Frank Ilfman: Keeping it Personal

Frank Ilfman

From his musical beginnings immersed in classic Westerns, picking up the trombone and playing truant from the Jaffa Conservatorium in Tel Aviv, through formative moments sitting in on an orchestral session for The Never-Ending Story, and working for the legendary Jan Hammer, Frank Ilfman has dedicated a creative career to the art of movie scoring. Driven and determinedly imaginative in his composition, and with a self-confessed ‘problem saying no’, Ilfman’s credits span more than 60 films and numerous TV shows, from the award-winning Cupcakes and Big Bad Wolves to the most recent Ghost Stories and The Etruscan Smile. He talks to us about his ‘old school’ approach to composition, why it’s so important to him to give all his music a personal voice, and the difference Exponential Audio has made to his sound.

From the Wild West through Dixieland to the big time

Ilfman grew up in 70s Tel Aviv on a diet of classic Westerns and Kung Fu movies introduced to him by his father: “My parents were always big on music and films, but we were quite poor so we could never afford an instrument or anything like that. I just used to go with my Dad to see a lot of Westerns and Kung Fu movies. All the Hollywood musicals were shown in the main cinemas but there weren’t that many in Tel Aviv in the 70s, so the Westerns and Kung Fu movies and old pirate movies were shown in porn cinemas! We would go and see all these classics - with Douglas Fairbanks and Eric Korngold and all of them. And that’s more or less what I grew up on.” One particular movie soundtrack sticks in his mind: “I went to see The Good, The Bad and the Ugly at the age of eight and I really enjoyed the music, so as a present my dad got me an edition of the soundtrack, where the B-side was The Big Gun Down. That was I think for me where I really fell in love with music. I didn’t have any ‘I want to be a film composer’ revelation or anything like that, I guess the film world was just kind of an escape, where you go and dive into a different world, and music was a big part of it. But the connection to pursuing it as a career was never made. I just had a strong feeling that I really loved music.”

This early realisation soon blossomed as the young Ilfman listened to more and more music. “I listened to everything I could, and when I was about 11 I told my parents I want to learn an instrument. We couldn’t afford anything ourselves so we went to the Conservatorium [the Jaffa Conservatorium of Music in Tel Aviv] which wasn’t far from where we lived. But we went in the middle of the year so they said the only thing they had to rent was a trombone. So I said ‘Ok, we’ll do that!’ So I started on the trombone, funnily enough.” The talented teenager loved playing, and soon found himself lead trombone in the Tel Aviv Dixieland band, but he struggled with the structured methods of learning. “I loved the playing, all of that, but I hated theory lessons; I used to run away. For me learning was a very intuitive thing; I would practise with a trombone for a while then I would start playing music I had heard anywhere, repeat it and learn as I go. This was the early 80s and I was a big fan of the Thompson Twins and Howard Jones, using electronics and synthesizers – Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and all these.” 

He clearly made an impression on those he played alongside, and showed an early flair for creative arranging: “I came one time to a rehearsal of the band, and I just kind of scribbled chords for the bass player, the drums, the trumpets and all that, gave them some Thompson Twins songs to play and just started jamming. The conductor came in and everyone’s playing this song. He looks at me giving instructions to the players, and said ‘Did you arrange this?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I just scribbled the chords and told them what to play and they played and we all jammed’. So he then said ‘maybe you should play the piano for a while with the band instead of the trombone’. So I would switch between them. I never studied piano or anything, just played the keys knowing where things go.” Later, Ilfman decided he no longer wanted to play the trombone – “because I didn’t want Dizzy Gillespie lips!”, so his family managed to buy a second-hand organ, and find private keyboard teachers who would tutor him on the cheap on their way home. 

Once again he struggled with conventional learning, but impressed his teachers with his natural aptitude for composition: “I practised pieces and I would get them wrong and they would smack me on the hands with a ruler, but then I would say ‘Listen to this!’ and I would play a tune I had composed! I had this really old-school Russian teacher and he said ‘You’re doing really great with composition, why don’t you go to some music college?’ But we just couldn’t afford it. He said ‘If you can’t get in, just keep on writing and if you can, record it’. That was when I was around 14, so I kept at it from there. I taught myself to orchestrate, and conduct, how to compose.”

At the tender age of just 17, Ilfman found he had made the right contacts for his extraordinary first big break: composing for Jan Hammer. “Back then there were all these people coming to Israel, all these bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure coming to perform. We used to go to all these new clubs and I had my own rock band at the time, and I had started working as a runner in a studio as a tea boy, just to learn how you do sound, how you get reverb going. I didn’t want to rely on someone else, I wanted to create my own sound, so I started working there to see how they did it. I met a guy who was working with the British composer Colin Towns; he was a programmer and we started chatting about synthesizers – I was into sampling and how to manipulate sounds. We kept in touch – back in the days of letters and phone calls – and one day he calls me up and says ‘Listen, I’m working on this TV series with this legendary composer from America, who did Miami Vice and all of that’ (back then Miami Vice was really big). He said they were doing some tracks - some additional music to match the picture - and he had to go on tour but if I wanted to do it I had a similar set-up to what they were using, so he’d supervise but I could do the work and send it off to Jan in the States. I never had any contact with Jan himself though…”

