May 5, 2014
Limelight shines on a man whose work is concealed.
I’m in a room with three sets of eyes. In a rare, idle hour, under the golden gaze of two BAFTA masks, film composer David Hirschfelder talks movies and music.
Settled between a digital composing suite and ”midlife crisis” Boesendorfer grand piano, the man who scored the soundtracks to Shine, Elizabeth and The Railway Man marvels over a salt-rock crystal lamp – a gift from daughter Sophie. ”I think it actually works!” he says, its glow and negative ion emissions softening the industrial surrounds. ”As an artist you have to make a date with yourself, romance yourself to come up with the ideas.”
His work serenades the ears of millions, but begins here, in his home studio.
Hirschfelder began his career as a member of Pyramid, a jazz-fusion ensemble that gained top billing at the 1983 Montreux Jazz Festival. A stint with the Little River Band saw him tour and record with John Farnham, until the early ’90s.
The onstage experience has been replaced in a way that’s ”exciting and complete”, and still very much live, he says. ”You have to put energy into it – you work with musicians, you record their performances, but now it’s about getting that magic take.
”You can still take risks, knowing that if you fall and slip, you can decide that mistake was fantastic, I’m going to keep that.”
Hirschfelder has always preferred playing alone. ”It sounds wrong, playing without an audience seems totally oxymoronic, but I like that activity.” He has since age four, when, on finding his grandmother’s old upright piano, he started playing by ear. ”Funnily enough it was movie scores, Ben-Hur, Exodus and Spartacus.” Trained classically from age six, he’d jump between ”disciplined learning” to just ”making it up”. ”I think that was the seeds of discovering my ability to compose, being comfortable with music as a language just flowing straight out of me.”
In his home town of Ballarat, the young pianist practised each day before school. ”I used to love that,” he says, smiling. ”It’s odd – I was an odd child. I should have been out kicking a football but, no, I was in front of a piano, bashing away.”
Hirschfelder started the shift from stage to screen in his late 20s, beginning with television and radio. In 1992, he made his ostentatiously audible foray on to the big screen with director Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom. ”It was a hoot!” he says. ”Baz is hilarious! He’s such a powerhouse of energy – his mind is just constantly seething with ideas.”
The score won him his first BAFTA – a moment he describes as one of the most ”unexpected thrills” of his life. ”When they called out my name I thought I was hearing things,” he says, recalling the surreal experience of hunting down a drink with Emma Thompson, clutching their ”bloody heavy” awards at the after party. And it was just the start – in 1996, Hirschfelder received an Oscar nomination, AFI and APRA award for his scoring of Shine, and in 1998, a further Oscar nomination and second BAFTA and APRA award for Elizabeth.
There have been many moments in the limelight for a man whose work is largely concealed. Surely, the sign of a good movie score is when you don’t notice it? ”Occasionally it’s good for the music to pull you out – so you can look at the whole film as a piece of poetry,” he permits. ”Other times its job is to hold you intensely in the atmosphere.” But most of the time, it has to be ”completely invisible”, working on a subconscious level. ”And I do enjoy that,” he smiles. ”I’m not interested in being visible, or getting a pat on the back.”
He instead enjoys the challenge of collaborating with directors (”non-musicians”) – a process that is different with each film. For Elizabeth, director Shekhar Kapur was ”like a hypnotist” when describing (over dinner) what he wanted out of a scene. ”I heard this music in my head,” Hirschfelder recalls. ”We were in a restaurant in London and there was a piano. He said, ‘Play me what you’re hearing’, so I played the notes, and he said, ‘I want those notes in my film’.”
Often there are ”stepping stones” to work with – from Rachmaninoff’s third concerto in Shine, to the pop tunes of Jamiroquai in Sliding Doors. ”I love coming up with the indigenous theme of the film that blends in and around the other songs,” he says, ”it’s a rich tapestry – to me there’s no competition, you just become part of the fabric.”
Sometimes he’ll start work when a film has already been shot, as was the case on The Railway Man. ”It gave me the entire story,” he recalls, having watched a near-final cut of Jonathan Teplitzy’s prisoner of war drama. He refreshed himself on the Japanese pentatonic scale and instrumentation, creating an ”odd mixture” of meditative, spiritual music in a war zone.
Joining most of the cast (including Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) and crew for the film’s world premiere in Toronto, he enjoyed mingling with the ensemble. ”We don’t actually perform together in real time. But we’re all part of the same sculpture.”
His latest score is for another ”film of redemption”, Craig Monahan’s Healing. It tells the story of prisoners in the final years of their sentence, nurturing injured birds. It’s the kind of film he loves to tackle. ”They’re tough stories and go to tough places, but they have positive outcomes.” Working with the ”beautiful sounds” of the birds, he delivered a simple piano theme, subsuming his own eclectic urges with the Middle Eastern resonance of a Persian harp.
In Healing, a lot of the music was left out. ”When I was a serious young insect I’d be upset if anything wasn’t used,” he recalls with a grin, ”but now I’ve realised you have to go down a path really boldly and with complete conviction to discover that it’s the wrong path.”
His ”biggest buzz” still comes from finding the music. ”It just turns up in my brain,” he says. ”I don’t know how it gets there, but that moment of finding it, and then crafting it into the film knowing that’s its right – that’s what I like.”
Healing screens at selected cinemas from Thursday.