Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
When I’m really busy composing on a project, I like to wake up fairly early as I find the mornings best for being creative and productive. If I’m writing new material I can become exhausted quite quickly, so I leave more basic work - such as fitting an existing musical idea to a new place in the film, or general admin to later in the day. I try to go to the gym regularly, as this work can be quite sedentary, and late afternoons are great for this as my productivity really dips around then (plus the gym is empty!). I’m more likely to want to go to the cinema, an art gallery, or the theatre in the evenings than I am to go to a concert - mainly because after listening to music all day, concerts can be a bit much. Having said that, I do love gigs, and like to enjoy London’s amazing cultural scene as much as I can.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a soundtrack or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Suffragettes (BBC One) is my most recent score and probably the closest to my heart as I am so passionate about the subject. It was a special project for everyone involved, particularly as the vast majority of the team were women so the subject-matter was very close to all of our hearts. Musically I set out to create a score that had a sense of drive and urgency throughout; I tried to focus on rhythm as opposed to melody and limit the palette to focus mainly on percussion and rhythmic cello. I started by writing a number of compositions inspired by the story, not to picture. These were put against the film in key places as the edit came together, and some of them informed other cues to picture, and in this way it gradually came together like a big jigsaw puzzle. As the edit was honed, the music became more concrete, which in turn informed the edit so it was a symbiotic process. The director, Emma Frank, was absolutely brilliant, as was the editor Amanda Baxter - we were all so on the same page that it made for a wonderfully smooth process.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I do have routines and rituals surrounding creativity. I like to be well-rested, and clear-headed when I’m composing. Mondays tend to be less good for starting a new project, but fine if I’m picking something back up. Ideally I’ll prepare properly before writing anything - i.e. watch the film, read around the subject, spend time writing and thinking about it. It’s also important that I recognise when it’s not working - i.e. if the idea isn’t arriving and I’m struggling, the best thing is to walk away, do some exercise or really anything else for a while, and come back to it later. My subconscious will keep working away at the problem while I’m away, and generally (hopefully!) when I return good ideas will arrive more quickly. It’s ultimately much more time-efficient than forcing it, and sitting around feeling stressed.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of film music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
To me these elements are one and the same; what the audience experiences is the composition in totality, and personally I find it difficult to separate the two. The sound of what I’m writing is entirely key to the composition, I’m thinking about the palette and the sonic effect of the music simultaneously to the chords/melody/rhythm etc. It’s simply another element of the music I’m writing, so yes, the sounds are entirely compositional - imagine the first phrase of ‘Rite Of Spring’ played on an electric guitar, or The Simpsons theme tune played only on panpipes!
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I definitely associate the notes on the piano with certain colours, probably because of the colours my first piano teacher used to help me learn! Middle C is bright red, F is a dusky pink, G is purple… I do often think about ‘colour’ in orchestration, and key signatures have very distinct levels of brightness to me. I’m no expert on the science behind it, but I think analogy and metaphor helps us to make sense of our complex inner world. Art is often the consequence of these sometimes surprising connections. I love how in the poem ‘As Bad As A Mile’ Philip Larkin uses the metaphor of an apple core being tossed and just missing the bin, described as if happening in slow motion in reverse, brilliantly describing the seeming-irrevocable inevitability of failure. The reader achieves clear emotional understanding of a difficult concept very simply, with just a few words, because of the connection the poet is demanding them to make. Sound is so intangible, and deeply subjective, so I’m always thinking about the connections and references of music, and how juxtaposition may evoke complex emotions in a listener.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
This may seem evasive but in film and TV music I prefer to think of myself as a craftsperson, rather than an artist. The music I write for a film may be listened to and appreciated as art in isolation, or the film as a whole may be considered as culturally significant or artistically valid, however I’m am always working from the perspective of collaborating with a team to find the best possible musical fit for the project. My work is both functional and creative. A great chair-maker aims to make something that is functional as well as aesthetically pleasing within their budget. Ok, perhaps one day it might be exhibited in a museum as a zeitgeist exemplar of chair design, but the process of formation is different from an artist creating a work that serves no clear commercial or functional remit. I always hope that my work serves the project well and is enjoyed or even inspiring. Beyond that I have no control over its consideration as art.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of soundtracks still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what film music could be beyond its current form?
Perhaps it is remarkable, but it is a relatively new art form, which appears to be as popular as ever - large concerts of film music are becoming more commonplace. I think audiences are looking for greater interactivity; I’m very excited about the potential of music for Virtual Reality, for example. I composed music for a VR project earlier this year called ‘Hold The World’ featuring Sir David Attenborough in the Natural History Museum and it was a fantastic experience which enabled audiences not only to ‘meet’ an incredibly realistic Sir David Attenborough face-to-face, but also to interact with objects in the museum in ways they could never do in real life. I think the boundary of gaming and more passive entertainment such as film may start to become blurred and audiences may have more choice over what they listen to and when. Having said this, I’m a big fan of clear direction, and a honed, crafted score for a brilliantly made film is a wonderful thing.