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AN INTERVIEW WITH ADISHA KARIYAWASAM
Can you tell us a little about yourself, Adisha?
I was born in Sri Lanka but am British as I have lived in the United Kingdom for over forty years now. My academic training is in Computer Science (MSc IT - Liverpool University) and I am a qualified teacher (PGCE in Post Compulsory Education and Training – Greenwich University). However, my day job consists of managing information (database) systems in a local authority. I am also musician and an artist that enjoys painting and drawing.
How has music played a part in your life?
I have been playing instruments and writing music for around 35 years now. My first instruments were a ¼ size violin and a monotone electric Bontempi keyboard. I now have a full size violin (for which I am ABRSM Grade 8 qualified) and professional electronic polyphonic keyboards and digital percussion instruments.
I have plenty of experience in performing music in stage shows with some very talented musicians and singers and this was a good foundation for my musical training. Playing live music on stage for charity functions, into the early hours of the morning, built stamina and got me used to very high pressure situations.
What led you to start creating soundtracks for books and films?
In my youth, my friends and I used to write scripts for plays loosely based on books we’d read and often ended up doing the music-editing and voice overs. Our genre was sci-fi, action and comedy. It was great fun and that was where I first learnt how to create recordings with very minimal facilities. Back then the recording technology was pretty crude. I had a Hitachi tape-to-tape recorder with overdubbing facility. I used to visit the local lending library every Friday evening after school and for about 50p I could borrow the latest film soundtracks. I then used to reverse engineer them using pencil and paper, simply because computers were not very advanced back, then and then rewrite key themes in my own style. I would then program new themes using a Commodore Amiga personal computer using a modular piece of music software called Soundtracker. This was basically a sound sequencer that enabled me to recreate music using vast libraries of professional sound samples in the public domain. These days of course there are various ‘virtual studio’ technologies that help to support the creative process of music composition and editing.
In terms of films, I was always inspired by music of the movies. I love the Ridley Scott film Bladerunner – the way the ethereal and enigmatic music by Vangelis juxtaposes the dry narration-style of Harrison Ford and the wonderful improvisation ‘Tears in Rain’ by Rutger Hauer.
In addition to Vangelis, many other composers have had a huge influence on me: Alan Silvestri, Basil Poledouris, Danny Elfman, Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, George Fenton, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, James Newton Howard, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, John Williams, Lorne Balfe, Michael Kamen, Ramin Djawadi, Steve Jablonsky and Thomas Bergersen. I also love the classical music of pioneering composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and also Dimitri Tiompkin. Honestly there are too many soundtrack composers to mention!
Music soundtracks formed a big part of my childhood formative years. As with most other kids who grew up in the Seventies, I enjoyed watching TV shows and Saturday morning cliff-hanger serials and spaghetti westerns. This would go some way towards explaining why, when mainstream Hollywood films like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘ET’ came out, it was John Williams’ powerful emotive theme music (the hidden yet most influential actor in every film) that totally blew me away. Even today I am in awe of soundtrack composers and through the medium of Twitter and Facebook have been lucky enough to able to connect with some incredible composers.
The turning point for me was when I wrote a tribute scores earlier this year to music maestro Steve Jablonsky’s ‘Arrival to Earth’ and ‘Battle theme’ from the Transformer’s films. With those themes I bit the bullet and decided to tweet him to get some feedback; I didn’t expect a reply - so you can imagine my elation when Mr. Jablonsky ‘tweeted’ back to me, taking time out of his busy schedule, to say that he liked it and thanked me for sharing it with him. I would say that was a real pivotal moment for me and I have been sharing my own original musical ideas with authors like your good self ever since. So 2014 really has been an especially productive year for me. I have written and published online some twenty original music themes over the space of nine months. To date, I have continued to receive some good feedback from the public so I’d like to think must be doing something right!
What aspects of this type of composition do you find the most challenging?
The biggest challenge has got to be my own perfectionism – which could be considered both a strength and a weakness. I expect it is the same for you when it comes to writing. Composing music is a rewarding habit for me. Knowing when to 'let go' is crucial skill and also having a sense of when something works and when it doesn’t. The other challenge is that you have to be quite objective but at the same be able to switch in an instant, to respect the point of view of the reader, listener or author you may be writing for.
