Composer Interview – Heather Fenoughty

heather fenoughty composerDo you have any formal musical training?

I originally taught myself to read music on the recorder out of a book from the library! Since then my musical training has been pretty formal. I learned a few more instruments at school before finally settling on private violin lessons. I attended Sheffield Music School (theory/history/appreciation/performance) for a few years before I left secondary school.

I then carried on to do a BMus in Music at Sheffield University, to be followed with an MA in Music Design for the Moving Image (a fancy name for Media Music!) at Bournemouth University.

Wow cool – that sounds interesting. Would you say you learnt much doing that course, or would you say that you found you learnt more in your first year “in the trenches” as Lee Sanders put it?

Both courses were incredibly valuable and useful, but in a different way to that first year ‘in the trenches’.

Obviously a straight music degree especially from a good University (little plug there for my old college!) gives you a great grounding in all aspects of the subject. History, composing pastiche, stylistic analysis, philosophy and psychology of music, orchestration, performance techniques, playing in small and large groups… it just gives a greater understanding of context and purpose for the music I write.

The second degree at BU was wonderfully vocational as well as having a sound theoretical and academic vein running through it. Theory, history and analysis of film music and film in general again gives a context and understanding of the field, and being allowed the time to really explore and experiment in composition with lots of different varieties of image media is a luxury that jobbing composers rarely experience.

The other great thing about the BU course was that it was specifically a Film School, rather than a music school, and we were encouraged to work on the projects that students from the other courses in film, television, multimedia and animation were producing – I worked on (I think) 6 short dramas, 2 short documentaries and 2 animations in that year alone, alongside all of the coursework for the degree.

The ‘Music Design for the Moving Image’ course at BU evolved from an Electroacoustic Music course, so there was a heavy emphasis on computer technologies and getting the best finished sounds from the computer. Even though the technology wasn’t necessarily top of the range, every student had their own workstation in the studio, which was available to work on 24/7 and there was a recording studio just down the hall should we need it.

The stuff they only touched on though (because, quite frankly there wasn’t time!) was the business and legal side of the job. That could take a whole degree course up in itself. I’ve had to learn that as I’ve gone along working as a composer, sometimes from some pretty tough lessons. I’m still learning now, but it’s getting easier (touch wood!)

Do you think this influences your compositions in any way (positively or negatively?)

My compositions are influenced in the main by the kind of music I love to listen to: film music. If I’ve heard it in conjunction with a film or any other kind of media I’ve enjoyed, I’m sure there’s an influence to be had.

Having a formal musical training means I can understand, analyse and appreciate music in a much more detailed and immediate way, which means in turn I can apply that understanding to my own music.

Having an appreciation of performance techniques and a trained ear for all music, not just classical styles, means that I can write in many different styles – perhaps this has made me a more versatile composer.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

This is a tricky one! I suppose, as a strength, I’m quite objective about my compositions, and don’t get offended by constructive criticism. I think (or at least hope!) that I’m pretty easy to get along and work with, and I’m painfully organised with my work time.

Weaknesses… I feel guilty if I’m not doing something relating to music or composing! The only way I can allow myself to watch a film sometimes is if I do so under the guise of it being ‘educational’! Lame, I know.

I feel the same! Now more than ever while I’m travelling, I find it hard to do anything musical at all as I have no equipment with me. As a question more so of interest to myself I suppose – how do you cope with situations where you aren’t able to do anything musically? For example a holiday etc.

I haven’t been on a non-working holiday in years, I just don’t seem to have the time! However, if I’m away from my kit I will have to justify the trip in terms of whether or not it’s useful for the business side of things – eg, making contacts, networking, working with colleagues, recovering/recharging from a particularly gruelling few weeks of work, learning a new business skill or relevant industry information (this way I can pretty much justify most things… but I still have to do it!)

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

Jerry Goldsmith, Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, Alan Silvestri, John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman, John Debney, Elliot Goldenthal, Vaughn-Williams, Holst, Mahler, Dvorak, Corelli, Bartok

This is something not discussed much as far as I can tell, but what are your thoughts on the fact that there are far more male composers than female composers in the business?

To be honest I don’t really notice it until someone asks me about it! I usually get brought in to work on a project after someone’s heard my music or seen a film that i’ve worked on in some sound capacity, so there’s less pressure to prove myself anyway. In a way, I see being female as a strength, it makes me different from most of the competition and hopefully makes me ‘stand out from the crowd’!

