How did you first get into composing?

I first got into music as a performer. I did my undergraduate in violin performance. I don’t know if I could say I got very good at the violin, but I got good enough that I felt like I was playing the pieces that I liked and that I admired.

Eventually I got really deep into composing in my undergraduate. To the point where I actually did my final year as a joint major between composing and performing, where I wrote my own violin concerto. Coming off the back of that, I decided that I really wanted to do film work, not for any kind of stylistic reason, but more because I also really love film.

 

Film Composer David Denyer - Profile Image

I really love artfully made films. I love David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Jodorowsky and all of these creatively made films. I felt like it was a very natural place for me to want to go, so I did my master’s degree at the Royal College of Music in film scoring.

I learned how to record. I learned how to mix. A lot of stuff in terms of production that really influenced my way of working. So now every project I work on I’ll always have live strings in it. Working at the RCM with live orchestras and recording almost exclusively live players really gave me a taste of the advantages of working with live musicians versus sample libraries.

Once I graduated in 2015, I spent between then and 2020 composing for theater. It was just that was the work that naturally seems to accommodate my style and the work e. And that’s the kind of stuff that really excites me and the fringe theater scene in London and like the avant garde kind of fringe theater world.

So I’ve got a few gigs coming up here and there at the moment in the theater, but I’m really sort of at the moment trying to refocus back towards film just because it survived COVID whereas theatre, in many ways, didn’t.

What is your process composing music for film versus theater?

Composing for theater is actually much more similar to composing for video games. The reason being that a theater performance is never the same night to night, so you can’t have a queue that’s exactly two minutes and 12 seconds long with a hit point at the end, because you don’t know if that scene is going to take a bit longer this day or a bit shorter that day.

Typically in theater you’ll have someone sitting behind a computer and they’ll be hitting the cues they’ll be handling lots of cross fades and there’ll be loops and there’ll be certain stingers that happen on certain cues. You’re designing a system that’s kind of versatile that can be pushed and pulled around the performances of a cast that might forget a line or might add a line.

In terms of film, the difference is in the specificity of the synchronicity. There is a certain degree of synchronicity that is a baseline requirement in film. Where certain big moments happen. The music has to know that happened. You can’t just have a five minute long loop happening on top of a complex scene. You need to react to the emotional narrative flow. You need to react to the visual storytelling. You need to react to it.

All of these little clues that you get about the dramatic flow of this scene, the music needs to feel like it’s sort of like a leaf sort of flowing along this river of narrative.

But I would actually argue that the level of synchronicity that you need to score a scene hasn’t actually changed since the ‘Mickey-Mousey’ Golden Era Hollywood days. It’s just that the way you react to those moments is a lot more subtle. It’s all about reading the scene, understanding the filming language, understanding all of these editing decisions and cinematography decisions and the lighting decisions and grading decisions and all of those feed into your understanding of everything.

The way that a filmmaker wants this scene to feel and to look and how the flow shifts over time. You can’t really do that with theater. Theater is a lot more like Lego blocks of sounds that fade into each other.

What has your experience been collaborating with filmmakers?

The vast majority of directors I’ve worked with are non-musicians. I think that that’s generally true across the industry.

Of course, that’s not a judgment. They didn’t train in music, so they don’t necessarily understand the terminology that you’re using. A lot of the time they’ll say things like, “I don’t like that clarinet.” or “I don’t like that instrument.”

What they really mean is that they don’t like that melody and they’ve kind of jumped on the instrument as the problem, rather than the melody, That’s a little abstracted from what they actually mean, just because they haven’t quite got the vocabulary to express that.

I try to talk with filmmakers on a very emotional level on a very kind of intuitive level. It’s easy to get analytical about it and to be hyper specific. I don’t think filmmakers generally tend to get on that well with that.

They don’t see music in that way. They don’t tend to see it in a very analytical or scientific or mathematical way. They tend to view it in a much more immediate, emotional, intuitive way. And that’s normally how it sounds and feels, but they don’t quite have the insight to realize that it’s actually made with the same degree of technical specificity as the camera work or the lighting.

So I try to talk with them on an emotional level. I’ll ask them about characters and how the audience is supposed to be feeling.

I find these kinds of slightly abstracted questions tend to get the best outcomes I do like to work with, shared Spotify playlists to build a library of reference material. I try not to lean on that too hard. I generally don’t like to add temp music into scenes because it presents a slightly inauthentic picture of what the final result will be.

