Artist Spotlight - Stephen Gallagher

 Stephen Gallagher, Composer and Sound Editor

The Color Of Spring

‘I was in High School music class one day and my teacher pulled out a cassette and apologetically said ‘what I am about to play you perhaps should not really be called music, but I have to play it to you as part of the syllabus”. It had stuff like Stockhausen and other early electronic music. Then she played a piece by George Crumb and it was like a revelation! At 15 I had never heard anything like it. It was incredible! It was like being transported to another space and time, and I can remember the feeling that came over me as it played. I thought "this is what I want to do. People are making music like this? That’s what I want to do too!’

Little did Gallagher, his teacher and perhaps every kid sat in the class know that this moment was the catalyst that would 25 years later have Stephen contributing music for some of the biggest movies to hit our screens in the last decade. As a Composer and Music Editor his credits include ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’, ‘King Kong’ and ‘District 9’, the dystopian alien fantasy which became a movie sensation.

“I find color to be a really good touchstone when describing music, it is next to emotional concerns when you are talking to Directors about music”

He continues ‘I studied composition at Victoria University and then I one day walked across the road to the Theatre Department to see what they were up to and got involved with them. That was another revelation, music serving a dramatic purpose and that was something kind of compelling and exciting and I pursued it from then on really.’

'Revelation' is just one of the many words used in Gallagher’s vocabulary that speak of music exposing, unwrapping and expanding the visual universe he lives within. When speaking to Gallagher one is immediately struck by the sense that although he is a composer, one could as easily be sitting down speaking to one of the painters of the Impressionist or pre-Raphaelite movements. Gallagher describes sound in visual terms, as if wanting sound to enter the ears, descend into the soul and then open the eyes of the listener to see the world as never before.

‘When you listen to a certain type of music for a long time, then any kind of music outside of that sphere that doesn’t adhere to the structures that you are used to--and certainly the colors that you are used to--can be a shock to the system. Certainly for me the Crumb piece, it was the way he was using gesture and color as thematic material. He is a very dramatic and when you read some of his scores, he suggest players wearing masks or lighting - which suggest a highly theatrical element to the work.’

We stop for a moment to explore Gallagher’s use of such visual words when describing music ‘I find color to be a really good touchstone when describing music. It is next to emotional concerns when you are talking to Directors about music. My wife thinks it is because I married an interior designer’ he laughs. ‘I found the same thing happened when I first listened to the band My Bloody Valentine, like the first track on Loveless. It’s just so overwhelming in a sense and just so kind of alien, a recognisable form but presented in suchstriking and unusual way… sorry I’m rambling on.’

He gathers himself. ‘I guess when talking about music in a dramatic context then you're dealing with largely Directors and Producers who have no knowledge of music whatsoever. The strongest kind of language you then find yourself describing music in is color and emotion.’

A Small Town With Big Opportunities 

We return to his journey from being the 15 year-old boy having an epiphany in a music class to now making award winning movies. 

Back in Wellington I was lucky to get an assistant's job with a guy called David Long who had been in the music team for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ writing a lot of the cultural music for the film. I then worked with Dave on a couple of movies and TV shows, then I got to work on the films in various ways. At the same time I was banging on the door of long-time hero Chris Ward, who worked for Peter Jackson. I kept asking him for an opening. Wellington is a small place, so you talk lot to people involved in the movies and people are really generous with their time and their advice. Thankfully I was able to get the advice from two pretty amazing people. One day I got the call from Chris who said he needed some temp music for a film that was using Brian Eno music as its inspiration, I would have paid to be on the movie! Anyway I joined the team and that film was ‘Lovely Bones.’ I came on as the Temp Music Editor, I put a lot of temp music together with both Brian Eno’s back catalog and new stuff he was sending through. It was a lot of fun. He wrote me a nice email which was pretty outstanding. Then I moved on to District 9.’

Now Gallagher has a few movies under his belt we move onto the process of getting music together for a film.

