Craig Armstrong - A New York symphony
Five years ago, on September 11, Craig Armstrong was in New York. The Scottish composer had flown there two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center to work on The Quiet American, a film Michael Caine said he would only do if Armstrong wrote the score. Along with director Phillip Noyce, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack and the million-strong population of Manhattan, Armstrong watched the tragedy unfold as two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, killing 3,000 people and changing the course of history.
"It was a strange, frightening experience," says Armstrong. In his pristine, state-of-the-art studio, a converted mews house close to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park, 9/11 feels curiously distant but, as he says, "The events since then have been just as frightening. We're in a dark place just now."
Little did he know on that day in New York that, four years later, he would get a call from Oliver Stone, asking him to write the score for a film he was directing about the terrorist attacks. World Trade Center, starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña and Maggie Gyllenhaal, tells the true story of two transit authority policemen who were trapped in the rubble after risking their lives to save others. Armstrong's majestic score has all the hallmarks of his classical work, with its meditative, pared-down music for piano, cello and strings, and a minimal melody that echoes throughout. It's no wonder that Baz Luhrmann - who Armstrong worked with on the scores for Romeo + Juliet and, most memorably, Moulin Rouge - says he only has to hear two notes of a piece wherever he is in the world and know immediately that it's the sound of Craig Armstrong.
"It was confusing that day in New York because everything got cut off and you couldn't phone anybody," says Armstrong. "My family here were getting more information than I was. I remember on the first day the smoke went away from the city, and on the second day it came in. I saw a lot of injured people. Working in film I go to New York a lot so I've ended up having friends there and, of course, I worried about where they were."
Armstrong exudes both the cool confidence of an artist whose track record speaks for itself and the modesty of someone who has shied away from the limelight throughout his 20-year career. In spite of his reputation for being a rather formidable character to work with, he is friendly, if a little intense, frequently turning the tables to ask me questions: which is my favourite of his film scores; what kind of music do I like; do all journalists want to write a book? He is genuinely nervous about getting his photo taken and says that he has always kept a low profile in Scotland.
The contents of his studio tell a different story. There are awards everywhere: Baftas, two Ivor Novellos, one from the American Film Institute and a Golden Globe. He points out the most recent addition, a Grammy for his 2004 score for Ray, which lives upstairs in the sitting room with the plush sofas, chess set, guitar and Wurlitzer electric piano.
Downstairs is every bedroom musician's dream studio. There is a 48-track mixing desk, a widescreen television, a baby grand piano and an impressive array of vintage analogue synthesisers and keyboards. It's like a physical expression of Armstrong's work, which flits between classical and contemporary, acoustic and electronic, commercial and experimental. And it is this approach that has led to him working on films ranging from Love Actually to The Magdalene Sisters, and with pop artists such as Madonna, Massive Attack, U2 and Björk as well as the London Sinfonietta, RSNO and Scottish Ensemble.
Dressed in leather jacket and jeans, Armstrong directs me to what he calls "the Stradivarius of synths" and one of the first ever made: a VCS3. "It was the instrument they wrote Doctor Who on. Electronic music buffs would get really excited about that," he says with a rare laugh, rather excited himself. Meanwhile, in the next room, Armstrong's assistant of 10 years is taking care of the barrage of phone calls.
It is ironic that around 9/11, Armstrong was working on The Quiet American, essentially a protest film adapted from the Graham Greene's 1955 novel about the growing US involvement in Indochina that led to the Vietnam War. "Because of the nature of the film it just disappeared," he recalls. "I remember going to a screening in New Jersey about four days after the attacks and everyone walked out."
Armstrong only subconsciously drew on these experiences when working on the score earlier this year, though, preferring to write from a wider, emotional perspective. "I focused on the human spirit. I thought particularly about the Palestinian boy whose father tried to protect him. For me, it wasn't specifically an American thing, it was about innocent people being killed meaninglessly, whether you're talking about Israelis, Palestinians, Londoners or New Yorkers." Thinking in this way helped prevent Armstrong from getting bogged down in the more political aspects. He is quick to add that both he and Oliver Stone are vehemently against the war in Iraq, and that he marched through the streets of Glasgow with his children during the wave of anti-war marches in 2003.
In any case, Armstrong doesn't see World Trade Center as a political film. Last week he was at the Venice Film Festival with Stone, where the director defended the film, saying the topic was so huge he could make a series of films about 9/11, whereas this is one human story among thousands. "I'd love to score his political post- 9/11 film as well," says Armstrong. "I've never been afraid to do films with hard subjects, but I wouldn't call this a controversial film. Oliver is a very honest filmmaker and I don't think I would have done it if it hadn't been his project. I think it's good that this film has been made now. I know people have asked whether it's too soon, but in some ways you could argue that it's too late."
