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Issue 163

Notes On Film

On the 20th anniversary of Derek Jarman’s death, Paul Schütze speaks to Simon Fisher Turner about composing music for his friend’s movies

BY Paul Schütze AND Simon Fisher Turner in Interviews | 30 APR 14

Spanning 11 feature films and numerous experimental shorts, the work of Derek Jarman is as notable for its innovative and intelligent use of sound as it is for its indelible images. In films almost completely devoid of dialogue, he experimented with the endless possibilities of the relationship between sound and image. As his sight was deserting him, Jarman made Blue (1993), a film consisting only of an unchanging blue screen and elaborate audio. His legacy as a visionary director is clear, but his restless experimentation with sound and music begs further examination. Here, Paul Schütze talks to Simon Fisher Turner, a close friend of Jarman’s, about composing the scores for Blue, Caravaggio (1986), The Last of England (1987), The Garden (1990) and Edward II (1991).

Magazine spread of a young man reading and a collage of notes
Queer, 1991. Courtesy: the estate of Derek Jarman and Thames and Hudson; published in Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, 2013

Paul Schütze Predictably, filmmakers are usually preoccupied with vision; sound and music can be areas of less interest and minimal knowledge. Jarman, however, was deeply involved in the music of his time. Did this give him an acute sense of what he wanted when it came to his own films? 

Simon Fisher Turner It was different for every film. For Caravaggio, Derek wanted me to evoke the music of the period, but I didn’t know what it was like, so he said, ‘Well, go and listen to Frescobaldi.’ I listened to some of it, briefly, and then said, ‘Oh, I know that, it’s classical!’ And off we went. Derek had a great sense of music; he knew far more about classical music than I did, although I had a classical background. He also loved contemporary and electronic music: he didn’t generalize. All of his films were different, and the more obscure the subject matter, the more freedom I had with the music. Derek’s ideas were absolutely impossible to fulfil financially, which worried him occasionally, but at other times he was unconcerned. When I was composing music for The Garden, I said, ‘I’ve got the music on cassette to play you for the dub.’ And he replied, ‘I don’t want to hear it because I’m sure it’s ok!’

PS     It’s extraordinary to go into a dub not having heard the music.

SFT     He said he wanted a surprise! I think he always assumed that you would try your hardest and, ultimately, it wasn’t actually about me composing the music, it was about getting people together.

PS     That’s probably why Caravaggio worked so well in terms of both the music and the visuals: this conjunction between historical source material and contemporary design. You get the impression when you speak to anyone who ever worked with Jarman that he was the author of the circumstance as much as he was the author of the work.

SFT     He didn’t always like everything, though. What he liked were very simple demos of, say, a piano piece – as opposed to a piano piece that had been turned into a quartet.

PS     Was there a sense, as he moved from experimental Super 8 projects to films with more conventional narratives like Caravaggio, that the role of music should shift correspondingly or did he bring the process of experiment with him across that divide?

SFT     We were experimenting all the time, just as he was. Not everything worked, of course. When we were making Blue, we decided one day that, after supper, we’d just have fun. Markus Dravs, the recording engineer, and I played stuff, but a lot of it turned out to be rubbish. I had this idea to record lots of piano, and I tried to use it time and time again, but it was still rubbish. I had a wind-up doll I tried to use and that was nonsense too. But if something was bloody beautiful, even if it wasn’t what you thought it was going to be, well that was fine with Derek. If you were given two weeks in the studio to go and make a soundtrack for Blue or The Last of England or The Garden, you’d go and make it and it would be absolutely wonderful and completely different, because if you were lucky enough to work with Derek you just learnt. Conceptually, he shaped my whole life because of the way he worked and who he was. Now I know that if I doubt something then it’s wrong, and if I don’t doubt it then it must be right, and if it works, it’s a great take and there’s no need to do it again. He taught me that.

PS     So, the spirit of experimentation was as present in the more traditional narrative films as it was in the earlier films?

SFT     Probably even more so. Sound-wise, Edward II (1991) is all over the place. I was on set during the filming, so we were able to include sounds that we could only have captured at that time. A shot would finish and we’d spend three or four minutes just battering things. I’d run up and down the lines recording stuff, and everybody got into it.

PS     It sounds as though the usual distinction in filmmaking between the sound and the music wasn’t present in this production.

