Alex Baranowski, composer

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

It was my Grandfather who first introduced me to instruments at a young age. He gave me a quarter size violin when I was five and I started lessons on that. He also had this incredible huge accordion he used to play to me which made the most amazing sound. Like all my Grandparents, he was taken to Siberia during WWII to forced labour camps – he purchased the accordion in Italy after being liberated in 1942. He left all his instruments to me in his will, and it is my most prized possession. He ran a choir well into his nineties; the first time I performed my own compositions in public was at one of his concerts!

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

I had Howard Blake’s The Snowman on cassette tape from as early as I can remember – I used to play it again and again and again on my Fisher Price tape deck, listening to every single detail in the orchestration. I loved how every single note was there for a purpose and drove the story forward without the need for words. Similarly I remember being played Holst’s Planets Suite and being totally drawn into the storytelling of Mars and the incredible orchestration of Jupiter. The raw emotion of Gorecki’s Symphony no 3 (“Sorrowful Songs”) just hits me every time I hear it and makes me cry every time. And then there’s The Beatles. The music, the recording techniques they were making up, the arrangements – I spend a lot of time listening to The Beatles, these days usually with my four year old. There are many more influences, but these are the ones that stick out.

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

Rejection is always the hardest. When you’ve put your heart and soul into a piece of music for a brief and it hasn’t hit the mark – for whatever reason – can be hard. I’ve learnt to deal with it much better these days but there were some dark days in my younger years!

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

Working on a commissioned piece is an incredible treat. Writing for specific players, on a piece that stands up on its own, is incredibly daunting but fantastically rewarding when you hear it performed in front of you.  For a composer, there are fewer better feelings in the world. A blank page in front of you that needs filling with notes can be terrifying!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working for the big screen?

Writing for film is all about serving the vision of the director and working as an ensemble of creatives to make the best possible thing you can. It isn’t about making a concert work. 

I’ve been very lucky – all the films I’ve worked on have been with filmmakers who have gone the extra mile to craft the music together into something unique that serves the film like nothing else could. There are horror stories where directors get obsessed with the temporary music in the edit from other films and ask their composer to just copy that, but happily I’ve managed to steer clear of that on the whole!

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

Writing for specific performers is incredible because they play just as you imagined in your head! Whenever working with players, I always try and spend as much time as I can describing the context of the piece before performing / recording – it’s about getting them as emotionally involved and invested into the piece as you are. When I recorded the score for The Windermere Children recently, about children who had survived the Holocaust, I spent a lot of time in the session explaining to the performers what each piece was about, what was happening in the scene, and it made such an incredible difference to the emotion of the score.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’ve been so incredibly lucky working in so many forms over the past ten years; getting Tony-nominated on Broadway, writing a full length ballet performed at Sadler’s Wells, arranging the theme for the World Cup in 2018 for the BBC (performed with Sir John Tomlinson), the beautifully experimental set of idents for BBC Two, working with The xx at the Hollywood Bowl, even doing Christmas commercials for Paddington Bear or Wes Anderson.  Some things of which I’m most proud, not many people will have seen at all – The EL Train theatre production we put on in a crumbling old Music Hall in Hoxton five or six years ago was one of the most creatively fulfilling jobs ever. My most recent film The Windermere Children is something I loved scoring (and cried through) from start to finish. And the feature documentaries McCullin and Nureyev are scores I’m particularly proud of too. 

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I try and start afresh every time, but I’m also obsessed with strings and making textures from acoustic instruments (of which I have a large collection built up over the years). I love old vintage tape machines and boxes and synthesisers.  I have no idea how they work but they make interesting noises. I love finding and recording new sounds that are completely unmusical and making them sing. I’ve been lucky to have bought instruments from around the world on my travels that I have no idea how to play but enjoy recording with them and perhaps they start the germ of an idea. I also love getting into the studio and working with live players. 

How do you work?

I have a studio at home which works really well, and try to structure my work like a “normal” job. No matter how incredibly busy the schedule gets, I try to make a point of always doing the school run in the morning and always stopping for dinner and bedtime in the evening with my son, even if it means working late into the night to keep up. Being with my family is the most important thing and keeps everything in perspective. It’s only music, after all. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Other than The Beatles, Gorecki, Holst and Blake mentioned above, in no particular order: Duke Ellington, Nitin Sawhney, Shostakovich, Mozart, Jeff Buckley, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Max Richter, Philip Glass, Thomas Tallis, Goldfrapp, Beethoven, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Robert & Richard Sherman, John Williams, Louis Armstrong, Nicholas Britell…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Those moments when someone takes the time to say that a composition has moved or affected them in some way.  That’s the thing that makes it all worthwhile. And being able to pay the mortgage. 

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

Be positive. Love what you do. Keep learning. Never rest on your laurels. Collaborate. Invest time in learning technology. Invest in technology, a little bit at a time. Invest in learning your craft more than anything, and live and breathe it every day. Discover what made you excited to listen to music in the first place. Make a point of getting out of your comfort zone as often as possible. More often than not, the easy route isn’t the best one. And don’t be afraid to have the odd tea break to think things through.

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

Still here. And still making music. My young son will be 10 years older so I really look forward to hearing him play – he spends a lot of time in my studio and we’re just starting piano lessons together.


‘THE WINDERMERE CHILDREN’ –

ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK BY ALEX BARANOWSKI

Soundtrack released on Sony Classical on 24 January 2020

Film to be broadcast on both BBC Two and ZDF in Germany on 27 January 2020 at 9pm to mark the

75th anniversary on 8 May 1945 of the end of the Holocaust 

International Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January 2020 will mark 75 years since the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

At the end of World War II, 1,000 child survivors of the Holocaust that had devastated Europe’s Jewish population were granted the right to come to the UK.  Three hundred of these children in particular – presumed orphans of the Holocaust, with only a few meagre possessions and little or no English – were brought to Lake Windermere to have the opportunity to recover in this idyllic country setting. 

The original soundtrack is composed by Alex Baranowski, a talented multi award-winning and nominated composer, based in London. Of writing the soundtrack for ‘The Windermere Children’, Baranowski commented: “The process of scoring the film was by far the most emotional journey I’ve ever been on whilst composing anything at all. The story resonated with the experiences of my own Polish grandparents during and after the war: foreigners in a new country with nowhere to which to return; an entire family killed or murdered; making sense of their experiences through music, painting and writing poetry. Being able to go through my own voyage of discovery of my family past whilst helping to tell this quite beautiful story was an absolute privilege”.

The soundtrack was recorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra at the world famous Air Studios and features instruments of the time:  “I had inherited my Grandfather’s instruments when he passed away, one of which was an accordion which he bought in Rome in 1943.  That same accordion was one of the first instruments I picked up when starting ideas for ‘The Windermere Children’, playing the song ‘Rozhinkes mit Mandlen’ by Abraham Goldfaden that features alongside my music in the film”.

For the film’s main theme, Baranowski was inspired by simple beauty and innocence of lullabies sung to him by his two Grandmothers as a young child, suggesting: “The song could be one of the few memories they had that could comfort them as they waited to hear the fate of their family”.

Photo: Marc Brenner

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