Atlantis: Interview: Composer Stuart Hancock

ATLANTIS-cover-v2PSH_3932You might not recognise Stuart Hancock’s name but you’ll have heard his music more times than you realize. The award-winning composer took over for the second series of the BBC’s Atlantis and has driven the release of a soundtrack from Silva Screen, which reflects the maturity and increased dramatic levels of the show’s run. To accompany the CD release, he chatted with Paul Simpson about all things mythical…

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How did you get involve with Atlantis – Rob Lane had done year 1…

His departure led to the producers contacting composer agents, one of which was mine, asking for recommendations. My agents put me forward and I went into meet [executive producer] Johnny Capps the next day. I’d had a huge concert premiere the night before – and then I’d stayed up watching a couple of episodes of series 1 just to get the picture, so I was not sailing blind – but lack of sleep meant I wasn’t quite on top form!

pLLADIUMWe hit it off really well, but then I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks. I was keen to actually pitch for it formally by writing some music for a scene or two. I felt Atlantis was right up my street and I really wanted it. It was a big break, potentially for me.

Eventually I did hear back and in June 2014 they gave me and however many other composers a scene from episode 1 to score. It was the scene where Medea is introduced and she steals the Palladium, which triggers an earthquake. It was about a five minute scene which I did my thing to and I got the job off the back of that.

My pitch music is more or less Track 2 on the CD – by the time I was pitching, that episode was more or less locked in the edit so the music stayed intact as well, with one or two tweaks here or there.

How much time per episode did you have to write the score?

The first two episodes, the two-parter, we spent quite a while on that because it was such a big change stylistically from series 1, and they stressed how much darker and more textural they wanted to go in comparison with the music for the first series.

atlantis 2.2I felt series 1 followed the actions rather than the emotions.

You were getting the pows and all that, yes. Obviously the first couple of episodes of series 2 had big battle scenes as well so it was getting the timing of those right and just making sure that what I was doing was a supporting role, rather than leading – letting it bubble away and propel where it needed to and sit back where it needed to.

I probably worked on and off on the first couple of episodes for a couple of months getting it right. The first recording session was in September where I did episodes 1 and 2.

We went to and fro on those two episodes quite a lot to nail the style, and to be honest once we had done that, everything else sort of slotted into place for the remaining 11 episodes. The schedule condensed itself towards the end, so I was doing the earlier episodes in about two weeks from start to finish, and by the time we got to episode 13 I had three days!

But by that time there was an lot of recycling of cues and tweaking previous cues; the more we went along, the more the editors temp-scored the footage with my existing cues. Obviously it was gratifying that they liked what I’d done so I was building on the work that was already there. In that sense three days on episode 13 wasn’t that stressful.

Atlantis 2.12It became an editing job rather than a composing job?

Yes, it began to involve ‘craft’ as well as ‘art’. That said, episode 13 was actually a quite tricky one and it did end up spilling into the new year. My final recording session was 21st December 2014 and they came back and rejigged a few things in the edit in the new year, so there was a bit of jiggery-pokery for me going on into January as well. I think they wanted to do what they could and really get that last episode right.

They’d just put it to bed when the announcement [of the cancellation] came. That must have been a real kick in the teeth. It was perfectly set up… I’ve been in a protracted period of mourning since then. I’m still pretty upset about it!

From a personal point of view it was a big break, like I said, and it was beautifully set up for series 3 – which probably would have been the last series – to do the Argonauts.

I’ve maintained a very good relationship with Urban Myth and as and when they do have something new commissioned, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be in line to work with them again.

The music is very different from series 1; did you listen to what Rob had done to be consciously different or did you ignore that and deal with what you had in front of you on screen and in the scripts?

Atlantis 108I watched the entire first series, paying good attention to the scoring. In a way, yes I digested it then disregarded it. You get what he’d done and there’s an awful lot to admire. I don’t think mine is a million miles away from his; in essence what I did was orchestral at its core. There is quite a lot more electronic stuff in there. There’s a lot of pads, pulses, stuff going on with the synths that perhaps he didn’t do.

The producers wanted to get away from the ethnic stuff. There had been a lot of use of voice in series 1 and that slightly non-specific oriental thing that came into the music that you couldn’t actually pinpoint as being Greek but it’s ‘of the East’. They wanted to ditch that so there was very little of that in the series 2 score.

They kept stressing particularly at the start that “it’s textural, it’s drones, it’s moods, it’s not huge thematic music” – which I took on board obviously and we found a good place for it where there was still space for themes, because themes do draw out stories and characterization. It’s a sad day when all scores do away with themes. That’s what I love to write and that’s how I like to work.

