Features November 2, 2015

Q&A: David Hirschfelder, film score composer

Former Editor
Q&A: David Hirschfelder, film score composer

On November 12 Australian musician, film score composer and performer David Hirschfelder will go up against dance producers Josh Abrahams and Georgi Kay, rock royalty Nick Cave, and singer songwriter Archie Roach at the Screen Music Awards.

Hirschfelder is up for Best Original Song and Best Music for a Television Series (for Ballymullen Hill from Banished), but he’s no stranger to the Awards; since touring with bands including Little River Band, Dragon and John Farnham, he’s picked up six APRA Music and Screen Music Awards, taking out the top Score of the Year accolade twice.

TMN chats to Hirschfelder about how his screen compositions have opened doors, the brief he was given for Banished, his process, and why his most challenging score was for the multi-award winning feature film Elizabeth.

You played keys on John Farnham’s Whispering Jack album and you’re Farnham’s former music director, is film composing enough to satisfy your creativity?

I had so much fun working with JF, and also learned heaps from that experience about how music presses people’s buttons. It was an unforgettably exciting time, performing to large audiences in the late 80s, but I’m equally satisfied doing what I do now. Film scoring has its own unique challenges, and although I sometimes miss the instant feedback from a live audience, the feeling of creating a dramatic score has a much deeper satisfaction for me.

What gives you the biggest kick, composing music for the screen or for the radio and stage?

To be honest, for me, composing for the screen is as good as it gets. When it works, the process of sculpting music to a dramatic scene becomes an exhilarating equation of 1 +1 = 3. The combination of the two art forms creates something bigger than the individual layers combined; it’s the magic we know as cinema. I love music and l love screenplays. Being a screen composer allows me to experience two of my biggest passions in one joyful symbiosis!

You took out the top accolade at last year’s Screen Music Awards for your score of The Railway Man, marking the second time you’ve done so. Did your Screen Music Award in 2008 for Children of the Silk Road open doors for you?

It’s certainly more than likely that the Screen Music Award for Children of the Silk Road helped pave the way for being selected to score The Railway Man. The two films echoed each other in many ways; both set in Asia during the 2nd world war, and both based on true stories. It was such an honour for me, not only to be chosen to score both films, but also to then receive awards from my peers for these works.

You’re nominated twice this year for your composition for UK TV show Banished, was there a brief you had to adhere to? What were the emotions you hoped to bring forward?

Banished is a riveting tale that starts with a jolt, instantly teleporting the audience into the British first settlement, Australia 1788. The central themes of survival, sexual politics and moral dilemmas are timeless, so the music brief was to reflect and enhance the narrative with a timeless sound; a musical landscape that echoes the spirit of 18th century English folk songs, whilst at the same time drawing on a wide range of contemporary tonal colours, from epic orchestral to abstract textures and driving rhythms. Being a character-driven storyline, the score’s function was to support the raw emotions created by the actors’ performance, without “gilding the lilies”.

How closely do you work with the producers when you’re commissioned for screen scores?

I always like to work very closely with Directors and Producers on screen scores, having lots of conversations to further our understanding of the narrative’s scoring requirements. It’s imperative to get inside my collaborators’ headspace, and learn to see the film as they envision it, rather than simply responding to what’s on the screen. It’s important for the screen composition to reflect, support and amplify the intention of the film-makers, so I always do my utmost to foster a relaxed, open and honest dialogue, in order to ensure that we all keep moving together in the same direction, towards a common goal. Sometimes those goal posts can move, and I have to be ready to adapt, keeping the “deep listening” ON at all times during our many discussions.

What’s your process when it comes to putting the score to picture?

Usually I come on board during post-production, later on in the picture editing process, as the narrative structure is starting to take shape. I like to watch the raw film quite a few times to allow the visuals to seep into my subconscious. That’s the first and most important step, as I believe the sub-conscious mind does all the heavy lifting, creating the seeds that become the fruit, as it were. Then I wait for the sonic ideas and motifs of the score to pop into my conscious mind, kind of like tuning into a radio. Sometimes, I get an idea while I’m not even watching the film, while I’m doing something completely different, like having a shower, mowing the lawn, or driving somewhere in the car; the music just starts playing in my head, out of nowhere. Then comes lots of fiddling and experimenting, crafting the raw “seedlings” to picture, making score drafts using computer-based virtual instruments, and mocking up the sound of the score into QuickTime movie demos, so my collaborators can hear what’s in my mind. Often they ask for changes – sometimes big, sometimes tiny – and other times they leave it as it comes. I like the process of editing and developing the score with my filmmaking partners, as more often than not, the score becomes more compelling as a result of the collaboration.

Which of your scores was the most challenging to write?

Most scores have their challenges to overcome, and looking back, the most challenging score to write was probably ELIZABETH. It was my first large-scale film; a complex epic narrative with huge creative demands. There was a lot of music production required, a wide variety of style and instrumentation, ranging from onscreen minstrels performing on period instruments, to large orchestral and choral forces for the underscore. At a time when the internet was in its infancy, audio and picture files had to be shared on tapes and discs via international couriers, so one can imagine enormous geographical and time-lag difficulties of working with a team that was scattered over 3 continents. The time pressure was ramped up towards the latter stages of the scoring process when Polygram, the film’s distributor was dissolved and bought by Universal, resulting in an unexpected shift in the delivery schedule. It was a tight squeeze, and rather stressful for all of us, but we got there!

What projects are you currently working on? 

Recently, I’ve taken a break from film scoring, working on three very different, but equally rewarding commissions. One is a set of orchestral pieces, the Grange Symphony, commissioned by Penfolds, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the iconic red wine, Grange. Another is a 2-minute sort-of-pop instrumental jingle titled Ear Rings for Peace, for a campaign of the same name, aiming to raise awareness and create funding to further research for tinnitus. And right now, I am putting the finishing touches on a work for singer Katie Noonan and the Brodsky Quartet. I was fortunate to be selected, along with a number of other Australian composers – including Carl Vine, Elena Kats-Chernin and Paul Grabowsky – to contribute to a song cycle of works for voice and string quartet, set to the poetry of Judith Wright.


Hirschfelder has won the following APRA/Screen Music Awards:

1998 – (as part of the APRA Music Awards) Best Film Score – Shine

1999 – (as part of the APRA Music Awards) Best Film Score – Elizabeth

2001 – (as part of the APRA Music Awards) Best Film Score – Better Than Sex

2002 – International Achievement Award (Screen Music Awards)

2008 – Feature Film Score of the Year (Screen Music Awards) – Children of the Silk Road 

2014 – Feature Film Score of the Year (Screen Music Awards)  – The Railway Man



The Screen Music Awards are held at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Thursday November 12.

Related articles