Directors And Their Composers

Ken Loach and George Fenton
Part I
by Stephan Eicke

In this series, we will examine the relationship between directors and their composers. Via interviews, prominent filmmakers will detail how they work with their composers and use their compositions in their films. Composers will respond by sharing their view of the creative collaboration and how they see the working-relationship with directors.

When Cathy Come Home aired on British television in 1966, it caused a sensation. Never before had a TV movie shown the struggles of the under-privileged in such unsparing, clear and yet empathetic detail. It would become Ken Loach’s trademark. For over 50 years, the filmmaker has told countless stories of how (particularly the British) political system overlooks those in need in the best of times and outright discriminates against them in the worst of times. Ken Loach is as much an activist as he is a director, an overtly political film maker who does not shy away from making his views clear in his works.

Music can, of course, be used to great effect in political works and activism. It can subtly influence the viewer’s perception of the issues discussed and drive home the author’s and director’s message. Perhaps surprisingly, this is exactly what the music in Ken Loach’s films does not do, for the music in his films is subtle, sparsely used and never aims to manipulate the viewers and their emotions. This is not the only remarkable detail that makes the use of music in Ken Loach’s films so interesting to explore.

In the first part of a series dedicated to the music in Ken Loach’s films, the director shares his experience of working with his composers, particularly with his regular George Fenton.

You have enjoyed a close working relationship with George Fenton for a long time now…

George has been an essential part of my film making for over 20 years now. It’s ridiculous! He is a good man. He is also very funny as well.

What always struck me is that his music for your films is not necessarily typical for his general output. Usually his music is more upfront while in your films it is always very subtle.

The problem with music in films that try to be very realistic is that if the audience is watching a film and then suddenly an orchestra appears on the soundtrack it can undermine the reality of what people are seeing. It can make it false and just take you out of the reality of the moment.

Nevertheless, music has a function. It can generalize a scene, a scene made very particular and local. Music can make it seem more general and broaden the sense of it so that music is saying, ‚Look, this is more than it seems. This is something we can all relate to.‘ I think I have a sense of putting a wider context to something that might seem quite narrow. It can do other things as well. But the way it appears has got to be very careful and subtle because otherwise it can undermine the very style of the film. That is something George and I have worked on. George has found a way of doing this very well. That’s probably the first thing to say.

When you say music can generalize, do you mean that if you – for example – portray a conflict in Ireland or Spain or England, the music can give the audience a feel that this scene could take place anywhere by not being folksy but rather traditional?

Yes, the music can deepen the sense of scale. I am trying to think of an example… The movie we did about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom: We did it not with hundreds of people on the screen. It was just one militia group because we didn’t have much money. You don’t see an army of people. When they have been in an engagement or involved in some fighting, George’s music can make it say, ‚Look, this is only a handful of people but this reflects upon the whole war, the whole conflict.‘ It can widen it in that sense. It can give it a sense of breath. He used a cello octet which was a wonderful idea because it breathes a deep humanity. On screen there are maybe a dozen people. The sense of scale came from George’s music.

Land and Freedom is a good example. There is more music than in most of your other films and it’s much more upfront.

Yes. One thing that allowed this in a funny way is that there are a lot of songs to do with this struggle. These songs are sung in the film. In a way, the film itself introduced music to what you are seeing. It wasn’t music imposed from outside, it was in the action you were looking at because people were singing. That was a way in for George’s music to emerge. How music emerges is critical. In the last film we did, I Daniel Blake, there is no music right up until the end because it needed to be so precise and actual. The sense of actuality was very strong. Just at the end it needed to extend a sense of tragedy. In a way you have to earn the right to have music if that makes sense. If you just put music on in the beginning and indicate an emotion I think that’s cheating. The film has to earn that emotion, it has to earn the audience’s response just by what you see or hear. The music can amplify that or suggest another perspective of that. But I think it’s cheating if you just say, ‚We need an audience’s response, let the music do it.‘ That’s cheating.

Do you mean that the images need to be strong enough on their own instead of letting the music provide an emotion that otherwise isn’t there?

Yes. It’s the people you put on screen, it’s what they go through, what happens to them and how they express themselves. It’s the whole story, really. It’s got to be the film that earns it and not the other way around.

Is your fear then that music could pull the audience out of a film by making it clear that the audience is not watching something „real“?

That’s true. It can certainly play a part. Again, it depends on the film. It certainly has a part to play. It just needs to have the same aesthetic as the film itself. It’s got to have the same subtle observational feel that the film has itself. Films can be all different kinds. They can be expressionist or melodramatic. They can accommodate music upfront as a bold ingredient. But if you say, ‚What you are looking at is an actuality of what you are doing,‘ the music needs to be very careful not to undermine that. What makes George so good is that he just experiences it and has an instinctive response to where a sound can just either amplify or put in a context or have a sense of depth. The way George and I have always worked is that unless there is a specific musical requirement in the film – which was the case with Jimmy’s Hall which was 1930s dance music – it is best if he doesn’t read the script and doesn’t plan in advance but just sees the cut film and responds to that. Then it means that his response to it is absolutely instinctive. His instincts are very sound. He has a very sound instinct about what is appropriate and what isn’t.

