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Interview : Composer Chris Roe on crafting knife-edge tension for ITV’s Trigger Point

British television network ITV started 2022 with a bang with the premiere of Trigger Point, a crime thriller series created by Daniel Brierley and produced by Jed Mercurio, the mind behind the hit police procedural Line of Duty.

Led by actress Vicky McClure (who also starred in Line of Duty), Trigger Point’s six-episode first series follows a Metropolitan Police bomb disposal squad headed by McClure’s Lana Washington. The series is driven by not only its high-tension premise but a dynamic and experimental score by composer Chris Roe, whose work ranges from the BAFTA-nominated feature film After Love to documentary features and live musical performances with ANIMA, a group he founded and performs with.

We had the pleasure of speaking to Chris about how his life-long aversion to painting within the lines has guided his signature sound as a composer, how the creative freedom of working on Trigger Point differs from many of his previous projects and more.

What was the point in your career as a musician that you felt composition was the specific path you wanted to take?

Chris: I’d say it happened pretty young for me, really. I played piano from a young age, and really enjoyed that. I was probably really annoying to teach, because I would always prefer to play things around what was written on the page; make up different versions of it. That was always more fun for me, and that got me into jazz when I was younger. 

I never loved performing. I did quite a lot of musical directing for musical theatre throughout university, so I think always being in the background appealed to me more than being front and center, as a performer. When you think about your first job that you wanted to be, apparently I wanted to be a lighting designer. We’d go to see a show and I’d look up at the lights. That behind-the-scenes kind of role.

What I really love about composition, particularly when you’re composing for someone else like a director of TV character, is that you can really get inside that world and influence how people are seeing a particular character or thinking of the story. It’s in the background, but you’re also kind of leading people where to go, which is pretty cool, I think.

VICKY MCCLURE as Lana Washington and ADRIAN LESTER as Joel Nutkins | Courtesy of HTM Productions for ITV

I can relate to the appeal of not being front-and-center but still contributing in a very meaningful way to the emotional impact of the project.

Chris: Yeah. And composition compared to improvising; they’re similar, but you have more time to think. I loved playing jazz and improvising things, but it’s kind of like slow improvisation. You get time to rethink something and craft it, and I think that just suits me more.

Across all your projects, you mix it up quite a lot with the different palettes you work with, so to speak. I notice a lot of stringed instrumentation, but also plenty of modern, electronic industrial and textural sounds, especially in Trigger Point‘s score. When it comes to approaching a new project, do you find yourself actively trying to differentiate from what you’ve done in the past, or is your focus more on what the individual project asks of you as a musician?

Chris: I come to each project as an artist thinking not “I want to do something different here”, it’s more like “what will fit inside the world of this film or this TV show?”. I’m quite into finding a concept to hang everything off; not often a musical concept but something to get into the world or the character of the show. 

Because I’m not thinking about doing something different as an artist on the surface, there’s different sounds that maybe I’ve found to suit that show. Hopefully as I’m getting more of a stronger identity as a composer, that comes through without thinking about it. I’m not trying to do something actively different with each show, musically, but whatever fits into the world. Sometimes that’s more orchestral. For a lot of the documentary projects I’ve done, it’s been more traditionally orchestral. For drama projects, I found that a more minimal kind of palette works best with dialogue and not wanting to overreach too much, and not wanting to distract from what’s going on on-screen. 

NADINE MARSHALL as Marianne Hamilton, MANJINDER VIRK as Samira Desai and MARK STANLEY as DCI Thom Youngblood | Courtesy of HTM Productions for ITV

It’s great that you feel you have a sense of identity as an artist.

Chris: Yeah, I find it so hard when I’m choosing stuff to put on my website and my reel. I think you might hear the different things I do, and they sometimes sound quite different. They’re from different palettes. But the more and more I do, I’m discovering things that – musically – I do naturally. Certain chord progressions or harmonic language; those kind of deeper things that are under the surface that hopefully just keep coming through. 

That’s the hardest question, I find: when someone says: “what style do you write?”.

