Music to Picture: An Interview with Composer Michael Price

by Mary Jo Watts (mid0nz)

Michael Price (Used with permission)
Michael Price (Used with permission)

That quintessentially Sherlock moment. Every time I see the scene I feel a confusing zap, a wicked little thrill. Sherlock Holmes elevates his arm and whoosh! His riding crop slices the air. Sherlock thrashes and thrashes and thrashes. Molly Hooper, his only witness, has no more intention of averting her eyes than we do. Oh, she winces a bit when the crop makes contact, but not because Sherlock is flogging a corpse. That is incidental. This is Sherlock being… Sherlock. Performing Sherlockiness.

I think, sometimes, that Molly, too, can hear it. That glorious cue that tells us it’s okay to laugh, that it’s okay to find this curious circumstance exhilarating. Da dum. Da da da da, da da dum. Da dum. Da da da da da dum… Michael Price and David Arnold call their famous tune by a few names: “The Hero’s Theme,” “Sherlock’s Exterior Theme,” and, officially, “The Game Is On.” It makes me shiver every. single. time. That wonderful tune is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Together Price and Arnold have composed over nine hours of extraordinary music for Sherlock.

Michael Price is one of the UK’’s most sought-after composers. He has had a fantastically interesting career as a music editor; a music producer; film producer (of Delicious, out this summer); a composer for dance, film and TV; and a composer of modern classical music for piano and for strings.  He’s got a vast and varied body of award-winning work. His albums, The Hope of Better Weather and A Stillness, mean a great deal to me. They’re beautiful. They center and focus me. They give me permission…

As I write, Michael is busy working on a solo album for Erased Tapes. He graciously gave me a couple of hours of his time. -MJW

Mary Jo Watts: I’m a big Glenn Gould fan…

Michael Price: Oh yes!

MJW:  …and he liked to say that if he were any key, he’d be an F minor.

MP: (Laughs)

MJW:  He says, “It’s rather dour, half way between complex and stable, between upright and lascivious, between gray and highly-tinted. There is a certain obliqueness.” So if you were a key, what key would you be and why?

MP: Blimey. It’s tough to come after Mr. Gould. It would be… I think I would be in G minor after Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, “Dido’s Lament,” which is a sad choice but also just incredibly noble, a kind of grounded, coat collar turned up, windy day choice. I would be G minor for the next 20 minutes. Then it would have to be B minor because of Bach’s B Minor Mass, and then I’d change my mind to D major for “Zadok The Priest,” so yeah, go through all the keys basically.

MJW: That sounds fantastic! Have you ever composed in G Minor?

MP: Yeah! Constantly.

MJW:  What?

MP: Oh God now you’ve put me on the spot. There are things that you reach for…  There are bits of Sherlock in G minor as well (plays chords on his keyboard). Yeah, I’ll have to get back to you on exactly what, but definitely it’s one of the keys that I reach for because I think that most people have got a point that they naturally go to on the keyboard. I know some people often kind of find themselves doing a lot of white note stuff, sort of A minor and D minor 9 and getting back to C major, but I tend to find myself going around the flat keys so I’ll find myself in G minor and E flat major 7, that sort of relative major of it. So it’s a non-answer but…

MJW:  (Laughing) No, it’s an evocative answer.

MP: Right.

MJW:  So the next is a big question. How did you become a composer?

MP: For me it was a slow transition to being a professional composer, in that when I was a kid at school and studied music, I did write, but I had a sort of fairly traditional music education so it was Bach chorales and more academic exercises really than spontaneous writing. But then at university, I started working with some contemporary dancers and realized that you could improvise on the piano for dance classes.  That’s something that I found that I could do, not astonishingly well, but well enough, so I then took that into starting to write music for contemporary dance.


So I think the reality is that I’ve probably written since I was 15 or 16, but the route to becoming a composer with a capital C was really, then, about a combination of finding your voice and finding your technique, and then ultimately being able to describe yourself as an artist and as a composer, and I’m not quite sure when that seesaw turn passes. I don’t know if it’s about a validity that you feel of work that you’ve done or just time. I think it’s probably just time. So I would definitely describe myself as a composer now, and I would have said when I was 21 that I would not describe myself as a composer, but I’m not sure at exactly what point in between the change happened.

MJW: What would you have described yourself as at 21?

MP: Unemployed. (Laughs) I’m not even sure I would have described myself maybe as a musician, but to me the word “composer” comes with it a whole load of cultural baggage and a certain amount of kind of flouncing about. I think it’s easier to let your work speak for you, often, rather than either post-rationalizing it or declaiming your identity based on what you do. And so perhaps even now, as we’re talking, I’m slightly recoiling against the word– although it’s obviously factually true and that’s what I spend all my time doing, it’s sort of yeah… as cultural definition… is this all right? This might get kind of film schooly. (Laughs).

MJW: That’s perfect. That’s perfect!

MP: As a cultural definition I struggle with it, because the act of composing music, whether it’s for film or TV or for concert music or for records, is for me an instinctive process, and when I start to become too self-aware of what’s being created almost before the ink’s dried, then it’s easy to then become self-conscious and self-referential. Sometimes you have to come up with clever answers later on, but it’s always post-rationalization and it’s never what you were thinking at the time, and then you just adjust your rationalization to the audience.

MJW: Tell a nice story afterwards…

MP: Exactly.

MJW: That reminds me again of Gould. Somebody asked him about his technique for playing the piano and he said if you ask me about that, it’s like asking a centipede how they walk. Once they figure out what’s going on it’s too much and their system kind of fails.

MP: Absolutely. Self-consciousness is a terrifying thing for musicians of all kinds, for artists of all kinds. There’s a sense of it in Sherlock, in that we did the pilot episode with absolutely no expectation of anything. We did season one with very little expectation. Season two there was a bit more hype and there was something to follow, but by the time season three came round I think everybody involved could not be unaware of the expectation that was focused on us, so you spend most of your psychological energy just trying to remove those thoughts from your head.

Michael Price Conducting (Photo used with permission)
Michael Price Conducting (Photo used with permission)

MJW: Well season three was written with so much attention from the fans and you had all eyes on you, right?

MP: Yeah, that’s right. It’s one of the good things about David (Arnold) and I writing Sherlock together. We create a little circle of trust between the two of us where we know that we can edit each other and discuss with each other the things that are working and the things that aren’t working, without that sense of having to justify ourselves to the wider public at that point, which is wonderful. It’s one of the parts of mine and David’s relationship that I’m most grateful for, that and his incredibly dry sense of humor, which means that… because ultimately with either a successful long-running show or new projects, I think there’s a responsibility on the creators of the art that we all watch and enjoy to authentically and instinctively do what they think is right. It’s not committee sport. It’s a collaboration in the sense of the composers are collaborating with the directors and the writers and we have an interaction with the performances on screen, so all of that is very much a collaboration. But in terms of what’s going on in your own head, in terms of second-guessing yourself of whether this has been done before or should be done again or the kind of meta structure around the show, [that] is best left for afterwards, just back off.

MJW: Well, certainly the fans love to take every little detail of the show and the soundtrack is under so much scrutiny by the fans afterwards…

MP: And that’s okay. I absolutely don’t… There’s music that I absolutely love, whether it’s classical music or contemporary music, where I’m fascinated on what goes on underneath the surface and so I absolutely don’t begrudge the interest in the music. In fact I find it hugely flattering and gratifying that something that David and I do finds its way into so many people’s set of their favorite tunes. When I get sent videos on YouTube of people playing the tunes, it’s incredibly heartwarming and every one genuinely makes me smile, because it reminds me of when I was a kid and I heard a tune and I wanted to try to play that tune and yeah, so that’s incredibly gratifying to be part of the culture.

MJW: The Sherlock Fan Orchestra?

MP: Yeah I love them, absolutely love the Fan Orchestra! They couldn’t be more awesome.

MJW: They’re fantastic!

MP: It’s everything about young music making that I absolutely love, so I’m a huge fan of those kind of things. I actually like interacting with people after the event about the music for Sherlock. But also I do need to balance that myself with a kind of clarity in the sense of peace that I need to write the next thing, because you’re not doing anybody any favors if you spend too much time on the external stuff and not enough time on the internal, because then you’ve taken the golden goose and you’ve put a big… pillow on its head.

MJW: That’s a great image.

MP: You keep the golden goose in as good shape as possible.

MJW:  Well, since we were talking about Sherlock, do you mind if I go into those questions and then steer away for a larger picture?

MP: Sure.

MJW:  Like I said, the fans dissect everything, and when I put a question out there saying I was going to talk to you and did the fans have questions, the number one thing that came back is that they’re just absolutely fascinated with the themes, with the motifs for the characters.

MP: Yeah, yeah.

MJW: And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about creating the characters’ motifs and do they have meaning? How do you work with them?

