Much Ado about Somethin'

There are two main problems in film composition today:

  1. People know what they like and it has already been written, but they would like something that sounds similar without infringing copyright

  2. People want something completely new and forget that a composition doesn’t gain the imprint of association until it has been used with a film!

Between these two, composition can become an exercise in making clever forgeries. If there is no audible association between what someone knows they like and your piece, then there needs to be a clue in the title to help the client understand what “kind” of piece it is straight away. In either case, we borrow the approval of existing music by hanging onto the coat-tails of what is already known and approved.

In my free time I sometimes compose such loving pastiches and here are three:

Danny and the Wild Bunch, a film by Robert Rugan.

This film is scored for full orchestra. The full score is available to view here. It was composed for a competition entry and can now be published as it was unsuccessful. Contrary to the general etiquette of these things, I was disappointed not to reach the final. It’s no small task to compose for symphony orchestra and have the score performance ready. I will be interested to hear the 5 finalists’ works, even as I was surprised to hear the original score given to the film on release.

Composition Commissions

After several months of working on projects for other people, it has been a lovely change to write some original music of my own.

My brother’s film company were hired to make a trailer for the local am-dram production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Due to its amateur status, a temp track could be used for their short-term promotion. But the performances, locations, costumes and filming were so good that a responsive score was desirable. Earlier this month I submitted my entry to the Zurich Film Festival Scoring Competition. I am still in the habit of writing for symphony orchestra and so I have written a lavish and racing soundtrack for the trailer. Film to follow!

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Realising music on the computer for SATB

This week I completed another audio realisation for the Cecilia Chorus of New York. The new composition is by the Balliett brothers and receives its premiere in Carnegie Hall in May 2019. For more information about the concert, please visit their site:

Audio realisation is a time-consuming process because you not only replicate the sheet music on the computer, but must then interpret the piece as a performance within the limits of sampled instruments. This means paying meticulous attention to changes in dynamics and tempi, as shown by the automation below.

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This work had 5 movements. Each movement had at least Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. Sometimes the parts were divided. For each section of the choir, I produce each movement with their own voice featured, one version with and another without metronome. I also produce full SATB reference tracks, with no voice featured. This project was special because there was a solo voice as well. So I produced some SATB versions without the soloist included, so that the choir could learn their role more thoroughly. There were 52 tracks in total for the Balliett brother’s compositions.

The PRS in Chester

Last night I attended the first Chester PRS meeting, in the company of my non-PRS composing brother, Joe. It was clarifying in some matters. It is always good to know more than you need regarding the business side. It would have been helpful if the panel discussion hadn’t focussed exclusively on songs, assuming that everyone was a live performer. The gentleman behind me scores for children’s TV and the lady behind me places music in Hollywood trailers!

Eleanor of Aquitaine - Underscoring Improvisation

Last year I was commissioned to provide underscore for B7 Media’s production of Eleanor Aquitaine, a one-woman show with the acclaimed actress Eileen Page.

As part of the show, Eileen performs a song of her own improvised composition. Away from the visual aspect of a stage performance, the song needed some musical accompaniment to work on audio. It was challenging because the song was already recorded and could not be changed. In this video I show how this worked in practice. The full CD is available here:

Realisations for Cecilia Chorus of New York

It has been a pleasure to work once again with the Cecilia Chorus of New York in preparation for their March concert. They are performing three complex works and commissioned me to prepare audio versions of the pieces, with each choir section’s part picked out for practice purposes.

Samples from the three works are below.

I wish the choir every success in learning such complex works!

A winter's work

Some seasons I have written words in between compositions. More recently it has been the other way round with my work-in-progress standing at 65,000 words and not yet half way. However, it looks like this winter will include some large scale compositions. I have been engaged to provide the music for a classic dramatisation for Audible, period music for a filmed show with an esteemed theatre actress in her 90s, and soundtrack for a documentary on the original Chester cathedral of St. John’s.

Released: "Rhuddlan Castle: Gateway to Wales"

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New from Lost in Castles:

Rhuddlan Castle: Gateway to Wales

This is my fourth Lost in Castles score. We started with Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, when I was a new music graduate. Next came Sandal Castle & the Battle of Wakefield, which featured the popular song Edward's Lament. Some years later, work completed on the mammoth documentary "Conwy Castle: Medieval Masterpiece", requiring a 90 minute score. Rhuddlan Castle: Gateway to Wales is the follow-up to Conwy, the second in the series Castles of the Conquest.

These scores are always very special to me. The films require more music than a drama, because the combination of real on-site footage and animated reconstructions requires "bedding in". Also, the historical aspect is always present but often has to be subordinated to focus on the castle, so the music serves to invigorate the pleasure that can be found in touring a castle site, even remotely. All the Lost in Castles scores are available to hear and buy online.

Find out more about the DVD here:

Dyserth Castle: Lost in Time

The special feature from Rhuddlan Castle: Gateway to Wales. Music by Abigail J. Fox.

Composing for Commissions

In the last few weeks I have had a series of commissions to fulfil, most of which cannot be shared here as musical examples due to permission and rights:

  • 4 and 1/2 minute score for an animation, which shows an old dam being converted to provide hydroelectric power. This was used for a presentation within days of completion and I hear it went extremely well.
  • Three short promo film scores for an existing client. 
  • Six instructional videos to demonstrate bespoke cleaning products, to be used at an internal company event next Wednesday. 
  • A welcome song for a play group age 0-3 years, still in development. 
  • Three minute track in preparation for a montage edit of a live event next week.
  • Stings for the start/end of videos for an existing corporate client.

