Ben Palmer on Film with Live Orchestra: John Williams

Telephone interview 3rd October 2018


Ben Palmer is Artistic Director of Covent Garden Sinfonia and Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck. In the 2018/19 season he makes his debuts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Hallé, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Sinfonietta de Lausanne, the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Cinematic Sinfonia and the Pilsen Philharmonic, as well as returning to the BBC Singers, the London Mozart Players, Grimethorpe Colliery Band and the Orchestra of Opera North. Other recent guest conducting engagements include the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, and the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg.


He is one of Europe’s foremost specialists in conducting live to film, leading more than 40 film-with-orchestra performances each year. In 2018/19 he will conduct Jurassic Park (the 25th anniversary UK tour), Star Wars, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Home Alone, Casino Royale, Back to the Future, The Pink Panther (European premiere) and Brassed Off, in venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, the KKL Luzern, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, and Symphony Hall Birmingham.



Well, this is a bit different from Haydn isn’t it?


Yes, it’s a little bit different from Haydn. It’s funny, when I started to conduct these films (I did my first one at the end of 2013) I thought that this was about as different as it’s possible to be from Haydn and historically informed performance (that we were talking about last time).[1] That’s all about spontaneity, that almost improvisatory quality. You do your research, find out how it all works and then in the concert you can just forget it and be feel free. We talked about the “rules”. I thought conducting films was the polar opposite of that. But actually, the more of them that I’ve done, the more I realise it’s actually another side, if you like, of the historically informed coin. What you’re trying to do is make the orchestra sound like the LSO, a studio orchestra, an orchestra in the 1940s, or whatever was on the original soundtrack. That requires preparation and research, but the amazing thing is that you’ve usually got a first hand source. You’ve got the original film release (or a DVD re-release), as well as the soundtrack. You can also see not only what was in the score, but also how that often ends up being different from what ended up on the film. It’s totally fascinating, the more films that I’ve done, the closer I’ve felt it comes to the other conducting work that I do.


Ah, my initial thought was that it really would be the opposite. Not necessarily because of the style, but because of the way you are a slave to what’s happening, visually.


Well, in that sense, you’re completely right. The most important thing is being in the right place, and that can be extremely challenging. There are a number of different ways that one stays in touch with the film, which vary depending on what type of film it is. The most basic one, which is also the most challenging, is for silents like Charlie Chaplin films, Metropolis, the Neil Brand scores I’ve done, or The Snowman. There’s no clock, click track, or punches and streamers – it’s just the film. You learn the film by watching it and working out where the cues are in it, and where they match with the music. I’ve developed my own system of notation to mark up the score, which I think of like a grid, superimposed over the music [see Ben’s images below and at end of interview]. That means at any given time I know exactly where I am, or where I should be, if I’m a fraction ahead or behind.

So what do you actually do with this grid – do you mark all of this in the score?


Yes. There are moments in The Gold Rush where there’s a title card at the beginning, which has thirty to thirty-five seconds of music. There’s nothing you can do, apart from choose the right tempo. When you come out of it at the other end, you’ve got about a half second window to either be correct or not – if it’s a crotchet = 104 you’re fine, if it’s a crotchet = 102 or 106 you’re in trouble! You have to be really, really on top of the tempos for those sorts of things. It’s a case of knowing the film well enough that you can adjust, and also to know in which direction you have to adjust, and by precisely how much.


When you watch people that are not so experienced doing it, quite often you see that flicker of indecision where they realise they’re not in the right place – perhaps they don’t know if they’re ahead or behind, or by how much. One of the things that I think I have gradually learned to do very well is to know instantly if I’m slightly out, and to have confidence to solve it decisively and, above all, calmly. Essentially the most important thing is to know where the next synch point is – be it in four bars, eight bars, or twenty-five bars – so as to disrupt the flow of the music as little as possible in order to hit it. Sometimes it’s possible to solve a problem instantly, of course, and (in theory at least) the better prepared you are, the less likely you are to be even, let’s say, half a second out.


