Many music artists strive to tell stories with their songs, but what if you're having to write music to tell a story that already exists? That was the challenge in front of Barnaby Taylor when the award-winning composer was enlisted to create the sound for the Disneynature documentary film "Born in China." Music was a major part of the film, and Born in China: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack contains 40 selections of Taylor's instrumental work showcasing China's vivid wildlife. You can listen to his title track from the album here, and continue reading for AXS's email interview with Taylor in which he discussed the process of creating music for real life.
AXS: You come to this project with a unique perspective, because you don't only have a musical background but you also have a background in documentary production. Can you explain about your history and how it got you here?
Barnaby Taylor: I come from a musical background – my father, Allan Taylor, is a singer-songwriter. As a child I was surrounded by music, everything from Woody Guthrie to the Bulgarian State Television Women’s Choir. I began playing the piano at an early age. improvising, experimenting and making up my own compositions. There were always musicians staying at our house and I drew inspiration from them, not just the music itself but the stories of life on the road and the camaraderie. I began piano lessons when I was nine. I had a brilliant piano teacher but it was clear that I was never going to be a concert pianist. Composing was becoming my passion.
But like a lot of kids, I also wanted to try other things. I have a deep love for the natural world, and growing up I was addicted to films like "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" and David Attenborough’s "Life on Earth." I was too young for Disney’s "True-Life Adventures." But I knew I didn’t want to tour, or perform on stage. I’d seen that life and although I did – and still do – occasionally perform with my father, that life wasn’t for me. I decided to study zoology, with music as something I did for myself.
I worked in natural-history television production, for the BBC and Icon Films in Bristol, England, and while I was researching and producing, I came into contact with some of the composers that were scoring these films. Suddenly I realized what I wanted to do with my life, and where my creative energies could be directed. It was a lightbulb moment. I began by scoring anything I could get my hands on – student films, shorts, theatrical productions. I made sure I used live musicians wherever possible, and invested heavily in my ‘sound’. I believe that this gave me the edge [in] breaking into a very competitive world.
AXS: How do you think that background has been reflected in your music?
BT: I’ve scored many natural history films and television series including "Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice," which won a Music and Sound Award (MASA). I’ve also scored current affairs documentaries such as "Calling the Shots/Shooting Under Fire." In 2014 I scored the Pinewood Films horror thriller, Camera Trap. I also scored three series of the BBC series The Indian Doctor, starring Sanjeev Bhaskar. I suppose I’ve become known for scores that capture a place or a culture. I do a lot of research and love working with local instrumentalists and performers. I’ve recorded in places such as Bangladesh (for the BBC film "Tiger Hounds") and Kenya (for the series "The Great Rift").
I began my fascination with Chinese music when scoring "Wild China" in 2009. This won a Best Music Emmy Award (News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Music and Sound). I had a long-standing relationship with producers Phil Chapman and Brian Leith, with whom I had worked with on "Wild China." They suggested me to Lu Chuan, who was [also] a fan of the score for "Wild China," and after sending some selections and show reel material to Disney I got the green light [for "Born in China"].
AXS: What were the challenges of composing for an international project?
BT: It was pretty intense, working across so many time-zones. I am based in the UK and would wake up to comments and feedback from China (several hours ahead). I’d work on these and get them ready in time for Burbank to wake up. I find music speaks across language barriers, and it was good to find our groove with the animal characters. There’s always a scramble to get everything ready for the recording sessions but these went very well, and I’ve had great feedback.
AXS: Which songs from this album would you recommend for audiences to sample?
AXS: How would you describe your creative process of marrying music to the visual image?
BT: I do a lot of research, and a lot of listening. I get the script early, way ahead of the edit, and spend time reading and walking over to the piano and writing down or recording ideas on my phone. In the vast majority of cases these first ideas make it into the score, or – worst case scenario – stop me from going down a dead-end! I’m very available during the offline – I think that’s a trend. Directors want to hear what they’re getting, and have the score shape the film.
Born in China: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is now available on iTunes.
For more on Barnaby Taylor, visit his artist page at AXS.