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Interview: Richard & Timothy

Posted on 25 Mar 2016 by Leo Messias

Pictured: Richard Tognetti & Timothy Constable. 

Listen to Richard Tognetti and Synery Percussion Artistic Director Timothy Constable as they take us through a fascinating timeline of 20th century film music they both share a love for, and how their passion for Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste translated into the unique collaboration between the percussion and strings worlds seen in Cinemusica.

Also in this show, hear Bernard Herrmann's Psycho: A Suite for Strings, and Thomas Newman’s score for American Beauty.  

Interview has been kindly shared with us courtesy of 2MBS radio, and host Simon Moore. Transcript is also available further below. 

Simon Moore (SM): Why were you keen to frame this concert around this theme music?

Richard Tognetti (RT): This is a portal through which you can travel to access musical sounds which you wouldn’t usually listen to. It also helps to underline the incredible influence and importance and inspiration that has come with music from the 20th century.

So many people love going to scary films. Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste has been used in one of the scariest films of all time, The Shining, but also in Doctor Who – which used to scare the bejesus out of me.

In my view this is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful works in the 21st century. It’s THE most important work for strings, percussion and celeste because until this week, it was the only one (laughs).

SM: Timothy, do you have that same relationship with film music?   

Timothy Constable (TC): It was a way into sound worlds that people might not have experienced otherwise. The context and the visual landscape that frames the musical experience (in film) is clearly very powerful.

SM: Richard, what about the perceived barrier that people have with regards to 20th century music?

RT: Some people are still scared by 20th century music. But that’s in no small part due to the composers. It’s not like they are writing accessible music. Schoenberg certainly couldn’t be accused of writing easy music as for the most part he was deliberately toying with highly experimental ideas, almost like for a music laboratory with the listener viewed as a ‘lab rat’.

Bartók was inspired by folk music but he was also a man of his time. It doesn’t mean that you can’t access his music though.

SM: Bernard Herrmann didn’t have that ‘concert music’ idea, but he wrote some of the most memorable music from the 20th century.

RT: The psychic terror comes through his music. Mainly when you perform it. Actually when we performed it in an Australian town known for its murders a lot of audience members burst out laughing – I think because of the playing of such music out of the film context. It often results in laughter for some reason.

Herrmann was a bit of a failure as a concert composer. But as far as composing music for films, I think it is safe to say he stands high up there, in ‘pole position’.

SM: How does the music work without those visuals as they are designed for this end?

TC: I think there are two strong categories of music for this program. The monolithic theme that stands in its own right – Bartók being a case in point, having been a piece composed for the concert hall before being utilised for film. And there is the sparse, stripped back music which deliberately leaves space for the visuals and emotional landscape to come in.

In the latter case, if the scene is iconic, people are going to remember the emotional theme that goes with it.  

RT:  A lot of people haven’t seen these films and you don’t need to. In fact, I think it might be better if you have never seen American Beauty. Then you identify the music with particular scenery. I remember a young kid once said that he preferred radio to TV because he could “see more”.  This music is meant to trigger your own synapsis and serotonin is supposed to be released as result of the music. But the idea of the ‘cinema’ is what ties the program together.

SM: There is a great quote from Herrmann saying that “Hitchcock only finishes 60% of the picture. I have to finish it for him.”

RT: Hitchcock agreed with it, yes.

TC: Psycho is a good case in point. Hitchcock actually thought less of the movie before the music was added. He had plans to release it straight to TV, until he heard the music.  

SM: Cinemusica is a collaboration between Synergy Percussion and the ACO. How do you meld these ensembles together in the program?

RT: Hard to remember how it started. We might have started with Bartók. Then added Xenakis who I think is growing in stature – an extraordinary composer. There are a few pieces that Synergy Percussion or the ACO only play. A concertgoer once said she thought she had been exfoliated by a Xenakis piece, so strongly she felt about it.   

SM: Percussion usually sits at the back of the stage. Tell us what happens when you bring it to the forefront.

TC: In recent times percussion has been making far more orchestral contributions. I don’t think it is a stretch to integrate percussion more fully. Film composition is a great example. It is conceived to be recorded at the studio. That forward moving rhythmic material necessitates getting the percussion right at the heart of things – I think that’s a natural progression.

As far as Synergy is concerned, the ensemble has been predominantly playing music for percussion since 1974. It’s been a colourful journey that establishes that percussion can stand on its own. I can’t think of a more diverse collection of instruments - hundreds (perhaps thousands) of them.    

RT: Including the piano (laughs).   

TC: We often fight about that one! But percussion developed as a kind of foley thing. Anything that was a bit unusual – whether it was blowing a whistle or making a strange noise – got chucked into the percussionist vocabulary.

RT: And of course you turned us into percussionists as well with all sorts of techniques for playing strings. 

SM: Richard, going back to the Bartók. He composed at a time when stereo recording was new and he wanted the musicians in two separate halves on the stage. How does that change what we hear?

RT: His son, Peter Bartók, became a sound engineer. Bartók travelled around with technology recording folk musicians. He was involved and inspired by technology and this notion of the stereo orchestra is an extraordinary one. As far as I know it is unique in that genre (in 1936 or so). To use the modern concert hall as a place for stereo placement of instruments is a very interesting idea.   

SM: The music in the program is varied. Do you think film music has changed in the last century?

RT: It used to be more to the fore; also the syntax or vernacular was different. It came from the stream of outpouring Romanticism that you find with Eastern European composers. This filled the film screens (in the early 20th century) which had plenty of romances. It was a place to go and escape. Horror was a genre but for the most part cinema was an escape. In part this notion has continued with John Williams but I would argue that now it’s in a cul-de-sac and branched out of its Romantic, orchestral, uber rich stream of music.

You can hear that Thomas Newman comes from Minimalism. But you can hear he imbibes his father’s music because he writes terrifically for strings, even though it’s pared down. Alfred Newman won many Oscars and in my mind Thomas Newman is the greatest film composer alive. Listen to the music in the American Beauty score.  

TC: It’s completely iconic and inspired a lot of music that has followed. It has changed a lot from early film composers who wrote in the European tradition. Later we saw a much more American influence taking hold. The 70s, Minimalism, Steve Reich… the American folk music tradition and Appalachian music of Eric Copeland, the music of much wider, open spaces… it’s not surprising that the music became more spacious. There is a fragility about it.

RT: It’s more about what you don’t put in the score rather than what you do put in. It is interesting that people still say that they don’t like 20th century music. Well, how do you sit through those films?

SM: Timothy, people often say your music is ‘cinematic’. Why is that?

TC: I’m drawn to music that has a sense of spaciousness. I like putting the final melody on tracks that I hear in my head. I can’t quite unpack why people say that, but I’m not displeased that they do. The piece that I have written for this program is not background music but it is concerned with 'texture' and takes its leads from the sonic explorations of Bartók’s stereo orchestra set up.   


THOMAS NEWMAN American Beauty (selections)
HERRMANN Psycho: A Suite for Strings
TIMOTHY CONSTABLE New work for strings and percussion (World Premiere)
BARTÓK Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta