An interview with Dan Jones: the composer of the soundtrack to Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach
British composer Dan Jones provides insight into his soundtrack for the new film release of Ian McEwan’s classic novella
Ian McEwan’s renowned novel On Chesil Beach, published in 2007 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has recently been released as a film adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle. The film tells the story of a newly married couple, Florence and Edward, who fear intimacy to such an extent that it ultimately leads to the demise of their relationship.
Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach deals with various complex emotions. Which were most important for you to capture in the soundtrack?
The overriding aim of the score was to reflect the depth, integrity and beauty of the relationship between the two main characters – newly-weds Florence and Edward. It was important to capture the fear that Florence harbours towards consummating her marriage, having been abused by her father.
In equal measure, we wanted to express how wonderful and playful their relationship was leading up to that night. Without this, the music would not reflect the tragedy or failure of their relationship. There’s a wonderful moment where Florence is excited to show Edward the opening of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, which I delightedly recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It’s the first time Edward truly understands her passion for music.
You collaborated closely with violinist Esther Yoo. What depth and inspiration did she bring to the music?
Esther, who is currently artist in residence of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, read the entire novel on her flight over from New York to Abbey Road Studios where we were recording, and was completely up to speed by the time she arrived. She was determined to get to know the story and the characters as well as possible, and wanted to deeply understand Florence’s musical choices.
We were looking for a brilliant female violinist to echo Florence’s presence in the film and as a sort of manifestation of her musical sprit, and Esther captured the character’s ‘soul’ so brilliantly.
I went to her inaugural concert at Cadogan Hall a couple of weeks ago. It was spellbinding to watch her perform. I was happy that I could rely on her expressive ability to bring my simple ideas to life. I was spoilt working with Esther and hope we can work together again.
Great time recording today @AbbeyRoad with the lovely and brilliant Esther Yoo @EstherYooViolin on the soundtrack album for On Chesil Beach to be released by @DeccaRecords in June. Big thanks all round. pic.twitter.com/7BFOPEQdG3
— Dan Jones (@sound_dan) February 11, 2018
Was Ian McEwan involved with the choice of music?
He adapted the script from his own novel, and was very specific about which pieces were to be played and when. For instance, the Haffner Symphony is his choice, as is the Mozart String Quintet No. 5 in D major, and the Larghetto. Ian was very careful about those choices and how they inform Florence’s character.
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The soundtrack features a combination of established classical music and your own original compositions. What effect does this have on the listening experience?
We included some music that never made it into the film. I was delighted when Decca said they wanted to release the soundtrack with the remaining material, as it honours the shape of the film and the spirit in which it was created. But it also features all the classics in their complete form, whereas in the film we hear them episodically.
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I was very aware that I was working around the required pieces of music that drive the plot, and needed to tread lightly at times. I created a musical space around the characters, rather than filling the movie with musical activity. I’ve produced tones and textures that are spacious and light to balance the rich orchestral and string works.
The whole process of underscoring is to tell the audience about things they might not be seeing. It’s not about being dogmatic, but gently indicating at other things that may be going on. That is something I really engage with and enjoy. There’s great entertainment to be had writing music for the darker genres.
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How do you consider simple, even silent, cues in film as a composer?
I’m a great fan of musical restraint. Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, for example, probably only has five or six musical cues in the space of five hours and is still one of the most amazing pieces of film-making. But each of those pieces counts hugely for what is does do.
Sometimes you have to take your foot off the gas and know when to keep it simple. I worked on Lady Macbeth, directed by William Oldroyd, the year before last. It was the first time I had been invited to work on a feature film to do the sound design. Will told me to create miniscule three music cues – you’d usually have 60 or 70 on a Hollywood epic.
We live in an age where films have almost continuous music, but we may be in the territory of diminishing returns when it is overused. You lose dynamic range and the audience loses part of the spectrum: the joy of silence and being attuned to the natural sound of the actors.
Can we expect more darker pieces from you in the future?
It’s something I’m always drawn to. The harmonic language is often more complex when you’re working on darker scores. When I started out, I just wanted to make exciting use of music in drama. Each time I’ve worked on a piece, I am learning new techniques or language. And 20 years later, I’m still learning how to write music that serves the dramas I work on. I think I always will be.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.