Again, filmmakers are not musicians. If you send them a film with music in ti, they’ll feel it very directly. If that music is going to change, then you’re introducing an obstacle into that process of developing the work. 

I haven’t yet worked with a filmmaker that really knows music. No doubt one day that will happen, but for now it’s almost like being a doctor seeing a patient. They give you symptoms and you have to figure out what’s going on and prescribe them drugs.

Composing for film is almost like being a doctor and seeing a patient. They give you symptoms and you have to figure out what’s going on and prescribe them drugs.

– David Denyer | London-based film Composer

What is your approach for finding paying film projects?

That’s a good question at the moment. I’m trying very hard not to be that guy that you always see constantly spamming every filmmaking group with their showreel, because I’m convinced that they don’t get any work. It might work for some people sometimes, but it didn’t seem like that was an appropriate route.

For me, this was trying to develop a strategy over the COVID period. It was like, I was basically doing first-hand market research to see what strategies work. I found that the best way was to message people privately rather than publicly and message people whose work I’ve seen.

Rather than just message a random person who says they’re a filmmaker, I have to have seen their work. I have to have something to say about their work – which is beneficial for two reasons; The first reason is that it means that they want to have a conversation with me because everyone is self-conscious about their work and they always want to have conversations about their work.

Secondly, it means that I’m only contacting people that I know what kind of work they do, and that I’ve judged that it’s appropriate. if I’m just spamming everyone with my showreel, I might be messaging someone who only does romantic comedies – which is not what I do.

A lot of the time it’s difficult to get a phone number for some of these people. There’s a part of me that instinctively feels like if I call somebody up and they’re getting bothered by composers all the time, then you set that relationship up on a slightly negative basis,

I prefer a more welcome invitation into their life, rather than being somewhat invasive.

What is your approach to networking with filmmakers?

This is a bit of a kind of fool’s errand, but I scroll through the crowdfunding sites to see what films are currently crowdfunding and the ones that haven’t yet got a composer listed. It’s often not a bad idea to message them.

I also scroll through Facebook groups and indie filmmaking groups. There’s lots of people sharing their work and their crowdfunding pages, but I don’t believe any of them are dedicated communities. I think they’re very big notice boards where people just put their things up. Some people might interact, but there’s no sense of community being driven there.

That’s a good way of knowing that someone’s in the process of funding something, which means that they’re at an early enough stage that they might be receptive to hearing from a composer

I’m also a member of the London horror society, which is a really cool little group of people who just love horror and people who make podcasts and films and TV shows and things like that.

I’ve managed to make a few good connections there. I also have a lot of contacts from the theater industry. So there’s a fair amount of crossover, at least in the technical industries.

What defines your musical sound?

I tend to work fairly non-traditional. Strictly in terms of orchestras. I very much can write for orchestra and I have done, I would say I’m a proficient orchestrator, but when it comes to my own compositions, I tend to use instrumental combinations, quite liberally.

It’s quite rare for my work to just sound like an orchestra in a room, but rather to sound in some way expanded, shrunk or stretched just through the ways that I record these instruments. It’s interesting how if you record 36 violins and violas all as overdubs, which I’ve done quite a lot, it sounds different to a string orchestra.

This over-dubbing technique creates a really kind of a very particular quality that it’s really hard to put into words and I think it makes it sound quite sort of unusual.

I do lean into unusual sounds and I think that I like to do a lot with a little, so I tend not to have very long melodies or very elaborate sequences. I’m very keen on using small fragments to make them sound really interesting somehow.

I think my particular way of recording, the use of live instruments in a non-traditional kind of production style are the things that make me sound unique.

Full Audio Transcript

So, how did you first get into composing?

So I first got into music as a performer. I did my first degree, my undergraduate in violin performance. I did that at a music college, and I sort of had high hopes of getting very good at the violin. I don’t know if I could say I got very good at the violin, but I got good enough that I felt like I was playing the pieces that I liked and that I admired and I was sort of able to imitate some of the techniques of the players that I really admired as well. But I guess I’ve always felt a little bit like just doing the thing is not quite enough. I always want to understand how it works. So I got really deep into the analytical side of music.

And eventually just got really deep into composing in my undergraduate. To the point where I actually did my final year as a joint major between composing and performing, where I wrote my own violin parts out, which is really, really cool. But then coming off the back of that, I decided that I really wanted to do film work, not for any kind of stylistic reason, but more because I also really love film.

