Stuart Hancock, composer

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

I remember, at the age of probably five or six, being absolutely spellbound watching and listening to my cousin John (who would’ve been perhaps 16), playing the piano at a family gathering. It sparked something in me, and my parents (neither of whom learnt instruments themselves) took note and started me on piano lessons aged eight at my new school. I still have the upright piano they rented (and subsequently bought when I progressed well with the lessons!). Notated music fascinated me: it’s a language I lapped up, and I started notating my own tunes from quite early on.

The idea of composing music-to-picture registered with me whilst growing up in the 80s watching adventure movies. Movies such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future and realising the power of the scintillating scores of John Williams, Alan Silvestri et al. That said, it was never something I considered as a potential career (and I neither took A-level Music nor studied it at university). The light-bulb moment came during the summer before the final year of my undergraduate degree (in geography) with no idea what to do afterwards: I saw an ad in a Proms programme for a one-year Masters in Composing for Film & TV at the London College of Music. I applied for the following year with the portfolio of compositions I’d done for fun, got accepted, and it led indirectly to landing a full-time in-house composing job with a Soho-based commercial music production company about a year after that.

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

For music that inspires and moves me, as far as classical composers go, I’m very much drawn to the rich late romantics (Rachmaninoff in particular), Ravel, Debussy and Faure amongst the French, as well as Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Walton from our own shores. Sprinkle that with a bit of Gershwin and Bernstein, and it’s a vibrant melting pot of influences. But, as mentioned, it’s the film scores of the likes of Williams, Silvestri and Jerry Goldsmith that caught my attention first. I also love what the likes of James Newton Howard, John Powell and Michael Giacchino are doing these days (with Silvestri and Williams still going strong too!)

Taking up an orchestral instrumental (violin, switching to viola) was probably a significant step towards me becoming a composer also. I would love playing in orchestras and making music with others, listening to the sounds and textures combining around me, and would often want to get hold of the score to see on the page how it was done. My single most thrilling experience as an orchestral musician was to take part as a violist in Cambridge University Music Society’s performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring under the baton of a very young Daniel Harding. It’s a score I probably look at more often than any other for its brilliance of rhythm and powerful orchestration.

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

Whilst I work in several areas of music (concert, film, TV etc.), the bulk of my income as a composer comes from composing Music for advertising. It’s a cut-throat business! I will get asked by a music production company to demo a track for an ad, with perhaps only 24 hours to compose a 30- or 60-second original track synced to a film, fully produced, recorded, mixed and mastered. That same company will have asked three or four other composers to do the same. The advertising agency will typically have approached them and maybe three of four other similar companies with the same brief. The ad agency, therefore, ends up with 15 to 20 demos to try and sift through before they even consider playing any music to the actual client. So, it feels like a miracle when you do actually win the job, and the financial rewards are healthy, but for every ad gig I might win, there’ll be countless demos I’ve done that will go unused. The key is to quickly develop a thick skin.

I hope to continue to develop my career across a mixture fields of composing, be it film or television scoring, commercial music, or music for the stage or concert hall. While working hard at the commercial side of the business and doing well there, it’s been a frustration that my concert works have not to date reached a wider audience. With the release of Raptures – my debut album of orchestra concert music – I hope to rectify this and gain a bit of traction in the classical world too.

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

The challenges depend on the medium of music. Winning commercial commissions are a battle in themselves (as I’ve already described), as you have an enormous hierarchy of ‘approval’ to rise through to get across the finishing line. Your demo might get all the way to the head client/decision-maker, and he/she might change their mind on any aspect of the campaign (music included) at the eleventh hour, and you lose out. But if you do get the gig, it’s always a real fist-pump moment to finally see and hear your music on air.

In contrast to writing music for ads, film or TV, where you have a visual stimulus, with pure concert music you have a blank piece of manuscript paper; getting started with the first nugget of an idea is the biggest challenge. Once the creative juices are flowing, it’s a terrific feeling. And the fact that the piece has been commissioned in the first place means that – unlike the commercial world – the person or ensemble who commissioned it already knows, likes and trusts what you do and should theoretically be pleased with the outcome!

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

With concert music, it’s hugely flattering to be commissioned in the first place, and the thrill of hearing musicians perform your work is hard to beat. My Violin Concerto (featured on the Raptures album) was written for my good friend Paul Barrett, who shares my love of powerful, tuneful, romantic music. It was an immense pleasure to write him a large-scale work in a style that we would both want to listen to, as well as to work with him in detail on some of the less-than-playable bits of the solo violin part! It’s a work that I’d hoped would be performed more widely, and approaching Jack Liebeck to record it for the album will hopefully give it some momentum. It’s off to a great start with Jack choosing to perform it for his concerto engagement with Imperial College Symphony Orchestra in February of next year at Cadogan Hall.

Similarly, with orchestral film music, it’s an enormous pleasure to hear excellent musicians bringing your compositions to life in the recording studio. The first take is very often a really emotional experience for me because it will be the first time hearing something that will only have previously existed in a midi-orchestral form (that is, created as a demo with sampled instruments). Sampled instruments are good enough to give you the confidence that your composition and orchestration hang together well, but it’s only when you’re in the studio with instruments vibrating together live and musicians truly performing it that it comes to life.

Of which works are you most proud?