He does, however, acknowledge that it is the most sensitive subject he has ever written a score for. The main problem was producing an emotive score without veering towards schmaltz, something the film has been charged with. If World Trade Center is much more sentimental than its precursor, Paul Greengrass's gritty United 93, it is certainly not as a result of Armstrong's restrained score. "It was more difficult than the others I've done because you couldn't dramatise any of it," he explains. "I had to avoid over-sentimentalising so I ended up keeping the temperature of the music very cool. I think I'm pretty well known for not being overly sentimental in my work."
Armstrong worked closely with Stone, travelling back and forth to LA eight times in as many months, writing most of the score in his Glasgow studio. Because the crew were still filming when Stone approached Armstrong last November, the director would send the composer the day's rushes, hundreds of shots of Nicolas Cage walking from one room to another, building up to 10-minute chunks of continuous film."With Oliver you do your own thing, but if it isn't working for him you have to go and do something else," he says.
How different from his working relationship with Lurhmann, who is coming to Glasgow this week to discuss a new project with Armstrong. The flamboyant director always travels to Glasgow when the duo are working on a film together, peering over Armstrong's shoulder while he works so that the composer eventually has to order him to go and do circuits of Kelvingrove Park.
In comparison, it must have been a bleak eight months writing the World Trade Center score, pondering the state of the world from his mixing desk in Glasgow. What helped, he says, was a separate commission that came around at the same time. Last summer he was asked to write an orchestral piece for the first major exhibition of the newly refurbished Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Working with Scottish artists Dalziel and Scullion for the third time, and with playwright Peter Arnott, Armstrong has created a short work for orchestra and choir that will be performed by the RSNO in the museum's main hall, using its famed organ in the final, celebratory movement. Then, in typical Armstrong fashion, the classical score will be remixed by a German electronic laptop artist to accompany Dalziel and Scullion's video installation of 250 revolving portraits of Glasgow people. Armstrong wrote much of the Kelvingrove piece in LA when he wasn't working on the World Trade Center score. "I was trying to work out the other day whether the two influenced each other," he says.
Since then, Armstrong has remixed a track by the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, and in October he is going to Tokyo where Sakamoto will remix one of his works. He is also going to the Flanders festival, where an entire day is being devoted to his film scores at the Flemish Opera House - Armstrong will also play music from World Trade Center for the first time, with a full orchestra. And next spring he is bringing out his first album of classical music, which will feature works from the past six years plus a new piece for violin and orchestra.
It's a neat final part in the trio of albums that includes 2004's Piano Works and last year's Film Works. Then there's the new Luhrmann project on the horizon and a possible collaboration with Arnott for the National Theatre of Scotland, of which he is a patron. It's a long way from Shettleston, where he grew up. From there he went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, coming back to Glasgow to work as the in-house composer for the Tron Theatre, where he met a certain Peter Mullan.
"A lot of people in Glasgow think I don't work here, though," he says. "People ask me why I still live here, but this is where my kids go to school and I am fond of Glasgow. It's quite hard to be a Scottish artist and live in Scotland. The arts scene could be better. Glasgow is famous for its music but there are so many struggling musicians. Studios could be set up for them, and in America there's a composers' orchestra and I think that would be very positive here."
Armstrong, who in 2004 stood down from Jack McConnell's Cultural Commission on the grounds that he was the only working artist involved, is planning to set up a studio in Paris and live between the two cities. He finds it tough being away from home and his partner and four children. He also finds Scotland less willing than the States and Europe to experiment artistically and cites American composers such as John Adams and Steve Reich as contemporaries who inspire him.
"There's a sense here that you've got to be part of the Viennese tradition but that really is dead and gone. There's a kind of snobbery that you can only write in one way and sometimes I think Scotland is a wee bit behind the times with its attitude.
"Mind you," he concedes, "it's common now for people to listen to Aphex Twin one night and a Mozart string quartet the next. In my early work with Massive Attack, putting a symphony orchestra with the black culture of Bristol was new, but now I'd say what I'm doing is pretty mainstream."
World Trade Center is released on September 29. The film score is out on September 25 on Sony Classical. Armstrong's new Kelvingrove work will be performed by the RSNO on October 6
Article form Scotland on Sunday by Chitra Ramaswamy
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