Tag Archives: Matthew Slater Composer Interview

THE ENDEAVOUR INTERVIEWS 2020: MATTHEW SLATER

An exclusive Endeavour interview with composer Matthew Slater

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2020

DAMIAN: What makes a truly great TV theme?

MATTHEW: Well, that’s the 64 million dollar question. I think it depends on the time of the making of the program as well. Coronation Street has spanned decades without change, even when the style and tone don’t necessarily address a modern audience. The big tunes of Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, Dad’s Army, Tales of the Unexpected and many more of the 70’s classics have such active melodic elements that one almost immediately can remember it. Therein I think that’s where times have changed a little. Strong melodic identity has now become possibly secondary to a robust sonic character.

DAMIAN: What are your top 10 most iconic TV themes from the 60s and what makes them so memorable today?

MATTHEW: That’s a tough one since I wasn’t born until 1974! I’m afraid I’m from a different era, and I would be cribbing if to create a top ten.

DAMIAN: Well, I was born a year later than you and that hasn’t stopped me from having a go! I also asked Russ for his favourite themes (he added that they arne’t by any means definitive – but rather amongst those that mean something to him) and we both came up with Star Trek, The Saint, Doctor Who, Stingray and The Avengers. His other choices were Randall & Hopkirk, The Prisoner, White Horses, Robinson Crusoe and Public Eye while my other picks were Fireball XL5, Joe 90, Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Mission: Impossible. I would have also liked to include Batman but we’re limited to ten choices each.

Anyway, to what extent would you agree that the sound of many film and television scores during the 60s owed much to the popularity of the Bond films and the incredibly innovative work by the great John Barry?

MATTHEW: John Barry was an incredible composer beyond doubt. His style has continuously been nodded to throughout film history, and indeed I’ve done it myself in this series of Endeavour. There were so many great film and television composers around during that era. I think it was a real period of experimentation and development in terms of style, harmony and instrumentation. The fall in popularity of orchestral only scores, the use of new electronic instruments, big bands jazz scores etc.

John Barry.

DAMIAN: What about a top 10 from the 70s?

MATTHEW: Ah, now that’s a more straightforward question for me this time. In no particular order, I would have to say; Dallas, The Muppet Show, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Open All Hours, The Good Life, Happy Days, The Wombles, Roobarb and Custard and Battlestar Galactica.

DAMIAN: I’d certainly agree with you on Dallas and Battlestar Galactica. Again Russ and I had some that were the same – Van Der Valk (Eye Level), Tales of the Unexpected and The Persuaders. His other choices were: Rockford Files, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Tinker Tailor (nunc dimittis), I Clavdivs, Thriller, All Creatures Great and Small and Catweazle. My remaining choices were: UFO, Space 1999, The Six Million Dollar Man, Return of the Saint and erm, Charlie’s Angels.

In what ways did the sound of scoring for television change from the 60s into the 70s?

MATTHEW: I guess for television, the increased use of electronic means of making music would have been down to the availability and more affordable means of access to music technology. So technologies out of reach for most TV composers during the early sixties would have become more accessible during the latter part of the seventies and an explosion in the eighties.

DAMIAN: And what are some of the most significant changes in how the music was written and performed back in the 60s and 70s compared with today and the work you do?

MATTHEW: Chalk and cheese, or rather a pencil and CPU. Mocking up a music score for a director or producer to approve consisted of playing a few ideas on the piano and saying ‘this will be the strings, this the brass etc.’ Now, with the level of technology at our fingertips, a composer can render a very close facsimile to what is going to become the final recorded score. Technology has become so unified to what we do now that it’s no longer possible to write purely traditionally as at some point a demo or mock-up will be required from a TV show to big-budget movie. A few composers are lucky enough to still work that way, but you’re really talking Hollywood giants like John Williams.

John Williams

That doesn’t mean the formation of the initial idea isn’t still a pencil and paper. I do work that way myself a lot, but at some point, it has to hit the computers now. Computers have enabled us all to work quicker, and the demands of television now mean shorter delivery periods.