Oh my word.


And all of that means that you just have to know the film, but you also have to really understand how to move an orchestra around. You have to insist, all the time in rehearsals, that they follow every wiggle of your elbow.


I can imagine you would really suit this because you have such an eye/ear for detail. And I can also imagine some conductors really not working well with this.


I can imagine that too.


It’s really an art, isn’t it?


Actually, it is a real art. The great challenge is being in the right place and making sure that, when somebody punches someone or the bucket gets thrown on the screen, then the bang lines up with the orchestra. Basically you have to do all the other things that you do when you’re normally conducting, whilst also keeping the orchestra within a quarter of a second of where they’re supposed to be for two, or two and a half hours.


Do you always have an interval?


Usually for the more recent blockbuster films, but not so often for silents. All of the John Williams films, for example, are adapted to have an intermission. They usually find a dramatic place in the film about halfway through, and then music is cobbled together to make what they rather unattractively call an ‘outro’. After the interval there’s an entr’acte, which leads back into the scene where you left off the film before the break. It’s often very exciting because the audience gets to hear an extra bit of music. In Raiders of the Lost Ark there’s an entr’acte called ‘Swashbuckler’ – it’s just terrifically exciting. Then it goes straight back to them looking for the ark, it’s fantastic.


Anyway, silent films like the Chaplins and so on, are done with no click, clock track, or punches and streamers – you must learn the film. It’s the hardest way and it’s ferociously difficult and pretty precarious, but it’s incredibly fun and amazingly satisfying. Then you’ve got films like Brassed Off, Psycho or Casablanca, where I have a clock in front of me on the monitor (or on a second monitor) that ticks in seconds. In the case of Psycho or Casablanca it’s a very old school analogue one that goes round smoothly in seconds (a sweep clock). Then written into the score is the relevant timing for where things happen. Of course, I go through those very carefully, because often I don’t find they’re quite accurate enough – it says 3 mins 27 secs but I think it’s 3 mins 27.33 or 3 mins 27.75 etc. Actually, for me that makes a real difference, especially in relation to my mental ‘grid’.


Often, with those films, I will also use a lot of my silent film notation as a kind of belt and braces. I’ve got the clock that tells me where I need to be, but often (for instance, some of the march sequences in Brassed Off) the clock’s just not very useful – none of the first or second beats of the bar line up with any of the seconds. But there are some really useful scene changes that happen every two or four bars, so it’s much easier to stay in time with the film when I’m doing that. If you’re really well prepared and you understand explicitly how the film works with the clock, then you stay safe. The least interesting way of staying in synch is having a click track, used in films such as Under the Skin (the Mica Levi score), which we did in May. It’s not so interesting if the orchestra has the click too, because you’re wedded to it, and there’s no leeway – you’re only a human metronome – but if I have the click and no one in the orchestra does, then I can be more free.


The last one, and the one that I use most often now, is the Newman system, ‘punches and streamers’. Alfred Newman (who wrote the Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare) pioneered this system for recording music to picture, by scraping the actual film to make a line moving from left to right, leading to hole punched in the film. The line was called the streamer, and the flash caused by the hole was called the punch.


Of course, it’s all done digitally now, but the principle is the same: the streamer is a vertical line that crosses the screen from left to right. When it hits the edge, there’s a white flash in the centre of the screen, which is the punch. I have a monitor in front of me that shows the film, with punches and streamers superimposed. The punches usually show first beats of the bar – if the music is slow there may be a streamer every bar, or every two, four, eight etc. bars the faster the music gets. I also have a bar count in the top right, which is helpful while you wait for the next streamer. There are colour-coded ones that mean different things: yellow ‘warning’ streamers give you some beats ‘for nothing’, either for the start of a cue, or a tempo change within a cue; green cues shows the starts of cues, important synch points or important musical moments; and red cues signify a cut-off. It’s essentially a language, though, as with click tracks, the ‘feel’ can vary from film to film.


