An Interview With Composer
Peter Dasent is responsible for the wonderful score for In Glorious Smell-O-Vision! I caught up with him in our hometown, Sydney Australia.
(Tammy, November, 2019)
Firstly, I asked Peter how he got involved in the project…
Well it was you. I mean you’ve been talking about it for a long time… I really liked the original film, Scent of Mystery. You’d given that to me on a DVD a couple of years ago, so I liked that and then at some stage you asked would I compose the music for your film? Of course I said yes (laughs).
Tammy: I think originally I wanted you to do a live performance for Scent of Mystery? The musical score was by Mario Nascimbene, so I immediately thought of you because of the Italian music connection.
Yeah well that was a nice thought for you to have (laughs). That was the initial enquiry, but I knew that probably wouldn’t happen because the music and the sound effects and the dialogue wouldn’t be on separate tracks. Yeah that was a lovely idea.
Tammy: Tell us about your interest in Nino Rota.
Well it was a gradual thing. My first encounter with Nino Rota’s music was Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which I never went to see – wild horses wouldn’t have dragged me to that film in 1968 when I was 13 years old. But the theme song – A Time for Us – is a great tune.
My next encounter was The Godfather (1972), A beautiful melody. I saw The Godfather but it was just that tune, I really liked it. I actually worked out how to play it on the piano and stuff. Then later in the 70s I was living in a shared house in Brooklyn, New Zealand and there was what would now be called an ‘Art House’ cinema down the road. One of my flatmates came home one night and said, “I’ve just seen this beautiful film called ‘Juliet of the Spirits.’” And so, on his recommendation I went to see it. They showed a few other Fellini films – I think I saw La Dolce Vita there, maybe La Strada. I can’t remember but I did notice that when I saw these films, directed by this guy Fellini, I’d come out of the cinema humming the melodies and saying, “that sounds strangely familiar, it’s got into my brain.”
Tammy: So the connection was to the actual music itself rather than its place in the film?
It was the music. The music is melodic. He writes a great tune. But it’s not just that, he writes a particular kind of melody. I mean his melodies sound Italian so therefore they’re kind of exotic for a Kiwi. They are also multi-genre. He writes things that sound like folk melodies but they’re kind of operatic. And they’re sort of jazzy and have a kind of 50s/60s easy listening vibe about them, and they’re kind of classy and stylish, not cheesy. And he’s got a sense of humour, just innate humour in the music. So it’s got all those things that for me are really important. And his instrumentation, the way he arranges his music is brilliant and it’s never the same.
You can listen to La Strada Part 2 from Bravo Nino Rota by the Umbrellas below.
I mean he can write a straight orchestral score, like say La Strada or he can write for a small jazz ensemble, like Juliet of the Spirits that was all vibraphones and electric pianos and saxophones and clarinets, or he can combine say, in Amarcord there’s a beautiful orchestral score but there’s an accordion and an electric organ, and then there’s a brass band. And they’re all things that I love. They are just sounds that I’m attracted to. Then melodies that just stick with you. They all sound like Nino Rota and they’re all different.
You can listen to Amacord from Bravo Nino Rota below.
Did Nino Rota’s soundtracks lead you into film?
No. I just seemed to have this facility to write music that suggested something visual. If I’m writing something just for its own sake, I’m not trying to express an emotion or a feeling, I have an image in mind, whether that image is what the audience gets, it doesn’t matter. There’s a piece I wrote called ‘Age of Elegance’ and my image was a forgotten decrepit mansion, a once glorious palace I imagined, and somehow I could write something about that which suggested elegance but also was kind of broken down, and that appealed to me.
You can listen to Age of Elegance, by The Umbrellas, below.
When I finally got to actually write some music for film I found it came easily to me. I could do it. Mainly because I wasn’t just writing in one style – I wasn’t a classically or orchestrally trained person and I wasn’t a rock or pop musician, I could cherry pick from whatever I needed to and combine them which is what I like about Nino Rota (laughs).
I asked Peter about working on In Glorious Smell-O-Vision! with director John Anderson:
To bring Hans back to life in the film, we had Nadia’s animations and we had your music. How did you find Hans’ theme?
The Hans theme came directly from John’s temp music. I did a couple of initial musical sketches before I’d seen any pictures. My initial musical thought was well this is 60s Europe. It’s sort of a thriller but it’s also kind of funny, so it was slightly tongue in cheek I suppose. Whereas when John sent me the first cut, he’d laid up Chopin and Bach and it was all piano music and it immediately made sense. I could see that he wanted to take Hans seriously and Hans took himself very seriously. He came from that European tradition so I could see immediately that’s why John used that music. I grew up playing Chopin and Bach so that is under my fingers. So I thought, yeah I can do this. I get this. I know exactly what he wants.
