The Fantastique Film Music of Simon Boswell
British composer Simon Boswell has scored films that span a myriad of genres and styles, but it is his work for horror and fantasy cinema that stands out: the mid ‘80s giallo films of Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, Clive Barker’s masterful horror film, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, the chilling atonality of INCUBUS, the hybrid cyberpunk riffings of HACKERS and HARDWARE, the epic melodic orchestrations for the 2007 TV miniseries, TIN MAN. In addition, he has scored films for Danny Boyle, Alejandro Jodorowski, Álex de la Iglesia, Tim Roth, and others.
Boswell was born in London in 1956 and started out in rock music, achieving success in the 1970’s power pop band Advertising. Known for combining electronic elements with orchestral instruments, Boswell’s music has ranged in style and tone since the mid 1980s. With more than 90 film and television scores to his credit over the last twenty-five years, Boswell has dabbled in every genre and every timbre.
Boswell grew up attached to a piano keyboard. At the age of 8, inspired by a BBC Radio program about Mozart, Boswell wrote a theme and variations to it in the styles of Chopin, Bach, Mozart, and Rachmaninov. When he was 12, he learned the guitar after being mesmerized by a television broadcast of Jimi Hendrix. Sharing the two mistresses of classical piano and rock guitar, Boswell spent several young years in bands before becoming a record producer. That brought him to Italy during the early 1980s, where he met horror director Dario Argento.
“Dario had seen me play in a club in Rome while I was touring with my band Live Wire, and he asked me if I would contribute to his film PHENOMENA,” said Boswell. “He suggested that I work with two of the musicians from Goblin, Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli, on this film. I think he was trying to branch out a bit musically at this point in time.”
The collaboration didn’t go as smoothly as expected; after years of breaking up and getting back together, the two remaining Goblin musicians were barely open to working with each other, let alone with an outsider. The final soundtrack was a patchwork affair, padded out with songs from Motorhead, Iron Maiden, and an instrumental track by former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman.
“We decided to split into separate studios to accomplish the score,” Boswell explained. “I contributed about three themes, plus two rock songs.”
With this, Boswell’s first attempt at film music, he created a collage of what he described as “unlistenable sounds” – feedback guitar, violin harmonics, the scrape of a plectrum down the strings of his Stratocaster, and wailing and moaning voices.
“When Dario first sat down and listened to it, the aural equivalent of running your fingernails down a blackboard, he pronounced it: ‘Beautiful!’ I can’t tell you how many avenues opened up in my head at that point in time!”
Working on PHENOMENON (1985) was a huge learning experience for Boswell. Since he’d had no previous experience in films, he had no idea how to actually write a film score.
“When I feel I’m being manipulated, brazenly, by something really obvious, I cringe,” Boswell said. “Being moved by something powerful, emotional, and original is something else. Sadly, this has excluded me from working very much in Hollywood! I was always inspired by the ending of ‘A Day in the Life,’ by The Beatles and have made it my business to orchestrate some of that kind of chaos into my scores.”
“Lamberto gave me complete freedom to write whatever I liked for his films,” said Boswell, who scored these films electronically in England. “I would go to Rome for a couple of days and sit in the editing suite and go through the film, then take a VHS back to UK where I would compose and perform the whole thing on my own in a bedroom in Clapham, London. Sometimes I would take the music back to Rome and supervise synchronizing it on the movieola. There was very little communication.”
Boswell’s music from DEMONS 2 wound up being recycled in Bava’s THE OGRE (La Casa Dell’Orco, 1988) and BLACK SUNDAY (La Maschera Del Demonic, 1989), which were misleadingly titled in some territories to suggest they were DEMONS sequels, and he wrote or had music in a number of other Bava movies, including GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE (1987), DELIRIUM (1987), and DINNER WITH A VAMPIRE (1988).
“My main recollection is that Lamberto made four films in one summer using the same set – so I can be forgiven for confusing some of them! There’s a rock song on the opening titles of GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE which I wrote called ‘Imagination.’ This song has never been released but has been used in at least 8 movies –on the radio, in the background in a café, etc. I’m still fond of that track.”
After the first five or six Italian films, Boswell would get phone calls from filmmakers he had never met asking, “We’re making a film. Can you write a tension theme? Make it five minutes long. And an action theme – make it five minutes long. And a love theme – ditto.”
Boswell would send this music to people he had never met for movies he has never seen. “One month a horror film, the next a RAMBO rip-off – then a romantic comedy followed by a Kung Fu movie,” said Boswell. “Amazing training for a composer! On average, it took about four weeks to deliver the finished score. On one occasion I was asked to do a whole film in three days! Sometimes I would take the music out to Rome and I have watched editors put it against picture and when it stopped working for them, they would cut to another piece! It had the effect of propelling the viewer through the movie with very broad strokes, like a Picasso painting.”
These Italian horror/giallo films afforded Boswell the opportunity to experiment, musically, just at the time when developments of early synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers were at the same time revolutionizing electronic music and affording new means to make music for films.
“These were the basis of those early scores,” Boswell said. “I pretty much lived in a musical vacuum, but I became interested in producing slowly changing ambient sounds – and also what is, to modern ears, very mechanical, sequenced music.”
Boswell considers the finest film he’s been involved with to be 1989’s SANTA SANGRE (“Holy Blood”), a surrealist fantasy thriller for director Alejandro Jodorowski (EL TOPO), which was was produced by Dario Argento’s brother, Claudio.