MP: Yeah, well, I think that very early on David and I took a decision that characters would have themes, which sounds like a simple decision but is actually… there’s a style of contemporary scoring which we’ve all done, which I really quite like for the right show, which doesn’t have character themes. They tend to have psychological ambiences – Nordic Noir, if we’re going to choose a genre for it, is not necessarily about identifiable leitmotifs. David and I took that decision early on, that we were going to have themes which we hoped we could establish strongly enough then, to take those themes on a developmental journey. We didn’t know that the show would run and run, but then we also didn’t want to back ourselves in a corner in case it did. And so the very first ones to come out off the block were Watson’s and Sherlock’s… there’s sort of two Sherlock themes in that there’s the opening titles

The Opening Titles/ Sherlock’s Interior Theme

and then there’s “The Game Is On,” “The Hero Theme,” whatever you want to call that tune,

Sherlock Holmes’s Exterior Theme / The Hero Theme / “The Game is On” (from A Study in Pink) 

and they’ve taken on a slightly new life. They’ve taken on a kind of resonance because of how they’ve been used in the series so far. So in series three, for instance, there is dubstep Sherlock.

Sherlock’s Exterior Theme / The Hero Theme / “The Game is On” Dubstep Version (from The Sign of Three)

MJW:  (Laughing) That dubstep is awesome!

MP: Which is great. And the programming and the stuff- all that was done by Rael Jones who is our awesome collaborator who works on the show with us all the time.

MJW: Everybody wants a full version of it.

MP: Yes! Exactly. I think that we’re maybe missing a trick that there’s not a whole album of remixes of the show. One day. One day. But I think there’s something about that hero theme which is quite external and it always works terribly well when Sherlock is being Sherlock, whatever we perceive that to be. There’s moments when he puts his deerstalker on and goes out to meet the press and he’s being Sherlock and that theme, because it’s a very extrovert theme, is umbilically linked with that side of being Sherlock, whereas we felt in season three that the opening titles theme is kind of slightly more internal Sherlock, so there’s a scene in act one of season three where we’ve been reintroduced to Sherlock and we see him up on the London skyline.

MJW: The “Skyfall scene.”

Sherlock “Skyfall” Scene (from The Empty Hearse) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)

MP: Yeah, exactly. Same building. Obviously that’s a very iconic Sherlock moment, but the thing that we use isn’t the hero theme. It’s actually the opening titles theme because it’s much more of an internal moment for Sherlock and we developed the…there’s a cello line that’s at the bottom of that opening title theme that we’ve developed a lot in season three as well.

Sherlock Holmes’s Interior Theme / Opening Titles Theme / Rooftop Orchestration (from The Empty Hearse)

We’ve got the DNA of those two tunes for Sherlock and then the piano chords for Watson, the four chords.

John Watson’s Theme (from A Study in Pink)

And you’ll hear… the instrumentation hadn’t changed very much for season three for Watson’s chords (plays them)… there’s a G minor in that one… but this time there was an element in what’s called on the soundtrack album… basically in act three of season three where Sherlock is (looks at something off screen) “Forwards and Backwards?” I’m just referring to… (plays recorded music until he finds what he’s looking for) Oh yeah, here we go. So in “Redbeard,” as it’s formed on the soundtrack album, you actually hear in the distance the Watson chords on brass as Sherlock is ascending the staircase because it’s really John… it’s the connection with John that’s giving him the motivation to recover from that situation, so that’s one of the first times really that I can remember, I’m sure I’ll be wrong, where we’ve actively been using the Watson’s chords in a different orchestration.

Sherlock Ascends the Staircase to John's Theme (from His Last Vow) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)
Sherlock Ascends the Staircase to John’s Theme (from His Last Vow) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)

John Watson’s Theme on Piano Superimposed over “Redbeard” by Mia (from His Last Vow)

And I think both David and I are really happy with the fact from the DNA of these, Watson’s theme and various sub-themes… You know certain characters in certain episodes get whole new themes for themselves so [Charles Augustus] Magnussen had a theme.

Charles Augustus Magnussen’s Theme (from His Last Vow)

The Woman [Irene Adler] obviously had a theme,

The Woman / Irene Adler’s Theme (from A Scandal in Belgravia)

you know those episodes. Although it was more of a sonic theme, Hound [The Hounds of Baskerville]. It was a marked change of texture as a response to that episode.

 Excerpt of “Pursued by a Hound” (from The Hound of Baskervilles)

So by now there’s nine episodes. There’s probably at least nine hours of music on the table so if there are any more episodes, which obviously I don’t know…

MJW: There will be. I’m confident. (Laughs)

MP: And if we get hired again, then we’ll be doing what we usually do, which is trying to draw on and develop from what we’ve got, but also react instinctively to what we see in front of us, because David and I had lots of ideas before we saw season three, lots of ideas for what we thought we’d do and we didn’t do any of them really. So we’ve still got some ideas in the bottom drawer for the next time in case any of them are relevant. You just have to respond to what you see, rather than intellectualizing before and then try and impose that structure on the…

MJW: So you don’t have pieces that you put in the drawer and save.

MP: Neither of us do that really. And when you do you’re always shoehorning something into a space which doesn’t really work. So fundamentally you can do as much homework as you like, but the starting pistol isn’t fired until you see the cut and then you usually have a vanishingly short amount of time to write the music (Laughs).

MJW: 22 days they get to shoot, isn’t it?

MP: I wish we had that long!

MJW: So in terms of the themes, everybody wants me to ask about Mycroft Holmes and how you deal with Mycroft in the soundtrack.

MP: It’s interesting because he… there are various characters that don’t have a theme. Mrs. Hudson hasn’t got a theme. Mycroft hasn’t got a theme. Molly Hooper now has a theme which was played in the bit where she walks out in the snow, her and Sherlock are having a conversation. Is that in act one of season three? So she’s got a theme now.

 Molly Hooper’s Theme (from The Empty Hearse)

But what Sherlock is about mostly for us, in character and musical terms, is Sherlock and Watson. And so in a way, the reason why we don’t have a theme for Mrs. Hudson, say, is that we rarely see Mrs. Hudson as the protagonist alone. We only ever see her in context with Watson and Sherlock; and Mycroft, very much the same. There’s rarely… In episode one [A Study in Pink] there’s the red herring that Mycroft might be [James] Moriarty.

MJW: So Moriarty’s theme plays over [the scenes in A Study in Pink] before John knows [that Mark Gatiss’s character is Mycroft and not Moriarty.]

Mycroft or Moriarty? (from A Study in Pink) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)
Mycroft or Moriarty? (from A Study in Pink) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)

James Moriarty’s Theme (from A Study in Pink)

Mycroft / Moriarty Red Herring

MP: Yeah. So there’s that, but really again Mycroft doesn’t have a theme because we see him more (obviously don’t tell Mark Gatiss this) but we see him more in context of how his character plays against Sherlock and Watson’s, and I think there’s a balance to be found on a scene-by-scene basis and also an overall basis as to how obvious your working is. There’s certain genres of films, Lord of the Rings type films, where it’s a very Wagnerian leitmotif way of working, where literally character X walks on screen and you hear music for character X. We never wanted to be as literal as that with Sherlock, but we wanted to reserve for ourselves the weapon in our arsenal to have tunes that had got emotion and got resonance, and got context with them so that when we needed to we could focus in and play a tune. But if you… I think in the context of this show if everything was literally worked out, it would become too self-conscious.

MJW: That makes sense. What about this little sound, this “dink, dink, dink” ?

A Ballpoint Pen Dancing on Mandolin Strings

MP: Oh yeah, that one! So that is a ballpoint pen bounced on the bridge of a mandolin. That’s our very own sound. What we try and do for the composers in the world, because we use a lot of computers and a lot of synth sounds and a lot of samples and things, we try and use the sounds that we use by choice. Obviously there are a bunch of restrictions. It’s not a hundred million dollar feature film. We haven’t got a five million dollar music budget. So we do try and use as many live strings as we can but we’re working with the constraints that we’ve got. So we try and use the sounds we use imaginatively, and both David and I have been collecting and making sounds for twenty years each, so we have a lot of weird sounds that we’ve made for things before. The more eagle-eared listeners out there, if they really want to trace back the genesis of certain sounds, they’ll hear them in Sherlock and then they’ll go, “Oh I heard that one in Michael’s score for Wild Child or for Horrid Henry or for this or that TV show or in [a James] Bond [film] or somewhere else” because I think we instinctively have a palette of our own distinctive sounds. We try and use those authentic sounds as much as possible. Once in a while we’ll use a sound that other people have got as well and we get called out on it on the Internet so…  (Laughs)

MJW: Well, they sneak in. They sneak in from time to time. So I recall another interview where you talked about the sound world of Sherlock. So obviously the themes play a role in that and the sound effects, too. How do you go about creating a sound world for a piece – for film or television? What’s that process like?