DAMIAN: I know from our first interview that you often discuss the music in some detail with Russ, the directors and producers. Also, you are sometimes given a guide score by the editors, directors and producers. Given the nature of APOLLO (S6:E2) and the Supermarionation sequences, I was wondering to what extent the music for that was discussed during pre-production and filming rather than post and did the name Barry Gray happen to come up at all?

MATTHEW: To carve a score that nods to Barry Gray would have been obvious and what we do with Endeavour is to perhaps bow to a reference that helps set us in an era, but certainly no intention to reference too heavily. In this case, it was directed by Shaun, and he had an evident sound in mind from a previous episode I had scored for Endeavour, so we developed our ideas from a single tone and melodic element from another of our films.

Barry Gray

With the body of work now I’ve established quite a lot of the score is usually temp’d with my own work from previous scores. Occasionally a director will pool from other sources, and every music score I try to add something new, so the library grows each season. With APOLLO, Shaun was very keen that we worked the old fashioned way, spot the film with very little or no guide as we could chat and form ideas rather than be guided too much. Was a great experience.

Matthew with Kate Saxon who directed ZENANA (S7:E3)

DAMIAN: Each film has a different director so there’s always a fresh new visual look, do you ever have a disagreement with any of the directors regarding their particular take on how their film should sound and which you feel might not remain faithful within the music universe of Endeavour?

MATTHEW: No, never. It’s a significant team effort, and I think that anyone who comes into the world of Endeavour is always keen to keep that sense of team experience. I will always try to capture what a director, producer or executive producer wants, but the great thing about Endeavour is there’s a palette at the core. However, I’m always amazed by how much the series can take in terms of its musical development. It’s truly a joy to see what we can do next and to have the support and trust of the team makes that job so much easier to be bolder and more experimental while still existing within the Endeavour universe.

DAMIAN: You told me before in another interview that the application of music rather than the specifics of thematic, harmonic and textual content is of equal importance and the genius is in the placement of the music. Surely this is very subjective in nature so might this be a possible contentious issues between a director and a composer?

MATTHEW: It’s not as subjective as you’d think. The placement may shift a few frames here or there, or a music cue dropped or moved entirely, but that’s what the spotting session is for. Of course, things can develop through the writing and review process, but of the many great directors I’ve worked with on the series, there’s never really a contention. A discussion about how either might approach a scene, but you’d be surprised that when it fits, it tends to make everyone feel it’s right.

DAMIAN: I know that Shaun has visited the recording of the music in the past and you’ve mentioned that he already had a sound in mind for APOLLO, does he have lots of notes or just trust you to get on with it?

MATTHEW: As I’m sure you will have seen from many of the interviews with colleagues about Shaun that he knows exactly what he’s looking for but can keep that sense of collaboration between the team. From a composers perspective, it’s always been an excellent experience working with Shaun. He’s keen to allow the space for creativity, so it’s usually a discussion about the general feel we’re looking for the audience to experience, with some details about textures. After that, it’s pretty much over to me.

Rather than detailed notes, Shaun is excellent at focussing on what needs tweaking at the review session in person. So, Shaun will come over to my studio with producers, and we’ll go through the score after I’ve worked in any comments from Damien, Helen or our producer this series Jim. We work through the changes, I make them with everyone in the room, and at the end of the day the score is signed off and ready for the orchestration and music preparation process before getting the music in front of The London Metropolitan Orchestra, who bring it all to life.

Matthew conducting the LMO

DAMIAN: What are some of the most commonly used musical instruments in creating the sound of Endeavour and how might this have evolved to reflect the new decade?

MATTHEW: Endeavour has a very traditional background with Morse, the orchestra being at the heart of each score. Strings, piano and harp are pretty much the staples of the Endeavour sound. Less to do with the period change, I’d say I’ve introduced significantly more sound design and electronic characters to augment the orchestra to create new flavours and textures which are more where we all feel the score should go.

