His Dark Materials is a fantasy TV Series produced by BBC One and HBO, based on the trilogy of Philip Pullman’s novels. The music of the series was written by Grammy-award winning Scottish composer Lorne Balfe. In late August this year, there was a medley of it produced especially for BBC Proms, held at The Royal Albert Hall; the medley was performed as part of Prom 57, which was all about Fantasy, Myths and Legends. Conductor Anna-Maria Helsing and the BBC Concert Orchestra created a magical atmosphere of orchestral fantasy for the audience, performing classic soundtracks from film, television and gaming. Bernard Duc, composer, conductor and orchestrator, worked closely with Lorne Balfe to orchestrate the piece for His Dark Materials medley in Dorico. Bernard talked to me about his work on the project, his collaboration with Lorne and his overall experience using Dorico.
AN: Hi Bernard, thank you for taking the time to talk to me about the His Dark Materials medley for this year’s BBC Proms. What can you tell me about your involvement in this project?
BD: Hi Anastasia, thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss this project. I was the orchestrator of the medley. I also did the music preparation, wrote new Latin lyrics (which relate to each theme), and finally attended the rehearsals with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
AN: You were working closely with Lorne. What can you tell me about your collaboration?
BD: I was part of the 14th Street Music team. It’s an incredible music team which is led by Lorne Balfe and has provided the music for countless TV shows and movies under his leadership. I still don’t know why Lorne gave me an opportunity to join the team, I had almost no professional experience at the time, but I am very grateful for it. I know people who work on other teams and are stuck doing the same tasks for years without ever being given more responsibilities. Thankfully, I had a very different experience working with Lorne: he isn’t afraid to quickly give big responsibilities to people he trusts. When I joined the team I focused first on writing additional music and arrangements but I also made sure to let everyone know that if they ever needed help making some parts, I would be happy to do it. When Lorne and the rest of the team realized I could do that not only well but also very fast, I was gradually given more orchestration opportunities. The first big one was orchestrating for Life On Our Planet for which I also ran one of the recording sessions with the LSO. Later I orchestrated and did music preparation for the movie Gran Turismo and finally I orchestrated His Dark Materials Medley for the BBC Proms. I often tell less experienced composers who want to work in film music how important it is to be both trustworthy and helpful. Not only it’s the right thing to do and it makes life easier for everyone, but it will eventually lead to opportunities. Focusing less on oneself and more on helping others also makes the whole experience much more enjoyable!
Watch “His Dark Materials” Medley live performance:
AN: Did you face any particular challenges? I presume that for a project like this deadlines and turnarounds must be very tight?
BD: The deadline for the medley wasn’t too bad by film industry standards. The big challenge was to condense the music in a way that would make sense for a live orchestra. The themes for the TV show were originally written for a hybrid orchestra, combining electronics and samples with the orchestra. They had also been recorded with up to three full passes of strings and the brass had been recorded separately from the strings (which is very common to give more flexibility in the mix). The live concert had of course only one string section and the different orchestra sections had to balance with each other without the help of amplification. Another challenge was the hall: the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) has a unique acoustic, much dryer than most concert halls. Because of that, I didn’t shy away from doubling parts to give more weight to the music. I was also very excited to be able to include the RAH organ for a section of the medley: I had already ran an organ recording session for Life On Our Planet at the RAH, and had fallen in love with the sound! Finally, the last challenge was to make all this music fit on the page.
AN: Did you find any of the Dorico features being helpful in allowing you to complete this project quicker?
BD: Dorico has several features which are a huge help on big projects. First, the MIDI Import is by far the most advanced and helpful of any notation software I know. I love that it can remember the meaning of previously used track names and I also appreciate how easy it is to link a MIDI part to an existing or new instrument. In addition, players are not an abstract concept but represent a real person in the orchestra that can interact with several instruments. This is extremely helpful when I deal with doubling. It is for example very easy to move the piccolo part from one flute player to another. When I do that both the score and parts update automatically, including the warnings to change instruments. Another Dorico feature that I love is automatic condensing, which is like magic! This is especially important when working on very dense scores such as His Dark Materials. Without condensing I could never fit everything on the page and manually condensing is a very time-consuming process. Finally, on this score I often had to divide a string session in two, sometimes to add a solo part and other times to divide the players in half. The divisi feature made this very easy.
AN: How was your overall experience using Dorico music notation software for the part preparation and the engraving process?
BD: The best example is actually from another project. Earlier this year I orchestrated the score for the movie Gran Turismo. The schedule was incredibly tight and I had to do the whole orchestration and music preparation work by myself in less than a week. Dorico did such a good job creating parts automatically before my manual changes that I was able to get 800 parts ready to print in just one evening. Of course, before starting the project I had set the page templates as well as the engraving and layout options to my liking. Thankfully, Dorico offers many options that allow me to get the look I want. For the BBC Proms medley of His Dark Materials I also took advantage of the possibility to quickly create parts with different combinations of instruments. This allowed me to offer many part options to the percussionists.
AN: Were you also involved in the music preparation for the TV series? What can you tell me about it?
BD: While I wrote additional arrangements for season 3 of the show, I wasn’t involved in the orchestration process. However, I did orchestration and part preparation for several other TV shows. The main difference between a TV or film project and a live show such as the BBC Proms is that we often use striping, meaning we record the orchestra in sections. This gives a lot more flexibility in the mix but also more flexibility to the orchestrator. Depending on the sound aesthetic the composer wants, we don’t need to balance the orchestra sections with each other and we can have the brass playing really loud without being afraid of drowning out the rest of the orchestra. On the Netflix show Life On Our Planet I took full advantage of that on a session with the London Symphony Orchestra: In the loudest section I had the trumpets, trombone, and tuba play one phrase by themselves. The horns would then play the counter melody while the rest of the brass were resting. This might sound like a lengthy process but the fact that the players had time to rest allowed us to obtain the desired result in fewer takes. We also achieved a consistent level of brightness and power that would be almost impossible to get in a live setting. However, the most fun for me is always live music, be it writing, orchestrating, or conducting. Nothing compares to having a full orchestra playing together in one room, without the option of multiple takes; it presents always unique challenges and the added pressure of being live in front of an audience makes the whole process even more fun!
AN: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Bernard!
Listen to the official theme music of His Dark Materials TV series here:
Photo of the performance for BBC Prom 57: Fantasy, Myths and Legends, courtesy Andy Paradise