MP: I think depending upon what sort of art history quote you want to go by, whether it’s Michelangelo about sculpture or… There’s sort of an instinctive sense that there is a cue embedded within the scene already, and some days you’re just kind of chipping around trying to find out what that is, and the first ten sounds that you make, musical sounds that you make, will be not it. And then number eleven might be a bit more it. There’s a continuum. There are days when you make one very active positive choice that this particular bit of music will be centered around this instrument and you follow that through and it works and that’s great, but there’s lots of other days when it’s actually a thousand micro decisions and you don’t start with an incredibly clear idea of the finished article. You just keep your arse in the chair until it sounds like what it should. Where that template in your head comes from, in terms of how you then say to yourself “that’s right and that’s not right,” is another post-rationalized question, in that often it is very instinctive and yet it’s sort of a shared instinct because David and I agree hugely more than we disagree about what sounds right for Sherlock, as fortunately do the rest of the production team. I mean, there are definitely discussions. David and I internally will go in to bat for something and it almost certainly won’t be because we’re defending in an ego way something he or I might have originated in the first place. It’s often the reverse. We’re basically just both comparing what we can hear with that internal template for what is and just articulating the gap between them in our own minds. If you can do that in a relatively ego-free way then your discussions just become about the work. Consequently David and I have managed to work together very happily for years and years and years, which is relatively rare in composing. Those partnerships don’t often arise.

MJW: How important are voices? How important is it that a particular sound is on a violin versus the brass you were talking about earlier?

MP: I think it’s incredibly important because the timbre that people perceive, that the audience perceives, comes, again, with a whole lot of cultural context for it as well. We’ve developed the palette that we use. Season three is bigger…

MJW: It’s crazy! I love it!

MP: We’ve just extended the set of music that is allowed within the universe of Sherlock, sometimes ironically, so… dubstep. Also “How It Was Done,” the first thing you hear in season three, is a deliberate red herring. It’s deliberately trying to be as obnoxious as possible.

Excerpt of “How it Was Done” with Sherlock’s Interior Theme / The Opening Titles Theme on Guitar

MJW: I fell for it hook, line, and sinker! I was like, “What the hell are they doing?! Have they lost their minds?”

MP: (Laughs) “Why would anybody do that?” It was deliberately so, because all the departments needed to sell that red herring as hard as possible with total straight face conviction.

MJW: The fake solution took bits and pieces from all these wacky fan theories and I was like, “Ah they were right, these left field ideas?!”

MP: Absolutely. It’s going to be fascinating to see how that evolves further in the future, because there wouldn’t have been a “Woman” theme without a “Woman episode” [Irene Adler in A Scandal in Belgravia]. There wouldn’t have been “Prepared To Do Anything” without that amazing stand-off on the rooftop; and there wouldn’t be a kind of recommitment to jeopardy that there is in episode three of season three [after] where you had two episodes which are character episodes. I love them all, but obviously in season three there’s the reintroduction, the remeshing of Sherlock and Watson, and then there’s that incredible wedding setpiece. So they’re character-driven episodes rather than necessarily plot-driven, although of course they’ve got a lot of plot in there. And so really there’s not a huge amount of new thematic material from episodes one and two of season three, but there’s a whole lot of new stuff, of big stuff in the last episode and it seemed right to stretch our legs with it. Back to the question about instrumentation and voice of themes, you sort of know when you see something big up on the screen and you put a particular choice of instrument… in a nutshell that’s our jobs. That’s mine and David’s jobs is to, a hundred thousand times a day, make those little choices about whether that should be on a woodwind instrument or a synth, or does that sound a bit orchestral or too electronic, or is it too big or is it too small or is it… and the score that emerges from that is a combination… I think that’s where the blueprint of the composers is. That’s where our DNA is, in those hundreds of thousands of tiny decisions that then emerge as a whole.

Michael Price (Used with permission)
Michael Price (Used with permission)

MJW: Do you think that music can have a semantic component? Obviously certain music evokes certain feelings in the viewers but is there specific meaning to be derived from when a sound occurs against an image?

MP: Yeah, I think there’s several parts to that. One is that there is always a connection between sound and image if they’re experienced at the same time. We instantly draw a connection between them, so to say there isn’t one or we don’t think about it is to slightly avoid the issue. There clearly is. Past that point I think maybe the question is hinting towards how literal and how much. For instance, as a plot device, so Barrington Pheloung in Inspector Morse used to embed the name of the murderer into his score as Morse code in the music. Now that’s an incredibly literal, you know, and very amusing.

MJW: Now I’ve got to go check it out.

MP: Exactly. There is explicit meaning in what he’s doing there. There’s rarely anything as explicit in Sherlock as that because most of the time what we’re doing musically is providing an emotional commentary to what you see on screen. Now sometimes that might involve leading the audience. That’s our least favorite thing to do, but sometimes might do, and in that sense it’s not necessarily sort of literal or explicit. But we might be ahead of you as an audience member watching it. “How It Was Done,” that’s an example of that– we’re ahead of you. We’re playing something specifically because we know what’s real and what’s not real and we’re sort of fooling you. But I think actually music is very rarely a successful place to embed irony. Funny music does not a funny show make. Funny music makes a funny show ridiculous. Having worked on a bunch of comedies, the very, very best way to play music for comedy TV shows and films is with a completely deadpan straight face, because you can’t have the production laughing at the show. So much of comedy is about absurdity and pomposity and people taking things incredibly seriously, and the comedy is in the gap between their reality and reality in how we perceive it as an audience member. So, consequently, 99% of music for film and TV is authentically, earnestly, emotionally written without that ironic sense — which means that we feel people’s pain. We don’t minimize it. We try and, in a way, guide the audience, sometimes sort of holding their hand through things. We can be a throughline through complicated plot sequences. We can be an emotional companion really. And I don’t think it’s about telling people what to think, although there’s an obvious connection– musicologists have written about this for years– you know minor is sadder than major in the most simplistic sense, and there’s many degrees along that to go down. I hope what we do is to be there alongside the audience, feeling and expressing at the same time with them. Then somehow, on a really good day, an audience member watching the show can be experiencing their own emotional journey and they’ve got someone musically doing that at the same time. When it works really well, I think there’s a sort of a connection between the two and you always feel your emotions are validated by the music. I talked to a comedy director a long time ago from a film that I was working on called Wild Target with… oh it had Martin Freeman in it of course, and Emily Blunt, and a bunch of other people. And the first cue I was talking about to Jonathan Lynn, the director of that one, and he just said, “Whatever we do we need to give people permission to laugh.” I thought that was incredibly interesting because it’s not “you need to make them laugh with your music” but “you need to be conveying the message that it’s okay to laugh.” This is what we’re here to do and so I think that maybe Sherlock, the overall message of it is that sort of permission to feel. Which is what we’re trying to do.

MJW: Because Sherlock is comical and the scripts are comical but the score is often so emotional. I mean The Reichenbach Fall – the music just made that scene so powerful.

MP: That’s an incredible sequence, and I think it’s incredible for a bunch of reasons, because I think structurally how drama is put together and the context for it gives… If the structure’s not there and the performances aren’t there and the writing’s not there and the bigger context is not there, then you can ladle on this emotional music and people will reject it because it will seem sentimental. It will seem overblown, melodramatic, and I think what happens in Reichenbach, why that is, I think, an incredibly successful piece of TV drama, is that that level of emotional response is utterly earned. Because really, it’s the end of six films up to that point. The stakes could not be higher. It’s literally life and death. And there are heroic sacrifices made of huge scale so you genuinely have got… I mean, crikey, the performances are extraordinary. Martin [Freeman]’s performance [at Barts in] the “blood on the pavement” scene, Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Andrew Scott up on the rooftop. They’re so extraordinary. It’s so well written and so well put together that it sustained that pitch of emotional music. Though it is very gratifying to hear that the music made a great connection with a lot of people, you could take exactly the same music and put it with a lesser drama and the very selfsame people would rightly say, “That music is overblown. That music is too much.” On a really good day, and Sherlock‘s had more than one of them, then the drama sustains, and is on a big enough canvas, and the emotions are big enough, to have music that expresses itself incredibly openly and fully and passionately, and then when all the departments, everybody is doing that and it all hangs together, then that’s when it really sings out that strong.

MJW: So the change in tone from the music from when we’re left at Sherlock’s graveside [in The Reichenbach Fall] and then flips over to something fantastical and overblown [“How It Was Done” at the beginning of The Empty Hearse] it had this jarring impact for everybody who’d been waiting for those years. But the emotional intensity of “One More Miracle” [in The Reichenbach Fall] comes back around at the graveside full circle when Mary Morstan appears [in “God Rest His Soul” in The Empty Hearse].

MP: Yes. Yes.