At their request, I did use one of Rob’s themes, Jason and Ariadne’s love theme, which was always on a high violin. One of the things I’d ask Rob if I met him is exactly how he achieved the sound that he got on that theme because to me it sounds like a violin but it’s almost got an electronic quality to it.

atlantis jason ariadneI thought it was a violin synth – an electronic E string…

I asked the soloist I worked with, Sarah Crisp, what she thought because I knew she had an electric violin. But rather than the electric, what we ended up doing was several lovely versions of his theme on a normal violin but with a ‘practice’ mute on, which is a lot more industrial than a standard mute, and the sound is really squashed down. I positioned her a little way away from the mic and swathed the audio in reverb, and it’s a very kind of distant floaty thin sound. It is different to Rob’s sound.

But that’s thematically right for the second season.

There were also snatches of the title theme occasionally, a handful of times in the 13 episodes. Other than that it’s all brand spanking new stuff.

A lot of use of strings – is that one of your own trademarks, or something that just felt appropriate?

The latter really. The solo violin, viola and cello that I used were just ideal to capture the smaller emotions in the smaller scenes. I guess it’s also because of the musicians I used, who were good friends and who I have worked with a lot. They know what I want, how I work, and I know I can get a gorgeous result from what I ask them to do. You feel like you’re onto a winner.

Atlantis pasipjaeDanny Keane, the cellist, is without exception the most wonderful musician I have ever worked with. And, incredibly, he considers the cello to be only his second instrument – he’s an brilliant jazz pianist, and a lovely guy to boot. You put something in front of him and ask him to do it one way (which he will) and then he’ll suggest another. And what he suggests is invariably what we end up with. One of my favourite cues that he was solo on was track 23, ‘A Mother’s Love’, the scene where Jason is behind bars and he and Pasiphae have a conversation where he’s a broken man and she’s saying “can we patch this up?” Underneath it all there’s a sinuous almost klezmer-style theme on the cello.

The kick you get from it when you get to the recording sessions and you get the live musicians in: that makes it all worthwhile. You’ve suddenly got musicians on board who are vastly more talented than you are to interpret and perform and put proper human emotion into the notes you’ve written. It’s a wonderful feeling and I hope it never changes: that samples will never get as good as that.

For the little bit of Oriental stuff that I did do for the Atlantis score I used licensed sample libraries of Oriental phrasing – not the actual midi notes. I wasn’t playing in tunes note by note, I was taking improvised ethnic flute-y things, and they are convincing because they are played, interpreted and recorded by a real player.

What got you into scoring in the first place?

IMG_7813It was a hobby to start with through school and university. I didn’t take it seriously as something that was going to be a career. I didn’t do A-level music, went and did a geography degree, and kept it up on the side for fun. Then in the summer after my second year of university, I went to a Prom at the Albert Hall and at the back of the programme there was a little classified ad for the London College of Music masters and post-graduate courses in various disciplines including composing for film and TV. It was a bit of an eye-opener that you could actually study it and for it to be a potential career.

I had a few things I’d composed so I applied for the course and got on, despite the lack of qualifications. I was at the LCM for one year and then I worked in part-time jobs and composed a lot at home, practising writing new music to ads and shows taped off the television, and putting stuff together for potential showreels.

A year after I finished the Masters, I got a letter from the director of studies at the college saying that a Soho production house was seeking a new composer, and they’d written to all the music colleges looking for new blood to take on for work experience. I was one of several who did a week’s worth of work experience – except mine turned into about 7 weeks so I was clearly doing alright! Eventually I got the job. In fact, as part of the first interview prior to the work experience, they asked everybody to pitch a track for a particular job they were doing at the time, which was rebranding the Open University. The track I pitched won the job, so I was onto a winner from the start in that respect.

I ended up being a full time in-house composer for this company. I stayed there six years, doing commercials mainly, advertising, a bit of TV theme stuff, no dramatic scoring as such until I did eventually land a TV job, which was the final series of London’s Burning in 2002. That was my first big TV credit, even though I didn’t actually get the credit – unfortunately, it was the company that got the on-screen credit. Experiences like that were quite frustrating from a credit point of view, and that led me to jump ship in the end in 2004/5, and give it a go on my own. I’ve been freelancing ever since and it’s worked out well. I do advertising work for three or four different companies now and have scored several independent films [with six soundtracks released under the MovieScore Media label]. Until Atlantis came along, I had no big juicy credit – lots of stuff you’d have seen on TV that you won’t know is me – and I’m ready for another Atlantis when it comes along.

