Alex Moreland interviews Segun Akinola about Doctor Who, composing music during lockdown, and more…
So, just to begin: How did you first get involved with Doctor Who?
A few years ago now, I got a phone call because Chris [Chibnall, head writer] and Matt [Strevens, executive producer] were thinking of composers and they had checked out my stuff. So, I got a phone call, just asking if my number could be passed on to the producers – I said yeah, and then I started to have a chat with Matt and then I had a chat with Chris. Based on that conversation, I wrote him some music, we had another discussion and then I got a call saying I’ve got the job.
That piece of music was essentially an audition piece then? Was it anything in particular, what brief did they give you?
Yeah, it was. It was open – Chris and I talked about a lot of stuff to do with the direction [of the show]. I mean, they were still filming, and obviously at this point I wasn’t on the project, but it was really just a conversation about where it was going and any kind of loose ideas musically. He was very much encouraging me to just be inspired to go and do what I felt was right – and so the piece of music I wrote was The Doctor’s Theme, which has not changed to this day.
With Series 11, you arguably had the most difficult job of all – obviously everyone was new to the show, but this was the first time Doctor Who had had a new composer since 2005. Was that something you were particularly conscious of, did it put much pressure on you?
Well, only in the sense that it’s Doctor Who and it’s a massive show. Like you say, there hadn’t been a change in composer, whereas there had been a change in other areas. I definitely was aware of that, just because of the sheer scale of it in reality – it wasn’t the biggest change, but it was one of the biggest changes, [and would’ve been] for anyone, whoever was going to take over musically.
It was also going in a different direction musically. Just as the show itself was developing and growing and moving in a different direction, the music was as well. Chris and Matt were very clear that they really wanted me to bring myself to it, they wanted it to be bold, they wanted me to come up with whatever this new sound was going to be. So, I tried to do all of that and worked very hard to do all of that, to make it something which was organic and which would really fit into the world that Chris was creating and take things in a new direction.
You came to Doctor Who from a background composing documentaries and non-fiction television – how do you think that influenced your work?
Not really at all. I mean, yes, I’ve done TV documentaries, but I had also done fiction and actually done film as well, lots of other stuff. I can’t say that the documentaries, in themselves, affected anything to do with my approach because my approach across all the work that I’ve done – whether that be games, films, TV, documentary, fiction – is always a case of telling the story and supporting the story and collaborating with the storytellers, whether that be a showrunner like Chris or whether that’s a director and producers. Just telling the story musically in the best way that we can is what we’re trying to do, and what is being done by the lead creators as well.
Fair enough! On a more practical note, I’m curious what scoring an episode of Doctor Who actually looks like, in terms of the steps you take. Where in the production do you begin work? So, for example, the upcoming special – are you at work on it now, have you finished with it?
Well, this special is a little bit of a different situation because of where it falls, whereas if you take a normal series, I’m working for a very concentrated few months on the entire series, and in the case of Series 11, that includes finishing with the special. The structure is largely the same though. Chris and I will have many conversations, and also some with Matt as well, depending on what conversation we’re having and where we’re having that conversation. All three of us will have some conversations about the series, ahead of me beginning any work, just finding out how things are going, any key headlines for the series.
Then we start with episode one, and we’ll watch it through and do a spotting session, where we essentially spot where all the music is supposed to go and what it’s supposed to do and what it needs to say, and any instrumental considerations or any particular musical direction for that episode. On Series 11, part of the change to the musical direction was that the music isn’t exactly the same every episode: it changes with each story and each episode, but also has to sound like it comes from the same place. It’s got to have a series sound, but it also has to move with the episode.
So, we’ll have a conversation about episode one, and then I will start writing and do the first part of everything. That’s sent over to them, I get some notes and I’ll make some changes, and then go through another round of that. Once everything has been signed off, then it’s my time to go away and record and do any mixing as well, get that delivered. But at that point, at the same time, we’re already working on the next one. So, I’m usually working on anywhere between two or three episodes once the production gets going.
I suppose at the moment you’re doing a lot of that work remotely?
Are you referring specifically to the special, or other work that I have?
I suppose both really.
No, it hasn’t really affected anything for me. I mean, I was working on something else which has been postponed indefinitely – anything that still needed to do some filming had to be postponed, so we hadn’t even gotten to the stage of recording at that point. It will be interesting to see, when we come out of this, what the situation is and what the implications are for recording. But yes, a lot of people are doing a lot of remote recording to keep things going at this time, for sure.
How did you approach Series 12, in terms of building on and developing the previous series’ sound?
So, Series 11 was all about having its own sound. It’s a completely different sound and a very different approach. It’s moving around musically, but also there is a series sound to it. With Series 12, it was all about giving it its own sound – not changing the overall direction at all, but making sure that just as the story was developing and the characters were developing, the music was also developing. You could look back on Series 11 and hear something and think “That’s Series 11, not Series 12” but it doesn’t sound out of place or like the direction is completely changed.
It was really about building upon the foundation that which had been laid in Series 11, and continuing to try and be bold and support the stories as much as possible. To keep pushing any kind of limits or boundaries, but still also making sure that the music is always having a story and helping the overall filmmaking.