And I really love very sort of artfully made films. I love David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick and Todd Roski and all of these kinds of like artfully and craftfully made films. And I really love the way that music interacts with those kinds of films. And I kind of felt like it was a very natural place for me to want to go.

So I did my master’s degree at the Royal college of music in film scoring. I went there for three years and that was fantastic. And what I found was that having done a degree in violin performance and trained on the Viola as well not only did that mean I could write really, really appropriate string music, much more fluently than a lot of the other people in my course could naturally, but also I got really deep into recording as part of my process.

So I learned how to record. I learned how to mix. A lot of stuff in terms of production that really influenced my way of working. So now every project I work on I’ll always have live strings in it. Or maybe if they don’t have strings, I’ll have some live instruments. And working at the RCM with live orchestras there and recording almost exclusively live players really gave me a taste of the advantages of working with live musicians versus sample libraries. I mean, you know, you have to learn how to use sample libraries.

You can’t get through it without learning how to do that, learning how to do it quite well. And so I can do that, but it’s like I just get so much more pleasure out of setting up a room for recording and just getting a really expressive performance out of a real instrument. And of course, the other thing is that I obviously know a lot of players now as well.

So really live recording has become just such a fundamental part of my process. And you know, it all comes back to the fact that I was a player myself and that’s where I’m at. And then once I graduated in 2015, I spent between then and 2020 composing for theater. Almost exclusively, not for any stylistic or like deliberate reasons.

It was just that, that was the work that naturally seems to accommodate my style and the work I do tends to be quite strange or sometimes dissonant in some ways or unusual, or non-traditional a lot of the time. And that’s the kind of stuff that really excites me and the fringe theater scene in London and like the avant garde kind of fringe theater world. They really love that kind of stuff much more so than like the typical film world does. I mean, obviously there are very, very creative filmmakers out there that do work in a similar way. But by and large, the kind of majority, the bulk of the film industry is generally sort of trying to be a commercial product.

So there’s only so far, you can normally go with that kind of stuff. And typically in film, you’ll get very specific stylistic requirements, which, you know, I can do and I have done, but I naturally found myself working in theater for a long time and then covid happened and theater still hasn’t quite recovered.

So I’ve got  a few gigs coming up here and there at the moment in the theater, but I’m really sort of at the moment trying to refocus back towards film just because it survived COVID.

Now, cinema is slowly becoming a thing of the past, but as an industry, it’s really somewhere quite promising. And I still have all of the same love for film that I had when I was studying. So for me, it seems quite sort of natural that I try and move back there because it’s what I trained in really more so than theater.

And it’s kind of almost like returning to my kind of original passion a little bit. So yeah, I’m really kind of hoping to move back towards film and I’ve got a few sort of leads in that direction at the moment, but it’s all quite sort of a very liminal time at the moment, just because in a way, theater is starting to start up again and I’m having to kind of face his questions about, do I wanna go all in on this again?

Or do I want to kind of take a step back and maybe focus a bit on rebranding myself a little.

I would love to learn about your process for composing, for film versus theater.

Composing for theater is actually much more similar to composing for video games. The reason being that a theater performance is never the same night to night, so you can’t have a queue that’s exactly two minutes and 12 seconds long with a hit point at the end, cuz you don’t know if that scene is gonna maybe take a bit longer this day or a bit shorter that day. So typically in theater you’ll have someone sitting behind a computer and they’ll be kind of hitting the queues and it will be sort of pro it’ll be controlling normally Q Lab, but there are other programs that do this as well.

And they’ll be handling lots of cross fades and there’ll be loops and there’ll be certain stingers that happen on certain cues. And in a sense, you’re designing a system that’s kind of versatile that can kind of be pushed and pulled around the performances of a cast that might forget a line or might add a line.

Or I found working in theater really sort of for the, for the video game work that I have done having that background was really, really helpful. But in terms of film, really the differences in the specificity of the synchronicity. So with film, a certain degree of synchronicity, that is sort of a baseline requirement.

Where certain big moments happen. The music has to know that happened. You can’t just have a five minute long loop happening on top of a complex scene. You need to react to the emotional narrative flow. You need to react to the visual storytelling. You need to react to it.

All of these little clues that you get about the dramatic flow of this scene, the music needs to feel like it’s sort of like a leaf sort of flowing along this river of narrative.

