Film Education

Interview with Roddy Mathews

Roddy Matthews, London

Roddy Matthews has been a professional musician and composer for over thirty years. He has written for film and television, including over 100 episodes of the long running ITV drama, London’s Burning. He has contributed as a player to many successful TV shows – including Absolutely Fabulous, Bottom, Alexei Sayle’s Stuff, French and Saunders, The Lenny Henry Show, Fry and Laurie, World of Happy – and has played on hit recordings for George Michael, Shakin’ Stevens, Sinitta, Basement Jaxx, and Alphabeat. Along the way he has sung for England, remixed Snoop Dogg, argued with Peter Waterman, and played guitar in the Oxford Union hall at the invitation of Benazir Bhutto.

Q1. How would you define music?

At its simplest, music is just organised sound.

Q2. How is music different from the other arts ?

Music is different from all language-based arts because notes and rhythms work on universal human responses. In this way it is like visual arts. But all music has particular cultural influences and meanings, so it is not entirely true to say that music is a kind of ‘universal language’, at least not one that will always be correctly interpreted. Music is more general than literature and most kinds of pictorial art, but really it is nearer to forms of abstract painting than anything else. It works directly on our emotions, by-passing a great deal of the conscious, reflective mind.

Q3. What is the basic knowledge that someone needs to know to be able to understand music and be able to use it in collaboration with a music composer?

If you mean from the point of view of a film-maker or choreographer, then it is best to know very specifically what you wish to convey in your film or dance piece, and to be able to explain this in non-technical words to a composer. Technical knowledge of music is not always helpful, and too much detailed instruction may well restrict the composer’s freedom. Most non-musicians are actually very prejudiced about music – in other words they have their own ‘taste’. It is very difficult not to develop tastes in music, and in collaboration with a composer the first trick is to work with someone whose instinctive tastes are compatible with your own. Find this out early, and the rest will probably follow.

Q4. How does music work?

In terns of physics, we are talking about resonant frequencies and complex interactions of sound waves. In terms of art and emotions, no one really knows. Just respect the fact that it works very well when done with humility, care and skill.

Q5. How is western music different from Indian music?

That is a massively complex question, and one that has fascinated generations. Rhythmically they are very similar, and the main differences appear when we move to harmony. Western music relies on subtle movements of accompanying notes, used in combination, leading to the development of a system of keys and chord patterns. This is largely absent in Indian music, which relies for most of its effects on variations in the featured notes of the main instrument/singer. Inflections in the pitch of this main voice create the interest, and the overall ‘key’ of the music remains the same throughout. The bass note, the drone, does not move. Indian classical instruments are all designed with this in mind. In Indian music a singer will always sing in the same ‘key’, to his or her own ‘sa’. In Western music, the key of each piece can be different; the singer or instrument has a ‘range’ and the lowest note in this range will fall at different points in the ‘key’ in different pieces.

Q6. What is it that attracts you to music the most ?

Its emotional nature, its collaborative ethos, and the fact that there is always more to learn. It is not possible to write good music without respect for the form, or with any degree of cynicism in your heart.

Q7. Has there been an evolution of music in the past many years and how would you describe that very briefly?

In the West, music making has been opened up to more people through technology. This is a good thing in the sense that more people are expressing themselves, but the advent of cheap digital technology has also been a bad thing in that more and more people are making music that sounds almost exactly the same. Though the computer revolution may be a victory for the democratic principle, it has not enhanced the quality of the music actually being made. But the ancient rhythms still work, pulse and melody still move people, so in some ways little has changed.

Q8. Would you like to comment about the relationship between music and film ?

That is something that very clever people have written entire books about. The two go very well together. Music can be emotional but unspecific; film can be very detailed but still ambiguous. Together they combine to provide emotional narratives for the viewer, guiding the responses in a way that the two elements cannot do apart. A good film score should always work as music away from the film that generated it, and it should produce the same general emotions. The major problem comes when film makers want musicians to insert emotion into a film that lacks it. Music cannot save a poorly made film, and unfortunately sometimes musicians are made to feel guilty for this failing. Music can provide tension to a sequence that lacks structure, but it can never provide the payoff. Bad acting or scriptwriting cannot be saved. No one will like a character just because there is nice music under his or her lines. Jokes cannot be made funnier afterwards by a sting. If it’s not in the can or on the page then no amount of bluster on the soundtrack will make it work. When film and music are working well together, the viewer should experience the film as one complete entity, and ideally should not even notice the music. This may be a blow to some musicians’ egos, but anyone wishing to make a career in film music had better learn this lesson early on – or write music that stands on its own anyway. The director is the boss and the achievement of the film is the overall goal.


9 Comments so far
Leave a comment

intelligent and thought-provoking interview. i particularly like the ‘cynicism’ view point about music composing.

Comment by hemant m

Thanks so much for taking the time out to read the interview and happy that you liked it.

Comment by oorvazi

intelligent and thought-provoking interview. i particularly like the ‘cynicism’ view point about music composing.

Comment by hemant m

“Just respect the fact that it works very well when done with humility, care and skill.” These are words from a truly realised sage!Again when he says music cannot save a poor film, or that a film’s music should work away from it- words of wisdom.Greta reading.

Comment by Indu Raman

Its great to receive feedback from a fellow artist like you .. you can understand the joy and ecstasy of creation. Thanks so much for your feedback and glad it was interesting reading.

Comment by oorvazi

Amazing interview Ma’am but I would have to loved to listen more views on Indian music and artists as compared in the west or east.

Comment by Agastya Kapoor

Glad you liked the interview. I have tried to address the difference between Indian and western music. More on Indian music and more views in the near future. The journey has just begun !

Comment by oorvazi

nice interview! some parts were heavy but i guess thats my shortcoming.
Would have loved to know what are his all time favorite film OST and most importantly why they are his favorites and what according to him, makes those pieces different from others…..Just to know essential quality of a good music (with example).

Comment by sowrik

Good to know you liked the interview.
I will try and see if I can address your point next time in another interview in the near future. Thanks for the feedback!

Comment by oorvazi

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