What parts do you enjoy the most?
I love experimenting with different sounds, tones, chord combinations, sampled sound effects and instruments be they acoustic or digital. In between driving to work or dropping my son off to school, I often hum tunes into my phone. I wish I could say exactly where the melodies come from! What gives me the most enjoyment is listening to the end result – the final mix of a tune that has been painstakingly crafted over a long period of time. As you can imagine it is jolly hard work but very satisfying!
You have created a number of interesting character themes for my books that seem to fit the characters perfectly.
Very kind of you to say so Mike and thank you for the lovely feedback. It’s great producing work for someone that truly appreciates the musical art-form. You write such interesting characters that it makes the process of writing music a whole lot easier and almost effortless.
When I get inspired by reading book, a theme just pops into my head – this was the case when creating ‘Code 3 Alert’ after re-reading ‘With Mother’s Approval’ recently. Other times I really do have to rack my brain. Dano’s Theme was particularly challenging. I found his character very disturbing and kept asking myself ‘How do you write music that describes someone that has a headful of bad wiring?’ Fortunately the answer soon came to me. I have an extensive movie soundtrack collection built up over the years that I often turn to for inspiration. On this occasion I listened again to the Joker’s theme (out of Tim Burton’s Batman) by Danny Elfman. Like Ennio Morricone famed for his notable spaghetti western themes, he was able to evoke a sense of a character with disturbed mind in the audience by use of a child-like music-box sound. That worked really well – but I wasn’t happy with my original melody and felt truly stumped! Then I re-read parts of the book. What really fascinated me was the way that 3 letter codes were used in the book. I thought to myself “What if I could translate those codes into music?” The spark turned into a flame. I drew a grid, mapped out the notes against every letter of the alphabet and picked out some patterns - the rest as they say, was history. To round things off, I added some low background ensemble strings, which really are a tip of the hat to the great work of John Williams and the late great Michael Kamen (famous for the memorable “Jaws” and “The Dead Zone” themes respectively). The final rendering was then carried out in my music workshop.
Do you have a studio in your home? What type of room & equipment does this require?
Yes I suppose do have a studio although I prefer to call it a ‘workshop’ for the very simple reason that’s where all the developmental work and experimentation with sound happens albeit rather serendipitously. The workshop is sound-proofed, back from a time I used to be music director for my own 7 piece live band called ‘Diversity’. In terms of equipment I have a mixer, speakers, a dedicated effects unit, 3 Roland Workstations (keyboards), digital percussion (Octapad and Handsonic), a vocal mic and a computer for recording and layering my ‘music stuff’. These days I tend to use open source software now for music notation (MuseScore) and production (Audacity), but when I first started writing music I used products like Sibelius and Cubase VST. These days I am an advocate of open-source software as it is a cost effective way of achieving great results.
What talents/skills are required to be a composer of sound tracks?
Very good question! The essential pre-requisite, and forgive me if this sounds obvious, is that you have to really enjoy watching films and listening to soundtracks! When it comes to studying music, I am like a kid in a candy store. I spend a lot of time studying from the masters and by study I mean put in many hours understanding form and function of their music in the context of the films and directors they write for. I recommend all budding composers to watch classic films that are driven by music. The internet is a wonderful resource and there are many sites such as YouTube where you can learn techniques from in-depth interviews with the masters.
Above all plan your music on paper, and try to avoid technology until the very last post-production stages. The technology is just a tool that makes the music more accessible. All the creative part must come from within and try and keep melodies memorable and as simple as possible. I use the term RMD – Rapid Music Development – which basically means do not get too bogged down with the latest technology; Capture the motif, plan and develop on paper, then render by embellishing the music with interesting details.
An affinity for computer software is highly desirable but not essential. I still resort to pencil and paper or the Dictaphone function on my mobile phone when it comes to capturing ideas prior to detailed rendering in my studio.
Finally as soundtrack composer you need to be able to quickly translate a wide spectrum of scenarios and ‘conflict situations’ into musical form and have an inherent sense of what a story and character interaction looks like visually in a movie. I found that helps a lot.
