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Interview with Netflix's Requiem and Ripper Street Composer Dominik Scherrer

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Interview with Dominik Scherrer
by Marie-Anne Fischer
Dominik Scherrer is an award winning British-Swiss composer who lives and works in London and is widely known globally for his music in some of the best premium television dramas and films; Requiem, Ripper Street which earned him an Ivor Novello Award and RTS Award Nomination, The Missing (2015 Primetime Emmy Nomination), Amazon’s The Collection (Ivor Novello Nomination), Marple (Ivor Novello Nomination), Inspector Calls, Monroe (series 1 & 2), Scenes of a Sexual Nature, The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (Best Music Award at Spain’s Estapona Film Festival), Alice Through The Looking Glass to name a few. Dominik has his own avant-garde disco & video art duo, and composes performance music for the theatre. He also produces sound design and composition for fine art installations, most notably for artist Suki Chan.
I am grateful to Dominik for taking time to share his insights and allowing us to get to know the creative person behind his many accomplishments.
Can you please tell me a little about yourself, where you come from and how you became involved with music. For instance, what was the first turning point that set your career in motion?
I grew up in Zurich, in a musical family, had classical training, and also had rock and pop bands. I had always been fascinated by the interplay of music and moving image. I was keen to compose music for the screen and I started making my own films, so I could full explore the moving image - music - sound relationship. I became, and still am, a keen follower of Soviet film director and film theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin. Influenced by his ideas of montage and socialist film-making ideology I embarked on ambitious film projects - literary adaptions, operas, art films, as both director and composer. Some of those became successful particularly at film festivals. After moving to Hamburg, I ended up in London to study filmmaking. I thought I’d become a filmmaker, but everyone at film school asked me to score their films. After film school, others asked me to score bigger projects. Initially I had string quartets, but eventually I got asked to score a feature film and had an orchestra. I stayed in London and focused on film scoring.
I have been listening to the soundtrack for the science-fiction/crime mini-series ‘The City And The City’ which is incredibly inspiring; using electronic and acoustic instruments, choir and sound design. Can you please talk us through how you approached the music and how you developed your initial ideas?
The City and the City is based on the book by China Miéville and it plays in three very different worlds: two distinctive cities that occupy the same geographical space, and a possible third city - a utopian ancient civilization. The story keeps crossing those borders and I really wanted the viewer to feel that they cross into a different sonic and musical arena each time. One city had a more acoustic sound, with piano, cello, viola, guitar, and some instruments sounded as if they were recorded with ancient tape recorders. The other city was more futurist, but in a deliberately dated manner. Analog synths, large string section. A kind of synthetic, but epic, Thatcherite dream. A women’s choir, with percussion and woodwinds was the sound of the utopian third city.
Along with numerous nominations and awards, you earned the prestigious Ivor Novello Award and RTS Award Nomination for best television soundtrack for ‘Ripper Street’. How did you find the experience and what was the process like; from preparing the scores to planning the recording sessions to the dubbing stage and final mix?
Ripper Street is a Victorian crime drama, set in 1890s London east end. My studio is also in Spitalfields, right around the corner from many Ripper Street story locations, and I was keen to get involved in the project. I suggested that the music should sound as if it’s coming from the streets of London, as opposed to a concert hall. So the process of composing often started with only one, two, three instruments as a core, for example fiddle, with banjo and mandolin.
Of course, the score also had to satisfy the needs of a modern crime thriller and had to be epic, full of tension and go to the darkest of places. The solos were backed by orchestra, synths percussion. But the illusion was that the small-scale ensemble was carrying it in the foreground. Often the solos were recorded first, semi-improvised, then the larger orchestration built around it, then detailed orchestration prepared and strings sections and plucked instruments recorded, mostly at Angel Studios, London. Sound post-production for the first two series was in Dublin. Sadly, I could rarely travel to the dub reviews, so sometimes they would send me a wave of the mix and I would have the opportunity to comment. But it was not an ideal situation. Things improved when post-production moved to London for seasons three to five. I like being involved in the dub (‘re-recording’ in US’), as ultimately this is what we are working towards as film composers. Spending a bit of time in the dub also informs me for further episodes. I see where things work and where things can get tricky.
How do you manage keeping track of budgets especially when working on a long series?
I used to do draw up very detailed budgets. My management still do this, mainly for the benefit of the clients. But during the job, the parameters often change, and we will re-allocate funds from a 30-piece string section to several specialist percussion sessions for example, or vice versa. Periodically I ask the management to provide me with a tally of the spend so far, but generally it’s in my intuition now to stay on track budget-wise.
Can you please share with us how you came up with the score for the six-part Netflix / BBC drama series ‘Requiem’? How did you approach the music for the supernatural thriller, part psychological-horror nature of the series?
The central character is a concert cellist, so there was an immediate justification of virtuoso cello in the score and I started with some cello driven sketches. At the same time, while photography was still in progress, Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, came to my studio, and we spent some weeks coming up with eccentric 70s horror ideas, mixed with a bit of 70s BBC Radiophonic Workshop influence, sometimes with Natasha’s vocals, and sometimes just instrumental. All these sketches were then used as temp music by the picture editors, and when it came to actually scoring the episodes, we already had a stylistic backbone.
What equipment and technology does your studio currently have? Can you please provide a brief summary of your hardware and software?
MacPro running Logic. Extensive use of RME’s TotalMix software for monitoring, 5.1, downmixes and artist mixes. Orchestral recording and delivery to dub stage in ProTools HD, so there is some back-and-forth between Logic and Pro Tools, but we have a good routine. Monitoring on an ATC SCM50ASL surround rig, Yamaha NS-10Ms as alternatives. Fairly well treated room. Some analog and digital outboard, a few analog synths, but mixing mostly in the box, partly because of surround and stem delivery, where mixes quickly become complicated and multi-layered. I frequently get mix engineers to work from my rig, so I have soft-and hardware that everyone likes and respects - ie ATC speakers, Exponential Audio reverbs, Sonnox etc.
What inspires you and makes the writing flow?
Sometimes I get invited to a read-through, where all the cast members sit in a room and read through the script in realtime. This would be always just before the shoot starts. It immediately gives me an feel of how the story works over let’s say an hour or two. I find it so inspiring that I already hear some themes in my head and I start to write down some notation during the readthrough. Is there any advice that you can give to new composers on how to break into the industry? There is no point in pleasing everyone. Work on interesting and unique material that stands out, for a good or bad reason. Do anything that’s offered and always do something interesting. Somebody will notice. Look outside the soundtrack world for inspiration.
Finally, I ask this question to everyone and would appreciate your thoughts: What is your favorite Soundiron instrument?
I love Mercury Boys Choir, Struck Grand but my all-time favorite is Zitherette. I don’t even know what this was originally sampled from, but it has the sweetest, crystal clear sound. Pitched down 2 or 3 octaves it becomes a sinister and funky clavinet. Zitherette features on probably a third of all Ripper Street cues.
Thank you very much for taking part in this interview Dominik, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to share this information with us.
Dominik’s Website: http://www.dominikscherrer.com
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