Debbie Kruger
David Hirschfelder heading and picturePhotos by Tony Mott
July 2001



The day after the APRA Music Awards, David Hirschfelder was far from gloating. He had picked up his third APRA Award for Best Film Score – this time for the quirky Australian comedy Better Than Sex – and was talking about his latest project, the score for K-19: The Widowmaker, which stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. But a chief concern was that he would still fit in, belong, in the Australian film industry.

“I’m waiting for that call, guys, I’m here. Don’t forget me. If you’re out there, please don’t forget my number. Don’t lose it – I’m still here!”

Was his tongue sitting comfortably in his cheek? Not even slightly. Rather than basking in the glory of another major accolade, Hirschfelder was humble.

“I’m aware of the ever-present potential of the tall poppy syndrome. That’s the way Australians are, and I don’t knock that – I’m an Australian, too,” he says. “I think there’s a certain no-bullshit factor in Australia that prevails, which I think means that when you do get recognition from your peers, it’s a very special feeling. Especially when the peers are musical fellow writers and publishers. It’s nice to get the recognition on your home turf and to still be recognised and not written off just because I do – let’s face it – work a lot overseas.”

He has recently taken on the mantle of National President of the Australian Guild of Screen Composers, reinforcing his commitment to the industry that nurtured him and launched his international career. BAFTA Awards (for Strictly Ballroom and Elizabeth), Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations (Shine and Elizabeth) and credits on films such as Sliding Doors, Hanging Up and Weight of Water (to be released this September starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley) are balanced against the satisfaction and sheer delight of working on something like Better Than Sex.

“It was a breath of fresh air, it really was. I thoroughly enjoyed doing Strictly Ballroom for the same reason I enjoyed doing Better Than Sex, and that’s that in both scores there’s a deliberate intention not to gush emotionally, and to hide the depth of the emotion in a twee, fun musical soundscape rather than be deliberately emotional. The emotion’s there, but it’s subtle, and it’s hiding in fun. And that’s what the film Better Than Sex is about; it’s about how a fun, seemingly shallow experience is actually cloaking a very profound experience. That’s what I was trying to mirror with that music.”

Hirschfelder’s attraction to complex and sophisticated projects meant he was destined for the world stage. With a crude programmable electronic organ given to him by his father, the young classically trained Hirschfelder knew, in the guitar-influenced 1970s, that music, and particularly keyboard-driven music, was his vocation. His first composition, at the age of 13, was “a little piano ditty” inspired by his first experience of hearing Dave Bruebeck. By the age of 16 he was writing a jazz piece for piano and flute. Everything he composed was written on paper, but what appealed about jazz was the opportunity for improvisation while performing.

“I recognised that composition is in many ways an act of editing those improvised ideas or those inspired sparks, editing them and compiling them and crafting them into something a little more structured. Jazz really appealed to me – and then I discovered rock and roll and the power and the guts of that.”

Led Zeppelin was striking to the young Hirschfelder. “I could hear an orchestral link; I could hear actually bits of Prokofiev and Beethoven, the intensity of the riffs, and even bits of Stravinsky sometimes. I could hear the angular 20th century orchestral gestures and there was a kind of a depth to it that really appealed to me. And again, guitar-driven, but the electric guitar, when it’s in the hands of a maestro like Jimmy Page, can sound like an orchestra. I liked the intensity and the modernness of that. As a young person I identified more with those sounds than a lot of the contemporary classical music, although I must admit I loved ‘The Rite of Spring’ as soon as I heard that.”

He had his own jazz group, Pyramid, which played at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and he was developing a niche in jingle writing, but with the advent of 1980s synthesiser-oriented music, Hirschfelder took the pop route. He admired The Reels, The Models, The Thompson Twins and English techno-pop artist Thomas Dolby. “While I was in Little River Band, touring in ostensibly a harmony-driven guitar soft rock band – and it was a lot of fun and they were great musicians – I was secretly wanting to be in something like the Thompson Twins, or I probably would have liked to be in a band like Real Life or even Psuedo Echo. I was secretly wanting to be in bands like that, but I sort of wound up, because of where life took me, in fairly straight pop bands which needed big production values like Little River Band and then John Farnham. And I enjoyed all that, I enjoyed being able to exercise my orchestration fantasies using synthesisers to model ideas which were really orchestral.

