The marriage of music and authenticity

Composer Ilan Eshkeri on scoring Jake Chapman's TV series and Autobahn.

by Amber Wilkinson

Ilan Eshkeri: 'For me, the love story was important and it felt like we needed a melodic theme that helps you feel that these characters are falling in love'
Ilan Eshkeri: 'For me, the love story was important and it felt like we needed a melodic theme that helps you feel that these characters are falling in love'
When I last spoke to composer Ilan Eshkeri at Sundance, he was in Utah to talk about his work on Shaun The Sheep (out in US cinemas next month). Fast forward six months and we meet again at Edinburgh International Film Festival to talk about his work on the altogether more grown up and niche TV series The Marriage Of Reason & Squalor and upcoming thriller Autobahn. The Marriage Of Reason & Squalor marks the first full-length feature of artist Jake Chapman (whose brother and usual artistic collaborator Dinos also worked on the score). The series - shown in its film cut at EIFF - tells the surreal story of hopeless romantic Lydia Love (Sophie Kennedy Clarke), who gets more than she bargained for when she meets a mysterious writer Helmut Mandragorass (Rhys Ifans).

AW: How is scoring a TV show different from scoring for film?

IE: Essentially, it's the same process. The big difference is when you think about the audience's experience - what makes it filmic. For example, if you imagine there's a scene and it's night time and people go to bed, and it cuts to the next morning and it's daylight. On the television that's not a very dramatic difference but in the cinema that's a really huge difference because everything is dark and then it cuts to the next day and suddenly the cinema floods with light. And that, as an audience member, is a very physical experience. Your pupils dilate, you become aware of the audience around you, so you have to think about those things, those kinds of cinematic issues. If you played through that musically in the cinema, that would feel weird, because it's such a big change. But on TV it's a much smaller change. So, you do think about different things.

AW: Do you have more freedom then?

Rhys Ifans and Sophie Kennedy Clarke in The Marriage Of Reason & Squalor.
Rhys Ifans and Sophie Kennedy Clarke in The Marriage Of Reason & Squalor.
IE: No, I don't think so. It's just a slightly different medium, like, I did an oil painting and I did a water colour. It's similar technique but you just have to be aware of how it is going to be consumed as entertainment.

AW: With a film, I always think the music is a bit like a symphony, in that you go from the beginning of the end to the film. But with a TV show, presumably, it's in more bitesize movements. Or do you still write it as a through-work?

IE: I wrote this in four bits and then we made the film afterwards. You're right, each episode has its own internal arc, so the narrative structure and therefore, musical structure, is different.

AW: After Shaun The Sheep, you seem to be back in the realm of pastiche again with this film playing around with Mills & Boon ideas. Was it fun to play around with that?

IE: It was brilliant fun. I think Jake is an artist who's interested in the relationship between the artwork - whether it's a film or one of his installations - and the audience. How does the audience consume that artwork? So he's always subverting audience expectations, so we did that with the music a lot as well. For me, the most important thing was to sell the love story. I'm not sure Jake would necessarily agree. People see the film in different ways, which is what's great about it. But, for me, the love story was important and it felt like we needed a melodic theme that helps you feel that these characters are falling in love. That was the challenge. Because the film was so quirky, it was working out who plays this music - what's the quirky group of instruments? That was really fun. I used an Omnicord - this 80s instrument - and that was fairly prominent, and a Moog for the base. And there was a Jennings, organ-y type keyboard. A mellotron flute played the melody a lot. I got all the instruments and we did it all for real.

I wanted it to have this tacky throwback quality, which I think the film does as well. That was my Mills & Boon inspiration in a way, and how could I give it the feeling of an old-fashioned TV show. But it also needed that emotion, that soul, so there's solo cello in there, performed by Caroline Dale, who I love. You get this emotional soaring cello line and that sounds the romance and passion.

AW:Are you interested in the idea of subverting things through music?

'I love collaborating with musicians who do stuff that I wouldn't have thought of. I felt that with Dinos'
'I love collaborating with musicians who do stuff that I wouldn't have thought of. I felt that with Dinos'
IE: I'm not especially interested in trying to find projects where I can subvert genres. Shaun The Sheep, at its core, is big family entertainment. But this is very much a piece of art and I don't know whether people we see it or not - that's not why I did it. I did it because it was interesting to work with one of Britain's great artists and do something challenging, interesting and different. And that's what Jake is interested in and so I got drawn into that world. It does interest me but it all came from Jake. I collaborated with Dinos, Jake's brother, and he did a lot of the more textural stuff. It was lovely to do that. I love collaborating with musicians who do stuff that I wouldn't have thought of. I felt that with Dinos, it was a really good collaboration. He hadn't really scored a film before so it was my job to turn these things into something a bit more filmic and that led to me writing the romance theme.

AW:And I see you're going back to action next with Eran Creevy's motorway thriller Autobahn?

IE: Yes, I like to mix it up. It's fun having an eclectic career. I've got Autobahn coming out. That was brilliant fun working with Eran Creevy. I've wanted to work with him for quite a while and finally got the opportunity. He's one of Britain's young, talented directors who's really starting to break out in America and do amazing work. If you just look at the cast of Autobahn - Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley. These great people want to work with him and there's a reason for that. So I'm grateful I had that chance - but it was also fun to work on the score. Immediately with the title, we thought about Kraftwerk and wanted to be inspired by that, and I was really excited about doing a score that was only made from synths. Moog and Juno A, we just got in loads of old-fashioned synths.

It's so easy to do this stuff 'in the box', you know, in the computer but it's just not the same. The way you interact with the instruments, the quirk of the instruments, they don't have midi or anything - you have to perform it. So it's got real authenticity about it. God, it took a really long time, because you do a cue, then you change the settings, then you come back and want to repeat the sound. I would take a photo of the settings, then think, but it's not quite the same, was the amp set to something different? It was a real labour of love. By the end of it, while I was sweating over the dials of the Moog again, I was thinking, 'It's so much easier sticking stuff in front of an orchestra, they make it sound so good'.

For me, it's all about authenticity. All art is about authenticity. I'm interested in what it is to be a creative artist. If I'm having a rock and roll element on the score, I don't want to get in a session guitarist, I want to get a rock star guitarist, who's used to being on stage and playing rock and roll to come in with a hangover and do the rock and roll thing because that's where the authenticity is. I think the audience know and they crave that. When it's authentic, it's a better piece of art.

AW: You're getting quite a name for yourself on the other side of the Atlantic as well as here now.

IE: I'm going to go out to LA to promote Shaun the Sheep in July and August. If Shaun is as successful as we all hope it's going to be in the States then I hope that will open the door to more animation. I love doing animation because it's very enjoyable. I think London will always draw me back to the more artistic Champan Brothers projects, or a Ralph Fiennes film, and I always want that to be a part of my life as well. Because that's good food for the soul.

  • Read our interview with Ilan Eshkeri about Shaun The Sheep here
  • The Marriage Of Reason & Squalor is available on demand from Sky.
  • Shaun The Sheep is in US cinemas from August 5.
  • Autobahn is scheduled for release in the US and UK on October 30.

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