a23_inumvx_2019-01-05-17-00-29Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I was always drawn to music from a very young age. We used to live in Poland when I was about five or six, and the house we rented had a piano in it. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I would spend hours trying to reproduce the music that I heard on TV, or write tunes to go along with my favourite books and stories. Soon after I started taking lessons, and when I realised writing music for films and for stage was an actual, real job, well, my heart was set on it.

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

Film and theatre music has always been a huge influence on my life. I didn’t listen to a lot of classical music, so I was mainly introduced to the orchestra by way of the screen and the stage. Bernard Hermann had a big impact on me as a child, as did Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, John Williams, and Alan Silvestri…to name just a few! My parents also had some cassettes of Offenbach operettas which we used to listen to in the car on repeat, so that also really drew me towards the operatic voice. Later, at music college, I was thrown in at the deep end and discovered the world of contemporary classical music. As you can imagine this was quite a change from John Williams and Offenbach! It was a complete revelation for me, opening up a world of textures and sounds I had never even considered.

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

Probably the greatest challenge in my work is convincing directors and producers to fund recording with live musicians, particularly on smaller-scale film projects with very small budgets. A lot of film music is produced electronically with instrumental samples, which can be a great tool for demonstrating ideas or mocking up sketches for editors. But even though there is a huge industry in place working to produce some very refined orchestral samples, nothing compares to real musicians. Without them, the music is simply two-dimensional. It lacks humanity.

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

The greatest pleasure is that it will actually be heard by an audience! As a film composer, we produce huge amounts of material that does not necessarily see the light of day: different sketches, pitches, or music for scenes that end up on the cutting-room floor… So it’s nice to work on something with the knowledge that it will be performed or broadcast. From a more practical point of view, film and TV work always provides a certain framework that music has to fit in to, and I really enjoy being creative within the architecture of the visuals. Often these projects have extremely tight deadlines, and I strangely find something extremely exciting and, ultimately, gratifying about pushing oneself creatively when working to the clock.

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

I’ve been very lucky to work with some fantastic musicians and I particularly value the common understanding that builds over years of working performers again and again. It really is unique. I guess there are challenges to that relationship too: remaining rigorous and not getting lazy with my notation…!

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m particularly proud of my score for Amma Asante’s new feature film ‘Where Hands Touch’, which comes out in the UK on 10 May. It was the first feature I scored and so it holds a very special place in my heart. I also really love working on a series of comedic operettas I’ve been writing for the past ten years which, although something of a side project compared with the film and TV work, are still very dear to me. They are tremendous fun to develop and extremely liberating. I aim to write a new show every couple of years. My current one is called Pygmalion 2.0, a one-woman opera about a scientist trying to engineer a better generation of men using artificial intelligence.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

As you’d probably guess from my first answer, I’d say my musical language is first and foremost cinematic: tonal, narrative and melodic.

How do you work?

I write every day but ideas and projects tend to get finished in focused bursts. As for a particular piece, I work things through mostly in my head so will spend an awful lot of time thinking about a piece of music, envisioning it. Then I move to paper, rather than the piano; I find that if I move to the piano too quickly things can easily get altered by my fingers, which will automatically go into a certain key or add musical idioms that aren’t necessary. So I make it a rule never to play through anything I have in mind until I have written the core of it out on paper first. That way the idea feels somehow truer to its conception.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That’s a hard question. It’s an ever-changing list really, I listened to a lot of Takemitsu over Christmas. I also love Xenakis, Reich, Ravel, Chopin. I’m writing an EP for trombone, viola, and electronics at the moment, and I tend not to listen to any music in the weeks surrounding a project. Instead, during those time sI like to research traditions of music that have been lost. At the moment I’m looking at musical traditions in ancient Greek drama and what modes and scales might have sounded like 2500 years ago.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This is a difficult one to define, I suspect for many other artists too. Often it can be blurred with external perception and audience validation, so for me the important thing is to focus on having personal pride in what I do.

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

A strong work ethic and, above all, perseverance. It’s an industry which can be truly gruelling and often completely contradictory in its nature: one day it feels meritocratic, the next it’s about who you know and not the music you make. Maybe because of this it can be easy to get swayed by hype and trends – but the constant in any musician’s life has to be one’s work, and one’s voice.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love improvising along to narratives, and one of my favourite ‘exercises’ is to put books up on the music stand and improvise on the piano while reading them. At the moment I do this with a Belgian comic book series called Yoko Tsuno.

Anne Chmelewsky is a composer and writer for screen and stage. 

Anne composed the score for Amma Asante’s feature film Where Hands Touch, (TIFF 2018). Past projects include the music for Mark Weeden’s feature film Only People (2018), Sofian Khan’s Do We Belong (The Atlantic Selects 2018) and An Act of Worship, (Field of Vision 2017), as well as the Emmy & Golden Globes nominated Derek (dir. Ricky Gervais, Netflix / C4).