“I must say now that I’ve become a so-called composer of more serious music or structured music, and I now have this job where I service people’s needs and get to write the music I enjoy writing, I look back at performing in the pop music world and I had a ball. And I would do it again, if the right circumstances came up.”

The path to screen composing was circuitous but constructive. “While I was touring with those bands I had this yearning to be a screen composer and I felt I was treading water; as much as I was fulfilling my childhood fantasy of being in a rock band, I’d already moved on and I was looking further ahead. But when I look back I think it was a very lucky thing what happened to me, because from John Farnham I learned so much about communicating with an audience psychically. It’s a little bit of magic that I think luckily rubbed off on me and all of us in LRB at the time. And coupled with that I learned from Graeham Goble about putting attention to detail.”

Hirshfelder sent out demo tapes to film producers and was universally rejected because of his lack of scoring experience. Finally when he was 27, journalist turned producer/director Ian Gillespie heard the demo tape and decided Hirschfelder’s compositional style would be perfect for the television documentary he was making on a young woman dying of AIDS. Suzi’s Story set Hirschfelder’s career on the path he was destined to take. The timing was right.

“I think being a composer for the screen requires a maturity and perhaps just an experience of life. Which is quite separate from your ability to construct music. You may well be very gifted to come up with melodies and may have studied at an early age the craft of combining sounds together, orchestrating, producing electronic music – there’s a number of ways you can be developing your craft as a composer. But the final layer which can only take time, and nothing can replace that, is life experience. And so it’s having something to write about which is relevant to a story. For example, if the story is set in the world or a mindscape of a young person in their twenties, then I think obviously someone that age is probably best qualified to compose for it.

“Whereas as you get older your experiences get richer, you become hopefully wiser or at least certainly more experienced. And that’s what a screen composer is, it’s like a musical narrator, it’s like an emotional narrator, and you need to be able to speak fluently about subjects which you’re well-versed. Otherwise it’s just a series of notes which may be clever, but perhaps don’t connect.”

While Strictly Ballroom was the ideal first feature for a young and perhaps brash composer working with a young brash director (Baz Luhrmann), Shine was a transformational experience that took Hirschfelder to new levels of creativity. “The amazing thing is that score actually symbolised my own transformation at a time when I was actually being reborn as a classically-oriented musician. Perhaps I’d spent ten years being a little bit lost in terms of identity and not being sure of who or what I was. And when Shine came along and it was a story about a man called David who was lost and got found again later in life, in some ways there are parallels with me. I was 35 and I realised that yes, I am a classical musician, I’ve been running away from it and this film has come back to remind me that that’s what I am. I’m very proud of being involved with Strictly Ballroom and Suzi’s Story, they were heartfelt projects. But Shine just came along and tapped me on the shoulder and got me back on the track.”

In terms of his personal and musical development, Elizabeth was another film that came along at the right time. When studying Elizabethan music at Melbourne University in the late ‘70s, Hirschfelder was “totally disinterested in it.” “And yet now, I love it. And it wasn’t until my late twenties that I looked at what composers were doing in that era, which was extraordinary really, and in fact I believe it’s possibly a renaissance about to happen, a lot of composers’ interests are rekindled again with the Gregorian chant and with the basics of melodic writing and then how you create antiphonal motifs, but from a modern perspective.”

For Hirschfelder, the director’s vision is the most important aspect of the scoring process. “I can’t rely on my response to the script, because I’m not guided by the director. Nothing succeeds in focusing me better than seeing the performances and the visuals on the screen and that’s what drives me. I think that’s so important. I can often get ideas and glimpses of what I would write from the script, but I really need a time for that to gestate, and then what’s most important is to have the film itself wash over me because that’s what I’m working with, that’s my collaborator, not the actual raw story. It’s the vision of the storyteller.”

While admittedly self-absorbed and intensely focused as many composers are, Hirshfelder welcomes opportunities for collaboration. There is a catch, though. His collaborators might have to be called David. And, preferably, their last name should begin with the letter “H”. From David Helfgott, the subject and inspiration for Shine, and David Hobson, the opera singer and life-long friend with whom he recorded the album Inside This Room and performed a highly ambitious concert, to didgeridoo player David Hudson, Hirshfelder’s musical soul mates are curiously monikered.

“I know, it sounds narcissistic, but I assure you it’s only coincidence,” he insists. “Karl Jung was right, we are in a synchronistic world. It’s enough to rock your faith in agnostic’s scepticism, really.”

David Hirschfelder close-up


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