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Tuned In Tuesday: Composer Martin Phipps Talks War & Peace

Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham

Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham

War & Peace is definitely on my “list.” You know, the list of great literature that you’ll get around to reading one day. One day when the siren song of your television has been extinguished — so, possibly never. But I read Leo Tolstory’s Anna Karenina years ago. I loved it and I loved his writing, so it’ll happen. Until then, I knew I wanted to give War & Peace a chance. Written by Andrew Davies and produced by the BBC, I knew this miniseries would be smartly written and beautiful to look at, and I wasn’t disappointed. What did surprise me — in the best possible way — was the wonderful music. So, you can imagine my delight when I had the chance to talk to composer Martin Phipps about his gorgeous score.

martin phipps

TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your bio and I know you’ve scored a lot for television. When did you hear about this project and what made you want to do it?

Martin Phipps: “I heard about War & Peace towards the end of 2014. They approached me quite early on, just before they started shooting, which was at the beginning of last year. I have to be honest: Initially, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t feel like I was in the place to do a big multi-episodic period drama. I didn’t want to do any period drama at that stage. Tom Harper, the director, who I’d worked with before on Peaky Blinders, he persisted. He just kept coming at me. [Laughs.]

They started shooting and he sent me the scripts and then they were filming and he sent me some early footage cut together. It just looked so fantastic and the scripts read beautifully and I gave in. It was like, ‘Ok. This is great. I’ll do it.’ It took me a little while to come ‘round to it.

I think that’s actually why they wanted me, particularly, because I wasn’t in love with the book or in love with the idea of doing War & Peace. They wanted a different angle on it and someone who would look at it quite objectively and try something different.”

Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham

Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham

TV GOODNESS: Take me through your creative process. At what point did you get motivated or inspired to start composing?

Martin: “After I agreed to do it, which was still quite early on – they were about halfway through the shoot – immediately I wanted to get started straight away. [It’s] like that when you finally come ‘round to a project, you’re really into the idea. You want to get going.

I flew out to Lithuania, which is where they were filming. They filmed in Lithuania and Russia. All of it. All on location. I snatched the odd hour with Tom, breakfast meetings and stuff and just played him lots of music that I liked. Nothing more complicated than that, in a way. Stuff that I thought might be right, stuff I thought had a slightly eastern European feel to it, something that had the scale and also the emotion of the piece.

Quite quickly we narrowed it down. Then I came back to him with this idea that I wanted the cornerstone of it to be this big, very Russian choral sound, which is a very powerful all-male choir mixed with electronics – kind of Rachmaninoff meets Vangelis. That would be the macro, the big world. That would be the epic nature of the piece, that would be the historical context that they’re in.

Contrasting to that I wanted to do very small, very simple piano and very quietly played strings, for the emotion, for the tenderness and the vulnerability of these young people in this big world. That was the idea, anyway.”

TV GOODNESS: I love that the silences are just as important as the music in this miniseries. Can you talk about the moments you decided you needed to pull back or the moments you decided to go really big?

Martin: “I think you pinpointed a really good part of the series and something that Tom was very adamant about from the start. He didn’t want it to be wall to wall music, which something like this could be. Often dramas, the music can be longer than the actual episode itself. [Laughs.] He was like, ‘I don’t want to do this with music,’ so because I think his direction worked well, I didn’t end up having to make scenes work. I didn’t have to fill in the gaps in the drama. The drama was working well enough on its own, so that I could really use the music to add another layer, something which meant something in its own right.

The silences were really important and I find, as much as possible, if you can hold back with the music and trim it down and use as little as possible, when it does come in it has much more impact and a much greater impression on its audience. So we tried to do that.

Again, it was going from the very intimate, from the very quiet, very still scenes through to something huge and big and sweeping and epic with great scale to it. We followed that with the music the same way [the director] did with a lot of the scenes.”

Photo Credit: BBC/Laurie Sparham

Photo Credit: BBC/Laurie Sparham

TV GOODNESS: Do you have any favorite cues or musical moments?

Martin: “For me, what I certainly enjoyed doing the most – there’s a calvary charge in the first episode, which is Nikolai Rostov’s first experience of war. That was the summing up of what we were trying to do with Tom, which was the big synthesizers, very modern sound with these very old-sounding, ancient voices on top. There’s a rising vocal line, which I borrowed [laughs] from a very old, traditional Russian religious chant, which goes up slowly, up and higher and higher and higher. It’s a big bass voice singing it. As he’s getting higher up in his range, he’s getting louder and almost shouting by the end. It’s very effective and I really loved doing that.

Then, in contrast, the ball scene at the end of Episode 3. Originally there was something recorded on set. They recorded [a] very nice, traditional period waltz, which they were dancing to. And that worked great. I think it works very well for awhile. Then what I did was took that out and went from this big orchestral sound down to this very, very simple piano. The effect was you went from the whole room dancing and this mass of dancing people just down to Natasha and Andrei dancing on their own in this intimate moment. Everybody else in the room disappears and it’s just the two of them. It was a lovely thing to do and it was great that Tom let me do that. He was really behind something like that, which is quite unusual. It’s not even in 3/4, the piece. It’s not even a dance piece and yet they’re dancing to this little piano tune. I really enjoyed doing that. That was great.”

TV GOODNESS: Talk to me a little bit about Mearl. That sounds great. How did you come to that?

Martin: “That’s something that’s set up on the side, which was this platform to do collaborations with other artists. [It] allows me to deal with other artists and write under a different name with them, which I think is the idea. It’s neither one or the other of our names. We can get together and do something different. It’s really just trying to find a different approach to writing score and film and TV music. We can come up with different ways of tackling what is a very well-trodden path in terms of score.

I got a bit side-tracked recently. I’ve been back writing under my own name, but I’d like to go back to doing collaborations with people and working with other artists and maybe just writing some of my own stuff, not to picture, under that as well.”

TV GOODNESS: That sounds great. Do you have anything coming up you can talk about?

Martin: “I want to do something totally different now. It’s been great doing the period drama thing. I think I managed to do something different with it, but I definitely don’t want to dive straight back in and do something like that now.

I’ve been offered a feature documentary, which I’ve never done before. It’s on the Formula One Frank Williams team. He’s the center of the English world and that looks really exciting. I think they’ve got amazing footage and amazing access and interviews with people about these incredible stories of these basic white boys building one of the original Formula One teams back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That appeals at the moment, but primarily I’m gonna take a bit of time out now and spend some times writing my own material and refreshing my ideas. That’s what I’m gonna do straight away.”

Edited for space and content.

War & Peace continues Monday, February 1st at 9 pm on A&E, HISTORY and Lifetime.

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