Can you tell us a little bit about that process using specific examples?
For me, there are 4 key thought processes that I go through whenever I write a theme:
1. What mood dominates the character or action scene? This will direct the style of music and instruments used. E.g Elaine Brogan’s Theme needed to sound smooth yet edgy.
2. What is the hook of the tune – has it got a memorable introduction, middle and end. Is it hummable? E.g. Heather Bancroft’s Theme needed to sound light and optimistic.
3. How does the music sound if someone were to speak over the top of it? This is a key consideration when writing music for audiobooks. E.g. Rachel’s Theme needed to be romantic yet evoke feelings of loss without sounding too overpowering.
4. Is it the right tempo and duration? Changes in tempo can be used to great effect in horror themes. E.g. Dano’s Theme slows down to give a false sense of security before a sinister sting in the tail is revealed.
What type of novels and movies do you like best in terms of genre(s)?
As mentioned, as a kid I grew up on a staple diet of sci-fi, thriller and action/adventure films. So I would say these are the types of fiction novel I tend to gravitate towards. Having said that, I do like watching Romantic comedies (Rom-coms) every now and then, as long as they are not too cheesy or overly sentimental. As a teenager used to love reading horror books particularly by Stephen King but was disappointed to see that they didn’t always translate into good films. As I matured, I tended to read more novels that depicted the victory of good over evil such as detective style thriller books e.g. by Lee Child. I also like the work of independent authors with in-depth knowledge and experience in the subject matter they write about. The best books inspire me to write music.
Is there a difference between the stories you enjoy reading/watching most and the types you like most to compose music for, or are they the same?
Very interesting question Mike. I went through a phase where I would read a lot of non-fiction, historical and biographical material and then ended up reading books that reminded me of the action features that I grew up watching in my youth. So I would say I do like to compose music for books that would translate well into movies or TV shorts/serial type dramas.
My composing style tends to be cinematic but I have been known to dabble outside of the box and utilise some pretty heavy ‘dub-step’ beats and eclectic mix of samples e.g. with the themes to ‘On Russian Soil’ (train, crunching snow and howling wolf) and ‘Code 3 Alert’ (police siren, radio chatter and helicopter siren). I think these samples convey a great sense of atmosphere, but need to be used sparingly.
Do you have any advice for people who want to become sound track composers?
Never be afraid to go back to basics. Along with writing original stuff, take time out to learn from the masters in the craft. We are very lucky these days to be able to tap into the internet which hosts a wealth of resources to inspire musicians and composers of all abilities. YouTube is particularly good. Keep an eye out on the internet for interviews with top composers. I find that “Composers Roundtable Discussions” published by The Hollywood Reporter are particularly insightful.
Do you have any advice for novelists/audiobook narrators/film directors in working with sound track composers?
Give each other room to breathe and trust each other’s sense of judgement and expertise. There is no one golden rule when it comes to writing music. You can write music at any time of day but above all strike while the iron is hot – when you think of a tune – record it and save it for a rainy day.
Keep your work sharp and fresh. Every composition is a new opportunity so try and avoid ‘temp tracks’ and emulating other composers where possible – except where you are trying to learn and develop new techniques. Temp tracks are pieces of existing music that are substituted post production. They are the bane of many composers and whilst many directors love them, they are notorious for stifling creativity and introducing prejudice into one’s work.
Be wise enough to weigh up the pros and cons of feedback and keep a level head i.e. Don’t get complacent or disheartened when things do no work out first time round. Be objective when it comes to editing your tracks, yet confident enough to immerse yourself and promote concepts that you truly believe in. Take pride in your work but if after numerous attempts you don’t like what you create, chances are, no one else will either! Be kind to each other and trust your abilities.
Version and change control in all your work is critical. Make any change reversible and always verify at every opportunity that what you have done fits the bill not only for the person you are writing music for but also for the loyal readers and listeners out there.
Above all, keep the end result in mind and enjoy what you are doing!
Thank you very much Mike Wells for giving me the opportunity to talk about the composition process and for your support in promoting music inspired by your wonderful books. Hope your readers like the short 'featurette' video. I put together to supplement this interview - it was filmed by my young son. I'll let you into another secret, he approves all my music too!