Her third opera ‘Pygmalion 2.0’ has been developed with the support of the PRS foundation, and is currently previewing in the UK. Her second opera, The Looking Screen, was performed extensively both throughout the UK and internationally, as well as broadcast on UK TV and radio. She has also written for The Independent and The Huffington Post. 

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

A career in music is something I’ve always aspired to, since poking out simple original tunes on the piano as a child, which led to a long formal musical education, with piano at the centre. But other influences led to a career in finance and technology instead.

In my adult life, the impetus to take my hobby music a step further wasn’t any single individual but rather a whole musical community which thrived in the early days of music streaming platform SoundCloud.

It was the collective positive and encouraging response from like-minded music-makers which spurred me on to do something more. To pursue a serious and bill-paying career in music

This pursuit is strong and ongoing, and I find myself at a point where I have just resigned from 11 fruitful years at one employer, in a concerted effort to rebalance my efforts in the long-run.

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

When watching a film, I am always more captivated by the sound and music than by the picture or story. I am pathologically distracted by it to the degree that I almost don’t notice the plot. 

And so my list of personal influences matches the list of the most celebrated film composers of our time: John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, I couldn’t possibly complete the list of beloved and inspiring composers in this wordcount.

Bringing it a little closer to home though, there are several people in my circles who have successfully taken bold steps out of one career and into a career of composing for the screen. Outside of lucky breaks, it is an exceptionally difficult and long-playing effort to generate commercial success in music, but I see clearly now that it is in reach, whether or not you have a ‘backup’ career.

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

In a marketplace flooded with exceptional talent, getting your own work heard above the crowd, by people who hold the purse strings, is pretty much everyone’s ongoing challenge. It’s a challenge I haven’t addressed by any formal means of promotion, but I seem to have accidentally addressed it by simply being active, engaged and present in musical communities like SoundCloud, SCOREcast and some thriving Facebook groups.

One other challenge is time management. I feel lucky to have more work than I can handle right now, which means having to say no to things I would love to do, but not all of that work has immediate revenue. I’ve got a ton of work being live-recorded by strings players and singers but I won’t see a penny out of that for a year or more. The only way I can address that challenge is to judge incoming work on a balance of enjoyment and return on investment. Work which is both fun and high ROI comes first.

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

Mind-reading is both a challenge and a pleasure when working on a commissioned piece. Your vision will rarely match the vision of the commissioning director, so you make sure you have a high quality brief and have a first stab. Sometimes it’s a direct hit, and that really hits the reward centre of your brain, that you’ve successfully empathised with your director’s vision. Sometimes it’s version 9, and you’re just relieved it’s over.

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

My first experience combining live parts into a coherent whole was in online collaborations with musical friends on SoundCloud a few years ago. What a difference a single live part makes in an otherwise virtually arranged piece.

That experience led to my busy pipeline of remote session work on the piano. The baby grand in my professionally sound-treated studio is permanently mic’ed up for recording work for myself and other composers and I get a good stream of work via SessionExchange.org.

This year is a milestone year for me in live orchestral work. One family of production music labels requires and commissions live parts in strings and choirs and I’ve written around 30 pieces for it so far this year, some of which you can hear on my SoundCloud page. Many have been performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra players, up at Parr St studios in Liverpool, and many have been performed by a small ensemble in Vienna.

Which works are you most proud of? 

Oh dear, that’s like choosing your favourite child

If I judge it by number of plays, my trilogy The Muse has generated nearly half a million plays and still tugs my heartstrings when I play it to myself, given that the inspiration for them was a series of crises in my life

If I judge it by commercial success, that would by my improvisational solo piano album Won Love which peaked at number 2 in the iTunes UK Instrumental chart this year, behind Richard Clayderman

My current personal favourite is probably a single piece called Dystopia, a dark and epic piano/orchestral piece that was a lot of fun to write

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Having already listed my favourite contemporary composers, I’ll bring up my favourite historic ones here: Chopin was at the centre of my love of the piano and I’ve played over half his entire opus, including most of the Etudes, Ballades, Waltzes and Preludes. Rachmaninoff is a close second and of all the pieces I’ve enjoyed playing, one day I’d love to finish learning the 2nd piano concerto, which I abandoned after the fiery first and ‘easy’ second movement.

Other favourites include Liszt, Bruckner, Holst and Wagner, the latter 2 of which remain major influences of modern film scoring

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I’ll take the audience seat of this question as opposed to the performance seat, where I’ve enjoyed playing in some concerts but it has not been a major feature of my musical career.  

From the audience seat, I will never forget the live performance and screening of Interstellar, with music by Hans Zimmer, at the Royal Albert Hall this year. Not only did the music blur my eyes almost throughout, but I also had a chance to see some of our generation’s most iconic people all in one place in one night as hosts of the evening: Stephen Hawking, Michael Caine, Kip Thorne, Brian Cox, and Hans Zimmer himself

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

Some choose only to model others closely, some choose to express only their own voice. I don’t think the key to success lies in either extreme but in a balanced blend of the two.

