Composer Interview - Amanda Brown


Amanda with partner Simon Marnie - photo by Marcelle Lunam

My name is  Amanda Brown


I'm aged  52


I work from my studio at home. It’s not ideal - it’s not soundproof and people frequently walk in when I’m recording something quiet. Naturally it’s always the best take of that particular part. My dream is to share a studio complex with other composers or musicians.

I've been composing for screen for 18 years

Professionally, I'm also a Writer director board member of APRA and I perform and record with various artists and bands. This year we played a 30 year anniversary show of The Go Betweens album 16 Lovers Lane at the State Theatre for Sydney Festival with original band members and a number of guest singers. We had artists like Steve Kilbey, Isabella Manfredi from The Preatures, Jodi and Trish from The Clouds and Kirin J Callinan.

I studied music at  the University of Western Sydney and qualified with a BA (Mus). My teachers included Michael Atherton, Diana Blom, Sally Macarthur and Andrée Greenwell. I was in the inaugural year of Screen Composition at AFTRS with Geoff Russell and Antonio Gambale; both wonderful composers and beautiful humans.

I'm also a qualified  I never finished my degree but I started out studying archeology and ancient history at Sydney University. I dropped out to join the Go Betweens and move to London.

Something people don't know about me is I trained full time to be a classical ballet dancer.

The instrument I'm best at is Violin because I’ve been playing it the longest and put the most work into it. I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn piano - it would have been so useful with harmony and composing.

I also play Guitar, mandolin, bass and oboe. And sing.

I'm best known for my score(s) to  I still receive generous comments on my score for Son of a Lion. It was a great musical education working with the Sarshar family of Afghan musicians.

A score I'm proud of but received little recognition is  The success of a musical score is inherently tied to the fortunes of the film. Ultimately I try my best to bring something unique to each project because every film is different. Additionally there are all sorts of hierarchies within film genes - auteur dramas tend to be more highly regarded than comedies or rom coms. I recently completed a drama series for children called Grace Beside Me. It was very demanding in terms of volume of music, turnaround and the fact that it required me to write across a number of genres including rap, reggae and a theme song (with Emily Wurramara) in addition to underscore. I had to muster every skill I had and in some ways it’s the culmination of all my musical experiences so far.

The score I wish I wrote is The Piano because…It was such a successful film on every level - both critically and popularly acclaimed. And Michael Nyman’s music is inextricably tied to that success. It embodied the world of the film in such a comprehensive way - which is ultimately what all great film music does. The film would be a lesser work of art without the music. Of course music was written into the script - almost as another character. Nyman’s adaptation of Scottish folk tunes was a genius idea and the music just lifts the film. The fact that the soundtrack was a huge success in its own right (in a pre digital era) must have been a nice bonus too.

The film I wish I scored is Water was the final part of a trilogy of films directed by Deepa Mehta that made a big impression on me. It’s absolutely stunning visually and features songs by A. H. Rahman and score by Mychael Danna. The songs and score work beautifully together, featuring similar instrumentation and a hybrid of eastern and western musical traditions. I have huge respect for Mychael Danna - and this is one of my favourites of his scores. He went on to collaborate with Mira Nair and Ang Lee and has carved out an incredibly diverse body of work.

If I wasn't me, the composer I'd love to be is  I love the work of Alexandre Desplat and so it seems do many of the worlds best film makers. Desplat works on terrific projects with some of my favourite directors (Guillero Del Toro, Wes Anderson) and deservedly so - his writing is richly melodic and lush without being saccharine.

People may notice I haven’t mentioned a female composer. That isn’t because because there aren’t some great composers out there like Rachel Portman and Jocelyn Pook doing brilliant work. It’s because even Rachel Portman - the first and only woman composer to win an Academy Award - has not been given the opportunity to develop a relationship with an auteur director over time. Jocelyn Pook worked on Kubrick’s last film and I wonder how that relationship might have developed. But that, and the weight of history (and those that write it) is what we female composers are up against.

My composing style is  It’s hard to quantify this but I aspire to my work being what I admire in other composers such as the ones previously mentioned. Their work has a lot of heart without being syrupy or formulaic. I know when I see one of their films there will be musical beauty executed with sensitivity, intelligence and flair. That is a big call - and whether I manage to achieve fleeting moments of that essence is another question. But I am always working towards that.

My workflow is typically…I like to start each project with research and just...thinking time. What is the tonal palette? What can I bring to the film that isn’t already there? Depending on budget I might research writing for a particular instrument, track down musicians or invest in a new sample library. I pay attention to the temp because it’s been selected for a reason. Then I take all those factors and try to deliver a score that unifies, supports and embodies the essential qualities of the film. Of course it’s not that simple - there are rewrites, edits or revisions and a lot of discussion along the way. If the film has a theatrical release I like to employ someone else to mix the music.

I compose using…Ableton Live. I find it quick and intuitive. Great for structural edits and audio effects. Sibelius for outputting scores.

My screen composing income is supplemented by…APRA royalties. These are our superannuation, our holiday pay and our sick pay because as freelancers we don’t receive any of those things. Gig fees and licensing the Go Betweens back catalogue. Lindy Morrison (the Go Betweens drummer) and I fought hard to retain our rights to the sound recordings we played on.

The person(s) and/or institution that helped me get to where I am now isbecause… Historically I don’t think women composers have received the same level of support regarding mentoring and career guidance. That is changing but a lot of the biggest names now in screen music went through Hans Zimmer’s studio. They are 99% men. We don’t have anything on that scale in our industry but I don’t see many women being employed in studios here either. I’m not talking about unpaid mentorships  - I mean being employed as colleagues. That exposure to a busy professional environment where you have the opportunity to develop your craft alongside other experienced composers is invaluable. It lifts everyone.

Having said that I would like to acknowledge some people that have been absolute champions on my behalf in terms of believing in my work and recommending me for jobs. Producer Carolyn Johnson, my agent Norman Parkhill, my recurrent directing collaborators and the talented composers I have been fortunate to work alongside - Nick West, Caitlin Yeo, Paul Healy and Burkhard Dallwitz.

If I wasn't a screen composer I'd probably be…Unemployed. I am completely unqualified for any other occupation. A few years ago I seriously considered retraining as a vet nurse because I love animals and felt I was pushing the proverbial uphill in relation to the music industry. It felt insurmountable and I was defeated. I volunteered at my local vet. He recognised me from The Go Betweens and asked me what I was doing there.

The things I love about my job is…Even though I am constantly pushed out of my comfort zone and continually being forced to learn, I reluctantly love that. I enjoy the challenges and variety of each job. I like working with intelligent, creative people. I love hearing my music bought to life by incredible musicians.

The things I dislike about my job is…I probably have the same beefs as other composers - the inconstant nature of being freelance, the tight turnarounds, the lack of awareness regarding the value of music and what it takes to produce it.

My favorite piece of technology is…. because…We all love our new toys. Currently I am using the Spitfire Audio Union Chapel Organ because it’s like an entire orchestra in one instrument. I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing my Mustang bass. And I’ve just discovered the joy of....pedals.


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