Dominik Scherrer is the daring two-time Ivor Novello winning and Emmy nominated composer who has fashioned intricate musical tableaus for gripping film and television dramas including The Widow, Requiem, The Missing, Ripper Street, Agatha Christie’s Marple, The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, An Inspector Calls, Baptiste, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, The City and the City, The Collection, Retribution, and Monroe. Classically trained with an insatiable appetite for expressive electronic textures, evocative vocal performances, and cultural hybridity, Dominik has proven himself as an experimentalist with a nuanced approach to musical architecture. In another extension of his artistry, Dominik continues to explore his passion for filmmaking, pioneering and dominating the niche of ‘film-opera.’ His tantalizing 1998 short film, Hell for Leather premiered at Sundance and garnered ten awards for its originality and panache. In our engaging exchange, Dominik delves into the profound beauty and sadness he conjured in his Congolese flavored score for The Widow, and how he drew influence from the late 16th-century occult or angelic language, Enochian for his creative collaboration with Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan on Requiem.
I understand that you were raised in Zürich, Switzerland, engaging in classical training and performing in pop and rock bands before heading off to film school. Can you tell us about how you initially envisioned your multi-disciplinary path in the arts? How have your professional pursuits and desires evolved over time?
From an early age, I was excited about the use of music with moving images. Making music on its own was great, but I loved it even more when combined with film, which led me to make my own films. At first, I started developing animation projects and then expanded into ambitious literary adaptations. The films always featured my soundtracks prominently, most of them created with various simple synths and eventually going into more epic territory. I started using a huge, old, and temperamental Polymoog synth that I managed to acquire.
I come from a family of choral singers with enthusiasm for vocal music, including opera, I started to incorporate vocals into my compositions. I devised and composed a couple of operas, specifically made for the screen. In the beginning, I thought that would be my future — that I had invented a new genre, the ‘film-opera.’ Eventually, the scoring part took over, but even now, I am still pursuing projects in this direction, perhaps less straight opera, but more in the direction of ‘music-driven narrative.’ Still, considering that opera for the screen may be regarded as somewhat niche, my film opera Hell for Leather was remarkably popular. It premiered at Sundance and won numerous awards.
In establishing your artistic identity and unique perspectives as a creator, who were the luminaries that informed your work and remain influential to this day?
I came to London during the heyday of director Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman's collaboration with the release of the movies, Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Nyman's music injected Greenaway's films with incredible energy and revealed an exciting parallel emotional insight. That really excited me, and it's a model of working which still influences me today — for the music to shine a light onto something that is not apparent on the screen. In that music and its approach, there was also a nod to 20th-century modernism, which set it apart from the Hollywood neo-romantic approach.
At the same time, we have an artist such as Nick Cave, whose music, accompanied and influenced me throughout my life — seeing his music transform from 1980s indie-punk with The Birthday Party, then moving towards crooning ballads with The Bad Seeds, and then eventually landing in film music too. Then there is JS Bach, played and sung in the house from when I was a boy, and for me, is still the great master of beauty, emotion, and tension. And of course, as for any composer, a never-ending source of inspiration in harmony and counterpoint.
The Widow revolves around Georgia, a grief-stricken widow who believes her husband to be alive three years after a horrific terrorist attack takes down his flight. As the narrative progresses, more mysteries and conspiracies are uncovered as she determinedly travels through treacherous conditions in Kinshasa in search of answers. What were the unique musical attributes you assigned to the storylines in Rotterdam, Wales, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to create contrast and continuity?
The Williams brothers [Jack and Harry Williams, writers behind Two Brothers Pictures] create these multithreaded narratives with parallel story strands often playing in different countries or cultures, but are seemingly disconnected. Part of the excitement watching one of their shows is to discover, as the story unravels, how these strands slowly start to connect and eventually, form a big web. From the start, the viewer has to trust that those disparate elements are all part of the same story, and that’s where the music comes in. Carrying musical themes across, and finding, and then musically underlining those interlinking story-motifs bring the story together without giving anything away.
I have previously worked for the Williams brothers on the thriller series, The Missing, and we started to explore that scheme of applying the score. Now on an even grander scale, encompassing two continents, we took it further on The Widow.
From a Western standpoint, would you say that you pursued an ethnomusicological inquiry in support of your hybrid score? What distinctive African musical traditions and devices did you encounter and feel inspired to incorporate into your work?
With the majority and the heart of the story set in the Congo, I felt it would have been crazy not to incorporate Congolese elements into the score. Nevertheless, what I wanted to avoid at all costs was to have what is essentially a Western score and then embellish it with a few ethnic elements here and there, something I hear too often. What I pursued instead was to incorporate Congolese musical angle more into the DNA of the score, be this for example in a piano and strings piece that follows similar rhythmical and melodic patterns to the elaborate Congolese guitar riffs. Also, the constant interplay of three and four beat groupings in their interlocking rhythms became central in the score — either as gentle rhythmical undercurrents or full-on tense action pieces.
Loss is the thematic centerpiece of the series — the explosion that takes Emmanuel's life, the brutal village politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ariel's vision, baby Violet, and the heartbreaking truth about Will. What were your strategies to magnify these harrowing events without emotionally overwhelming the audience?
It’s often the contrast between big and small that can carry an emotional weight. After a massive action cue, when you have just a simple melody on a single instrument, it parallels that person’s existence within the sequence of events that is their fate. I liked the moments when a character comes to terms with something in their past, of their place within the web of the story. In those moments, all that was needed was something like a simple song, be it instrumental or vocal, a little song that plays in the character’s head.
