Interview with Ben Foster
I’ve been a fan of the Whoniverse soundtracks since Nu Who hit our screens in 2005, and one of the things I’ve found so interesting about the music is the little snippets of Torchwood whenever the camera points towards a Torchwood logo in Doctor Who. When the series becomes part of a Doctor Who story such as Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, plus the three-part story involving Utopia, Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords, do you collaborate for the soundtrack pieces involving the merge or is this left solely to Murray Gold?
Ben: No, that’s always been Murray.
The Torchwood soundtracks are fantastic and you can tell from the pieces of music which ones work with which character. But how difficult was it when you were putting the music together, before the series had even begun, to know what style of music worked with the characters of the show, and have you ever got it wrong with a character and had to restyle the soundtrack?
Ben: It’s always pretty fluid and the nicest thing about doing a series with recurring characters is that you can use their theme in different styles and moods as their journey continues.
It’s hard to pick a favourite piece of music from the two seasons of Torchwood as they’re all fantastic, but if I had to choose it would be: The Chase – which has some Captain Jack theme in there, The Mission, The Plot, Captain Jack’s Theme ‘here comes Jack on the ruddy big tractor’, Sleeper’s Awake! Toshiko Sato – Betrayal and Redemption and Owen’s Theme, but to be honest I love them all.
When you’re planning for the action sequences, such as ‘The Chase, The Plot, The Mission - where do you find your inspiration?
Ben: It’s entirely driven by the pace of the editing and the mood of it - is it urgent - is it threatening - what does it make ME want to play along with the picture - it’s a fairly spontaneous reaction and it usually works!
I think what works for me with the Torchwood music is that although on the surface some of the pieces involving the main characters may start off subtle and ‘nice’, there’s a dark undertone to the track that brings you back into the fact that Torchwood is horror.
Although I’m sure you don’t have a full orchestra in your studio when you’re writing your pieces of music, but when you’re putting a track together what instrument do you work with, or is it all Garage Band these days???
Ben: The Torchwood soundtrack for Seasons 1-3 was a mix of Synths and Orchestra. I would write the music in my studio on my piano first then on My computer in a program called ‘Logic’ - knowing that all the ‘fake’ string and brass sounds would be replaced. Season 1 was done with only a 12 piece string orchestra - Season 2 I kept that going but we also had a couple of sessions with the BBC NOW to record bigger cues which could be reused - and then Season 3 the BBC NOW recorded most of the music over I think 3 days and there was also a 12 piece string session for episode 4. The synth sounds in Torchwood were always important and came from Murray’s title music - like specific sounds from a specific machine which were really helpful little ‘Torchwood’ signposts.
I like Owen’s theme, it reminds me of rainy days in a cobbled street walking off an argument… I like it as it continues to build on the piano intro and conclude on it. Tunes like this would play continually in my head and I sometimes wish I could write music or have the facility to transfer the music in my head to a device. When music comes to you when you’re out, as is often the case with me, do you have to scribble the notes down quickly there and then, or sing the music onto a voice player or can you keep a tune going till you get home, or back to the studio?
Ben: Yeah - often scribbling things down on paper but singing into the iPhone is the best way although I HATE listening back to it. Owens’ theme was written the night before one of the recording sessions for another episode and I knew it was going to be good so I got it all finished that night and recorded it the next day even though the episode wasn’t ready yet. It just kind of worked and it was pretty exciting. Then I recorded more of it in subsequent episodes cause it kind of stuck.
Why did you not continue writing for Torchwood during Children of Earth and Miracle Day?
Ben: I DID!! Children of Earth was all me but Murray wrote all the music for the excellent: Miracle Day.
If Torchwood was to ever return would you compose the soundtrack again, and will you be composing music for the radio plays?
Ben: Of course I’d love to if anyone asked - that show holds a special place in my heart - I think it was brilliant and it was a really lovely time at the beginning of my career. I’m not doing the radio plays no, but they asked if they could use some of my themes from the TV series which was nice.
Sometimes a piece of music will move me emotionally such as ‘The End is Where we Start From’ often just from looking beyond my window at the birds in flight circling around the harbour or flying home to roost. It can put such a heavy weight in my heart that I feel as if I’ve personally lost two great people in my life. When you’re writing a piece of music like this, when all the pieces of it are put together, do you also feel a sense of powerful emotion when you hear it played back?
Ben: Yeah - and beyond the scope of the scene it’s written for - cause to write music for scenes of loss and sadness you have to draw on your own experiences of those feelings. So it’s a powerful feeling listening to music you’ve written.
Out of the music you have written for Torchwood, do you have any personal favourite tracks from the series?
Ben: I like Toshiko’s theme - I like Out of Time - I really like the music for the one with the boat and the island and the boy called Jonah - and Children of earth is great - the bit where the helicopter goes up - I’m proud of that cue.
What projects are you currently involved in, Ben?
Ben: All sorts!
Have you composed music for any other shows and are these available in the shops?
Ben: Yes - recently the soundtrack for ITV’s Thunderbirds Are Go! which I write with my brother Nick came out on SilvaScreen and it’s worth checking out!
Torchwood aside I’ve really enjoyed the BBC army drama Our Girl which starred Lacey Turner (Eastenders’ Stacey Slater). I had to go in search of a few episodes on Youtube to refresh my memory of the background music. When you’re composing for such a powerful drama such as this, are you also in charge of the extra musical pieces such as the ‘pop songs’ that feature during the episodes, as they did in the Torchwood series?
Ben: Less so - these tend to be chosen by a music editor or by the director and very occasionally they’re written in the script. I like Our Girl - I’ll be working on the new series this summer.
Like writers of prose it must be difficult to switch off from composing, but there must be a point sometimes when you need to take a break or chill out to refresh and recharge the batteries – How do you unwind? I like driving - that clears your head - and I like being in the countryside for the same reason.
Torchwood has brought us a fantastic cast of characters who we will never forget but it has also brought us such powerful pieces of music that we often play when we’re writing, driving in our car, or as the passenger, losing us in memories of episodes and where we were when we first heard the sudden rumble of the Torchwood theme tune. Thank you for creating such powerful and emotional pieces of music that are still played even today, moreso when we need to feel inspired and is also on my phone.
Ben: Thank you - I still love to listen to the Torchwood soundtracks in my car - a well timed gear or lane change to the key change in Ianto’s theme gives me a big thrill :-)
Thank you for a wonderful interview!