But I would actually argue that the level of synchronicity that you need to score a scene hasn’t actually changed. It’s just that the way you react to those moments is a lot more subtle. So yeah, for me, it’s all about reading the scene, understanding the filming language, understanding all of these editing decisions and cinematography decisions and the lighting decisions and grading decisions and all of those feed into your understanding of everything.

That filmmaker wants this scene to feel and to look and how the flow shifts over time. You can’t really do that with theater. I mean, there’s no camera for one thing and okay, there are lighting shifts and things like that, but you know, theater is a lot more like a kind of Lego blocks of sounds that kind of fade into each other.

And there’s only so much specificity you can do. And if you do really want that kind of specialty, which happens sometimes, especially in things like dance theater, normally you write the music first and then they have to choreograph the scene around it. That’s the only way you can really do that. In going back to film composing, I would love to learn about your collaboration process with other filmmakers.

What has your experience been, in composing for film so far in your career? How do you understand what the vision is? What the story is like, how do directors speak to you? 

Well, the vast majority of directors I’ve worked with are non-musicians. I think that that’s generally true across the industry.

Of course, that’s not a judgment. They didn’t train in music, so they don’t necessarily understand the terminology that you’re using. So a lot of the time they’ll say things like, I don’t like that clarinet. And what they’re saying is that they don’t like that instrument.

You know, often what they really mean is that they don’t like that melody and they’ve kind of jumped on the instrument as the problem, rather than the melody, or they’ll often use terminology in that kind of way. That’s a little bit short. A little bit abstracted from what they actually mean, just because they haven’t quite got the vocabulary to express that.

So a lot of the time it’s really to do with, I try to talk with filmmakers on a very emotional level on a very kind of intuitive level. So it’s easy to get too analytical about it and to be hyper specific and hyper analytical. I don’t think filmmakers generally tend to get on that well with that.

They don’t see music in that way. They don’t tend to see it in a very analytical or scientific or mathematical way. They tend to view it in a much more immediate, emotional, intuitive way. And that’s normally how it sounds and feels, but they don’t quite have the insight to realize that it’s actually made with the same degree of technical specificity as the camera work or the lighting.

So I try to talk with them on an emotional sort of level. I’ll ask them about characters and, and how those characters are feeling or how the audience is supposed to be feeling or does this feel like an escalation or does this feel like a resolution? How does it feel? How does it, the product, the scene, the film, how does it feel?

I find these kinds of slightly abstracted questions tend to get the best outcomes I do like to work with, shared Spotify playlists and things like that. Sort of building up like a library of reference material. I try not to lean on that too hard. I generally don’t like to temp stuff into scenes for all of the reasons that everyone knows about, it sort of presents a slightly inauthentic picture of what the final result will be.

And again, filmmakers are not musicians. If you send them a film with music on, they’ll feel it very directly. And if that music is then gonna change, you’re sort of introducing a kind of an obstacle into that process of developing the work. So I like to use Spotify playlists as reference material, but I don’t then cut that into the film or I might do it for myself, but I won’t show it to them just because it tends to kind of give the wrong impression a little bit.

So yeah, it’s interesting. I haven’t yet worked with a filmmaker that really knows music. And I wonder, I’m curious about, no doubt one day that will happen. And now it might be a very strange, strange experience. But for now it’s almost like being a doctor and, and seeing a patient, they give you symptoms and, and you have to kind of figure out what’s going on and prescribe them drugs.

Is there anything that stands out in qualities that you think you have as far as your sound?

I tend to work fairly non-traditional. I mean, strictly in terms of orchestras, really, I very much can write for orchestra and I have done, I would say I’m a proficient orchestrator, but when it comes to my own compositions, I tend to use instrumental combinations, quite liberally.

So it’s quite rare for my work to just sound like an orchestra in a room, but rather to sound in some way expanded or shrunk or stretched just through the ways that I record these instruments sometimes. I mean, it’s interesting how if you record 36 violins and violas all as overdubs, which I’ve done quite a lot, it sounds different to a string orchestra.

And it sounds very particular because it’s all the same player and it’s all the same instrument. So obviously there’s advantages to having a real orchestra. And that has the sound of it. But this sort of over-dubbing technique creates a really kind of a very particular quality that it’s really hard to put into words.

And I think it makes it sound quite sort of unusual. I think I do lean into unusual sounds and I think that I like to do a lot with a little, so I tend not to have very long melodies or very elaborate sequences. I’m very keen on using small fragments to make them sound really interesting somehow.

