Interview with Martin Tillman

Of all of the instruments given to an orchestra, few evoke poignancy like the cello. When given to the hands of a master, it becomes a weapon of devastating power – both on its own and as part of the Middle Eastern-tuned ensemble that conveys the “Cries from Syria.” Wielding both strings and score is Swiss-born musician Martin Tillman, whose talents as soloist and composer bring explosive, sad light to a world-shattering conflict, and refugee crisis created by Syria’s unending Civil War.

Their tears are chronicled by Russian documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky who’d previously revealed the brutal, valiant battle for Ukrainian freedom with “Winter on Fire.” But where that film ended on a note of tenuous hope, “Cries from Syria” has no such optimism as it details the seemingly insurmountable fight for freedom of a people against a brutal dictator. With nothing spared to the audience to show them the truth about a situation that’s killed thousands and displaced millions, it’s all the more important for Tillman’s score to draw viewers to the hope of its victims, as well as their horror.

Mixing the lethally cold music of torture and wanton murder, Tillman nevertheless hears the optimism of their spirit in the human voice and an ancient, aching Middle Eastern ensemble. Filled with melodic irony, Tillman gives “Syria’s” score a powerful, unforgettable truth that will perhaps move listeners to shock, and tears as they wrap their minds around an unfathomable situation that’s often being met with a cold-hearted response the world over.

Martin Tillman has long been able to create his own well of emotions with his distinctly evocative use of the cello, his virtuoso contributions heard to suspenseful, eerie effect in such scores as “The Pledge,” “Hannibal,” “Phone Booth” and “Constantine.” It became the sinisterly humorous voice of undead brigands in numerous “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, became an aging cad for “Something’s Gotta Give” and the dark heart of Hans Zimmer’s superhero-scoring changing “Batman Begin.” It was his frequent contributions to the work of Zimmer and his compatriots that have yielded some of Tillman’s most frighteningly unique work, no more so than with the electrified sound of a girl’s vengeful ghost in “The Ring” and its sequels, the second of which Tillman co-scored.

Continuing to play with any number of stadium acts while adding his instrumental voice to the likes of “Man of Steel,” “Rush” and “The Martian,” Tillman’s own scoring star is on the rise with his work (along with percussionist Satnam Ramgotra) for the doomed, moody heroism of “Last Knights,” as well as documenting the repressive cultural killing of women with “In the Name of Honor.” Yet even as Tillman scores his most powerfully bleak project yet for “Cries from Syria,” the soft spoken composer has found a soaring, rocking sense of optimism with his acclaimed concept album “Superhuman,” embodying the stylistic voice that tells us to rise for the stars above one’s own situation – a dream he desperately hopes for when it comes to an intractable crisis for the millions of innocent people inhabiting Syria, or desperately hoping for a safe haven from it.

What inspired you to pick up the cello above all other instruments? And how did you make its sound your own?

I was surrounded by cellos as a kid. My parents had a boarding school. During the summer they opened our house to 30 kids and teachers and organized music camps. I loved the deep human sound of the instrument, and it became my dream to be a rock guitarist. However, I had no talent on the guitar whatsoever! I then decided to study the cello professionally and perform with it in orchestras. But did not like it as much. That changed a few years later when I basically electrified my cello and started to emulate the guitar with it. In the very first view years of doing that, I played along to Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack for “Passion,” along with albums by Toto, Supertramp and many more…all alone in my basement.

What interested you about film soundtracks, and was a move to Hollywood always in the cards?

I was far more into rock and roll than movie soundtracks. But I enjoyed scores like “White Nights,” and the scores to Fellini films. My favorite score was Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso.” What really what made me interested in going to Hollywood was when my cello teacher, Lynn Harrell, accepted me here at USC. He’s a fantastic artist and teacher. Also, most of the recordings I listened to in the 80s all came out of LA. So I had a vision that one day I would meet all of the musicians and writers I admired, and I did! I met Sting, Elton John, BB King, Shaka Khan, T-Bone Burnett Alison Krauss. I also met many great session Players like Michael Landau, Vinny Colajuta, Steve Lukather and Leland Sklar.

