The career of a media composer promises few certainties but it can surprise you with unexpected highlights – whether that’s scoring for a TV drama that reaches international acclaim, such as Downton Abbey, or making Gary Numan smile on stage at one of your sound designs.
Exciting and unpredictable, it offers many opportunities for composers to explore new territories and fulfil childhood dreams.
However, in a world of recycled samples and incessant demands to sound like Hans Zimmer, how does a composer hang on to their originality and develop their voice? Is there a danger the industry is steering towards uniformity? And as more opportunity emerges for composers to embrace the business side too, is there still a role for the publisher or agent to play? These were just some of the questions raised in our first ever Media Composer Conference held in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London.
No Wrong or Right Way
Christian Henson didn’t listen when educators told him he wasn’t “doing it properly”. Despite the cynics, his 25-year career has successfully married his two loves – film and music. Although he doesn’t read music, Christian has worked on Jon Wright’s sci-fi epic Robot Overlords and Channel 4’s Fresh Meat. He’s also collaborated with an eclectic range of artists including Graham Coxon, Death in Vegas, Natasha Khan and Ed Harcourt.
His energised discussion at the conference focused on how to create unique sounding music through a combination of samples and live instruments. When synthesised music is so easy to produce, his advice to “make room for at least one musician, no matter how low the budget” is enlightening.
Scoring the Distressing
Writing epic score for Hollywood productions is challenging, but documentaries – often with deeply distressing and difficult subject matter – force you develop your compositional skills.
Sandy Nuttgens’ scores for the TV programmes he has covered range from the Moors Murders, to the life and loves of socialite Pamela Churchill. Such a diverse range of subjects has often pushed him out of his comfort zone. Talking about his bold approach to working in unfamiliar styles of music, he says: “I’ve always said yes, even if I’ve no idea how I’ll do it!”
Sandy also scores for children’s animations, which uses a completely different set of skills. He says: “The ‘hit points’ in animation are constant and need extremely accurate scoring that can leave you exhausted. I don’t have time to create my own sounds but to help me sound unique I’ll use old battered instruments that I’ll veneer over the top.”
Miguel d’Oliveira left behind his career as a dosctor to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a composer. The creative process allows him to “learn everyday and be a kid”. He’s scored more than 150 hours of primetime TV shows including First Dates, The Met, and Great Ormond Street.
he outlined a big challenge for documentary scoring – that composers are often asked to make distressing images more ‘positive’. That’s a difficult request to satisfy, especially if the composer wishes to remain sensitive to individuals and their relatives in the programme.
Bringing Focus and Attention
William Goodchild’s path took him from conducting to composing. He specialises in wildlife and history documentaries including the BBC’s Natural World, Return of the Giant Killers – Africa’s Lion Kings. He argued that the composer’s main job is to bring focus and attention: “The emotion within the image itself is often so explicit that this works better than underscoring emotions.”
More advice came from Dominik Scherrer – who received an Ivor Novello award for his soundtrack for the BAFTA-winning Ripper Street. He said that care must be taken when writing themes within a score: “Itdoesn’t always work if you stick to characters because it can confuse a scene. Find linkages rather than differentiation.”
Capture the Essence
When you hear the dreaded words – ‘can we just listen to the temp again?’ don’t dismay, advised Ruth Barrett, who recently scored for ITV hit The Durrells. It’s rare for a composer to want to reproduce the temp track (and indeed that could potentially land you in legal hot water) but Ruth says it can help a composer capture the essence of what the director wants. Her advice is to try and discover: ‘What is it they like, or what is it that resonates?’
Specific words directors use when they don’t like a piece of music can also be useful clues. For instance, one director’s feedback with the word ‘dissonant’ helped Ruth change the whole tone of a piece for the better by just taking out one string slide.
Know Your Worth
Will great talent always rise to the top?
Yes, says Darrel Alexander of COOL Music Ltd – but you must know your own worth artistically and financially. Remember that a business brain is as important as an artistic one.
The details and business side of creating are often the last things a composer wants to think about, especially in a time where there are ever more fragmented sources of income. On that theme, Anne Miller, of Accorder Music, urges composers to get their cue sheets as correct as possible, as it’s difficult to make changes to contracts later on.
Darrell also advised seeking legal expertise from a reputable agent or music publisher – one who understands the intricacies of publishing.
Old vs New
Claire Freeman of Crown Talent & Media Group pointed out “We’re in an age where directors and producers often want their music to sound like the last best thing.” Her supervision credits include Working Title’s award-winning biopic The Theory of Everything and Testament of Youth – the BBC Films biopic of Vera Brittain.
Claire is always listening out for a distinctive style but is also inundated with requests for music to ‘sound like Sicario’.
Is it possible to have a healthy balance between reviving old repertoire and breaking new artists? Rachel Menzies, Music Supervisor at Native, is aware of the age-old problem of getting a new name out there. She has placed music in productions that include Game of Thrones, Top Gear and Dr Who, and works regularly with brands such as Coca Cola, Amazon and British Airways. She outlined the difficulty in taking a risk on new writers when the turnaround in adverts is so fast and there’s a specific brief to deliver. Rachel says the emails that stand out for her are those that show a composer has researched the style of adverts she works on, and understands the specific area they’re targeting. Never overlook the basics either, she notes – make sure your SoundCloud link works and that you’re not pitching for outdated projects.
With the rise of so many independents there is an overwhelming amount of new music for sync agents to hear. But Harriet Moss, Global Creative Manager at Manners McDade – a London-based music publisher and composer agency (specialising in new classical and electronic music) – takes time to listen to all work that is sent through.
She noted that a presence on Spotify and SoundCloud is essential for getting your name out there and that building connections with directors, helping you at the negotiation stage.
A Parting Shot
Do composers ever reach a point in their careers when they stop being plagued by feelings of self doubt?
Throughout the conference, it was intriguing to discover that the answer is probably no. John Lunn confessed that he’s still plagued by paranoid thoughts that he’ll run out of ideas one day. As the Emmy Award-winning composer behind Downton Abbey, his humility is reassuring – as was his observation that the often painful creative process is governed by instincts.