Composer Corner: Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann on McMafia

The insight behind the score of McMafia

By The GMS Team

It’s time for the second segment of ‘Composer Corner’. Today we speak to the very talented Franz & Tom about their experience composing the score for McMafia. The series tells the story of an English-raised son of Russian exiles, with mafia ties, whose is drawn into the world of international crime he has spent his life trying to escape. 

How did you come to score McMafia?

Franz: Through Paul Ritchie the producer who I met a couple of years ago. He really likes our music and thought we could be a good match for the project.

Tom: Paul asked us to come out to the shoot and meet Hoss (Hossein Amini – writer / executive producer) and James (Watkins – director). Paul told us they were all sitting on the plane listening to different music on their headphones. Hoss was listening to Max Richter, and Paul said, “no, no, try this!” and played him some music of ours.

Franz: Then Hoss played it to his wife who apparently bought all the records! If you want to get the job, get the writer’s wife to like your music! 

Is this the first time you have worked together outside of an album? What is your working process together?

Tom: We have done a few bits of media work together, including a documentary film called ‘The Man Behind the Microphone’. We certainly relied on the working processes we have built up from making three records together when it came to McMafia. The immense deadline pressure and volume of content probably altered things slightly, but the dialogue remained similar. The way the sound developed there was a lot more string writing for me to do than perhaps we would have first imagined!

Franz: We have worked together for nearly 10 years, mostly making records and touring and through this we developed a good understanding of each other, and a common creative language that was immensely helpful on McMafia. The way we work is like a dialogue really, one of us will start on a cue, and then send it to the other, who will then add parts, rearrange etc 

Opening themes are so important in television – how did you come up with the McMafia theme?

Tom: This was one of those moments with which I am extremely familiar- the director calls, the pressure is on, need to deliver yesterday.  We were six demos in and nothing had landed. The brief was gently shifting away from danger and excitement, gradually becoming less electronic too. James called and we discussed Mahler and other big weighty string pieces from the concert hall, opera and film, and most of all, James’ key reference was now tragedy, and a tragedy befitting the global scale of things. I got off the phone call and sat down and wrote two new pieces based around the (LCO) London Contemporary Orchestra string section and piano (plus brass, voice, clarinet, kitchen sink etc etc). One of those became the McMafia theme.

Franz: In hindsight all the other demos we came up with, and most of them ended up in the series in one form or the other, were more specific so to speak. They were expressing a unique feeling such as danger, or suspense or action etc., whether the theme we ended up with is bigger, grander, it’s a good fit for a show set on the global stage. A title theme has to encapsulate the overall arc of the story and reflect on the principal underlying emotion, in McMafia’s case, tragedy. 

There’s a lot of travelling in the show and moving between countries and cultures, does this have an impact on the music you compose for those scenes? If so how?

Franz: That was a question that came up quite early on. In the end the source sound is what marks the difference more than the music. A busy Indian market street sounds very different than Mayfair, or Moscow.  With the music we went for a sonic palette that use various source sounds, to somehow make it more universal if it makes sense. So, we had some sampled ethnic instruments, concrete sounds (whether made electronically or from recordings of the LCO or prepared piano, voice, guitar, etc.) and all that makes the music difficult to place in a way, it’s like a sound from an imaginary land! 

Tom: Yes, actually the score sound is in the end quite deliberately homogenous across locations- as well the overriding tragedy, we were tracking things like Alex Godman’s emotions and choices, the repercussions of his actions, and these are of course borderless.

How do you interpret what a director wants from a scene? With music being so subjective and terminology being lost in translation how does one overcome that?

Tom: With great difficulty! But this is one of the great rewards of writing music for film and TV and collaborating with a director. Every project, big or small, has to develop its own unique language to make a bridge between two or more people’s way of speaking about music. Of course, musical references are absolutely vital in this. When you listen to a piece of music together, what does the director say he is hearing? You can then relate that to what you have heard and you have the beginnings of a translation. The language deepens from there. 