MJW: So can you talk a little bit about Mary’s music, the waltz…

MP: Yeah. There are several parts to the music that goes with Mary because we, although it’s in the script, we didn’t want to be ahead of that big reversal in Mary’s character. So it was seeded slightly on screen and the clues were all there, for the observant viewer, in that text cloud around Mary when Sherlock first deduces her, you know…

MJW: (Whispers) Liar! (Laughs)

MP: Liar, exactly. There are things in there that would make you think but we didn’t want to… we were sort of playing John, really. We were playing John responding to Mary. And consequently… You know they were totally in love. It was good to see him with a new companion and so in the restaurant when she comes down it’s deliberately… you know John’s about to propose. It’s a romantic moment.

Mary Morstan Descending the Stairs (from The Empty Hearse) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)
Mary Morstan Descending the Stairs (from The Empty Hearse) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)

It’s not us creating music to go, “Oooh, Mary, she’s not as she seems. Oooh.” Because that’s not where, emotionally, John was at the time and I think we didn’t want to be too far ahead of it.

John Preparing to Propose to Mary / Mary Descending the Stairs (from The Empty Hearse)

The waltz– again, it’s always so much fun when Sherlock gets to play on screen. Of course it’s technically difficult when they’ve got about twenty minutes to shoot it but we’ll leave that one. But in terms of blurring the lines between score and music the characters can hear, music that’s within the context of the show, then I think a little of that goes a long way. I’m glad there’s not more of it because it can become gimmicky really quickly, and I think it’s been justified the two times it’s been used– so I think it’s justifiable that Sherlock would write something for Irene Adler and I think it’s justifiable that he’d write something for John and Mary. I haven’t seen anything else story-wise… you know we don’t want him writing something for [Charles Augustus] Magnussen [the villain of season three].

MJW: I can only imagine what that would sound like.

MP: Yes, exactly. So I think sparingly used it’s…  I think it’s incredibly effective because it allows, or we think it allows us a glimpse into Sherlock’s character, because the sort of music that someone would write, if they could write music, is an incredibly direct route to their tastes and their subconscious in a way.

MJW: I was going to ask what his influences were, what kind of composer Sherlock is.

MP: Yeah, well I think it’s interesting because there’s a slightly off-center element to the tunes that Sherlock “writes”. His language is still tonal but I don’t know whether it’s got a hint of [Béla] Bartók in it or something like that. There’s a sense where it’s… Neither the “Woman” theme nor the “Waltz for John and Mary” are squared off at the edges.

John and Mary’s Waltz composed by Sherlock Holmes (from The Sign of Three)

They’re sort of slightly unbalanced and so I think…. I don’t think there’s much to suggest that he would be either an arch-Modernist or a…. I think it’s interesting from the performances, particularly in the “Woman” episode [A Scandal in Belgravia], that there’s a sense, listening to Mrs. Hudson’s reaction and to John’s reaction, that the piece for Irene is sort of more romantic probably than they’ve heard Sherlock play before, which is why they all sort of go, “Ooh ah. You’re writing a piece for her.” So if I was going to guess, it would be a route through Bach, through Bartók, to Sherlock.

MJW: That’s awesome. So I have to ask because there’s a huge amount of people in the fandom who think that Sherlock and John should be romantically involved.

MP: (Laughs)

MJW: That’s probably no secret to any of you. So what does it mean that Irene’s and John’s, well all of the themes really, that they have a similar contour…

MP: Yeah.

MJW: Obviously with Irene it’s a very romantic song but it harkens to John and Moriarty as well. So…

MP: I think it’s sort of… If I’m honest we tend to not strain to the gender politics of it too much.

MJW: (Laughs)

MP: Whatever that may be. And we sort of… the relationship that we play musically, fortunately we can be, I think, incredibly emotional without being specific because that’s the joy of music. And so we’re one of the departments that can happily hold our heads up and just go, “Yeah, no. We’re just playing what we’re seeing.”

MJW: (Laughing) Make of it what you will.

MP: Totally. On a good day with good drama and on a good day with great drama, like Sherlock, there is so much of an emotional canvas that people can project onto that it’s not really… I was at the BFI when there were some questions posed to Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin [Freeman] and they got them to read out some fan fiction.

MJW: Oh right.

MP: You know the context of all that, it’s kind of… I think I’m probably closest to Steven Moffat’s position which is, broadly speaking, we’re privileged enough to make this stuff and so we will definitely make it to the best of our intentions, and then once it’s gone from us it’s kind of like, “Feel free”…  It’s a slightly weak analogy but you know there’d be all the cover versions that people do of Sherlock music.

MJW: The heavy metal one.

MP: Yeah, totally. I love them all, support them all, don’t want to express an opinion of whether or not I may or may not have done it like that. It’s so missing the point. Once you’ve created something it goes out into the world. It’s almost other people’s cultural property from that point, for them. And it’s a privilege if they want to take that and run with it. And then back to something I was saying earlier, it’s probably our responsibility to then just slightly close the door ourselves and concentrate on the next one.

MJW: A couple of people asked me, sent a request on: “Could you please send us a Garageband file so we can play with it?” Because they love the layering of the sound effects and whatnot.

MP: Yeah. No, that’s a really interesting thought. There are horrific clearence issues in everything we do. But I’ve not actually thought about that before and that’s a really good idea. I will put that to the hive mind.

MJW: (Laughing) They said, “Please, even it it’s not Sherlock, even if it’s something else” to kind of get a sense of how you do that… to play with.

MP: It’s difficult to chart the waters of what we talk about and what we share and what we don’t share, You know I’m obviously on record of doing events at various places where I will bring my laptop along and open up a Logic sequence, and I can’t decide quite if it’s more frustrating for everybody that wasn’t there…

MJW: I can say yes!

MP: … or for those that were there. There’s the Wizard of Oz curtain effect to factor in as well. I think we’re in a world now where through social media we share a huge amount more than we used to. If you weren’t at a film recording session 30 years ago, that was it. You got no idea what went on. You’re not going to get the score in parts. You’re not going to see what happened. You’re rarely going to see people interviewed. And now we’re sort of embracing the openness of social media, but I think it’s almost like an experiment for all of us on the creative side as to what reverse effect that has back on you and your work. I mean genuinely, everybody that I’ve ever come into contact with on Sherlock, whether online or in the real world, has been incredibly respectful and incredibly polite about boundaries. They’ve always asked what they wanted to ask or say what they wanted to say, and then it puts the responsibility back on us to set our own boundaries, and so I never resent anyone asking for anything or to see anything and I hope in return they’d respect my right to go, “You know what?”

MJW: Not so much.

MP: Yeah.

MJW: Totally understandable. So I have to say that preparing to talk to you was really eye-opening because I learned so much about kinds of music I hadn’t heard before and you’ve got such an incredible career of different kinds of music for different kinds of projects. You’re very prolific!

MP: (Laughs)

MJW: Very prolific. So I was wondering if you could talk about the difference between scoring something like Sherlock and The Shock Doctrine, which nearly killed me.

MP: Oh yeah. Totally awesome. Film and TV, I think, is a responsive, personality-based collaborative art form. And so it doesn’t exist without the film. The film doesn’t exist without the filmmaker and to an extent then the performers and the writers and the DOP [Director of Photography] and the sound guys, you know without the whole team. And so in terms of writing for film and TV, the best thing that you can do is sort of throw yourself into the cauldron with as many different and wonderful collaborators as you can, because they will take you to places where you didn’t think you’d go. So Alfonso Cuarón for instance– The Shock Doctrine and The Children of Men, which I was the music editor for, but also because of the slightly unusual way that the score was put together I ended up arranging various little bits and pieces for him. I also did some adverts and source music and the music of the future, which we did for about 20 seconds, and worked with John Tavener’s piece that we commissioned. He didn’t write to picture so I had to construct cues from that piece, which we got John Tavener to conduct himself. It was just a kind of amazing experience. Each one, each project has… Some composers get hired because of their sound and people just want it to sound like what their last film sounded like and that’s great. Good for them. That’s definitely one way of doing it. I think there are other composers out there, and I’m probably more in this camp, that get hired because of the way they respond. And that means that actually if you go back and listen to a bunch of scores that I might have done and projects that I might have been involved with, they can be incredibly varied. You may not necessarily hear an identifiable sound unless you’re listening quite hard in between all of them because I like to think, in film and TV terms, that I’ll try to disappear into the film as much as I can and the music that comes out is then authentic to that film.

MJW: Well, I started listening to some of these films with the sole purpose of trying to hear the music, and a few minutes in, the soundtrack was completely gone on me and I’m like, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Rewind.” So I thought that’s great. That’s doing your job, right?

MP: That is how I see it. And what’s left out of that is– which is why I’m now starting to make records– is that I’ve been feeling for the last few years that whilst I’ve absolutely loved being another actor, in a way… There are the actors who are the same in every part and we all know who they are, but then there are those other actors who just disappear inside the part. You’re not watching the actor, you’re watching the character, and I’ve always massively admired that. I think it’s incredibly skillful and true and honest to the production. But I think a lifetime of doing that–  if there are things you want to say in your own voice, I think… I did a tiny little string quartet thing last year called “A Stillness.”

