RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie tells KEITH BRUCE he is wooing Hollywood to soundtrack the orchestra’s future.
There are few conversations with the man in charge of Scotland’s national orchestra that do not reference his time as a working musician before he moved into management. He may not play his trumpet much these days, but his career as the leader of the trumpet sections of London’s Sinfonietta and Philharmonia orchestra informs every decision he makes.
So he talks of the importance of recording film music, as both a discipline and a well-paid element of his life in London, from first-hand experience. “For London musicians it’s a big part of their life. And it’s an interesting part of life: fast-paced, fast-moving work. I think it’s very creative work.”
As he tells it, when he first stepped into the auditorium of the RSNO’s new home on Glasgow’s Killermont Street, when he was in the city to be interviewed for the post he has held for the last three years, he was immediately struck by its resemblance to Abbey Road’s Studio No 1. Its proportions were very similar, as was its much-admired acoustic.
That is no accident, because the building was designed by Arup with recording as well as rehearsal and performance in mind. Shoehorned into a tiny site between Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the John Lewis department store, the RSNO Centre’s new space is a concrete box within a concrete box entirely isolated from the noisy world around.
As well as having audience seating that can be deployed and stowed in minutes, the room has adjustable walls, sonic baffles and curtains to tailor that acoustic to suit everything from a full symphony orchestra to an intimate chamber ensemble.
What it has lacked until now, or has had to bring in for projects like pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s award-winning Chopin concerto album with the orchestra and conductor Elim Chan, is a state-of-the-art mixing desk to capture the music.
“The two things we couldn’t change were fantastic,” is how Mackie puts it. “The room, it’s fantastic – we’ve had a number of really top engineers from round the world coming to this room and raving about it. And the musicians are really good.”
Mackie’s ambitions for the RSNO’s studio went far beyond making classical albums, and beyond the needs of the orchestra itself.
Encouraged by the Scottish Government and Screen Scotland, there has been a boom in film and television programme making in Scotland, with the countryside suiting many story-lines and the cities seemingly able to masquerade as others around the globe and in the imagination of writers as well as being themselves.
Mackie recognised a big gap in the attractions the country offered however. “The one thing about Scotland is that you can shoot it, you can do post-production, you can do just about everything, but what you couldn’t do was have a symphony orchestra record the soundtrack. There simply hasn’t been a facility that has the space, the technology, the control room to do that.”
Until now. With the help of a legacy from RSNO patrons Iain and Pamela Sinclair, the orchestra has now kitted out a control room with a 72-track Solid State Logic analogue desk, partnered with all the surround-sound speakers and monitoring, with over 160 top quality microphones to pick up the performance in the room.
The man in charge of all this is the RSNO’s in-house sound engineer, now Digital Manager of the organisation, Hedd Morfett-Jones, who has an audio engineering intern, Sam McErlean, working alongside him. A graduate of the specialist course at the University of Surrey, it is a passing curiosity that his qualification was a side of music education that held no interest for Mackie when he went to the same institution from music school in Scotland.
“We’re trying to gather teams around us,” says Mackie now. “We’ve done it with our camera work. I want the same on the sound side. I don’t want to keep paying London engineers to come up here.”
Mackie’s business plan looks sound. The Glasgow Studio is on the same scale as Air or Abbey Road in London, both of which are booked up years ahead, and can charge top dollar as a result. Because the RSNO owns its facility it can offer a competitive rate to filmmakers who have to pay both the orchestral musicians and for studio time in London.
Of course there is further competition, especially from Eastern Europe, but Mackie is adamant that the musicianship on offer in Scotland gives the RSNO a qualitative advantage.
“British musicians are renowned for the quality of what they do. Our musicians will get paid the same as a London musician. The Union has rates. We will not pay less and we will not charge less than what musicians get in London, but we will be competitive because we own the studio. That’s our pitch to the market.
”There has been some training of the RSNO players in the skills required for film work as well,” he adds. “The other big thing with film is playing to click-track. So we’ve done multiple test sessions here. Our first horn, Chris Gough, did a film course in Valencia, and his final exam was six clips he had to make, to write to picture. He not only had to write the scores, but do the Pro-tools files for the technical side, and we used his final exam as a test session to test the RSNO players with complex clicks, complex sound-to-picture synchronisation.”
At the same time as Gough was studying at Boston’s Berklee College campus in Spain, principal percussionist Simon Lowden was adding a post-graduate qualification in music for film to his CV at Glasgow School of Art, and he now works with the RSNO’s digital team alongside his playing in the orchestra.
All this skills-building and spending on hardware – the SSL desk cost £230,000 and Mackie’s budget for the whole studio project was around half a million pounds – is expected to produce a return, and the chief executive sees that not as a bonus but an essential.
“All the time we’re struggling with standstill funding. I don’t see ticket income growing in Scotland, and I can’t see Government grants growing in Scotland. We simply need a new income stream if we’re going to keep going as an organisation.
“So part of what we’re doing is trying align with the initiatives of the Scottish Government , and part of what we’re doing is something that keeps musicians invigorated. But part of what we’re doing is purely economics, trying to go into a more commercial market – and I am quite taken with the idea of Hollywood subsidising concerts at the Royal Concert Hall.”
The RSNO is not entirely breaking new ground. In recent years it has worked with film composer Danny Elfman on his violin concerto Eleven Eleven under conductor John Mauceri, and on a new recording of Dmitri Tiomkin’s score for Dail M for Murder with William Stromberg. Its back catalogue with Varese Sarabande includes film scores with Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.
The first results of the new studio set-up will be seen and heard on Sky TV in December, with the broadcast of a remake of the 1972 children’s fantasy adventure The Amazing Mr Blunden. The original was scored by Bernstein, and the music for this one has been written by LA-based Scot Blair Mowat.
The composer is the most enthusiastic advocate the orchestra could have wished for. “This whole project has been an utter delight. When I got the gig, I immediately called the RSNO to see if they could record the score for this exciting new remake. Happily, the stars aligned and it was a dream come true to be composing and conducting for an orchestra that meant so much to me growing up in Scotland.
“We were delighted by both the experience we had recording with them and also the sound we achieved on the final recording. It was an honour to be the first film score to record here, of which I’m sure there will be countless more. There are exciting times ahead, and we can’t wait to come back!”
Sky TV will broadcast The Amazing Mr Blunden, featuring Blair Mowat’s new score recorded by the RSNO, at Christmas. www.rsno.org.uk