Guest post by Douglas MacGregor

My mother died when I was only seven years old, but I never grieved. It was not until twenty-five years later that all that suppressed grief hit me. The experience took over my life for a year and, as a musician and composer, I naturally turned to music to help me through.

At the same time, I was doing a Masters in ethnomusicology at SOAS and I completed my dissertation in the cross-cultural role of sacred music in grief and death rituals where I linked the ‘dual process’ psychological model of bereavement to musical practices around the world.

The culmination of these two experiences – one highly personal and emotive, the other more objective and researched-based – led me to found a new project called Songs of Loss and Healing, which aims to explore further the connection between music, loss, grief and healing.

Music and loss 

The link between music at times of death is virtually ubiquitous: from David’s biblical dirges and the myth of Orpheus to modern pop music, from hymns and requiems to traditional laments, folk songs and ritual musical practices the world over. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld even pondered whether some of the earliest forms of music would not have been primitive polyphonic laments upon death.

Through my research, however, I noticed that despite the ubiquity of the link between music, loss and grief, very little was actually understood about the role of music. We might all have an inkling of how music has helped us with our own losses, but there is very little formalised or academic knowledge, especially when it comes to what is happening on the emotional and psychological level. Non-academically, there also seems to be little music-related information or guidance for those in times of loss save for a handful of articles and a few playlists.

In traditional societies, music has almost always been tied to rites and ritual surrounding death. It often harnesses raw emotion and channels it into the ritual outcome, bringing communities together in shared sentiment around collectively held beliefs in death and the afterlife. Numerous ethnographic studies indicate that many of these musical ceremonies have a very real psychological effect in helping the participants cope with loss and grief.

The Yolngu, aboriginal people in Northern Australia, for example, have highly performative musical funeral rites that last for two weeks. Women spontaneously start singing weeping songs upon a death and, over the coming days, these songs turn into personalised narratives of the deceased taking in kinship and ancestral connections and totemically related landscape. These rites lead the bereaved along a path from raw emotional outpouring to a culturally negotiated grief, separation from the dead and re-integration of bereaved back into society. Remembrance is then possible through such songs of place and kinship.

In modern Western societies, many have turned away from traditional systems of belief as funerals, grief and remembrance become ever more personalised and idiosyncratic. But this does not necessarily mean that people have found equivalent replacements, especially so when it comes to overwhelming experiences of grief.

Indeed, many taboos on death and grief persist, and the belief that grief is or should be highly personal leaves many alienated and suffering alone. Furthermore, low death rates mean that many have little or no experience of death while the secularised individualism of West often means for fragmented communities and scattered families. When death does strike, individuals and families may simply lack the necessary tools, community or guidance.

Music’s Role 

Music, however, is one of the most powerful tools we have in times of loss. Understanding the role it can play can help artist and listener better utilise and direct this power.

Firstly, music is a legitimate space for grief – even extended forms of grief that last long after society deems it acceptable to talk about. Art has always been a space that can communicate past taboo, express the unsayable, give new perspective and open dialogue.

Music therapists have long known that music can help externalise hidden feelings, help regulate emotion, and give that emotion direction. Furthermore, in music, emotion can be communicated, allowing for a sharing of experience – it shows us we are not alone in our internal worlds and can bring us together. Music can also simply allow us to feel a connection with someone lost and remember them.

Music is so fascinating as it finds itself on the border between articulable and the inarticulable elements of consciousness; on one hand, the intellectual and narrative, and on the other, the emotional experience, the subconscious or the soul. Especially in times of loss when we may most keenly feel our emotional undercurrents, music helps us connect with and discover ourselves. It can potentially bridge the gap between intellectual and emotional responses.

My personal experience

When I experienced delayed grief quarter of a century after my mother died, music not only helped me discover, explore and express what was just beyond my conscious view – grief, trauma, half-forgotten memories, intangible senses of place and presence – it also helped me to process those feelings, gain ownership of them, and direct them gradually towards a place of healing.

By the “end”, I had written 7 pieces of solo guitar music, manifestations of and meditations on grief, memory and healing. Each piece is being recorded and filmed in a different specifically chosen non-studio location. The pieces are being released each month along with an accompanying text designed to contextual the music and explore the role music played for me.