Tammy: The heart of the story is about Hans, I guess his hubris then a great fall from grace, and I think that your music really reflects that.
Oh good. Well I’m pleased that worked. I just work on instinct in those situations. Quite often I’d send some music back to John thinking oh well, let’s see what he thinks of this and I’d get a wonderful positive response. And a couple of times he’d want things changed…
Tammy: Tell me about your working relationship with John
It worked really well. I understood what he wanted and was able to supply it and when that happens it’s a wonderful creative process and you don’t have that feeling of not being sure. Like I said you follow your instincts- you know what’s required and do it. One thing about John is he knew what he wanted and that is so good, to work with that in a director.
(Director) Peter Jackson was like that. He knew exactly what he wanted, where he wanted music and what he wanted it to do. I wrote the music for three of his early films: Meet The Feebles, Brain Dead – well it’s called ‘Dead Alive’ actually- and Heavenly Creatures.
Tammy: What was Peter Jackson’s direction like?
It was all to do with the story. Often what you’re doing with music in a film is about the music signalling how you are supposed to feel about something, so he would be very clear about what he wanted there. Looking forward to being involved in the remastering of the soundtracks of the early films which will be re-released with re-mastered sound and re-graded and probably bonus …
Tammy: …scratch and sniff! We should have another look at them shouldn’t we!
Yeah right (laughing).
Tammy: Tell us about your process with In Glorious Smell-O-Vision?
I watched the whole film through initially and then began at the beginning. With reel one. Sent three or four pieces to you and John, got the response and then just kept going. And there were changes as we went along.
Tammy: What were the challenges?
I think the main challenge was that there was a lot of music. And so I had to make sure that when a theme was repeated it wasn’t exactly the same: once I had the melody, then making it work with the pictures. One thing I get from, or share with Nino Rota is… what you often have to do in film music is take a theme then do variations – it’s classic composition: themes and variations and that’s something I enjoy doing. That was the challenge but that’s a nice challenge to have, that means writing to picture which is what I really like doing. Like when somebody’s arm moves, makes a big gesture or something like that, if you catch that with a bit of music it really works.
There was a LOT of music in your film. John had music under the close up talking heads, which you often don’t do. I asked him about it and he said he definitely wanted it and it’s mixed quite low. More often than not in documentaries if there’s a close up talking head talking to camera you don’t need music.
Tammy: It was very conscious. Again, Hans was bought to life by a combination of your music, Nadia’s animation and his daughter Carmen. We spend a lot of time with Carmen and I think the music really added to the mood of Hans’ journey through the movie.
Yes, it was a good call but it was interesting to me and it was not usual, not what I expected.
Tammy: What do you think of the film?
I think it’s great, right from the first viewing I thought it was really interesting. Like nothing I knew anything about. And I really liked the original film, Scent of Mystery and then, it’s just such a crazy story Tammy, of you pursuing your passion for smell and making this film about screening this film with the actual smells. I mean it’s a crazy thing to do (laughs).
Tammy: Do you have any particular smell memories?
I was in New Zealand last week and when you leave your house and walk out into the New Zealand air that is a smell, that is so familiar to me. As well as the Tui (NZ bird) and the trees and the blue of the sky, the smell is… I’m back: I’m eight years old again, growing up in New Zealand. Other smells?… There is one smell… when I was five I lived in England for a year and there must have been roadworks going on all the time because there is a particular smell of bitumen and when I smell that sometimes, I’m back there.
Tammy: What other musical projects have you got on the go?
Well, there’s Play School, an Australian pre-school children’s television show that’s been going for 52 years. It’s mainly recorded live with two presenters talking directly to the camera. They sing songs, I accompany them on the piano and I also accompany them when they read a story in each episode, and I compose incidental music spontaneously. So that’s been my day job for 20 years.
Then next year it looks like I’m reviving a concert of Nino Rota’s Fellini music with my band The Umbrellas. Bravo Nina Rota features my arrangements for our six-piece ensemble, of suites from various Fellini scores. It’s the Fellini centenary next year, he was born in 1920.
Tammy: Anything else you’d like to add?
I hope that In Glorious Smell-O-Vision! is a huge world-wide success. It will be a unique event, something that people have never gone to before or that has ever occurred to people. So you’re onto something quite new and it’s just a matter of getting that spark. It deserves to be a success this time, in the opposite direction to the failure it was the first time around (laughing).
Tammy: Do you think scent has potential to add to storytelling in the cinema?
Well I can’t wait to see it with the scents.
Tammy: Monday week!
Yeah, I’ll let you know when I see it (laughs).
Tammy: The time for smell is now.
Yeah, the time for smell is now!