My latest standalone album, called Genre Fiction, is out now.
The album comprises 11 short instrumental pieces, each of which serves as the theme music to a different fictitious TV programme.
As you listen, I hope you'll imagine David Attenborough examining a coral reef, Neil deGrasse Tyson contemplating nebulae, or Kevin McCloud philosophising about parquet flooring.
Documentary-type filmmaking is one of my favourite things to compose music for, and when I'm not doing it for real, I'm doing it for my own amusement.
All albums are on the usual download/streaming platforms.
To begin, I wanted something light and fun. I have a soft spot for those cosy factual Channel 4 programmes in which some posh eccentrics fix up a crumbling old ruin somewhere in the British countryside. They always have a bulletproof optimism, even when everything's going wrong and they're thousands of pounds in the red. It seemed fitting to write a little burst of joyful, energetic music and dedicate it to them. My piece is driven by woodwinds with a pastoral flavour – flutes and cors anglais – and has an irregular 15/8 time signature. Because I don't think those guys would approve of anything as ordinary as a regular beat.
It's a safe bet that, at any time of any day, you could flick through your endless cable documentary channels and find some cheaply made thing about Ancient Egypt. “Could this be the lost tomb of Cleopatra? Could Tutankhamun's curse be real? Is the Sphinx an effigy of an alien visitor?” Probably not. But these shows are a lot of fun, and I had fun imagining the musical language of the pharaohs. Apart from what we can see in hieroglyphics, no-one really knows what they were listening to, so I've taken elements of contemporary Middle Eastern and African music, mixed in some moody synths, and virtuosic string lines that sound like an asp writhing through swirling desert sands.
So now you've got Tony Robinson walking through fields full of bits of weird stone, debating with socially awkward historians about whether King Arthur was a real dude. Here I wanted something with fantastical Tolkein-esque undertones, something mysterious, a musical painting of the misty, mountainous landscapes of early Britain. A celtic harp, distant battle trumpets, and the ethereal alto flute were my weapons of choice for this piece, which aims to transport you way back into our chilly Anglo-Saxon past.
Warmer climes now, as we visit the Caribbean in the early 18th Century, where fearsome Edward Teach captains his crew of bloodthirsty buccaneers aboard a stolen French merchant ship, reborn as the Queen Anne's Revenge. In reality, pirate music would probably have been performed on whistles and drums, as the ol' Pugwash concertina wasn't invented until a bit later. But a lot of the time, the trick is to capture the feel of a time and place, rather than get too bogged down in historical accuracy. With that in mind, my sea shanty features a prominent mandolin melody, accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy, some distorted electric guitars (because pirates were pretty rock'n'roll), and the percussive sound of a chain hitting my studio floor. Arrrrrrrr.
For my Blue Planet inspired Attenborough documentary, I set out to make a short musical triptych of the seas. We begin with a sun-dappled coral reef, teeming with shoals of tiny fish, and patterned with the electric colours of a shallow tropical coastline. Next, we delve far deeper, into the dark, unforgiving abyss, where the only light comes from the shimmering phosphorescence of weird, prehistoric creatures, and something with abnormally massive teeth, that snaps suddenly at the camera. Finally we emerge once again on the surface, where dolphins burst playfully from the waves, making rainbows with their tail fins in the sunset.
You're now thirteen episodes into an uber-stylish and probably award-winning true crime series on Netflix, totally hooked, but still none the wiser as to the exact events of that night in the woods. For this piece, I used a different palate of sounds to the previous tracks, ditching the orchestra in favour of electric piano, eerie sound design, knives being sharpened, and a scratchy solo violin. I wanted this violin to bring to mind the deep forests of rural America, as well as pay homage to Bernard Herrmann's iconic strings-only score for Psycho, the greatest murder soundtrack of them all.
Volcanoes! Massive lizards! Meteorites! OK, this isn't my subtlest piece. It's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink orchestral bedlam, because frankly, dinosaurs deserve it. I won't pretend I didn't draw influence from greats of orchestral drama like Stravinsky, Holst and Mussorgsky to accompany this scene of a younger, more turbulent Planet Earth, inhabited by fearsome beasts and shaken by tectonic shifts, before the great apocalypse. Party like it's 65 million years ago.
In 2016, my wife Lindsay and I visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I knew it would be fascinating, but I was totally unprepared for how overwhelmingly moving and impressive it would be. They employ some brilliant theatrical magic to reveal Atlantis, the shuttle that flew on the final mission of the NASA space shuttle program, and upon that moment, I actually found myself in tears. The significance of the place is palpable. Look left across the swampy beaches, and you can see the colossal Vehicle Assembly Building. Look right, and you see the launch pad from which the Apollo 11 astronauts journeyed to the moon. It was truly humbling to be there, where men and women dedicated their lives to exploration – and some lives, tragically, were lost. This is my tiny tribute to those people.
You've got a family who are going to live like Victorians for a month. Or an extremely fat person who's going to swap diets with someone seriously underweight. Or someone who's going to go undercover and find out what life is really like for a blah blah blah. This is the kind of factual programme in which someone will go on a journey of personal discovery, and come out better for it. The music wants to be quirky, mischievous and with a lot of plinky plonky percussion. Xylophones, marimba and piano make a cheekily suspenseful underscore for some member of the public realising something they never knew about themselves, and learning a valuable lesson.
Since most of the album features big ensembles making a lot of noise, I wanted to include something very stripped down before the final number. This is a short duet for piano and theremin. At almost 100 years old, the theremin is the first electronic instrument, and one of very few instruments that is played without being physically touched by the player. The sound is controlled by the player's hands interacting with a magnetic field around the instrument, which is then converted into sound. It has a huge range and a very particular sound, sometimes like a human voice, sometimes like a high string instrument. I've been teaching myself the theremin for about 18 months, and really enjoying the challenge. This piece is little bit of an odd one out on the record, as I can't imagine what programme it could accompany other than something about the history of electronic music. But kudos to Leon Theremin, the instrument's inventor. Given that the majority of contemporary music is now written on and for electronic instruments, he really was a pioneer.
The electronic instruments having a major revival at the moment (thanks largely to Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's score for Netflix's Stranger Things) are the analog synths of the 70s and 80s, and this is the sound world I've inhabited for the final track. As much as the daytime Discovery Channel programmes about UFO sightings and alien encounters are hilarious nonsense, I'm a sucker for a good story. I think documentary-style presentation of alien abduction tales is brilliant storytelling. I could watch these things for hours. Rich, dark, squelchy synth pads, and arpeggiated melodies that intertwine in unpredictable mathematical ways, seem a fitting accompaniment to these haunting tales of the paranormal. What happened in New Mexico in 1947? I want to believe.