Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?
I have composed ever since I was a child. My maternal grandfather was a nuclear engineer, but the grandparents on my father’s side were both composers: Tony was a good craftsman; he studied with Nadia Boulanger and predominantly wrote choral music. His wife Anita was very adept at composing fantastic educational music. I suppose having composition in the family contributed to my experimentation with ‘finding sounds’ at a young age, originally writing purely on one’s own terms. I later learned that being able to fulfill a brief is a prerequisite to being professional composer.
Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?
At 9 years old I was playing hymns at school assemblies and I think this taught me a lot about harmony, melody and basic structure – you have to learn the rules before you break them. My father, a cellist in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, took us to see dress rehearsals on Saturday mornings from a young age and I love the emotional depth of 19th Century orchestral music. I’m a lover of great melody, and I try to write music that speaks in a direct way but is underpinned by complex harmonic movement. This extension of a neo-romantic approach is very compatible with the cinema, which is probably why I’ve landed up doing that as well as standalone instrumental and choral music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Getting commissioned as a composer is about diversity, and being able to turn one’s hand to whatever projects come in. You can’t afford to be choosy, especially at the beginning. I feel lucky to have had some great early commissions – from a carol ‘Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth’ published by Oxford University Press and three ballet scores for Ballet Cymru, through to a piece for full orchestra at a Richard Stilgoe Concert at the Royal Festival Hall. On the commercial side, my first scores were very low-budget, written for children’s audiobooks. I did them under a pseudonym, and would recommend this approach to composers starting out; it enables you to gain writing experience and confidence before having to own up! If you go into any Waterstones there are rows and rows of them by someone with a silly name – but I’m not telling you who it is!
Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I have very much enjoyed writing for ballet, and two out of my three ballet commissions for Ballet Cymru have been recorded and released on CD. Writing for dance is very refreshing because dancers think about music in a completely different way. Unlike composing for film where the musical narrative is tightly dictated by the picture, with ballet you can tell a story through a series of scenes or tableaux, and the narrative musical journey can be more fluid.
Alongside instrumental music, I particularly enjoy writing choral works. Recently I completed ‘The Same Flame’ for Boosey & Hawkes; an exciting new choral work written in collaboration with poet and lyricist Matt Harvey. It’s a positive song-cycle focused on humanist values that will receive its premiere in July in a concert conducted by choral director David Ogden.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
For a small venue the Cadogan Hall isn’t bad. I’m going there on the 1st May when my old school will be premiering my ‘Psalm 150’. It’ll feel a bit like going full circle, because it was singing Benjamin Britten’s setting of the religious text that left a real impression on me and encouraged me to compose when I was a kid. I was delighted when my alma mater commissioned a new setting.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I couldn’t say; there are so many fantastic ones around. The best musicians are those who lift the music off the page, translating the mere dots into something with real shape. Like composers, they have to be able to understand emotion, and really be able to tell a story. Players with a good personality always convey this through the music.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
In December 2010, my carol ‘Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth’ received two joint premieres within a few minutes of each other – by John Rutter and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, and over the road at the Royal College of Music by members of the Junior Department chamber choir and orchestra. There’s nothing as exciting as a first performance – especially when two happen at the same time!
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
I was an organ scholar at university and enjoy playing Bach – counterpoint doesn’t get better. I was fortunate to be a member of the National Youth Orchestra in my teens, and Jill White, then Director of Music, was intent on offering us a rich palette of the very best of 19th-century orchestral music. The highlight of my 8 years as cellist and latterly principal composer with the NYO was playing Mahler 8 with Sir Simon Rattle, and the same year conducting a premiere live on Radio 3 with NYO players.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
I’m going to be blunt here. Music enjoyment/participation is for everyone at all levels, but don’t rely on making a living from the music profession unless you are so genuinely passionate about it that you would give up everything for it.
What are you working on at the moment?
Having just put the finishing touches to the score for the final animation of the 2012 Olympics Mascots film series, I am currently working on two further commissions. Hopefully they will be finished by 1 May, which is when I am scheduled to start work on a large-scale commission for choir and orchestra for Sloane Square Choral Society who are premièring it in December 2012.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In a composing hut somewhere remote by the sea. With a tolerant wife and kids, if I’m lucky.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The little things. Despite the emotional complexity of being a composer, I’m a simpleton really.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I think an exciting answer would be ideal here, but I am ashamed to say that I’m very happy when composing. When I was about 3 or 4, I remember being in a toy shop and looking up in awe at all the toys that were there to play with. For better or worse, composing feels the same, and I never get tired of it. Maybe I will one day.
What is your present state of mind?
Tired. I’ve recently delivered the masters for the score to the new 2012 Olympic Mascots film, ‘Rainbow to the Games’, which is being released in UK cinemas on 5th May.
Origonal interview date: April 2012
Thomas Hewitt Jones is an award-winning composer of both concert and commercial music. Winner of the 2003 BBC Young Composer Competition, he studied music at Cambridge University where he was also organ scholar of Gonville and Caius College.
His concert work has been heard on BBC Radio, Television and in many of the major concert halls in the UK, including the Royal Festival Hall, London’s South Bank centre and the Royal Albert Hall. Thomas has worked with numerous acclaimed ensembles such as the Britten Sinfonia, Sounds Positive, Members of the Royal Opera House orchestra and the Carducci Quartet. He has had pieces published by Faber Music, ABRSM, Novello & Co, Universal Music and Oxford University Press.
Thomas has worked in Hollywood assisting on the film scores for the films ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ (the Kung Fu epic featuring Jackie Chan & Jet Li, dir. Rob Minkoff) and ‘Town Creek’ (dir. Joel Schumacher), and has written music for radio and TV stations including BBC Radio 4 and ITV.
Thomas has written extensively for ballet, including the 2008 Welsh Independent Ballet commission ‘Under Milk Wood’, and an adaptation of Llewellyn’s novel ‘How Green was my Valley’ in 2009.
Thomas recently composed a new ballet, ‘The Lady of the Lake’, based on the Welsh folk tale for a UK tour of the Welsh national ballet company, ‘Ballet Cymru, that toured throughout 2010 including Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadlers Wells, London in November.
Other recent commissions include composing and recording the music for the London 2012 / LOCOG Mascot Animated Films for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games the latest instalment of which was ‘Adventures on a Rainbow’ (performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and conducted by Thomas).
What a great interview! Always great to see a composer’s perspective on a life of music.
Stumbled onto your blog, and this is absolutely GORGEOUS.