How did you come to Hans Zimmer’s attention? And what do you think he particularly liked about the sound of the cello in relation to his scores?

Martin Tillman (L) and Hans Zimmer (R)

I think he heard me on some TV shows. I was working a lot at that time with Jeff Rona, which connected me to him. Hans couldn’t figure out what I was doing in the beginning, nor did I. But eventually we came up with a plan how to use the electric cello in his scores. It blends really well in the hybrid world of the modern soundtrack. I was literally one of the first on the Hollywood score scene with the cello. Hans called it “the secret weapon,” because you never could see its sound coming. Sometimes the cello would be percussive. Sometimes it sounded like an Armenian instrument called the Duduk. Then it could sound like The Edge’s guitar in U2. Fun, literally unlimited voices can come from the cello, even wind and whale sounds.

Tell us about your first experiences playing on scores as an instrumentalist? How much of your own personality could you bring to your role as part of an orchestra?

In the very beginning I was a session player in Hollywood orchestras, but I felt a little bit that I wasn’t really meant for that. I needed artistic freedom. So I eventually ended up playing more and more solos for various composers, adding my own spin to their scores, whether they were classically influenced or more modern. Eventually I borrowed from the technique of the fabulous session players I’d worked with about how to be in the moment and come up with unique ideas within the framework of a score.

How did you go from player to composer on such scores as “An Everlasting Piece,” “The Pledge” and “Pearl Harbor?”

It was just a natural progression for me. I always composed, even as a player, but more for my own CDs. I eventually worked as a co- writer, and now doing my own scores. But deep down I’m still that “rocknroller.” It’s a lot of years of me having worked with Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, Mark Isham, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Rona and many more. They provided me with the tools and inspiration.

Your real breakthrough as a cellist and composer was on “The Ring” and its sequel, where you received a full co-composer credit. What do you think it was about the electric cello that made it so suited for horror scoring, especially this story?

Hans and I came up with some unplayable parts for both the electric and acoustic cello, which we then sampled. There was the “human” sound, and then the electric. It became the dark distortion of horror and suspense.

What was the challenge of becoming a solo composer, especially when it came to orchestrating what instruments you wanted to favor?

Since I am not a “proper” composer, I started in the early days with riffs and little melodies on the cello. But piano is still, and always will be my instrument of choice to write on. I do love small simple scores, where I normally do my own acoustic cello parts. Then Christine Wu adds her one-woman orchestra, which sounds tremendous! I keep experimenting with new sounds all the time.

You teamed with fellow Hans’ percussionist Satnam Ramgotra on “Last Knights.” What was that meeting of the “session player-turned composer” minds like, especially given your different specialties?

It was perfect. We are great friends and love to improvise, which you can hear a lot throughout the score, where I concentrated on doing the love scenes and the action bits.

You recently created the concept album “Superhuman,” which you could say plays as a diverse “soundtrack” of its own. Tell me about what inspired the album, and what you hope to accomplish from it.

My wife’s horrible MS inspired me to come up with a project which is inspiring to me, her and hopefully the listener. The dream is to tour the world with it. Having a blast is my goal!

Martin and Eva Tillman

How did the experience of scoring such documentaries as “Brave Miss World” and “In the Name of Honor” teach you about the different approach the genre has from fiction. Or is the dramatic goal the same?

I am a big fan of great documentaries because of their subjects and storylines. They always open your eyes to new stories that are real and need desperate attention. Sometimes documentaries have a dynamic that is similar to fiction, though I suppose the feel of the music is less melodramatic and action-oriented. I tremendously enjoy composing music for them.

What were your thoughts about the situation in Syria before “Cries” came your way?

I did not know much, just what I saw on the news. This film obviously changed my life by getting to know some of the people who are a part of the story, like Kholoud Waleed, who is so amazing as she talks about the civil war.

