David Cronenberg explores themes of sex trafficking and the Russian mafia in this brilliant gritty London-based gangster film. Cronenberg, whose films are not always easy, but guaranteed compelling viewing, is well known for his tight-knit group of regular collaborators. Undoubtedly one of the key elements to his films is the work of composer Howard Shore. After A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is probably Cronenberg’s most accessible piece of work and is perhaps one of Shore's most accessible scores, but both picture and sound are still utterly engrossing and beautifully presented.

The main theme provides a dark and sombre palette featuring beautiful solo violin playing that skilfully underscores the complex emotions prevalent throughout the film.

The score never succumbs to any jarring trickery and there is a tastefully sad restraint to the entire musical journey. Another stand-out piece of work from Shore, who once again proves he can approach the most difficult subject matters with beautifully haunting, sympathetic and most importantly satisfying music.
Howard Shore in Studio One

Howard Shore in Studio One

“Composing is sort of an intuitive act. You have to put yourself in the right frame of mind.” - Howard Shore

There Will be Blood (2007)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Composer: Jonny Greenwood
Engineer: Simon Rhodes

“I always had a dream about trying to make a movie that had no dialogue in it, that was just music and pictures.” - director Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson directs this epic period drama about a turn of the century prospector driven by greed. The score was composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and was his first full feature film.

Anderson was a fan of Radiohead's music and seriously impressed with Jonny Greenwood’s score for the music film Bodysong. While writing the script for There Will Be Blood, Anderson heard Greenwood's orchestral piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which prompted him to ask Greenwood to collaborate with him on his upcoming picture.

After initially agreeing to score the film, Greenwood had doubts and thought about backing out, but Anderson's reassurance and enthusiasm for the film convinced him to continue. Anderson gave Greenwood a copy of the film and three weeks later he came back with two hours of music recorded at Abbey Road Studios.

Greenwood went on to regularly add film scoring to his already impressive resume and is now a very much in-demand composer. It’s worth noting that during this decade, it feels there was a noticeable shift for directors wanting to collaborate with composers who didn’t come from the “traditional compositional” background. Perhaps the massive success of There Will be Blood played a part in this desire for something a little bit different.
Jonny Greenwood in Control Room Two

Jonny Greenwood in Control Room Two

“What I really enjoy about writing for orchestras is realizing that—and it’s kind of self-evident—but the fact that they are 48 individuals. It’s not, you know, a preset on a keyboard. It’s all these people who have opinions and who are making decisions about how to play.” - Jonny Greenwood

Burn After Reading (2008)

Director: The Coen Brothers
Composer: Carter Burwell
Engineer: Jennifer Towle

“Repetition is a fundamental tool of movie scoring. It's a powerful tool. It has a powerful effect because you sit with the music and it's like assimilating an album. The second time you hear it and the third time you hear it, and all of a sudden the music works on you in a different, more powerfully and emotional way.” - director Joel Cohen

Burn After Reading is a wonderfully dark comedy spy caper written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coen Brothers. The film plays on political incompetence, obsession with appearance and general human vulgar stupidity. It was widely praised by critics and yet another box office success for the now legendary directorial duo.

Since their first film Blood Simple in 1984 the Coen Brothers have collaborated with composer Carter Burwell for all but two of their projects. Burwell’s expertly crafted and accessible score for Burn After Reading is rather intentionally over the top, preposterous and outrageous, much like the characters in the film.

Percussion features heavily in the score and that percussion is provided by the finest selection of London players known to humanity; Paul Clarvis, Frank Ricotti, Gary Kettle and Ralph Salmins. Another noticeable key element in the score is the short circular piano figures that feature throughout the picture. The overall feel for the score interestingly ignores most of the comedic elements of the film and instead focuses on the mysteriously darker and intriguing undertones of the movie, with moments of genuine heart-breaking musical beauty. Burwell’s Burn After Readingis a riveting experience.
Carter Burwell in Studio One

Carter Burwell in Studio One

“Music is the subliminal connecting adhesive in film, or at least in narrative feature films.” - Carter Burwell

The Book Of Eli (2009)

Director: The Hughes Brothers
Composer: Atticus Ross
Engineer: Geoff Foster

“Usually it starts out on every project with a playlist. Sometimes early, you know that something is going to work for a scene or you think it is so you place it in the script. I would say it’s more than 50/50. Because I could be wrong about those needle drops. I’ve been badly wrong about some. You think it’s going to match up. It doesn’t." - director Albert Hughes

The Book of Eli is a neo Western, post-apocalyptic action film directed by the visceral duo professionally known as the Hughes Brothers. This was to be the brothers second visit to Abbey Road after 2001’s From Hell scored by Trevor Jones. For this venture the brothers collaborated with music producer turned composer Atticus Ross in what would be his first, but definitely not his last, full length film scoring project.

Ross started his career as a programmer for Tim Simenon’s renowned UK EDM project Bomb the Bass. After moving to the US in 2000 Ross produced and programmed for Nine Inch Nails and scored a Hughes Bothers TV series Touching Evil and the Allen Hughes segment for the anthology film New York, I Love You. Ross has commented that as coming from a band production background he loves collaborating with other people. This includes his wife, singer Claudia Sarne and brother, Leopold Ross and most famously with Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. Ross has said this love of collaboration is what draws him to film, as you get to work closely with the director.

The project started in LA with Atticus, Claudia, and Leopold before locating to Abbey Road Studios to overdub an eighty-piece orchestra in Studio One. As you might expect the score is a beautiful balance of electronic and orchestral textures expertly adapted to the picture and adds an instant cinematic auditory impression to the films post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Listening to Ross’ trademark multi-layered productions blended with the unmistakable sonic fingerprint of an orchestra in Studio one is a treat to the ear. Ross went on to score The Social Network with Reznor winning them the Oscar and propelling their demand as film composers.
Atticus Ross (front right)

Atticus Ross (front right)

“A scene gets cut a few frames here and there, but there’s a cumulative effect to it, and then the music needs to be reworked. It’s demanding, but when you see the improved cuts, it’s always better.” - Atticus Ross
In more ways than one this was a very personal decade for me at the studios. The working hours were outrageously long, sometimes the pain was intense, and the lack of sleep provided an insight of how it must feel to be an insomniac. Importantly, this blog reminds me of the huge sense of joy I feel that some of these projects helped shape my professional journey. What a privilege it was to “learn on the job” during this period of inspiring, important, innovative, and overall captivating films. The opportunity to be in the room with such formidable creative forces and garner a small glimpse of their productive process is something that leaves an impression on one’s character. These directors and composers join a long list of the remarkable artists that have entered the building since the doors opened in 1931.

I have truly enjoyed digging for inspiring quotes by both the directors and composers regarding the delicate art of scoring, to perhaps try and offer a little insight to a craft that is notoriously demanding, but fruitfully rewarding.

From Jerry Goldsmith to Atticus Ross, Abbey Road continues to absorb these diverse creative energies into the very foundations of the building and resonates within the fabric of the rooms. The early 2000s massively reinforced the studio's reputation as a movie scoring powerhouse, quite unlike any other on the planet.

- Mirek Stiles

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