Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2015
Photography copyright © Peter Podworski/Dominik Scherrer
In an exclusive interview, Damian Michael Barcroft talks to the prolific film and television composer, Dominik Scherrer. We discuss Jack the Ripper, East End history and his stunning music score for Ripper Street…
DOMINIK SCHERRER composes the majority of his innovative and often delightfully unconventional music at Crimson Noise Ltd. This is his recording studio at the Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane in Spitalfields, London.
Looking out of the window of Dominik’s office, you can see Christchurch and the Shard hiding behind it. In addition to the bells of Christchurch, there is also the sound of the Muezzin from the East End Mosque in Whitechapel and Chinese tap dancers outside. As the sun departs this significantly historical part of the city so beloved by Ripperologists, the evening presents its own distinctive soundscape including drunken revellers and the nightclub below pumping out dance music late at night. At this precise moment there is the sound of someone beatboxing at Brick Lane Market and I wonder to what extent these evocative sounds influence and inspire Dominik’s music…
DAMIAN MICHAEL BARCROFT: Dominik, your studio has been here for almost 17 years and you have been based in the East End for more than 22. Crimson Noise is in an old Georgian house on Brick Lane which is of course the same area where Annie Chapman, Jack the Ripper’s second victim was murdered. I must confess that I take ghoulish delight to consider that the music score for Ripper Street was conceived in such a significant location. Can you describe what attracts you to this area and how its environment and atmosphere might flavour your music?
DOMINIK SCHERRER: Indeed as I left the studio last night there were four competing Jack the Ripper tours visiting Annie Chapman’s murder site. It’s the most I’ve seen and I fear that we have been part of reviving interest in this dark chapter of east end history with Ripper Street.
I landed in Spitalfields in the 1990s when studio spaces were affordable. Artists and musicians came. My ancestry is partly Huguenot, so technically I’m one of the last Huguenots to settle here, 250 years after the French silk weavers arrived here.
Times have changed and Spitalfields is now less trendy but has become more mainstream. Artists have moved further out. But drastic changes are part of the area’s history and there is always buzz here. The sheer amount of live music available is inspiring. For a while I was writing and producing for Bengali artists, both for the UK and the Indian market. It was enriching to explore Indian music and exciting to combine it with my own western musical background.
DAMIAN: I understand that you are interested in local history and this was part of the reason that you wanted to get involved with Ripper Street. Did you actively pursue the project or were you already asked to write the music for the show?
DOMINIK: I already had a happy working relationship with lead director Tom Shankland who put me forward. It struck me as a great show and I did my best to pitch good ideas.
DAMIAN: At what point did you become creatively involved with Ripper Street, were you given the script to read or was there a particular discussion with series creator and lead writer Richard Warlow?
DOMINIK: When I came on board, the first two episodes had already been shot so we could immediately try out ideas. Richard Warlow, Tom Shankland and Will Gould, the executive producer for Tiger Aspect, came for creative meetings to my studio, and we started to bounce around ideas.
DAMIAN: I consider your music score for Ripper Street to be not only richly atmospheric in its own right but also an important contribution to the identity of the show. For example, your main theme and the title sequence is a perfect marriage of sound and imagery which I believe to be one of the most distinctive television opening credit sequences in recent memory. What were your initial thoughts and ideas on how the music should sound?
DOMINIK: My instinct was for the score to be down to earth and non-classical, as if it emanated from the streets of Whitechapel – but presented with of a contemporary cinematic feel. Richard, Tom and Will had similar feelings so we started to experiment. I normally let the opening titles of a show emerge gradually during the writing of the episodes’ scores. We may then pick up on certain themes and develop them further. For example the opening titles music evolved from the theme for Maude Thwaites, the very first victim in episode 1. She was a violinist and hence had a solo-violin theme. In the end the Maude Thwaites theme is not really recognisable in the title tune, but nevertheless was the actual starting point.
DAMIAN: I must say that the themes and their orchestration were rather a bold and pleasingly unconventional choice which extends to your choice of instruments including the fiddle and banjo. I’ve had quite a few conversations with Toby Finlay (collaborating writer on all three series of Ripper Street) about the influence of Western films and history on the show. Was your sound and choice of instruments also a deliberate attempt to evoke the genre?