The punches and streamers are set by different people, and they all have a slightly different feel for where the ‘1’ is. Some of them are done very very precisely so they match the original soundtrack, and some of them are not. So, you have to choose whether you’re going with the punches or actually whether you want to try and recreate what’s on the original soundtrack. In E.T., for example, there are a few places where I deviate – if you’re following my monitor it looks like I’m going wrong, but actually I’ve essentially rebarred the punches – so as to restore the rubato as it was recorded.


These different methods, are they usually related to the era in which the film was made?


Basically all of the John Williams films (so Jaws, E.T., Raiders, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park) and films like Back to the Future and Casino Royale – those are all punches and streamers. That’s like the industry standard, that’s how films are recorded now. There’s a click, but usually the conductor will have punches and streamers as well. Casino Royale has a lot of pre-recorded percussion that is on the track. The live orchestra can’t play all that percussion – you’d need an army of players, and some of it synthesised anyway – so there’s a lot of [makes percussive noises in a regular rhythm] that goes on under a lot of the score. You also have the title song ‘You Know My Name’ where the singer and the guitars are on the track and the orchestra accompanies live, so the click is essential.


Some conductors put the whole orchestra on click. When it was done at the Royal Albert Hall (the premiere) the whole orchestra was on a click. For the German premiere (in February this year) I had a click, as well as the percussion, trumpets and trombones. When I’ll do it with the Hallé Orchestra later this year (in December) I’ll have click throughout, and the kit player only for the title song. I specify very clearly with the tech guys when the orchestra have the click and when not. So that means I can listen to the click in my ear and in some of the more romantic slower ones, actually let the orchestra move a little bit ahead of it and then pull them back into the big release for when he kisses the girl (or whatever happens) to enable a bit more of that natural flow that makes music human. Sometimes I notice with modern soundtracks that it sounds as if they’re recorded with click because it’s so inflexible. You want the music to swoop and sway, but it can’t if everybody’s got ‘tick tock tick tock’ in their ears.


Yeah, I used to practice with a metronome, when I had to work with a difficult passage. It works really well, because if you speed up gradually over half an hour you’re playing faster than you could have imagined possible. But it isn’t natural, it’s the most infuriating thing.


Well this is it – everybody has this experience at some time or another. The first time you play something with a metronome, or the first time you do a recording with a click track, you think ‘why has the click sped up?’ or ‘why has the click slowed down?’ Actually, as you say, we’re humans, we’re not machines. In a funny way that’s why E.T. is quite a difficult one to conduct, because there’s rubato – it’s really free. Jurassic Park is much more regular on the whole, although there’s quite a lot of ebb and flow on the end credits. Well it certainly feels as though there is ebb and flow in the credits. This is another weird thing – in the score there’s a tempo and you practice it. You have to spend hours and hours – we’re talking weeks, if not months preparing each film. A silent film like The Gold Rush, the Chaplin film that I do quite a lot, is eighty-eight minutes long. I think the longest moment we don’t play for is about sixteen seconds, in the middle. So it’s basically eighty-seven and a half minutes of insanely hard music, all of which is mickey mousing the whole time [when the action on screen is mirrored in the music].


Oh that’s interesting, because when I was listening through some of the John Williams films, I thought I could hear him getting more and more sophisticated as his career progresses.


Ah, no, I’m not sure I’d necessarily buy that, but maybe the actual films get progressively better as they go? What I was astonished about when I first learned Home Alone and E.T. (the first ones I did) was essentially how few ideas there are. There are probably about four or five ideas, maximum, in each film, and that comprises 90 to 95 percent of the material. So it’s really not an exaggeration to say it’s ‘Wagnerian’ in that sense. Jurassic Park is a really good example of that – there are very, very few bits of music that aren’t in some way related to the main themes that one recognises.