Scoring is always a challenge because you have to subordinate the musical idea to the needs of the images, without it appearing to be compromise. You can learn how to do it better, but you still have to face unique corners in every film. In some ways, dramatic scoring is much easier than corporate because in drama the composer has licence to impose and make grand gestures. The best corporate scoring is only felt and never heard. It has to be very tight and to the point, without any scope for so-called "artistic" temperament. 

The song has been an enjoyable counterpoint to these scores and a great opportunity to spend an hour or two recording again. It's 15 years since I was handing in my A Level composition coursework, including a multi-tracked musical number I had written for The Little Princess. 

Forthcoming music album: "Felicity"


For all the time that we may spend together,

And all the time we hate to spend apart,

Forgetting that these days won't last forever,

Remembering every moment in the heart.

Felicity is a soundtrack-style album that underscores a child's point of view: sometimes light and subdued, sometimes buoyant and joyous, sometimes sad and ponderous.

Available soon on MP3.


(1) Felicity, (2) Patch, (3) Clouds, (4) Clocks, (5) Cat tail, (6) Comfort, (7) Sorry, (8) Naps, (9) Tomorrow.

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Monody: The Dandee Shanty

I have been working on my monodic skills for several years now, trying to identify how to write a single line of melody which suggests the right sense of harmony and maintains rhythmic power. 

So far in the instrumental part of my monody project, I have composed ten monodic works around the fiddler. (I chose the fiddle because, although it can be placed with other instruments, it is not unusual for it to carry a tune alone. However, I have restrained myself from the more interesting chord effects of the instrument to keep the idea of monody in view.) The Dandee Shanty was the first such piece.

One of the attractions of monody is the clarity and force of statement possible in a single line of tune. If you have an ensemble or an orchestra, you can be vague and ambiguous in your harmony and clutter up the theme with counter-melodies. That may be required in a composition. But it can also be accidental and come about through not really having a strong idea of what the piece of supposed to say and how.

Monody is not so forgiving. It requires precise ideas, executed directly and efficiently.

This has had an effect on my non-monodic compositions because it encourages economy of ideas. I consider the source material (logo sting, branding, video edit, animation, script) and talk to the director. I usually have an immediate musical idea, which I develop vocally. Singing an idea is an excellent way of finding the natural curve of the tune, balancing the flow and keeping harmonic changes marked in the composition of the melody. By singing the idea until it runs smoothly and has grown memorable enough for me not to forget, I approach a compositional commission with the main idea fixed. Then, even if the texture of the piece is layered and polyphonic, built up with synthesisers and a drum track, or washed over with luscious string harmonies, I have a central idea, which I can weave in and out.

Orchestration and arrangement should both be taught, but it is a shame that monody is not, because monody shows that a strong idea can be orchestrated, whereas orchestration teaches us to make a sound, even if we have nothing worthwhile to say.

With the benefit of hindsight, some of my pre-university compositions were often written in this way. I can clearly recall spending a morning in front of a computer, trying to compose dynamic title music depicting a desperate horse ride over wild country in the north of England. I had wasted hours tootling on the keyboard, trying to orchestrate without a theme, and I had produced nothing. But when I was washing up lunch pots and not thinking about music:


de-de- Du-du-du.

I had a rhythm. I whistled it through my teeth, for it had no tones. I kept whistling.


de-de- Du-du-du.

de-de-Du-du-du-Du-du-du-Du-du-du-Du-du-du ...

So it went on. And as I whistled the rhythm, the appropriate tones fell onto the notes, as a cascading melody, struggling up hill, across rivers, rushing into valleys, darting in and out of trees. I went upstairs with an entire idea. Over the next 2 hours I composed the work with full orchestration and this was the composition: 

It was a beautiful experience to be able to compose so efficiently and entirely in one go (I was 18 and happily untaught). It is rarely possible. Feature-scores have to be composed over a month or more and it is a different skill to keep going on a piece over such a time period. But I am more convinced than ever that if we want to write melodies, we must write monodic tunes with the voice. They are unapologetic, focused, dynamic and deliberate. And then - once we have a clear idea - if we want to make it hidden, watery and vague, we can do so because we have an idea to dilute, not because we do not have a clue what to say.

The Prison by Ethel Smyth

In preparation for the Cecilia Chorus of New York's premiere in the USA of The Prison by Ethel Smyth, I have produced full audio-realisation, with individual rehearsal lines for double Soprano, Contralto, Tenor and Bass. It is a task that requires great care for more than 1000 bars of music and a running time of about 50 minutes. But the end result is that a work that has been very seldom heard can become familiar to choir members and their own practice can be done in the context of the work at large.


Music for The Importance of Being Earnest

One of the joys of collaboration is being able to return favours. In this case, my wonderful sound engineer and maestro for mixing and mastering, has been producing the sound for Spiteful Puppet's "The Importance of Being Earnest". The story required a few very specific excerpts of music, as well as title music for the start and end. 

I have tried my hand at writing library music tracks and was, for about 3 years, signed to produce them on a regular basis. I know that the best you can produce is something so generic that it could fit as many purposes as possible because the more uses equals the greater profit. But it does not - in my opinion - serve well the film-maker or sound engineer who needs just the right bit of music to finish a great production. Hence "the favour". This was a voluntary job, arranging the wedding march as if being played by a ham on the piano or - as in the track below - a man tootling on the keys of the piano, with the slowness you experience trying to find the right notes and the burst of speed when you know. Totally "unmusical" but very human!

It goes to show that when you know what you want to write, it's ten times easier than trying to saying something that could produce a mood.