Name: Simon Taufique
Nationality: British/South Asian
Occupation: Film Composer / Film Producer
Bands/Projects: Jesus Henry Christ / She's Lost Control / Purple America / Asher
Musical Recommendations: David Wingo / Nils Frahm
When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started composing for film in 2004, a few years after M. Night Shyamalan (an N.Y.U. classmate) asked me to contribute a song for his first studio film, WIDE AWAKE. The song got ejected before they finished mixing the film, but I hung around long enough to enjoy the halo effect of watching Night's creative partnership with his composer on the film, Ed Choi, another N.Y.U. Alum. After seeing how they worked together, I was hooked. Despite being in many bands over the years, I never had a collaboration like the one the between director and composer.
A bit later there was an a-ha moment while I was practicing guitar alongside a muted TV. Unconsciously, the images started to influence my playing and I began improvising parts that not only fit the show’s plot, they were actually enhancing the mood. I was instinctively scoring it without actually knowing what I was doing. Until that moment, I never considered composing music for film as a possibility but that moment gave me a hint that I should consider taking the leap. Before long, I scored my first film, GOD IS GOOD, in 2004, for director Caryn Waechter. Right out of the gate, it won the New Line Cinema Award. Beginner’s luck or not, I was on my way.
I’ve always been drawn to artists who juxtaposed seemingly dissimilar ideas into something of surprising beauty or magnificent ugliness. So I devoured the music and creative habits of Tom Waits, Radiohead, Cliff Martinez, MuslimGauze, Clint Mansell, Pink Floyd and Brian Eno. They're all quite different from each other but share the quality of having a very distinct voice, no one sounds quite like them. And yet, no matter how far off course each film or album might take these artists, their signature voice remains intact.
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?
At the beginning, learning and emulating others was more about soaking in the composer's intention and less about blueprinting their sound. It was more of a psychological investigation than a straightforward study of the technical craft. I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't intimidated by the hard work of deciphering the music theory and technique, but my curiosity really has been borne out of a desire to understand why my favorite music sounds that way rather than how.
My own compositional development closely parallels the films I enjoy, which are usually inhabited by complicated characters and challenging stories. The voice that's developing from that is steeped in textures, not-so-polite sounds and not-so-eager-to-please melodies, harmonically nuanced and sonically rich. The challenge is making all of that work together!
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? Should film music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should have it an intrinsic value outside of the movies?
A soundtrack can have multiple purposes depending on what goals the director intends the music to serve. Sometimes the function is all about driving the story forward, establishing a narrative theme that supports the story or the character arcs. There are also times when the music is meant to be felt, and not heard, because it’s communicating a subtle feeling or a challenging idea that can’t be expressed any other way without it feeling heavy-handed. Every film is different, so one size definitely does not fit all.
Film music isn’t required to have an intrinsic value outside of the film but as I learned from David Torn, when there is a musical integrity to the score, that piece of music can be enjoyed on its own musical terms. At the same time, even film music that can quite capably stand-alone is enriched by imagery of the films they were composed for. For example, the Williams scores can certainly be enjoyed on their own, but it's hard not to imagine, with a smile, the scenes from STAR WARS playing in your head while that glorious music is performed!
Different composers could potentially approach the same scene with strikingly different music. Would you say there can be 'wrong' and 'right' musical decisions for some scenes? In which way can some film music be considered 'definitive'?
The only wrong way to score a scene is when the intention behind the music disregards the director’s vision or the spirit of the scene or story. When the composer’s intent is at odds with the director's, the resulting music is like fruit of the poisonous tree.
A score feels ‘definitive’ to me when it is so interwoven with the spirit of the movie that both the film and the music seem incomplete without each other. I can’t imagine JAWS, HALLOWEEN, or for that matter, THE GRADUATE or PULP FICTION without their respective soundtracks.
What were your main compositional challenges when starting out as a film composer and how have they changed over time?
I was a diehard minimalist when starting out. This less-is-more approach set me apart from fellow composers who were emulating bigger-sounding Hollywood scores. It also bit me in the ass before long because I put off the challenges and rewards of further developing my harmonic and counterpoint chops. I simply wasn't writing enough layers for enough instruments.
Soon enough, I attacked the challenge of composing more varied and complex film music by seeking out films that would benefit from more complicated arrangements and orchestration.
Over time, the challenge has become about how to continue evolving without sacrificing a successful style or technique. But playing it safe with a sound that usually works, it may save the day but it won't let you win the day. Philip Glass said the challenge for the composer is not about finding one’s voice, it’s about getting rid of it once you’ve found it.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Thanks to advances in digital audio technology, you can make music just about anywhere, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. We're all very influenced by our surroundings, so whether I'm writing in my home studio or finishing a piece in my recording studio a few blocks away, I'm always creating in an environment that allows me to let go of the outside world, focus on the music and dream a little bit.
