Gunpowder composer Volker Bertelmann talks prepared piano and most difficult scenes
Interview by Alexandria Ingham
Volker Bertelmann shares just how difficult it was composing the music for Kit Harington’s Gunpowder.
Volker Bertelmann, also known as Hauschka, is the composer of the period mini-series, Gunpowder. Originally aired on BBC, it aired on HBO in the run-up to Christmas and is now available on HBO Go. The series tells the story of Robert Catesby (Kit Harington) and his co-conspirators as they attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James VI of Scotland/I of England.
It certainly wasn’t going to be one of the easiest shows to compose for, considering the torture, long chase scenes, and drama. However, Hauschka was able to use the prepared piano to create interesting and unique sounds for the series.
During this exclusive interview with Hidden Remote, Hauschka discusses the prepaid piano and developing the intense and beautiful score for Gunpowder.
Hidden Remote: I’ve never heard of the prepared piano before. Just what is it and how did you come up with it?
Volker Bertelmann: I wasn’t aware of it until 2000, when I was in Wales. I was playing the piano but wanted something more. I had this Christmas cake foil wrapper and it had a crispy sound, so I wondered what type of noise it would make when placed between the hammer and the string of the piano. Did it just sound like the wrapper and drown out the piano sound?
What I found was that it added that crispy sound on top of the piano note. I tried it with a few other materials to get these different sounds and then started researching it. Then I found that a famous classical composer, John Cage, had already been using it. I decided to adapt it for the melodical sounds and found that it gave a sort of techno track feel. It really expanded the opportunities for the piano.
It was so fascinating too. I was able to change the sound in an analog way, instead of digital. From there, I just had to think of how to use it more.
Hidden Remote: Is this a technique you used for Gunpowder?
Bertelmann: For some of it, yes. It was a way to get the percussive and scary noises needed for the show. But I also used a lot of strings and drums, so the piano wasn’t the main instrument.
The initial idea was to use the piano, but I had to tell a lot of stories in each hour. The frequency of the piano is also a similar frequency to voice, so it tends to cover a lot of conversations. Gunpowder had a lot of conversational scenes, so I had to reduce the use of the instrument.
Hidden Remote: What was the process like for developing the score for Gunpowder?
Bertelmann: I had a good connection with J Blakeson [Gunpowder’s director]. He was very precise, as he’s also a musician. He’d already had some thoughts on the music, which was helpful to develop the dynamic. He already knew the musical terms and new the temperature of the score he wanted, which helped with the initial developments.
I chose to take a minimal approach, which isn’t normal, to help bring more fear. I reduced the score for more precise sounds.
Hidden Remote: It can be a difficult show to watch at times, especially that execution scene in the first episode. Was it a difficult show to compose for?
Bertelmann: Sometimes, yes. When I first saw the show, I was shocked at what was happening. It is a violent show and a violent subject. Just watching at first was difficult and I had to try to interpret the feelings from that. I didn’t want to overdo it.
It was difficult to imagine what it would be like walking to the scaffold [in the execution scene] and understand the state of mind.
I also tried not to go to period with the music. It was important to keep it modern, but still connect to the time period.
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