Christopher Willis, composer

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

I can hardly remember not being drawn to music. I began tinkering with it when I was very little. Music has always seemed to me slightly not of this world: it’s this mysterious phenomenon that defies easy explanation. I used to discuss it with my granddad, who was a self-taught pianist and also a mechanical engineer. He had an engineer’s perspective on music, and was very curious about it. If I had to zero in on one spark, it would be sitting at the piano with him when I was 8 or 9, discussing the harmonic series, or chord inversions, or something similar. He’d show me something new, and I’d then find I could play around and make a little piano piece out of my new discovery.

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

I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a few great teachers, although I only studied composition here and there, rather sporadically. My piano teacher when I was about 12 was an indomitable lady called Christine Drury who I really clicked with. Later at the junior Royal College of Music I studied the piano with Aaron Shorr. At that age I think your instrumental teacher can make a huge impact on you. I feel like Aaron’s whole philosophy of music, the things he revered and found important, tended to influence myself and my friends who studied with him.

When I arrived at Cambridge to study music as an undergrad, I was extremely taken with music analysis, as taught by a musicologist from New Zealand named Dean Sutcliffe. Through Dean I discovered a whole tradition of musical “close reading”: authors like Heinrich Schenker and Charles Rosen. My music teachers until that point had tended to run out of explanations for things quite quickly, and they’d often just resort to using words like “genius”. But music analysis showed me that there’s no limit to how deeply you can think about music: you can interrogate your own listening, continually asking yourself why certain things work so well and others don’t. There’s no point at which you have to just shrug. That mindset had a huge impact on me and was very empowering.

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

When I was in my 20s, the film composer Rupert Gregson-Williams gave me a chance to work in his studio after he heard some demos of mine. I went out to Santa Monica to work for him. But I was really in at the deep end. I had certain skills I needed, but I lacked others. I was a pretty good composer, but I knew almost nothing about music production. And I loved film, but I was almost totally ignorant about film music as a craft. But luckily Rupert and my other colleagues were extremely supportive, and I just tried to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I also just knew I had found my calling, and I really threw myself into it.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working on film scores/soundtracks?

I think, by and large, most people watching a movie don’t realize the extent to which the music is tailored to match what you’re watching. When you’re watching an old Warner Brothers cartoon with a glorious Carl Stalling score, it will dawn on you at some point that the music and the action are in perfect sync with each other. In fact that kind of relationship is actually there in virtually every film — it’s just normally more subtle, and less detailed, than in a cartoon. But it’s still there. Normally the music is written to the film rather than the other way around, so a primary concern of the composer is simply how to follow the action on-screen while still allowing the music to have its own rhythm, its own logic. Over time, as a film composer, you learn certain skills: what to hit and what to play through, how to nudge the mood this way or that without disrupting the basic flow, or how to orchestrate a melody so as not to fight with the dialogue.

The special pleasures of film music are equally bound up with the movie-making process. If you ever get the chance, I recommend that you watch a scene from a movie with the dialogue and sound effects intact, but with the score taken out — especially any scene in which, as we say, the music is doing a lot of “heavy lifting”; that is, working hard to make the scene work. It’s very unnerving because the scene will suddenly feel very stilted or confusing; it’ll suddenly have a community theatre vibe. What that teaches you is that the film composer wields quite a lot of power in the way a film plays. When I think about what a popular and universal art form the movies are right now, I’m struck by what a privilege it is to be given such an important role in their creation.

Of which works are you most proud?

When Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin came out and it really felt like it had things to say about big political questions in the real world, my involvement with the film gave me a real pleasure not quite like anything else I had experienced. When the film was banned in Russia, and we started to hear about cinemas defying the ban, and being raided and so on, it brought home the fact that films and other works of art really can influence people and events; they can “make a difference”, to use a rather hackneyed phrase.

On a very different level, it’s always wonderful to meet people who have been really enjoying my music, such as one person who contacted me on Twitter who wanted to walk down the aisle at his wedding to the theme tune from the Mickey Mouse Shorts. That’s pretty great. I’m often most excited about something I’ve just finished working on, while I’m anxiously waiting for the chance to get it out into the world. That’s how I feel right now about Armando’s new film The Personal History of David Copperfield, and also about Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a big ride coming to Disney World this spring for which I wrote the music, with a new song at the heart of it that I co-wrote with my wife Elyse.

Tell us more about your work with Armando Iannucci….

Armando is extremely knowledgeable about classical music, so that creates a useful shared frame of reference for getting a conversation about music started. We first worked together on his HBO sitcom Veep, and had a lot of fun creating this backdrop of very earnest early 20th-century American music for the show to play off. Then came The Death of Stalin, where the conversation turned to Soviet music from the 1950s, and there were much bigger opportunities for music than in Veep. What’s nice about our third collaboration, Copperfield, is that the score, like the film in general, is less irony-filled than the earlier projects; it’s more direct. Again, there were conversations about reference-points in the symphonic literature (British ones this time), but in this case, I was much more able to leave those references behind eventually and just craft a unique sound for the film.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

In one sense that’s a hard one because, like most film composers, I’ve been called upon to write in tons of different styles! But I am noticing some patterns emerging. One is that I seem to be a kind of eternal music student, always discovering some new corner of music and getting enthralled by it. An outside observer would probably say that my music is often more “classic” than other film composers’: a lot of orchestra, big band, classical ensembles, vintage/retro nods. It’s a bit of a paradox because I don’t actively want to write old-fashioned music; but I do listen to a lot of older things and I find it very exciting to find old musical styles that are off the beaten track, and I can’t help injecting some of that historical detail into what I’m doing. My music isn’t always tonal or harmonious, but it seems to lean towards or resolve into tonality eventually. I also really like tunes.

