Craig Armstrong - Ghent Interview
This interview is from the 'Music from the Movies' website, conducted by Michael Beek.
The 33rd Flanders Film Festival continues and tonight sees the orchestra and choir of the Flemish Opera House join composer Craig Armstrong for an evening of his ‘Film Works’. I caught up with Craig today to talk about this evening’s event, his work for Oliver Stone on World Trade Centre and his upcoming projects.
Craig, it’s nice to see you here at the festival; how are you enjoying Ghent so far?
Well I’ve been here, really, a day and a half so it’s not very long and I’ve really just been attending the rehearsals. I was actually saying that because my wife and mad kids are here and it’d be nice to come to something like this and not be working - I have that feeling quite a lot these days! In saying that, it’s really nice of the film festival to do a night on my music y’know? It’s special I think.
So tonight is the big night; have you done a concert of your music on this scale before?
Yes I’ve done quite a few… I’ve not been interviewed in one, funnily enough that’s the only thing I’m nervous about. Everything else is not a problem, I mean playing is not a problem at all but being interviewed and talking in front of people I’ve always found hard… If I dry up I’ll just walk off stage and people can listen to the music (laughs)
Is the performance side of your work something you enjoy doing then, a chance to get out of the studio?!
I think, especially with film music, I’m a little bit from that school of ‘you can really get it perfect in the studio’. But there can be really special things; I remember quite a few years ago I did a concert at the Church de Champs-Elysees in Paris and it was a fantastic night y’know? It was one of these nights that was really special in your career; the connection with the audience was really palpable and I just remember that concert as being incredibly special. But generally speaking I wish I was more of a performer, I’m not really… You cant help what you are, well you can to an extent, but not intrinsically I don’t think.
Of course you did that great album called ‘Film Works’, which is the title of the concert tonight. Will the show essentially be a live version of that, or will there be a few additions?
There are a few different things in it yeah; it starts off the same as ‘Film Works’ and then it kind of goes off on its own way really. The first half is the more bigger tracks and the second half is darker and more romantic, from what I heard yesterday (laughs).
Obviously not all your music is fully orchestral, have you had to make adjustments and re-arrange things?
Yeah we had to a lot of our re-arranging for some of the tracks that have electronic percussion; I mean it’s interesting because what was fascinating in a way was hearing what I’d done over the years, you know, everybody has a tendency I think just to go on to the next job don’t they, whether you’re a journalist or a musician. I mean an interview you did five years ago, you’d be surprised by how you did it I think and it’s a bit like me, I mean I’m listening to scores tonight that I did like a decade ago so it is a weird feeling.
That links to my next question actually; Do you like the opportunity for retrospect that a concert gives?
I never do it, I mean because in a way really the ‘Film Works’ album used the original tracks from the films, whereas there’s something different about it being played live - I don’t know what it is, I think it reminds you more of being at the recording of them and it brings back the memories. I think if you hear a little mistake or something, it really reminds you of it; for instance we were doing ‘Nature Boy’ yesterday and the horn player made the exact same mistake as he did in the recording and that was really weird I thought, an interesting piece of synergy…
No reflection on the writing of course…
(laughs) I think that note’s too high…
Is there a piece you’re quite proud of and looking forward to doing tonight?
There were a couple of pieces I thought stood out yesterday; I mean with film music it’s hard because some film music should just be listened to with the film I think… I tried hard to pick things that stand on their own; I thought the World Trade Centre ‘Cello Theme’ was really beautiful and then, conversely, going right back to a film I did called Best Laid Plans, and I’d not heard this piece for years and years, that sounds really good live… Also it’s interesting to see if you’ve changed a bit, which of course you should have I suppose… unfortunately (laughs).
Do you think you’ve grown as a composer then?
I think you change, I’ve definitely changed… I mean I was trying to work out whether I was better or worse last night y’know? (laughs) And I wasn’t sure!
You mentioned World Trade Centre, which is of course you’re most recent score; was that a tough gig, given the subject?
It was a weird gig because 1) I wanted to work with Oliver Stone, 2) I was in New York on 9/11 working on The Quiet American, which funnily enough was a film about/against American imperialism in Indo-China and 3) it was just hard to work on a film like that every day y’know? I mean you can think of easier ways to spend your weeks. Although being in New York on 9/11 was harrowing, as you can imagine, I just thought the way to deal with it was to focus on the whole thing more generally, y’know just focus on, and it sounds BS, but Man’s inhumanity to Man.
I think that’s reflected in the music certainly… I mean it never veers into complete melodrama does it?
Well this is whole thing that was hard about that film, what could you dramatise? If ever I caught myself dramatising anything I just stopped and thought ‘right, you don’t need to dramatise anything…’, so it’s more about how to find a parallel and a poetic approach to it…
In terms of orchestration and instrumentation, it’s quite sparse in places… was that an early intention?
