Skip to main content

Doc Score: Composer Patrick Seymour on Writing Music for Nonfiction

By Doug Pray

From Michael Apted's <em>Me and Isaac Newton</em> (1999)

Director Michael Apted's Inspirations (1997) and Me and Isaac Newton (1999) have a lot in common. Both are intimate portraits of seven characters (the earlier documentary features accomplished artists, while the newer film is about pioneering scientists), and both delve deeply into the inner workings of the creative mind. But aside from Apted's direction, the one element that allows viewers to engage these heady films on a gut level is the penetrating, mesmerizing music by Patrick Seymour. I met Seymour at his studio to discuss the creative process of composing for these documentaries.


Both of these films are about inspiration and inventiveness. Was it ironic that you, too, had to be inspired and inventive to compose the music for them?

Patrick Seymour: It was, especially the first one, which was about the inspiration for being an artist in general. While I was scoring that, I confronted people who talk about their motivation for doing what they do, how it had become vocational for them and how artistic inspiration has its own agenda and sets its own pace. On the other hand, I have to write “x” amount of music every day and make sure I finish the score by my completion deadline.


Having scored dramatic films and TV, what did you find challenging about these documentaries?

The challenge was trying to prevent them from being too dry and cerebral. I wanted to humanize and emotionalize the subjects. In Inspirations, the subjects are speaking for themselves through their art, so when you see Roy Lichtenstein's paintings, for example, I chose a clean “cool jazz” language to complement his work.


But it isn't heavy-handed.

I was intentionally trying to not be heavy-handed. But in terms of the choice of musical languages, I experimented early in the process with demos, and they liked the instincts I had. Sometimes the editor, Suzanne Rostock, would help me make those choices, too, with her intelligent selections of temp music in the early rough cuts.


Isn't that one of the biggest frustrations for music composers—temp tracks provided to you by the director or editor?

Yes, big time! People will get terribly married to their temp music, and they can't let go when it's time to replace it with original score. That was never a problem with Michael or Suzanne. She would do a little bit of exploring too. She came up with some mystical, religious choral music (Faure's Requiem) before I'd even seen Me and Isaac Newton. That was how the film began, and as soon as I saw theoretical physicist Michio Kaku talking about “the mind of God,” I knew I needed to get profound!


But even that was not overdone. It had a simplicity to it.

Profound music can be minimal as well. And actually, that choral music helped me when I got to the core of Me and Isaac Newton. The emotional center for me was the human element of cancer specialists Karol Sikora with his child patients and Ashok Gadgil dealing with the poverty and death of a village in India. I decided to score that area of the film with a pure child soprano solo voice because I needed that to hit home.


You have a built-in problem because audiences want all films to be entertainment. So in documentaries like these that are so thoughtful and intellectual, does that make your role even more significant than when scoring dramatic films?

You can benefit these pieces hugely by knowing when to step out front and knowing when not to. In a dramatic movie you get right in there as part of the drama, but it's so demanding to absorb what the subjects are saying in these documentaries that I often didn't want to detract from it.


But you are starting with much less in documentaries like these.

Absolutely, but they are elevated because their subjects are such intellectual giants, and I just try to be supportive of that and be aware of when to add an emotive element. I wrote this cue called the “Indian lament”—a very plaintive-sounding Eastern violin theme—and when I started to play with that against the death scene of the child in the village, I realized that's what elevates this stuff—the language of music.


What was the process of working with Apted or Rostock? At what point did you get brought in?

For Inspirations they called me in when they were on their first rough edit, and I gave them some demos. These were based on watching some footage, hearing some temp music they'd put in, and sitting down with Michael, who said, “All I know is that it needs kind of a connective unifying thread, and not just generic background music.” So I wrote some cues and demoed them and heard from Apted after a few days that everything worked great, to keep going in that style.


There are a lot of shorter cues; I wonder if those were “cut to fit” by the editor, to hit a particular transition, or did you write them to fit exactly?

No, we didn't create conventional “music spotting notes” for these films, where the composer is specifically told, “OK, we need music to start here and stop here.” Instead, I would create many more cues than they had temped out. On the Apted films, these short cues were usually my “extras.” For example, I gave Suzanne a couple of futuristic sounding little stings. She moved these around to wherever she needed them, rather than where I had intended them to go.


Wasn't that frustrating to you?

Not at all; it's great when it works that way! The other side of the coin can be frustrating, which is when editors move cues around in a dramatic piece with a kind of surgeon's mentality—cutting and slicing.


How much do you hear an overall structure in your composing? Do you see the entire score as one connected piece?

It's very important that there is a connective thread; it's the equivalent of the story. I'd actually have my studio walls covered with notes, big sheets of art paper to look at the overall structure of the film and to be able to step back and get a real time context. The big danger in documentaries is that they can seem to be very broken up into short, connective transition cues. With Inspirations, I decided that instead of many separate cues, I would write a concert piece, an abstract musical version of the subject, and make the cues longer and cover more ground. That way I could divide the piece into acts and see how much I could connect that whole piece with the “abstract concert suite” I was composing.


There were distinct themes for the characters.

Themes or languages, or both. In Inspirations, there was the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando. A very intense and almost intimidating guy. I used Japanese musical elements for him, then started to add emotive Celtic modal chord changes to this language, and I put it over these little sequences of him looking out on the ocean. So there is this thread going and he gets humanized, and you start to think about what a strange soul this is.


What did you learn from doing those two documentaries?

I was lucky because they just left me alone to do my own thing.


Doug Pray lives in Los Angeles and is best known for his two music-related documentary features—Hype! (1996), about the Seattle music scene, and Scratch (2001), which explores the world of hip-hop DJs and “turntablism.”