Master & Commander


It was his work on The Ghost of Time, a collaborative piece with Iva Davies and Richard Tognetti which first brought Christopher Gordon to the attention of Peter Weir, the director of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. In fact, so taken was Peter Weir with this music he regularly had the piece played on-set during the making of Master and Commander. Eventually Weir invited the three composers to provide the score for his new navy epic. Therefore in talking to Christopher Gordon about Master and Commander we must venture back through The Ghost of Time

Interview – Part One – The Ghost of Time

The Ghost of Time was commissioned by the City of Sydney Council as part of the city’s Millennium celebrations. How did you become involved?

The Sydney City Council commissioned Iva Davies to write a twenty-five minute piece for the Millennium celebrations. He decided to ask Richard Tognetti to be involved. Richard spent some time up at Iva’s studio and provided a whole selection of ideas on violin and electric violin. Iva, being the digital wizard that he is, constructed The Ghost of Time from these ideas adding more of his own. Since the work culminates in Iva’s Icehouse hit "Great Southern Land" there are many hints of the song woven through it.

The plan was to include an orchestra and Iva’s recording engineer and co-producer on the project, Simon Leadley, suggested I become involved. So I was given what was effectively a finished piece to which I threw an orchestra on top adding brand new ideas of my own and orchestrating some other parts. I only had three or four days. It has to be the most bizarre project I have ever worked on! I suspect the others would agree. Nevertheless The Ghost of Time is a piece that we are very fond of; there are so many very interesting ideas in it.

Iva and I had an initial meeting and a couple of phone calls while Richard and I didn’t even meet until the dress rehearsal. But our musical personalities blended surprisingly well and it was fabulous to work with two musicians at the top of their respective musical fields.

The performance took place on the north concourse of the Sydney Opera House from 11:30 to 11:55 pm and was telecast around the world. Iva and Richard were joined by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Stanhope and featured the taiko ensemble Taikoz and Guy Pratt (bass player with Icehouse and Pink Floyd).

We recorded The Ghost of Time for the album a couple of months earlier. I conducted the small orchestra. Iva asked me to write a piece for the album so I came up with "Endless Ocean" which was for 22 strings and made semi-disguised references to a vocal phrase from "Great Southern Land". The third piece on the album, "Walk Alone", is a collage or remix by Iva of material from all the tracks with new ideas added.

Interview – Part Two – Fathoming the World of Master and Commander

Were you aware of the film Master and Commander before you were approached, and how were you asked to be part of the musical process? For instance, were you, Iva Davies and Richard Tognetti approached for a collaborative score on the basis of The Ghost of Time?

I was already a great fan of the Aubrey/Maturin books and was reading the sixteenth in the series when Peter took us on. Actually I had submitted for the film about a year earlier with excerpts from Moby Dick and On the Beach – exactly the sort of music that Peter was not looking for!

Richard was tutoring Russell Crowe on the film set in Mexico and began having discussions with Peter Weir about possible approaches to the score. They considered using only period music so Richard found literally dozens and dozens of pieces for Peter to listen too. He also gave Peter two short excerpts from The Ghost of Time and it was those bits that were often played on set to motivate the cast and crew.

Once shooting was over Peter Weir came back to Sydney for Christmas (2002) and it was then that he decided to put together the same team that had created The Ghost. The fourth member of the team, Simon Leadley who had engineered The Ghost of Time joined us as Music Editor.

Shortly before the decision was made Iva gave Peter The Ghost of Time album and it was then that he also took a liking to "Endless Ocean".

Considering composers usually have to work their way up through increasingly big budget projects, was there ever any opposition to you, Iva Davies and Richard Tognetti scoring such a major project?

Peter is a very intuitive artist and seems to know how to trust and stick by his intuition. For whatever reason he felt that the Ghost composers would give him the score he was after. If Fox had their concerns and doubts they didn’t burden us them. They were certainly happy to have Simon Leadley who had previously done an amazing music editing job on Moulin Rouge for Fox. What a challenge that must have been!

And was there more pressure than usual because of the scale of the film and its box-office expectations?

Compared to a TV mini-series there is a much larger budget, much more time and far less music to compose. If that’s pressure give me more! Seriously, there is certainly a heightened intensity when working on a film of this profile that is actually very stimulating. And it was great to have the time to refine and polish the score with the director rather than the fast turn around of smaller productions.

There is a marked contrast between the modern, atmospheric sound of the score – which is heavily reliant on heavy drum rhythms and foreboding string writing - with the classical music used in Master and Commander. How was a decision reached on the musical style of the score?