Howard Shore

DAMIAN: I have so many favourite composers but high on the list would be Howard Shore so I mean it as a compliment when I say that your scores sometimes have a The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en feel to them during the more tense and thrilling moments. I don’t know if you know what I mean but can you describe the style and what instruments are used?

MATTHEW: That’s incredibly kind of you to say so! Exactly how I’ve spoken about evolving the sound. Through more extended orchestral techniques, the use of synthesisers and electronic sound sources, expanding the orchestra to become something similar in size to films and treating each score more like a film score, than TV. These days I don’t think there’s a distinction as much as there used to be. People digest film and TV in so many similar ways that why can’t TV sound like a film?

DAMIAN: You’re often asked to experiment with themes, songs, cunning musical clues, historical references and, of course, there’s the classical music and opera. What do you consider to be some of your biggest challenges for series six?

MATTHEW: Series six seems such a long time ago now. The time between reading scripts and it hitting screens is six months or more. Bright’s staring moment on the zebra crossing was a new one for me, the childlike mystery moments in APOLLO was a new texture. I never see these as challenges really, it’s rare in a series to get so many opportunities to do something new and different in every film without it feeling out of character of the show overall. I guess that’s the genius of the story writing, acting and production that allows me to do that.

DAMIAN: Tell me a little bit more about creating the music for Bright’s Public Information Film in PYLON (S6:E1), it must have been fun to do the “If the Pelican can – then so can you” song?

MATTHEW: Yes, that was a bit of fun, a quick chat with Russ, a bit of humming and warbling on my part, and there it was.

DAMIAN: And what were some of the biggest musical challenges on series seven?

MATTHEW: There is a big trick we’ve done this year, and a few in Twitter Land and social media have started to twig, but no one has got it spot on, yet so I’d hate to spoil it for all our international friends!

DAMIAN: You’ve used the term ‘score personality’ to me before to describe the sound of an individual story. Which score from series seven would you say has the biggest personality?

MATTHEW: That’s like saying which of your children is your favourite! They are all so different this year, and yet there’s a running theme that we’ve never had before across an entire series and not just La Cura.

DAMIAN: I ask you this every year but are there any updates on when there will be a proper soundtrack of all the Endeavour scores released?

MATTHEW: It’s been lovely to have so many people ask for this, but sadly it’s not my gift to give. A few ideas are banding around, but as yet, nothing firm.

DAMIAN: Since we’re in the 70s now, what are the chances we can get a little bit of Geoff Love on Endeavour?

MATTHEW: Ha! I think you’d need to talk to one Mr R Lewis about that one.

DAMIAN: Matthew, thank you very much indeed.

MATTHEW: It’s always a pleasure and thank you for the always thought-provoking questions.

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2020

Stay up to date with all my latest Endeavour cast and crew interviews via twitter @MrDMBarcroft

THE ENDEAVOUR INTERVIEWS 2019: Matthew Slater

For me, as an aficionado of Horror and German Expressionist Cinema, I know that some of the most potent screen images come from those early silent films such as Cesare abducting and dragging his prey across the oblique cityscape in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the shadow of Count Orlok slowly ascending the staircase in Nosferatu (1922) and the thrillingly iconic creation of Maria in Metropolis (1927). These films, along with many others directed by cinematic pioneers like FW Murnau and Fritz Lang, inspired and influenced the Hollywood Horror Film and paved the way for the Universal Monster Cycle of the thirties and forties among other masterpieces of the genre.

And yet, when Universal first resurrected a host of classic gothic literary monsters for the sound era, they were reluctant to fully embrace the transition from silent film to talkies and the art of the music score. Many films frequently had music over the opening and closing title cards but anything more was usually restricted to diegetic (source) music such as if a character was at a concert, playing a record or listening to the radio. Indeed, their defining productions of Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) scream out for a full orchestral soundtrack. However, when James Whale was persuaded to direct a sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), this time the monster demanded a music score and it remains one of the greatest examples of the art of scoring a horror picture ever composed.