In regards to working to the flow of dialogue and action, that’s a key factor in the score for Trigger Point. In a show following a bomb disposal squad, they naturally encounter a lot of high-tension scenarios. I find that a lot of projects of this nature can sabotage that tension and the emotional impact on the audience by trying to guide their feelings too aggressively. Of course, there’s no ‘correct’ way to approach any artistic project – but allowing the moment to breathe goes a long way. When it came to composing the score for Trigger Point, were you given a lot of freedom to work to the flow of the editing and feel of each scene, or was there a particular directive you were working to?

Chris: The first director on the show, Gilles Bannier, was coming from a standpoint of less is more; really wanting this minimalist palette for the music and allowing the sound of Lana’s breath and all the small sounds to come through, as well as the score.

I think a lot of the time when you’re trying to build tension, it is true that tension comes from uneasiness – and there’s nothing more uneasy than if there’s something missing. You’re trying to think, “what’s coming next?”. Whereas if you have music that’s really propulsive and strong all the way through, if everything is high tension, then nothing is high tension. It has the opposite effect. 

With those inevitable scenes of trying to defuse various devices and bombs, we wanted to go for a really minimal palette, musically. There are two forces at play in the police force: the explosives team, who are very clinical, highly trained and almost scientific in what they’re doing, and the armed police team who storm into the building. Musically, we wanted to have different characters for those two teams. 

I had an idea early on, because they’re focused on wires all the time. There’s a scene very early on where there’s a light switch attached to a device, and the camera follows the wire along the wall. I realized that these experts are focusing on these wires all the time, and it’s a matter of life and death. So one of the first things I did was to try and find as many strings – musical wires, if you will – to record in interesting ways. 

One of the sounds that comes through every time we’re near a device is a device called an EBow, which produces an electromagnetic field. You hold it over a string and it makes it vibrate. It’s often used by electric guitarists, but I used it on my piano. Because that’s not how it’s meant to be used, it’s a really fragile sound. When I held it too close to the string, it started to buzz and make these unpredictable, really cool sounds. So I turned that into a sample instrument which is used throughout the whole series whenever there’s these moments of tension, because it’s very, very minimal sound. It’s just one note; more of a sound design tool.

As the series went on, we get more and more music as we get into the head of Lana’s character more. Towards the end of each episode, as the action ramps up, there’s also space for the music to do that. It’s a game of two halves, really, this series.

VICKY MCCLURE as Lana Washington | Courtesy of HTM Productions for ITV

As somebody with a knack for experimentation, was that area of exploration comfortable territory? And is that experimental space something you find yourself being drawn to often as a composer?

Chris: I guess, in a way, the whole point is that it’s not comfortable. It was uncomfortable to do. I think I’ve always got in the back of my mind this more orchestral sound; it’s there if I need it. I often try and experiment right at the beginning of the process. Often it will be just one or two sounds or ideas that end up going through the whole series, but mixed with more of a traditional sound. 

On this series, I was brought on board after the producer and director had seen After Love, the film that I had scored – which had a similarly minimal, experimental string palette with just one cello. Because I knew that they’d watched that, and it was why I was brought on board, we had that trust. We were on the same page right from the beginning. I could send really, really rough sketches and experiments over to the edit quite early on without the fear that it was just being thrown away or they’d find another composer [laughs]. For an editor, having those very rough ideas is quite useful, I think. You can combine them and chop them around, whereas if you hand them a fully finished piece of music, it’s harder to change. I found that really refreshing; to have that time at the beginning for the editors to experiment and then send it back to me. I’d hear what they’d done, and that would inform where we went with it after that. It was very collaborative.

In the end, the executive producers and Jed Mercurio gave us the space to do that, which was great. There’s always a lot of freedom there, which you wouldn’t always expect on a show like this.

It must be quite refreshing to be able to stretch your legs in such a way.

Chris: Absolutely. It’s something that’s more common in the independent film world, where there’s more time. With this, I had three weeks or a month while they were still filming, so the pressure wasn’t there to be starting to deliver things. By the end, there was no time to experiment; once it was going, you just trust your instincts. Having that set up and setting up a template with those sounds in is really useful, and definitely something I’ll carry on to the next one.

All six episodes of Trigger Point are now available for streaming, and the show has been renewed for a second series at ITV.

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