We had the pleasure of speaking to Bafta nominated, neo-classical composer Ilan Eshkeri who has brought you the music from the award winning films; Still Alice, The Young Victoria, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Kick Ass, Stardust and Shaun the Sheep just to name a few. As well as composing film scores Eshkeri has had collaborations with KT Tunstall, Tom Odell, Coldplay, Kasabian and many more.
‘Music is the soul of the movie’
Responsible for creating the tone, emotion and atmosphere of the film, we discuss the importance of storytelling and understanding the narrative of the script in order to inject life into the movie. Ilan tells us about his approach to the Still Alice score and how the restrictions he installed represented the disease of Alzheimers, which the films lead character, performed by Julianne Moore is afflicted with.
We talk big breaks, learning all the different jobs in the industry, performing live in Paris' Tuileries Gardens and even having to Bahh out a song for Shaun the Sheep! Read more about Ilan Eshkeri’s eclectic career and his advice to those breaking into the industry…
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" I have always played music, my first memories are of holding a violin at four years old. My mother played the piano she was also a ballerina and a very talented pianist so there was always music in my house. My mothers father, my grandfather, died before I was born but I have his violin, which he played in orchestras, however he didn't end up being a professional musician. But having his violin meant that I learnt to play when I was young. Growing up in a musical household has meant that music has always been a big part of my life.
How did I end up becoming a composer, is that the question? Well I suppose I had this classical upbringing and for my 13th birthday I got this electric guitar, I was a bit of a grunge kid at the time and I really didn’t want to do classical at all - I wanted to be a guitarist.
But when I was old enough, around the age of 19 I just wanted to get into and work in the music business. I was introduced to the composer Michael Kamen, I started working for him and then for for his protege Ed Sherman. They were both very successful film music composers. Michael also did a lot of work with bands such as; Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, David Bowie and many more.
He co-wrote ‘Everything I do, I do it for you’ with Bryan Adams for the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves film. Michael always worked in different camps and that was the way that I learnt. I’ve always enjoyed the variety so I worked a lot in the Rock & Roll world, with a lot of bands as well as doing film scores.
That's kind of how it all happened really, I mean I started just making these guys tea - I just learnt all the different jobs there were. I started young at 19, went to Leeds University where I studied English Literature and music. I actually focused more on the literature, which meant that I had a really solid grounding in narrative storytelling and that is so important if you’re going to be a film music composer. You’ve got to be good at music but you’ve also got to be good at telling stories.
'You’ve got to be good at music but you’ve also got to be good at telling stories.'
Film making is storytelling. It doesn't matter whether its Homer and you’re singing the Odyssey with a Lute - you’re doing the same job as the director.
So what was the first piece of music that you composed?
Oh gosh, you know I can actually remember! My brother bought this FM synthesiser in the late 80’s and I was really inspired by it. I used to sit there with head phones, just bashing away at keys. I wrote a piece of music from that and now that you’ve asked the question I could literally sit down and play it right now - not sure its any good though, not for public viewing!
It’s funny, because when I was really young and playing the violin, I used to always change the pieces of music. I would be playing something and I would really like it - but then I would think oh it should be a bit more like this or like that.
'How I felt it, was more important than the accuracy of it - to the frustration of my teachers!'
What other instruments do you play?
Well I was a violinist, then I picked up the guitar and I’ve played bass in bands. I can play keyboards really badly! And I write with the keyboard a lot. Funnily I was never a brilliant, virtuosic performer, like Matt Bellamy for instance, who is just so virtuosic in his performance. At one point I used to practise the violin for hours and hours everyday, because I really wanted to be that good. But then I realised I was never going to be amazing at the violin and maybe that’s what lead me to focus on the more creative side of composing.
I do still perform, when I did the Snowman and the Snowdog with Andy Burrows, we did this concert afterwards where we performed the film live and for the second half of the concert we did all of our favourite Christmas songs. We had special guests such as James Corden and Tom Odell who came on different nights with their favourite Christmas songs. I played the guitar for that, which was amazing as who would have ever thought I would share the stage with Mel C!