Also what I find fascinating is that there are a handful of John Williams thumbprints which pop up in all of the scores. Things like low unison strings with slightly syncopated rhythms – you get that in Raiders, E.T., Jurassic Park, all of them. In the scoring, the doubling of certain lines is very similar. You often get the horns playing high doubled by the third trumpet. You often have the harp, piano or synth playing four semiquavers, and then four wind instruments will play one each of those semiquavers, sustained. That’s all over Jaws, it’s in Jurassic Park as well. I have to say the more and more of these that I conduct the more convinced I am that he’s just one of the greatest composers, full stop. I’d say that without hesitation, I think he’s astonishing. But like any great composer he has a language. And if you do a lot of it you get to know all the peculiarities of his notation, which one tends not to find in other people’s music. Once you’ve done lots of his scores you tend to understand what they mean and it makes perfect sense.


For instance, it’s quite old fashioned, but if he’s written a long note, a semibreve or two bars of semibreves – he will tie that note to a quaver. The quaver means you just stay to the bar line, it’s a bit like Elgar. The reason you know that you don’t play the quaver is a) it’s because you can hear they never play them on the recordings but also b) because someone else will enter on the first beat of the bar with a completely different harmony. If you actually played the first quaver together it would be completely dissonant. So it’s saying ‘don’t you dare stop that note early, please go to the bar line.’ You always have to say to the orchestra ‘don’t play the quaver’. In that sense he’s quite old fashioned, which I love. The craft is absolutely immaculate in every way. Everything sounds well and works brilliantly for the orchestra.


He works with a team of orchestrators. From what I understand he does a sketch that is like an expanded piano reduction that has basically all of the detail there. His orchestrators work with him, it’s not so much that they’re deciding what to do but they’re realising what they know he’ll want.


Yeah – so they’re doing the donkeywork for him.


Well, you know, he’s in his eighties. I remember, years ago, Fiddler on the Roof was on TV. It was a show that I listened to a lot as a kid, and I just thought that the orchestration for the film was astonishing. It came up in the credits that John Williams orchestrated it. It’s amazing how he makes the orchestra dance and sing – it’s just so brilliant. It’s almost like a little blue print for E.T.. Although he uses orchestrators, I really think all the music comes from him.


Yes. You spoke earlier about the mickey-mousing – in ballet a lot of those sections can be difficult for the conductor. I thought I was hearing a lot less of that in his early films than for example Home Alone. I’m thinking especially of the scene where the burglars enter the house and there are so many changes in the music.


Well, you’re completely right on the whole. Home Alone is such a beautiful one to conduct. It’s fairly simple, although there are these cues in the second half where, as you described, the burglars enter the house and it’s suddenly like you’re in the midst of a Chaplin film (but with a seventy-five piece orchestra). It’s got to be so accurate because they’re sliding down steps, swinging against the wall, setting things on fire etc. It’s actually like this in all of the John Williams films – the first halves tend to be quite sparse. With Jaws you play the first minute then you have eight minutes off. Then you have the second minute of music and you have seven/eight minutes off again. In the first half the orchestra plays around fifteen minutes max, but in the second half you get closer to the shark. The music comes in more often and then it piles up and piles up and becomes really quite consistent. It’s the same in Jurassic Park, there’s a nine and a half minute gap between the penultimate cue and the last one in the first half, which is the T-Rex getting out of it’s enclosure. There’s no music to that.


Oh yes, I was surprised by that.


Well, studying these films you realise the role that music plays in them. As things in the film get more involved and exciting, there’s more for the orchestra to do. If you’re the first trumpet playing in E.T. there’s a bit to play in the opening, but then there’s not really very much in the first half. Suddenly it all piles up in the second half – the bike chase etc. And then there’s the end credits.


I didn’t realise how thrilling some of those moments would be. Obviously when you’re accompanying a film, there’s so much more that they can do (visually) that can’t be done on stage. For example, the bike chase scene that you just mentioned in E.T..