There was no clear philosophy, rather intuitive experimentation. The use of diagetic classical music was obvious. For the score Peter had narrowed the stylistic field somewhat with the music he was listening to and had the idea that we should incorporate The Ghost of Time. We did a number of sketches some of which Peter asked us to refine further.

“The Battle” has a very “ethnic” feel, with pounding percussion and wooden flutes. Why this approach rather than, for instance, a full orchestral set piece?

This is very much Peter’s direction. He wanted to avoid anything remotely like a Korngold swashbuckler. Nevertheless we felt some sort of music was required to provide both shape to the sequence and, paradoxically, a sense of hypnotic timeless brought on by battle-induced adrenalin. Peter felt ethnic drums and wood flute appropriate.

Listening to the soundtrack album, its clear there are different aspects to the score. Orchestral writing dominated by strings and Taiko drums, ethnic sounding wooden flutes, solo violin melodies, and rather menacing, ambient electronics. Can one assume the orchestral parts are yours, the electronic music, Iva Davies, and the solo violin passages and source music the responsibility of Richard Tognetti? Or is it all rather more complex and collaborative than that?

Yes and no. In a broad sense it did divide up that way but there was a lot of two-way and three-way collaboration. In some cases one composer would write a cue, the other two would make comments and suggestions and then the composer would make appropriate adjustments. Occasionally one of the others would make the adjustments. On two or three cues there was layering where, as an example, after we had discussed the shape of the cue Iva would work on the drums to which I wrote the orchestra. Iva then added the electronic components.

L-R: CG, Iva Davies, Richard Tognetti, with Bruce Dukov

Is there a close relationship between the sound of the score and The Ghost of Time?

The two scores are closely related and share common material almost as though they are both parts of some larger work. There is a particular chord that features in the two “chorals” in The Ghost of Time that appears in many of Master and Commander’s orchestral cues. It’s a particular voicing of a third inversion of a major seventh chord that we referred to as the “Ghost Chord”. There are other motivic cells that form the basis of new material for the film often in quite unexpected ways such as Richard’s solo violin “flutter’ that you can hear on track 1 of the CD.

When Iva gave Peter The Ghost of Time album he pointed out the latter part of "Endless Ocean" as a possible style or texture for some of the film. We were quite surprised when we found that Peter had placed the beginning of the piece into a couple of spots in the film. It is a growing single sustained note that is eventually joined by another. "Endless Ocean" plays this three times before breaking loose. Peter liked the tension and even the irritation that this relentless crescendo brought to the scenes. I rescored it to fit the picture but it is essentially the introduction to "Endless Ocean"…as it turns out, a great choice of title!

Why was the decision taken to include electronic effects in a drama, which in all other respects, pays great attention to period authenticity? Certainly it seems to be something of a trend with electronic music being blended with orchestral writing in the period nautical scores for The Bounty (1983) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) (both by Vangelis) and Titanic (1997) by James Horner.

I think it is quite common today in most films not just nautical ones to use electronics to extend the pallet available to a composer. And it’s not just the electronics that are an anachronism, the whole musical language of the score is contemporary and even some of the orchestral instruments I used did not exist in 1805 (Wagner Tubas and Contrabass Trombone). Nevertheless the question of authenticity is an interesting one. For us everything fell into place with the observation that the Surprise was a capsule travelling through the loneliness of space. That became the key to all the stylist decisions we made and so the electronic sweeps become as appropriate as the orchestral textures.

And where do the ethnic sounding arrangements fit into the collaboration?

The drums and whistles are more about aesthetics than style. The pounding of the drums is a call to war not the terrifying sound of war. We spent quite some time with the superb Mike Fisher choosing the right drums and recording them in a way that they sounded urgent but not thunderous.

And you would have died laughing if you had seen the three of us standing around the microphone recording the source music for the early market scene.

Interview – Part Three – Master and Commander: The Classical World

The books of Patrick O’Brian, on which Master and Commander is based, are steeped in classical music. Indeed, the two characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, are musicians as well as sailors. Aubrey plays the violin, Maturin, the cello, flute and piano. There are many instances in the books of classical music being either performed or referred to, as well as numerous occurrences of sailor’s songs. In Master and Commander, the novel, we first meet Aubrey and Maturin in a music room scene with a string quartet playing Locatelli's C major quartet (though the composer never actually wrote any string quartets.) How did this important aspect of the characters affect the music in the film?

