In this edition of Duologues, composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Danny Mulhern talks to us about his recent releases Metanoia and Safe House (both available via 1631 Recordings), his exceptional collaborative partnership with London Contemporary Orchestra, discovering & supporting new music, and exciting projects in the works including his score for the new Elizabeth Chomko film “What They Had“ which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. He even gives us a little insight into some new ideas attracting his creative attention which we truly hope he finds the time & opportunity to pursue. It is a captivating read and a gateway to some outstanding listening for modern classical fans. Included among the words are sample tracks and Danny’s own outstanding “Safe House Mixtape”, an hour-long selection of pieces that inspired and compliment his recent music.
Let’s start by talking about your new album ‘Safe House’. You have said that you see it very much as a companion piece to last year’s ‘Metanoia’ and that it was recorded at the same time and with the same ensemble, but the rhythmic elements and electronics definitely add a new dimension. Did you have a particular vision for each of the two albums or did that get sorted out after all the recording was done?
I intended it to be one record so as to represent this music I was feeling connected to at this particular time. When I was putting the track order together it occurred to me that I had a lot of pieces, and people might be more likely to listen to the whole record if it was shorter, because there is so much amazing music out there. So instead of them being one album I split them into two releases. Separating them roughly between the ones that did have electronic elements (Safe House) from the ones that didn’t (Metanoia) felt like a natural way to split them.
Being a big fan of spy fiction (le Carré in particular), I am intrigued by the title. What made you choose “Safe House” and are there any narrative implications you hoped to get across with the album?
Yes. I do like that implication. I like the idea of giving a listener a starting point with a title, which can then go wherever the music and their mind takes them. I think there are some quietly emotive pieces on the record. Safe House is also the title of one of the tracks on the record. It’s from my first recording session with LCO which started me on this journey of releasing my own records. So it felt right to make it the name of the album too.
I’m a fan of espionage thrillers too. The Day Of The Jackal, The Russia House etc. I was a little obsessed with Sherlock Homes too. The BBC Radio 4 dramatizations were great. Michael Williams is absolutely the best Watson ever. I once wrote to Aardman Animations suggesting that they use them as the source to make animated versions in the style of their early films that used existing dialogue to animate the characters to. I’d still love to see that.
The partnership you’ve developed with the London Contemporary Orchestra has obviously proven to be a very productive one. Where did that first begin and can you give us any insight into the improvisational element they bring to your compositions?
My first session with London Contemporary Orchestra was for a short film I was scoring. It was at Angel Studios in London, it turned out there was very little music needed for the film, but I wanted to make the most of having this beautiful studio and these great players. So I brought some piano improv recordings to the session, with instructions for the players. For example on the piece called Safe House, the harpist was asked to play ascending crotchets choosing only notes from the chords indicated on the score, and randomly add 4th and 6th notes from the scale throughout. The strings were asked to choose notes from the chords indicated on the score and play in a soft and sustained way. We tried various swells in different places. We took the original piano out so we’re just left with the players’ response to my original improv. Those players, and that situation really inspires me. It was a definite epiphany. I said to myself, why haven’t I been doing this all of the time? The music feels so alive, and the possibilities are endless.
Another example is a piece called “Scent Of The Rain” from ‘Metanoia’. I had recorded an improvised pentatonic piano piece and scored out some of the melodic elements to be mirrored by sparse string parts. On top of that, two violin players improvised soft phrases in the same scale. I really like the result. It feels both improvised and structured. Loose and controlled. I use that working method a lot now.
Since you seem to be working simultaneously on both film and solo projects, do you find a need to strictly compartmentalize your different modes of work creatively speaking? Or is it more of a fluid process where ideas from one can feed the other and vice versa?
My own work and the recent film I did feel very connected because I got the film from the director having heard ‘Metanoia’, and she very much wanted me to do respond to the film myself. That was a lovely situation.
For other TV work, as I‘m sure most composers who have done a lot of work for TV would say, there’s often a compromise between what you would do if left to your own devices, verses the demands of other elements/people on the project. In the end you’re providing the nutrients for someone else’s baby. It’s significant, but it’s not your baby. In those situations I often feel it’s a very different thing from my solo projects. I’m working hard on getting them to converge.
If I may say, I notice that you are active on social media often showing interest in and support for the work of fellow artists. As busy as you must be, what motivates you to take the time to do that?
I enjoy finding new music. There’s so much out there. I’m not very conversational on social media, but I do like to share things I like.
Having released my own records I know it can make a difference if someone takes the time to listen and respond. Also, I think there’s a lot of kindred spirits out there. Not just composers but people like yourself, and labels, fans etc. who all feel passionate about music, and are evoking a sense of a collective connection. One of the special qualities of the online world is that it’s both global and immediate. People can be listening to your music in countries you’ve never been to, and you can be communicating with composers and fans in far-away places. I like to encourage that.
Finally, are there any new film or recording projects you have in the works that you want to tell us about?
I recently scored, What They Had (link: https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/what-they-had-review-1202671962/), which comes out in October. It stars Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster, all of whom absolutely justify their eminent reputations in this film. I couldn’t be more proud to have been a part of it. I’m biased, but I definitely recommend it. It’s heartbreaking. I’m indebted to the brilliant woman, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko for hiring me on the back of hearing ‘Metanoia’. It’s another collaboration with London Contemporary Orchestra. As well as being a lovely film score to write, it’s validation for my putting myself out there and making these records. I’m also currently working on a two-hour documentary about the life of Princess Margaret for the BBC. That comes out some time during the Autumn.
Aside from those, I have a list of concepts I’d like to develop. I would love to work more with LCO and other collaborators in the future. African music has always interested me. Especially kora music and soukous guitar styles. I’ve been to a lot of WOMADs. My first was in 1988 and it had a big effect on me. I recently saw David Byrne’s live show. It was great. I’d like to maybe try a super-soft take on the methods used for Talking Heads’ Remain In Light album. With some looping improvs from orchestral players in extremely soft articulations as a basis for a more structured piece. That could be beautiful. I’d love to explore that.