The Silent Child composer Amir on scoring the Oscar-nominated film and why he loves Mandy.com
Short film The Silent Child was made by Mandy members and tonight at the 90th Annual Academy Awards we'll find out if the film, directed by Chris Overton, will win the Best Live Action Short Film Oscar at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. Here accomplished composer Amir Konjani talks to Mandy News about how he got started, what he loves about using Mandy.com and how he scored the Oscar-nominated film.
Amir, tell us how you got started in the industry and how and when you chose music as a career path?
My parents recognised I had a love for music when I was very young and subsequently enrolled me in a music school when I was seven. I clearly remember being mesmerised when watching my teacher conducting an orchestra. I couldn’t believe that one tiny hand movement could produce such a huge sound.
I started composing for the piano when I was a teenager and enjoyed juxtaposing ideas in the music I wrote. When I was twenty, I composed the music for a short art video with my friend Salar. However, my first serious commission was from the Royal Air Force Museum for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Later, while studying at Trinity Laban, I conducted and performed with click track live for a movie which was very exciting.
Where did you study and how did that come in useful for you?
I was fortunate to study at Trinity Laban, Cal Arts (USA), and then later at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester where I received a full scholarship to do my PhD in performativity. I created a new method of composition/orchestration called ‘tube-spatialization’, where music is made with tubes and springs.
I found studying at good colleges is like a metamorphosis; in my case it enabled me to do the necessary groundwork before becoming involved in big professional productions. The RNCM is one of the world’s leading conservatoires with a fantastic composition department that set me on the right career path and furthered my practical skills. You’re encouraged from day one to unleash your full creative potential and they offer the opportunity for composition students to have every piece of music they write performed and recorded, which is invaluable.
During my studies I was able to write a range of orchestral pieces, rehearse with the RNCM Symphony Orchestra, watch performances of my music and learn from the experience. As a composer, working in the film industry has been a wonderful opportunity for me and I have been able to bring all the skills I have learnt into a professional setting.
How did you get your first commissions? Was that a case of networking, putting your work out there or luck?
There were two turning points; the first was from the Mahoor Institute of Art, which was a collaborative project with the well-known poet Ahmad Shamlou. The Institute were looking for a young musician who worked with experimental/contemporary classical music. They saw some of my videos on YouTube and got in contact with me. I
was highly commended for my use of light bulbs as a conducting tool and my CD which followed sold over 12,000 copies in two months!
The second involved commissions from Trinity Laban Orchestra and the BBC World Service. In both instances, I was asked to write a piece for a full orchestra. I combined the two assignments and the piece I wrote was conducted by Peter Manning at Blackheath Concert Hall. It was broadcast by the BBC to much critical acclaim which then led to commissions from other organisations.
Tell us about The Silent Child and how it came about? What were the challenges of the piece? What did you score it on and how was it recorded?
The Silent Child was another turning point for all of us and I was very fortunate to be part of the creative journey. Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton worked their magic and Rebecca Harris was very helpful and understanding. Greg Claridge, our sound designer, was very supportive while we mixed our music (which took hours) and I have to thank him for his patience.
We had a tiny budget for the film score and I had to mix very expensive instrument samples with some live recordings. Fortunately the RNCM came to the rescue and gave me free access to a recording studio, mixing room and equipment. I also recorded and mixed some parts in my own studio.
As can be expected in any creative project, misunderstandings occurred from time to time but Chris was able to steer us through the crisis without mishap. We used Logic and Pro tools software, which was great, but what was really important was the fantastic team behind the scenes.
During the mixing process, I came up with my ‘Shadowing’ idea. There was some initial doubt as to whether it would work at all, but Greg openly supported my idea and as a result we now have great surround/spatialization effects in cinemas.
What kind of discussions did you have with Chris about score? And what’s the typical process you’ve found so far? How early do you come onto a production?
I had to earn his trust - he gave me 24 hours to compose a theme and send it to him! I had a melody in mind for the first scene which Chris and Rachel liked. I then invited Chris to the RNCM to discuss the orchestration and of course the budget and how we might manage it. I always send sketches to directors to identify what they want. Most directors know very little about the language of music so we need to create terms to enable us to understand each other.
Apart from three scenes which required some changes, the whole process was fairly straightforward. I think the key to success is to trust professional opinions. For instance, if your music crew believe that the production is not complete, the director should give you the opportunity to craft it properly.
Luckily, Chris placed his trust in me and gave me enough time to finish and master the music properly. This is extremely rare in low budget productions.
When you’re scoring something that will be shown on big screens how does that change your approach in comparison to TV or online?
Music perspective is artistically very important for composers as it changes the whole concept of a scene whether it be cinema or otherwise. For example, there is a scene in The Silent Child where we wanted to convey the ‘sound’ of deafness. We managed a gradual music transition from the front speakers to the back but the scene noises stayed in the front speakers.
Music perspectives can also be created when we record our instruments; a microphone placed near an instrument will create a totally different effect from a microphone which is placed some distance away.
On the big screen the differences are really noticeable but on TV or online, the weakness of the recording hides or masks the mixing.
And what are the different considerations when performing a concert live vs something for the screen? Obviously you’re working with mics and acoustics that will end up being heard differently…
I teach a subject to students in my composition class, which I call ‘The Art of Misdirection’. The attention of the audience is focused on the scene they are watching on screen. But music needs to activate the performativity of every single act in the scene.
How to misdirect the audience and take them from one scene to another is part of our job as composers. We have enough time to prepare the recorded music for screen but when we compose for a live concert and orchestra, we are not able to change what happens in the moment.
How did Mandy.com come in useful during The Silent Child? How have you found it for getting work (or getting crew yourself!) and/or networking?
The Mandy platform has revolutionised our online arts community. We can make contact with other filmmakers and most importantly, we can audition new team members online based on their CV information from the Mandy platform.
What do you like about Mandy?
This platform gives us the opportunity to build relationships for the future. Easy access to information about musicians and crew helps us to plan, staff and develop projects more effectively.
What’s next for you?
As mentioned, I have developed a performance mechanism, which I call ‘Shadowing’ in which a single performance act creates two or more related but different sounds separated by timbre and time. The springs and tubes generate one group of sounds and are intended to re-project through four large plastic tubes with x-ray material-membrane. These sounds then create air-like ‘shadow’ sounds, which are slightly delayed and distorted.
The BBC World Service and I are working on a documentary about my Shadowing mechanism which hopefully will be aired in the autumn. I am also working on two new movies and a music score for a film documentary commissioned by BBC News.
What advice would you give to any aspiring composers?
First of all, choose projects that are close to your heart. Your priority shouldn’t be the money. Saying ‘no’ to the projects you don’t like can shape your future.
Composing is like cooking. Choosing the right ingredients and developing a recipe which allows you to show your love of music, your ability and your knowledge is appealing to most directors. Treat every single project with the same importance.
Be prepared to work hard, always listen to advice but never be afraid to bring your own inventiveness to the table.