After learning more about the cello from the one and only Tina Guo, we are ready to talk about another instrument of the string family, the violin. And we can’t think of a better person to give us some tips on that than the super talented Benjamin Powell!
Ben Powell is fast assuring himself as one of the most versatile violinists of his generation. British born, he now lives in Los Angeles, California after residencies in Boston, Paris and New York. He is an alumnus of Berklee College of Music where he majored in composition and performance.
He was the featured violin soloist on Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ (2019), the Warner Bros blockbuster ‘Dunkirk’ (2018) and ‘Batman vs Superman’ (2017), all scored by notable film composer Hans Zimmer. Furthermor he has worked in the recording studios of Los Angeles with artists such as Neil Young, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin and Michael Buble.
His dynamic work as a violinist makes him a rare commodity in the detailed world of cinematic music. This has allows him regular opportunities to work alongside celebrated film composers such as Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, Geoff Zanelli and Bill Ross.
Full bio available at ben-powell.com
Hi Ben and welcome on this series. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m boringly just a violinist! I’ve dabbled in percussion throughout my life playing drum kit, but my bread and butter is violin. Within the violin world I work predominantly as a recording musician now, particularly since moving to LA 6 years ago. Prior to that I was performing more with various groups, orchestras and under my own projects. I try and keep these things going too but the studios mainly take up my time these days.
Your performances are featured in scores of enormous magnitude, such as Dunkirk and Batman vs Superman. What elements of your playing do you feel are sought after by film composers?
Hmmmm…. good question. Well, I play by ear equally as strongly as I read, so I can adapt quite quickly (or I should say I’ve become better at adapting!) to helping composers get what they need. Sometimes you’re working with just a description, feeling or a few words, other times a whole temp or something more defined. Sometimes it’s simply replicating a sound, feeling or vibe, other times it’s exploring deeper. The latter allows you to be more expressive and creative which is always fun, particularly when your ideas lead a composer to finding something they hadn’t expected, or just fulfilling something they had imagined but couldn’t replicate artificially on midi etc…
Metronome vs conducted vs rubato. Which one you are more comfortable with and which one produces the best results?
Well, I often wish I’d been around when studio orchestras were recording to tape with streamers and under the baton. Musicians are used to breathing in music. Great music always has a sense of breath to it, a natural resonance if you will of everyone collectively feeling it together. The age of clicks and recording to grid has somewhat removed this which I feel is detrimental to the overall musical expression. Movies are assembled differently now, so the music has to me malleable to move with the many edits being made, so the cheapest and most efficient way to do this is to have everything on a grid. I’ve never experienced a rubato under clicks that has felt natural!
Are you always provided with note-by-note parts or do you do some improv work as well when working with film composers?
Some of the most rewarding work I’ve done is improvising to picture. It helps to have a sound reference, maybe a tonic drone or something to play along with, but the results can be really fabulous and encourages a real collaborative relationship between composer and instrumentalist. Sometimes a theme comes of it, or maybe I arrive and there’s just a short theme written out for me to embellish and elaborate on. Really anything goes, and many times less is more!
What should a composer tell you about the scene you are about to play against?
Put the scene in context within the movie, that always helps. What feeling are they the composer trying to convey? Is there a specific frame where the music peaks? Anything that helps shape it and give it emotional context.
Do you feel contemporary notation helps keeping a good balance of control/freedom of expression?
What immediately comes to mind when you say ‘contemporary notation’ is textual markings and descriptions such as ‘spidery trems’, or ‘slow bends’ etc… these can be fun and help us immediately get in the ball park of what it is you’re looking for.
Are there specific playing techniques that you invented or that are very uncommon and you are proficient with?
Hmmmm….. i’ve always wanted to get better at ‘chopping’. Thats where you strike a stopped string with the very bottom of the bow and it makes a short chopping sound. This can be a cool rhythmic technique. A lot of bluegrass fiddlers use it! Always wondered how a room full of strings players would sound ‘chopping’!
Do you find useful to listen to a mock-up to understand what a composer is going for? Any particular requisite the mock-up should have?
Sure! Anything to help give context to what’s going on inside the composer’s head, what they might be going for etc… no particularly requisite comes to mind!
Should composers provide bowing indications on their solo violin parts and why?
Nearly also best left to string players to do this… less is more. If they’re printed in, it’s always a pain to blotch them out if they need to be changed.
What are the things you really don’t like to see on the page?
Too many bars per line, over articulated parts that make them too busy and cramped.
Any particular tip, pertinent to part notation, to maximise the whole performance/recording?
Equal spacing between staves. Similar amounts of bars per line. Enough rests to turn a page. Bar numbers or rehearsal markings.
Are there specific tweaks you recommend implementing to the recorded performance in post?
Hmmm…. i usually just deliver raw stems and leave this up to the pros! Taking off a bit of the treble seems to always help round a violin sound. E strings can get a bit squeaky up top!
Thank you so much for your insight!
Great ques!! 🙂