Songs of Loss and Healing

It seems to me, however, that a much wider conversation needed to be had and much more exploration to be done. The project Songs of Loss and Healing aims to open up that conversation, to explore this musical connection further, and simply to reach people through music.

In the modern world, our relation to death and grief is changing. With that, musicians and composers should be at the forefront, engaging with, responding to and re-interpreting the ancient link between music and death. For readers of this blog, it might be of particular interest, for example, to see a classical pianist such as Igor Levit in his new album ‘Life’ talk so directly about his personal grief and remembrance through classical music.

In grief, the more we discover and accept, and the more we allow ourselves to feel non-judgmentally, the more likely we are to experience grief as healing. Whether we want to feel and express the existential torment of grief or whether we would like to spiritually re-connect to the departed through song, music, with its keys to the transcendent and to our emotional inner-worlds, is uniquely placed to help us cope with loss. Music can be a consolation, but it can also be much more.

Songs of Loss and Healing aims toexplore and spur this on with a series of interviews, articles, podcasts, releases and collaborations across genres and cultures. It also aims to develop a community engagement angle by providing online resources, organising events, and raising awareness on the potential of music in grief.

 

Songs of Loss and Healing is still in the early and exploratory stages. Right now, we are looking for artists with relevant experience who would like to contribute or be featured.  

Links: www.songsoflossandhealing.com

 

 


Douglas MacGregor is a composer and guitarist. Read more

 

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I began writing music during my first year at my secondary school, William Ellis School in North London, and received help from three of the teachers there.  I showed my early compositional efforts to the school’s Head of Music, Douglas Potts, who gave me some practical advice and programmed several of my works in school concerts. Lois Rycroft, my flute teacher, visited my (initially somewhat sceptical) parents with her husband, Frank  (then principal horn with the RPO), and managed to convince them that I should pursue a career in music.  Julian Silverman taught me A Level Music as well as piano and composition during my last two years at the school, and was the first truly inspiring musician I ever met.  Julian was hugely talented and very knowledgeable: to this day I look back on his teaching and encouragement with immense affection and gratitude.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I first became aware of the music of Brian Ferneyhough during my last year at school, and eventually met him in 1976 while working as Music Editor at Peters Edition, London.  Although I had barely begun writing music I felt to be satisfactory at this time, Brian was incredibly encouraging, and was largely due to him that I gave up full-time work in publishing and went to study with him at Freiburg between 1981 and 1982. It has been an enormous privilege to know and to have worked with one of the finest minds in music today, the creator of music that is among the most beautiful, sensuous, powerful, original, and provocative work produced in our time.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Like many composers, I have always found writing music to be immensely difficult.  I usually work very slowly, and find it very hard not to be over-critical during the composition process.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

During the time I have been active as a composer, I have come into contact with a sizeable number of musicians to whom I owe a great deal both for their hard work in making my music come alive in performance, and for the help they have given me in overcoming technical and other problems I have encountered during composing.  It is also a pleasure to share an after-concert meal or drink (or both) with the people who have played my music, and, of course, some of the performers with whom I have worked have become close personal friends.  Like most composers, I imagine, I have found the internet to be incredibly useful, for contacting performers during the composition process, researching into extended techniques, fingerings and so on and for sending scores and promoting my work.  It is hard to believe that, at one time, much of this was done by letter, or by phone (which could involve very expensive international calls).

Of which works are you most proud?

I am proud of all my work, but I would like to mention the following five pieces in particular: Music for 25 Solo Strings (1981-84), Tacciono i Boschi (1981) for soprano and piano, The ‘Traces’ Cycle for solo flute (1991-2006), Das Buch Bahir for 9 players (2004-5) and Elided Dilapidations (after C.P.E. Bach) for piano (2014-15).  I also have a special fondness for my “prodigal son” piece, Passeggiata for orchestra (1989-2017)

How would you characterise your compositional language?

As a Ferneyhough pupil, it is difficult for me to avoid using the “complexity” word.  However, while my music certainly features nested tuplets, microtones, extended performance techniques, and other elements of the armoury of the complex composer, it is not defined by them.  I like to think that the notable features of my music are harmonic clarity, structural integrity and lyricism, as well as a tenuous sense of optimism and a concern with intellectual and spiritual continuity diametrically opposed to much present-day musical culture. Underlying what I write are a wide range of references, including Renaissance and Baroque music, the music of South-East Asia, Jazz, Blues, Mediaeval and Renaissance philosophy, Kaballah, green politics, recent scientific developments, film noir, Jacobean tragedy, the Gothic novel and historical slang.