It was just a kind of response to the picture a lot of it, I’m just trying to think… The bit I really like in the film is when John has a flashback to his wife, because he’s reappraising his whole life and that, and I think the music works really well there and it’s very unusual music to use at that point. That’s often the nice thing that happens, y’know to go completely against the scene and make it a bigger scene - I like that. Y’know it says something about Oliver Stone, what he did with this, because you know I do classical music as well… well I went to New York last November to meet Oliver, he asked me to send my film music and my classical music, and it was actually my classical music that made him go with me, which was weird. And then the two pieces of music he chose were two almost like stand-alone pieces, I mean I wrote them when I read the script - so in a way he very much worked with the music the way he did with Barber’s ‘Adagio’ (for Strings) in Platoon, so it’s quite interesting really. I think he does that quite a lot…
He does use music interestingly yes…
He does, because he’s a not big fan of scoring ‘the guy walks out the door.. Goes to the car’ y’know, so he does use music very freely. I’ve only seen the film at a premiere in Venice; I’d like to go and see it with real people and then you can really judge if it’s working or not. I haven’t really had time to do that… or more accurately I cant get anybody to go with me! (laughs) They’re all too scared to go.
Oliver Stone has worked with many different composers, most recently Vangelis… Is he a collaborator you’d like to work with again?
I got on well with Oliver… He had a clear idea of what he wanted, but at the same time was quite flexible about it. I’ve been quite lucky with the guys I’ve worked with; you hear a lot of horror stories about people, but I think if I did a film and the director was a pain, I’d just leave y’know? I think if music works in a film you don’t tend to get much trouble; I mean also I think it really helps that I do other stuff. I think if this is what I did all year, every year, it’s quite a bizarre situation to be in because you can write half an hour of music and the guy can go ‘I don’t like any of that…’
Whereas the instrumental stuff is more for yourself really…
Yeah, and commissions, I mean I did a big commission only two-weeks ago in Glasgow for symphony orchestra and choir. Also I’m doing my first classical album next year, it’s for EMI Classics. In saying that I like doing both, I wouldn’t just do classical music either; I think I’d get a bit lonely. You know when you do a solo project, you are literally solo and so it can be nice to be in with a bunch of people, working on a big project.
Talking of solo projects, you’ve got a ‘Piano Works’ DVD coming out soon… what can you tell us about that?
It was just filmed at the same time as doing the album and David Bernard filmed it, who’s a really talented director. I think we just needed to know that people would even buy ‘Piano Works’ and now it’s come to the point that enough people have bought it to make it viable to put out a DVD of it. I suppose like a lot of my stuff it’s a bit word-of-mouth really… I quite like working at that level y’know? It’s quite real, rather than saying ‘Film Works is a great album…’, let people listen to it for themselves and if they like it they’ll tell their friends and you sell enough copies to make another album. It’s more like the way it was forty-years ago, I mean I don’t like the way people spend a million pounds on advertising and stuff like that, it’s crap.
So what’s next for you then, apart from the classical album?
Well I’m meeting Shakur Kapoor a week on Monday about a new project… There’s a string-quartet commission I might do, but I don’t know if I’ve got time. For my classical album, which is recording next September, I’ve got to finish a violin-concerto - it’s for a really great violinist called Cleo Gould who leads the (London) Sinfonietta. So at the moment that’s sort of it, I mean I’m toying with taking some time off y’know?
You’re back over in Hollywood soon too aren’t you?
I’m going over on Sunday… just a little bit of promotion, but it’s a screening for the Writers Guild Association. It’s funny though, I always find that when you do absolutely no promotion at all for a film, I always win something… and if I do any promotion I never win, so I’m slightly loathed to go over and do it (laughs). But my arm’s been twisted by Oliver so I’ll go.
Well I look forward to hearing the new stuff, it sounds good…
Yeah… I think it’s time isn’t it that you really need to write good things. That was what was good about Oliver’s film actually, that’s why I think that’s a good score… really from November until June I had on it, which is a long time and I think you have time then to chuck things out, whereas with the usual film timetable you sometimes have to keep your first ideas and I don’t think that works out so well. It’s much better to let the music settle…
A slightly more organic process…
Yeah I think so, I think you can hear more traces that the (World Trade Centre) score has a bit more depth to it y’know, because of that.
Yeah, I mean it is a great album on its own…
Thanks.. Just for the time spent on it, I think you can hear it. So I think what I’d like to do now is if I do a film, make sure I’ve got four or five months, and if I do a violin-concerto make sure I’ve got the same time to do it.. Give yourself time to be an artist, y’know
recent projects highlights of craig armstrong
- Victor Frankenstein
- It's Nearly Tomorrow