DOMINIK: Absolutely, Richard Warlow was a great advocate of the Western feel for Ripper Street. It’s not inappropriate to portray Victorian Whitechapel as a kind of Wild West. Conversely though, the use of banjo is historically appropriate. Guitar would have been exotic in Victorian London, whereas banjo was popular in music halls. Still, the Daily Mail complained about the use of banjo and fiddle and suggested that the sound of a barrel organ would be appropriate for 1890s London. There is in fact a little bit of barrel organ in the score, but scoring an action scene or a romantic scene with barrel organ just wouldn’t work.
DAMIAN: There are certain sounds in Ripper Street and some of your other scores that I can’t quite put my finger on but are more like sound effects rather than conventional music and this also reminds me of many Western scores especially Ennio Morricone’s early work. Do you particularly enjoy experimenting with music to create different sounds?
DOMINIK: I spend a lot of time creating special sounds for Ripper Street. It’s certainly enjoyable but it also gives the show an individual feel. The main challenge is to create sounds that are tense and driving without being too massive in origin – again to fit in with the street music concept. Then we use a lot of special recording techniques and postproduction techniques to shape the sound try to keep it earthy and organic at the same time. And there is a wealth of European and exotic solo instruments: Mandolins, Mandola, Kemençe, Sethar, Dobro. The solo on the theme tune is played on a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. Those instruments are played by excellent, creative musicians. And often an entire string orchestra is playing too – for added gravitas.
DAMIAN: I think it was Howard Shore who used whale cries in his score for The Silence of the Lambs to disconcert the audience. Have you ever used nonhuman performed instruments or sounds in any of your music?
DOMINIK: Good idea, I’ll book a few banjo-playing cetaceans next time.
DAMIAN: Like your scores for the sixties-set Inspector George Gently series, the music for Ripper Street avoids the clichés of its period setting, was there ever a temptation to write something rather more conventional or typical of the Victorian era?
DOMINIK: A film composer will always use some aspects of the period and locale, compositionally or orchestration-wise and makes them part of a modern cinematic soundscape but to directly compose in the style of music-hall, Gilbert & Sullivan, classical composers like Parry or Elgar would be tricky in a crime-drama context. It’s frustrating that the supposed anachronism of identifiable instruments such as banjo and fiddle is more readily criticised, compared to music played by standard orchestra. For example, my colleague John Lunn’s (excellent) Downton Abbey score is a modern composition, and musically quite distant from Edwardian England. Still, it is not questioned perhaps because it’s played by string orchestra and piano – a more universal instrumentation.
DAMIAN: Some fans of the show have commented on the similarity in style of your score for Ripper Street and the music from the recent Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films composed by Hans Zimmer. Was the signature style of those two films ever discussed as a possible sound to explore?
DOMINIK: Hans Zimmer really nailed his beefed-up folky style for the Sherlock Holmes films and initially we made it part of the portfolio of many inspirations for the new soundtrack. In any genre of music you build on previous achievements, you don’t re-invent the wheel each time. Other influences were the aforementioned Morricone, as well as a lot of baroque music, especially some baroque string techniques. There is also an ‘urban’ element in the Ripper Street soundtrack – perhaps evoking the spirit of hedonism in todays east end’s nightclubs, perhaps similar to the abandon of the late nights of the 1890s. The Victorian east end’s significant Irish population is also an influence, with Celtic elements, and there are more oriental influences brought in from overseas via the docks. With all these influences, and with the input of our great soloist, the soundtrack then goes on its own journey and asserts its own style.
DAMIAN: You started composing quite early and wrote the soundtracks to the short films that you made as a teenager. Do any of these shorts still survive?
DOMINIK: They survive and I am also making films now. For example I shot a film called Hell for Leather in the east end, conceived as an opera for the screen. It’s a biblical story with motorbike gangs. It got a surprising amount of attention and became part of the touring YBA “Sensation” exhibition. I am developing further music-driven film projects at the same time as composing for the screen.
DAMIAN: I believe that in addition to playing the piano, you were originally a trained flautist. However, before specialising in soundtrack work, you moved here from Switzerland to study film and I was wondering what your initial career plans were at that time?
DOMINIK: Music and film can both deliver great energy and combinations of the two even more so. I think it’s that electrifying, spine-tingling energy, the thrill that makes your hair stand on the back of your neck that I’m excited about. I am constantly trying to educate myself further in music, film, and the arts in general and I am happy to be working across the disciplines – composing for the screen or the stage, performing music on stage, writing opera or musical theatre. London offered itself as the best place to pursue all these activities. We have an openness here that allows everyone to transcend the boundaries of style and discipline – I know many top classical musicians who are equally at home in jazz or pop for example.
DAMIAN: Can you remember the first time you yourself noticed soundtracks and became aware of the artistic possibilities of the synthesis between sound and screen?
DOMINIK: Because of my parents’ involvement with music I regularly attended orchestral rehearsals as a child and had a heightened awareness of music. My childhood’s soundtrack key moment was, like for many of my generation, Star Wars. It was not only John Williams’ heroic-romantic themes themselves that got me so excited, but also the confidence of the presentation, the all-out energy in the way the music is used. Let’s not forget it was with Star Wars that many of us experienced Dolby Stereo for the first time, with its heightened dynamic range and surround channels. It had a clarity, punch, scale, good tunes, spaceships and Princess Leia. The Wagnerian experience of Star Wars in the cinema would almost literally blow you away as a child.
DAMIAN: Do you think that film/TV scores get the respect and recognition that they deserve from either audiences or the industry itself?
DOMINIK: Definitely. Almost too much. On Classic FM you’ll hear a lot of film-music that was conceived to be heard with the film, and may sound simplistic on its own. But it’s perhaps the simplicity that’s appealing. I have the feeling film music is more popular than ever and it can be surprising to see Howard Shore topping Mozart in the classical charts.
DAMIAN: From my own personal point of view as a passionate admirer of film/TV composers and a collector of soundtrack CDs, I feel increasingly disappointed and actually rather cheated by the state of both record labels and many aspects of the music industry in general. For example, the few shops that actually do stock a respectable selection of soundtracks are massively overpriced in comparison to other albums and while the internet has made it easier to purchase more diverse and obscure titles from all over the world, it has also contributed hugely to the amount of piracy that is of little interest to enthusiasts such as myself and has forced specialist shops to close. The other issue is that studios and record labels continually take advantage of a limited market of consumers by releasing a substandard soundtrack album with little material when a film is released and then producing another “special” or “collector’s” edition with all the music that they could have released in the first place so that collectors have to pay for the same title twice or even several times in some instances. What do you think should be done to improve the availability and standard of soundtrack albums?
DOMINIK I share your irritation about the unavailability of some soundtrack recordings. The problem is that soundtrack releases can be complex legally. The rights of the recordings may be owned by several production companies at the same time. The publishing is administered by a number of other companies. All those parties will have to agree and sign the soundtrack agreements. In the US the contracts with the orchestras may restrict the release of original soundtracks. We are facing some of these problems for the Ripper Street soundtrack release but we are working on it!
DAMIAN: I know that you enjoy and take inspiration from a wide variety of musical genres including classical, pop, rock, jazz and world, but if you were to introduce someone to the art of film and television composition, which particular composers would you recommend they listen to?
DOMINIK: Bernard Herrmann, Danny Elfman, Alberto Iglesias, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Mychael Danna, John Barry, Thomas Newman, Alexandre Desplat, John Brion, Franz Waxman, Dario Marianelli, Jerry Goldsmith.
DAMIAN: I understand that you develop themes on a piano at first, write them down on manuscript and then produce electronic mock-ups which are presented to the director before recording them. I imagine this can be quite a nerve-wrecking process and I was wondering if you can tell immediately if a director or producer is pleased (or not!) with the sound that you have created for them?
DOMINIK: If they are in the same room to review the draft scores, there is an immediate, intuitive understanding, even before anything is said. Music can sometimes be tricky to talk about and being in the same room helps. Apparently communication is largely nonverbal, and this really applies with music. Reviewing drafts in these situations also helps me as composer – sitting back and looking at the whole score from a distance.
DAMIAN: The American giant of film music Alex North famously had his score for 2001: A Space Odyssey rejected by Stanley Kubrick and a more recent example of this would be Howard Shore’s unused music for Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. Have such “creative differences” ever had a significant impact on your work?
DOMINIK: Alex North’s 2001 score did get a release on vinyl subsequently and I have that album. He basically composed pastiches of the Ligeti, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss pieces which obviously must have been used as ‘temp’– guide music laid during the picture edit. In the end Kubrick decided to use the ‘real thing’ and abandon North’s score, possibly also because Kubrick was unscrupulous about the rights situation. Ligeti was famously neither asked permission nor paid for the use of his amazing choral, textural, music in 2001.
Composers are frequently fired, and more so in the US. Touch wood, it hasn’t happened to me yet, but it can happen that I have a favourite theme that is finally never used in the film.