How do you work?

I have always had to combine writing music with teaching jobs and other activities, so I soon learned to fit composing into any available time slots.  I gave up teaching in July 2016, but, presumably owing to some special composer-related variety of Parkinson’s Law, I still find that there are many demands on my time, which take me away from the composing desk.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I love the music of a large number of living composers.  Of those no longer living my special favourites include Dunstable, Dufay, the composers of the Eton Choirbook, Tallis, Victoria, Monteverdi, Schütz, Corelli, Bach, C.P.E Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Mahler, Scriabin, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Janacek, Varèse, Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Maderna, B. A. Zimmermann and Dallapiccola,.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It would have to be a toss-up between Boulez conducting Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and Three Fragments from Wozzeck and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the Proms on 3rd September 1967 and Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Festival Hall on 5th July 1970.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring composers?

Though (as stated above) I find composing to be difficult and often frustrating, it is ultimately rewarding. If you are sure you possess a gift for it, stick with it, and build up a body of work to show to potential performers or concert promoters.  Be generous to your fellow composers, even if you are jealous of their success, and try not to waste your energy getting depressed about the unfairness of the system that appears to reward other composers (who you may well consider less talented than you) with performances and commissions.  Don’t be put off by those who tell you that, if you are earning little or no money from writing music, you are somehow not a “proper” composer.    Above all, be grateful to those who perform your work.  They spend long hours practising in order to be able to play to the highest standard, and will often be performing new music because they believe in its importance, rather than for financial gain.

James Erber was born in 1951 in London. Having gained Music degrees at the Universities of Sussex and Nottingham, he spent a year studying composition with Brian Ferneyhough at the Musikhochschule, Freiburg-im-Breisgau. He has worked in music publishing and education.
His music has been widely performed and broadcast throughout Europe and in the USA, Australia and New Zealand by many eminent soloists and ensembles. It includes Epitomaria-Glosaria-Commentaria for 25 solo strings (1981-84), The ‘Traces’ Cycle for solo flute (1991-2006), two string quartets (1992-94 and 2010-11), Das Buch Bahir for 9 instruments (2004-2005), The Death of the Kings for 11 instruments (2007) and Elided Dilapidations for piano (2013-14).
Matteo Cesari’s recording of The ‘Traces’ Cycle and three other shorter works for solo flute is available on Convivium Records.  Other works can be found on NMC, Metier and Centaur Records (USA).

Why would a talented leading British composer include a document called a Failure CV on her website, alongside details of her extensive oeuvre and the many plaudits for her work?

British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad is not alone in including such a document on her website. She prefaces it with the comment that “for every success I have, there are usually a LOT more failures that nobody ever gets to hear about”, and each entry on this Failure CV includes a note of how each project or submission turned out. On one level, it’s sobering reading – proof that composers (and musicians in general) must work hard and that success is often hard won. But it’s also rather inspiring and positive. Its honesty shows that Cheryl, and others like her, accept that a successful career trajectory is paved with many setbacks and failures, and it reveals a certain confidence which seems far more genuine than a list of accolades, prizes and press reviews.

The more usual kind of CV lists successes only, but this does not represent the bulk of one’s efforts. Nor does it acknowledge that failure is a necessary part of progress and without it, one cannot reflect on nor learn from those failures.

A composer can “hide” their failures. They need not mention the rejected funding applications nor the works which never got commissioned. A performing musician, however, exposes themselves to criticism in the very public forum of a live concert and errors will be remarked upon by audiences and critics. As musicians, failure can have a very profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. It can create feelings of personal humiliation which in turn may stifle our ability to learn and develop. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset lead us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings

In fact, mistakes and slips in concert are a very tiny part of the “setback-reflect-progress” habit of the serious musician, who regards mistakes as positive learning opportunities rather than unresolved failures. Failure is part of creativity and mastery, and without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress

It also fosters resilience and equips one with the tools to cope with the exigencies of one’s creative life. Being honest about failure is empowering, for oneself and for others, as it can help them deal with their own shortcomings and career setbacks, and encourage them to stick to the task.

What Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Failure CV so neatly proves is that failure – and a willingness to learn from it – is a fundamental part of success: without those setbacks, Cheryl may never have reached the pre-eminent position she now holds in classical music in the UK and beyond.

