3 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Composing for Film: An Interview with Fiachra Trench
01 Sep 2011 : By Mandy Hegarty
Fiachra Trench
Fiachra Trench is one of Ireland’s top composers and arrangers, having collaborated with musicians including Paul Brady, Elvis Costello, Sinéad O’Connor, Phil Lynott, Declan O’Rourke and Carmel McCreagh, he has also worked with film composing legends including Hans Zimmer on films such as ‘The House of the Spirits’, ‘The Ring’ and ‘Beyond Rangoon’.

Fiachra has worked behind the scenes on a diverse range of projects from blockbuster films such as ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Pearl Harbour’ to television series including ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’ and ‘The Ren and Stimpy Show’ and has composed music for features including ‘Moondance’ and ‘A Love Divided’. To celebrate the Dublin born musician’s 70th birthday, the National Concert Hall are hosting a programme of Trench’s compositions and arrangements which features special guests including Marti Pellow, Paul Brady, Eddi Reader, Declan O’Rourke, Carmel McCreagh, Brian Kenney and Altan on September 8th.

IFTN caught up with Fiachra Trench to discuss a lifetime of music composing and arranging ahead of the upcoming celebration.

Fiachra’s own parents were amateur musicians who taught Fiachra his first piano lessons as a child. While his educational path briefly led him off the road of music to do a BA in chemistry at Trinity College, Fiachra admits that by his final year as an undergraduate “it was clear that music was what I really wanted to do.” Having studied in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, the Universities of Georgia and Cincinnati and London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Fiachra has received much formal training in composition. But he explains that although he is “very grateful for all the training I have and I think it does inform the way I work,” he does not think it is “essential” for aspiring composers. “The one thing that is open to anyone - whether they have formal training or not - is to listen to music and study the score. I had a friend who was very successful in composing for film and television and he reckoned that his training was the British Rail School - meaning that he would be travelling by train and he would be reading scores. But in regards to my own training, it has always been a great help.”

Fiachra initially envisioned that his music career would be as a composer of concert music, an ambition he now thinks of as “unrealistic”. His first compositions for visual mediums were largely jingles and music for adverts, with his first foray in film coming while working as an orchestrator with the great film composer Stanley Myers (The Deerhunter), who gave Fiachra the opportunity to write pieces of original music for ‘Stars in Bars’, ‘Florence Nightingale’ and ‘Monte Carlo’.

With over 40 years experience in the industry, we asked Fiachra to explain the process of writing and arranging music for film and television. “The process differs from project to project. Sometimes I would be sent a script before they shoot or while they are shooting a film or TV series. Sometimes the composer wouldn’t see anything until the first rough assembly. In other cases, I wouldn’t see anything until the final assembly. The rough assembly can really only be used to get inspiration for a main theme or tune. You can only really compose for a final assembly. While it is easy to snip frames out or add frames into a visual medium, you can’t just cut out bits of music.

“There had been instances where composers have been asked to write music before the film has been made. The music will be played on set so actors can respond to the music and the mood. In other instances, the composer would get a chance to provide a library of music. You would write a few tunes, and various versions of each, which the editor can pick from.”

The most common scenario is a mutual collaboration between editor, director and musician upon completion of a final edit. It is here that the director can issues instruction on where they want music and what mood they need and what gestures or incidents they want highlighted. “The word that we have in common, composers and film makers, the word we have in common is drama. We can all respond to drama. And that is what the music really is about. The role of music in general is to support or underlay what is happening on the screen. Music can be suggestive of something that can’t be seen on the screen, but in other cases, when everything is up there on the screen, music sometimes needs to stand back, to be cool and neutral.”

Having written and arranged for such a diverse selection of content, Fiachra has learnt that style-wise a composer must alter their approach, depending on the genre of visual medium. “Writing for documentary is very different than writing for drama. And the music really has to not highlight what might seem to be something dramatic on the screen in documentary because this is real life, as it were. I had to understand that discipline and hold back a bit. There is a moment in one of the documentaries that I did – ‘People’s Century’ – it is about the Berlin wall and the camera is the point of view of people escaping from the East to the West, and I got a bit excited about this and wrote some sort of exciting music. By doing that, I was turning it into a feature film, so I had to tone in down. You can still have something throbbing there but it can’t be so obvious.”

Silent movies was another visual brief that Fiachra felt required a different approach, being careful not to “irritate or overdramatize”. “I had to write music for a silent film, indirectly, again it was for this BBC documentary series called ‘A Great Escape’, and it was about the birth of cinema, and it started off with some silent films. I found that actually quite fun. I purposefully had a small group of musicians. I imagined that it was this very small little cinema or theatre – a little local band, or maybe a band that toured with the film. I tried to imagine how they would play.”

What is often forgotten in music composition is how much orchestration can change the final sound of the score, I ask Fiachra how the sound of the music remains cohesive, with the use of several orchestrators. “I have never actually farmed out orchestration because I enjoy it so much and I do really believe it is part of the competition. But, for example, Hans (Zimmer) would have an army of people orchestrating because of the pace he works at and the level he has achieved. He would have already simulated and perhaps orchestrated on his keyboard because he has such as sophisticated sample library. In earlier times, with Max Steiner or maybe John Williams, they would sketch up the music in a fairly precise way, with cues saying this line could be on French Horn or double up the Bass here with Bass Clarinet. The composer would very much guide the orchestrator/arranger as to what the colour should be.”

The ability to simulate orchestration is a reminder of how technology has changed the world of film and television composition. This is something Fiachra has seen advance hugely within his career span. “I remember working on ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’, and the producer, Brian Eastman, coming by our apartment in London. I’d be playing the piano, and had a metronome in my ear, because I had worked out the tempo and I was just playing along. That was the only way of showing somebody how the music would be. Now we can mock it up using music sequencing software, sample libraries etc. Both from the composers point of view and the directors point of view, it is a huge step forward. It saves frustration and disappointment at the end. Because if the director likes it at that simulated, demo stage, then hopefully he will really like it with the real orchestra. It gives the director a wonderful opportunity to have some input to the music.”

Trench’s own favourite scores include “a beautiful score for a film called ‘Himalaya: The Rearing of a Chief’, which is set in Nepal. The music is a wonderful mix of ethnic singers from Tibet/ Nepal with a choir from Corsica and European strings. The combination is absolutely magnificent. Another score that I really, really like is from a film called ‘Il Postino’. The music is by an Argentian guy, Luis Bacalov. Obviously I like Morricone, ‘Cinema Paridiso’ is a gorgeous score. I like the more tender side of John Williams, I admire what he could do with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and all of those things – huge orchestral tapestry, and very much in the tradition of big film scores going back to the beginning of synchronised sound in the late 20s when there were composers like Max Steiner and Erich Korngold and Alfred Newman making this wonderful big music. I think you could say John Williams is a continuation of that. But the music of John Williams that I have really enjoyed is his more intimate music like the ‘Schindler’s List’ score. There is some beautiful music ‘The Terminal’ starring Tom Hanks. Arthur Previn wrote a beautiful score for ‘Bad Day in Black Rock’. John Corigliano ‘The Red Violin’. Gorgeous...”

Fiachra is currently working on a new album with Carmel McCreagh. A Celebration of Fiachra Trench will take place at the National Concert Hall this Thursday 8th September at 8pm.
Tickets are available here

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