DK: How about the Scottish heritage and culture? I’ve heard about Scottish people campaigning to preserve the indigenous Scottish language.
PD: There is a Scottish Linguistic renaissance movement which I am a great supporter of. I was commissioned by the 21st Century Choir in Lucerne recently to compose a choral piece, which was a triple piece for a choir and a small orchestra. One of the songs was in Scots, one was in Gaelic, and the other was in English. These are the three languages of Scotland. People outside Scotland do not realise that most Scots are bilingual – they speak English and Scots. Gaelic is the third language and it has approximately 40 thousand speakers. Gaelic was almost destroyed as it was banned by the English many years ago. Despite the domination of the English language the Scots and Gaelic languages have survived. It’s like Silesia as I understand – people will speak Silesian but will also speak Polish. It’s a similar renaissance to stop the language disappearing. Growing up in Scotland particularly in schools we were told not to speak Scots and only to speak English. It was a very schizophrenic experience because in the house, your parents spoke in Scots. From a very early age, you learned to be bilingual – to be English mainly in the school and Scots in the house. Now this has stopped thank goodness and pupils speak Scots. That’s real progress. The European Union has recognised Scots as an official language, but the Scottish government hasn’t done this yet, which is very interesting. The campaign goes on.
MO: How did it influence your work on Brave?
PD: Well, it was obvious I hope that the music in Brave reflects my lifetime’s experience as a Scot. It’s in my DNA. I’m very fortunate because of, as you mentioned, growing up in a musical household. We had many parties where I heard opera and songs from Hollywood movies and musicals as well as pop songs. I’ve also come to know Auld Scott songs by Robert Burns, our national poet, through my grandmother and my father. My grandmother was born in 1888, and I realised one day that when she sang a Burns song, that must have been the way Burns must have heard and sang these songs in the 18th Century. She learned these songs through the oral tradition in Scotland. This background completely informed not only the score for Brave but throughout the rest of my musical life.
The Scottish oral speaking and singing tradition is very similar to the tradition amongst the Native Americans and Canadians. I am sure it must be similar in Poland. My kids who have been brought up in England would sometimes make fun of my family in Scotland because they would repeat the same stories over and over again. “Why do they do this?” I said it’s not some annoying habit but a tribal oral tradition which preserves the culture.. Even many people in Scotland are unconscious that this is part of an ancient oral tradition. Part of the reason is because we were banned from speaking and singing our language openly. English became the dominant language because the first translation of the bible in Scotland was in English when most Scots could not read or write.
MO: In your filmography, there are a great deal of adaptations of famous books – a lot of Shakespeare, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, also modern classics like Harry Potter or Bridget Jones’ Diary. When you are approaching a movie based on a famous book, are you focusing only on what’s on the screen, maybe on the screenplay or does the original book also play a role?
PD: Well, the screenplay, direction and performances are your primary sources of inspiration. I of course read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The screenplay is always an adaptation so it was sensible to read the book. As for the Shakespeare film adaptations I knew many of the plays beforehand having studied them at school.
DK: During your career, you’ve made a couple of movies which were a part of a franchise. For example, the Harry Potter movie, Thor or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Did you pay a lot of attention to the previous scores from these franchises – for example the music by John Williams – or did you try to do everything on your own?
PD: I found it slightly ill advised to worry about previous films in many ways, because it is a different concept. In Harry Potter, the story became very much about young love and it was darker because of the death of a main character. New characters were given more prominence – like Voldemort and Moody. I was very fortunate to follow John Williams’ footsteps, but it was a completely new world. I have my own style and there was a massive scope in this story to do justice to the fans and the film as well as to find my own voice. I’ve had the same situation with my very first film [Henry V – ed.] because William Walton composed the score for the Lawrence Oliver adaptation. I saw this version of Henry V after the Kenneth Branagh version was released and of course my score and the film adaptation was completely different. The Olivier version was filmed during the war and is full of pageantry and very propagandistic. The Kenneth Branagh version was very much guts and gore and the reality and horrors of war. It was more realistic and contemporary.
MO: Let’s move from the world of magic to the world of gangsters. You composed the music for Donnie Brasco and Carlito’s Way. And I would like to ask about Carlito’s Way – I was quite blown away by how bombastic the music was. Was there any problem with the studio saying that maybe it’s too much?
PD: I disagree that the score was bombastic as most of it is tense and low key. The only grand orchestral playing is in the famous underground ending in Grand Central. The music for the Godfather for example is very operatic for a still very contemporarily looking film. Brian de Palma is very much his own man. It’s totally his vision. Jurassic Park had just come out and they were riding on the success of this picture, so the studio left Brian de Palma alone. <laughs> He made this picture exactly as he envisioned it. It’s a very operatic film in many ways hence the Grand Central Cue.
Brian is an extremely erudite man – very knowledgeable about all aspects of the arts – the visual arts and the world of music. He’s of course an avid reader. I knew that I was dealing with this phenomenal level of knowledge, so there would be a higher level of expectation. After we had a detailed discussion over the phone he said “I will see you at the sessions”. And I said “surely I must present you with the material or something before then?” “No, I trust you”, he said. I asked if I could present some material before then which he agreed. So I flew to New York to play the opening string elegy for him in New York. Grand Central obviously has the movement of an underground train – tuckah-tuckah tuckah-tuckah <imitates a train sound> – the stopping and starting of the train created many moments of build up and easing off of the tension, as the rhythm keeps on going. The images of Grand Central, the trains and the cutting were amazing.
What was interesting was when I sat down in the editing room in New York to watch the Grand Central scene. It was the first time that not only I had seen it but also the first time Brian de Palma had seen it. I was clearly blown away by it. Immediately afterwards, he turned to the editor and said that at a particular section the rhythm of the cut should be “bang, bang – bang bang – bang then cut”. After that he turned and said the scene was a great moment for a composer. That was the only note he gave the editor for this scene.
DK: Yesterday, apart from your marvellous movie music, we also heard a couple of your concert pieces. We heard the Piano Fantasia and the beautiful violin piece written for Emma Thompson. How do you find yourself writing pieces other than movie music? Do you actually like writing more concert pieces, or are these just complementary areas of your work life?
PD: When writing away from film, you have to conjure up your own imagery. The piece for Emma Thompson was a piece that I was asked for by her husband as a surprise for her 50th Birthday. Perhaps a song, he said. And thought about it and said to myself “well, it shouldn’t be a song, it should be something more”. So I came in one day to my studio and I thought I’ll write a violin piece. And within ten days, the piece was mapped out, It came pouring out. It is about imagining her life and my friendship with her. It’s about her lovely character and also about the weather and about midges, which are small insects that eat you alive in July and August. <laughs> And there is the mist in Scotland, plus the Scottish storms and weather. The beauty of the weather in Scotland is that there is a type of Scottish summer’s day where it rains all day which stops around 3.30 and by 4pm the sun comes out and there is a glorious sunset turning the white fluffy clouds red. It’s like Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, when the sun comes out. It’s wise not to have the barbecue till after four! <laughs>
MO: A good friend of mine was living in Edinburgh and she was saying that you need to like the weather in Scotland, because it’s quite different.
PD: Yes. The east has less rain, whereas the west has very wet weather. The rain hits the mountains in the west and comes down, whereas the North Sea has winds and the topography is very different. There’s no mountain range that gathers the rain but it’s colder because of Siberian winds coming from the north east.
MO: Talking about the beauty, we were really impressed by the Piano Fantasia.
PD: I’m glad you like it.
DK: We hope to hear it on a record!
PD: I am recording it on the 24th June 2023. I am not sure if it will be a record company or released on Spotify by myself.