On the whole the source music covered this very individual aspect. The score was mostly connected to the ship as a whole…a doomed ship with a Jonah on board.

The soundtrack album contains several classical selections. Patrick O’Brian once noted, “for the people I write about, music would for most purposes have come to an end with Mozart…” so its appropriate the first classical selection is from a Mozart violin concerto, actually from the third movement of No. 3. It’s not the original scoring though, but a smaller scale chamber arrangement. Is this the sort of music that might have been played on board ship?

Undoubtedly. It was quite common at the time for large works to be arranged for smaller groups and even duets. Often this was the only manner in which amateur musicians such as Jack and Stephen were able to experience these works. Not that the music always had to be reduced…Patrick O’Brian has enough amateurs on board to perform The Messiah in one of his books!

O’Brian commented in the same article that, “Few, except for the devotees of the Academy of Ancient Music, would have gone back much farther than Corelli, some very great names were therefore unknown to them except by hearsay or the odd chance-found score.” The soundtrack contains the Adagio from Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6. No. 8 in G Minor, “Christmas Concerto”. Why choose this particular piece?

This probably was one of Richard Tognetti’s many suggestions to Peter in the early days of shooting. We recorded a number of versions for the film to fit the scenes. One particularly interesting cue starts as score then morphs into Jack and Stephen playing in the cabin when they lose interest and break off, unfinished.

The album also contains Yo-Yo Ma playing the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 In G Major, BWV 1007. Is this music Maturin might have played himself? We have the general conception today that Bach was forgotten within ten years of his death in 1750. Yet in The Ionian Mission Aubrey asks Maturin if he has ever met Bach. Maturin enquires which one, to which Aubrey replies the "London Bach," (Johann Christian Bach). This differentiates him from JS Bach, called by Aubrey "old Bach."

Perhaps this is an “odd chance-found score” that O’Brian talks of.

There’s also a piece by Boccherini, La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid No. 6, Op. 30, included. Again this is in keeping with the period of the film.

It is the last piece that Aubrey and Maturin play in the film. It is such a catchy piece that we recorded the whole quintet for the album as well as an arrangement that appears at the end of track 1.

The one classical work that perhaps needs more explanation is Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. A 20th Century piece which couldn’t possibly have been known by the characters in the story, nor which fits the style of the score… why was this included?

We tried a number of original ides for those scenes but Peter kept coming back to RVW. I think it might have been that the emotion of the music is somehow detached from the characters so that it is not “leading” the audience.

Interview Part Four – All at Sea

Ironically the fact that two of your most high profile previous scores had strong nautical themes had little or nothing to do with you working on Master and Commander. Nonetheless, many people interested in Master and Commander may well also find much to like in your music for Moby Dick and On The Beach two mini-series versions of novels which were both filmed with Gregory Peck in the 1950’s. Can you talk just briefly about these scores? Moby Dick, which starred Patrick Stewart and Henry Thomas, is another sailing ship epic, though the score is in a very different style…

The larger-than-life character of Captain Ahab and the grand sweep of Herman Melville’s novel offered an opportunity for the music to be quite large and boisterous in a manner not often available to composers these days. The director, Frank Roddam, asked for an expansive theme that smelt of sea-salt and the high seas and for music that brooded in self-obsession and barked in defiant rage. I was most fortunate that this was my first major score.

On The Beach starred Armand Assante, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown. Your music offers a remarkably rich and varied score for this Russell Mulcahy mini-series version of Neville Shute’s modern classic novel. It also brings us full circle in that Mulcahy directed three Icehouse videos back in the 1980’s, then Iva Davies scored Mulcahy’s first feature, Razorback. Again the story has a nautical element, one of the main characters being the captain of an American nuclear submarine based in Melbourne.

Oddly enough I first met with Russell to discuss On the Beach only a few days after The Ghost of Time was performed. I was terribly moved when writing this score. The issue of the end of all life on earth is quite sobering and that the two lead characters should fall in love knowing they will die in mere days is high tragedy. Scheduling meant that I only had 29 days to compose and orchestrate 94 minutes of score. It was one of the most intensely focused months of my life. I feel I put a lot of myself into both those scores so it has quite humbling to be written to by so many people saying how moved they are by the album of On the Beach. The film is similar to Moby Dick in that it combined the epic with the intimate although, of course, the emotions are quite different. Once again there are not many opportunities to write this sort of score these days. I’ve been very lucky to work on two.

Text and questions by Gary Dalkin

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