Screenplay – An Interview with John Parish on Film, Music & PJ Harvey

Musician and composer John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey, is, on the 16th April, releasing Screenplay, an album of a selection of his film music. Feature writer, Claire Hazelton, had a chat with John to find out more about the album and his involvement with the Filmic 2013 Festival in Bristol, the catalyst for the album’s creation.

Music and film are two things that are, quite simply, inextricably tied. For instance, turn Jaws on mute and, somehow, the great white ends up looking more like a big rubber puppet than ever; without the fear-enhancing ‘deeeeeeeeeer-neh, deeeeeer neh, deeer neh’’s that accompany the shark’s predatory approaches, the film feels diminished.

And yes – perhaps Jaws has become a bit of a cliché, but it is the over-discussed and re-used ‘deeer-neh’’s of Jaws, the ‘Ree! Ree! Ree!’’s of Psycho which most effectively lay to bare music’s most palpable place in the world of cinema. However, the influence of music on film and visa versa is not always so simple. Scores are not necessarily always representational; they can be suggestive, contrasting, and sometimes composed before the composer even sees the film. The relationship exists too, sometimes, when the music in question is not film music, but rather just music influenced by image – filmic or cinematic in sound.

Filmic 2013, a festival collaboration between Watershed and St George’s Bristol, explores the many facets of this complex and extensive relationship in a series of events, screenings, concerts and talks led by some of the world’s leading figures in film and music. April will focus on Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, and May on the world-renowned composer Philip Glass. Other upcoming performances will come from the likes of Douglas Hart, Amira Kheir and Animat. Starting off the 2013 festival, however, was the much-esteemed composer, producer and musician John Parish who, throughout March, gave live performances of his soon-to-be released album of film music, Screenplay, selected films for a screening and led a talk on scoring for film. I was able to chat with John to find out more.

“It’s a really, really good festival. It’s obviously really suitable for me because it’s about mixing film and music, which is something I’m really interested in.” John says. “It was actually through Filmic that I started to realise the Screenplay album. See, I was invited to perform, but the musicians I work with are based all across Europe, so it’s not easy to get together – to do a one off show is a bit of a massive organisational effort for me, so I thought, ‘what more can I do with this?’ So I decided to do a few more shows and put a record out as well; I decided to release an album of some of my film music. And that was how the whole idea came about really, so I’m grateful to the filmic fest people for galvanising me into action!”

Screenplay consists of selected music from Parish’s film music career; beginning with eerie and unsettling pieces composed for the film Little Black Spiders, the album moves through his work, drawing from the scores of Sister, Longfellow, Nowhere Man and others. Before discussing the album, however, John touches upon how he started as a film composer. “When I first wrote for film, it was the first time I had to think about writing music that wasn’t going to be something that just works as a stand-alone piece,“ he says, explaining how he approached his first score, music for Patricia Toye’s debut feature film Rosie (1998). “It was quite liberating; I felt that I could write atmospheric pieces and have quite big gaps or very stretched out pieces that wouldn’t have necessarily worked if you weren’t looking at something at the same time. But having said that, I didn’t feel it was massively different to some of the things I’d been writing before. I’ve always felt that the music I wrote was quite cinematic; it just hadn’t been attached to any pieces of cinema.”

“For Screenplay, however, I was in the unusual position of having to select pieces from my work in film which could succeed in being stand-alone pieces,” John continues. “I was hoping I could put together a film music album that could really work for people who hadn’t seen the movies.”

The album begins with a piece called Katharina, the theme for the tragic heroine of Patricia Toye’s film Little Black Spiders. Its guitar melody drifts over a hypnotic pedal that provides a comfortable beat throughout; gentle and eerily simple, yet somehow quite dark, it conjures images of a character mysterious, unhappy and troubled. “I had a sense of a character who was sad, beautiful but also very strong,” John explains. “But I didn’t sit there and think about what sort of music sums up those elements, because that’s not really how I work. Like most of my pieces, I was messing around on the guitar and just hit upon a chord sequence and thought, ‘this is quite nice’… And, by the end of the day, I had the whole piece recorded! It was one of a number of pieces I sent to the director to see what she thought. She came back quite quickly and said, ‘that’s exactly Katharina!’”