DAMIAN: Many film/television composers have a distinct and instantly recognisable sound to their music, perhaps John Barry and Danny Elfman are good examples of this. Would you say that there is a particular Dominik Scherrer style?
DOMINIK: More than aspiring to have my own style I hope I can come up with something new every time. I am always trying out new ways of composition, orchestration, production. It’s what keeps me excited. Saying that, sometimes my colleagues listen to my music and say ‘this is very Dominik!’ so maybe there is a style. Perhaps it’s a certain cheekiness or directness in the melodies.
DAMIAN: I would argue that your music has a certain versatility not always found in other composers where their scores occasionally overpower or dominate a production which is sometimes detrimental to the integrity of the overall meaning of the sound. You seem to be comfortable writing for various genres such as action/adventure (Primeval) or horror (the 2006 production of Dracula) but I was particularly interested in your compositions for foreign language films such as Tutto parla di te and I do actually think your sound often has a more European quality reminiscent of such World Cinema composers as Philippe Sarde, Jean-Claude Petit, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Georges Delerue, Jurgen Knieper, Louis Crelier and Nicola Piovani. Is this a particular aspect of your music that can be more fully expressed when writing for films not in the English language?
DOMINIK: Possibly rather than the language, it may have to do with the type of production. They are arthouse movies whose scores are not genre-bound and may have a lighter touch. The story lines have less death, crime and destruction. I am indeed a fan of Nicola Piovani and went to see him live at Chelsea Old Town Hall recently. It was great see the man in the flesh perform his music but interestingly I was perhaps missing the pictures that go with the music!
DAMIAN: Many productions, particularly those from Hollywood, suffer from wall-to-wall music which regardless to the quality of the actual music itself, suffers from overuse and having to compete with dialogue and sound effects. Some of the best director-composer relationships are those in which the music is discussed creatively throughout the entire production as oppose to just sticking the music on in postproduction. Perhaps the most celebrated illustration of this sort of creative collaboration is Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann (for example The Birds doesn’t even feature any original “music” but is still a stunning soundtrack). However, I particularly admire the relationship between David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti and it is evident that they both have an interest and passion in the sound of film beyond that of the music score. I was wondering if, in addition to the writers and directors you’ve worked with, you collaborate with sound departments including the sound designer, sound effects artist and dubbing mixer etc?
DOMINIK: The picture edit is a creative period, as the music can also influence the cut. I help the director to find the atmosphere and a language of the film. After the cut is locked it’s inspiring to collaborate with the sound postproduction department and we sometimes bounce ideas back and forth. I give them my draft music and they can shape some of the effects accordingly. Because their workflow doesn’t normally require presentations of draft ideas I often don’t get to hear their work. I am often a bit in the dark about their work and it can be a bit surprising what you finally get to hear in the dubbing theatre when all the dialogue sound effects and music are finally combined.
DAMIAN: I presume it must be a creative advantage for composers to own their own studio, was all the music for Ripper Street recorded at Crimson Noise?
DOMINIK: On a score like for Ripper Street it’s great to compose and record as you go along. Some of the soloists’ amazing performances can have a ripple effect on the score. You may suddenly discover new approaches or you may simplify ideas drastically, because the performance of a particular musician is so strong that you decide to cut out everything else. It helps when you have the flexibility to record at any time. I can mix the score to a high spec at my studio too and I hire in mix engineers who work at my studio. This way I’ll have the flexibility to revise at short notice later during the late stages in post production. I record all the larger ensembles at the lovely Angel Studios in nearby Islington. We have an established workflow and they specialise in these kind of recordings. They are large wood panelled rooms where the instruments can really sing out. All of Ripper Street’s larger strings ensembles are recorded at Angel Studios.
DAMIAN: We’ve discussed the idea of allowing music scores to breathe and you have had twenty-four hours worth of screentime to explore the sound of Ripper Street. How do you think your music has evolved throughout its first, second and third series?
DOMINIK: Over the 24 episodes the score has developed its style and become more individual. The musical themes started to cross-feed and I have found a method to continue the themes but at the same time keep an individuality for a particular episode’s storyline, or guest character. I am perfecting our expanding library of special sounds and favours.
DAMIAN: Dominik, thank you very much indeed.
DOMINIK: It’s been a pleasure, Damian, thanks!
More information about Dominik and his music here: http://www.dominikscherrer.com/
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The Ripper Street soundtrack album will be released June 15 in the UK and is available to pre-order now:
The US release date is June 23 and can be pre-ordered here: