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Thinking in Sound: John Curran

Radio LBB 96 Add to collection

Music composer and sound designer, John Curran, shares his love for music and talks all things audio

Thinking in Sound: John Curran

John Curran is a composer and sound designer for Film, TV, Media and Theatre. 

His work has been aired on Sky Sports, Sky Atlantic, Discovery Channel; working with clients such as Rice Krispies, Virgin and Well Pharmacy. He was also the composer for Philip Pullman's stage adaptation of 'The Ruby in The Smoke' for the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festival and has written music for more than 30 short films.

John took some time to talk shop and share his love for all things music, what inspires him, what he listens to and how he channels those influences into his own work...

When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

My start point tends to vary from project to project, but there is always coffee. 

However, idealistically, I get a cut of a film or scene or a script and begin to write down musical ideas in a note pad, for example. "00:03:13 - 00.04.24: Uplifting, inspirational, piano, strings.” 

Then I'll start to record and sketch out music in my DAW (digital audio workstation), note by note. 

Once the basic ideas are sketched out from start to finish, I begin to expand and fully orchestrate the music, then start adding in tiny details and creating my own synths/electronics. 

It really is a gradual process.

Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

My background starting out was recording and touring in bands, so collaborating is something I grew up with. 

Working in music and sound for film can usually mean feeling slightly isolated, but I still love collaborating and bouncing ideas around with directors and clients, that's a really fun part of the job. 

And I'll always jump at the chance to work with other musicians.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

There are so many, I say to my wife: "I am very lucky that I get to do what I do," I never take it for granted. 

I love being immersed in music, writing and hearing an idea blossom. In terms of audio and sound design, it’s nice to start hearing the final mix of music/SFX/dialogue work well together with the picture, it's like the final piece of the puzzle.

As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

There is certainly more content being produced than ever before. 

The tricky part now is that most people are consuming that content on their phones when the music and sound has been written and mixed to be played in the highest common denominator.

Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Composers like Hans Zimmer and James Horner really inspired me to get into music for motion pictures. Zimmer especially, I really like how he infuses music and sound design to create unique-sounding scores.

And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

I like guys like Johan Johansson and Blanck Mass, they both have their own distinct sound.

When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

I’ll generally listen to music or podcasts when doing admin stuff. I'm really into Americana and country music at the moment. But I also try to give my ears a break and just work in silence.

I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

I have worked on a lot of museum installation projects in the UK and the Middle-East, so you're essentially writing music and sound design for films that can only be viewed in the intended space in either 5.1 or 7.1 format. 

It doesn't necessarily work like that for film or broadcast, you could watch something in the cinema, but it can also be seen on a TV screen, phone or tablet. 

Having said that, regardless of how the viewer chooses to consume content, your job is still to produce high quality work, regardless of what the viewing trend may be.

On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

I've got such a varied music taste, some of my playlist are very random; I could be listening to a movie score, then the next track is a Norwegian folk track, then the rest goes into pop or soul. 

It benefits me having eclectic music taste, I like to take influences from a lot of styles.

Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-organised Spotify-er…)?

It's a mixture of iTunes and Spotify, but nothing too organised.  

I’ve just bought my wife a record player, we've had all these vinyl albums but nothing to play them on. 

Last record I listened to was Oasis 'Definitely Maybe', which I think is a fantastic album. 

There is something really organic about listening to music on a classic record player.

Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music?

I’ve always been a fan of a good book or story; I'm a huge fan of The Lord of The Rings books. 

It's healthy to have interests outside of your work, so I run and keep fit a lot, I’m also a really keen cook and constantly trying out new recipes.

Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

I've been fortunate enough to travel to a fair few places like South East Asia, Europe and North America. 

It's true, traveling and seeing other places is inspiring for the soul. Two years ago we went to a Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi, it was such an amazing show! The music and the SFX worked effortlessly together with the puppets. 

It was also the first time I had heard a đàn bầu instrument, it was beautifully haunting.

As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

My relationship with music has always been there and I hope it always will be. 

What has developed more now over the past few years is my appreciation and respect for sound and audio in film. I write music with the sound designer/mixer in the back of my mind now, sometimes I'm the composer and the sound designer/mixer on the same job.

You have to take into consideration dialogue and whether the music or any SFX will clash either dynamically or because of frequencies. Essentially you don't want music, sound design, SFX and dialogue to be one audible muddy mess.

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Genres: Music & Sound Design

Categories: Media and Entertainment, Online Media

Paper Sky Films, Tue, 01 Jun 2021 08:32:05 GMT