1) BELINDA, IN 1979 WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED RECORDING MOVIE SCORES, MANY COMPOSERS YOU WORKED WITH, (e.g., JOHN BARRY, HENRY MANCINI, ELMER BERNSTEIN, JOHN WILLIAMS, JERRY GOLDSMITTH, GEORGE DELERUE, GABRIEL YARED, ENNIO MORRICONE) OFTEN WORKED WITHOUT A CLICK TRACK. NOWADAYS THE CLICK TRACK IS COMMONPLACE. FROM YOUR VAST EXPERIENCE, WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS TO CLICK USAGE AND DO YOU HAVE ANY PERSONAL PREFERENCE?
The benefit of a click track for musicians is generally to keep rhythmic passages as tight as possible. It helps hugely when playing fast passages to have a consistent click as conducting can vary but the click track is foolproof. It can also save time. Regarding a personal preference for click or no click, it really depends on the situation, i.e., the ability of the conductor and the ability of the musicians to follow the conductor, the content of the music (fast and rhythmic or slow and emotional) and time constraints.
The scores I played on in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s were generally more emotive, requiring more personality in the playing and were usually conducted by the composers with no click track. The composers were very hands-on in terms of what they required in a performance and the absence of click allowed us time to breathe musically and play more as an ensemble by listening and blending with each other. The music played what was happening on the screen more, and could be demanding technically and musically. Granted, it was a different style of writing then, but you only need to listen to soundtracks from that time to hear how different the music sounds when given time to breathe.
Playing to a click track in the more emotive cues can sometimes feel like being in a car taking a corner too fast (musically speaking) and not able to slow down. However, the experienced session musicians of today can maneuver musically within the click. Often established symphony orchestras and conductors unfamiliar with a click track have a very hard time with it. They are used to being more expressive and less restricted by a consistent beat.
I remember recording the soundtrack to a musical in London with a very well known symphony conductor who just couldn’t stay with the click. I also remember a famous violin soloist being brought in to the studio to play the opening 30 or so bars of a concerto to a click track. He couldn’t do it, got really angry, and
refused to play to it. It’s not as easy as you think when you’re trying to play expressively, hence the specific and unique abilities of experienced session musicians.
2) YOU HAVE WORKED FOR SOME OF THE BIGGEST NAMES IN THE BUSINESS. DO YOU EVER FEEL INTIMIDATED BEFORE A SESSION? WHAT’S THE SECRET OF CONSISTENTLY DELIVERING A GREAT PERFORMANCE?
Intimidated, no. Maybe it’s because I played in the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras with many of the biggest names in conductors and soloists that I was just inspired by them and wanted to play as well as I could.
Every time I start a new job in the studios as concertmaster, I hope I’ll not let the composer or myself down. That never goes away. I am someone who likes to be very organized, meaning I don’t like to waste the composer’s time on sessions and will do as much prep as possible beforehand. That often means asking the copyists for the cues before the sessions in order to figure out the sometimes-complicated divisi and to get a good sense of the style the composer is after.
Firstly, every note you play should be a gem. Period. Obviously it helps to have a good score, but that rule should apply across the board. It is our job to be able to turn the notes into a colorful story. For example, I was asked to play a solo in the Celtic style not long ago, but all I had to go with on the page were long, slow whole notes tied for 8 bars. Quite an interesting challenge but I figured something out that made the composer very happy.
As a musician you need to constantly think outside the box and get inside the skin of the composer to figure out what emotion and color they want to achieve. We are there to paint the picture. Our technique and intonation are a given. It’s what we do beyond the written notes that makes us successful session musicians. I cannot state that enough.
Not all scores are hard to play, and in the simpler ones we need to keep the energy and concentration. However, some of the music can be challenging in its technical demands, so one needs to be prepared for that as it can come in the form of last-minute solos or very exposed, technically awkward passages. In terms of physical performance, it takes a lot of physical stamina to hold a tremolando for a long time or to sustain a single note for a long time, particularly when the cue is rehearsed and recorded multiple times. We have to practice every day and be ready for anything.
There is so much more to do beyond just playing the notes. I love interacting with the composer and their team in the booth, sometimes making decisions on the fly, suggesting different ways of achieving a color, feeling or a specific sound they are after and constantly being aware that time is money.
You mention “great performance” in your question, but I think it’s more a “specific” performance that is required when recording to picture. I often have discussions with my husband about this as I don’t think many composers realize there is another 40% that needs to be added to the notes and dynamics called “performance” and they won’t alwaysget it if they don’t know how to ask for it. The conductor/composer must find that “specific performance” as much as a musician must deliver it.
If we have a click track, it’s not so important for conductors to beat every beat, it’s more beneficial to have the conductor guide us around those musical corners, show us the expressive moments, cue us, and generally paint the landscape with us. We are the vehicle but they are the journey, and a long, dull journey can make one lose concentration and interest.