Community or Educational Project - Stuart Hancock and presenter Jessica Cottis - British Composer Awards 2015 - photo Mark AllanYou recently won the BASCA British Composer Award…

Yes, that was a nice surprise. The nomination was for Best Community or Educational Project, for my song-cycle project ‘Snapshot Songs’. This was a big collaborative London-zeitgeist-themed song-writing project. It was staged at the Milton Court Concert Hall at the Barbican, and featured 130 performers of incredible diversity, including a 50-strong choir, symphony orchestra, drummers, rappers and a range of vocal soloists.

I’d been lucky enough to win awards for my film music before (most notably winning the Jerry Goldsmith Award for Best Composer in 2013), but winning the British Composer Award was especially gratifying, as it was the first time I’d been recognised for my concert music – it was an ‘establishment’ that I hadn’t really felt part of before. TV and film work has long been my focus, but I’ve always dabbled with concert music when the opportunity has arisen, and ‘Snapshot Songs’ was a huge labour of love that happened just before Atlantis (I had my first meeting with producer Johnny Capps literally the morning after the premiere performance in April ’14!). It was also nice to meet Juliet Stevenson (she who plays the Oracle in Atlantis) – she was there presenting some of the awards. We had a chat about the show and how sad it was that it wouldn’t be returning.

When you work on a job like Atlantis do you sit and watch the picture and effectively improvise at the keyboard or do you look at it and write to “paper”?

I always would watch the whole episode when I received it and pretty much start from the beginning and work through it, pick out the points I’m aiming for – I’m sure it’s the way most people work. The tempo-map is where I would start: structure it out very quickly in the space of 20 minutes or so, and put the basics down on piano and then go back and start fleshing it out. I’d always produce a fully orchestrated version of every cue to present to the producers and get signed off. Then the live string lines of each one could be scored out on paper ready to record with the players.

18-bansuri-setWhat were you recording the scores with?

We would do a day where I’d have 3 x three and a half hour sessions, first with 4 cellos, then a similar session with 3 violas, then with 5 violins. I’d then thicken up the live performance by subtly mixing in the Vienna orchestral samples I’d used to demo the cues. A typical episode includes those 12 musicians.

There was pretty much no woodwind – the only wind player I used was a flautist. He played on episode 7, 8 and 9, and he was mostly doing Medusa-related music. He came along with an entire set of bansuri flutes (Indian wooden flutes), which was a gorgeous, gorgeous sound.

So how come it’s a year later that we’ve got the CD…?

It’s taken a long time for it to happen!

I was pushing for it from January 2015 – I thought it merited a release. From episode 4 onwards, I was getting fan email, particularly about the Journey to Aegina theme which became everyone’s favourite cue. The typical question was “What’s the name of that song?” They called it a song – which is weird to start with! – and everybody wanted to buy it and download it.

When the series finished, nobody seemed to want to move on an album other than me, and I didn’t know the right way about it. I’d ascertained that the copyright was owned by BBC Worldwide (rather than Urban Myth) – I sent an email to them, with a link to the playlist that’s hosted on the fansite BBCAtlantis.com. Within half an hour Dominic Walker at BBC Worldwide got back to me and said it was great, really good stuff – let’s meet. We had a great meeting, and he liked the material enough to say it whilst it wasn’t likely to make huge money, it was good enough not just for download, but for a physical CD release. He would then get in touch with Rob Lane and his agents to see if they were interested in doing a joint release with series 1; and if they weren’t, then just series 2 would be released.

SILCD1506-Atlantis-Inlay-page-001After a lengthy delay, I heard back from Dominic in late September/early October that Rob Lane didn’t want to do it, but did want his title theme included. That was fine – and I was happy that at least things could finally move forward. So we have an album of Series 2 music with his theme tacked on the end. The whole process was a struggle – finding the right people to talk to each other and to put it into action. I’ve been liaising with Urban Myth and Silva Screen getting the artwork looking good and to finalise the track listing.

It feels like a bit of a last gasp for Atlantis in a way, but I’m really proud of the music and I’m excited it’s out there on CD.

 

Atlantis is available now from Amazon or direct from Silva Screen.

To learn more about Stuart, and to hear some of his other compositions, visit his website here

Thanks to Jelena Jancic at Silva Screen for her help in arranging this interview

 

 

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