“Ideally for a project I feel that the earlier music is involved in the discussion the better. Even just having cursory discussions with the Director or the Producer, or being able to look at the script, being able to get a sense of the kind of music the Director wants in his or her score helps. So it’s nice to be able to come in at a point where you can get some rough cuts or early edits and get some temp music together to start a dialogue with the Director.’

As an artist interview then the discussion inevitably turns to reverbs. ‘For me the Eventide Harmonizer, which I know a lot of people think of that as a delay, for me that was the first time I heard something that was a really powerful color. I was able to put stuff in a space that almost sounded liquid, that was the time I got really excited about effects, at college we had the H3000. If I think about it, I’ve had an emotional reaction  to reverb for a very long time because of going to films from a very young age, I think my first film was Superman: I was 4 years old. I remember when I got to Park Road and sat in the dubbing room and I listened to them put reverb on the mix, it took me back to that 4 year old me. I thought ‘this is the sound, the space’. You kind of then realise how often you’ve heard the sound of a Lexicon in a movie though the decades.’

We pause to discuss how when a baby is born in the early years that their ears do not fix the timing delay between the ears until later on. We wonder if that has something to do with our natural desire to put things into spaces. Then we start talking plates.

“We had a plate, we had the Yamaha box. Then when software came out the first reverb I went for was the Waves Reverb and then the Altiverb. More recently I used the Avid Revibe, it has been my goto for a while. I also gave the IRCAM reverb a try last year too.’ 

“The tails were the most beautiful I’ve ever heard of ANY reverb.The sound of it in 5:1 or 7:1 is just beautiful.”

In 2005 Gallagher visited the IRCAM Institute and lives to tell the story of a world without reverb. 'I went to IRCAM, it was like been taken down into the secret lab. I was shut in their anechoic chamber for 5 minutes and it was terrifying. What no one told me when they shut the door it feels like someone has put a box over your head and the when you try to speak it feels like your words are going nowhere, it was a bizarre experience. No reverb is terrifying.’

The Bottle Of Invisible Audio Glue

We return to reverbs and his new relationship with Exponential Audio. ‘One of the great things at Park Road is that people talk and if they find something they like they tell each other. One of my friends there started using Exponential Audio to replace a convolution reverb he was having issues with. He started using it and loved it so told me to try it out. I downloaded a demo for PhoenixVerb and I tried it on a temp score.’

‘The tails were the most beautiful I’ve ever heard of ANY reverb.The sound of it in 5:1 or 7:1 is just beautiful.’

‘I was working on a few different projects so decided to test it on all of them. The next thing I tried was the small rooms and they were just fantastic, it was also so easy to use and looks great too.’

‘One of my favourite things is the resizable GUI, it’s brilliant.’

‘So basically it was that first week and being able to use it over different projects. Then I tried R2. Using it from a compositional point of view, it was amazing to be able to put a lot of disparate colors into one room. They all came together. It’s like glue you can’t hear. In the past I have tended to compress my reverb returns and use EQ, I have to do a lot of work to get the sound to blend. With Exponential that wasn’t the case at all.’

‘Your reverbs are just the best I’ve ever used.’

We explore the idea of compressing reverb returns, an idea that some may not have considered before. ‘I like to do it on drums or percussion, in fact anything kind of percussive, it’s nice to experiment. I’ll sometimes use a brick wall.I tried it the other day on strings and trying to get that kind of Motown sound. This trick always does something interesting to the sound.’

As we draw the conversation to a close Gallagher shares his thoughts on trying to be at peace with a composition. 

‘It’s kind of an amusing cycle. I get really excited at the beginning of a project, then I start looking at a blank sheet of paper and start thinking this is the worst thing ever, I can’t do this… this is horrible.’

Listening to the work of Gallagher there are a numerous words to describe his compositions. Moving, evocative and captivating are just three one may chose, the word horrible is not one of them.

More about Stephen Gallagher here