MJW: I know it well.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 12.54.37 PM

MP: Literally it was just an afternoon session when I was doing some strings for a pop record in the morning and I kept the string quartet behind. It’s the players we use on Sherlock so it’s Caroline Dale playing cello. It’s all the usual suspects and they’re all amazing. And I’d written these pieces the week before and just said, “Headphones off, everybody. We’re going to record them for fun. We’re just going to record them.” And there was something very spontaneous about that session and something spontaneous about the motivation behind it. Back to an earlier comment about having permission to laugh– that for me was permission to just speak in my own voice. And I’m enjoying where that strand is taking me, so I’m spending a lot of time out in Berlin at the moment to record a new album at the end of May. That will be following through that “A Stillness” strand wherever it goes. It doesn’t mean that… I’m just reading some scripts for something else right now when you called. It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy, or I’ve turned my back on the idea of, immersing myself into a character. I think it’s almost a release for any potential conflict of interest, because I know when my film and TV work is less good is when I’m frustrated with what the show needs and I would rather be doing something else. Well, if you’d rather be doing something else, go and do it and then get your head back in what it needs. I was a judge this year for the BAFTA TV music awards and it was extraordinary watching and hearing a great cross-section of my colleagues’ work, all of which is awesome. That goes without saying. It’s extraordinary how different things can be and be effective. So I’d like to keep that excitement and openness about any new projects that come along. And to do that, you have to make peace with the fact that you’re expressing yourself externally as well. I played a little bit of piano last week at the Albert Hall thing. You know, back to definitions, I would more call myself an astronaut than a pianist– you know, definitely not a pianist. But I’m again making peace with the fact that it’s a way that I express myself, and if it’s a way that other people want to hear me interpret the music I write, I’ll express myself. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, so I’ll probably do a bit more playing.

MJW: I hope you do more playing. “Breaking the Horizon” is one of those pieces I listen to all the time. It’s one of those pieces that’s so important to me and I was like, “Okay, I’m a little bit nervous to talk to Michael Price so I’m going to put on…” And then I realized that, wait a minute, I’m putting on the piece of music I’d normally put on to keep calm and center myself but I’m going to be talking to the composer of that piece! So it was one of those existential moments but ultimately a joyous one. It’s phenomenal, that piece, so I hope you do continue.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 12.54.37 PM

MP: On Monday I played “The Warmth of the Sun.” I played the last piece from that little EP and it was… to survive in film and TV and the media in general, you need an extraordinary resilience because you’re constantly criticized, constantly given notes. There’s nobody out there parenting you when you’re a film and TV composer. You parent yourself, or you surround yourself with people who do, and so it’s that carapace of toughness that you need. Combining that with emotional and artistic openness is a long-running challenge and a lot of people really struggle with that. You meet fewer balanced, happy composers than you meet tortuous, chemically enhanced composers. It’s a trial for all of us because there is an inherent contradiction in remaining playful, emotionally open, and artistically open, and doing this for a living for clients. That is just an absolutely implicit struggle there. And that’s okay. That’s our job. Our job predominantly is to make that work and to bridge that, but I think for my own musical health then, doing things that don’t have the client and just have a direct connection… I love connecting with the audience and obviously the more directly I can do that, the happier I’ll be.

MJW: So I was really struck by what you mentioned about being another actor in the piece. Are there characters or work that you’ve had a hard time shaking, that stick with you emotionally?

MP: I have some lovely actor friends. Normally I would steer many miles away from the very strange breed, but I have some wonderful actor friends and when I talk to them about this, there is a kind of temperamental choice of speed of emotional connection. And I think this comes down to openness as well, which I think the more repressed British nature, if I could characterize it like that, we don’t really express our feelings. We just sit on them for a long time and they brew and stew and mutate into something quite crazy and different; then when we finally do express them, they’ve got very little connection to the earlier incident, whatever it might have been. I think I’m trying to learn, compositionally, to emotionally shift gears incredibly quickly and leave behind and move to the next place. That then actually is the sort of opposite of superficiality, because you feel very fast and very deeply and very intensely, but deal with it at the time and then move on and move through because actually… Back to Sherlock, it’s an incredibly fast moving show emotionally, not just in terms of cuts and talking and the narrative pace. It’s incredibly fleet, fast on its feet, to move from one emotional state to another, and if you’re sort of lagging behind as the composer, if you’re actually wallowing in how you felt about the last scene still, [when you are] in the next one, then you’re really not serving the drama properly. David and I are doing The Inbetweeners II movie at the moment, a follow-up to the last Inbetweeners film, and the cliché would tell you that working on horror films is lots of fun. Working on comedies is not. Back to [our earlier conversation] you play comedy best by playing it incredibly straight. The most successful comedy is constructed in great detail, forensic detail, by incredibly careful, specific, wonderful people. I worked with Richard Curtis as the music editor for Love Actually. Not a single syllable has been unconsidered to make the jokes land. So in comedy scoring, woe betide you if you step on a gag, if you start a cue too early, or you’re too heavy-handed and you kill the joke. That’s a firing offense. You have to be incredibly specific, whereas horror, for instance, as a genre is, despite the blood and gore on your screen, incredibly good fun.

MJW: Like The Tractate Middoth.

MP: Bless Mark [Gatiss, the director-producer who wrote the adaptation] and his gothic nature. There’s a certain fairground quality, I think, to lots of horror. The suspension of disbelief, which music is an incredibly important part of, is fundamentally part of the nature of music for TV and for film, as is the permission to laugh that we were talking about earlier. If there is any music [in horror] it’s almost the filmmakers reaching out to the audience and saying, “Make a contract with us now. We’re all going to suspend disbelief together. This isn’t actually real. We know these are actors. There are cameras. These are sets.” The music is sort of saying, “We’re all in it together.” This is why you don’t need as much music in the theater. I actually find music in theater, too much of it, obtrusive. Some of it is incredibly well written by very talented people, but in general I think the contract is clearer in the theater because you’re in the room with people. They’re obviously not actually going to be dead. They’re actors. There’s no sense of realism. We’re all pretending together and you don’t really need music to help you do that. The atmosphere of being in the theater does it. But in film and TV, because people are experiencing it in their own homes often, or in a cinema, but there’s no actual interaction between you and the actors on screen, it’s the music that’s creating the conditions for you to suspend your disbelief. Certain things, you need to suspend your disbelief slightly more, such as ghost stories and spooky supernatural [stories]. (We lump horror into that, which it’s not quite). That’s why there’s music in ghost stories, because we’re all saying to each other, “It’s a wonderfully enjoyable scare.” There are various well-trodden paths– where if somebody is on their own in the room and a low string chord starts, you know something bad’s going to happen– that we’ve made. We all follow through on that, which is satisfying in one way, or we throw a red herring in and move in the other direction. I don’t think psychological stories stay with you, strangely, as much as the process of working on these things.

MJW: You started off as a tonmeister at university. You’ve been a music editor, composer, so many different roles. Can you tell me a little bit about the different stages of your career and what each one of those roles entails?

MP: Yeah, I think it sort of broadly breaks down into five year chunks. After I’d graduated I went back home to Yorkshire to sponge off my parents and repay my debts. I spent about five years writing music for contemporary dance, very regional, tiny venues playing the piano, working day jobs for the first couple of years just trying to do the starving artist routine. But I was always very techie and just a massive geek really so I always enjoyed the technology. And then through a software company called Sibelius that do the music notation software (who I’d met at a very early stage) I ended up getting a job with Michael Kamen. He was an American, a very fine film composer. I spent five years with Michael Kamen and that was a PhD in assisting a film composer.

MJW: What did you learn from him?

MP: Crikey. An awful lot. I learnt about the show in show business. I learnt that if somebody’s paying you a million dollars for a film score, you’d better make it look like you’re worth a million dollars. I learnt about melody because he was a supreme melodist, and tunes are really difficult. They’re utterly, deceptively simple. [When you hear] a great tune you just think “I’ve always known that tune.” Why can’t everybody write ten of those a day? And sometimes you have directors that will say, “I want five great tunes, please, by tomorrow.” You have to gently go, “That might not be the best way to proceed in this particular situation.” (Laughs) They’re slightly harder to come by than that. I could just randomly rearrange notes in five different ways but none of them will be “Gone with the Wind” [“Tara’s Theme”].  That’s not how it works.