Meet the Artist – Cheryl Frances-Hoad

Why would a talented leading British composer include a document called a Failure CV on her website, alongside details of her extensive oeuvre and the many plaudits for her work?

British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad is not alone in including such a document on her website. She prefaces it with the comment that “for every success I have, there are usually a LOT more failures that nobody ever gets to hear about”, and each entry on this Failure CV includes a note of how each project or submission turned out. On one level, it’s sobering reading – proof that composers (and musicians in general) must work hard and that success is often hard won. But it’s also rather inspiring and positive. Its honesty shows that Cheryl, and others like her, accept that a successful career trajectory is paved with many setbacks and failures, and it reveals a certain confidence which seems far more genuine than a list of accolades, prizes and press reviews.

The more usual kind of CV lists successes only, but this does not represent the bulk of one’s efforts. Nor does it acknowledge that failure is a necessary part of progress and without it, one cannot reflect on nor learn from those failures.

A composer can “hide” their failures. They need not mention the rejected funding applications nor the works which never got commissioned. A performing musician, however, exposes themselves to criticism in the very public forum of a live concert and errors will be remarked upon by audiences and critics. As musicians, failure can have a very profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. It can create feelings of personal humiliation which in turn may stifle our ability to learn and develop. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset lead us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings

In fact, mistakes and slips in concert are a very tiny part of the “setback-reflect-progress” habit of the serious musician, who regards mistakes as positive learning opportunities rather than unresolved failures. Failure is part of creativity and mastery, and without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress

It also fosters resilience and equips one with the tools to cope with the exigencies of one’s creative life. Being honest about failure is empowering, for oneself and for others, as it can help them deal with their own shortcomings and career setbacks, and encourage them to stick to the task.

What Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Failure CV so neatly proves is that failure – and a willingness to learn from it – is a fundamental part of success: without those setbacks, Cheryl may never have reached the pre-eminent position she now holds in classical music in the UK and beyond.

Meet the Artist – Cheryl Frances-Hoad

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I have a musical family and so my brother and I would hear music every day. I guess the music got into my soul and I started writing when I was at school from the age of about 12.

That said, I only started composing professionally in my mid-thirties. At that time I found that I really started to get satisfaction from creating music and particularly music that other people enjoy playing.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My parents warned me that the musician’s life is not easy! However, I’ve always enjoyed performing whether on piano, singing or on trumpet. It was a natural step for me to form, run and conduct a swing band at my school, and then two more bands when I went to Cambridge University.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I think, probably like many people, I find the marketing aspect of writing (i.e. blowing one’s own trumpet!) to be a challenge. I guess it is constantly having to judge the best use of time and money in how to reach the right people with my music.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

It’s always a pleasure to write a new piece of music – and especially so as a special request. Coming up with an original, catchy and visual title can take time though.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I perform regularly with very talented UK jazz musicians in a variety of ensembles. It’s highly satisfying to try and play up to their standard and I always get ideas for new pieces after my gigs.

Of which works are you most proud?

Gosh – that’s a tricky question! I’m particularly proud of my JukeBox book series which has taken a great deal of work and seems to be popular so far. If it comes down to a particular piece, then at the moment the duet ‘Little Green Men’ makes me smile.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would say that it is a blend of jazz and other popular styles. As long as there is a melody and nice chord progressions, then I’m happy.

How do you work?

Ideally, I start with a title, perhaps from my growing list of potential candidates. Then I consult my spreadsheet of current compositions so that I try and avoid repeating the same combination of style, grade, key etc. I guess that’s my engineering background coming into play!

In reality, what tends to happen is that I get a melodic idea or rhythmic groove (often in the shower) and then try to find a title that works with it.

Either way, I’ll then sit down at the piano and experiment. Sometimes it works… sometimes it doesn’t!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Al Jarreau, Oscar Peterson, Prince, Jamie Cullum, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Simon, James Taylor…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If I can write and record a piece of music, then listen to it weeks or months later and think, “that sounds good!”, then that to me is a success. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does.

Also, if I write a piece and someone, somewhere in the world plays that piece and enjoys it – then that is a success.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think it is essential to love the music you’re writing or performing right now at this moment. We all have hopes and dreams of what might be in the future, but it’s probably best not to cling to those too tightly.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still gigging and writing most likely in the UK.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being aware of the present moment – for example, during a gig and being in ‘the flow’.