How do you talk with George Fenton about music?

George sees the cut film when it’s nearly finished or just about finished. I get his response to it without any premeditation. Jonathan, the editor, and I will go and make a rough outline of where we think music is possible and then George will come and we will talk it through. He will have some thoughts on that and he will start working. The next stage is just to decide what kind of voice we want the music to have, whether it’s instrumental or just sounds or piano. Then he will start to work through the ideas before I come in. Often he will have different ideas which are usually better. What tends to happen is that we work on it and then George will record it. We usually find that we have one or two cues that we don’t need because once you hear the music the effect can be lost. Often a piece of music that seemed a good idea before we had anything becomes redundant once you have had that musical presence in the film already. We always tend to record too much rather than too little. I always talk to George about it. The whole point of film making is you have to work together. We always talk together about it. The danger of film making is that departments and different areas get separated from each other. You both have to be in each other’s head about how it’s going to work.

There are only about five minutes of music in I, Daniel Blake. Wouldn’t the film have worked just as well without any music?

I think these five minutes are very valuable. The film is a microcosm. It tells the story of a man and his friendship with a woman in a similar situation. It’s very small scale. What you want to say to the audience is that this is a tragedy on a grand scale. The music can just add that scale. It can say, ‚This is not just one man who might have died anyway, this is a social tragedy.‘ Music can give that sense of tragedy.

I, Daniel Blake is very emotional. After the premiere you were accused of manipulation by right wing critics. Music would have made the film even more emotional because that’s the nature of music…

George wouldn’t be sentimental but there is a sense of manipulation. That’s what you have to be aware of. You must never let the audience feel they are being manipulated by the music. American films do this all the time. They manipulate your emotion. If the film is to be valid you can’t manipulate the audience. You have to present it to the audience and let the people respond and not feel they are being pushed.

Also, I, Daniel Blake proves to be quite an uncomfortable viewing, because of the subject matter alone. Do you think the lack of music contributes to the audience feeling uncomfortable or even distressed?

Yes, it played a part. You don’t want to give the audience a hiding place. You don’t want to give them a cushion. They should have a hard seat rather than being surrounded by cushions to sink into. Music can be the cushions if you are not careful.

My impression is that the music is much more upfront and expressive in your more lighthearted films than in the serious tragedies.

Maybe. I think also as time goes on you become more aware of just wanting to pare everything down to the essentially, to be more economical, more reduced to the bare essentials, just the bones of what’s going on. That means stripping everything back. Very simple scenes, very simple shots, precise little experiences, no great helter skelter throughout the film. Let the audience evaluate the things as they are going along. Cherish the music when it’s there. Value it when it’s arrived. If it’s wall to wall music, if it starts at the beginning and finishes at the end, it has almost no effect at the end because you have just heard too much.

Has your approach to music in your films changed at all over the decades?

In the sense that everything has changed. Everything is more pared down, the camera work, the performance, the choice of actors, design – everything. Pare it down to the essentials. It isn’t only music.

How do you feel about music in documentaries? There is very little – if any – original score in The Spirit of ’45.

In the documentary the music itself is documentary. It’s a real song to appear, it’s music from the time, popular songs, community songs. What George did in one of the times we presented music, he made a version of a song. You heard it like an actual recording and then he would carry it on instrumentally. In a way, George’s music was just a reel track from the time that we used.

Would you generally be careful with music in documentaries?

I think so. It’s difficult to generalize. That’s your instinct. You can’t say you will never do it because an occasion might occur whenever it’s good.

How did you handle the music in your campaign video for the then-Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn?

In a sense, that’s different. That’s neither documentary nor feature film. It’s a one and a half minute film to rally support. That has a different function. If it’s shown at a public meeting it’s a way of generating enthusiasm. It has a different function. In this case music was welcome. It is very subtle but there is one point where it gathers strength and there is a word on the screen at the end and the music just underlines the words on the screen. It’s on the Labour party website. Have a look. George rises to the occasion as always. It’s a video of people speaking to camera and George’s music comes in low and goes louder towards the end. It’s rather a rallying call and not a piece of observation.

It’s probably a minor footnote, but you usually like to use music when the camera is panning over a landscape, let it be the woods or an urban environment.

Yes, that could well be. I can’t remember now. You are probably right.

Kes would be a prime example with Billy going into the woods and feeling free for once.

Kes was 50 years ago, a long time ago. A hell of a long time ago! Your technique changes a bit in the interim. The music for that film was done by a terrific guy called John Cameron who wrote lovely music. Your way of working changes a bit obviously.

Has the amount of funding you have available for your films ever influenced the musical approach?

No, not at all. We have never had a lot of money but you always want to budget it properly so that there’s enough to work properly. But there has never been a concern.

Stephan Eicke worked for the only European film music magazine Cinema Musica for eight years, four of them as editor-in-chief. He has written the music for over 50 radio plays and commercials as well as short films. In 2013, he founded the CD label Caldera Records, which specialises in the release of film music.
He has written countless articles, essays, interviews and reviews for various publications and the book „The Struggle Behind the Soundtrack„. He has also lectured and moderated film music events throughout Europe. Stephan Eicke is a regular guest at MediaSoundHamburg and has also been a lecturer since 2017.