How do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?

I usually start a project by researching the subject, and thinking about it in the abstract. At some point I’ll start realizing that amid the research, I’m already having half-formed ideas. So I’ll move to the piano, using a pencil and paper to get ideas down. I think there’s an art to managing your own creative output. You can’t fall in love with every stupid idea you have, of course, but there’s a danger that you’re so self-critical that you reject ideas too quickly; there’s a particular danger that you reject an idea because it’s not quite what you were looking for. Also you can have lots of good ideas very quickly sometimes, or you really can have a good idea in the shower or in some other unlikely place. The danger is that you don’t recognize them as such and you don’t record them or remember them. Conversely, sometimes you get stuck, and there’s an art to knowing how long to hack away at one particular half-formed thought and when to walk away. I’m a big believer in sleeping on ideas to get them straightened out.

While there are some things I’ve written down, there are other ideas that exist only as very rough improvisational concepts. I’ll try them out lots of times at the piano and then at a certain point I’ll move to the computer, using Cubase, and try playing them in there, where I can really sculpt them more carefully, removing things, adding things. My next goal is a “map”: a very rough piano sketch of a composition in the computer. I might redraft the whole map multiple times, until I’m pretty sure what the bare bones of the composition are.Then I’ll move onto fleshing it out for orchestra or band or whatever it might be, and further refining it. It’s important to keep an open mind as the texture becomes more finished, especially if it’s more experimental and has a lot of sound design in it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My favourite musicians are mostly those I grew up listening to. At any given time I’m normally really interested in some new discovery or other, but I always seem to come back to certain things: a few that come to mind are Chopin, John Williams, Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Queen, and above all, composers of the eighteenth century like Bach, Haydn, Scarlatti, Mozart, and Beethoven.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

In the world of film, naturally to some extent you’re always thinking about what films and film-makers are out there, always looking to the next gig that will maximise your exposure to a big audience. But to be honest, I measure my music instinctively against the classical stuff that I know really well, and I think I’ll only really consider anything I do a success if I truly feel like what I’m doing can withstand comparison with the classical repertoire, which by and large I don’t think it can yet.

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

I think it’s OK not to have everything figured out when you’re young, and it’s never too late to learn new things. The great difficulty with music is that in order to achieve excellence, you really need to spend a lot of time within one discipline: one instrument, one style, one genre. But the interesting changes and innovations tend to happen when disciplines evolve or fuse or break apart, or when very old ideas are dusted off. That’s inherently tricky. I meet young composers who are very focused on trying to nail the current sound of film music: the hybrid production, the synths, the sample libraries. I’m always encouraging them to make time for other styles they may find interesting, because I think the latter may ultimately prove more valuable. But I sympathize with them: they feel they need to get up to speed on the current scene before they can afford to get distracted.

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

In early 2020 I’ll be starting a new feature animation called Lamya’s Poem, starring Mena Massoud, who played the lead in the Aladdin movie last year. I’m also hoping to turn some of my film stuff into concert suites. In ten years’ time, I’d be very happy just to be working on movies that are as good as the ones I’ve already been involved in. I’d love to be doing more concert music, or something else outside films and TV; maybe even an opera or a musical. That would be amazing.

The Personal History of David Copperfield, directed by Armando Ianucci, is released  on 24 January. Christopher Willis’ soundtrack for the film is released on 17 January,

Born in Australia, Christopher Willis grew up in the UK and earned his BA in Music at Clare College, Cambridge. He went on to study piano performance with American pianist Aaron Shorr at the Royal Academy of Music, before returning to Cambridge University to study music analysis with W. Dean Sutcliffe, completing a PhD on the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti. While at Cambridge he also worked as a teacher of harmony and counterpoint. In 2007 he relocated to California to pursue a career in film music, and worked in the studios of several major film composers, including Rupert Gregson-Williams, Harry Gregson-Williams, Henry Jackman, and Carter Burwell, before embarking on his own career as a television and film composer.

A self-described “eternal music student”, his compositional output has been very diverse, united by his deep desire to learn about music in all its forms. From 2012 until the present, this appetite has found an ideal outlet in five seasons of Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts, which take place in many locations and embrace a dizzying array of styles. Similarly, his epic score for Disney Junior’s hit series The Lion Guard involved a deep immersion in the music of sub-Saharan Africa. His work for television has earned two Emmy nominations and he is the five-time winner of the Annie Award for Music in a Television/Broadcast Production. In 2020, his music will feature in Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, an all-new attraction at Disney World, Florida, with the ride coming to Disneyland, California in 2022. His concert music has been performed at the BBC Proms Festival and on BBC Radio 3, and he has written various musicological articles, as well as a chapter in the book Domenico Scarlatti Adventures.

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