Keeping his music personal

Fast forward to the modern day, and Ilfman has just finished working on the high-profile Ghost Stories with Martin Freeman and Andy Nyman, and before that The Etruscan Smile with a full live orchestra. He works across a range of projects, suggesting an open-minded ambition to his work, interested in anything that promises to be musically challenging. He agrees: “I basically always have a problem saying no! I’ve never been a person to wait for the phone to ring. I didn’t grow up in an artistic family with connections, so it’s always been a case of going out and getting the job, making the connections. So when I grew up I was meeting people like Earle Hagen who gave me the click book. I studied film music the old-fashioned way, through work and getting into sessions with Klaus Doldinger.  I managed to work writing film music when they were still working on 35mm and Steenbecks and click books: I had the pleasure of growing up doing it the old-school way. And for me that’s still how I work. He looks for quality in a script, but even more importantly a team he will gel with. “Choosing the project is first of all seeing if the script is good, if the movie is good. You can’t necessarily tell from the script as that can change later on, but if it seems good and if musically it’s challenging. But it’s also who are the actors, the crew, the editor, the directors: I always try to have a chat with the directors, to see if you get along as a person, that’s very important, same with the editor. I think it’s more about the people you work with. That’s what makes the result of what I bring to the project better. A bit of that old-school thinking, rather than doing whatever film comes along. But then because that’s the way I think and how I steer, I think the projects that I get are more or less in the vein of what I want to do. There’s the odd project where you look at it and you think that’s not going to be good. I always find it tough thing to say no, but sometimes you do need to.”

And most importantly to Ilfman, he only takes on projects he has the capacity to compose for personally: no delegating to assistants for this maestro. “I’m not a big believer in taking everything and having a crew of five people writing for you. I do all my own writing, I only have like one assistant. I don’t have a crew of additional writers. I think music is very personal so when I do a movie it’s very personal. For me it’s important that my music is done by me, not having someone else doing it. I don’t want to write the themes and tell someone ‘Ok just do it and I’ll produce it.’ Music is very personal, it’s my voice. Sometimes you have clashes in the calendar and it gets a bit mental with things co-existing but I try not to do two films at the same time as nobody will benefit from that.”

Frank Ilfman Abbey Road

An old-school kind of thinking

Whilst determined never to compromise on the personal touch of his music, in many other ways Ilfman has had to adapt to a great deal of change in composition processes since the 1980s. “Things have changed over the years. The days of sitting with the director by the piano are gone. I was very fortunate to have those days during the late 80s and early 90s. I did a movie in 1994 with an award-winning Russian director Leonid Gorovets. We were supposed to go to Moscow to record the score with the Moscow Symphony, and I remember he just said ‘Write me the themes on piano and put them on a tape and I’ll tell you which themes I like and we’ll take it from there’. I literally wrote five pieces of music based on what I’d seen in the edit room; they were semi-improvisational pieces and I sent them over and he’d call me up and say ‘Piece one is the main theme and piece two is this character and the rest I don’t like’. Then I would mock whatever I could then we just met on the scoring stage. On the scoring stage he’d say ‘Can we lose the flute or the brass’, or ‘Do another piece like that’, then we’d send people to lunch and I’d sit there by the piano and scribble something quick. These days you don’t really get that, everything has to be mocked up and sent on a video file so they can see it with the picture, or you send them the audio file with the time code based on a certain cut, and a lot of times the editor will change things almost to the last moment, so you always have to catch up to see where they are, and re-shuffle things. I think today because also there are so many heads in the game - you have the director, the editor, the producers, the execs from the studio sometimes - and everyone has to listen, and they want it just how it would sound as the final product. Sometimes you even have to mix your demos well. Though in one way that’s good because when the director gets to the scoring stage they don’t get so surprised, so you don’t waste time and money changing things on the scoring stage with a full orchestra sitting there. So it’s good and bad.” 

Whilst adapting to the ‘good’ in the new ways of working, Ilfman is characteristically determined to maintain some aspects of his old-school kind of working: “I tend to approach every project in a similar way. I come from the world of melodies and tunes, and I look at every film and at the characters who need themes attached to them. My approach is a bit old-school, to create a good theme for the movie then secondary themes for the characters, so I would usually just run the movie and try and improvise the themes. It depends on what stage I’m involved, but if it’s an early stage like with Ghost Stories I would write the themes as small suites for each character, then send it over to the directors and they would start putting it on the movie to see if it works, then tell me what works great or what they don’t like or ask me to develop one part more. For instance, with Ghost Stories, we recorded the suites that were the original themes for each of the characters even though they don’t appear like that in the final movie apart from one, but each character has its own theme and we recorded that for the soundtrack as suites, so it’s that old school kind of thinking. I’ll just sit at the piano and try to write a proper melody and try to develop it. There are some movies where the music is very atonal and abstract so you just create collages of sound that are like colours, like similar sounds that appear again and again, and certain textures. But the approach is essentially the same.”