Absolutely – but you also have four or four and a half minutes of music before that. It’s some of the most difficult to keep together because the bike chase scene is very hard, very virtuosic, and it’s actually tough to keep the orchestra bang in the right place. When you suddenly get the big close up of E.T.’s face, the chords need to be in exactly the right place, as well as for the take-off a few seconds later.


The BFG is on Netflix, it’s one of his most recent ones, isn’t it?


Yes, it is. I conducted the suite from the film, A Child’s Tale, back in March – it’ll be on the live film music CD I’ve made with Deutsche Philharmonic Merck.


Ah great! There’s a lot of music in the BFG…


Yes it’s all kind of Harry Potter-esque with markings like ‘magico’ etc. It’s cute, though I don’t think it’s one of the absolutely great soundtracks, but that’s perhaps because it’s not one of the absolutely great films. The music can only be a response to what’s in the film, and that’s what makes Jaws, E.T., Home Alone and Jurassic Park so fantastic – the films are amazing.


Do you think they’re the ones that work best with the audience (in concert) as well?


Yes. I’m learning Star Wars at the moment, which I’ll do in January in Mannheim [Germany]. That, I know already, is just going to be amazing. E.T. and Jurassic Park are my favourite ones to conduct. Home Alone is beautiful to conduct, it’s lovely. Jaws is not so exciting, although there are some heart-breaking bits of music in it, like the end credits, where they’re paddling back to shore and it’s a bit like a John Williams version of Mahler 1. Raiders is brilliant as well. I have to say all the films of his that have been adapted for live performance work really well. I’ve just watched Jurassic Park six times in the last week, standing on stage with seven/eight/nine minute gaps. When I’m just watching the film I find new things every time.


Ah fantastic. So is the orchestra always about seventy-five players?


Yeah, it’s pretty consistent: it’s usually triple wind with the usual doublings, plus alto (and sometimes bass) flutes. There are four horns (six in Star Wars), three trumpets and usually four trombones, which is interesting. Then there’s tuba, timps, four or five percussion, harp, piano and synth. The synth often covers some of the music that it wouldn’t be practical to have in the live screening. For example, at the beginning of Jurassic Park there’s a shakuhachi flute – that’s on the synth. The choir stuff and boobams is also done on the synth. It’s also in Raiders – in the map room scene they used a choir which I’m sure was done live on the original soundtrack, but it’s very impractical to do it live.


Home Alone has a live choir. So the whole scene in the church is terrific to do, not least because you often see the choir singing on screen. It requires some pretty extreme dynamics to reflect the different shots of choir in the distance or close up. It’s really challenging and you have to be prepared, but I find that I just have to be extremely calm to do it. I’m almost detached, even though I may be conducting something like the end credits in quite an exciting way. You’re trying to inspire the orchestra and make it fun for the audience, but within myself I’m really focussed on making sure I’m still following the punches.


With the raptor attack moments in Jurassic Park, there’s all this rather frantic music in 6/8. The only thing to do is to have quite a small, accurate and clear beat. The winds and keyboards are playing these shrill semiquaver shrieks in hemiolas across the bar, there are these frantic string trills, very violent off-beat brass stabs, wild horn writing… rhythmically there’s an awful lot going on. You need to be able to control it so that it stays together, but also be able to move forward slightly or put on the brakes – and we’re talking something like a click, or half a click, on the metronome. If the tempo marking is dotted crotchet = 98, and you start off at 100, by the time you get to fourteen bars later, you’re not in the right place. So, it’s about making sure those things are completely accurate.


Wow – clever. I noticed that your Brassed Off William Tell clip on YouTube was absolutely spot on.[1]


I have to say that one went perfectly. If you look at the cornet player on the screen, his fingers match perfectly with what Jamie was playing on stage. I’ve got a clock for Brassed Off, but I also use a lot of my silent film notation for that number in particular. I used to be a trumpet player and know what the fingerings mean, so I follow those. What’s so interesting is that learning a film is all about the preparation. I spend hours and hours listening to the soundtrack, watching the film in very short chunks, understanding the music (like you would normally) but also understanding how it fits with the film and understanding the flow of the music.