I don’t know why there are more male composers than female composers. There always have been, I suppose it’s always been seen as a man’s job. But I really absolutely do think that’s changing, the same way it is for all occupations and careers that have been traditionally seen as male roles.

What equipment do you use?

MacPro, gallons of HD, 7GB RAM, a pair of Behringer Truths, M-Audio Firewire Audiophile, 2 Dell widescreen monitors, Roland JV2080, Korg X5, Behringer Eurorack UB802, Rode Condensor, SM58.

Whats your main DAW, and how do you find it?

Logic 8. Very nice once I got used to it; I didn’t find it so logical though to begin with! The updates from Logic 7 have made it a joy to use.

What VSTs do you use, and what are your favourite ones?

At the moment, my favourite is the Vienna Symphonic Libraries Special Edition performance module. I love how it creates legato passages for orchestral instruments from overlapping events, minimizing that midi giveaway sound on the attack; the solo woodwind instruments are especially well-sampled.

A few of the AUs that come with Logic are ok too and get used quite a bit. For really unusual sounds I turn to GRM Tools Classic plugins. They’re lovely.

Do you play any instruments? If so, what do you play and for how long? How have they influenced the type of music you make today?

I play violin, and have done since I was 12. I’ve played in orchestras and ensembles for almost as long, and I feel that has seriously influenced how I treat sampled string elements in my music. I’m very picky about the quality of string samples, and have spent more time than I probably should have on tweaking volume envelopes and attacks to get a convincingly realistic string sound!

I also play piano a little bit, not very well, but enough to notice the difference between a human pianist’s sound and that of a quantized, static-velocity, computer-played sampled piano! So, even though I don’t play any of the piano parts of my compositions (I draw them in on the piano roll of Logic), again, I’m still pretty picky about ‘humanising’ the performance.

Do you usually prefer including your violin playing as a live element in your music compared to using a sampled sound?

Not very much. I’ve got some lovely sampled strings and I love that big orchestral string sound rather than the solo violin sound, which isn’t actually my cup of tea when it comes to film music (of course there’s always the exception to the rule – James Newton Howard’s score to ‘The Village’ is really gorgeous, but you gotta be a world-class concert violinist to pull that off, which I’m certainly not 😉 ) I use to use it a lot more to layer it up when my midi synths sounded a bit fake, but now I hardly ever bother.

Do you find playing in an orchestra can be of value, especially when trying to find the right orchestral “colours” for cues?

I think that listening to orchestral music can be invaluable for finding the right feel for a cue. Playing in orchestras is a whole other experience – what it really teaches you is what is possible for a human musician to play, what’s realistic and what’s difficult and what’s truly impossible – very valuable when orchestrating for live musicians. It’s also a completely different surround-sound, aural experience to sit in the middle of an orchestra, where all the levels are actually all wrong, rather than the audience, sitting at the optimum position to hear all the instruments at their desired level.

Listening to film scores taught me more about orchestration and composition than anything else I’ve ever done. In fact I’d go as far to say that it taught me everything I needed to know – everything else is a bonus and a great supplement, but that’s at the core of it.

Whats your favourite instrument that you own, and that you would like to own and why?

To be honest… it’s probably the MacPro. It can play anything I want it to, create any sound I can imagine. I can have a whole orchestra at the touch of a few buttons.

Second to that is my violin. It’s not particularly fancy, but I’ve had it since I was 17 so it’s like an old friend now.

And I wouldn’t say no to owning a Stradivari. Even a loan of one (indefinite, of course) would be nice…

Whats your favourite piece of software and why?

At the moment, that position has to go to the Vienna Symphonic Library Special Edition, for all the reasons given above.

Whats your favourite piece of hardware and why?

The MacPro, of course :-) Its ease of use, its stability, the fact that I can upgrade memory and hard drive space myself, its speed. And, plus, it’s so pretty!

How important do you think it is for a composer to have his own style and why?

At the moment, a media composer need not have his or her own style. Most directors don’t want originality, they want pastiche, for it to ‘sound-a-like’. And that’s fine. It’s certainly easier to find work the wider the range of styles you’re able to compose in.

It think Lee Sanders already said it in his interview: it’s only a matter of time before a programme will be created to write pastiche styles to specific hitpoints. And that’s the time that an original style will be the only thing that sets you apart from the robots!

Are you a multi-genre composer? Or do you like to specialize in one particular area?

I’m fairly multi-genre – I compose in a range of styles according to the requirements of the film, so I’ve done orchestral, world music, jazz, a little bit of pop, avant-garde/sound design. It all tends to have an orchestral bent as I feel that’s the way to give it emotional resonance, and the music (for whatever media it’s been written for) is generally there to give emotional cues to the audience.

