John Altman in Conversation with Jody Jenkins

(Jody Jenkins and John Altman)

This month, we're releasing two incredible orchestral albums: Widescreen Scores by Jody Jenkins and John Altman by John Altman. To find out a little bit more about John, we got him in a room with Jody to talk film scoring, retro sounds and the thrill of recording live.

Published: 10 Dec 2014

I listened to the tracks last night and thoroughly enjoyed them - what was the basis for your approach?

I've always had a great passion for light orchestral music and no avenue to explore it whatsoever. Although it's wonderful music, it's not high on the list of priorities of anybody I work with.

Was it inspired by a golden era?

Yes, the composers from the 40s and 50s. Coincidentally, Audio Network wanted some sort of 60s spy music type thing, so we did half and half - a few light orchestral tracks and then mixed it up with some 60s style Ipcress File stuff, which is something I've always loved doing.

One thing that became apparent when listening to the album was the brilliant use of the forces and the orchestration. When you're conceiving a track would you have a defined line-up in your mind?

Totally - I came into the industry as an orchestrator originally, and have always worked that way.

I'll backtrack a little bit. I had piano lessons when I was 11 and that was the last formal music lesson I ever had. So I’m totally self-taught as an arranger and conductor, and anything that came along was just, 'oh, I'll have a go at that.'

That's how you learn.

Well I was very lucky, because my whole family were band leaders and they were self-taught arrangers, and really great arrangers and musicians. I sort of inherited that ability to hear orchestration, so when I started composing it was always very definitively with the orchestration at the same time.

When I did things like the tank chase in Goldeneye it was orchestrated as it was written. It wasn't let me write a tune and then see what forces I can deploy.

Do you write onto the full score?

Yeah, I go straight for the full score. I do a little sketch then just grab the score paper and see where it goes. It's a weird way of doing it, but it's just the way I've always done it.

You were working with a much more open brief - was it a more liberating opportunity to do whatever you wanted?

Very much so. I've always wanted to write a big waltz; I've always wanted to write a quirky Sorcerer's Apprentice type piece; I've always wanted to do just a really big, lush, fast and atmospheric piece redolent of the 40s and 50s. So I just picked several different approaches, and whatever came out is what we went with.

Did you record everything together at the same time?

Yes, everything is live.

That's becoming quite unusual.

Very unusual these days, but it's the way I like to do it. Everybody is reacting to everyone else in real time and it's wonderful. It sounds corny to say everyone is on the edge - but they are. Everybody is in that moment together and some of the best music comes out of that.

It's very interesting that two records I worked on that were recorded that way did really well. ‘It's Oh So Quiet’ by Bjork - she sang live and it was done first take, so everything you hear on the record is basically four minutes of studio time. The other was Alison Moyet's ‘That Ole Devil Called Love’, which was the same thing - everybody together live.

And it comes through. People have always said about ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ that it sounds like everybody is on the edge - and they were. Bjork turned up five minutes before the end of the session, so we didn't really have much choice other than being on the edge.

When you're recording I presume you're on the box and working with the musicians - do you make time for playbacks or try to get everything in the session?

I try to, but it always depends on who is in the box. If you trust them 100% and they say that was a great take, can we just repair bars 34-40 because there was a noise or something, you get used to trusting that and knowing that their instincts are right.

Quite often, I like to go in to just step out of that atmosphere of being on the podium. It’s all over so quickly and people always ask what's the most enjoyable session you have ever been on? And I always say I don't really know, because I don't always have time to sit back and say, 'oh, I'm really enjoying this.'

When you move on to the mixing phase do you feel that you're still bringing detail into the music?

Totally, yes. The great thing about the technology now is that it's so much easier compared to when I first started. You used to work with engineers, and if you were lucky you worked three of the things at the same time and somebody else did another - but then you forgot to push something and had to start again.

Audio Network makes such a point of recording their stuff in London - how important is it to you that you're working with musicians here in the UK?

It's fantastically important. I fought and won on about four or five movies that I did where the film company were pushing to go somewhere abroad. And my case, which was proved right, was that the guys here are the best and they'll take a quarter of the time that you'll need somewhere else. Therefore, the economics balance out and you get a fantastic product - it's worked every time.

The standard of playing on all of the sessions I do here is just phenomenal. When you think that people are going in and seeing the music for the first time, and having one run through and one take, it's amazing the quality you can get.

Do you think you'll be doing more albums for Audio Network?

Definitely. I'm working on a couple of things at the moment: another orchestral project and a big band mambo album, which are two of my great passions.


2239 | Widescreen Scores

Full scale cinematic & panoramic orchestral story telling power.


John Altman Recording

Behind the scenes of John Altman's first recording with Audio Network at Abbey Road Studios.


2252 | John Altman

Sumptuous vintage cinematic orchestra evoke a golden age of film.
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