“War & Peace” : A Discussion With Composer Martin Phipps

Balancing the emotional journeys of characters such as Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) were as important to highlighing epic battles for Martin Phipps as he scored “War & Peace.” Photo credit: A&E Television Network.

By: Marjorie Galas

At the core of any Martin Phipps score is the emotional connection between characters and the events that shape their lives.  Happy working with any time period, the composer has found himself consistently recognized for scoring Victorian fare his native UK broadcasting stations are known for, as exemplified by his Emmy nominations for 2008’s “Sense & Sensibility” and 2012’s “Great Expectations.”  He had just finished working on a period project when he received the call to score a mini-series based on “War & Peace.”  His initial reaction was to turn it down.

The director of the six part epic, Tom Harper, persuaded Phipps to take a second look.  Harper and Phipps collaborated on several episodes of the turn of the century English gang hit “Peaky Blinders.”  The composer was happily swayed by Harper’s vision.

“Tom assured me it wasn’t going to be stuffy; that he wanted to infuse a more modern feel to his version,” said Phipps.  “He won me over.”

Bypassing the book and focusing specifically on the adapted script of “War & Peace”, Harper welcomed Phipps’ fresh approach to the music.  The composer was immediately excited by the grand scale of the production.  He began his process listening to assorted tracks of classic turn of the century Russian music to get a sense of the music’s emotional connections and nationalism.  He also visited the production’s Lithuania set where he watched portions of the production being shot, and subsequently shared ideas with Harper.  He took his various inspirations and composed the score throughout the production’s shooting schedule, experimenting and reworking sections throughout the process.  Phipps score was immediately incorporated into rough cuts during the editing process.

“No other temp track was used.  As the cuts got tighter I got back with Tom then refined, developed or added new (music),” said Phipps.  “I have never worked before where every piece I wrote was used.”

While the music is based on traditional orchestration principles, Phipps intentionally strayed away from the classical instrumentation to provide a fresher, modern take on the score.   A twenty-four member male chorus, electronic synths and elements of the BBC Orchestra – specifically the string section – provided the foundation for Phipps’ score.  Mingled throughout the score are several specific themes Phipps created to highlight lead characters.  These were arranged for a specific instrument, such as piano or violin.  The simplicity of the solo instruments created an emotional contrast against the fuller, richer sounds of the epic journey.

Highlighting the work of actors is something Phipps has a distinct bond with.  While still a young student, he gravitated to acting and enrolled in a drama program.  Once he recognized performing on stage did not appeal to him, he switched his focus to working in the background and discovered the crucial role music played throughout a production.  Once enrolled in the National Film School in London he was immersed in a classical music and composition program.  Phipps notes, while classical principles are still crucial to scoring content, he gravitates towards computerized modifications during the composing process.

“Distorting, slowing down, speeding up and pitch shifting; I find myself playing the computer more and more for the unusual sounds and textures you can create,” said Phipps.  “It is a skill in its own right.”

Currently, Phipps has begun working on another television drama that has yet to be announced.  While he has enjoyed working on film scores over the years, he’s happy to continue focusing on the television space for the diverse and complex stories the smaller screen explores.

“TV is having a golden age at the moment,” said Phipps.  “I love and hope to do more film, (but the content currently found on television) is bolder, bigger and more ambitious.  The long form mini-series allows you to create a complex world over time.”