Michael was this force of gregarious musical nature, incredibly vivid personality, fabulous to be around. I was his assistant– myself and a guy called James Brett were side-by-side for five years working for Michael. You can imagine there would be frustrations, and they were many and various, but the further away I get from that time… The frustrations have long since disappeared and what’s left is the sense of melody and how important the joy of playing was to Michael. He was an oboe player when he was at college, and still he had the bones of a really fine oboe player there. He obviously didn’t get any time to practice, but he just loved playing. He loved playing the piano. He always wanted to play. That joy. I think I responded to working with Michael by becoming incredibly organized and incredibly together because that balance made us all work as a team. With Michael’s gregariousness and spontaneity out of the equation for the next few years, I think I was left probably unbalanced, and too spreadsheeted up, and too bothered about making everything fit. I think my progression over the last few years has been to regain some of that balance, not throw away the systems and the work ethic and the productivity, but to reconnect if I need to with the joy and the spontaneity of it.

MJW: Tell me about your work with Kamen on Metallica’s S&M album.

MP: Come on, Metallica! 80 minutes of entire craziness. A classic. There’s not a better example out there of the inspired madness of Michael Kamen. Lesser mortals would have just gone, “Okay, we’ll just play some string chords in the background of the band because nobody will ever hear it anyway.” Michael?  No, no, no he wanted for the orchestra to be as loud as Metallica and to construct new extraordinary pieces around their songs. It was as close to impossible as… There’s a “making of” video online on YouTube which captures some of it, some of the chaos (laughs), but the result as always with Michael had this incredible spirit to it.

The band were amazing– just kind of quite vulnerable at the time because they were out of their depth. They knew how to play their set in their sleep and play incredibly well, but here we were disrupting all of their patterns and disrupting everything that they knew. So, within that framework, they were incredibly open to what was happening around them, and never anything other than extremely polite to James and I. Uh, definitely one to tell your grandchildren.

MJW: (Laughs) What did you think of the end result?

MP: I think it’s extraordinary. I think it’s about as good as that kind of thing can ever be. (Laughs) Read that one as you will.

MJW:  (Laughs) I will read that as I will. You mentioned earlier John Tavener. What was that experience like for you?

MP: Back to the musical chameleon thing. John Tavener is home base for me in that John Tavener and Arvo Pärt–  that combination of contemporary composers who’ve gone through a journey themselves and ended up in a place that’s reconnected with Renaissance music and Medieval music and early music, but with a contemporary spin — is where my heart’s at, really. It’s where I am. Of all the people that I’ve met over the last 20 years, including actors and actresses and terribly famous faces, working with John Tavener and being in the studio with John Tavener is probably the number one highlight. His music means something. It’s not about the download sales or the demographic or what will play in classic FM or all those kind of things we have to deal with in the contemporary music world. I don’t have a religious faith, but the sense of music being a conduit for people, and an expression of something other than the every day, is incredibly important to me. That was me meeting David Beckham. That was me meeting Tom Cruise. For me… whoever’s on your list– that’s me and John Tavener. I still haven’t met Arvo Pärt. I hope I do. He’s getting on a bit now. To work with people who are incredibly themselves in their music, and incredibly dedicated to it, is simultaneously glorious and slightly chastening, as I’m a bit of a media hooker most of the time.

MJW: What’s your approach to composing for something that’s going to be on a huge screen versus something like Sherlock on a television or even on DVDs on a laptop?

MP: We talk about this all the time both from a technical and an artistic point of view. Technically speaking, you really do have to take account for the fact that… I mean the numbers for Sherlock this time around for the first episode – I think it’s something like nine million people watched it in the UK at the time, three and a half million people watched it on a catch up but time shifted, and then another three and a half million on the iPlayer. Most people who are watching it on iPlayer are not watching it on super duper smart TVs with a great sound system.

MJW: I watched the first Sherlock episode of season three live on iPlayer and it took me three hours to get through it because I watched it 30 seconds at a time while it buffered.

MP: (Laughs)

MJW: So I really got a sense of…

MP: Yeah for you it’s like a Beckett thing. Pinteresque pauses. I can remember sending a demo to a director for a film that I didn’t get in the end, which probably isn’t surprising in context. It was for a movie, for a thriller. I was, at the time, really interested in sub-bass and the effects of modulating different sub-bass signals together to provide a very interesting low, rumbling palette in the cinema. So, I sent him an example of this attached, to his film. He sent me a note back going, “There’s probably been a mistake. There’s no music on this at all.” I checked it and said, “No, no, no, no, no. It’s awesome. In my studio it sounds fabulous.” And sent it back to him again and he said, “No, there definitely isn’t any music.” As I’m listening to it on my laptop, there’s no music on it. It’s like, “Yeah. Headphones?” [And he said,] “No, I don’t like headphones.” Yeah. Just. Okay. [Then I said to him,] “So nothing I’m doing is audible to you at all because your speakers don’t go low enough.” There are various things that we can do in the cinema with dedicated sub-woofer channels and huge speakers and a huge dynamic range that you just literally can’t do [for film and TV]. So you have to take a different technical approach to try, in the mixing and various of the sonics, to try to give your music scale when you’re listening with small speakers. So that’s the technical side, and then the artistic side-  I think it is different. It’s a different form of communication. It’s going to be experienced by people in a different way. Cinema is a communal experience, in general, I mean, obviously, there’s a crossover but, in general, the ideal cinema experience is shared in a darkened room. People have paid and left their house to go and see [the movie] and the screen is huge and the connection with movie stars is very different from people’s connection with TV stars. Talking to my friends who are either TV actors or film actors, the film actors will say that people don’t come up and speak to them in the street. They just look and point. But TV actors, they will come up and talk to you because they think that they’re [your] friends, particularly if you’re in a soap opera or something like that. They think they know people who are on the TV, and I think that bleeds through into drama because the way that things are framed, the way that the drama plays out in communication. One of the reasons Sherlock is so successful, I think, is that the communication, the relationship of the viewers with the lead characters, is so distinct and so strong and they’ve come into their house. It’s not like a movie. It’s a more intimate experience. So that doesn’t mean it has to be in D minor not A minor. There’s no literal correlation, but it means that we do probably think about things more personally in TV, and more spatially and on a on a wider canvas in a movie.

MJW: How would Sherlock sound different if it were made for the film screen?

MP: I think if it was for the screen it would all be different. My views probably diverge slightly from Steven Moffat’s here. I know he’s gone on the record saying when people ask him, “Why don’t you make a Sherlock movie?” he says, “We are making Sherlock movies.” I can totally see his point. But I think the construction would be slightly different. I think the framing would be different. I mean Paul McGuigan’s an awesome, awesome film director and set the visual style really. And, of course, you’ve talked to Steve Lawes, who’s an amazing DOP [Director of Photography]. It would be interesting to have their take on it, whether their shot-by-shot choices would be the same.

MJW: Why didn’t I ask Steve that question? I’m going to have to get back to him. (Laughs)

MP: Exactly. Come back here! They might say not. It might be something that exists in mine and David’s heads, but we know it’s different. And, practically speaking, we’d have like ten times the money so we could have a massive orchestra, which would be nice, of course. There’s something about the sound palette that we created for Sherlock that was 90% out of aesthetic and artistic choices and 10% out of expediency for budget reasons because there’s just some things we couldn’t have. We couldn’t afford them, so it’s become that palette. We don’t play Sherlock with a full orchestra. It’s a hybrid so it’s strings on top of lots of things we made for ourselves and somehow that suits the scale for us of the show. We actually…. Well, I’ll speak for myself. I think if I had the option of doing the next Sherlocks with symphony orchestra and all that implies, I’m not sure that I would choose that. If it was a movie, I’m sure I would.

MJW: What about “Lestrade– The Movie”?

MP: (Laughs) We obviously have a good time choosing track titles. That’s our one time to be basically comedic. Eke in jokes. Of course he’s got to have his own show. They’ve all got to have their own shows.

MJW: So this is another fan question. At what point in the process of creating the show do you come in? Because you have to know a little bit. Did you know the solution to Reichenbach when you were composing for it?

MP: Yeah. We get scripts at the script stage and I try and go through as many read-throughs as I can, because that’s the first thing that sets your subconscious ticking. We don’t tend to go on set because usually we’re doing something else at the time. Our schedules all overlap and various things. The key time that we first really, really engage with something is at the spotting session. So at the spotting session we sit with the director and the producers and anybody that wants to be there and we talk through the film in great detail.

MJW: Is this pre-production?

MP: This is after. This is when the cut is probably not exactly locked, but at least nearly locked– enough for it to be really relevant. So this is after-shoot, after they’ve been editing for a few weeks. This is why music has so little time. TV schedules are compressed into a very short window, so really the time that we’ve got to do director-picture work is from picture-lock to the dub. That’s the window.

MJW: Short, right?