Given my affection for classic monster movies and their music, I was most intrigued to hear that the second episode of series five of Endeavour would feature a Mummy! I’d already met and later interviewed composer Matthew Slater and so I was obviously aware of the virtuoso and genius inventiveness that has immeasurably enhanced the mystery, the thrills and the romance of Endeavour. But how would Matt approach scoring an episode about an aged horror icon visiting Oxford to promote his latest cinematic tale of terror? I’m very pleased to have the opportunity of interviewing Matt again to talk about the making of CARTOUCHE and the horror film scores that have inspired him…

The monster demands a mate! And a music score…

The monster demands a music score!
– An exclusive interview with composer Matthew Slater

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2019

Header image © Anne Miller

Black and white photography © Geraint Morgan Photography

DAMIAN: Matt, I’m thinking back to the first truly great and influential Horror/Fantasy film scores and two obvious examples immediately spring to mind that I’d like to discuss, Max Steiner’s King Kong (1933) and Franz Waxman’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), unless you can think of anything that predates these?

MATT: Considering that just a little bit before those dates we were still in the land of silent movies, I think you’re probably right.  I’m sure there were some fantastic scores improvised by the musicians playing along at the time, but yes, I’d agree with you over Steiner and Waxman being the big boys.  Or, in films like Dracula in 1931, no bespoke score was recorded, and classics were used instead, which could also bring equal power and emotion to a movie. A concept not foreign to Kubrick.

DAMIAN: Let’s deal with Max Steiner first who, I think, composed over a hundred and fifty scores including music for Gone With the Wind (1939) Casablanca (1942), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Searchers (1956) to name but a few. However, would you say that it was King Kong that established him as one of early Hollywood’s most important composers?

MATT:  I think King Kong certainly had a significant impact on Steiner’s career by its sheer Wagnerian size, much like Kong’s stature in fact.  His use of themes and leitmotifs which have become commonplace these days would also play an extensive part in the success of the film. Bernard Hermann and Eric Korngold were also around at the same time and writing some fantastic scores.  The list could go on, but depends on whether we’re just talking about the horror and fantasy genres at that time.

DAMIAN: As a composer, can you explain the impact that the score had on audiences back then and why it continues to be so influential today in terms of elevating the status and respectability of the monster and fantasy genres?

MATT: If I knew that, I’d be John Williams!!  I think therein lies the answer though.  It’s not always the tune that bears the most importance in a film, its what it is designed to accompany on screen and how to emote the audience at that point.  That’s the genius of people like Rozsa, Steiner, Waxman, Hermann, Goldsmith and Williams. Matching the tune to that moment in time.

DAMIAN: Can you highlight some its defining musical features so that a layman such as myself without any musical knowledge or training can go back to the score and understand its monumental achievements?

MATT: Simply put, it’s the operatic feel, nature and enormity of the score which often gets that Wagnerian label.   A nod to Tristan und Isolde probably goes a little way to help that association with Steiner’s King Kong. Perhaps his use of unconventional harmony might also go to make that bond between the two composers.  Again, it’s not necessarily the notes or harmony themselves that particularly define a composer but more their application and placement in film, opera or ballet. Hermann’s Cape Fear and those descending intervals for instance. Inseparable. John William’s three-note Jaws motif, inexorably linked to the fish with the big teeth.

DAMIAN: And Franz Waxman, another prolific and groundbreaking Hollywood composer with credits such as Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story (both 1940), Suspicion (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Rear Window (1954), to what extent did he advance the parameters for the potential of horror film music even further than Steiner with his sophisticated and multifaceted score for Bride?

