#5 AN INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER JOHN LUNN (DOWNTON ABBEY)

Here is a short orchestration-focussed interview with John Lunn, one of the most sought after TV composers in the history of television music. He has been awarded two Emmy awards and a BAFTA nomination for his superb musical contribution to the music industry.

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AT WHAT POINT DO YOU SEND YOUR MUSIC OFF TO BE ORCHESTRATED?

Well, assuming there was a two week turnaround, within the first couple of days I would probably write five or six cues. Then I’d send them off to get approved by the director, and luckily they’re usually quick at giving feedback so generally 60-70% of those cues will be fine and they’ll be sent off to my orchestrator immediately. From there on, every day he’ll receive new cues to be working on because as soon as I know the cue has been signed off, I send it off to him.


HAVE YOU EVER COME ACROSS A SITUATION WHERE THE CUE HAS BEEN SIGNED OFF AND YOU’VE SENT THE CUE TO BE ORCHESTRATED, BUT THEN THE CLIENT CHANGES THEIR MINDS AND WOULD LIKE CORRECTIONS TO BE MADE?

I usually make it clear to the client that once it’s been signed off and has been orchestrated, then no more changes can be made. There have been a couple of times where whoever is in charge of approving the cues has been uncontactable for one reason or another and I’ve sent the cue off to be orchestrated because we can’t hang around forever, and then the cue has come back and they’ve asked for a few small changes.


DO YOU MAKE ANY CHANGES TO THE MUSIC DURING RECORDING SESSIONS?

The only things I generally make changes to in the studio when we record are dynamics and I don’t usually encourage the clients to come along to the session because it’s not the best environment for them to hear the music in. They’ll be aware of the dialogue but they can’t hear it in the studio because we don’t play the dialogue track whilst we’re recording for obvious reasons. I suppose you could play the dialogue alongside the music upon playback to hear how they’re sounding together, but it doesn’t really make sense to do so because the music hasn’t been mixed yet.


WHAT DO YOU SEND YOUR ORCHESTRATOR IN TERMS OF FILES?

I send over the Logic file because that’s the DAW that I write in, and that has all the MIDI data in it so that he can extract that and turn it into a score. I also send over a quicktime file of the cue so that he can see the picture whilst he’s orchestrating. This essentially means that he can tailor the dynamics to the dialogue and what’s happening on screen, but I’ll have written the dynamics with the dialogue in mind in the Logic file as well. The benefit of sending him the footage means that he can orchestrate to the picture.


HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT THE PROCESS OF SIGNING OFF THE ORCHESTRATIONS?

Alastair (my orchestrator) will usually send me the score as a Sibelius file (which is the notation software that we use to transform the MIDI into notation) and I’ll usually just send an email back with a couple of notes on a particular cue. Then, when I’ve received the scores, I go through them in Sibelius whilst looking and referring back to the picture. To be honest with you, the notes that I send back to Alastair are so minimal so there’s never very much of sending files back and forth. I actually like sending files via email but the issue is that if I don’t deal with it immediately, it can tend to get lost in the ether so that’s one problem.


BECAUSE OF TIME CONSTRAINTS, MANY TV COMPOSERS TEND TO WRITE USING ENSEMBLE PATCHES AND THEN LEAVE THE ORCHESTRATOR TO SPLIT OUT THE CHORD APPROPRIATELY. IS THIS THE WAY YOU PREFER TO WRITE?

If you take something like Downton Abbey, what Alastair did was mainly work out what part of the chordal pad each string instrument was going to play. The other instruments such as the vibraphone, cor anglais, soprano sax and french horn were already played in by myself and they were obviously just a single line each so didn’t need splitting out or dissecting. If I was really under pressure, sometimes I had a tendency to miss out a french horn and then when I’d be going through the score I would realise that we only have three cues with french horn in them so I’d ask Alastair if there were any places in any of the other cues where he could write a horn part in.