MP: Yeah, exactly. Because if you do too much… I mean you can start writing music to picture while they’re still editing it, but you’re going to have to do it again because they’re going to edit it. So it’s sort of slightly, not utterly pointless, but slightly pointless and slightly thankless. It’s really at that spotting meeting that the subtext and everything that’s going to happen on screen are discussed, and it’s at that point that we can raise any queries with the filmmakers. There’s a point David’s made once before, but I really agree with, is that when you bring your film to the spotting session with the composers, the composers– we will react to the film that you’ve actually shot rather than the one that you wanted to shoot. That can be quite a vulnerable time for the director and the editor and the filmmakers because their script might have said, “10,000 elephants rush over the hill,” and then on the day you might not have got that many elephants. You show it to us and we go, “Okay, you’ve got six elephants. If we make too much of a big noise it will sound like six elephants and a huge load of noise.” And the director might go, “No, no, no but we need to feel there’s 10,000 elephants.” And we go, “Nobody else knew there was 10,000 elephants. You’re going to have to let that go.” And in lots of different ways I think spotting sessions are very emotional and they can be quite up and downy for everybody concerned because there’s a realization of what they haven’t got.  But then also a realization of what they have got, and also where we, as composers, will be able to help and smooth over some things which maybe they didn’t get– do some transitions which work because of what the music’s doing and not because of what anybody else is doing. In terms of future story plot points, then, things do get discussed at those spotting sessions, sometimes directly or at other times obliquely or in jest. When we were spotting Reichenbach we were going, “Come on, what happens?” And we got the answers that we got which were enough practical information for our own curiosity, probably not enough for us to then…

MJW: He didn’t really die.

MP: Yes, exactly. If you carry on watching he’s got this. Yeah, okay. So for instance we hadn’t seen the last episode of season three with Mary’s reversal [in His Last Vow] before we wrote all the music for Mary, and I think that was right because the audience hadn’t…

MJW: So none of you had seen it… or none of you knew what was coming?

MP: Well, I don’t think we did.

MJW: Amanda Abbington said she didn’t know until the end.

MP: No, we didn’t because they shot two episodes [The Empty Hearse and The Sign of Three] and then there’s a hiatus and then they came back to shoot the third. So no, we didn’t know. We did, for instance, the wedding [in The Sign of Three]– we did all of the wedding without knowing the reversal, which is as it should be really, because then we’re legitimately as shocked.

MJW: So there’s no nudge, nudge, wink, wink where we can go back later and go, “That was a hint that we missed.”

MP: I think it takes us back again to the fact that music should, or in my opinion, music should be emotionally honest with you as much of the time as it can be, really. That’s when it’s at its best.

MJW: So about the waltz. I mean [John Watson and Mary Morstan] they’re not waltzing very well…

Sherlock Playing His Waltz for John and Mary (from The Sign of Three) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)
Sherlock Playing His Waltz for John and Mary (from The Sign of Three) (Used with kind permission from Hartswood Films)

MP: (Laughs) That’s the dance department.

MJW: Was it written with that in mind– that maybe the characters themselves wouldn’t necessarily be expert dancers?

MP: I think the kind of charming amateurness of the musical life of Sherlock… I think [it] is just improbable that John and Mary would be fabulous dancers. Well, Sherlock does that pirouette, which is obviously just a hint at backstory, but I think that there’s a sense of… The best thing for those moments is to have something real-ish within the context of what you can. So I think it was right that they weren’t dancing particularly well, and if Sherlock was playing some sort of huge Paganini thing– that would just be ridiculous, so yeah.

MJW: You modulate. You modulate, right?

MP: Yeah, yeah.

MJW: So switching gears a little bit, I’m dying to see Delicious. I can’t wait to see it.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 12.54.37 PM

MP: Ah yes! Hurrah! Yay! (Plays a drum roll)

MJW: Can’t wait. Can you tell me about it? You produced it, right?

MP: Yeah, I did. The writer-director is a woman called Tammy Riley-Smith. It was one of those decisions where it’s like an episode of Fame where you just go, “Hey! why don’t we make it ourselves?” And so we did! It was on an absolute shoe-string. It’s a deeply stressful, sort of ridiculous thing to do. In hindsight, what was I thinking? It was just crazy. But we, by force of personality and lunches at the Groucho Club, got Louise Brealey to commit, and lovely Adrian Scarborough, who is amazing, and Sheila Hancock and Finty Williams and Nicholas Rowe, who’s also amazing, so we got this great cast. I think Tammy’s script is very, again very heartfelt and it kind of… It chimed in with a lot of things. I felt it was a film that I’d like to see exist. The process of going behind the scenes and producing and being responsible for the money and tax and all these sort of things– it’s not something I’d necessarily dive into again in any great hurry, but it was an incredible experience. So, now we’re at the stage of trying to get it out, flying into the world. It was interesting scoring a film that I produced. Traditionally I should then be able to fire myself or cut my own budget…

MJW: No strings here!

MP: Yes, exactly. I give myself ridiculous notes, so I type up 12 pages of A form nonsense and email it to myself at midnight just to simulate what it’s actually like with certain producers. Yeah, it’s a terrific story and I think that the concept that people, without a studio backing or a big production company backing, can get up and make their stories as well as possible with the incredible help and great skill of a lot of other people… I think it’s kind of a heartening story and what we’re, hopefully, finding, this summer is when it will be in the world. It will be out in the world this summer one way or another. In the new distribution models, and with social media and with iTunes being worldwide, and with lots of other things, then the element of telling stories and being able to share them and not make fortunes but just be able to make things just pay for themselves really, up to that point, just be viable– I think it’s incredibly empowering and incredibly good because you meet…. Film is an incredibly potent way of telling a story. And, in many ways, it’s probably the most complete artform that we’ve got. It shouldn’t be just restricted to those with a million pounds plus to spend. You should be able to create something artistically worthwhile on less, if you’re prepared to work hard enough and long enough for a few years.

MJW: Well, it’s especially difficult for a female director, right, in the industry.

MP: Female writer-director. I mean as a white middle-class male I sort of waltz through life blithely being the default gender and racial type in most of the situations I’m in. And so having been the producer of a film with a female director, a female writer, a film about a woman, because Louise’s character is absolutely central, and also not about an easy woman, not about someone who is just kind of happy and smiley and, “Yeah it’s all great!” It’s about a woman with an eating disorder who’s complicated, who at times is unlikable. I find myself in meetings with distribution companies where, literally, I’m sat across the table with men my own age and older as they just look at me and go, “Women don’t go to the cinema.” I go just like, “What are you talking about?!” [And they say,] “There’s no market for this because it’s got a woman in it.”

MJW: That’s a nightmare because you think that’s something out of the past.

MP: It’s absolutely, physically true.  I find myself getting more and more right on and cross just about the stupidity of it really, because my experience, direct experience with the audience for Sherlock has been… It’s simply not true that there isn’t a female audience out there and that they’re not intelligent and that they… So they don’t want cheesy rom coms. They don’t want the lowest common denominator stuff. There’s an intelligent audience out there who want to be entertained and challenged. If we can do that, even in a humble way, with a film that costs significantly less than a terrace house where I live… When it does come out, there will be a huge sense of achievement. Delicious is a tattoo on my heart. It’s been such a labor of love for so long. And it’s got a lovely, sweet score actually, because the band that I used, The Budapest Cafe Orchestra, are a great little group of double bass, guitar, fiddle, and accordion, so it’s sort of like a French-style score, almost like a Woody Allen film. And we just played very freely because I could set the parameters for the process as the producer, then I got to do a lot of things… I got to do the score in the way that I think scores should be done, even though we had a small budget.

MJW: It’s great to have that control.

MP: Yeah.

MJW: Another fan question related to all this is what about women in your industry. Are there many female composers, music editors?

MP: There are some extraordinary ones but numerically speaking they are definitely the minority. So I would say I know one, two, three, four, five– five female composers in London doing well. We’ve got figures like Rachel Portman, who’s won an Oscar, Debbie Wiseman, Nina Humphreys, you know there are definitely… Jennie Muskett. I often wonder why that is [that there are so few], whether it’s a quick stereotype that female composers can only write for certain things.  They tend to be genre pigeonholed into wildlife or comedies or romances…

MJW: Rom coms…

MP: Yeah. Whereas Anne Dudley, for instance, wrote a terrific score for American History X— dark and menacing and moody. She’s an awesome composer. I really don’t know whether that means politically that there needs to be a positive discrimination rebalancing of it, which is sort of impossible in an utterly freelance industry, or what. I’m not sure. But I think, and this is my approach to gender discrimination in all walks of life, I think we’re all missing out. We’re hearing a male voice and we’re not hearing a female voice in music and either they’re very similar, in which case we’re just missing out on the talents of half the population, or there are some intrinsic differences in which case I’d like to hear them! That would be great. How interesting would that be?

MJW: So what advice would you give to a young woman who wanted to go in and take the degree that you took? Would the advice be different for a woman versus a young man who was trying to break into the field?

