Interview: Emmy-nominated composer Michael Price on scoring 'Sherlock'
POZNAN, POLAND— Michael Price gets around. The British composer leaves Poznan today after being one of the featured speakers at the Transatlantyk Festival, a week-long event dedicated to film, music, and cuisine, to head straight to Los Angeles for the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Saturday (16).
Price is nominated for the first time for Outstanding music composition for a miniseries, movie or a special (original dramatic score) for “Sherlock,” the BBC series he composes music for with David Arnold. Price apprenticed with a number of composers, but he also worked as a music editor for years, on such films as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Love Actually,” and “Nanny McPhee.”
I hopped in a car with Price to interview him on our way to Transatlantyk’s closing gala.
You started as an assistant for the late composer Michael Kamen ("Brazil,""Band Of Brothers," "Lethal Weapon," "Mr. Holland's Opus"), who was a very passionate and emotional composer. What was the biggest thing you learned from him?
Michael was the ultimate tunes guy. He was about melody and it was quite in a way that sometimes the films weren’t big enough to contain what he wanted to say with them and the music that he wanted to write. Sometimes I would take sort of small detailed view of a scene and he would step back from it and try to write a theme that would play out right over the top of it and I don’t think I got that when I was his assistant. I was just like ‘C’mon, that’s where it stops.” And he said, “No, it will be great.” And the older I get and the further away I get from[my days with him], the more I’m in awe really of that melodic sense, and that sense of the glorious theme. And now I think in my own work, I do less, I just try to simply play the best tune I could make.
So what he taught you was to play up to your strengths?
Absolutely. And just to believe in the power of the melody. He worked with that sense of not a mechanical way to writing for films, but a glorious, open hearted way of doing it.
After Michael, you went to work with Craig Armstrong (“Love Actually,” "Romeo + Juliet," "The Incredible Hulk"), another very melodic composer. What did you learn from him?
I think Craig has the amazing ability to make the same instruments that everyone else is using sound like Craig Armstrong. I was trying to to work out why him doing orchestra or strings and piano sounded totally, immediately like Craig and why somebody else didn’t have that same character to them. I was fascinated to the extent where I did some transcriptions of his work to try to work out and came to the conclusion that every composer just has a DNA themselves and the way that they move from one note to another and all the tiny little choices that the make add up to them and you can’t reverse engineer it…
What’s your DNA?
I think I thought I was quite serious and then I did “The InBetweeners” and comedy after comedy after comedy, so I’m not really sure. In a way I try not to become self conscious about something like that. With “Sherlock,” it’s become so popular that the tunes that David and I originally wrote for it have sort of gone out from us and just become public property now. They’re there for people to play on YouTube themselves and for people to do their own thing. When you carry on and do another [season] of it, if in any way become self conscious and are trying to work out what is the DNA of the music of “Sherlock” to try and replicate it, it makes for hard going.
“Sherlock” has so many quick cuts and is edited so interestingly visually. How does that affect how you and David score it?
There was an original pilot episode [that got scrapped]. A lot of the tunes that we wrote for the pilot stayed and it was clear that the speed of thought of Sherlock was driving the whole momentum of the show, really. It was trying to get inside his brain and kind of give the audience an experience of what it’s like to be with Sherlock when he’s doing it. But then when [new director] Paul McGuigan came on to direct the first series proper, rather than the pilot, he brought with him this incredible visual panache and flair and it’s stunning. So I think we developed the material from the pilot episode it was about trying to keep up and not artificially force the pace, but I guess it’s like surfing, you’ve got to catch the wave and just go with it, and on a good day, I think we did that.
You and Oscar winner Steven Price [for “Gravity”] were both music editors. How does that help you as a composer?
It’s sort of like an apprenticeship in the deepest. oldest sense. Being a music editor often means that you’re there right at the start and you’re there right at the end. You’re the last person to turn the lights off and close the door on the way out. I’m very happy that I’ve done both. I’m happy I was a music editor because it gives you an incredible technical background and a lot of sense of structure and I’m really happy I’ve had people like Michael Kamen in my life, which gave me a sense of melody. I think if you glue the two together, on a good day, it works well.