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David Arnold, Composing Culture

Posted in MusicWorld on May 19, 2011 by

From the Grammy-winning heroics of Independence Day to the pulse-pounding excitement of the last five James Bond films, the music of English composer David Arnold has helped to propel moviegoers into the 21st century with panache.

Arnold – this year’s recipient of BMI’s Richard Kirk Award for career achievement – may be best-known for his action-adventure scores, but he’s equally at home with contemporary drama, suspense and comedy. Over the past two decades, filmmakers as diverse as Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), John Singleton (Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious) and Michael Apted (Amazing Grace, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) have sought his services.

“I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to work on films that have gone on to be liked by audiences,” says Arnold from his London home, days before winging his way to Los Angeles to accept BMI’s top film-music honor. “The more you do, the more you realize how hard it is, year after year, working on films that you hope people will want to see.”

Arnold’s humility is refreshing in an industry better known for self-aggrandizement. Born in the industrial town of Luton, about 30 miles north of London, he grew up in a musical household: His dad was a singer, and when he brought home an electric guitar for his 9-year-old son, young David taught himself to play. He also took clarinet lessons and picked up piano along the way.

In the 1980s, he met aspiring filmmaker Danny Cannon and began putting music to his short films. So when Cannon landed a feature film, The Young Americans, Arnold was ready for the big time – so ready, in fact, that his trip-hop song “Play Dead” (co-written and sung by Bjork in the film) rocketed to no. 12 on the British charts. It’s still a personal favorite of the composer: “It encompassed everything I was about in music. It was cinematic, contemporary and different; it was a record and it was a piece of film music. It seemed to have a big effect on people.”

Within a year, Arnold had done the science-fiction film Stargate and, two years after that, won the Grammy for his massive orchestral score for Independence Day, the year’s biggest movie. His long-in-gestation album of James Bond covers, “Shaken & Stirred,” helped him land the biggest musical gig among all movie franchises: James Bond, starting in 1997 with Tomorrow Never Dies.

A fan – and eventually, close friend – of longtime Bond composer John Barry (Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice), Arnold demonstrated that he could honor the Barry style while updating the sound with electronics and more contemporary rhythms. “It’s a huge amount of pressure,” he concedes, “and a huge responsibility. I’m incredibly proud (of those scores),” he says, adding that “you’re always trying to do better.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone doing better than Arnold over the last 14 years, including winning Britain’s prestigious Ivor Novello Award for his next 007 score, The World Is Not Enough, a top-10 hit in his theme (co-written with singer Chris Cornell) for Casino Royale, and powerful scores for Die Another Day and the most recent Bond adventure, Quantum of Solace.

But Arnold’s versatility becomes apparent when listening to his cool urban grooves for Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious; his evocative choral work and lyrical themes for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; and the warmth of his scores for such recent, lighter fare as Venus, Morning Glory and the sci-fi comedy Paul.

Arnold’s extra-musical life is equally impressive. He is an ambassador for Care International, an organization that is working to end poverty in 70 countries. He traveled to Rwanda with Care executives, saw how great the need was, and came home to produce a pair of concerts that have raised more than $100,000 toward the cause.

And if that isn’t enough, he has signed on as musical director for the closing ceremonies of next summer’s Olympic Games in London. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says, “an amazing challenge, a huge responsibility, and really exciting.”

Asked about how he chooses his projects – whether films, records, charity benefits or large-scale events – he says simply: “It’s based on who I’m going to spend my day with. It’s a day I’m not going to get back, so if I’m going to work with someone, I’m going to want to like them. That’s the only thing your life is about. It’s how you spend your day and who you spend it with.”