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Michael Palin in North Korea – Interview with Composer Miguel d’Oliveira

November 22, 2018

Michael Palin in North Korea is the latest in a long – and fascinating – line of travelogues by Palin. In the UK, it aired on Channel 5 a few weeks ago; and if you haven’t watched it, it’s worth catching up on. Over two episodes, Palin offers an intriguing glimpse into that most secretive of countries: North Korea. He walks a very fine line between: what we’re allowed to see, what we’re not allowed to see, and what the presenter (subtly) implies. The music walks the same line. Synchrotones had the pleasure of talking to composer Miguel d’Oliveira about it.


d’Oliveira’s album contains 18 cues and clocks in at just over half an hour.  It’s not quite what you might expect. No traditional Korean instruments or other Eastern influences. Instead… synthesizers. Lots of them, evoking that good old and cheesy 80s sound. It’s very popular nowadays. I’m not sure exactly when, where and by whom this style resurged, but plenty of composers have had a go at it. d’Oliveira’s contribution to this fad is amongst my favourite.

The composer has contributed to several documentaries, including Diana: Our Mother for which he recently received a Jerry Goldsmith Award, and to travel shows like Joanna Lumley’s Japan as well as her Trans-Siberian Adventure.

How did you get involved with this project? I know you’ve done a few of these, so could I assume it’s through continuous partnerships?

Yes. I have worked with the director before on Joanna Lumley’s Japan and we got on very well. He actually asked me to score two other projects after that one but I was too busy on other series. Really glad he kept asking and that it panned out on this one.

On the surface, d’Oliveira’s score is a fun retro score featuring lots classic synth sounds. It’s light-hearted and there’s a sense of humour present. There are moments where you’d expect the doctor to arrive (“The Monolith”), and plenty of pop-like moments (“Future Hope”, “Imaginary Neon”). However, dig deeper and there’s some deeper meaning behind it all.

You told me that the retro synth sound is deliberate, “a political statement through music”… could you explain that a little further?

The concept was there in my mind almost as soon as I was told what the project was. And then the analogies/metaphors started piling up. The core idea was the choice of temperamental, and usually cheap, synthesizers (all real machines) from the eighties, who would try to pass as a lush orchestra and always attempting to punch above their weight – sounding bigger and smoother. The idea of locking the (electronic) instruments (maybe a metaphor for technology) in a not too distant past, when pop culture was all about space (missions, rockets, etc..) and well known ridiculous hair styles was my boundary throughout this score.
The 80s were also, for us, the long gone dawn of computers and mobile phones. A reality North Korea is only slowly easing into now.  Also, the age of nuclear disaster came to mind, with mid 80s Chernobyl being a stark reminder, when writing certain tracks with a military vibe, like ‘Weapon’s Parade’ or ‘Monolith’.  It wasn’t all dark and overcast, though. There were lots of chances to highlight beauty, innocence and stoicism. Plus, Michael made it all flow so charmingly well.

I like Miguel’s metaphor of synthesizers that are punching above their weight; and I have to say that production values are high. The music sounds big, rich and warm (and especially through headphones when you can really feel the basses), even though the core sounds have a definite aged/cheap quality to them. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition, but it does go to show that, at least musically speaking, what you do with the sounds is more important than the sounds itself. So yes, you can polish a t… tired old sound.

The other funny (and somewhat deceiving) juxtaposition is that the cheap sounds make you think that you could have written this stuff yourself. Some of us will have dabbled a bit in synths and recognise these sounds; and there are a few moments that are deliberately really simplistic… but then in comes the counterpoint, in comes the reverb, the mixing and the mastering; and in a heartbeat (or a CR-8000 beat) the music is transformed into something rather complex.

When d’Oliveira describes it as synths trying to pass as a lush orchestra, I think it’s best to interpret that in terms of the composition, not the sounds. On the surface it is synths doing what synths do; but there is some satisfyingly complex writing beneath that surface.

This probably links closely with the previous question, but… what direction were you given for the music? Were you asked to write in this retro style or is that something you arrived at after discussions?

The director initially floated the idea of North Korean music (or inspired by) as a starter. That would have been adequate but my intention was to be a bit bolder on this one.  I though, if any travelogue can push the envelope sonically/creatively is one about a distorted / unknown political geography. I ended up using the odd riff / notes from south east Asia instruments (like a Guzheng) but that was as far as I took it. After all, this was all seen through the eyes of a lovely bloke from Sheffield. It was his interpretation of what was, very often, staged for him.