Glueing it together and adding sparkle

Ilfman was first introduced to Exponential Audio when working on Big Bad Wolves with a good friend, sound designer Ronen Nagel. “He’s a big fan of Exponential. When we were working on Big Bad Wolves I came down to the dub and he was playing some stuff and I was listening to all my stems we had recorded with the orchestra. On top of what we had sent in he used some reverb for the surround which made a great sound on top of what I had, and it felt very clear: it had this almost clear tranquillity feel to it, surrounding the music. It was R2 he was using and the Phoenix. Ilfman became an instant convert. “I became an avid fan of what Exponential do, never mind that they came from Lexicon, which is a legendary product on its own - everyone is still after that Lexicon sound today. R2 has that Lexicon sound quality to it; you put it on your master to glue everything together and it makes everything feel so clear and present, it’s a great effect, especially when you work in surround like I do. It has this clarity and doesn’t muffle your sound like some other reverbs do...” 

Ilfman finds this clarity and lushness transports him back to the old days of reverb: “Back then we had the 480 and the 300, the 960, all of those, and they were very lush. I remember you wouldn’t need to use several like you would do sometimes today; you would just use one to create what you want.” He finds it very compatible with convolution reverb: “even though it’s not a convolutional reverb, you can create a lot of simulations of halls and stuff which works very well alongside a convolution reverb. I’ve found them to work great with the Abbey Road plates. You use the plates to get a certain smaller room feel, then just use the reverbs to give you more of that larger hall surroundings. Almost like a close and far contrast.”

And on top of all this is just how easy it is to use. “You can select a reverb from any of the menus and it sounds great, you don’t need to start messing. That’s one thing I’ve learnt when working in studios and learning the whole process, once you start messing around with EQs and all this, you’re f**king up your mix. It’s like Daniel Lanois says about microphone placement: if you place your microphones properly you don’t have to do much later on. I think it’s the same with sound: if you have a good reverb and a good sounding recording or sample library, if they’ve been recorded well and sound great, you just need something to glue it all together and that’s it – maybe a little EQ here and there, but you don’t need to start messing around. I think a lot of young composers and musicians get a lot of UA plug-ins or Waves or any others and go ‘I’m going to compress this and this’, but it sounds so overproduced and lifeless. 

I’m a very big believer that if it sounds great you only need to add the odd sparkle on top to make it shine but that’s it, that’s all you need; leave it as natural as possible. That’s what I love about Exponential Audio, you just put it there and you can tweak a little bit of reverb or filters but sometimes you don’t even need that. Just glue everything together and it works.”

Persistence pays

Looking back over his career so far, Ilfman picks out one main trait as the key to his success: persistence. “If you love what you do, the thing is just keep on doing it: be persistent. At some point before you know it, it will happen, you won’t even feel it happening - you’ll just look back and go ‘Oh my God, I’m doing it’. But also keep learning: learn what the old people did; what the classics, the masters did because that’s more or less where all of it starts, that’s the foundations. If you have that, you can progress as much as you want, and before you know it, you’re doing it.”

It’s a hard journey though, and Ilfman feels strongly that whilst technology has made things easier in many ways, it also has its dangers. “I think people these days actually have it much easier than when I started; you have social media now and people are more approachable and there’s so much knowledge out there. But I think technology is dangerous as well in a sense; people do the mock-ups and all the samples and they think if they print it out from their DAW they can just go and record, but actually a lot of stuff you print out from your computer doesn’t translate straight to orchestra; you need to learn to craft an orchestration or get a good orchestrator and conductor - a lot of people don’t realise that. There’s good and bad in all this technology; people depend too much on technology these days. I don’t really do pen and paper but I still scribble my stuff sometimes. Even on my mock-ups, I don’t rely completely on programming; I play it as a player would play it and if it sounds right I move on, I don’t spend a lot of time programming.”

What is so refreshing about talking to Ilfman is his infectious passion and excitement about his work, whether it’s his early experiences or his most recent project. “People ask me if I still get excited that I’m there in the studio, when I do it all the time. My answer is if I come in the morning to a session and meet the musicians and we start running; if I don’t get the goose-bumps once they start playing, then why am I here? You got to have that all the time, it’s not just a job.” And in a most satisfying twist, those early experiences and latest projects have recently come together in a real ‘full-circle’ moment: “My very first orchestral session that I got to see when I was 14 was The Never-Ending Story, which was my eye-opener to movie-music being bound together; it’s something I’ll never forget. Then with the last movie I was doing last December, The Etruscan Smile, some of the producers were the producers of The Never-Ending Story, which was unbelievable, closing the circle in a way. From my first experience of watching something like that happen and having the seed planted in my head, to actually doing it with the same producers twenty-something years later. That was very emotional.”

Something suggests this persistent yet emotional; old-school yet open-minded composer still has a lot more success to come.