No Frills: Jennie Muskett on Miss Austen Regrets

We all know and love the Wiseman, Portman and Dudley touch, but there is another strong British female voice in film music – Jennie Muskett. While it’s not a name that may be as instantly recognisable as the aforementioned trio, Jennie has keenly been beavering away with music for film and television since the early 1990s. From small screen Natural History and big screen documentary (you don’t get much bigger than IMAX) to Hollywood fare such as The Prince & Me and Material Girls, not to mention two of the BBC’s most successful dramatic exports – Spooks and The State Within, Jennie Muskett has quietly fashioned herself quite an enviable CV.

Earlier this year Jennie’s most recent screen outing premiered on PBS in the United States and Miss Austen Regrets made many sit up and take notice of the composer. Finally screened here in the UK a few weeks ago, we got to see and hear what all the fuss was about. The drama sees the famous novelist in her forties, reflecting on the missed opportunities of her romantic life as she helps her young niece find a suitor. Musically it’s an interesting score, because Jennie applied an inspired contemporary wash to a film that would normally beg for pomp and frills; add to that gorgeous and poignant thematic material and you have yourself a standout accompaniment to an already beautiful film. Thanks to those good people at Cube Soundtracks, Jennie’s score is given an album release this week. So with that in mind, I caught up with her to discuss her music, the film, where she sprang from and where she’s going.

 

So Jennie, Miss Austen Regrets… a bit of a departure from what you’ve been associated with in recent years. Was it refreshing to do something a bit girly for a change?

It was really lovely and a total surprise. The director came to me because we’d met on Spooks and because he liked my contemporary approach, and he wanted to explore how we could have some kind of element of that, some colour, in Miss Austen Regrets. In the end we just went with the feeling, the emotion and the empathy of the characters and the music does feel contemporary, but not in any kind of edgy way.

So it was a conscious decision then to steer clear of the generic frilly music we tend to get with these things?

Frilly… yeah (laughs) that was my thinking, so definitely. Really what I was trying to do was just create the space that the director had created so beautifully on screen, ‘cause he’s shot it in such a way; it looks really beautiful and more like a movie than a TV project. So I wanted to maximise that…

That said you wrote a rather lovely jig…

After much discussion, yes…. That was for a specific scene where they’re actually dancing and Jeremy was very adamant that he wanted a jig, and more with a fling kind of a vibe than the drawing room ‘repression’ feeling that you normally see in these things. He wanted to show that she was a little bit more daring, hence the slightly more flinging jig.

There are a few thematic ideas in the score; can you talk me through them?

The main idea was to succinctly convey in the music Jane Austen’s sense of aloneness; that’s not necessarily in a negative way, but she chose to be alone in terms of relationship, marriage and children so that she could write and create in that way. So her sense of loss of that way of life was very profound, and that was something that seemed to be a key part of the film; that was one recurring theme and tone throughout, because it’s always looked at through Jane’s point of view.

That’s the piano theme..?

Yeah, partly… and a slight wistful melancholia, but not self pity ‘cause this was a very determined choice of hers, so not straying into the sentimental but still helping to empathise that way. There’s a scene where she’s observing a young couple who are falling in love for probably the very first time in their lives and she is towards the end of her life – well she doesn’t realise it at that point as she’s about 40 years old – which is kind of quite old in those days, and she’s watching with a generosity of spirit, enjoying the fact that they’re in love but always with this wistfulness for herself as well. It’s very touching and it was quite challenging to try and capture that feeling in music…

I think you succeeded though!

I hope so.

So the album is out this week, courtesy of Cube soundtracks – what are the highlights of the disc for you?

‘Listen To Your Own Heart’ and ‘Beyond Reach’… which is the same theme as ‘Listen To Your Own Heart’ and it’s a scene where Jane is actually looking at this Doctor and she’s conflicted. She loved flirting and there’s a line in the film where she says something like “I never found a man who was worth giving up flirting for…”, hence why she didn’t marry. So she’s very intrigued by and attracted to this Doctor, but the young girl, who’s 19 years old in the film, is the one who attracts his attention and again she experiences that feeling, that pang of loss as she realises that she has missed out. But it’s very beautiful though and it’s uplifting as well; it’s very positive and that’s quite a romantic piece. It starts with very simple piano chords which represent her alone writing and thinking and then she gradually has these fanciful ideas; it represents her imagination as well. Her thoughts and emotions grow to a great warmth and then she realises she must calm down in her life and she goes back to just those simple piano chords, because her purpose is to write.

Now although you’ve worked on the likes of Spooks, and done a couple of glossy Hollywood pictures, yours isn’t a name lots and lots of people will recognise. What’s your background as a composer; how did you get into this game?

I studied the Cello from a young age. I grew up in a musical family, but my family didn’t play anything ‘normal’ – well they did, but that was kept under wraps! They made a point of studying weird instruments, extinct instruments and we’d travel around Eastern Europe to find them and my Dad would learn them all and then bring them back and perform them at The Purcell Room. We had to do family concerts quite frequently at The Purcell Room on these things (laughs). But I also played the Cello and then I was in the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal College (of Music) as a Cellist, but a chance trip to the Kalahari Desert changed everything because on the first night, listening to the animals and the ambience and everything there in the Kalahari, I just realised ‘Oh my god! There’s this whole world, I don’t just have to be a Cellist’ and I was inspired to stay there and I wanted to find a way where I could share that knowledge of that place and that feeling of inspiration with everybody. I didn’t know how I was going to do it and initially I wrote a film script for a Natural History documentary and I tried being a stills photographer, took lots of stills and had a fantastic time. But the music was the connection in the end because I was asked to write the music for a Natural History documentary; so I just did the one and that went down really well and then I did another eighty or so! After that my life was writing for all sorts of animals and environments and it was amazing.

