THE ENDEAVOUR ARCHIVES: CELEBRATING 30 YEARS OF MORSE ON SCREEN
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2017
Matthew Slater – Composer
An exclusive ENDEAVOUR interview
by Damian Michael Barcroft
DAMIAN: As a very young boy I was given two records from an uncle which I played constantly. One was Children’s TV Themes (1972: Cy Payne & His Orchestra) and the other was Star Wars and Other Galactic Space Themes (1978: Geoff Love & His Orchestra). The latter, in particular, showcased some very cheesey disco-pop versions of music from film and television but they started a life-long passion for orchestral music and soundtracks and I’ve since amassed a huge collection of original scores. Now, I enjoy all sorts of musical genres from Frank Sinatra to indeed opera, however, my first and true musical passion will always be soundtracks. Needless to say then, it’s an absolute thrill and a pleasure for me to be able to do this interview with an actual composer so thank you very much indeed. I wonder, what sort of music were you listening to as a child?
MATTHEW: Thank you for asking me and you’re more than welcome. Your reference to the ’78 disco version of Star Wars did make me laugh out loud. When I first played that version of Star Wars to my children they were incredulous as to why they hadn’t heard of it before. Being a child of the 70’s this pop version did resonate with me a little more than it perhaps should have done. Can’t help but wonder what Mr Williams would have thought of it?
I always had a leaning towards music written for picture there was something powerfully attractive about the story telling aspect of it. Star Wars obviously was playing constantly in our house. In fact, anything by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, John Barry and Ennio Morricone there would be a good chance I’d be listening to it.
DAMIAN: At what point did you realise you wanted to be a composer?
MATTHEW: The Purley Way cinema, Croydon, December 1982. I can remember queuing around the block with my Mum to get into the cinema to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I watched that film in complete awe and amazement. The direct emotional contact the score had on me was profound and from that moment on I wanted to be a composer. I had a very unconventional route into the world of orchestral music for picture; not following the conservatoire route completely but learning through the times of electronic and experimental music in the ‘90’s and in many other areas of music before becoming a professional composer for picture.
DAMIAN: Can you remember the first time you became aware of soundtracks and the artistic possibilities of the synthesis between sound and screen?
MATTHEW: December 1982! That film did show the power music can have to picture. I once remember seeing a documentary where John Williams couldn’t quite make all the hit points work in the final twelve minute sequence in the film, bearing in mind that Williams was conducting to spots and streamers on screen which is largely a lost talent and very difficult to do compared with the click tracks we all have today which make the recording process considerably quicker. Spielberg famously said that he’d take the picture away from the screen in the recording studio and let Williams conduct the end sequence as he would if it were a concert work or symphony. Spielberg would then recut the end of the film to fit the most musically emotional performance by the orchestra and to me that’s why it’s one of my most emotionally charged moments in modern cinema where the combination of music and picture combine in perfection.
DAMIAN: Which film/tv composers have inspired you most as an artist?
MATTHEW: Certainly the greats as I’ve already spoken about but I think there is an enormous wealth of talent from composers like Danny Elfman, Thomas Newman, Alexandre Desplat, James Newton Howard, Michael Giacchino and George Fenton. I also have a great deal of respect for Christopher Gunning, especially his concert works. So, in answer to your question, all the above! Dominik Scherrer also has a sound that is completely different which I find intriguing and has influenced me a little.
DAMIAN: And if I asked you for your favourite film or television scores?
MATTHEW: Star Wars, E.T. and To Kill A Mockingbird is sublime for film. For T.V., now that’s a more difficult question for me. I don’t tend to buy or listen to many T.V. scores, mainly as I think the music now must do a subtly different job to that in music for film. I find the combined world of orchestral and electronic scores very exciting. There are some great dramas in recent years all with very different sounds and feels and many are excellent at linking music with picture but few that you could necessarily hum the theme tune to.
DAMIAN: In recent years, Classic FM has started to play the odd film/tv theme and BBC Radio 3 has its Sound of Cinema programme but other than that, I’ve always felt that soundtracks never really get the respect and exposure that they deserve. Would you agree?
MATTHEW: I think that’s changing. More and more people are wanting to become composers than ever before; the advent of technology has widened the creative net for people wanting to score to picture. Just look at the number of scoring to picture courses and classes that have been established over the past ten years and it seems to be increasing every year which can only be a good thing if the foundations of composing music itself are not lost in the technology.