What is your most treasured possession?

Materially, my piano.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Reading, watching and learning.

What is your present state of mind?

It varies, but mostly happy!


Olly Wedgwood has been playing the piano, singing, composing and performing in public since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. It all kicked off at school, many years ago in 1986 when he won a music scholarship to Hampton School and started to write for his favourite instrument – the piano

After four years of formal music training, Olly discovered Jazz and formed, conducted and managed the Hampton School 15-piece ‘Big Jazz and Blues Band’, also recruiting from the girls’ school next door ;). Hooked on jazz, he began to study jazz piano under top UK jazz pianist Roger Munns.

At Cambridge University, Olly performed in and directed ensembles ranging from pop and rock ‘n’ roll outfits, to jazz trios and big bands. He formed ‘Selwyn Jazz’ big band with his partner-in-crime, Jon Hooper, in 1993 and the band is still gigging to this day.

(Editors note: actually Olly studied an Engineering Degree, but he and his partner in crime, Jon Hooper, probably spent more time on the gig circuit than they did in the engineering lab…).

After University, Olly worked as an engineer and physics teacher by day, also conducting the Magdalen College School big band. By night, he gigged with various jazz and soul ensembles, both as a wedding pianist-vocalist and as a ‘front man’ wedding entertainer.

In 2004, he handed in his notice for his day job and went pro, playing frequently with the Oxford Jazz Quintet (one of Jamie Cullum’s previous ensembles). Olly now runs his Jazz Soul Boogie Band – an awesome wedding entertainment band on the professional gig circuit in the UK, performing a variety of music styles from jazz swing, Latin to funky 70s soul. Wherever Olly is playing, you’re guaranteed a great night’s music and dancing!

Also in 2004, Olly co-wrote ‘Wedgwood Blue’, a landmark piano collection which brings together the extraordinary talents of the Wedgwood family. Olly’s younger brother Sam Wedgwood is a talented singer/songwriter and their mother Pam Wedgwood is recognised around the world as one the UK’s most prolific and successful composers of popular repertoire for young instrumentalists.

Headshot_AlexandraHarwood

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I started writing music when I was four, so I have no memory of why this was! My mother said that when I was three, I would watch television, go to the piano and play the music I’d just heard. I also loved placing my favourite story-books on the piano and would make up accompaniments as I read them. When I started school (Bedales School) aged four, I had piano and theory lessons and the head of music encouraged me to compose musicals! I wrote my first musical, ‘The Wombles’ aged four, which the school produced and then during the rest of my school life there (until I was 18), I wrote several more musicals, which were all performed. I never questioned that I was anything other than a composer (even though I learned the piano and clarinet during those school years), except I had a secret fantasy to be a heart surgeon!! I was a huge film and television addict as a child, which I think laid the ground for my career as film composer.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Along the way I’ve had some incredible teachers to whom I am indebted for their guidance, encouragement and teaching and to list them all would take a whole page, but Melanie Fuller at Bedales and Joseph Horovitz, during my undergraduate study at the RCM gave me the most formative and solid foundation that I rely on still to this day. Milton Babbitt, when I did my Masters at the Juilliard School, gave me much worldly advice and shared his experience and knowledge, even though musically we were worlds apart. For concert/classical compositions, my most significant influences are Stravinksy, Prokofiev, Ravel, Britten, Shostakovich and Sondheim; put those all in a pot and stir them up and out comes something like me!

For my theatre and film compositions, it is normally the film or play, director and producer that will dictate what music is needed and I can write in a wide variety of styles, but in the end I think my melodic voice comes through.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

As a classical composer, earning a living was by far the greatest challenge! And in my 40s it was juggling being a single parent of three children whilst trying to start a new path towards film composing. I owe my children everything for their eternal patience during the time I did a second Masters degree at the National Film and Television School and since then for practically having no mother available when I’m chained to my desk up against tight film deadlines!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

It was a very unexpected moment when Leon Bosch commissioned me to write four pieces for I Musicanti’s 2017/18 concert series at St John’s Smiths Square. In my mind, I’d turned my back on writing concert music, once I’d decided to focus on being a film composer. Ironically, last year, in a recording session for a feature film that I scored for Disney, ‘Growing Up Wild’, Leon was in the session orchestra and discovered my music through that. His commissioning me was like life tapping me on the shoulder, making sure I did not forget my roots!