That must have been pretty amazing!
Did you watch Tom Odell at Glastonbury? We are huge fans of his!
Yes absolutely! In fact I was having a beer with him just before he went on.
His new song Magnetised is great!
It’s brilliant isn't it. I am so happy for him he really worked hard on that album. In fact I remember sitting here in my living room with him when it was really early on in the album. He’s a really hard worker Tom, passionate and brilliant! Just love him!
I would love to get him to write a score with me, if we could find the right time and film for his music. I’ve done a lot of rock and roll collaborations with artists and I think Tom has a real feel for storytelling.
Where does your inspiration come from when writing a piece of music?
Well you know what, its an interesting question and I have quite an intellectual answer to this…tell me if I'm going too nerdy!
Nerdy is good!
It's something that really fascinates me. I think that there are two parts to it. There’s the part that’s pure creativity, where you need to come up with the tune. Then there’s another part, which is the craft, where you’ve got to think what you can do with it.
Then you go to another area and you draw on both the creativity and the craft. But coming up with the amazing melodic idea - that particular process is very interesting. I often wonder how it happens and I think you can liken it to art. For example, if I draw five lines on a piece of paper, its a worthless scribble. But if Picasso draws 5 lines on a piece of paper, its an amazing work of art. The answer to that question is that there’s a moment in which those five lines become greater than the sum of their parts. They aren’t just five lines, they mean something. They have created something.
It’s the same with music, there’s a moment in which those notes become greater than the sum of their parts.
Sometimes i’m scared that it’s not going to happen. Sometimes there can be things in the way of that and if you can, just clear your mind and be completely in that creative space. Where time doesn't matter anymore. Be unaware of the stuff around you. That’s pure creativity, that moment.
In the flow!
There’s one other thing that I find very inspiring. For me it’s really great when there are restrictions set around you. I wish I could remember who said this, someone much smarter than me said; “there’s no art without restriction.”
It can mean that if you were an artist and you could only afford black and white paint, then you might become famous for just making black and white paintings. Or if you can only afford small canvases you might become famous for making small paintings. Frequently i’ll be presented with films by inspiring people, with really small budgets. And you have to make something worthwhile with those restrictions. If I am not given a restriction, then I like to create my own.
We looked up the quote and it was said by he film director Orson Welles wrote:
1) The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.
2) The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.
When I was doing the film Still Alice, we were talking about having a string quartet. Forgive me, this is going to get way too nerdy, but I decided to make it a string trio.
The reason I wanted it to be a string trio was because it’s a very difficult medium to write. The reason it is so difficult is because when you write harmony in a chord, you need three notes or more. You need four instruments because if your melody, or your top line is the same note as your bass line (which can easily happen) then you need two other lines of musical instruments to complete the chord.
So if you have a trio then it is much more challenging as you’re always missing or always making sure you’re not missing one note or part of the harmony. You’re trying to fill that gap, searching for that missing note. For me, in my head that related to the condition of Alzheimers - this idea that something was missing.
'For me, in my head that related to the condition of Alzheimers - this idea that something was missing.'
Can you tell us about some of your collaborations?
I’ve been doing a lot of animation, which is lovely as i’ve got a young daughter. I did Shaun the Sheep, it really made me use every single discipline that I have ever worked in. There was big symphonic orchestral music, there was heavy metal, there was pop, electronic…every kind of thing you could think of. To top it off, we wrote two songs. One of them was called Feels Like Summer, which I wrote with Tim Wheeler from Ash and Nick Hodgson from Kaiser Chiefs. Really good fun doing that.
Then believe it or not, we had to sing as a choir of sheep. Seriously we had to Bahh our way through! It was all ‘ohh that version was a bit toooo sheep like, maybe it should be a bit more…”
I had to write the song, then Bahh it out and then we had to act it! You couldn’t make it up!