SFT     Yes, it was confused, which is when it becomes really important to work with a great sound editor – one who understands that you don’t tread on each other’s toes. Instead of arguing about who’s going to win the fight in the dub, you decide beforehand so that you don’t clash.

PS Both elements are understood to be working in tandem rather than in competition?

SFT     Yes, normally the sound design is done first and then you put the music on top. However, with Caravaggio, I think, or certainly Edward II, we insisted that the music was put on first to see if it worked, and that was fine.

PS     It’s a common problem in most dubs: you’ve got the sound editors fighting one corner, the sound designers and composer fighting the other.

SFT     It’s a real battle and it shouldn’t be. You should be running from room to room, all working in the same corridor. On Derek’s films, the sound editor would run in and play me something and say, ‘Look, I’m using this on this scene do you fancy it? What are you doing?’ We’d be in constant discussion.

PS     Sound and music should reinforce and complement one another and, if they’re designed from the outset to do that, the end result is going to be enormously powerful. It should be a really creative process.

SFT     There was no fighting with Derek over sound editing, apart from when we got to Blue, actually, but it all came together in the dub, which was very friendly.

PS     The beautiful images in The Garden are a perfect gift for a composer. There is a remarkable relationship between your score and the images. Did Jarman direct you tightly?

SFT     A perfect gift for a composer? Yes! When somebody gives you images like that it’s image after image after image, which always leads to the big questions: where you’re going to play, where you’re not going to play, and where the gaps are going to be.

PS     So, for the most part, Jarman trusted in the power of his images to direct you?

SFT     Yes, although he did say that he wanted to use a bit of Russian choral music. He said, ‘Find out about the Orthodox Church and see if we can get the rights to that.’ There were instances where I didn’t want to use his suggestions. He would give me pointers and then I’d just get on with it. He’d say, ‘I don’t need to hear it until we’ve finished.’

PS     That was a real mark of trust on his part.

SFT     He used to love coming to the studio, but sometimes you don’t really want to play the director anything before it’s finished, because they might say, ‘Oh, that’s not right.’

PS     Plus, they think you’ve got time to change things.

SFT     Exactly. So, when Derek came to the studio we used to pretend that things had broken down. We’d make him a cup of tea and serve him cakes and talk a lot and then say, ‘We’ve got to get back now to try and get the machines going.’ We did that a few times. When we were doing Edward II, the editor George Akers was with us for the recording sessions suggesting things, because he knew the film backwards. We had three weeks to record the music. I don’t think I’d have so much fun being a commercial film composer these days.

PS     Everything about the way Jarman worked shows a lot of faith, both in his own judgment and in the judgment of people he worked with.

SFT     A trust which is lacking nowadays. 

PS     But he worked with certain people repeatedly. You’re never going to build long-standing creative bonds if you work with different people every time you make a film.

SFT     You’d be a banana if you didn’t want to go and work for him. It was hard work because you had to get up 5am, or even 4am, but the great thing with Derek was to expect the unexpected. Whether it was doing The Garden, which was quite informal, or Edward II, which was a six week shoot out of London, you had to get up every morning and be there. Derek might say, ‘Do you want to come down for the weekend to shoot, although we have no idea what, exactly?’ And you could either say, ‘No, I’m not interested.’ Or, ‘Yes, I am interested.’ When he was shooting the part in The Garden when he’s in the bed on the beach, he suddenly said, ‘Look, the tide’s out, let’s go and do it; who wants to take their clothes off and hold a burning flare?’ Some of us did and some of us didn’t. Making The Garden was a peach. It was really great, down in Dungeness in Kent, real wild filmmaking. I had no idea what he was thinking. All of us were dressed as terrorists with machine guns and cameras chasing Spencer Leigh dressed as Mary. ‘Mary, Mary Magdalene; what are you doing?’ It was fantastic and really liberating.

PS     Yet, for all that, it’s an amazingly coherent film. It doesn’t feel episodic or like a collage of disparate elements.

SFT      It’s funny, the films I did with Derek were often really quite accidental; he’d never phone up and say, ‘I’m doing this you must come in.’ Once, I had a job as a van driver and I saw him in the street and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m driving a van.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I haven’t got any money.’ Then he said, ‘I need you to come and do some music for a film.’ I said, ‘ok,’ and I quit.