Franz: We were lucky to get involved early on with McMafia, we read the scripts in February of last year, and only really started scoring from August. So in between we had time to sit in the edit a few times, went on the shoot etc. So, there was already a lot of talk about the story, the characters and that was a great place to be in when it came to go for it… 

Tom: We sent in a lot of our own music to help get the temp track up-and-running during the early assemblies. And this was of course massively beneficial – immediately this is common point of reference from which a conversation can begin.

Have you ever incorporated obscure instruments or used alternative techniques with instruments in your work?

Tom: All the time! The first point of call is prepared piano, as this is my main instrument. I spend much time inside the body of the piano plucking and hitting things, which I’ll usually then leave Franz to manipulate and treat before we work it back into a piece somehow…

Franz: I do it every morning before breakfast. 

Tom: One of the real excitements for me was experimenting with alternative string techniques- especially in our quartet sessions. How woozy could we make the vibrato? So much so that it was essentially out of tune actually! It proved very effective in so many of the uncomfortable scenes. We had some other interesting experiments, trying to mimic the kind of ambiences and textures you would traditionally find in electronic music but for acoustic strings- there is a lovely tape loop effect in Episode 7 where 20 strings start playing five notes of the main theme on loop and then drift apart all taking different speeds creating an ambience.

Franz: We have done all sorts of manipulations in all our years working together, one of our album “Landscapes of the Unfinished” was made from processed West African instruments that we went to Senegal to record. The difference is for McMafia we suddenly had an orchestra!

Tom: Especially when the orchestra all get out their credit cards and start tapping on the bodies of their instruments to make weird and wonderful effects!

What were the compositional challenges with the project?

Tom: The volume of material was certainly a big one. I actually like to hold everything in my head on any given project. But for the first time this proved to be impossible. (I didn’t quite realise that I did this so much, until I couldn’t do it anymore!) Because of the schedule, the normal horizontal process was also vertical- viewing a near locked cut, listening to the temp and thinking about the general vision, spotting the cut with the director and editor, writing and recording the music, seeking approvals, making revisions, mixing in stereo and surround, delivering mixes and stems. All of these processes which normally happen one after another were happening simultaneously say on any given four or five simultaneous episodes. Headache!

Franz: Yes absolutely, the sheer volume of music to make was very overwhelming. It totally hijacked our lives for 4 months. To me the challenge was to maintain the quality of our compositions over such a long time.

Tom: Yes, thematic development was one of the great rewards as well as a challenge. I was very conscious about keeping things fresh, but connected. We had an interesting conversation with James at one point about the difference between watching a show weekly and binge watching all eight episodes, and whether this should impact the recurrence of themes. Overall, I particularly enjoyed constantly delving back into the harmonic and melodic content to generate new starting points for the strings and piano.

What was the role of the music editor (Gerard McCann) and how closely did you collaborate?

Tom: I’ve never been on a project big enough to have a music editor before! Music supervisors aplenty, but never a music editor! Gerard was great. First and foremost, it comes back to the common language issue I guess- when you have worked on as many projects as him, then you have probably come across most of the terminology that a director might use to convey his feelings about the music. And so, if there was ever any doubt about things, Gerard had a good steer on this.

Franz: He was an immense asset for us. He loved the music, came to all the recording sessions, and really believed in what we were doing. He was also our spy, reporting from the editing room! And he’s such a good spirit and kind man. I could also tell my kids that I’m working with someone who’s been involved with Harry Potter and Rogue One! 

Tom: We were in touch daily pretty much, given that four or five episodes were always live (until we reached later episodes of course and doors finally started closing!). It’s a fascinating job actually, as you are simultaneously looking after three parties – the producer’s deadlines, the director’s vision, and the composer’s vision too. I’d say you need be to pretty tactful!

You can watch McMafia on BBC iPlayer now. Are you a composer or working in music in media? Find out how you can join our professional community here.

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