“There is a scene where one of the characters has her arms cut off,” Boswell recalled. “I asked Alejandro if he would like this to be a violent piece of music. He said: ‘No! It must be wonderful! Heavenly!’ It was Alejandro who taught me that you can write beautiful music for violent images and, in so doing, establish a resonance between what you see and what you hear. This can give great depth.”
Over his career, Boswell has maintained an ongoing collaboration with director Richard Stanley, a specialist in short films, whose features included the 1990 TERMINATOR-like science fiction thriller, HARDWARE.
“Richard is such an undiscovered genius,” said Boswell. “I’ve written music for everything Richard has done. In HARDWARE we wanted to create an atmosphere for a post-apocalyptic world that was hi-tech but infused with the dirty reality of life stripped of its comforts. I came up with the idea of combining Paris Texas-esque slide guitar with electronic ambience and Stravinsky-ish orchestral madness.”
“Clive wanted to make the hero a Philip Marlowe type cop immersed in a world of bizarre horror,” Boswell explained. “So the score is a mixture of cool sax and atonal nastiness.”
Apart from Boswell’s noir-ish saxophone melody for the detective, he concocted all manner of intriguing sound textures, furious surging orchestral measures, and frighteningly strange sounds that gave the film an especially evocative and spooky atmosphere.
“Much of the score consisted of atonal clusters and disturbing textures,” said Boswell. “Orchestrator William Kidd and I worked up some deliberately unplayable sketches for the orchestra in Seattle. We wanted to record the chaos of musicians slowly realizing that their parts were technically impossible. Much amusement was had by all!”
In addition to Boswell’s hybrid score, Barker had asked Greek performance artist Diamanda Galas to provide a song for the soundtrack, and Boswell asked her for some additional vocal weirdness, which she was pleased to provide. “This was woven into the orchestral score,” said Boswell.
Boswell’s score to 2006’s INCUBUS provided a very interesting and spooky assemblage of windy synth tonalities, atonal shuffling, and eerie voicings, which gives Tara Reid’s interminable flashlight-lit wanderings through the dark cavernous hallways a very frightening ambience. It’s a kind of “sound mass” atmosphere, yet Boswell keeps it musical, coherent, and interesting.
“It’s very vagueness allows the audience their own interpretation and it gives the impression of hanging in space, being cut adrift from regular time signatures or pitch,” Boswell said. “So there’s no comfort in it. Ambient sounds fascinate me but I always make sure that there’s some musical element or repetition in there that distinguishes it from pure sound design and in which the listener can take some refuge – or be manipulated by the expectation of something which doesn’t always happen when they think it will. To make the score to INCUBUS, I just experimented with some of the weirder sounds I had collected over the years.”
Boswell’s latest broad fantasy score was for TIN MAN, a two-part Sci-Fi channel miniseries from 2007. The film was a vibrant re-imagining of L. Frank Baum, offering an alternate telling of The Wizard of Oz in which we follow a girl named DG (Zooey Deschanel) into the world of Oz some 500 years after Dorothy’s original visit, and for it Boswell has provided one of his most vivid and expressive scores.
“I was instructed that I could not go within a million miles of any of the music from the original film,” Boswell said. “The music ranges from epic sci-fi to grand, sweeping romantic themes, with a lot of fantasy and tension in between.”
Boswell created a sweeping, bold melody for French horn and other brasses with a flourishing countermelody from violins and a constantly chugging rhythm to evoke Central City, the metropolis that is at the heart of the Outer Zone (OZ). Boswell’s theme is energetic and melodically very interesting, yet fraught with danger. When a storm whisks DG away from her small town home and into the clutches of OZ, Boswell’s Central City Theme blisters for full orchestra amidst a progressive, windblown cadence of choir and rolling percussion.
In contrast to this motif, Boswell’s “Theme from Tin Man” is a yearning melody for strings, captivating in its tangible sense of desire; the music is intensely and emotively romantic, and an effective contrast to the film’s fairly predominant darkness. These two themes form the score’s central core, while other motifs appear during the characters’ journey and set their own statement upon the score’s own progressive journey, from haunting chorale motifs to a mesmerizing musical calligraphy of swirling synths and echoing tonalities, vaporous, reverbed flutes and synths, and rustling percussions.
“When they mixed the movie, my own slight irritation is that they took one particular piece of the main theme and stuck it everywhere,” said Boswell. “This is the fate for many composers. We are not in control of the final outcome and pieces written for different scenes are often transposed to other places. In this instance it made it appear that I had run out of ideas. But it’s a minor quibble and I’m generally very pleased with the thing. Rich Walters, the music editor did a phenomenal job!”
While Boswell has scored many different types of films over the two dozen years he has been active in film scoring, he seems to have especially demonstrated an affinity for fantasy-horror films. It’s a genre he enjoys and finds numerous opportunities for musical invention.
“Clearly I have a dark side and find it easy to express this in ever changing ways, so perhaps my excursions into horror were not pure coincidence,” Boswell said. “Fantasy films allow you to be more experimental. I get bored doing the same thing over and over and relish new territory. But being versatile is clearly a disadvantage in the film world. People want to hire ‘that horror guy’ or ‘that action guy.’”
Fortunately, Boswell has done enough in many different genres to keep from being pigeonholed. He is currently looking forward to reuniting with director Richard Stanley on the latter’s new feature, currently in pre-production, a post-apocalypic science fiction thriller called VACATION.