“My best music, is almost written independently from the movie. I seldom sit there in front of an image and play along. I’m much more likely to look at some stills or watch the film and just try let the atmosphere of a movie sink in… and then I just sort of play; I just mess around on instruments, compose several things… It’s not terribly methodical, not in the early stages anyway. Sometimes there are moments when the music needs to be very carefully timed however. Then I would get into a much more methodical type of writing. I often feel those aren’t my favourite bits of music though; they’re more the functional things that work well in the movie but probably wouldn’t be able to stand alone – what I would describe as ‘good invisible score.’” I ask John to elaborate: “Invisible because it really helps the atmosphere of the movie but, if the composer does the job right, you wouldn’t even notice that there was any music playing whilst you were watching that scene.”

Another piece in Screenplay, titled River, begins in a much more minimal manner to Katharina, the latter of which has more clarity in way of melody. River opens with and continues, for a whole minute, with just two intervals – rocking from an octave to a semitone repeatedly – slipping in and out of dissonance. Eventually, other pitches sift in, all on sustained synthesised strings and later accordion. I ask John about his choice of instrumentation, to which he replies: “It’s funny because I really like live strings! The original reason for the synthed strings was that I was by myself in Milan when I was putting the piece together and there weren’t any real strings around! But… obviously, I could have rerecorded with real strings, but I liked that combination of very artificial strings and really quite traditional, sombre, classically influenced music. I wanted it to feel slightly unsettling… I’m really happy with how that piece of music was used in the movie. It really works very well with the images I think. It’s at a moment in Little Black Spiders where the girls are walking barefoot towards a river, and something particularly nasty has happened to one of them just before. They’re all upset and concerned, but the scene is very visually beautiful as well, so I wanted to have a piece of music that could capture the contradictory feelings of that moment. I think the artificialness of the cheap sort of mellotron strings that I used give it that sort of unsettling tension. With real strings, it would seem much more like a beautiful pastoral scene, and I don’t think it would’ve worked so well.”

The conversation eventually moves onto the inevitable topic of PJ Harvey, whom John has collaborated with extensively over the years. I ask if their work together has influenced John’s film music at all and he replies, “Oh, absolutely, of course. Every project that I’ve done feeds into the melting pot of influences and ideas and, obviously, I’ve worked with Polly a lot over a very long period of time, so she’s been a massive influence on the way I think about and hear music. It is a symbiotic relationship for sure; it’s one that we’ve both got a lot from and we’re both very appreciative of.”

The most striking element of nearly all of John’s work, spreading across his career (including, also, his work with PJ Harvey), is his exploration of and experimentation with sound: his subtle and masterful manipulation of instruments and samples. Screenplay, however, seems particularly exemplary of this; each work adopts a different and often unrecognisable or unusual timbre. In a fleeting moment in Katja’s Death, for instance, the piano and guitar seem to merge, creating an entirely new instrumental sound – for a second, the piano seems to, strangely, portamento. In Sarah and Thomas, the piano is played at half speed making each note seem to fragment and rattle. Les Billets also conjures a strange sound world, easily mistook for manipulated bowed percussion: “In that piece, it’s actually a sample of wine glasses,” John says in response. “The sample was played on a keyboard and then through a copycat which is an old tape echo which gives it that real sort of shift… and I think I had the amp set to a certain amount of distortion as well… The sound sort of breaks up a bit. I was really happy with that sound.”

“As I said earlier, my process isn’t often so methodical,” John continues. “I get most of my ideas from messing around with instruments. I hit upon an idea, I develop it and I just try things out until I’ve got something I like. That basic process hasn’t changed much since when I first started writing music.” John’s spontaneity and curiosity are staple elements of Screenplay and of his personality as a composer and musician: “I often find my accidents are the things I end up liking the most – I’m always really excited to find new sounds, and it’s only in accidents that you really can find them.”

‘Screenplay’ by John Parish is due to be released on 16th April 2013 with Thrill Jockey records (see here).

For information on John Parish and his upcoming live shows, see here.

words Claire Hazelton

Follow @ClaireHazelton


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