You have written music for a wide range of media including TV, Film, Theatre and Dance – do you have a favourite or do they all appeal to
you in different ways?
I’m very lucky to have worked in a variety of musical fields. I work in film and television, as well as having written a great many Theatre scores for the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Opera House and in the west end. I play the piano and conduct, and in my early career, worked quite a bit as a musical director and arranger. I love to work in all of these disciplines, that all have their particular challenges and collaborative opportunities. Generally in scoring to picture, the music is the last thing to be added, whereas in dance for the stage, the music comes before the choreography. It’s nice to get into a rehearsal situation in theatre productions, as composing can be a solitary pursuit for much of the time. I try to play piano in jazz situations when I can for the same reason.
You wrote the music for the hugely popular show “Luther” – how did this come about?
I think it was around the time that the movie “An Education“, which I scored, was doing quite well in festivals and getting noticed, and I guess my showreel dropped on the desk of the producer and director of the first block of Luther when they were looking for a composer. As is usual in these situations, you go for a meeting with them to see if you all can work together and have a similar idea as to how the music might work within the production.
“Luther” deals with some pretty dark themes and material. How did you go about reflecting this in the music?
I started with a harmonic world, quite simple and dark, which could adapt to introspection, action and brutality. I mixed traditional instrumental textures with electronic sound scapes. I then added live solo instruments, in some cases playing very disturbed textures. I also liked going against the brutality at times and playing some very beautiful elegiac music over violent scenes.
In 2009 you won the ASCAP Award for your film score to “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”. Did winning this create further success for you down the road? How did it feel to get recognition for your work?
The ASCAP was lovely to get, as they represent the impact a score has in the US. So coming from Britain, it meant that my music was being recognised in some way over there. I’ve since had more of my music heard in the States, and I’m really excited to be attending the Emmy’s this year.
You taught Hugh Grant to play guitar and Nicholas Cage to play piano/sing/conduct – how did this happen? Do you often get the chance to interact with actors when scoring films?
I was working as a musical director at the National Theatre in my late 20s, when I was asked if I would look after the on-set music in the film “Captain Corellis Mandolin“, where one of my duties was to give Nic Cage his regular music lessons, which was great fun. Similar story with Hugh for a scene in “About a Boy“. Both were great guys, and hugely professional and put the work in, making my job easy. I hilariously recorded a couple of songs with James Franco in Ireland on “Your Highness“, co wrote songs with Jennifer Love Hewitt for” If Only” – I work a lot with actors in theatre productions, particularly Shakespeare’s works, which often have songs in them.
You are a very successful composer in the eyes of others – but what is your definition of success?
I think for me it is about being fulfilled with the process of making music. I’m not that concerned with what happens to the work after I have left it. A project can be very successful when you had a very difficult time, and conversely, a job which brought great joy can sink without trace. It’s obviously brilliant if you have a wonderful time and the work is universally loved, but you can’t know that, so I look for situations that are going to be exiting and interesting in their creation.
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date?
That’s really hard to say. I think style is a strange concept. I think my melodic writing is influenced by Jazz improvisation, in the sense of long, unfolding musical thought. I trained in composition, and therefore have a technical grasp of harmony and counterpoint, and really the influence comes from the situation you are composing for. I love to research different genres that might be suggested by a certain job. For example I studied The Arabic Makam system of scales in Syria before writing the “Thief of Baghdad” for the opera House. I ended up writing my own scales and improvising – a bit like modal improvisation, to create my melodies.
When doing a mockup for a director, is it more important to spend time on making the midi samples sound realistic, or do you explain to the director the limits of software and differences with live music?
I like to leave a lot of room for improvement, so that when live musicians play the music, there is a collective recognition of the superior sound and expression live players bring. The demos have to be good, obviously, but I like to spend more time composing than programming. I’m committed where possible to keeping music live, and I think there are dangers in super samples. Clearly when you are looking for electronic sounds, then that’s different.
When writing for TV, how much of your music is recorded live vs. using samples?
Depends on budget, but I will always have some live elements, and on occasion, I’ve spent most of my fee on orchestral costs because I’ve felt it will pay off in the sound.
You are a conductor and orchestrator as well as a composer – do you find your experience in these fields influences your compositions?
Yes, absolutely. It;’s like the best training in orchestration: to do it , then conduct it , and if necessary alter things at the podium. You learn what really works.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m working on a british film with DNA, who just brought out “DRED”, I have a play opening tonight (Hedda Gabler),at the OLd Vic Theatre in London, I’m about to start on a Chinese Epic play with lots of music and Dance for the RSC (The Orphan of Zhao), and I have Luther series 3 after that.