What appeals to you about creating your style of music?

I think my style is actually an amalgam of all the ‘best bits’ I’ve taken from all of the music I’ve ever heard. Anything that I’ve listened to and has given me an emotional response I will have analysed to work out exactly the chord progression or interval or instrumentation or sound effect or rhythm that has made me feel that way.

My style of music (as lame as it sounds!) then gives me that same emotional response. That’s what I enjoy the most.

What types of media have you composed for and which is your favourite?

I’ve written for feature dramas, documentaries, television, shorts, animations, installations, dance and theatre.

I don’t have a specific favourite out of these. I’m equally as happy when scoring to a good dramatic sequence on film as when a soundscape of mine is blasted out of a massive PA system during a live installation.

Really my favourite ones are where the production as a whole has an impact on the audience – whether that’s an audience of one or 1 million.

What is your process for composing, especially if you are composing for a particular film/game?

It really does depend on the project. Ideally the scenario would go something like this…

1. Initial talks with director at the first stages of pre-production. This will start ideas forming, and then I can leave my subconscious to bubble over the possibilities until..

2. The next meeting with the director viewing the first cut of the film. I’ll start to firm up ideas in my head, maybe sketch a few ideas for themes and texture until…

3. The final cut. Once I’ve received this, I’ll get to work. I’ll spend a day or two creating sound design elements that will form a basis for some of the palette of the film. I’ll agree deadlines for 1st, 2nd and final drafts with the director and producer and then work out specifically which cues I’ll write on which days.

I tend to compose from start to finish of a short film, and then go back over that rough draft and weave in the themes and textures as they’ve developed to give the piece coherence and continuity.

I’ll work on agreed scenes or cues in a feature film, and I’ll work on the ones that are the most obvious first, then to the ones that are less so. Then, again, I’ll go back over and make sure all the the themes and sounds are coherent and work with the film’s direction.

Have you had any large clients, and if so, who were they?

I’ve worked with Hakuhodo Products, which are one of the biggest ad agencies in Japan. I scored corporates for Nissan with them. I also worked on a television advertisement for a huge Nigerian telecoms company, called Globacom.

Do you use contracts in your every day dealings with clients?

I always use contracts with film, tv and some of my theatre clients. I really depends on the scope of the project. So on the whole, yes.

If you did have large clients, how and where did you get the job?

Through working on previous projects with the same directors.

I scored a feature film for free with the future director of the Nissan projects a long time ago, back when she was at London Film School and I’d only just graduated from my Masters… and was in desperate need of experience and showreel material!

What form of marketing/promotion do you use, if any, and which was the most popular?

A website, and CD and DVD showreels, and networking/word-of-mouth.
The most useful form of all of these is word of mouth – recommendations from previous clients is worth its weight in gold.

The second most useful are CD showreels, more so than DVD/video ones. But, even so, I remember when I first started out and sent out a few hundred CDs, and got only a few responses… but one of the them led to a job on a small project that led to the next one, that led to the next broadcast documentary that led to the next feature…. So it was worth it.

Can you give us some information as to what you include in showreels, what type of information you include with them, where you find who to send them to etc.?

If you can tailor the showreel to the potential client, that’s brilliant. If you know they work in horror, don’t send some delightfully whimsical track that would suit a romantic comedy.

If you can’t tailor a track, variety is the key. I’ve listened to showreels from other people and the one thing that shouts loudest is when all 3 of the first tracks sound identical, same key, same orchestration, same style. Also, make sure you start on a punch, trim the tracks so that they start at the ‘best bit’ (the bit you’ve spent two minutes lovingly building to) – the listener will probably only preview the first 10 seconds or so, and that’s if you’re lucky.

After the punchy first three or four, then you can add a few more longer tracks to show development. Use tracks from well-known productions if you’ve worked on them, or that have been broadcast. And point that out in the CD sleeve in bold!

Include the obvious stuff such as name, address, phone numbers, email address, website on all of the packaging and printed on the CD – the case could get seperated from the CD and lost.

You could also include a link to your blog, your twitter page, your linkedin profile, but I don’t think that’s really essential. I also included a cover letter explaining who I was, what the contents of the CD were, maybe drawing attention to a couple of tracks that I thought might be of interest, my credits and how I could be valuable to them.

I sent showreels to every production company I could find on the internet in the local vicinity, London, Manchester, Birmingham, and a couple of other cities. I just googled ‘production companies’! I also looked in the yellow pages – and that was where the first response came from, a small company based in a small town near to where I was living.