On a storytelling level, the big contrast between Series 12 and Series 11 is that there were so many more returning elements from Doctor Who’s past – did you look back to the work of previous composers particularly as a result?
Not anything to do with composing, no. Anything that I did in terms of looking at past episodes was only if there was some kind of story link that was useful for anything. In musical terms, it’s just been a blank slate: yes, the Cybermen are coming back, but it’s a blank slate and they’re going to have a new theme – even Captain Jack, he has a new theme. So, musically, it’s been the same approach the whole time, but I’m always chatting to Chris about the story and just making sure that we are telling the right story.
Sometimes it’s about being bold and doing something slightly different. For example, episode 10, it’s the only time in the series where the main theme is used within the body of an episode. That’s because we’ve got this sequence where it is going into the history of Who, and I really felt like we absolutely had to use the main theme that reconnected the canon, and Chris and Matt agreed and were all very happy with that moment.
Yeah, I thought that was quite an effective use of the theme in that moment.
Ah, great. Glad you agree!
One more Doctor Who question, and then I’ll start to broaden out a little more. Obviously it’s existed for so many years now, and hopefully will exist for many more – I was wondering what you might hope that future composers working on the show might take from your work?
I think that’s a difficult one to answer, but I think really it’s a case of just doing your best work and laying the foundation for whoever comes next – at whatever point, whenever, if someone comes next, nobody knows what the future holds – but I would hope that they can just come into it, and bring something of themselves to it, and feel that they can be bold and that they can really do what feels right for them.
On a broader note, then, how did you get into composing for television in the first place?
Yeah, well, I’d always played music from a young age, and I’d also been really into books and stories and creative writing and English literature all my way through school. Those interests came together when I looked a little bit more into music and music as a career – it just came alive, this idea that actually music is used for storytelling in the world of film and TV. That just really attracted me, it felt right and very natural. Then it was a case of working hard at something and going through music school and learning composition – it is always hard work and there isn’t anything which really changes that. Through all of this, I was meeting as many people as possible and chatting with as many people as possible, and continuously working on music, getting better. I was doing the best I could for every opportunity down the road and eventually that just kind of rose through the ranks of short films and then did TV and film, and bigger TV and bigger films and so forth.
You mentioned music school there – you have an MA in Music Composition, and a lot of formal academic training. How do you think that influences your approach?
It’s definitely influenced my approach in a big way, because I always knew that I wanted to go to music school and study composition, I knew that I wanted to further my classical training. I mean, my musical training is very mixed because, although it is very classical and I was learning piano from a young age all the way through, at the same time, I was also doing rock, pop, jazz, musicals, everything. I was playing in orchestra and playing in the big band and playing in all sorts of things, so it’s been very varied for me.
I knew that I wanted to continue studying the classical side, but also keep everything else going with that. I think there’s no right or wrong path into being a composer, and each person has to find the right path for themselves and for the kind of composer they want to be. For me, it just so happened that I knew what I wanted to learn, how I wanted to learn it, and that wasn’t strictly classical music. I wanted to continue on with all of these studies, whilst continuing everything else as well, combining it into the work that I do.
Picking up on that bit, what would you say are your chief musical influences?
That is very hard. I find it really hard to answer because it’s always been a giant melting pot, and I really do mean that. At school I was in orchestra and big band and percussion group and…
Yeah, it was literally everything! For me, I’m always listening to so much stuff, whether I’m listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire, or I’m listening to Adele or Mahalia or Stormzy, or listening to Stravinsky or Billie Eilish, or I’m listening to Mozart or I’m listening to Miles Davis. Honestly, it’s really, really vast. I always listen to a vast range of music. Every few weeks I’ll be changing up what I’m listening to. It’s a very wide range and it spans classical and pop, electric to experimental and avant garde, and all sorts of things.
Is there anything you’ve been listening to recently that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
Yeah. As I said, I’m listening to music every day. I mean, the last, most recent thing that I’ve been listening to Lianne La Havas’ last album and Izzy Bizu’s last album. That’s definitely been the last week or so, which is all that I can remember.
On another note, is there anything you can tell us about anything you’re working on at the moment? Like that film you mentioned a moment ago?
Sadly, I can’t talk about the film at all, sorry.
Fair enough! That’s often the answer.
But yeah, that is on hold, so there’s lots of listening music and other activities at the moment, before the world returns to normal.
Do you have any idea when you’ll be able to get back to it, or is it just indefinitely?
No, it’s just indefinitely. I mean, it’s the same for everyone I know who is working on anything where they’re not fully in post-production. Everything stopped and no one has any clue when anything’s going to get started again. We’re all in limbo.
Finally, then, what’s the most important thing you’d like someone to take away from listening to your work, both on Doctor Who and in general?
Oh, that is a good question. Oh, gosh. I think, when I think back to other composers that I’ve listened to, sometimes the biggest thing I took away from their music is just the idea that they’re pulling lots of influences from lots of different places. It gave me the encouragement, if you will, to actually go and do a similar thing – not to write the same kind of music, but to say music is music and I could pull on any influence. I could just start writing or try and put things together in an interesting way and just try and do something a little bit different. I think, if someone was able to take that away from something that I had written, I would count that as a great privilege.
Segun Akinola, thank you very much!
Image Credit: Charlie Clift