I have a system of instructions that I write in my score like ‘(steady)’, or ‘steady’, ‘(go)’, ‘go’ or ‘go!’, ‘(move)’ or ‘move!’ etc, all of which mean different things to me. If you’ve just been conducting something that’s crotchet =152 and then suddenly you have something that’s crotchet = 99, that 99 feels deathly slow. I usually need to write something to myself, maybe because my heart rate will be up. Of course, it works the other way if you’re conducting crotchet = 44 and then suddenly you have to go crotchet = 99, that’s much much faster proportionally. So a lot of it is not only understanding the music but also how I will react to it in concert, knowing what little hints I need to leave for myself.


Often you’re certain you’re conducting accurately but actually you need to write ‘move’ because the original soundtrack moves on. Or, sometimes the orchestra needs a bit of time with a certain bar and can’t quite get around a particular figure, just because they’re humans rather than machines. So they might need a little bit of pushing to meet the next green streamer where the veloceraptor hits whatever it is. The thing that I’m aiming for is to try and make it seem for the audience as if it’s just an orchestra playing along to the film. It needs to feel and sound free and improvisatory, but hit all the sync points. You need to feel the same overwhelming beauty that you hear when you listen to a film soundtrack on its own, but somehow, amazingly, it’s also perfectly synched with the film.


My favourite bit to conduct in Jurassic Park is the helicopter ride to Isla Nublar, where you have these shots inside the helicopter, and then suddenly it cuts to outside and the helicopter is dropping down, and that trumpet theme is playing. It’s pretty much the best bit of music ever written! There are two big scene changes where it cuts to the helicopter dropping down and we have to get those just right. There’s also one where Hammond throws the stick and then catches it, which has got to be on the first beat of the bar. It’s not always obvious working out how long an orchestra will need to reach those downbeats, so in rehearsal there’s a degree of experimentation to make it safe in performance.


And how do you do that? How do you make it certain with the orchestra?


I make it certain by making sure I’m in the right place, simply. But with a hit point coming up, I’m even more alert, totally focussed on lining up the music and the picture. Sometimes the orchestra is pushing a little bit and you somehow just need to show them that we need to gently pull back so that you hit it. Or sometimes you just need to inject some energy because they’re dragging a tiny bit – you just need to move them on a quarter of a click. It’s hard to explain, but what I love about it is now I’ve conducted lots of these films so many times (particularly Raiders, Jaws and Jurassic Park) I really, really know them. I mean I really, really know them. I know exactly what the film is going to do before it does it, so I’m not reacting.


It sounds ridiculous, but conducting a film is like accompanying the worst concerto soloist you’ve ever met it your entire life. It does the same every single time. It just doesn’t wait for you. A good soloist will play with the orchestra, but the film won’t listen, help or wait, so you need to know what it’s going to do before it happens. There are places where I actually get a tiny bit ahead (about a semiquaver or a third of a beat) because I know that on the third and fourth beats of a particular bar the orchestra will take some time. You could rehearse it a thousand times but with seventy-five to eighty people they’re always going to need a bit of time. You’re not going to make the green streamer unless you’ve given yourself a tiny bit of wiggle room.


There’s definitely an art to it, but the beauty of that is that when you know that film well enough – it sounds ridiculous – but sometimes I feel that I’m almost dancing with the film. It’s almost like the film follows you, it’s like a dialogue. It’s the same every night, so if you’re doing a tour of seven or eight performances, you really have the opportunity to say ‘well last night I hit that but tonight I’d like to hit it slightly more, or from a different angle’.