DAMIAN: You worked on the orchestration for the following original INSPECTOR MORSE episodes (THE DAUGHTERS OF CAIN, DEATH IS NOW MY NEIGHBOUR, THE WENCH IS DEAD and THE REMORSEFUL DAY) not to mention eight series of LEWIS. Additionally for ENDEAVOUR, you’ve worked as an onset music supervisor and arranger, composer of original songs and now also orchestrator and composer of the music score. So, you’ve obviously worked closely with Barrington Pheloung for many years, how did the two of you come to work together on MORSE, LEWIS and eventually ENDEAVOUR?
MATTHEW: Alan Bullard, my composition teacher at my college, suggested I enter a competition run by the Society for The Promotion of New Music to work with Michael Kamen on a week-long master class at the South Bank in London, culminating in a recording with a small ensemble at Angel Studios, also in London. I duly sent off my scores and thought nothing further of it. A few weeks later I received a letter saying that I’d been chosen as one of five from hundreds of applicants to attend the masterclass. Unfortunately, (or one could say fortunately in my case) Michael’s scoring commitments meant he was unable to come to London for the masterclass and that Barrington Pheloung would be taking the masterclass instead. I knew of Barry as I was a Morse fan so happy days all round. The class ensued as did the recording and I was the only one of the five composers who wanted to conduct their own music. I jumped at the chance in fact. Something must have impressed Barry as he invited me down to his studio and by the end of the day offered me a job as his music assistant. That was around 1996 so I started making coffee for him and now some years later have conducted and composed the music for four ENDEAVOUR films and have pretty much done all jobs regarding the creation of a score to picture from tea boy to composer thanks to Barry.
DAMIAN: In all your years working with Barrington then, what do you think you have learnt most from him?
MATTHEW: His huge appreciation of the quality of the musicians we both work with and how to run an efficient yet relaxed recording session. If it’s right on the second take, move on to the next cue. Done. Of course, quality must always be maintained but he taught me not to get into the take after take after take mentality.
DAMIAN: To what extent would you say Barrington’s music was an influence and how does it figure in the way you approach the music for ENDEAVOUR – for example, do you feel free to completely do your own thing or are you perhaps restricted in terms of, if not emulating his music, trying to remain faithful and consistent with the tone already well established?
MATTHEW: Having worked with Barry for over twenty years it would be very not hard to have had some of his musical influence naturally come into my own music. It wasn’t a process that I think needed a great deal of thought when scoring ENDEAVOUR. I’d worked with Barry, Colin Dexter’s and latterly Russell Lewis’ characters for years so they seemed naturally embedded in me although Morse, Lewis and now Endeavour all have a subtle musical difference yet are definable as sitting in the same dramatic world. It’s an unprecedented situation I think, especially when dealing with an enormous body of film work over thirty years. Having the opportunity to work with some wonderful directors in this series also allowed a blend of the established world of Endeavour and my own sound to come in and in the right places we could go somewhere different and new. I also had the opportunity to work closely with Tom (exec. prod.) and Helen (prod.) more than perhaps would be normal due to schedules etc. which I found a very creative experience with the exchange of ideas between everyone.
DAMIAN: You composed the complete score for PREY (SERIES 3: FILM 3) and also films 1, 3 and 4 for this series. But what can you tell us about the two original songs that you wrote for film 2 which your collaborator, Russell Lewis, tells me was like him playing Lorenz Hart to your Richard Rogers?
MATTHEW: Ha! Wonderful question! What a kind comment from a lovely talented man and friend. I had a call from the production office on the Thursday saying that two original 1967 sounding classics were required, at least in draft form for a scene being shot on the Monday – I’d already had a little time to think about it beforehand after going on set to talk through some ideas with Mike and Helen. Without giving anything away it naturally left Russ and I little time. There were a few lyrics in the script but not songs. I asked Russ whether he’d mind writing a few more verses to give me a handle on the songs. He fantastically provided, and in about 30 minutes each song was written both lyrically and musically. It just seemed to work between us – Mike Lennox the director instantly liked them and that was that! We went into RAK studios in London and recorded with a rhythm section, brass, strings and the actors themselves singing to make sure it all looked and sounded as real and convincing as possible. It was a great day, even Shaun, Helen, Mike and Russ popped down to listen to the process. No pressure for me then!! Joking aside everyone was incredibly supportive and complementary.
