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Simon Russell: Once Upon A Time In Iraq

Here is the trailer for the BBC series Once Upon A Time In Iraq:

And here is Simon Russell, writing about creating the score:

"Scoring for a documentary series

I have worked with director James Bluemel on various TV projects over the years, including two series of the multi-award winning Exodus: Our Journey to Europe (documenting refugees' dangerous journeys from war-torn countries). When he rang to ask if I'd score his new series on the Iraq war I was excited but also a little anxious.

The Iraq War is such a significant and complex story that, when it came to the music, I wanted to make sure it helped tell the story without dominating or becoming emotive. In my experience, you don't want to tell the viewer what they should be thinking but to enhance what they are watching. One of the first questions I ask myself when beginning a new project is "What is the point of music in this scene?"

I spent a long time talking to James and editor Simon Sykes about the kind of music that may work. They put together a playlist of commercial tracks they liked which included the Bersarin Quartett, Johann Johannsson, Julianna Barwick, Can and Neu. We agreed something modern, visceral and electronic felt appropriate.

Having a blank canvas can be a daunting prospect but it's also liberating to be free of preconceptions and, once we'd settled on an overall sound and palette of instruments, I began writing various music cues.

Some ideas started with a basic drum loop, others with a piano melody and some from experimenting with samples made by feeding instruments through various effects pedals.

I also spent some time manipulating various field recordings of the sound of helicopters, gunfire, explosions and Iraqi children playing. The sound design elements were morphed into the score, blurring the edges between music and sound design.

There were also some live sessions with drummer Paul Robinson (Nina Simone's drummer for twenty years) and my daughter, who played the cello. In March 2005, I took my then two-year-old daughter on the second Iraq anti-war march in London and it feels particularly poignant that, fifteen years later, she is performing on the soundtrack.

I sent the initial ideas through to James and Simon whilst they were scanning the hours of interview footage. About 70 per cent of the initial ideas made it through to the finished series, with a few tweaks and remixes. Other cues came later, written to match the images once the films were closer to being finished.

A lot of the interviews and archive footage were incredibly hard to watch. They were often shocking and frightening, with people behaving in the worst ways imaginable but with others displaying incredibly selfless heroics. Working on such an extraordinary series leaves an indelible mark and, inevitably, watching some of the testimonies from the interviewees who lived through the events in question can be tricky to navigate. I found that I wasn't desensitised to repeat viewings so it can be difficult to experience that kind of raw emotion over and over.

What stands out for me in the films is people's bravery and resilience. Through all the daily terror and injustice, people's spirit seemed unbroken."

Simon is a self-taught musician and composer who has worked on many documentaries and films, including Havana Marking’s Afghan Star (two Sundance awards, Grierson Award 2009, Prix Italia) and Baroque: From St. Peter’s to St. Paul’s (winner of the Royal Television Society Award 2009 for best Arts documentary series). He has composed the music for fifty-two episodes of Aardman's Canimals and for the Lottie Bearshout animation pilot (Wildseed/Disney), which won a BAFTA in 2016. He also won an Emmy for the score that he created for Pussy Riot; A Punk Prayer.

Episode 1 of Once Upon A Time In Iraq is broadcast on July 13th on BBC 2. A two-hour version broadcasts on PSB Frontline on July 14th. You can find further information on both the programme and Simon here:

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