PS     You often performed the music live before a film actually screened. For instance, Blue was performed as a concert before the film was released to cinemas.

SFT     We did one at the Ciné Lumière in London on a Sunday morning at 10am. At that time, it was called Bliss: Tilda Swinton narrated, as did Derek. The whole thing was improvised around Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony (1949). Then we did it as a performance at London’s Electric Cinema.

PS     Was this to raise finance for the film?

SFT      Yes, and to raise interest. We also held concerts in Japan before the film was made. We’d do things like come onstage and play the rims of big wine glasses. We probably did six or seven concerts before we did the film. At the beginning, it was still conceptual and wasn’t based on Derek being ill. So, when he was diagnosed, we had to record the relevant dialogue and place that over 75 minutes of blue silence. Marvin Black, the sound recorder, recorded all the dialogue at the Soundsuite Studio in Camden, London, then we spent two days placing the dialogue before we started on the music.

PS     What are your thoughts on the role of the voice in Jarman’s films? The Garden is nearly wordless, Sebastiane (1976) is voiced entirely in Latin, and The Angelic Conversation (1987) has only Judi Dench’s disembodied, infrequent recitations of Shakespeare’s sonnets. By the time we reach Blue, there is only sound and a solid, unwavering plane of colour.

SFT     I’d forgotten that The Garden is nearly wordless: that’s a lot of music! Derek and I had really big arguments about Blue, because at one stage people wanted to put images into it and I said, ‘You’re mad!’ By then my relationship with Derek was really good. I’d say, ‘Listen, this is really what I think.’ Then he suggested that it would be great to have some gold drifting down amidst the blueness, because he loved gold, or the occasional shadow of movement. I objected and said, ‘Please no! It has to be pure.’

PS     Interestingly, in his book Chroma (1995) Jarman talks about the relationship between blue and gold, which was another visual touchstone for him. So you argued staunchly against the inclusion of any images at all in Blue?

SFT     I was dead against images. The words were what ‘coloured’ the colour. When Derek got ill, he’d get better and then he’d get ill again. It was when he finally decided to change Blue from being a kind of fairy story to being about living and dying and living with aids, that it became solid and really fantastic. And the words were as good as the images from The Garden and The Last of England. The words were what made me make the music. We got lost in the blue and then lost in the words, which was wonderful. We worked five days a week, from ten o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night, with a break for lunch. There was a beautiful big drum on the wall upstairs where we were recording, and we played it in response to the list of drugs Derek had to take. He would say, ‘I have to take this. I have to take this!’ Boom, boom! ‘And I have to take this one.’ Boom, boom, boom! I just followed the words. We started in the middle, we went to the end, we went to the beginning and then went to the middle again. We did that twice and, on the second round, we started to bring in musicians. Derek came up once for tea, heard what was going on and seemed to be happy. It was an amazing experience; very emotional but really uplifting. The beginning was the very last thing we recorded. We were about to leave and there were these gongs lying around, full sets of cup gongs, and we set them out in a hall, in a room overlooking the garden, and just miked them up. We recorded them once and topped and tailed the film.

PS     The effect on perception of being engulfed by unchanging colour is still being explored by artists, still being understood.

SFT     When we first did Blue, we had a couple of doctors and psychiatrists come down to see what would happen physically and mentally. Now, I’m really looking forward to the upcoming screening of Blue at the imax in London. To be completely engulfed in blueness! Wonderful! I wasn’t sure I could bear it.

PS     Despite, or perhaps because, of the complete absence of images, Blue is one of the purest pieces of cinema: a film in which the only images are those supplied by the viewer’s imagination, driven purely by sound and music.

SFT     Blue is really wonderful. Everybody gave it their all. What was left out was also significant; the film gives a good sense of the importance of leaving things uncluttered. I was constantly learning from Derek, without actually realizing what I was being taught because he wasn’t trying to teach you. We were all just helped along by his extraordinary energy.

PS     Did you analyze the films much once they were finished?

SFT     No! Derek and I never discussed them! But we stood either side of the doors at the Camden Plaza in London when people were leaving the first screening of Blue, and we looked at each other and knew it had worked. People were beautifully shocked and really moved.

Paul Schütze is an artist and composer living and working in London, UK.

Simon Fisher Turner is an English musician, songwriter, composer, producer and actor who lives in London, UK.