Red Stewart chats with composer Alexandra Harwood…
Alexandra Harwood is an English composer who has been working in the film and television industries since the early-2010s. She is best known for her work on the nature documentary series Growing Up Wild, as well the drama film The Escape. Her latest compositions were for the Netflix original film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was directed by Mike Newell and stars Lily James.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview her, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Ms. Harwood, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I haven’t talked to many maestros, so this really is an honor.
No, it’s so kind of you to want to talk to me, thank you so much.
Now when it comes to music, I think it’s safe to call you a child prodigy. I understand you were writing music at age four, which even beats Mozart, who started doing that at age five.
[laughs] Oh, what a compliment!
Because of this, I’m going to ask you a philosophical question- when you know at that age that you’re really talented at something and want to pursue it, growing up did you ever feel any existential apprehension over this idea that you have to succeed in this industry because it’s what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life? Like, you’ve been given this talent, but you don’t know if you’ll always be able to push forward.
That is such an interesting question. You know, I love being interviewed because people come up with the most interesting questions, and I’ve never been asked that before. For me it’s an oddly easy question to answer though, just because I don’t have any memory of starting. I actually think I learnt to read music before I could read words. It was something I just did as a kid. When I was three I’d watch TV and would then go to the piano and pick out the tunes. And continued to do this constantly.
I suppose I lacked the apprehension over the idea that I had to succeed because my parents and the school I went to, Bedales School in Hampshire, spotted this gift I was given very early on, and gently embraced and encouraged me. I was never pushed. And I think my parents very strongly believed, as I myself do now as a parent, not to push any child into music, because it takes so much discipline and perseverance that if you don’t naturally want to do it, it would be harder still to try and pursue it.
I think it was obvious to everybody that music was part of me because I was always going to the piano as a little girl. It was my safe place, my escape and where I wanted to be. When I started school aged four, I had this amazing head of music called Melanie Fuller and she really fostered my love for music in such a subtle way. She infused everybody in the school with the love of music. She got us performing concerts, musicals, playing instruments and singing in choirs- all these things, and none of us questioned if it was odd. It was our norm.
That in itself was a lovely beginning because I never really doubted anything other than it was normal to do. As I got older though, particularly being a teenager, I think I started to become aware that there were certain differences because not all my friends were carrying on doing music. I had a sense of not belonging. I think as teenagers we begin to feel separate and inward looking generally, not realising everyone is feeling the same. But I was lucky because my father is a screenwriter and playwright and even though he was a writer of words, I saw the profession through living with him, and it’s very close to what I do. I watched the ups and downs of his career: I saw the perseverance, I saw the battles, I saw the bad reviews, I saw the success, I saw him survive it all. And it was incredibly good preparation to help me understand the world I’d imminently enter.
When I was older and had three kids, I purposely took quite a few years off until they were about 12 or 14yrs old, to go back to music properly. I think in that time I probably questioned things much more than I ever had, which was “gosh, if I hadn’t had those nurturing people like my parents and those teachers labelling me as a composer from childhood, would I have become one? Was it so natural that I would have done it anyway, or was it because I was so encouraged into it that I got into that profession without knowing?” [laughs]
So I’ll never know the answer, but I took a lot of time off to be a full time parent, and was so grateful I could make that choice. I did a little bit of composing during that time and wrote some musicals for the kids’ school, but it was when the kids got to a certain age where they didn’t really need me as much, that I started to think “Where I have gone?” And I think that’s when I really realized that yeah, I need to compose. So there you go! [laughs]
No, that’s interesting to hear that that conversation didn’t happen with you until much later in your life. There are lots of composers with different stories. Beethoven, I believe, was abused when he was a child, but ended up having a huge career.
By the way, and I wasn’t abused at all, but I will say that I was bullied and particularly between nine to fifteen. I believe a lot of my musician friends and I, as kids, had lack of self-esteem. I was very insecure. And it must’ve been an integral part of who I was, as it took me so many years to become confident. I think that’s why I didn’t attempt film music earlier on in my career. The film world can be brutal and you need confidence to collaborate well with the people you work with. It’s wonderful and brutal!
I’m sorry to hear about that: it’s something I can relate to. But you actually answered my next question, which is, you’ve been working as a musician for a while, but I was surprised to learn that it was only semi-recently that you’ve begun to actively work in the film and television industries. So I was going to ask you what caused you to change course and more actively pursue that?
It was quite a moment when I changed direction, 7 years ago, because I’d always loved films! I was obsessed with films as a kid. I watched so many films on TV, I would hate to confess how many. I used to keep a log of everything I watched. I think the last time I recorded the number of times I had seen The Producers, the original Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder film, I’d logged 42 times and think I’ve watched it a good few times since then!!
I must’ve considered being a film composer early on but got steered instead towards becoming a classical composer and did my undergrad at the Royal College of Music, which I loved and am so grateful for the strong foundation it gave me.
When I did my first Masters degree at The Juilliard School, studying with Milton Babbitt, I was apparently the first composer there to walk into the Drama Department and ask “Do you want some music for your productions?”
I couldn’t believe that no composer had ever done that there before. Even though I was studying classical composition there, I was always drawn to a piece of art, or lyrics, or a play, or a film for something to be inspired by, or support.