The exquisite use of vocals in your treatment for The Widow feels almost symbolic of the ghosts of Georgia's past and the lives lost along this dark, interconnected journey. Who were the singers you recruited to deliver these ethereal performances, and what was the intended role of these textures in your sonic tapestry?
I have often used vocals in my scores. With the voice being an incredibly expressive instrument, you can reduce much embellishment around it, and keep the focus on that alone. For film music, I always strive to use less elements than more — it works better with the picture, dialogue, and effects. On The Widow, I was lucky to have gotten hired early enough to start writing themes and record material while they were shooting. The bulk of the shoot happened in South Africa, and I traveled out there for a couple of weeks. It was inspiring to hook up with the production unit in the middle of a rainforest and have my first creative discussions with director Sam Donovan over a campfire. I was then working out of studios in Johannesburg and Cape Town, recording rhythm section, some kora [West African harp] but mainly concentrating on vocals. I knew we needed to get the melancholy of this story right, and some of the vocals could fulfill that. Hlengiwe Mabaso’s beautiful voice started to associate itself with the story of Violet, the main character’s lost child, as if she is still singing its lullaby.
I wrote lyrics in English and French and had them translated into Lingala and Swahili, two of the languages spoken in the DRC. Champagne Yala Lukoki, known as Champagne Overdose in her native Kinshasa, DRC, sang on the pieces to do with the young child soldier girl, Adidja. In Durban, located on the East coast, I recorded with Zulu singer, Mbuso Khoza. His striking falsetto tones become an eerie and emotive signature sound to many scenes set in the dangerous conflict zones.
On some sessions, everybody broke into tears, either during the singers’ performance or during playback in the control room. It was a way of living out the inherent melancholy needed for the performance, or as a way of reveling in the music’s sad beauty.
Supernatural thriller miniseries, Requiem follows Matilda, an award-winning cellist whose life is altered when her mother, Janice, commits suicide. In the wake of this sudden tragedy, Matilda stumbles upon evidence of an unfamiliar child's disappearance in Janice's personal effects and seeks out the truth. How did you first meet your collaborator, Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes and what was your pre-production phase like?
Chloe Thompson, the director of photography on Requiem, had previously worked with Natasha and suggested a collaboration. I had always loved her band, Bat for Lashes, and knew it was a great idea. While production was shooting in Wales, Natasha came to my studio for three weeks. We worked a bit on top of some themes I had previously developed and started on new themes with both of us jamming on keyboards and her often on Omnichord. We did a lot of vocal recording and layering, and manipulation of vocal recordings to get that ghostly 'otherworldliness.' One important story strand in Requiem is the discovery of mysterious audio tapes in a basement of the mansion, so a lot of vintage tape-style slowing down and distortion was used. Score and narrative almost become one thing.
What were the key considerations in sculpting the haunting and shimmering musical landscape of Requiem? What did you learn from Natasha, and in turn, what did she learn from you?
Even though Natasha and I work in very different musical disciplines (she as a recording artist and myself as a film composer), the situation one finds oneself in, is essentially the same for us all — two musicians in a room, trying to get a piece of music to work, so one feels in a very similar capacity in the end. It was actually a similar experience to when I was in the initially unfamiliar environment in the studios in Johannesburg for The Widow, but at a certain point, you realize that everyone is in the same boat. We are all just musicians, just people in a room, making music. Music works the same everywhere, it seems.
Mahalia Belo [director of Requiem] always encouraged us to explore the uncanny and to have unexpected elements in the score. So, right from the start, we got to delve into the uncanny, also working with the strangely rhythmical words from Enochian, an occult or angelic language from 16th century England, for example. And I explored extended techniques on the cello, as the cello had an almost narrative role in Requiem.
What specific instruments and gear do you continually reach for and deem essential to realizing your musical vision across projects? What is the most cherished aspect of collaborating with orchestral players and choirs to create the stylized hybridity that is interspersed within your body of work?
Making music is such a playground, and I love trying different techniques and instruments all the time. I use a lot of rhythmical compositional devices, and I love percussion. Obviously voices, and then a lot of solo strings. Perhaps often central to my sound is the contrast between large and small. For example, an intimate solo violin in the foreground but surrounded by a massive orchestra with muscular percussion section, or an epic action piece that breaks down and leaves only a few plucked notes on a Charango.
I have a few analog synths and sometimes, I add a few layers of those to a cue after completing the main body of the piece. I also simply love the sound of digital audio. I know this may not be a popular thing to say these days. Everyone is in love with vinyl, magnetic tape, valve equipment, et cetera. I like and make use of the potential warmth of vintage analog devices, but I like to hear that within the context of a modern, high spec crystal clear digital recordings, that can point out all the detail, texture and dynamics of orchestra or solo instruments, and have clarity and weight in the low-end.
Also, I love digital manipulation. What is amazing these days is that you can take whole orchestral multi-track recordings, and chop them up and manipulate them. I always enjoy this remix aspect after the recordings.
In your opinion, what is your greatest gift as a composer, and where does it derive from?
For each project, I will always strive to obtain a unique sound as painful as this process might be. As a listener, it’s easier to associate a cue they haven’t heard before directly with the film, it will feel as if it’s part of it organically. That’s where film music is always exciting; it allows and even encourages the creation of unique sonic palettes and unexpected compositional devices.
Interviewer | Ruby Gartenberg
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Dominik Scherrer and Post Bills PR.