Name: Jessica Dannheisser
Current Release: Suffragettes With Lucy Worsley - BBC One
Recommendation: I recently discovered the work of a London-based Irish artist named Morgan Doyle by complete chance at the Bankside Gallery in London. I found his work wonderfully expressive. I couldn’t recommend a particular work as I love so many of them, but I’d urge anyone reading to have a look! / The musical work I always return to is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony - the work Wagner described as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ and for good reason. I love the range of expression and its vital, life-affirming energy.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Jessica Dannheisser, you read more on her website and facebook page www.jessicadannheisser.com
When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
It actually started with composing for theatre; my university had a great student drama scene and I wrote music for many plays there. The first time I came up with a theme for a show (it was an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s children’s novel ‘I Was A Rat!’) it gave me such a buzz…. I knew instantly I’d found something I could do forever. I’d fallen in love with film music long before that in my early teens. I was really serious about playing classical piano at that time, and films such as ‘Shine’ and ‘The Piano’ captured my imagination. I marvelled at the alchemic combination of music with narrative and was intrigued with the combination of anonymity and power that film composers seemed to have - how film music could be at once deeply moving, and yet at the same time so often go unnoticed. I was a very nervous public performer, so this aspect greatly appealed to me!
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I try not to worry about originality too much, for me it’s a dangerous world in which self-doubt can lurk and stifle productivity. I have had some brilliant teachers and mentors, and learned a great deal from playing and listening to the works of great composers - Beethoven, Ravel, Stravinsky are some of my favourites. I take inspiration from all over the place. When composing for a film or TV project I’m often required to play on archetypes, so the idea of originality becomes kind of obsolete. I think it was Stravinsky who is quoted as saying “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”. I prefer to just get on with it, to be productive, and I’ll leave it to other people to decide whether or not I have a distinctive ‘voice’.
What were your main compositional challenges when starting out as a film composer and how have they changed over time?
Composing has always come quite instinctively to me, so generally I have found that it’s the technical obstacles that are most challenging. Whether it’s having to work with different software, or having to programme synths and samples, to record acoustic instruments, to mix and master to produce the music to a high quality - these elements can be daunting to a classically-trained composer if you have to do them yourself, which is often the case for budgetary reasons. I have gradually acquired these technical skills, but I’d recommend anyone starting out to have a solid grounding in all of these elements - these days, you can write the best music in the world but if it doesn’t sound any good then unfortunately that’s unlikely to matter.
What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, meeting the expectations of the director?
I think film music can help to communicate that which is not already on the screen. As a film composer, you want to invite an audience into the emotional world of the film, the psychologies of the characters. Music is the single most effective and immediate way of doing this. We feel when music works, it strikes to the very heart, bypassing the intellect. My job is always to work with the filmmakers to this end. Artistic integrity can come when you feel this has been achieved to the best of your collective abilities, it is a collaborative process and I always welcome the views of the filmmakers - after all they’ve normally been working on the project for a great deal longer than I have, and sometimes their entire career, possibly their savings account, is on the line! I always hope that this process will go smoothly and of course it can be challenging! But that is part of my job, and a rigid, possessive approach to my music would not be helpful for anyone.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
When I started out I was living at my parents’ house to save money; I was very lucky that they had a separate room I could use as a makeshift studio, and luckily it happened to be very quiet as well as sound pretty good. I have a similar set-up in my current home, a room in my flat but with more sophisticated sound treatment and a brilliant workstation that was custom built for me. I’ve always loved working from home, the flexibility this affords is amazing. As for gear, my AKG 414 microphone is the go-to. I’ve tried so many others but keep coming back to this, it’s just all-round great. I love my Genelec monitors, and my Apogee Duet interface works a treat. I could go on but I’m not much of a gear-head really, I just like equipment that makes my workflow simple so I can get on with the actual business of writing music and recording great musicians.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I use technology all the time, it’s essential for any media composer really. It helps me realise my ideas immediately, I use Logic X to create demos using samples, as well as to record and mix (sometimes also ProTools), and Sibelius to produce notated scores. I have many sample libraries and plugins to help make my work sound as good as possible. It’s pretty clear to me that technology simply provides composers with tools to formulate and express their innate creativity. I sincerely doubt that artificial intelligence could produce a future Beethoven - but who knows?
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Sometimes a ‘mistake’ as I’m playing in an idea, or when I accidentally move a midi note to the ‘wrong’ place, can end up sounding really cool - this happens quite frequently when working in a sequencer. Sample libraries are so good nowadays, and synths can open up a whole universe of sounds, which are themselves inspirational. That’s often a creative starting point for me - finding a great sound, playing with it until I’m happy and letting that sound inform the rest of the composition. I’m a pianist and I find that if I always start with that instrument it can be a bit limiting, so I try to branch out. Having said that, improvising at the piano is often an important part of my process.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Pretty much everything I do is collaborative and I really enjoy this process. Sometimes I go in for a lot of meetings with a team, but quite often I find directors and producers are very happy for me to use an online file sharing service, and upload audio demos and .mov files, then exchange emails and phone calls to discuss and give feedback. I prefer to write music alone, I’ve never found it easy to write with someone else in the room, although I do love a jam for fun. I live quite centrally in London but honestly sometimes I feel like I could be anywhere!