I also see composers blown away with what they are hearing on the read-through, as it can be so thrilling to hear an orchestra bring their notes to life. There are a few composers, however, who really understand the art of performance and won’t stop until they get it. They will pick apart intonation within a chord, change the dynamic balance of a chord, insist on specific phrasing and demand quality of sound. As a musician, this is a welcome addition; otherwise part of you is just complacently churning out the basics and getting away with it.
And that brings me to one other thing. The ultimate orchestral string sound is a healthy mixture of young players and older, more experienced players. You can actually hear experience and it is vital in a string section. One often finds sections of young players, usually trained to be soloists, that can sound very flashy, but when you want a warm, beautiful and cohesive sound, you also need the players with years of ensemble experience.
3) HOW CAN THE CONCERTMASTER BE MOST BENEFICIAL TO THE COMPOSER, AND WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITIES IN A SESSION MUSICIAN?
The job of the concertmaster is to work with the composer, conductor and orchestra in attaining the ultimate performance. The concertmaster should be organized and prepared for the sessions and come up with quick solutions to any problems that arise. They should not waste the composer/conductor’s time with unnecessary questions and should be able to quietly make decisions in the composer’s best interest. They also should be able to play solos in any style required, and very importantly, “empower” the musicians rather than be “the power.”
They need to have a big enough sound so the rest of the section has something to play up to and it is hugely beneficial for a concertmaster to able to choose their principal 2nd violin. This is an important partnership in the success of the overall balance of sound between the 1st and 2nd violin sections.
To be a really good session musician, orchestral experience is very important, i.e. being able to blend with one’s colleagues in dynamics, sound quality, phrasing and intonation. They have to be able to read at speed, change styles and color in a second, produce a musical performance within the confines of the click track, follow a conductor’s beat and have a good attitude. Good technique and intonation are a given, but quality of sound is something very important to me.
In recent years there has been a strong emphasis on technique and speed of playing, which are important, but I am most interested in beauty of sound and unique qualities from each musician. You can hear it when you do and don’t have that in a string section. My motto is “Beyond the notes” and I love playing with colleagues who feel the same way.
4) AFTER SO MANY YEARS IN THE BUSINESS CAN YOU PINPOINT SOME STYLISTIC CHANGES IN FILM SCORES? WHAT WERE SOME OF THE HARDEST SCORES TO RECORD AND WHY?
Stylistically the demands are different these days. There is more long-note sustain (often with little to no vibrato) and energy-inducing ostinati. The scores often sit far under the effects and dialogue and there is less music that draws attention to itself in the way the older scores did, which creates different demands. We have to be more inventive with the way we play our instruments to create the right effect. The emotive moments are less obvious, but very effective in a different way.
There is much more use of multiple divisi in the string parts these days, sometimes going from 2 staves to 3 staves to 4 staves to 6 staves within a few bars in the violin parts, with multiple notes on each stave. It takes time to figure out who plays what to the best effect, and I find cue preparation before the sessions saves a huge amount of time. Sometimes I will have worked on the divisi parts for hours at home before the first sessions begin.
There are times when I will suggest different ways of obtaining specific sounds a composer is after. One example was when a composer wanted col legno in the strings but found the sound too abrasive. I suggested using pencils with erasers on the ends instead of bows, and using the eraser end of the pencil to hit the strings, which gave the sound more of a “thock” and was perfect for what was wanted.
Marco Beltrami in The Homesman had us playing in a string quintet outdoors on the side of the mountain near his studio (not for the faint of heart!). He knew exactly what he wanted to hear and, with the occasional low-flying bird squall to accompany us, it was very effective.
Scores these days are often an exciting challenge. It doesn’t matter whether you are recording for film scoring students or A-list composers, you are there to facilitate their needs, and a full personal toolbox is crucial. I love the diversity of it all. There’s rarely a dull moment.
5) YOU ARE A CONSUMMATE PROFESSIONAL AND A FOOD ENTHUSIAST! HOW DO YOU BALANCE ALL THAT WITH YOUR BUSY WORK ETHIC?
I am a passionate cook and recipe book collector. I started a food blog 4 years ago, called Tastetickler which is my hobby and passion, something I find relaxing after a full day in the studio.
For me the world of food unites everyone and is diverse with a limitless ceiling in creativity. It’s a wonderful way to experiment with flavor and texture, fusing them with more traditional dishes and coming up with some really interesting results. Not that dissimilar to playing in the studios, come to think of it.
When I was a child in New Zealand, my mother supervised my violin practice in the kitchen in the evenings while she cooked. It’s not that she taught me how to cook, but her food was always innovative and flavorful. Those aromas are still etched in my memory.
With my food blog, I have a way of immersing myself in the food world in my spare time, sharing recipes and being amongst a different crowd of people. I just apply the same standards to cooking as I do to playing. “Beyond the Recipe” is another version for me of “Beyond the Notes.”