MATT:  I think all composers draw upon each other for the development of their respective genres, it’s almost impossible not to.  Much like score styles go in and out of fashion all the time. Look at the recent moves we’ve had towards scores become a more sound design element to films rather than having distinctive musical context and harmonic structure.  I’m not saying they are lesser scores by any means at all, just a fashion, as were electronic scores in the 70’s and 80’s. Even orchestral scores have gone in and out of appeal over the life of cinema and TV. I think the question might require a somewhat lengthy essay on the matter, so I’ll thin it down a little if you don’t object.

When it comes to comedy and horror the music plays an enormously important role.  Take the score away and see how well defined those moments become. As I’ve mentioned before, for me, it’s the application of the music rather than the specifics of thematic, harmonic and textual content.  As important as those facets are, the genius is also in the placement.

DAMIAN: Personally, I’d go as far as to say that the music to the final scenes with the creation of the Bride, with the constant thumping heartbeat-like repetition and the chimes evoking wedding bells, is the single most thrilling and exhilarating moment in the history of horror scores. Again, can you highlight some of the tricks the composer uses here to create both the horror and pathos of the scene?

MATT:  Waxman’s use of low ostinati, low woods, timpani and brass give that feeling of doom and impending horror giving way to the full slush and pathos of high string chord portomenti patterns.  Tubular bells and harp give that bridal feel all within those moments after “she’s alive!!”. A hint of Wagner’s Bridal Chorus perhaps in some perverse way?

DAMIAN: I don’t know if anyone else has ever thought of this but Frankenstein’s monster meets the blind man who is playing Schubert’s Ave Maria, do you think given James Whale’s celebrated dark sense of humour, that this was a joke because the little girl drowned by the monster in the first Frankenstein was called Maria?

MATT: I’ll pop along to my next local pub quiz, put that on the list of questions and get back to you.

DAMIAN: Endeavour’s ears may well be pricking up right about now because both the music of Steiner and Waxman have elements of Wagner as you’ve mentioned which might also be viewed as an extension of the German Romantic tradition and also the fact that so much opera has embraced elements of the supernatural such as scenes incorporating gods, monsters and magic. To what extent do you think operatic terms like Ombra and Sturm und Drang can be applied to the scores for Kong and Bride?

MATT: Take the picture away from Kong and Bride, add a few lyrics, a stage, singers – arguably not then operas and therefore applicable?  Joking aside, I think you’re probably right; they could well apply. Demons and misunderstood creatures feature in score in terms of horror, pathos and misconstrued perceptions.

DAMIAN: In addition to Kong and Bride, I’ve come up with a list of what I consider to be some of the greatest or influential music scores in either the horror, thriller or monster film genre: Dracula (1958, James Bernard), Vertigo (1958, Bernard Herrmann), Psycho (1960, Herrmann), Cape Fear (1962, Herrmann), Jaws (1975, John Williams), The Omen (1976, Jerry Goldsmith), The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Howard Shore) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Wojciech Kilar). What would you add to this list?

MATT: You’ve left me some thinking to do as we have a very similar list – although with my last choice it’s a combo between score and use of songs that works so well.  The Thing (1982, John Carpenter), Clash Of The Titans (1981, Laurence Rosenthal), Alien (1979, Jerry Goldsmith), Arrival (2016, Johann Johannsson), Poltergeist (1982, Jerry Goldsmith),  Presumed Innocent (1990, John Williams) and Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 (2017, Michael Giacchino).

DAMIAN: I suppose after the Universal Horror Cycle, the other most significant series of classic monster reinventions arrived on the screen courtesy of Hammer and although they employed various other great composers such as Tristram Cary, Don Ellis, Christopher Gunning, Laurie Johnson, Carlo Martelli, Mario Nascimbene, Franz Reizenstein, Harry Robinson, David Whitaker and Malcolm Williamson, to what extent do you think James Bernard was responsible for the sound we now associate with the studio and did you watch or listen to the soundtracks of any of their Mummy series as research for CARTOUCHE?

MATT:  Subconsciously, who knows.  But no, I didn’t listen to anything before scoring CARTOUCHE.