In Raiders of the Lost Ark there’s an incredibly difficult cue 9M1, which is the truck chase, ‘Indy in Pursuit’ – there’s a clip on my YouTube channel as well.[2] It’s one of the longest sequences: three cues, 9M1, 9M1A and 9M1B, that run together. It’s Indiana going after the ark – the Nazis are taking the ark away in a truck, and he hijacks it. He’s on a horse, then throws himself onto the truck. It’s like a western chase sequence and it’s incredibly difficult for the orchestra. The tempos keep changing, and it all has to be perfectly synchronised. But right at the end of the cue, Indy drives the truck into the market place, and there’s a little musical cue that accompanies the awning coming down to cover his escape. If you really get it right the ‘3’ happens at exactly the same time as it comes down. It’s so hard to line up that punch, because you’ve been conducting for seven minutes, with all these tempo and time signature changes. The orchestra’s fighting for its life, and it’s really hard for the brass, so moving them around isn’t always so easy.


Ah I see. I was watching Star Wars: A New Hope and wondering about the volume issues. For example, in the ‘Imperial Boarding Party’ scene, there are lots of really noisy sound effects with the music playing at the same time. How does that work in concert?


In every venue that we play in I will have a conversation with the person on the sound desk, who has control of the volume of the orchestra (they are usually mic’ed up) and the track. Sometimes, in some halls, we need to bring the dynamics right back in certain places to hear a line spoken in the film. Unless we’re in a massive space we don’t use much amplification for the orchestra. It’s definitely all about finding a balance – we don’t want to deafen the orchestra, me or the audience by having the film track too loud – and yet somehow we have to make it feel as if the orchestra is playing loudly, even if really we’re playing as softly as we can. That basically (again) comes down to the conductor caring enough to make sure that the film element is important, and then pressing the orchestra to try and play in a way that sounds like they might be playing mf (but in fact they’re playing p). It’s really challenging sometimes, especially in a really lively hall. In somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall the orchestra has to be amplified because it’s such a huge space, so it’s much, much easier. It’s not such a bouncy, lively space as Symphony Hall, Birmingham or Bridgwater Hall, Manchester, which are both so challenging.


Of course these older soundtracks, things like Raiders and Jaws, were never intended to be used in live performance. They recorded the soundtrack in a studio, so if they need to turn it down for a scream or gunshot, they could do that. We can do that a little bit but we can’t really, really do it, so the only way is to make those things louder on the track. I make a point, after every show, of going to thank the guys running the film and the sound desk, because they’re working pretty much as hard as I am.


It just totally depends on what the film is, what the bit of the film is, and crucially, what sort of hall you’re in. It makes the world of difference if you’re in a dead 3,000-seat arena, compared to a really lively 1,500-seat concert hall with wood everywhere. We often use subtitles for the dialogue (we do with all of the shows in the Royal Albert Hall) otherwise you can’t really hear it well enough. Although I think most people who go and see the films know them pretty much word for word anyway!


Conducting films is completely different from concert conducting. You need the same skills but you need to compartmentalise those things, and you need to get very, very good at conducting a full rehearsal and then going back and remembering the four things that need sorting out. It’s a bit like an opera, once you’ve started the film you really don’t want to have to stop and rewind. That’s always difficult, so it’s always easier to start at the beginning of a cue rather than to wind back forty bars and correct something.


You need to make sure that not only does all the music sound in the right place, but that the orchestra sounds as if it’s playing in a natural and free way. You have to know the film so intimately that there are no surprises – you’re anticipating rather than reacting.


Right. I haven’t found any myself, but are there any books you’d recommend on this specialism? You gave a lot of great recommendations with the Haydn Symphonies.