Having a special place devoted to your art is important. For the first five years of my composing career, I invested every dollar I earned from films right back into my studio. While both studios have been cultivated and purpose-built to be environments for pro audio work (they're quiet, remote, and audio-friendly), they primarily serve as sanctuaries where the atmosphere, layout and tools (instruments, computers, recording gear) are there to serve the creative impulse with a minimum of fuss or effort. Frequently used tools are within arms reach and anything distracting is banished to a far off room, shelf or closet.
Apart from essential acoustic treatments that keep everything sounding right, I focus my attention on how the rooms feel. That means the lighting is relaxed and indirect, the surfaces are uncluttered, the main instruments and compositional tools are always accessible and sound amazing.
Maintaining a peaceful and productive space requires lots of planning, research and constant ongoing work to ensure the vibe doesn’t grow stale. After every recording, mix, or completed film, I try to assess what could have been done differently to make the scoring experience better, easier, and more fun. Sometimes it's as simple as having a fresh pot of tea steeping just as people arrive, at other times it's about having prior recording sessions loaded and ready to go.
I know it's all worth it when directors tell me how quickly they feel at peace here, often calling it a Zen womb that brings their barriers down and gets them to a place where we can all trust and be open with each other.
There are instruments everywhere: guitars float along every wall, a baby grand piano rests comfortably next door, a Moog sub37 in the control room, a Hammond B3 hides in plain sight in the kitchen, a Rhodes piano and a Wurlitzer loiter in the hallway, a handmade Vox AC15 amp stands at attention by the elevator next to the Fender Vibroverb I saw Jeff Buckley playing at Cafe Sin-e. I could go on but the point is each instrument has a character, an attitude and a story to accompany its inspiring sounds.
In terms of gear, I’ve assembled an assortment of vintage and rare analog goodies piece by piece over the years, ranging from a rare Danish EQ that houses 12 tube circuits, to a handmade Frankenstein digital-to-analog convertor unit made from vintage tape machine tubes and transformers. These magic boxes work in tandem with multi-CPU servers and raid arrays I’ve built myself.
Interestingly, now that my computers can run everything I can throw at them, I find myself using fewer plugins, samples and tracks than I ever have before. I’m getting better results and having far more fun by using fewer tools and spending more time mastering each one.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using? In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? How do you see the role of sound designers and software programmers in the creative process?
Even though we can't go back to only using paper and pen to compose a score, my goal is to close the gap between the simplicity of the bygone era with the awesome potential and overwhelmingly complex modern day studio. That means stripping the process down to as few steps as possible between the germ of the musical idea and the final mix. Beyond the artistic benefit of capturing the fragile inception of the musical spark before it flames out, there's also the practical reality that now more than ever, we have even less time to compose our music for films that are ready later, and with less money to pay their composers for their time.
With all that said, here are my go-to instruments and tools right now which yield stunning results, reliably, without much effort:
Electronics: NI Maschine Studio, Moog sub37 analog synthesizer, Omnisphere, NI Massive;
Guitars: my trusty old Steinberger electric, a pair of Martin acoustics;
Signal Processing: Bricasti M7, SoundToys EchoBoy, Valhalla reverbs, NI GuitarRig, IzoTope Ozone;
Keys: Yamaha C7, Fender Rhodes;
Sample Libraries: VSL, Spitfire Audio
I record/mix/compose everything on Steinberg Nuendo with Vienna Ensemble, Ableton Live and NI Maschine.
Each instrument/tool has a specific role, however, I prefer fewer but deeper functionality. Even though an electric guitar has 6 strings and usually only a couple of knobs, those limitations demand that you think creatively to push past those limitations because that's where the cool sounds and possibilities exist.
Having said all that, I'm certain much will change once I've fully integrated the iPad into the studio. I see how the iPads will go far beyond being a remote control for my compositional tools (Nuendo, Omnisphere, VSL and who knows what else in the coming months). What I'm seeing is how the iPad app interfaces are morphing into actual instruments (and I'm not talking about the straight ahead synth and guitar amp emulator apps already out there).
The role of software programmers and sound designer in the creative process has always been critical, but most people didn't realize it. That's changing because software programmers are now the equivalent of the luthiers and piano makers of old. They're creating instruments that aren't just capable of replicating old sounds and making new ones, these sounds are almost capable of existing in another dimension because of how they can be transformed, how they can trigger other sounds or processes, and on and on. An example of a composer who's acknowledged the importance of the programmer is Hans Zimmer - he has custom software tools built for him by an in-house developer, Zimmer sits on the board of Steinberg software (the maker of Nuendo), and has partnered with virtual instrument makers to commercially release software that he's co-developed.
The sound designers are not just engineers and artists but a fascinating amalgam. That's why I always prefer to work on the score in tandem with the sound designer so that we can collaborate and find ways for the sound design and the music to create an even more immersive soundscape. For example, if the sound designer and I can figure out the key of the wind blowing in the background of an exterior shot, perhaps I can match my ocarina to harmonize, or vice versa.