DAMIAN: I think your music for Endeavour far exceeds the expectations of any recent television drama series, but I was completely blown away by the music for CARTOUCHE – especially the ‘March of the Mummy’ theme. It was simply stunning and completely indistinguishable from a big-budget Hollywood score. Tell me about some of your first ideas in response to Russ’ script, the retro sound, the orchestration and choice of instruments… Matt, just bloody tell me everything please?

MATT:  Thank you so much!   There was so very little time to score those moments as I initially thought we were going to clear something original for use.  I think I wrote those moments the day before the recording session. I’ve always been a big believer of putting the music budget on the screen, so since I’ve been scoring Endeavour, we’re using the size of the orchestra not uncommon in feature films.   Mammoth Screen’s excellent appreciation of the importance of music in Endeavour has been a significant factor in what we can now achieve. Russ’ characters always seem to conjure their themes almost instantly. The strength of screenwriting helps enormously with music.

DAMIAN: Was there a guide music score for this film?

MATT: Some, but with the more recent films we’ve been using far less guide music than ever before which allows for a much broader scope of music context, remit and creativity.

DAMIAN: I know Russ is obviously a huge enthusiast but was the director, Andy Wilson, also a fan of the horror genre and can you tell us a little bit about working with him during the spotting session?

MATT:  You’d have to ask Andy about that; however, he was an excellent director with which to collaborate.  Allowing me to do what I needed to do, told me what he liked and didn’t, I revised then we achieved completion — all in a matter of hours at the review process in my studio.    A joy.

DAMIAN: During our first interview, we discussed the influence of working with Barrington for over twenty years and the extent to which you balance honouring and respecting the musical heritage of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour, while also enjoying the freedom to creatively pursue your own or new styles and tastes. Do you agree, particularly with series six, that you seem to be increasingly experimental (APOLLO is perhaps a good example of this?) in extending this soundscape while still remaining consistent with music universe of Endeavour?

MATT:  The path of now scoring the majority of Endeavour has been laden with many challenges.  I’d rather not go into details over the whys and wherefores. However, what I will say is that I’ve slowly been able to make Endeavour more my style while still hopefully keeping the viewers feeling like they aren’t suddenly watching a complete different series; but we have moved on and are developing the sound of Endeavour while still nodding to the Oxford history.

Absolutely.  Endeavour is a robust set of stories and characters and constantly evolving plots. Score wise we need to reflect that; otherwise, the music becomes static. What I try to do is add a score personality to each episode, so if you heard the score in isolation, you could probably guess the film from which it came. Thank you for noticing!

DAMIAN: You also told me that working on each film presents its own excitement and challenges as every film is so different in terms of the musical demands. Which film of series six have you found to be the most challenging or demanding this year?

MATT: Having far less guide score this year has made the whole process more comfortable and more creative.   I’m very fortunate to be trusted to that extent, and it’s a huge honour to work with Damien, Deanne, Russ, Helen, Shaun in his capacity as director, Johnny and Jamie plus and all the cast and crew.  It’s a dream to be part of such a family. I have to mention Abbey Road, Air Studios, The London Metropolitan Orchestra, Accorder/Peer, Paul Golding and everyone that’s part of making the music work.  It’s a massive team effort.

DAMIAN: Finally, as I think I’ve mentioned to you before, I own all the Morse albums that have ever been released in addition to the ones for Lewis and Endeavour but I’ve played these in rotation every time I start work on new interviews with the cast and crew which I began in 2013 – I need something new! I’m sure like myself, there are many fans who would like to buy the COMPLETE scores from EVERY series of Endeavour. What are the chances of this, or at least a highlights album, actually happening?

MATT:  I’m always overwhelmed about people asking for the music, and it’s something I’d love to be able to provide.    We’ll do our best to make something happen. Watch this space.

DAMIAN: Matt, thank you very much indeed.

MATT:  It’s always a pleasure, thank you for such challenging questions!!!