I’ve been working as a freelance media composer for several years now, and am delighted to have joined Media Parents, writes Jon Nicholls.
I’ve most recently scored ‘Married To The Moonies’, Firecracker Films’ new doc about the Unification Church which TX-ed a week or so ago. The film features three young British people who’ve committed to take part in a ‘Moonie’ mass wedding, and we follow them through their preparations all the way to the quite extraordinary ceremony in a vast stadium in Korea alongside thousands of other couples from around the world – many of whom have only just met for the first time. It’s still available on 4od for another month (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/married-to-the-moonies/4od).
‘Married To The Moonies’ was a terrific project to work on; Firecracker take music very seriously, and the score evolved very organically with lots of ongoing feedback from director Barbie Maclaurin and the Firecracker team as the edit progressed. As a result the music was able to bed into the cut to become almost another character in the story, which is always very satisfying as a composer.
Creating the score presented some quite specific challenges. Despite the strangeness of the actual mass-wedding ceremony, all three young people come across as normal, articulate and thoughtful, and so hitting the right musical tone was crucial – whilst reflecting the oddness of the situation, we didn’t want to cross the line into mockery. I began by coming up with a title theme that we could then use in variations elsewhere – a larger-than-life whirling orchestral waltz tune. It had the right scale to match the extraordinary visuals of thousands of brides in the stadium, had a upbeat yet quirky feel (perhaps because of the ¾ waltz rhythm rather than the more usual 4/4), and most importantly of all had a tempo that worked with what editor Doug Bryson was doing. It became the main basis for the all-important ‘tease’; this was recut several times (par for the course!), but having the same basic tempo for each version made adjusting the music round each new cut fairly straightforward.
The next stage was coming up with themes for the various characters and settings. I began this process by composing a range of tracks (not yet locked to picture), and sending them to Barbie and Doug both as full mixes and also submixed as stems into their constituent elements (drums, beds, melody line etc). I’ve always found this a great way to work; letting the director and editor choose the most appropriate version of a particular track means that the music finds its own natural density and balance between foregrounded ‘busy’ moments and quieter more supportive textures as the edit develops. This saves a lot of time (for both myself and the dubbing mixer) further down the line. As the picture-lock approaches my workflow can be more focused on developing and focusing ideas we already know work well in outline, rather than having to come up with a flurry of new ideas under increasing time pressure (though there’s always a certain amount of that…).
Of course every project’s different – this was an approach that worked well for this particular film, and we were helped by having quite a leisurely edit period. I’ve done many other jobs where I’ve only had a few days (usually on fast turnaround current affairs docs for strands like ‘Dispatches’) – often in these circumstances the brief might be to capture the feel and energy of temp tracks that have been used in the edit up to the point when I get involved. It’s always great to get specific steers on style / arrangement / instrumentation, though it’s often a very useful general pointer for composers to be told what the music should do (build tension, calm things down, pick up on a particular character’s point of view etc), rather than what it should be.
I’ve always been thrilled by music that helps to tell a story, and I spent most of my time at university scoring drama productions and student films. After graduating with distinction from the London College of Music’s TV and Film Composition postgrad course, I managed to catch a lucky early break with Channel 4′s ‘Secret Asia’ documentary strand, and now work regularly across strands including ‘Cutting Edge’, ‘Dispatches’ and ‘Storyville’ with regular commissions from companies including Mentorn, Blakeway, Hard Cash and most recently Firecracker.
As well as my television work, I also have parallel careers as a composer / sound designer for theatre and also radio drama – I’ve scored a whole string of productions for BBC Radio 4 / Radio 3 and received a Prix Italia Jury Special Mention for my music / sound-score for Radio 4′s acclaimed drama-doc ‘What I Heard About Iraq’. I’m also regularly commissioned by theatres including the National Theatre. I’m always thrilled by how the different strands to my work seem to cross-fertilise each other, and along the way have built up a whole network of fabulous musicians along the way playing anything from bass trombones to hurdy-gurdys!
Since having kids however, I’ve tended to focus more on my TV work, as it takes me away from home far less. Theatre’s a somewhat family-unfriendly business, and although there are plenty of stresses involved in composing for TV, I’ve always found it much easier to integrate family life with work when I’m on a TV job.
My wife (who works programming a major arts festival) and myself both work flexibly from home, and between us we manage to make things work splitting care of our two young children most of the time. As with any freelance work, there are the inevitable swings and roundabouts – I probably do see more of my children than someone with more regular working patterns (I’m usually able to take and pick them up from school for example), and as long as I hit my deadlines I can more or less choose when I work. The crunch times are usually when I have a sudden deadline that needs me to be in the studio more or less round the clock while my wife’s work is also at an especially frenetic stage; there’ve certainly been a few occasions when I’ve been on the phone to a producer while pushing piles of lego towards one of my kids playing in the corner of the studio! However, we’ve become very good at predicting in advance when those peak periods are likely to happen (approaching a dub, for example, when I know I’ll be ftp-ing files to and fro on an hourly basis), and like most people in our situation we have a great network of friends, neighbours and family who all help us out.
I’m currently working with BBC radio drama again, scoring a new adaptation of the 70s cult classic ‘Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance’. It’s turning into one of my most eclectic scores to date, featuring gamelan, slide guitars, some fabulous live hillbilly violin and brooding organic soundscapes, and TXes on Radio 4 on 23rd June.
I know how limited everyone’s time is, but I’d be delighted if you might take a brief moment to glance at my site www.jonnicholls.com, where you can hear a very brief 3-minute showreel – and please do get in touch if you feel I might be able to provide music solutions for any current or upcoming projects.