Of my concert works, the Violin Concerto is very special to me. Bitter Suite, a work of mine for orchestra and female vocal trio, has had a handful of performances (with Juice Vocal Ensemble) and is one I would love to record for a future release. I think it demonstrates music of mine that is quirky and colourful but with moments of real emotion and power. On the film/television side, I am very proud of my scores for Atlantis (the BBC fantasy drama series), and We’re Going On A Bear Hunt (Channel 4 animation from the makers of The Snowman and the Snowdog). I am now conducting live presentations of the Bear Hunt film score to family audiences internationally, with performances in London (Royal Festival Hall) and Dublin (National Concert Hall) earlier this year, and gigs in Cardiff and Taiwan coming up before Christmas.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

As a composer who has worked for many years in the commercial world, I have become comfortable writing music in many different styles. I can list experimental sound-design, pop, thrash metal, rap and grungy electronica as areas in which I’ve excelled in the past! But clients mostly approach me to compose on acoustic and orchestral briefs, as this is where I’m most at home. In concert music, the more I compose, the more adventurous I’m getting with my musical language, but I’m not ashamed that it is, and will remain, ‘accessible’ (for want of a better word) and grounded in a strong sense of melody and rich harmony, following in the traditions of the romantic composers I’ve name-checked above. I compose music that I would enjoy listening to myself, and it’s music that I want to be enjoyed by the musicians playing it and the audiences that have come to hear it.

How do you work?

With a demo for a commercial that I have a day or half a day to create, I will quickly map out my sections and hit-points in a midi tempo map (in Logic) and then proceed to sketch out and sequence up the outline of the composition quickly on a piano sound. The remainder of the time I have is then spent on arranging and orchestrating. If there’s a budget to record any individual musicians that will significantly improve the track at the demo stage, then I’ll do my best to squeeze that in too. I finesse the mix, and it goes off to the client and, with any luck, returns with constructive feedback for revisions and moves forward through the tangled approval process.

With a concert work, I would generally go old-school and start with pencil and paper and sketch my ideas sat at the piano. But sequencing things up in Logic would come into the process early on here too, as I find it’s the best means of quickly hearing back your ideas and starting to flesh out arrangements.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I’ve had the privilege of working with many brilliant concert and session musicians in my career. Recording with the BBC Concert Orchestra on my Raptures album was an extraordinary experience – excellent musicians, of course, but so kind and generous with it. Same goes for the City of London Sinfonia, who brought my music for We’re Going On A Bear Hunt to life at Abbey Road and on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. Earlier in my film composing career, I was lucky enough to record the score to a fantasy film Hawk with the harpist Catrin Finch, the Cor Cymru-winning choir Serendipity and the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra (with whom I have recorded many times since).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

With concert music, I know I’ve done a good job when musicians come up to me and say how much they’ve enjoyed playing my pieces. Same when audiences show their appreciation with their applause or give me their compliments in person. Awards are great too, and my film/tv work has garnered me several Jerry Goldsmith Awards, Music+Sound Awards and other industry accolades.

I also feel my music is a success when it creates the opportunity to compose the next piece. For example, I orchestrated and ghost-composed for another composer for several years, and this composer turned down a commission to write a children’s opera for W11 Opera, putting my name forward instead. I got the gig, creating the youth opera Rain Dance, first staged at Riverside Studios in 2010. The founder of the Voices Now festival was in the audience for Rain Dance, and he got in touch the following week to commission me to write a piece for the Holst Singers to perform at the 2011 edition of the festival at the Roundhouse. That was my Folksong Suite. Then at a drinks reception before its premiere, I got into a lively conversation with Dame Professor Henrietta Moore of the SHM Foundation (supporters of the festival). Having enjoyed my Folksong Suite, she contacted me the next day to come in for a meeting with the idea for a grand new commission. The result was Snapshot Songs, a large-scale song-writing project that I masterminded, involving Londoners from all walks of life collaborating to create new songs about their great gritty city. Snapshot Songs enjoyed gala performances at the Barbican’s then-new Milton Court Concert Hall with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, DrumHeads, a 50-strong community choir, and soloists, rappers and poets full of diversity. It led me to win the prestigious British Composer Award for Best Community or Educational Project in 2015.

During the 2014 ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in Los Angeles, I met the brilliant film composer John Powell (score composer on the Bourne, Shrek and How To Train Your Dragon franchises, amongst many other hits). Upon hearing my recently recorded demo, he turned to me, stony-faced, looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know what the f*ck you’re doing’. It’s a quote I’ve been dining out on ever since.

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

Recognise opportunities when they present themselves and work hard to make a success of them. Develop a thick skin and don’t be precious about your work (especially in commercial, film and television Music!) Be versatile, sociable and likeable and someone people want to work with!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Doing more of the same – continuing to work on new and exciting film/tv projects with new concert commissions and performances, and with a raised profile as a composer across all the media I currently work in (including establishing myself in the classical/concert world).

What is your most treasured possession?

As far as material possessions go, both my old upright piano (with me since the age of eight) and, recently purchased at auction (now that I’ve moved just out of London and have a room big enough for one) my beautiful restored 1910 Bosendorfer grand.

Stuart Hancock’s new album Raptures is released on 15 November 2019 on the Orchid Classics label

Stuart Hancock’s website

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