Alex Heffes, film composer

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

I remember very clearly running home after seeing Star Wars at the cinema in 1977 or ’78 (!) and going straight to the piano to try and pick out the tune. And then getting sort of bogged down in how tricky the harmony is. I guess I’ve been trying to untangle that ever since!

I was a huge (AKA notorious) movie buff when I was young. I just watched everything. I probably didn’t realise it then but I pretty soon started taking notice of the music and ranking films often by their score. I used to make mix tapes (yes, really on tape) of music from films that I would copy off the VHS that’s I’d recorded from the TV. Happy days!

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

Originally it was John Williams for sure. And Gerry Goldsmith (‘The Planet of the Apes’ score scared me half to death when I was young!). I had a pretty rigorous classical training so I guess a lot of that repertoire got soaked up. I was a huge Mahler nut and can probably spot a Mahler symphony within a bar or so.

Alex Heffes with Ryuichi Sakamoto during the Face To Face sessions

When I left college I became jazz obsessed and started a band with me on keys. We played late nights for no money – just food and lived the jazz life for a bit. But my heart was always in film. Somewhere along the way I also got interested in all sorts of non classical/Western music. I played and studied gamelan for a couple of years as well as various other things which has probably influenced some of the film writing I’ve done like going out to Uganda to record parts of the score and songs for ‘The Last King Of Scotland’, or going to South Africa for ‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’. I also did an album some time ago called ‘Face To Face’ which I co-wrote and performed with Regina Spektor, Ryuichi Sakomoto, Tunde Jegede (amazing Kora player!) and others. So I’ve always had a pretty varied experience even though I come from a classical background. When I was pretty young I also did some arranging for bands. I ended up doing some arrangements for Elton John for example of a movie. So I was lucky to get to work with such a varied group of people it’s stood me in good stead in my career.

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

Honestly, just writing really good music is hard. It’s a tough things to do and as your experience and craft gets better you set the bar higher for yourself. I guess we are our own harshest critics. I remember relaxing about this a bit when I heard Danny Elfman saying how hard he found it writing music. Made me feel a little better about it at least.

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

Reaching a big audience and the impact that film and music can have on people for sure. I’ve been lucky to score films with some of cinema’s top directors like Kevin Macdonald, Stephen Frears, Catherine Harwicke, Mira Nair and Tim Burton (I worked with Tim on ‘Sweeney Todd’ quite extensively with additional arrangements etc).

Of which works are you most proud?

Alex Heffes & Caiphus Semenya recording Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

I was definitely proud of ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’. To work with those musicians like Caiphus Semenya in South Africa, meet Mandela’s daughter and get a Golden Globe nomination was pretty great. I love the Disney movie I did with Mira Queen Of Katwe. Honestly, the variety of my work is probably something I really treasure. Going from scoring ‘Escape Plan’ with Schwarzenegger/Stallone to ‘Black Mirror’ to ‘Roots’ (2016) and ‘A Suitable Boy’ with Anoushka Shankar is all about who I am.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

It’s rooted in melody and harmony for sure. But also blending that with whatever else in needed. I always felt that non western classical music is not always that well treated or represented in many movies, so trying to find a way of that sitting alongside an orchestra is one of the things I’ve got well known for. Like the Apple TV+ movie ‘The Elephant Queen’ I did. Another one where I had to combine a full melodic orchestral score with African elements.

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

Cubase, pencil, paper – whatever it takes. If you can write a good tune then the rest usually comes OK. Writing the tune is the hard part.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The longer I do this (and I’ve been doing it a time now) this obviously changes. At first it was just doing as many movies as possible. Now that I’ve done 60 or 70 movies and TV shows my priorities might be slightly different. I guess that’s one reason I’ve just done a solo piano album Sudden Light. It’s good to stretch myself in different directions. This time as a solo pianist. Staying fresh and loving what you do over the long game would be my definition of success.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring composers?

Be yourself. You will be asked to do all manner of musical things that might not be your bag. Obviously give everything a go and be flexible. But you will do your best work if you are true to what comes naturally to you. You need to find a way of tapping into your own voice and style while serving the best interests of those hiring you.

What’s the one thing we are we not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

That’s an interesting question which I’m not sure I’ve heard before. I’m not sure I have a clear answer to that. In the moment it’s quite hard to see the wood from the trees. It’s only with some perspective you can see where bigger trends are going in music. I think we are in a very interesting and diverse time in many ways. One issue is just the sheer volume of new music and content out there. Dealing with that volume as consumers is tough. It’s hard to get to the good stuff with some much out there. We are relying on algorithms more and more to sort out for us what we think is good as we are overwhelmed with content. This may not be the best way of us ultimately consuming or creating new content and music. But we’ll see!

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

Well, I’d love to be healthy, happy and writing lots of music! I guess we all want to grow our audience and our craft. I’m looking forward to some unexpected musical twists and turns!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Maybe I answered that with the last question. You know, I think this changes throughout your life. Things that make you happy at 20 may be different at 40. I’m very lucky to have had a lot of happiness and good luck. So I try and find happiness in small pleasures. Just getting up early in the morning and knowing I have a full day stretching ahead to write music and see my family at the end of it is really a wonderful feeling

What is your most treasured possession?

Hmm. I’m not big on stuff. But then, I’m lucky that I have all the tools I need, which I don’t take for granted! Actually, I do have a signed page from E.T. (the flying cue, hand written full score!!) on my wall in my London studio which would be very hard to give up!

What is your present state of mind?

Pretty good. Happy people are enjoying my new record Sudden Light!

Alex Heffes’ latest release Sudden Light is available now. His next album Face to Face is released in October 2022

Alex Heffes is a Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated composer known for his scores to over 60 movies and TV series including Mandela Long Walk to Freedom, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, Roots, Black Mirror and many others. Originally rising to critical acclaim with his scores to Kevin Macdonald’s Academy Award-winning film One Day In September, Touching The Void and others, he has worked with many of cinema’s top filmmakers such as Stephen Frears (The Program), Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe, A Suitable Boy), Catherine Hardwicke (Miss Bala) and JJ Abrams (11.22.63).

Known for his great versatility, Alex has shown himself equally at home scoring fantasy (Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood), horror (Anthony Hopkins’ The Rite), WW II drama (Peter Webber’s Emperor) action (Escape Plan & The Take) as well as acclaimed nature and family films The Elephant Queen (Apple TV+) and the BBC’s Earth: One Amazing Day.

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