To write music based on a template established by successful composers can only get you so far, soon you will blend in with the crowd and it will never be truly fulfilling. To write music expressing only your own voice may fulfill you artistically but the reality is that commercially successful music does demand a modicum of convention and a niche sound doesn’t always succeed.

Where the magic lies is in opening yourself to continuous learning from successful artists who have paved the way, accumulating the skills and musical vocabulary required to express your own voice in a well established medium.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Entertainment is a bilaterally rewarding pursuit, where the entertainer can get as much pleasure as the entertained. In music, I thrive both ways, getting as much of a thrill creating a body of musical work as I do enjoying the creations of other musicmakers.

What I enjoy doing most is living music.

Oliver Sadie is a freelance composer and session pianist for film and tv, with an alter ego as a finance technology specialist. Operating from his purpose-built studio outside London, Oliver provides full-service soundtrack and song production, as well as live-recorded piano on demand.

With live orchestral parts performed by Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra players, blended with a full toolkit of virtual instruments, Oliver writes for production music libraries Gothic Storm Music, Lovely Music, The Library of the Human Soul, Getty Images Music as well as several non-exclusive online libraries. Some of Oliver’s portfolio of 500+ tracks can be heard at http://soundcloud.com/oliversadie.

On-screen credits include indie New Mexico film THE GARDEN (2015), upcoming UK action comedy film DEAD MEET (2016), independent Hollywood film GLASS PRISON (2013), sports documentary series SVEN DECKER, US slavery documentary MADMEN OR MARTYR, and a number of promotional and advertising spots for end-clients including Sony, Gärtnerbank, Black Bear International.

What makes a great film? A powerful narrative, engaging acting, imaginative direction and cinematography. All of the above – but also a compelling score. The popular of film music is reiterated by stations such as ClassicFM which regularly broadcast excerpts from the soundtracks of, for example, Lord of the Rings (Howard Shore), The Mission (Ennio Morricone), The Hours (Philip Glass) and more, and certain composers of film scores enjoy near-legendary status in the world of film and music: in addition to those mentioned above, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, James Horner, John Barry, Alexandre Desplat, Yann Tiersen.

Good music can really make a film (and bad music can really harm a film) and is a very powerful tool. Music can be used to set the mood and move on, or delay, and inform the action. Some film scores enjoy iconic status: Brief Encounter uses Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, and the rich romanticism and pathos of this music truly enhances the narrative. Last year, I went to a screening of Brief Encounter with a live performance of the score with pianist Leon McCawley. In addition to reminding me what a great classic film this is, to hear (and see) the music live added something really special to the narrative and highlighted aspects of the film which I had previously overlooked when viewing at home on a winter’s afternoon (usually in that post-Christmas slump time).

This month, as part of the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre (this year curated by David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame), another film received the live score treatment. And it was a complete contrast to the small-town restrained English romance of Brief Encounter. There Will Be Blood is the powerful and disturbing story of the rise of unscrupulous oil man Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis at his most intense and brooding. The score was performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt, with Jonny Greenwood on the ondes Martenot.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007).

The film score was created from music composed by Greenwood, who is perhaps best known for being a member of the rock group Radiohead. He is also an acclaimed composer of film scores (and has also been outspoken on the formal presentation of classical music – read more here), including Norwegian Wood (2010), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and The Master (2012). But his score for There Will Be Blood really defines Greenwood’s film music. In fact, the director Paul Thomas Anderson was initially inspired after hearing Greenwood’s piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver, written as part of his fruitful residency with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the film opens to this music, a full 12 minutes of nothing but music and action.

Greenwood’s music glides, shimmers and pulsates. It is sparse and sinewy, strings tremble and stutter urgently, there are unsettling glissandi (which Greenwood calls “smears”) and strange orchestral “white noise”. The music expresses both the vast landscape of California, the setting for the action of the film, and also the inner turmoil and psychosis of the protagonist Daniel Plainview. There are distinct echoes of Messiaen in Greenwood’s writing, in particular in his harmonies (also found in the opening of Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’), and Arvo Pärt too, and the film soundtrack includes Part’s Fratres for piano and cello (performed on this occasion by Katherine Tinker and Oliver Coates respectively). The live score offered new nuances on the film, at times heightening and magnifying the action, in particular when the orchestra produced a wall of sound that loomed up to bookend short and intense periods of action that take place in the otherwise desolate landscape. Taken as a whole, it was an incredibly powerful and absorbing evening’s viewing and listening, very enthusiastically received by the audience, who also sat in appreciative silence as the orchestra played out the film’s credits to the final movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto (with Galya Bisengalieva as soloist). As “immersive experiences” go, I’d say this was right up there.