Anne Chmelewsky, composer

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

The minute I realised what a piano could do, I wanted to make music on it. Of course, I didn’t realise until later on that composing involved writing the music down too, and I struggled with this because I learnt by ear and wasn’t great at theory – plus my teacher at the time told me that composition could only ever be a hobby for girls, so I grew up thinking there was no point in pursuing it. It was only when I moved to England that I slowly reconnected with composing. One day, I found myself in a career session offered by my school and was talking to a friend who was still weighing up her options for the future. We were flicking through prospectuses for the different universities she was hoping to apply to, when I stumbled across the prospectus for Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that there was a course just for composition: I hadn’t even realised that it was something you could study specifically. So I put a late application in and a few months later found myself studying there on a path to where I am now.

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

Film music has undoubtedly been the greatest influence on my musical life. It was scores like Star Wars and Indiana Jones that introduced me to the sound of orchestral music, so I owe John Williams a lot! Other than that, my options were limited early on. My family moved around a lot when I was younger, and I remember endless car journeys between France and Poland, where I lived for about 4 years. It would take us about two days to drive between Paris and Warsaw, but we only had a limited number of cassettes. I remember Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne and George Brassens’ albums were favourites in the car. The two couldn’t be more different, but looking back I think hearing them both on repeat has had a big influence on my music, because it impressed upon me the importance of strong melodic writing.

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

There are many, many challenges in most composer’s careers. For me, even getting to the stage where I felt comfortable calling myself a ‘composer’ was difficult. I made the mistake early on of paying more attention to criticism than encouragement, and, as is often the case for many people in the arts, I made the gigantic error of tying my self-worth to financial success. For the first decade of my career, when I was often still working day jobs to supplement my music income, I felt like a failure – and of course it’s a vicious cycle, because that feeling meant I probably didn’t present myself outwardly as a serious artist either. It took a lot of time and effort to slowly turn that sense of myself around.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working on a piece for film/stage/theatre?

The job of composing is by nature solitary, so for me, working on a piece for film or theatre is always a pleasure because it involves working as part of a team. There is also something extremely stimulating, and at times very challenging, about working within certain confines. When you write concert music, the music is the main event: there may be certain considerations in mind, such as instrumentation or length, but you have a practically blank canvas. On a film though, you are supporting a story and a director’s vision. The length of each music cue is very much determined or at least directed by something beyond yourself, by the edit, while tone is also often guided by the action on screen. While this might seem ‘restrictive’, in fact it calls for real creatively. You have to approach writing like this with real humility. It is both as an entity in itself and part of something much bigger.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m really proud of my previous EP Some One Lost and my forthcoming debut album on Sony Music Masterworks,  Songs Without Words. They’re both deeply personal works and I wrote them without thinking too much about their life in the outside world, which is a blessing. I’m also lucky that I have worked with some great directors and on projects that shed a light onto contemporary issues that don’t always make the news. My stage works have a special place in my heart too. I’ve tried to use them to bring forms like opera to new audiences, and in turn they have helped me to explore my voice as a writer as well as a composer.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

Sometimes for film and TV work, part of the job is to be a bit of a chameleon, musically speaking. In fact, it’s difficult for most composers I know to pinpoint a particular style, in part because our identities are forever morphing and evolving. Generally, I tend to lean more towards tonal melodic lines than blocks of textures or soundscapes. But it really depends what I’m writing for.

How do you work?

I’d love to say I have a routine, but while I really do try to enforce some sense of a routine in my work, it ends up changing all the time. What I know works for me is writing first thing in the morning, before coffee, when my mind is still a bit foggy from sleep. I always write straight to paper, away from the piano. A lot of my work is obviously done on the computer, whether notating sheet-music or sequencing, but I find software at times gets distracting. Writing regularly is also really important, even if most of what I make ends up in the bin or gathering virtual dust on a hard drive. The practice of regular writing builds confidence and self-knowledge. It also helps to identify certain go-to patterns and pushes you outside of your comfort zone. I also improvise a lot in my work, especially along to books. There’s a big tradition of comic books in France and I used to make up music in my head to go with the comic books I was reading. To this day, I still have comic books on the music stand of the piano and I improvise along as I read.

Tell us more about your new album Songs Without Words

The album is a collection of songs that I put together for someone close to me and who was going through a very difficult time with their mental health. I kept trying to speak to them, but time and time again I found that I didn’t have the right words. Things kept coming out as platitudes rather than what I wanted to offer which was comfort, or strength, or optimism, or just to say that things were going to be ok. So it was with a sort of frustration with words that I turned to writing the album, in the hope of producing something that could communicate all those feelings and their intensity but without the baggage of language: hence, Songs Without Words.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I’ve been asked that question often and I think I give a different answer every time… which doesn’t bode well! Right now, for me, success is defined by inner peace and satisfaction with one’s music. Regardless of criticism or praise.

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

I think discipline and practise are most important. There tends to be a culture of “if you have talent you’ll make it” – but no amount of talent is sufficient without hard work and enterprise. And balancing that work is important too. It is vital for musicians to look after themselves, to prioritise self-care. It can be a very thankless career at times, especially in the advent of social media, which is both a blessing and a curse. Seek out a nurturing emotional environment and those who help you maintain one.

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

Obviously I’d like to be scoring the 30th Bond film, managing a hectic schedule of superhero scores, and turning down invitations to award ceremonies because I simple don’t have the time! On a serious note though, having worked in the education sector for a number of years, I would love to be in a position to have a significant influence on the funding of music education in primary and secondary schools – especially seeing that more children have the option and the choice to learn an instrument regardless of their family’s background or situation. It’s one of the major ways in which we can ensure a more diverse classical music scene, from performers, to composers, to conductors.

‘Songs Without Words’, an album of chamber music for solo trombone, strings, harp and vibraphone is released 21 May 2021. 

Anne Chmelewsky is a London-based French composer for stage and screen.  Her composition credits include Ricky Gervais’ DEREK (Netflix) and BAFTA-winning director Amma Asante’s latest feature WHERE HANDS TOUCH, for which Anne was nominated for ‘Discovery of the Year’ at the 2019 World Soundtrack Awards.  Commercial projects include the music for the 007 ‘No time to Die’ x Nokia spot.  She is currently working on an operetta for the screen, supported by PRS for Music.  

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