And using those small fragments as sort of musical material. Yeah. I think my kind of particular way of recording things, the use of live live instruments, but in a non-traditional kind of production style, I would say that’s the thing that I feel makes me sound unique. 

As far as top challenges, you had noted finding paying gigs and networking successfully. I’d love to unpack that a bit more and understand, how do you currently go about finding more paying gigs? 

Yeah, that’s a good question at the moment. I’m trying very hard not to be that guy that you always see constantly spamming every filmmaking group with their showreel, cuz I’m convinced that they don’t get any work.

By doing that again, I’m convinced that nobody really looks at those things because there’s just so many of them and it sort of became obvious to me that that’s not really a viable route. It might work for some people sometimes or whatever, but it didn’t seem like that was an appropriate route.

So for me, this was trying to develop a strategy over the COVID period. It was like, I was kind of trying to basically do firsthand market research to see what strategies work, how is it that I get people to kind of engage with me. And I found that the best way was to message people privately rather than publicly and message people whose work I’ve seen.

Rather than just a random person who says they’re a filmmaker, like I have to have seen their work. I have to have something to say about their work and that’s beneficial for two reasons; The first reason is that it means that they want to have a conversation with me because everyone is self-conscious about their work and they always want to.

To have conversations about their work. Secondly, it means that I’m only contacting people that I know what kind of work they do, and that I’ve judged that it’s appropriate because if I’m just spamming everyone with my showreel, I might be messaging someone who only does rom coms, and that’s not what I do, you know?

We might network really well, but then I’ll end up doing a bad job on their film because it’s not actually where my stylistic tendencies will naturally lie. So that’s kind of why I do that. And I found that sort of finding a specific filmmaker whose film that I’ve watched, that I actually like, it’s a very time consuming thing, but it kind of, it does tend to get positive interaction probably is, you know, even those people have just constantly getting emailed, messaged by people.

And a lot of the time it’s sort of, it’s difficult to get a phone number for some of these people. And it also feels a little bit like calling someone up is slightly invasive. I know that it’s the way to do it. I’m very well aware that that’s the way to do it. If you really want to get a reaction from someone you call them up, there’s a kind of part of me that instinctively feels like if I call somebody up and they’re getting bothered by composers all the time, like immediately you set that relationship up on a kind of slightly negative basis, which is that I’m annoying them by kind of invading their space with my voice. 

So that is more like a welcome sort of invitation into their life rather than a kind of invasion.

You mentioned reaching out to DMing filmmakers. I’m curious, is this just on social media, like Facebook, Instagram, or where are you finding the work?

So a couple of places, this is a bit of a kind of fool’s errand, but I sort of do it anyway. I scroll through the crowdfunding sites to see what films are currently crowdfunding and the ones that haven’t yet got a composer listed, it’s often not a bad idea to message them.

And almost always, they already have a composer on board or whatever, but you know, I do it anyway, cuz you never know. But also yeah, Facebook groups, lots of indie filmmaking groups, you know, they’re very prolific, they’re very busy places. There’s lots of people sharing their work there. A lot of people sharing trailers for their work, a lot of people sharing their crowdfunding pages.

That’s a good way of knowing that someone’s in the process of funding something, which means that they’re at an early enough stage that they might be receptive to hearing from a composer. Otherwise I’m also a member of the London horror society, which is a really cool little group of people who just love horror and people who make podcasts and films and TV shows and things like that.

So I’ve kind of managed to make a few good connections there. I kind of feel like the reason why that works, what was kind of remarkable to me is that when I kind of got membership into that society, I was the only one composer in that society, and that really surprised me because all of the filmmaking groups on Facebook, I would guess that at least 70% of the members are composers. 

It was really odd to me that in this society, I was the only one that I could see. And I have a sneaky suspicion that the reason why is because you have to pay to join. I don’t know how or why that’s kind of shifted the demographic. Post about your work in an area where there’s no kind of upfront fee or you don’t have to commit to anything, you just have to send something and whatever, maybe you get banned or whatever.

And the other thing is that I still have a lot of contacts from the theater industry. So there’s a fair amount of crossover, at least in the technical industries.

That’s the reason why it works, and these Facebook groups. I don’t believe any of them really are dedicated communities. I think they’re really sort of at best, very, very big sort of notice boards where people just put their things up. And some people might interact, but there’s no sense of community being driven there.

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