Seven years ago, I had a friend who was learning to be an animator with the amazing online school animationmentor.com; a lot of the teachers they use work at Pixar, DreamWorks, etc all the big animation studios. One day my friend suggested I put my name on the forum to see if anyone would like some music for their grad film. I thought that was a great idea as I could then see if I enjoyed it, if I could learn the technology and if I was any good at it!
So I put my name on the forum and BAM! I got 10 grad films to score. I quickly found that writing film music was my passion and what I must pursue.
That’s an fascinating journey to hear, that you loved writing music and loved watching movies and ended up becoming a film composer. And I understand that it’s especially hard to make it as a woman in the industry. I know as close as the ’80s there was still a lot of rampant sexism, though it has gotten better these days.
Yes, people are becoming more aware.
And only six female composers have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Score. Going off that, I know you are a huge activist for getting more women into the industry. You’re a member of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, a title which speaks for itself. And it’s interesting because, prior to the interview, I hadn’t even thought about this, but the more you look into things you realize that it’s completely true- women have been marginalized in this aspect of the industry. Even feminist films like Wonder Woman and Lady Bird didn’t have female composers.
Yes I was absolutely amazed by this. So many feminist films or female lead films lately have only used male composers. It’s so complicated and political! [laughs]
Do you feel that there should be an obligation, especially on behalf of female filmmakers, to bring on women for the music, or what tactics should we employ in general to make it a conscious effort on everyone’s parts?
That’s the million dollar question. I never thought I was very political but the more and more I’ve been in the film industry, the more and more I do wonder about it.
We need more film makers who choose the composer for their music, rather than their sex, like Mike Newell, and producers Paula Mazur and Graham Broadbent. And if you look at the bigger picture, [The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society] presented a good cross-range of men and women: the producers, me, the cast and crew.
I don’t like the thought of being chosen to fulfill the female quota on a production. You want to be chosen because you’re the right composer. But if an obligation is the way to start the process towards equality then make it an obligation from male and female filmmakers.
I’ve never witnessed blatant sexism in my career and I don’t think any production company and film makers would admit they are not considering or choosing a female composer because they’re female.
It’s different for actresses, who are more vulnerable, as with the Harvey Weinstein phenomenon, to more ‘in their face’ discrimination. It’s more visible for them.
Absolutely, I agree. It’s one of those situations where a lot of people are speaking about it, but the ones who aren’t talking will continue to remain in shadows. I definitely hope the situation changes.
My dream is that the end goal will be the day that there is equality purely because people are employed on the basis of their talent, not their sex. I look forward to the day that there are no labels.
Right, meritocracies are the end goal for society, but we have a long way to get there. Now, as you said, you were trained as a classical composer from the Royal College of Music, so I know you specialize in using piano and orchestras in your compositions. But I’m curious, have you ever had to work with synths, and if so what are some things you like about them compared to orchestras? Outside of, obviously, their ease of use.
My major was always composition. I did grow up playing clarinet and piano, but piano was my main instrument for composing later on for sure. At the Royal College of Music, we did some synth work in our contemporary music scores. But I quickly turned my back on it because it didn’t come naturally to me. But of course, as a film composer, things have changed and the technology has made it very easy for me to work with synths/electronics now, even if you don’t have the actual hardware, there are plug-ins. I did my second Master degree 5 years ago at the National Film and Television School, and even having already learned Logic Pro two years before that, for those various little animation grad films, I was very unaware of really working with electronic sounds. I had not dabbled properly in that at all or ever.
The National Film and Television School turned out to be this extraordinary journey for me because I went there slightly arrogantly thinking I was only going there to make future contacts. But I actually learned a massive amount about film, editing and sound-work. I discovered this whole world of synthesis, electronic music and I realized how important and useful it is in film music now.
And I embrace it because I love it too. Even though my score for the Guernsey film is predominantly ‘classical’ I used electronic colours in a lot of the cues- mostly for when Juliet is trying to find herself and trying to find out what happened to Elizabeth. I will probably always lean naturally towards being able to write for a full orchestra because it’s second nature to me. But actually I’ve done, to this date, over 60 short films, and I’d say a good 80 percent of them have actually been a more electronically, atmospherically, synth-based score, rather than classical. It’s whatever the film’s needs that dictate the score.
And I embrace it because I love it too. I like mixing it a bit. I will probably always lean naturally towards being able to write for a full orchestra because I can. But actually I’ve done, to this date, over 60 short films, and I’d say a good 80 percent of them have actually been a more electronically, atmospherically, synth-based score, rather than classical.
As a matter of fact, it’s only since I’ve got these bigger projects like my Disney feature that I did Growing Up Wild and the film The Escape, that my more-classical style came knocking on the door again, because I’ve done so much electronic stuff in the last few years for all these short films. So I feel that I’ve dabbled in it enough now to feel quite comfortable with it.
I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t just a learning experience and that it’s been helpful for you as you move further into the world of film. You’ve not just used it, but found innovative ways of incorporating it into a classical background.
I think nowadays just anything different one can bring into a score, even if it’s a traditional-sounding score- a lot of composers are doing that now, either in a new sound or a new combination of instruments. Obviously in a sci-fi film like Blade Runner that is deliberately asking for that kind of score, but even with a more traditional film like Guernsey, there are still ways to incorporate something just slightly different in order to make it more relevant to today.
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