If I’m honest I haven’t found or read any. I learned to do it by starting with silent films, then films with a clock, and then to ones with punches and streamers. I’ve conducted about forty-five film concerts this year, it’s probably more than half of the work I do. Each new film that I learn is getting easier to prepare because I’m more experienced at it. I’m sure there are masterclasses that one can go and do in LA on how to conduct the sessions (if you got a spare few thousand dollars). As far as I’m aware there’s not much literature about conducting films – it’s really quite a new genre. There are only seven or eight conductors in Europe that do about ninety to ninety-five percent of the work, and I guess I’m one of them now. I feel very lucky to be on that circuit, because it’s something I really love doing.


That’s brilliant. It was a shame I couldn’t look at any of the John Williams scores, you can’t get your hands on them that easily can you?


All of the material for the full films is incredibly tightly controlled, and so I can’t share any of it, of course. There are suites and excerpts available from lots of the movies, though.


No I wasn’t expecting you to, I just thought I’d try and find something, even if it was after the interview or online, just to have a look.


I have my own copies of all of the films that I’ve conducted, but, as I say, it’s extremely tightly controlled. I have to say, rightly so, because the situation with the rights is incredibly complicated and political. One of the reasons why the rights are so tightly controlled is because they always want the product to be amazing. The technical rights are incredibly specific about the types of projector, the PA system that you have, even the number of rehearsals the orchestra have and the size of the string section that you use. It’s because they want people to come to the show and be blown away by it. If you could just put it on whenever, wherever, I think it would devalue the experience. It’s something that I think all of us that work in the film with orchestra industry are very keen to protect. That goes for the printed material as well as everything to do with the film.


Well that makes perfect sense. Lastly, do you think films with live orchestra attract a new type of audience to classical or orchestral music?


I will say with a hundred per cent certainty that the audience for a film with orchestra concert is completely different from a concert audience. The Royal Albert Hall was sold out three times for Jurassic Park this weekend. So that’s approximately five thousand people a show, and fifteen thousand people in all, who went absolutely bananas for it – a standing ovation after every show. I think lots of them had never seen an orchestra before (having looked through social media) but knew they loved Jurassic Park, and knew that seeing it with a live orchestra would be something special.


I don’t know whether any of those people are going to come and watch a Dvořák symphony, but some people were saying ‘this was the most intense emotional thing I’ve ever experienced’. I’ve had some amazing messages and tweets from people just saying that it was mind-blowing. You could tell on stage from the strength of the reaction that people were genuinely moved, and they were much more moved (if I may say) than I think most people are when they go to a classical concert. That is one of the reasons why I love conducting films – the bike takes off in E.T. and everybody claps, the shark explodes in Jaws and everybody cheers, he says ‘you’re going to need a bigger boat’ and everybody claps. The audience is entirely uninhibited and they will absolutely cheer it to the rafters.


The most magical experience I’ve ever had was conducting E.T. with my Covent Garden Sinfonia at the Royal Festival Hall. The reaction was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, probably until these Royal Albert Hall concerts this weekend, which were also pretty overwhelming. It is just astonishing how the power of music basically makes a film that people love already, really transcendental. It’s a huge thing – it transforms the cinema experience. I think there are many people who’ve never seen one who don’t get what it’s about but say ‘ok I’ll come along, but I don’t see what the point is’. Then they come out saying ‘that’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen’. There’s something special about seeing the soundtrack created before your very eyes, synchronised with the picture. When I can, I love going to watch other people do it.


Yes, I can understand that. As I said, the music is also accompanying more dramatic visuals than you could ever get on the stage realistically with opera/ballet etc.


Yes that’s true, it’s totally visceral. I don’t think it will turn people who love Spielberg films into Wagner fans, but maybe they would come to a concert of film music where there’s no screen, and maybe then they would try a Mahler symphony, who knows? But if five thousand people can walk away from the Royal Albert Hall amazed by the emotion that they’ve experienced with a live orchestra, that can’t be a bad thing.

[1] For Ben’s interview on Haydn’s Symphonies (published January 2018) click here.


[3] – the end of this ferocious 9M1 cue – you can see the punches and streamers on Ben’s monitor, and the difficult final synch point at 02:18.