MP: Yeah. I think there is… I think it’s easier for guys to fit into a mold because they see the precedent of hundreds and hundreds of people having done it before them. I think, for a certain kind of woman, independently-minded woman, I hope they would see that as a great challenge and stick two fingers up to all the boys and just go and nail it, really. And also don’t be frightened by the technology, because it’s fair to say that the majority of the female composers that I know and work with and really admire as musicians, the set of those female composers, the proportion of them that are incredibly techie, that proportion is lower than it is in “the guy community”. We spend our days off reading tech magazines and playing with computers and things because we’re incredibly dull and this is what we do. And so, consequently, because music has become ever more technical, the technical infrastructure necessary to turn things around to a very high standard very quickly, which is what we all have to do now, means that… When you get past a certain point you can hire people to do all this stuff for you, but when you are working your way up the ladder you have to do it all yourself and that’s where I think the halt in the progression is. If there are women composers that have started their careers that are not as fluent with the technology and/or confident with it, then they can become overtaken by more confident men in that technological area. No reason why they can’t do it and if they have a few hits they can pay someone to do it. (Laughs)

MJW: But don’t be afraid of the technology and just dig in and do it.

MP: Yeah.

MJW: Did you make it to the top of Kilimanjaro [when you were on the crew for The Mountain Within]?

MP: I did, yeah. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Totally awesome, ridiculously good… I’m associated with a charity called Heart and Soul, which is a performing arts charity for people with learning disabilities in London. The Kilimanjaro trip was an unrelated precursor to that, in that it was a documentary about a mixed group of people with disabilities, some physical, some learning, going up to the top of the mountain. It was just the most extraordinary sense that character is more important than status. In a nutshell, the project was that the group of disabled climbers would all be buddied up with an able-bodied person, and those buddy relationships were supposed to help to take everybody to the top. They rather quickly broke down, which is incredibly interesting. The film’s rather beautiful in that it’s a modest but strangely life-changing film, The Mountain Within. I think it’s on streaming things… So to be able to go up as part of the film crew and literally hold the boom mic and be part of the crew all the way to the top was quite extraordinary. I actually rewatched The Mountain Within with a friend the other night who hadn’t seen it and asked to watch it, and what was the most striking was that you could see the physical change in everybody over the course of ten days, from seeing them at the start in the airport and then seeing them down the other side of the mountain. Although you don’t see us as the crew, or only a couple of times in the film, because we tried to stay out of it….

MJW: One time you appear in the film, right, and you’re like, “Ahhhhhhh…”

MP: (Laughs) It’s unbelievably exhausting, ridiculously so. Particularly because we had to film people, so that meant we had to be up before everybody and we had to go to bed after them, and we had to run ahead of them so we could film them coming up to things and then hang behind them to film from the back. It was nuts. What we thought we were doing, I have no idea. But an incredibly powerful thing. I’m working with Kyle Portbury who was the director of that, working with him again at the moment on a three part TV show in Australia that he’s doing. He’s quite a force of nature. So yeah, that was incredible.

MJW: What’s it sound like at the top?

MP: Musically or just in terms of what’s the sound like?

MJW: Both.

MP: It was the one big thing that was different… Kyle and I talked a lot about this before we went up and we talked about it when we came down. I thought getting to the top of it would be a triumphant moment, until you actually try and do it. What you realize is that past about 15,000 feet – Kilimanjaro is 19,600 – It’s almost 20,000 feet. Those last 5,000 feet there is no air to speak of. It’s an extremely high altitude. It’s the bizarrest feeling. Musically, the scenes where the people actually do get to the summit are kind of slightly hallucinatory and very high and thin sounding, because that was very much my experience of being at high altitude.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 12.54.37 PM

There wasn’t a sense of triumph of getting there, but on the other hand, there was a deep sense of reaching a physical goal. There’s not enough air for trumpets up there. There’s no brass playing. Your body’s telling you to leave very quickly. You’re not supposed to be up there.

MJW: Birds? Wind?

MP: All of those things, but also a sense of quietness really. You go through different micro-climates as you go, so you start in rainforest, effectively, and then go lots of different kinds of vegetation, but the top there is just like being on the surface of the moon. There’s no vegetation. It’s just rocks and ice. No wildlife at all, right at the top, because why would you go up there? (Laughs)

MJW: It’s not like you get to the top and you’re all triumphant, “Ta-da, I’m here!” It’s like, get up and go back down?

MP: Get up and it’s just, you’re like, “Whoaaaaaa.” It’s just amazing. I recommend that people do find that if they can, find “the mountain within” and go up Kilimanjaro because it is awesome.

MJW: So wow, I could keep going and going, but I want to be mindful of your time. My last questions – If you could have worked on any film in the past what would it be? And the second is, if you could have your dream project of the future what would it be?

MP: Interesting. Films from the past I would have loved to have been working on – Shakespeare films with Laurence Olivier. I would have loved to have done Henry V.

MJW: (Laughs) That is such an unexpected answer! Tell me why.

MP: I love films when they’re larger than life sometimes and I love the challenge of bringing Shakespeare, because I love theater, of bringing Shakespeare into film. I love the ambition of doing that. And I love the fact that, at the time, they were using people like William Walton, who is a glorious composer, but also that he had trouble with the studios getting his score through and various issues with that but… So yeah, I would have loved to have stood in for Walton. That would have been awesome. And what would be a future dream project? Because I think making films is about relationships, I think I would not say a specific project but I would like to say it would probably be the tenth project with a particular director, and it almost doesn’t matter which of the lovely directors I work with that it would be, but it would be that sense of continuing like Steven Spielberg and John Williams. I just love the fact that when they do a film together they have not started from a position of getting to know each other. They’re starting from a position of ultimate respect and trust, which is why John Williams’ process is better than any of the rest of us. He gets more time and more money and he deserves it, obviously, an absolute legend. Much of our time working on films is devoted to maintaining political good will, and persuading people of future possibilities. The more you work with people, the more you can all trust each other, and when you trust each other you can be more artistically daring, and when you can be more artistically daring, you’ve got a fighting chance of doing something remarkable that people will remember. I think it would be the tenth film with any of the great directors that I work with.

MJW: That sounds fantastic. Very interesting. Thank you so much!

MP: Absolute pleasure.


Michael Price is one of the UK’’s most sought-after composers. He has recently won a Royal Television Society Award plus a BAFTA nomination and two Emmy nominations for the critically acclaimed BBC series Sherlock, which he scores with David Arnold.

Michael is currently recording an album for Erased Tapes.

Mary Jo Watts (mid0nz) is a 43-year-old American Sherlock fangirl. A blogger with an academic background in media studies and film theory, MJ writes meta-analyses about Sherlock’s visuals, soundtrack, props and set dressings.

MJ thanks: Hartswood Films for permission to use the Sherlock screen shots; Mia for the “Redbeard” meets “Watson’s Theme” piano overlay;  postcardsfromtheoryland for the magnificent music meta, questions, and conversations; loudest-subtext-in-television for inspiration; and my fantastic betas: Angie and italicized-period. A special thanks to italicized-period for her meticulous care and conversation, and eldritch-horrors for her tremendous musical insight. All mistakes are mine. 

8 responses to Music to Picture: An Interview with Composer Michael Price

  1. Vivian says:

    Fantastic! Truly enjoyed this, and learned so much. He seems like a lovely person and so very talented. Thank you for your dedication and professionalism, and sharing your passion with us.

  2. Kimberly says:

    This was an incredibly interesting and thoughtful read. What a talented individual he is. I loved all the sound snippets you included, it really added to the information. Thanks so much!

  3. What an incredible article. Not just the informed interview, but the addition of the music pieces made it so accessible. Thank you for introducing Price’s other music as well!

  4. Devon says:

    This must be my favorite thing in existence, thank you very much!

  5. edens6thday says:

    Thank you for this Mid0nz. Wonderful! What a profoundly thoughtful interview. Trust + respect + daring = remarkable!

  6. Linda says:

    Learning about all the pieces that go into creating a whole like Sherlock is so interesting. I especially like the bit about “How It Was Done” being intentionally obnoxious :-). Also I’m am going to search out Delicious.

  7. Another absolutely brilliant interview. Thanks so much for putting in the effort to make this really special and informative.

    I love Michael Price’s response to finding that the Sherlock soundtrack has been so very embraced by fans:

    When I get sent videos on YouTube of people playing the tunes, it’s incredibly heartwarming and every one genuinely makes me smile, because it reminds me of when I was a kid and I heard a tune and I wanted to try to play that tune and yeah, so that’s incredibly gratifying to be part of the culture.

    That’s really a lovely way of putting it.

    It’s also so much fun how they have themes for each character. The whole extroverted being Sherlock/introverted internal-Sherlock part was very moving. Never thought of it that way before.

    And the things he says about women in his industry and indeed in the film industry in general are so interesting! I’m glad that he is interested in hearing more female voices in the industry and that he’s actively working to make films like Delicious with Loo.

    Also, thanks so much for the music soundbites! They really help me to follow along. (And now I want that “whole album of remixes of the show,” please!)

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