Oscar-winning film composer didn't let law get in the way of his love of music

Lebanese-French composer Gabriel Yared revealed he was excited to hear that his work for "The English Patient" will be played live together with the movie in Shanghai.


Lebanese-French composer Gabriel Yared felt so excited when hearing that his work for “The English Patient” will be played live together with the movie in Shanghai in September.

“I wish I could be there,” says the 69-year-old, who has never been to a film in concert before.

The film in concert is to be staged at Shanghai Oriental Art Center on September 13, with the live music performed by the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Ernst Van Tiel.

Despite an interest in music, and lessons in accordion, piano and musical theory as a child, Yared first studied and gained a law degree at university. He did not formally study music until 1969 as a non-registered student of the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, where he learned musical composition under the watchful eye of Henri Dutilleux.

Ti Gong

Gabriel Yared is best known for his work in French and American cinema.

He later produced albums, created radio and TV jingles before going on to score a series of movie soundtracks, inclusing the Oscar and Grammy-award winning “The English Patient” (1996), “Betty Blue” (1986), “Camille Claude” (1988), “City of Angels” (1998) and “Bon Voyage” (2003).

Yared referred to “The English Patient” as a beautiful collaboration between him and his soul mate Anthony Minghella. They worked together on the film long before the shooting started, and tried match the images and emotion as much as possible, but also to provide beautiful music.

“Although music has no voice or dialogue, it creates an atmosphere that marries the characters, emotions, colors and images,” says Yared. “I believe that music should also exist on its own. A composer should not write music just to underscore, but to elevate audiences around the world.”

Yared shared his musical and soundtrack composition experience with a Shanghai Daily question and answer.

Q: What made you shift your major from law to music?

A: I was born in a family where there were no musicians or artists whatsoever. When I finished school at 16, my father asked me what I wanted to study. I said ‘music’ but he wouldn’t let me. He gave me a choice between being a lawyer, engineer or a doctor. 

I decided to study law, because just in front of the university was a Jesuit cathedral with an organ. This is where I discovered (Johann Sebastian) Bach, (Johann) Pachabel, (Cesar) Franck and many great pieces of organ music. From an early age, I was always meant to be a musician, but it was not my choice to study law.

Q: You have composed in a wide range of musical genres, are there any differences for you in composition? Is a film score more special from the others?

A: For me, it is exactly the same approach when producing/arranging/orchestrating songs or writing short jingles. No matter what the project is, I always put the same care and consciousness into my work.

And film composition is nothing really special. It comes down to knowing the disciplines of music: harmony, counterpoint or fugue, and by having my own unique approach. 

I start by reading the script and talking to the director and creating themes. Then, I put all my thought into watching the film and craft my music to the images. Film composition is not so different to writing music generally.

A composer should be someone who knows how to write an opera or operetta, and so should have a sense of the dramaturgy. With this, the transition is made much more easily.

And it is worth noting that the first “film” composers for film came from a classical background. Of course, a film composer needs to know how to sync their music with the images, but this is not a big challenge. The only real difference between general composition and film composition is that the creative process is shared with a director, and so it is a real collaboration.

Q: Among your own film compositions, which one impressed you the most?

A: I tend not to listen to my own film compositions, as they don’t impress me. I try to avoid listening to my work, as I very often hear what I could have done differently. There is probably just one score that I listen to, and I ask myself, “How could I have composed this?” 

This is the score for Camille Claudel. Firstly because this film, about two sculptors, was incredibly inspiring, but also because (Benjamin) Britten, (Gustav) Mahler and (Anton) Bruckner wrote the temporary music in the film. It is the only score which still impresses me and which I can still listen to.

Q: Were there any difficulties in the process of composing for “The English Patient”?

A: Definitely! I was living on an island off the west coast of France, called Île-aux-Moines, and Anthony and Walter were based in San Francisco. Communication was difficult, as of course there was no Internet at the time. We could only communicate by fax and telephone. 

The most challenging part of composing the score was to replace the aria from J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” performed by Glenn Gould. We weren’t able to use this piece, as the scene was too long, so I set out to write something that would replace Bach. It took me a lot of time, as I soon realized it wasn’t easy to write music like Bach!

Ti Gong

Despite being interest in music, Yared first studied and gained a law degree at university. 



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