At the very start I sent out video showreels (on VHS! gosh, that dates it a little…), but then soon needed to update it so CD became the quickest and cheapest option for me. They were also much cheaper to post.

Do you ever get writers block, and if so how do you deal with it?

heehee – read my blog! i think there’s a few articles on there about what i do.

Do you find that when you’ve finished a song, you’re sick of hearing it?

No… is that really vain? I love my music, i write the stuff I want to hear! Lame.

How long do you typically spend on one track?

Depends on kind of music and the purpose of the track or the cue. On average I can finish a couple of minutes of finished (scored, recorded and mixed) music a day. It varies wildly in reality!

When creating a track, do you know how long it will be before starting it, or do you tend to just “see how it goes” and let the track make itself?

Usually it’s to picture or to a performance and the duration of the track is already predetermined. I don’t have much say in that!

Is there anything you wish you could do musically, but can’t now?

That’s a tough one… being able to play a few more instruments would be dead useful – a cello, a french horn, an oboe, the ones that are tricky to get sampled properly – but that requires time for practise, and it’s in short supply at the moment!

How would you define success?

Being able to work on projects that I really enjoy rather than just for the cash; the respect of my peers; scoring credits on big-budget, general-release, highly-acclaimed feature films; writing the theme tune to a long-running, high-production-values television series…

How do you deal with alternative routes of income when work isn’t in abundance? For example to you sell stock music, have a part time job etc.?

I work most weekends as a violinist in the string trio ‘Simply Strings’ (www.simplystringstrio.co.uk – another little plug!), playing for weddings, corporate functions, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs…

I also teach violin but only have a couple of hours of that a week now as I get busier with the composing work. Which is great!

I work with a lot of repeat clients so work is generally pretty continuous. I’m also a member of ‘SlungLow’ (www.slunglow.org plug plug plug!) a theatre installation company, and score and soundscape all of their shows, as well as recording any dialogue or sound effects, and mix it all, kind of a one-woman-post-sound-house! SlungLow has been really successful and this year we’re making four pretty epic installation shows.

I have a few clients that I’ve given access to my back-catalogue of tracks that are available for licensing, which brings in a small but steady stream of revenue, and have now set up an online music licensing store – www.musicstore.heather-fenoughty.com – to get the music out to the world rather than just ‘collecting dust’ on my shelf 😉

Royalties from television broadcasts really do keep me going in the leaner months. Always a nice surprise too!

What ultimately are your goals?

See how i define success 😉

What are your other interests outside of music?

Films, theatre, high-quality television drama series, friends, food… but mostly it’s all about the music!

Over the past while, I’ve done a few things that I’ve found useful such as keeping notepads everywhere to jot things down.  Have you picked up any habits over the years that you’ve found useful?

I keep two diaries – a filofax, paper hardcopy one, that can’t get corrupted or lost from a harddrive failure, and an iCal on the computer with electronic reminders (these are a godsend!).

I also keep a seperate ‘wall-planner’ type calendar in the filofax so I’ve a got an overview of the year to keep me sane 😉

Notepads are everywhere at home and in the studio. I keep voice recorder on a shortcut on my phone for notes when i don’t have pen and paper to hand, say when i’m out and about.

What is the most stupid thing you have ever done?

Generally in life? Well, where to I start… oh, sorry, with music… probably signing away an exclusive sync-license for a pittance rather than a non-exclusive one, before I really got my head around copyright and sync license contracts. That bugs me a lot, as that music is still mine but I can’t ever put it out there for more films. Very annoying, never again!

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

  • Pingback: Heather Fenoughty | The Score

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  • http://www.fullbirdmusic.com fullbirdmusic

    Very good interview! I’m a lot like Heather in my attitudes to composing, so it’s a refreshing read.

  • Zoltan Keresztes

    Hi Heather!

    Congrats for your successes! Nice melodies, charm harmonies.
    And you are a girl!!!
    Wow!
    I’m a hungarian composer. It’s very interesting to read about your life and your working methods. My problem is with VSTi instruments (especially with orchestral strings) that they have so poor sound quality. For ex. legato play. I don’t know Vienna strings. Is it good? I use EWQL Gold family and… it’s OK. Sometimes it helps, many times unusable. Do you have possibility to make a live recording with symphonic orhestra in your works? Because all of these instruments sounds like a demo. In my country it’s totally impossible.

    Good to hear about you.

    Zoli

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