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Tuned In Tuesday: Sherlock’s Emmy Award-Winning Composer Michael Price [Exclusive Interview]

michael price

Need a Sherlock hiatus helper as much as I do? At least we know the series isn’t going to take another two-year break (I’m honestly not sure when I’m going to be able to let that go). I spoke exclusively to composer Michael Price, who just won an Emmy for season 3 of the series. We talked about how he and his partner David Arnold heard about the project, how they came up with the sound of the show and what musical (and story) surprises there have been along the way.

Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE

Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE

TV GOODNESS: Congratulations on your Emmy for Sherlock. That’s so exciting.

Michael Price: “Thank you very much. It is, particularly because it’s third time luck. I got used to the disappointment in a very English way, so I was very happy with being disappointed. It is very good to win.”

TV GOODNESS: Good. Especially after 4 consecutive nominations. At least they were recognizing that you were doing great work. How did it feel to finally win?

Michael: “Well, I think the truth is that because having been sat in the Nokia theater before and watched really great composers go up there, I prepared myself just to enjoy the day and to enjoy the meal in the evening and see some friends. So, I hadn’t written a speech. I hadn’t done any of those things. I prepared my ‘Well done, everybody else’ face. So when they actually did read out, ‘The music from Sherlock‘ name from the card, it was just rather wonderful actually. It landed very well. After 3 seasons, it was nice to be recognized. It felt great.”

TV GOODNESS: I love the music, so I was excited to hear you won.

Michael: “Thank you.”

TV GOODNESS: Are you working on season 4 right now?

Michael: “The schedule that’s been announced is that it will all be starting in the new year, so right now we’re not working on any new Sherlock ’til they’re shooting in February.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s back up a little bit. How did you hear about Sherlock and what made you and David Arnold want to work on the show?

Michael: “I think most of the interest with the show is by relationships which, I think, drives a lot of the work that we do. David had worked with Mark Gatiss, who is one of the writers and showrunners and also plays Mycroft in the show. Mark and David and known each other for a long time. I’d known Mark as well for a few years and he called David up and said, ‘We’ve got this new modern-day reworking of Sherlock. We’d like to show it to you.’ David and I have worked together for ten, fifteen years now and David called me up and said, ‘Oh, we should go and watch it together.’ And we did and it was this peculiar thing where right from the word go, you could see that there was something very special about it because once you’ve seen Benedict Cumberbatch on screen and Martin Freeman and watched the chemistry between the two of them, you knew something extraordinary was possible.

But it didn’t start with a bang. There was a pilot episode that never aired that was sixty minutes long. David and I scored that episode really quickly – just in a couple weeks – and then it all went away for a year or maybe even eighteen months before the actual first season that was broadcast, which had been refashioned and had a new director and been re-shot. It was ninety minutes long rather than sixty for each episode. When we finally saw that first new episode of season one, with Paul McGuigan who directed it so amazingly, it was like, ‘Oh, ok. This is definitely a thing now. This is something quite remarkable.’ David and I just threw ourselves at it. It felt like an opportunity to really join in something exceptional and it’s been quite a ride for the last few years.”

TV GOODNESS: You’ve worked with David for the past ten years?

Michael: “Yeah, absolutely. I keep saying ten years, but time is catching up on me. It’s probably close to fifteen now. I’ve had quite a long track record in London. I used to work for Michael Kamen, who did Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Lethal Weapon and Die Hard and all those Hollywood films. I was his assistant in London for 5 years, so I was part of the fixtures and fittings of the London film music scene in my early 20s. I’d met David because I was doing some arrangements for something else, so I helped him out on a couple of movies, did some arranging and did some bits of additional music. We found a relationship that I’ve found to be quite rare in my experience, which is two people who genuinely enjoy each other’s company and make each other laugh, also musically – although we can be very different – we seem to have a relationship where we can trust each other enough to write things together and comment on them and make suggestions without the other one feeling affronted or feeling put out by the fact that one of us made a suggestion. I’ve really never had a writing relationship with anybody else. I can’t quite imagine it at any other point. I’ve made it sound like a bromance now.”

TV GOODNESS: We like those.

Michael: “In musical terms, it works very well. We bring out the best in both of us because we’re very trusting with talking to each other about what we’ve both done, but also we both want to impress the other and we want to make sure that everything is as good as it can be. So, yeah, it’s a very good working relationship.”

TV GOODNESS: Tell me a little bit about your process. Does it start before you even see a script? When are you inspired to start writing?

Michael: “Yeah, it’s a really good point because we start thinking at the script stage. As soon as Steven Moffat, the showrunner and chief writer, tells us the rough direction then we start thinking. With Sherlock, it’s not until you see the amazing performances coming to life on the screen — then you can really catch the pace of it. Because it reads fast. When you first get sent a script, you go, ‘Wow. This is cracking along at a great pace.’ But even with the knowledge of what the previous seasons have been like, you really don’t get a sense of the extraordinary, electrifying pace and the energy of the performances until the first time we watch a rough cut. For season 3, the one everybody won all their Emmys for, we sat down in a London pub before we started, David and I, and we had a couple of beers and came up with half a dozen really good ideas for what we were gonna do musically. There were all these wonderful — it was gonna be different like this, it was gonna wonderful like this and we haven’t used any of them. [Laughs.] Because you need that visceral response of what you see on screen, in a way going with it as an audience member goes with it and having that emotional connection with it, so we do try and do stuff before but it never works. You just have to throw yourself in at the deep end when you finally see it.”

