The challenges of composing for different genres

By Hollin Jones

Paul Englishby is a Brighton-based composer and musician whose varied career to date has encompassed many high-profile scores for film, television, theatre, concert hall and dance. With credits including BAFTA-nominated soundtracks for the BBC’s Luther, EMMY award-winning music for David Hare’s "Page Eight" and Oscar-nominated movie "An Education" for which he received an ASCAP Award, he was made an associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 2018. We visited his studio to get his thoughts on composing across a wide range of genres and disciplines.

What was your first introduction to music and how did your musical journey begin?

When I was about eight, my mum, who was a primary school teacher, got us a piano and myself, my mum, and my brother all went for piano lessons. I was immediately obsessed with it, and it was a source of real joy to play. I went on and did all the grades, and luckily at school, I had a really supportive music teacher, Mr Evans, who really encouraged me to write as well as play. We had a choir as well as a concert band, and I got involved in all of it. I joined the Lancashire County Big Band when I was about 13 and really got into jazz — I’d grab everything, basically. Growing up in Preston, there was loads of amateur dramatics going on, and I was involved in that too, conducting our performance of West Side Story when I was about 16. I’d play piano in wine bars and for ballets. They were really musical teenage years.

When you got to Goldsmith’s College in London at 18, did you have a career goal in mind?

I carried on looking for lots of experience wherever music was needed, and that’s always been my philosophy. Goldsmith’s was a really creative place with a vibrant theatre department where there was so little red tape that you could write music for plays, collaborate with fine artists on installations, things like that. I started a chamber orchestra that focused on contemporary music. That was also the first time I came across music technology; the electronic studio there had Cubase running on Atari Falcons in black and white. I actually wrote a musical for the drama department called “R.U.R”, and the backing was all done on Cubase using General MIDI.

What was your first commission outside of college?

The BBC was running a strand called “Sound on Film”, which was collaborations between directors and composers. I’d written a violin concerto and a producer in the audience called Nick McClintock wanted to pair me up with a documentary maker called Mike Grigsby, so I came up with an idea of using the piano to look at different strands of society. It was called “Pictures on the Piano” and we recorded it with a full orchestra at Abbey Road.

How does a composition typically take shape, both in terms of the creative and the technical approach? Do you start with melodies, with themes?

I write for different genres, so writing for the picture, for example, would be very different to writing a dance piece where the music would come first. You’d always start with a conversation with your collaborators about the general tone and feel of the thing. Usually, for me, it’s a harmonic language that sets the mood. There’s a big difference between something that has a simple, bare harmonic language and something that’s very animated and maybe has quite a chromatic language. I’d usually improvise on the piano and find the kind of sound I’m after. I start with pen and paper, make lots of sketches, and then explore treating the material. If I’m writing to picture, I’ll normally have those sketches sat next to me, and as I approach each cue, I’ll have almost a kind of vocabulary that I can draw on. I was brought up on keyboard harmony and counterpoint, so I have to write it down and work it out on paper.

Are there any challenges that you come across when you’re starting a new composition?

I don’t find writing challenging. I find it interesting and fun, even if you go down a few cul-de-sacs before everyone agrees on something. It’s people really that can sometimes make the job challenging. Sometimes starting a project is simple. Everything’s just there, and it all works. Other times it takes a few goes, and the more people involved, the more chances of false starts. The bigger the committee, the more that can happen, and that goes all the way to the end of the process until you record. All composers experience this — it can be that people who aren’t composers themselves have a certain take on the material but don’t necessarily have the language to describe it. As a composer, you get used to interpreting these kinds of things. Creating music is always inspiring, but navigating the opinions can be challenging.

How do you combine working in the box with live recordings, how do your scores break down in this respect?

All the scores I do for TV or films will always have at least a few live elements, and sometimes the whole thing is replaced from the demo stage to the live stage. Then there are theatre jobs I do that are all electronic, so I’ll take a mini version of my studio along and build a score. Many of them are electronic or sample-based, but when I work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, that’s always a live band. If you’ve got a conductor with a live band or orchestra, they can react to things being timed differently in a live situation. If it’s all in the box, I have to create lots of cue points, and those are all triggered by an action or a word.

When you’re working with other people, how do you fire ideas back and forth?

After a visit with a director, I’ll play through some initial ideas. After that, I’m sending demo ideas as audio and sometimes, more so later in the process, as video clips with the score over the picture. After that, it’s just me working on the music until the point of orchestration and recording and mixing. For most composers working in TV and film now, people want to hear what it will sound like right away, so you have to demo everything pretty much all the time.

At what point did you start to incorporate software into your working process?

The first few TV and film scores were all handwritten, every single part. From the demo in Cubase, I’d transcribe onto paper and embellish what was at the time fairly basic data from the score editor. In Dorico, though, it’s just so musical for someone that comes from a pen and paper background. It’s just completely obvious; it’s so close to writing by hand that I can add the accidentals and articulations, grab them and put them in. There was a point where I found I could open a whole MIDI sequence in notation software and it was just there. So once the demo is cleared, I can now get it straight into scoring software and do a detailed pass on the articulations and dynamics. There’s still a lot of work to do to get it looking correct.

Is there anything that’s new in Dorico 4 that you’ve been particularly looking forward to?

I used to make a lot of changes in the spelling of sharps and flats, and there’s a new function that’s an intelligent analyser. So sometimes, for example, you’ll put the MIDI in, and it will show a G flat as an F sharp, and you had to go through and change them. Now, it understands that there’s a harmonically logical way to spell things. Also, now you can edit rests in percussion parts; it’s very easy to move the rests. So that will be really helpful for me.

Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I’m about to do two big plays at the RSC called “War of the Roses” and “Rebellion”, very cutting-edge productions with lots of video and wonderful designs, and a live band. And a comedy show at the National Theatre called “Jack Absolute Flies Again”. Then, later in the year there’s more film and TV. Last year, I didn’t do any theatre, it was all TV, but theatre has come back this year.