(L to R) Evgeny Afineevsky, Kholoud Helmi, Martin Tillman & Den Tolmor

How do you think playing cello on such scores as “Black Hawk Down” helped set you up for “Cries From Syria?” And how would you describe how film music plays the war-torn Middle East?

I was in a Persian band here in LA called Axiom of Choice, so I already had my appreciation for Middle Eastern music On my first Album “Eastern Twin,” I used some of its influences with the player Tom Vedvik. Playing on “Black Hawk Down” was my first approach of making new groves with the electric cello. It was a very “open-minded” world music score that had bits of Middle Eastern and African approaches in it. I suppose that played a part in Kathy Nelson introducing me to Evegeny Afineevsky for this film.

Could you talk about your collaboration with Evgeny? What do you think drew him to your music, and what did he want the score to achieve here?

Director, Evgeny Afineevsky

I think he really got the sound of my cello in a cerebral way. The film is about a human tragedy of crazy proportions and it was important to give it a human, hopeful element despite all the horror. I came up with themes and started placing them. Also my conversations with the editor Aaron I. Butler during the writing process were very fruitful. As I only had 9 days to do the score of 1 hour 37 minute film, it just happened so quickly that I only remember the hours left to meet the final deadline!

Tell us about the instruments used in the score, and the players.

I had Mamak Khadem for voice, Satnam Ramgotra on percussion, Christine Wu for the string orchestra and additional music, orchestration and electronics by Joerg Huettner and by William V Malpede. I played on the keyboards and various acoustic and electronic cellos. We also recorded with Alaa in Berlin via Skype. He performs beautiful instrumental versions on an Arabic instrument called the Oud, and sang in the street demonstrations by the Freedom Fighters

How did you want to use the female voice?

We used it as an expression of humanity, and the represent the Syrian motherland. The voice is The Mother, the comforter of all, especially the children.

What things about the documentary particularly moved or shocked you, and how do you think that translated to your score?

The loneliness of the children as they experience on horrific moment after another, with absolutely no future in sight. I tried to give them a comforting sound of hope

When you work on a documentary like this, does it have a psychological effect on you?

Yes. Immense sadness.

Did you distort instruments, or samples to create a sustaining sense of unease?

I distorted many of them. I sampled my own cellos and had Joerg Huettner create amazing sounds with it. He layered 60 of them to create a “wall” of cellos, which we used in scenes where the Russians attack with chemical weapons.

Given how brutally powerful the documentary is. How did you want to balance subtlety with the bigger emotional moments?

I just went with my intuition, always letting the story come first. I’d also counterbalance the terror with hopeful themes.

Another impactful musical sequence is where the documentary shows the “white hats” saving people from rubble, a squad of rescuers who’d win Best Documentary short this year. How did you want to score them?

They provide “Cries from Syria” with one of the most optimistic moments of the film, which I hoped my music helped.

Could you talk about scoring the ending of the film, which is essentially a plea to stop the war? How can you imagine it being stopped though?

I hope and I hope. But it does not look good at the moment.

When it seems that many Americans could care less about what the people in Syria are going through, how do you hope your music will make viewers empathize with them?

I pray the music helps them to hear it even more as an international problem, to make the civil war and the refugee crisis not only about Syria, but about what’s happening all over the globe, which made me score “Cries from Syria” as contemporarily as possible.

Tell us about your forthcoming scoring and film session work.

I am preparing Superhuman Shows in Europe. I’m glad to now be doing a fun project with a rock band, an orchestra and a lightshow. And there is always a next movie popping up from nowhere! After “Cries from Syria,” I know that I can handle any nine-day deadline!

“Cries from Syria” premieres on HBO March 13th. Listen to Martin Tillman’s “Superhuman” HERE before taking a ride with the “Last Knights” HERE or watching the “Rings” at your peril HERE

Visit Martin Tillman’s website HERE

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