Matt Dunkley’s debut album as a solo artist is long overdue – because until now he has spent his time working with other people.
The list of artists for whom he has produced is an impressive one, including Massive Attack, Patti Smith, Nick Cave and the Kronos Quartet – while within the discipline of the film soundtrack, Dunkley’s principal form of work, he has worked on The Dark Knight, Inception and Black Swan. This prestigious CV only heightens the anticipation for Six Cycles, shortly to be released on Village Green and recorded with the Babelsburg Film Orchestra.
Dunkley spent some time with Arcana to talk about his past, studying with the renowned composer Christopher Palmer, and his present – while also recommending some music for us to enjoy.
Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?
MD: I can remember my first encounter very clearly. It was a junior school trip to a Saturday morning children’s concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, South London. The orchestra played, amongst other pieces, Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture. I think it was the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, an orchestra I’ve since conducted many times. I was transfixed, particularly by the brass section – and soon afterwards I started learning the trumpet.
What are your memories of studying trumpet and piano at college? Did they push you in the direction of composing?
Music College was a wonderful experience. I was pretty focused on being a professional trumpet player back then, but I did start writing and arranging for small college ensembles. Learning the classical repertoire and having the discipline to spend long hours practising and performing day in and day out was an excellent training for my future career. After a few years as a freelance professional trumpet player, I began to move towards arranging and composing more seriously.
What did you learn from studying with Christopher Palmer?
Chris taught me everything. He was an amazing orchestrator and arranger, a brilliant producer, and a gifted writer and academic. I learnt so much from him. He had worked with Maurice Jarre and Dimitri Tiomkin in Hollywood. He was an expert on William Walton and many of the post war English composers, such as Britten, Delius and Tippett. Just looking over his shoulder and absorbing that depth of learning was inspirational for me. He taught me how to orchestrate, and he taught me how to listen. Really listen.
I remember the first recording session I attended with him. The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields were recording some Walton film music that Chris had reconstructed. After the first take (which to my ears was perfection) he went on the talkback and proceeded to rip the performance to shreds, albeit with great charm and politeness. He showed me, in that moment, how high the quality bar should be set. He wanted perfection – and on take four he got it!
Is it beneficial to conduct your own material, and does the composition process continue if you do that?
I love conducting my own material, and for this album, which I conducted in Berlin with the Babelsberg Film Orchestra, I made many small changes on the floor of the studio, making adjustments in phrasing and volume, changes in the voicing of chords, and even altering the notes of a melody at one point. When you have the orchestra playing live in front of you, you hear things that inspire you to adjust your writing, to make the living, breathing being that is an orchestra really come to life.
What do you love about writing for orchestra, and strings in particular?
The orchestra is such a wonderful instrument, capable of so many colours and moods and effects. Once you know how to harness the power of this instrument the possibilities are endless.
Strings are the basis of it all, and for this album I chose to just use a string orchestra, with piano, violin and cello solos. There is something so organic and visceral about a string orchestra. The textures, the colours, the power, the beauty.
Are there any particular circumstances behind ‘Six Cycles’? You have mentioned a painting, poetry and a personal loss, but are there specific examples?
Each one of the six ‘cycles’ was inspired by something very personal to me, but I decided to give each piece an enigmatic title as I wanted the listener to have their own emotional responses to the music, and not to be led by me. I can tell you, for example, that Cycle 6 was inspired by a beautiful love poem by Brian Patten, Simple Lyric, which means a lot to me. But the listener might feel something entirely different when hearing that piece. That’s the wonderful thing about music. It’s so subjective.
Are you composing to imaginary pictures with some of this music?
I’ve done that in the past, certainly. But for Six Cycles each piece had a very clear inspiration. I wrote these pieces separately over a two year period, whenever inspiration struck. It was only when I began to collect them together that I thought of them as one work, or cycle.
There is some very powerful writing for string orchestra here, and a subtle but constant movement of colour. Was that your aim with the music?
Thank you, and yes. I try to achieve the feeling of ebb and flow in my string writing, with the music always in motion, whether externally with climactic loud driving rhythms or internally with subtle quiet movement between the inner voices. Even the moments of stillness have shifting sands beneath the surface.
What has been your most satisfying piece of pop work to date – either in composition or musical direction?
I’ve been very lucky to work with some wonderful artists throughout my career. Working with Tom Jones (on his duets album Reload) was pretty special, as was working on albums with the Pet Shop Boys, Catatonia, Massive Attack, U2 and Badly Drawn Boy.
Who was most rewarding to work with…and if you’re able to mention names, who was least?
Well I tend to find that the most talented artists are the easiest and most rewarding to work with. Any of those mentioned above fall into that category. It’s the less talented that cause all the problems…..but I’m too discreet to name names!
What does classical music mean to you?
Classical music was my first love and it still means everything to me. I grew up in the 1970s / 80s and my older brother and younger sister were all over the pop music of the era. Classical music was mine and it still is. It’s my go-to place in good times and bad.
What piece or piece(s) for the cinema would you recommend to Arcana readers? Both obvious and less obvious would be great!
I’ve been lucky enough to work on many, many movies in my career, and I have a great love of music for the cinema. Here’s a list of some of my favourite scores – some obvious, some less so…