Breaking into the music industry | Big break
I started working for these guys (Michael Kamen) literally making tea and doing every and any job that needed to be done. I then went to LA and worked for a couple of other people and you know, just worked my way up.
I went from tea making to orchestrating, to music editorial, programming, setting up computers, recording. Then whilst I was doing that I worked on some short films, I did these BBC medical documentaries, in fact one of the first TV programs that I worked on was called Young, Gifted and Broke - very appropriate!
Eventually I did a BBC documentary called ‘Colosseum,’ which had a bigger budget and it was the first time that I had worked in Abbey Road Studio.
Then Michael Kamen died, which was sudden and tragic. He was in the midst of doing an animated movie called Back to Gaya, and when he died there were a bunch of people we needed to fill in and finish the film. I worked hard and I think that caught peoples attention in the industry and in Hollywood. Just a few months later Matthew Vaughn was making Layer Cake with Daniel Craig. They needed help with the score and Sony put me in touch. Two weeks later we were in Abbey Road Studios recording.
And I guess that was my big break!
What would your advice be to others trying to break into the industry today?
Well my career has been extremely eclectic, I do as much stuff outside of film as I do in film. And I think there are a lot of people that want to be film composers now and they must remember that first and foremost it’s about narrative - film making is all about storytelling.
If you’re a DOP (Director of Photography) you’re not taking pictures to put up in a gallery, it’s about storytelling. If you’re a costume designer, you’re not making clothes for a runway show, you’re telling a story with the clothes.
'Music is the soul of the movie, it needs to have a soulful performance'
Remember that you need to read scripts and understand the basis of storytelling. Read books on how to write scripts, understand the process of film making and storytelling so that you can do your job. And the other thing is to just keep it real when you’re creating music, no fake stuff, music is the soul of the movie, it needs to have a soulful performance. It needs real instruments bringing real emotion to the heart of the film even if it's - one solo cello or one solo voice.
What do you think of todays most successful contemporary artists? Good, bad or a mixture?
Really, I think it’s amazing. There are incredible artists breaking through. We were just talking about Tom Odell, I mean he is a friend of mine, but non-the-less what a star!
Look at the line up at Glastonbury! Muse, what an incredible band - brilliant song writers. Followed by Adele, I don't even know what to say about that! The most disarmingly charming, sweetest woman who everybody adores - with a voice the defies belief! Writing these songs which go straight to the heart, what an incredible artist.
And then Coldplay, just an amazing, amazing band. Writing these huge memorable hit songs, that are just emotional and beautiful.
There are lots of brilliant musicians, but the industry is changing. However, there’s a great levelling, everyone can make music on their laptops now and in a sense that means everyone is giving it a go. There is more stuff out there, yes a lot of rubbish but the good stuff really does rise to the top.
What has been the proudest moment in your career so far?
It was a family thing to be honest. I got commissioned to do a concert for two nights at the Louvre in Paris in the orangery at the Tuileries Gardens. It was amazing, they built a huge stage, put in a couple of thousand seats, all I could see was a sea of people sat in the gardens in the summer, I wrote a 45 minute neo-classical tone poem, with images. Then I went out and conducted this huge 90 piece orchestra - what an amazing opportunity.
But the best thing of all, I am half french and my mum was born in Paris and my grandmother who sadly died last year (this was the summer before) lived in Paris. My grandmother was a very big figure in my life, a holocaust surviver, a Resistance Member and a French war hero. She couldn’t walk very well and didn’t travel much and the fact that I could do this concert in her home city and we could arrange for her to come to the concert and watch me conduct this orchestra in this incredible place. That was the proudest moment of my career.
Have you got any exciting projects coming up, that you can reveal to us?
Yes some very exciting, I can’t reveal them all as I haven't signed the deals yet.
But I can tell you that I am working on a ballet with the ballet dancer Sergei Polunin and David LaChapelle (the photographer) I am not allowed to say more than that for now.
I have also been working with Astronaut Tim Peake and the European Space Agency, we have a plan to do something pretty amazing for next year, but again I can’t say much more than that.