Alan Cameron – on composing for BBC documentary, “The Scot who died at Auschwitz”

by | May 4, 2019 | Misc

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Alan Cameron at a conference. Alan is a freelance teacher, composer and Education Adviser for Spotify’s online recording and podcasting studio Soundtrap.

A graduate of the Notre Dame College of Education, now part of the University of Glasgow, Alan has been involved with a a wide range of composition works for radio, television, bands and classroom pieces.

In this post, written especially for I can compose, Alan tells in his own words how he came to write the music for a 2015 BBC documentary called “The Scott who died at Auschwitz”

The phone call came though unexpectedly in May 2014. I hadn’t spoken with Norman in recent months, but I was always delighted to hear from him. Norman Stone is a BAFTA Award winning film director based in Glasgow and married to BBC news reader Sally Magnusson (daughter of Magnus, of ‘Mastermind’ fame). I’ve worked with him on a few creative projects since 2001.

Norman asked ‘Alan, would you be interested in writing some music for a documentary we’re doing for the BBC?’ I was immediately curious and excited and before I knew any of the details. ‘It’s about a little-known Scottish heroine from the time of World War 2. We need some music that is a cross between ‘Schindler’s List’ with a feel of the Scottish countryside where Jane grew up’. Norman explained to me the timeline for this, the budget for music for the film and the process. His daughter Anna Lisa would be working as producer on the documentary with Norman taking an executive director role. So, I of course said ‘Yes, how and when do we start?’

The first task for me was to send Norman via email a rough MP3 file of a proposed theme tune reflecting his Schindler/Scotland music request. If his team didn’t think much of it, I don’t think we’d have got off the ground. Immediately, that day and next, I got to work. I listened intently to the violin theme for Schindler’s List, a brilliant piece of writing by John Williams. Highly emotionally charged.

I noted the following: the violin theme is in the minor key with tonic and dominant notes featuring prominently in a repeated melodic figure. The music modulates briefly into the relative major, thus giving, for me, ‘rays of hope’. The music features descending scalic figures and, in the minor key, is powerfully emotive and sad. The use of accented passing notes give rise to mild dissonance providing emotional impact on the listener. I took all these features on board in my attempt to compose a theme with a similar feel.

My ‘AABA’ 32 bar structure for ‘Jane’s Theme’ became A in the minor key, then A repeated an octave higher leading to the relative major, B, a Scottish feel in the relative major with descending figures and ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm then A again (in the minor key) finishing descending to the tonic. I also decided the violin would be the most suitable expressive instrument for this. I sent off my demo to Norman within 48 hours of being offered the opportunity. To my delight, he said it was perfect and was exactly what he was looking for. So I got the job!

The next thing to happen was for the production team (Anna Lisa Stone and Daisy Costello) to come to my house (on a farm near Castle Douglas at the time) and give me a fairly detailed brief. The documentary would run for around 29 minutes and there was a requirement for a variety of music cues, some fairly prominent, others as an atmospheric ‘bed’ under which various narration or other dialogue would take place. I think in total, I had to prepare around 15 different pieces of music, varying in length from 12 seconds through to almost 2 minutes. Most of my work would be done using Pro Tools on a Mac with an East West sample library activated by my midi piano keyboard. This library is very good for horns, strings, pianos, choirs etc.

For two of the pieces, we used a professional recording studio (Foundry Music Lab, Wishaw) and recorded the music with real violins and not just sampled sounds. We had great fun in the studio, and it was an opportunity to work again with my lifelong friend and recording engineer (and Wet Wet Wet guitarist) Graeme Duffin. For these pieces, I notated in Sibelius the melody and accompaniment for piano and violin. One of these was the sad and wistful ‘Jane’s Theme’; the other was a lively Hungarian Dance style piece I imaginatively (haha) entitled ‘Budapest’. Violinists Issy Trower and Jamie McLennan were fantastic. For the very tragic scenes of Jews being put on trains to Auschwitz, Jamie improvised on violin some Klezmer / Yiddish emotionally charged phrases. This collaboration enhanced the soundtrack greatly.

All the other music I created was never notated. Some of it was ‘composed’ live as I listened to the narration. More accurately, you might say I improvised the music as I went along, and if it worked, we kept it. For all the music cues I was given exact timings e.g. Music Cue 3a  –  17.5 seconds. This was easier that it might sound.

Meeting the exact requirements of the production team in Glasgow was challenging and sometimes exhausting. Some nights I’d be sitting for many hours at the computer, sending revised versions of music cues. I might get a request on the phone or via email, ‘Can you make the music sound a little more war-like and menacing, perhaps with a low dark bass sound……’ Back and forward would come various requests as they matched my music cues to the video images. This was back in the days of painfully slow broadband speeds. They sent me a set of reference DVDs to look at to know what images I was attempting to put my music to.

The composing process for most of the project was a collaboration between myself and producer Anna Lisa and her film editor Colin Goudie. We would discuss, experiment, try out, change, alter, amend excerpts many times. Anna Lisa or Colin would sometimes say, “You’ve given us what we asked for, but actually we need something a little different’, or, ‘That’s not what we envisaged, can you try something else, maybe with strings?’ It was a real challenge, but immensely satisfying to complete the job.

Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is a freelance teacher, composer and Education Adviser for Spotify’s online recording and podcasting studio Soundtrap  www.soundtrap.com/edu. Alan can be contacted directly on twitter at @alanhcameron1 or alan.cameron@soundtrap.com.. Visit Alan’s blog at Visit Alan’s blog at upbeat.edublogs.org

“Jane Haining: The Scot Who Died at Auschwitz”,  BBC Documentary