I felt flattered to be referred to as ‘as lovely bloke from Sheffield’, until I realised Miguel probably meant Michael Palin.

Having seen the documentary, I thought it was very interesting what you got to see, what you didn’t get to see, and what was subtly implied… I’m guessing you tried to play with that musically?

Yes. I tried, as much as possible to imply the unseen, without being too obvious. Michael does its fair share of pieces to camera throughout so, I didn’t need to go too far.  There was the occasional more evident underscore of a bizarre idiosyncrasy, like the traffic wardens’ “ballet” (Table Tennis track) and innocent school poetry, where you must always be aware of keeping it respectful while making it a bit more entertaining.  Even though I was granted a lot of freedom – more than I was expecting – I still had to bend into writing the more conventional cue. After all, this was a Channel 5 series, not an independent film for theater release.   If I’m honest. It took a brave director to trust me on this synth direction anyway and I was still a happy man in the dub – despite the infiltration of a handful of traditional cues (my music still) here and there.

Fun and interesting as this score is, what it hasn’t got is a central theme. What holds the score together is its arrangement for numerous synths.

Could you tell me a little about the structure of the score… are there any central themes/motifs/sounds/rhythmic ideas that you use throughout the score?

Not often you get a chance to develop classic thematic motifs in a documentary. I’m used to getting new footage a day or so before the dub. So, adaptability and nimble, solid sketches are quite often on the menu.   There are certain harmonic progressions, and the odd riff, that can be heard on a few cues but mostly the consistency this time came from the instrumentation.

Whilst it may not have a central recurring theme, it does have a few catchy tunes. “Future Hope” offers an upbeat melody for lead synth, retro drums and some subtle ‘acid’ sounds. This cue and various others remind me of Rob Simonsen, who arguably played a significant role in the popularity of this style. Jeff Rona also sprung to mind a few times.  “Strange and Familiar” combines percussion, arpeggios and fat analogue brass sounds with an almost Orbital-like melody.  “The Border” features a short motif for a stabby synth sound. It’s quite striking; and I keep expecting some big drums to come in (but they don’t).

“Station One” is the kind of cue you might have heard in science shows from a decade or two ago… deep synth pads and various bubbly arpeggios.  In contrast, “Roads without Cars” sounds a lot lighter; and it has a lovely, floaty melody. For the most part, it sounds innocent and care free, though some subtle wooshes and reversed sounds indicate that this perceived innocence may be deceiving. “Hair Port” maintains that light-hearted tone and in fact ventures in to cheesy ‘elevator’ type music (complete with organ). It’s the kind of music you might hear in parody holiday adverts (I couldn’t help but think “Have you always wanted to track the mountains of Mars…?“).

For us synth fans… what gear or software did you use?

The vast majority were real machines (some held together by bits of tape). The main ones were: Akai AX 80, Roland Juno-6 and MKS-70, Oberheim Xpander, Korg Monopoly and Volca FM (imitating a DX7), Casio CZ-3000, Prophet VS and Roland CR-8000 as drum machine. I said they were cheap, and that was true before this retro synth fad which obscenely inflated their prices.  I have a lovely Reverb unit from that era (Lexicon model 200), which I wish I could say I used on this, but time constraint meant it was all routed through a simple VST plugin.  Everything was reasonably processed and edited in Cubase.

What is your background in music, both as ‘listening to’ and ‘studying’? Does this synth stuff come naturally to you? I mean… it sounds pretty confident.

I never went to music school. My synth background began in my teens playing a Yamaha DX100 – which completely slaughtered my initial desire to learn to program synths, with its impenetrable FM synthesis of operators and carriers. Much later I got a Juno-6, and it’s simplicity and power was a glorious revelation. Tangerine Dream and Jean Michelle Jarre alongside Vangelis and Wendy Carlos soundtracks were as much an inspiration on this as was synth pop: Yellow Magic Orchestra, Depeche Mode, etc…

What’s next – anything you can tell us?

I’m working on another 3 Louis Theroux films, a This World documentary about Syria and more music for First Dates.

Michael Palin in Noth Korea is a splendid show with a fun, intriguing and satiristic electronic score by Miguel d’Oliveira. It’s great to see that these shows are being made, and it’s great to hear original music in them (as opposed to library music). It helps give the show its own unique personality I think. If you haven’t already, I’d urge you to watch it. The score itself is available via MovieScore Media, features


Special thanks to Miguel d’Oliveira.
Review and interview by Pete Simons (C) 2018 Synchrotones.

From → Film Soundtracks

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