George Fenton recently remarked how scoring Natural History is refreshing because the drama and emotions are so real and immediate, with no reliance on story, special effects or ‘acting’ of any kind…

Well it’s what I grew up on and I came at it from the other direction from George ‘cause he did Drama first. So that became my first love – the environment and those stories – and so it never even occurred to me that you would write music for pretend things at that time. Those stories are real, but I found a frustration with the storytelling of Natural History documentaries and I found that I wanted to write music for Dramas. So it’s quite nice to have both; but yes it is incredible and what’s wonderful about it is that because (animals) don’t have any lines the music has a greater job in the characterisation sometimes, without becoming anthropomorphic, which is a task and a half to get that tone right. I had to do one film with a wonderful man called Hugo Van Larwick and he had filmed three generations of one family of Chimps over twenty-five years with Jane Goodall; and he presented me with this film – like an extended soap opera episode – and all these things happened in these lives, births and deaths, struggles for power and jealousies. Everything happened in this family, but I couldn’t tell them all apart they just looked like big hairy black Chimps. Then eventually I found a family tree in the front of a book one time – because the Chimps are very famous – and then I could unpick who was who and give each person a character, well they had a character but I could ‘show’ their character in music. In that way it enabled him to use far less narration and you’d know who was who… It was a struggle but it was a really fantastic learning ground.

What were you using to make the music back then?

Well the first score he asked me to write, he asked me to write only for animal sounds, Chimp voices – and I used his voice as well. It was a fantastic experiment, but a disaster! He was generous enough to let me have another go and I wrote it just for a regular little ensemble – twenty-five players or so. I did do a cue that, instead of having the violins bubbling away giving the movement, I constructed the same sort of feeling using Bird calls, and it was lovely and it mixed in beautifully with the forest sounds and so the music and the forest became a seamless one – at least for that bit. So that was a lovely thing to work on; and then sometimes they were IMAX with a ninety-piece – lots of Geographic’s regularly had forty-piece orchestras and some of them had to be a bit electronic…

Do you find technology is moving faster than you can catch up with?

It’s a double-edged sword… ‘cause you want the new things and if you can find the time and take the trouble to learn it it’ll make your life easier. But I don’t want to spend all my life learning new technology; I’m interested in music. But it is brilliant; I use Logic and I think it’s fantastic and has made my life so much easier in terms of working for picture – but I do also have technical help, otherwise I’d flounder; I think most of us do!

You did an open seminar at London’s Apple Store a few weeks ago; what did that involve?

They have a series called ‘Made On A Mac’ so they wanted me to show the process of how I use the Mac to write music for film. So I prepared my seminar all along that basis, but in fact the audience were much more interested in the emotion behind the music and how I found that. They really didn’t care about the technology (laughs)… The guys who work there – there are quite a few Mac specialists and geniuses who’d kind of drifted in away from their jobs to have a listen – and they of course were very interested in the technical process; but the actual audience couldn’t care tuppence.

You’ve actually had a varied career so far, genre-wise – is there any sort of film or show you haven’t done which you’d like to have a crack at?

I’ve done so much Romantic Comedy and I’ve done the Spooks kind of vibe; so probably a more serious dramatic movie would be lovely.

What’s on the desk currently; what can we look forward to?

I do work with one Natural History filmmaker still, called Mark Fletcher, and he is doing something about how Monkeys are even cleverer than we thought and much more similar to us – and they even lie, which I think is fantastic! It puts them into a different category that’s far closer to us, the fact that they can actually lie and plan a lie (laughs). So I’m doing that and I’m starting on a new project with Martha Coolidge and then behind that I have my own project, which is an orchestral, sound effects and choir piece about evolution. So that’s going on in the background, wherever I can.

You just did something for Ray Winstone’s production company did you not?

Yes, that is now called Complusion and he stars in it (along with ER’s Parminda Nagra) and she’s this beautiful seductress in it. It’s very dark and an area that I love working in; it’s a sort of dark, strange and ‘the characters are not what they seem’ kind of movie. It’s an ITV project and should be on in the Autumn! It was a lovely thing to work on and it’s really different writing for music when there’s an actor of his ability…

Really..? In what sense..?

Well when the character has a lot of depth in it, it’s very true and believable and you feel a great empathy with it. That makes the music much more challenging, more interesting and more compelling for me; so that was a real treat, to write music for those two and that relationship.

So you mean you’re not forced to make up for any deficiencies; you don’t have to add too much to what’s already there..?

Absolutely… and I have been asked. For example Harvey Weinstein said, on something, ‘I want you to give him more testosterone…’ that was one of the briefing lines about a lead actor! When it’s an actor who is really wonderful and the part is written right, I aim to just empathise as much as I can and feel what it’s like to be them, breathe with them almost like another actor and kind of step into their shoes. Then with someone like Ray Winstone in this particular part, it’s about creating the space to show what he’s doing, to allow that through, and very very little needs to happen in the music. It’s a question of being there but stepping far enough back…

Giving them room to breathe I suppose…

Yeah, room to breathe literally. That’s what that was very much about; one note would just show you something and then drift away and then his presence being everything – so very different.

 

Jennie’s score for Miss Austen Regrets is available on the Cube Soundtracks label. The film itself is now available on BBC DVD.

 

Originally published at Music from the Movies.com in May 2008.