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Just like Nino Rota’s first Godfather score, the original music for Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World was a hot but ineligible favourite for an Oscar this year, being based on earlier work. But Christopher Gordon, who shared composing duties on the score, has other measures of its lasting value, as Brad Green points out in this interview with one of Australia’s most gifted and celebrated screen composers.

Christopher Gordon unfurls the poster, and we come face to face with an early nineteenth century naval captain. It is the flagship image for Master And Commander: The Far Side of The World and Russell Crowe’s steely gaze testifies that he was perfectly cast in the role of Captain Jack Aubrey, Master of HMS Surprise. “I was thinking of pinning it up,” says Gordon, who co-wrote the movie soundtrack with fellow Australians Iva Davies and Richard Tognetti. Then he laughs as he curls the placard up again and reconsigns the captain to the corner. “But I wasn’t sure I wanted Russell staring down at me all day.”

It would look out of place here anyway. There are already some famous faces hanging on a wall of Gordon’s home studio, but they aren’t exactly film stars. Holding court above a Yamaha upright are black and white photographs of Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler and Alan Berg. “I’d quite like one of Schoenberg,” says Gordon. “That would round out the period.” 

It is both brave and canny to position a mini-gallery of twentieth century heavyweights above the piano: no composer, however successful, could rest on their laurels beneath such an audience. In addition to film and television scores Gordon has written music for the concert hall, arts festivals and special events that include the Sydney Harbour Millennium Celebrations, the Centenary of Federation celebration and the recent Rugby World Cup. But even the most accomplished composers, like the most decorated naval captains, need their heroes. Their Horatio Nelsons. The paladins of their noble callings. 

At regular intervals in Master And Commander wide frames of ship and sea are accompanied by pounding drums. “I think of those as a constant reminder that the enemy ship is somewhere, that at any time they could be called to action, a constant call to war rather than the sounds of war,” says Gordon.

"to explore the world of harmony"

Captains are called to battle on the far side of the world and composers are called to explore the world of harmony. Gordon’s own odyssey began at the age of 10 when he joined the Australian Boys Choir. There he received some rudimentary training and he took a handful of piano lessons. Otherwise he is self-taught, and the source of his education is right next to me. Two shelves jam-packed with scores of the classical repertoire.

As I cast an eye over the thin, serried spines of the sheet music with their thousands of notes of genius, my gaze rests on the bench beneath and I am reminded of a book that lay there the last time I interviewed Gordon in this room three years ago. I picked the novel up at the time and asked Gordon what he was reading. “Oh that’s Patrick O’Brian,” he said, and I still recall the enthusiasm in his voice. “It’s a 20-volume series: historical British navy stories in the C.S. Forester vein only better.”

Was this a coincidence? Or did he know back then that Peter Weir was planning to make the adaptation we have been talking about today?

“Well, really it was a coincidence. At the time of reading the books I heard about the film and submitted for it to no effect. I sent Peter some excerpts from my Moby Dick and On The Beach scores, which happened to be exactly the sort of music he wasn’t looking for.”

"epic stories"

Those two scores for television mini-series were also my first introduction to Christopher Gordon. Replete with lush orchestration and captivating melody they turned me into an instant fan and won awards and wide acclaim. Prima facie, they should have made an unassailable presentation to Weir. They were based on epic stories with nautical themes, and gave ample evidence that here was a composer who would be able to draw on the nuances of the relationship between O’Brian’s central protagonists: the dutiful Captain Aubrey and the ship’s surgeon and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).

“It’s funny,” says Gordon, “because the books are famous for the relationship between the two main characters, but I don’t think Peter was interested in that; he was interested in the world the books describe. The first thing he said to us was that he basically wanted to make a documentary about what life would have been like on board a ship back then.”

One feature of the protagonists’ relationship that the film does emphasise is their regular get-togethers for duets on violin and cello. Music is a nexus for the two men’s contrasting personalities, as well as providing an escape from the horrors of their daily lives. To ensure verisimilitude, Australian Chamber Orchestra leader Richard Tognetti was employed to coach Crowe in violin technique.

“I think at that stage Peter was toying with the idea of having authentic period music for the whole score,” says Gordon, “and Richard supplied him with literally dozens of CDs to listen to. There are a lot of pieces mentioned in the books, some of them fictional and others do exist, and while none of the pieces finally used in the film are mentioned, the ones that we were involved in arranging and recording -- the Boccherini, the Corelli, the Mozart and the traditional folk music -- there’s every chance that Jack and Stephen could have actually played those.”

In the course of feeding potential source music to Weir, Tognetti also happened to give him a couple excerpts from Ghost Of Time, a work that he had collaborated on with Gordon and Davies for the Millennium Eve celebrations.

"playing it every day on the set"

“Apparently Peter fell in love with it to the extent that he was playing it regularly on the set to motivate the cast and crew,” says Gordon. “Then sometime after finishing filming he got the idea to get the same team together including Simon Leadley as music editor and to base the soundtrack on that piece. Ultimately there’s more of a direct quote from another track I wrote as an extension of the same project called Endless Ocean, whereas it’s mostly internal mechanisms of chords and rhythms that we used from Ghost Of Time itself. The only downside is that because the score is based on previously released material it’s ineligible for an Oscar.”

The upside is that this puts it in rather distinguished company. The same proscription applied to Nino Rota’s first Godfather score, after it was originally the raging Oscar favourite. Moreover, it hasn’t harmed the public response and the soundtrack CD spent some time at number one on the US Billboard Classical chart. 

Gordon compiled the album himself, and the tracks follow the same sequence as the cues in the film with one notable exception. 

“On the CD I actually put the last cue first and the first cue last and you can play the whole album as a circle. People have suggested that the end of the film was set up for a sequel but I don’t think that was the intention at all. As I said, Peter very much saw the whole thing as a documentary and we are just dropped into their lives and we just go out of their lives at a certain point. That’s why at the end they sail off into the distance. We actually called the final track Full Circle.”

"an upcoming mini-series"

Gordon himself sailed right into his next commission, the score for an upcoming mini-series of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot starring Rob Lowe, James Cromwell and Donald Sutherland. And I’m privileged to a sneak preview of the opening cue, a stunning combination of Gothic idiom and measured lyricism. 

Right to the minute, Gordon is back to the world of the concert hall, working on a Concerto For Bass Trombone And Orchestra to be performed by the SSO. “It’s not finished yet and would you believe they’ve already written it into the syllabus to be studied for this year’s HSC,” he says with just a hint of apprehension. 

I am tempted to ask him to play me a few more tracks from Salem’s Lot, when I glance up over the Yamaha and catch a new severity in Mahler’s countenance; Stravinsky too looks different, somehow more impatient as he peers down his bulbous nose, and I could swear I saw Berg jerk his head meaningfully. It is time for me to take my leave. There’s a concerto to complete and the twentieth century masters are calling the local maestro to duty.

Published February 5, 2004

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