Working with Russell like this was an absolutely pleasure and I was thrilled to be asked to collaborate with him. I was on set during one of the playback scenes when I overheard two actors trying to Google one of our tracks to see who originally wrote it in the ‘60’s which was a rather humbling experience. Russ is such a great writer that it’s a composer’s dream to get to play with themes, songs, clues, historic references, operatic and orchestral masterpieces all within the one series. It’s challenging to say the least but when that musical primer presents itself everything else comes together.
DAMIAN: If the script writing work dries up, do you think Russ has a future as a lyricist?
MATTHEW: I think there’s little chance of the writing ever drying up for Russ but yes, I would wholeheartedly say there’s another world out there just waiting to be explored. I’ll leave that one with you…
DAMIAN: At what point in the production do you become creatively involved with each film and to what extent are the musical choices, both the underscoring and source music, discussed with Russ?
MATTHEW: That very much depends on each film. Some require a lot of discussion and work during production and filming whilst others occur during post production so it’s generally down to how much and what type of music is woven into the plot. Russ, the directors and producers also have their input at each stage so each film has its own unique way of unfolding in terms of collaborations with the composer. That’s what makes the whole ENDEAVOUR process so exciting as each film I’ve ever worked on sets up new challenges and the fun is how are we going to deal with each musically.
DAMIAN: And I’d like you to take us through the process of how you approach composing the music for ENDEAVOUR. You talk to Russ, look at the script and then what happens – is there much research involved or do you initially begin with your immediate responses and feelings?
MATTHEW: It rather depends to the extent of music that’s incorporated into the story. If there is little then the editors, directors and producers will lay up what’s called a guide score. This is used to give the composer an idea of what emotions need to be conveyed at that point in the film. I usually receive a copy of the script well before this so have an idea of what I think will be required. Once the film has been locked off, that is there are no further structural changes to the film, I receive a copy of the film with the guide music score then head into the edit suite with the director, editor and producer and talk about each spot where music should or shouldn’t be, what’s liked, what isn’t and that gives me a good feel of where to start musically. Sometimes that might be to compose the last climatic cue first so we can all see where our film is heading towards musically and making sure everyone is on board for that and sometimes the film needs a more chronological approach from start to finish in terms of composing the score. That’s the beauty of ENDEAVOUR, each is unique and the challenge is to inject a new musical element that brings that episode together, yet remains within the music universe that is ENDEAVOUR.
DAMIAN: How long would you say it takes to write the complete score for a ninety-minute episode?
MATTHEW: That’s the six-million-dollar question. It’s the amount of time you have available to write it! Sometimes that’s a few weeks, other times it can end up being a matter of days to get a first draft of the score together. As dubbing the recorded music into the final film is one of the last things that happens before the film goes out for transmission, the music schedule often gets compressed as do many other areas of production that are at the end of the production process. That’s not always a bad thing though as I tend to work well under tight deadlines – perhaps I shouldn’t have said that…sssh, don’t tell anyone.
DAMIAN: Are all the scores recorded in chronological order and how long do these sessions take?
MATTHEW: Not always. For example, in this series we recorded film 2 first. It depends completely on which films are ready for scoring and that’s not always as it sets out to be at the start of the production process. Generally, yes, and of course that’s always a nice way to develop themes and ideas across a series so sometimes you have to think around corners to keep a sense of cohesion and development across a series.
DAMIAN: How do you decide on which individual orchestras and musicians to perform the scores?
MATTHEW: That’s an easy one. The London Metropolitan Orchestra were formed back in 1987 with the first INSPECTOR MORSE film. Many of the players still play on the ENDEAVOUR sessions today and are some of the world’s finest musicians without a doubt. It’s always an honour to work with the LMO as it’s like working with friends who just happen to be world class musicians.
DAMIAN: Finally, if you had to choose just one piece of opera that best reflects the character of Endeavour Morse, what would it be?
MATTHEW: I’m going to swerve this one I think. Over the thirty years so many wonderful operatic works have been used in the films, many reflecting different aspects of Morse’s character, others annoying him terribly. We’ve seen him through INSPECTOR MORSE, LEWIS and now the events in ENDEAVOUR that led him to THE REMORSEFUL DAY. I don’t think any single opera has the scope of thirty years of Endeavour Morse, much like his much loved Times crosswords, he works on so many levels.
DAMIAN: Matthew, thank you so much.
MATTHEW: You are more than welcome!