TV GOODNESS: How did you guys come up with the sound for this project? I know you use a full orchestra amongst other things. Are there certain instruments you focus on that you feel help you tell the story?

Michael: “The palate of sounds that we came up with, some of the main sounds, [dating] right back from that very early pilot episode, were driven by trying to be inside Sherlock’s mind sometimes and outside at other times. So, some of the first sound combinations we came up with were some of his early deductions where there was a real sense of that – ’cause Sherlock is such a great, big show-off. He’s demonstrating his intellectual power. Both David and I really felt that if we could find a way musically to help the audience feel like they were with Sherlock and inside his mind when he was doing one of these virtuoso deductions, then you’d be along with the thrill of it rather than standing back going, ‘He’s just showing off.’ [Laughs.] So we came up with — it was more from instinct than theory — a combination of electronic sounds and orchestral sounds and then we used a lot of sound sounds. We were working with a great group of players, who can use their instruments in strange ways. There’s a key tiny little Sherlock sound. You’re never quite sure what the actual noise is. It’s actually made by bouncing a ballpoint pen on the bridge of a mandolin. Rather than playing it conventionally, you bounce the pen and make it do a little arc – ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding – and somehow that connection of noises gels together to form the sound we hear onscreen.”

TV GOODNESS: Do you have a favorite cue or two from the series so far and can you tell me about it?

Michael: “Yeah. It’s funny because David and I both gravitate towards choosing different favorite moments. It’s an easy assumption that people make, ‘Oh, that was a bit that you wrote and that was a bit David wrote,’ but it’s not necessarily true. I would say that up to the end of season 2, my favorite part was the end of [The Reichenbach Fall] where Sherlock and Moriarty have a confrontation on the rooftop. I just thought that was amazing drama. Then, having been through all of season 3 again, I really love the last episode of season 3, His Last Vow. There’s this absolutely epic sequence where Sherlock basically goes through a whole death and resurrection sequence, which would be so implausible if you weren’t incredibly invested in the character. But because you are, we take the music to a really, a huge scale, which is just glorious to find that you can really be dramatic and really be emotional because the story supports it. So it’s not melodramatic, it’s not artificial because that’s the place the emotional story’s at. So I think the resurrection sequence in His Last Vow is one of my favorites.”

Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE

Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE

TV GOODNESS: How do you overcome challenges or setbacks when you’re composing?

Michael: “On Sherlock, I think one of the great things is that David and I are writing together. Although we’re never quite in the same room at the same time, we have the sort of relationship where one or other of us can phone each other up and really just unload if I’ve got no idea what to do. Or I could spend all afternoon doing this and it’s terrible. When I was a teenager, I played in lots of British indie bands and there was always that feeling where if you were a part of something that was more than just you, you could take your flaws and your bad days and your weaknesses into the rehearsal room and something would come of it, often something you hadn’t expected. Maybe David and I are like a middle-aged rock n roll band. We’re just gonna take our bad days in and that’s ok too. You usually come up with something. On this occasion, it’s good to be part of a band.”

TV GOODNESS: What are you working on right now?

Michael: “There’s always film and TV things hovering in the wings, but I’m real excited because I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Berlin working on an album. It’s been this blissful time when I’ve been working with some string players in Berlin and some electronic parties as well and so I’ve made a record. It’ll come out on vinyl. It’ll be wonderfully retro and yet quite electronic and strange. So that’s what I’m finishing right now, mixing the last few tracks and mastering that. That will be out very soon in the new year, I think a January release for that. The record’s called ‘Entanglements.’ That’s the thing I’m focusing on right now.”

TV GOODNESS: Any final thoughts?

Michael: “I think my last thing will be to say that I’m as excited as everybody else to see how season 4 is gonna turn out. I think it will be great.”

TV GOODNESS: Actually, one more thing. How was it to take that humongous break between the second and the third season? I kind of felt like I was dying.

Michael: [Laughs.] “You and me both. There are some pre-matched nerves when we all come back together. The point it begins to feel really real is at the script read-through, which I don’t always go to for other shows, but for Sherlock I always make a point of going. So everybody’s back in just a very unassuming rehearsal room in an old church hall somewhere. It’s not very glamorous. Obviously, nobody’s in costume. Everybody’s just marking through the script, but there’s something about the energy of having everyone together, having Benedict, Martin, Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, David and I, everybody in a room that feels like somebody’s firing the starting pistol. Then they go off and shoot and David and I go off and worry about what we’re going to do. But I’m very much looking forward to [it.] That will be the real starting point for next year, when we get to the first read-through of the new season. I can’t wait.”

Edited for space and content.

Season 4 of Sherlock returns in 2015 on PBS.

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