I have found writing concert music again frightening, as I’ve got so used to writing to picture and having a film to support. even if I prefer having those constraints!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

For a commissioned piece, it’s important to know the ability of the players you are writing for, along with the planned time they have to rehearse. I think for a future life of any piece, it’s important for the musicians to know this is a piece they can program again and that it’s performable! With these particular commissions for I Musicanti, I am aware I have virtuosic musicians to write for, and I worry that I’d let them down by not writing something that gives them a platform to show their skills and gift. But at the same time, I have tried not to let this cloud my idea of what the piece should be as a whole.

There is no greater pleasure than hearing my work brought to life my real musicians and in the case of i musicanti, world-class musicians.

Of which works are you most proud?

There are a few pieces I wish could be performed again. I composed two pieces that had Royal premieres; a piano quintet for my father’s 70th birthday that was ‘Theme and Variations’ of Happy Birthday, performed in front of Prince Charles and a piece for chamber choir, ‘God of the Sea’ performed for Princess Margaret at Windsor.

I think the concert piece I am most proud of was my cantata ‘The Happy Prince’ which was performed with narrators, choir and orchestra at St John’s Smith’s Square in 1993. The reviews it received recommended it was performed at the Proms and that is still something I dream of. My father wrote the libretto and we would both love to hear it performed again.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My concert work is melodic and probably the best description of its harmonic language would be neo-classical/bi-tonal.

How do you work?

I have a studio at home for my film composing, which involves a computer, screens and full size Roland RD700 weighted keyboard. But right behind me sits my Steinway Grand, which I bought in the New York Steinway showroom after I graduated from Juilliard. It’s my most treasured possession and signed inside by Steinway’s grandsons.

Most of my film work and all my concert work begins at the piano, with manuscript paper and pencil, and eventually gets put into the computer for editing.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I have very eclectic taste and impossible to list all, but to name a few, other than my main influences I listed above, I’d include (in no particular order): Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, James Horner, Chet Baker, Bach and Stevie Wonder!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Seeing Robert Carson’s production of Britten’s opera, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Aix-en-Provence’s open-air theatre in 1991. One of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Perseverance, don’t listen to naysayers and keep a still centre!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Hanging out with my three grown up kids and dogs at home, wearing pjs and drinking cups of tea and watching a movie with them! This is always perfect happiness for me.

What is your most treasured possession?

My late mother’s wedding ring, that I wear, and my Steinway Grand piano.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I’m most at peace when I’m working.


Alexandra Harwood is an award-winning film composer, whose films have screened worldwide and include awards and nomination for BAFTA Cymru, BIFA, Anima Mundi, Edinburgh Film Festival, IDFA and Locarno.

After graduating from the Royal College of Music (Dip Mus) and then The Juilliard School (MA) Alexandra was composer in residence for the Juilliard Drama Division, during which time wrote for theatre productions in New York and England. Amongst numerous commissions that have been performed world wide are The Happy Prince (cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra) libretto by Ronald Harwood, St John’s Smith’s Square, London; Untitled (voice and percussion) for Audra MacDonald, Avery Fisher Hall, NY; and  Sonatina (alto flute and pianoThe National Flute Convention, chosen repetoire,  2009,USA ; Theme and Variations-  written for Sir Ronald Harwood’s 70th Birthday, performed in the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales.

Experience in theatre and concert work led to taking an MA in film composition at the National Film and Television School, which began a career as a film composer.

Film scores include, Dancing in Circles (BAFTA Cymru winner 2015 dir. Kim Strobl), What A Performance! Pioneers of Popular Entertainment (BBC) , Z1 (BIFA winner 2013 dir. Gabriel Gauchet), Girlfriend in a Coma (BBC), Harry Potter Celebration (Warner Bros.), The Substitute (dir. Nathan Hughes-Berry), Satan Has a Bushy Tail (Film London. dir. Louis Paxton), Kids Say (Flourman Productions. dir. Lilian Fu), The Key (MewLab Productions. dir. Kim Noce and Shaun Clark), No Man’s Land (IDFA nomination 2013 dir. Michael Graverson), Four and Flat Frog (Inkymind Studios), Automatic Flesh (Ballet Rambert).

alexharwood.com