Name: Debbie Wiseman
Current Release: The Music of Kings & Queens, featuring music by Debbie Wiseman and narrations from Dame Helen Mirren and Damian Lewis OBE, is out on Decca Records on 11th June 2021.
Recommendations: I'd recommend Messiaen's "Turangalila Symphony" for an attack on the senses, and Hilary Mantel's novel "Wolf Hall" - both extremely powerful, wonderful and inspiring works.
If you enjoyed this interview with composer Debbie Wiseman, visit her personal website for more information. She also has a twitter account for current updates and thoughts.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started to compose from around the age of 10 - I'd been learning the piano at school and so at first it was just simple tunes and short pieces, but I loved the idea of making up my own melodies rather than just playing the ones that were placed in front of me at the piano. I studied the classical repertoire, but was also interested in pop music and loved playing from a book of Beatles songs which was specially arranged for tiny hands.
The language of music felt very natural to me - I wasn't great at other languages at school - French, Latin, German; but I felt completely at home with the language of music and from my very first piano lessons at school I think I knew that I wanted to be involved with making music.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I studied for three years with Buxton Orr at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and before that at Trinity College of Music, and throughout my time in these wonderful colleges we were always encouraged to make music with our own individual and unique voices. There was, of course, the usual studying of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner to understand and learn harmony and counterpoint, but we were never expected to emulate these composers in our own compositions.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Creativity is all about having the tools at your fingertips - your craft - and then being able to use that in the most original and satisfying way possible. My parents weren't musical, so it was a surprise to them to see my interest in music, but they were hugely encouraging and supported me at every stage of my career.
I'm often asked what it's like being a "female composer" in a male dominated profession, but I can honestly say that it never occurred to me as being anything different until other people asked me the question! I was just happy making music and gender never entered my head.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My main creative challenge was learning to compose music quickly, under pressure, and to a deadline. Often, when writing a score for a film or television production, the schedules are demanding and I had to learn how to be as creative as possible within a very tight timeframe.
Over time, I think I now know how to focus under pressure. It's definitely a skill that only develops with experience.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
When I'm working on a film score, timing is crucial within every bar of music - matching the score to the picture and enhancing the images on screen. After many years of working to picture I find I can now almost instantly pick up the tempo of a scene and compose music that fits naturally into the tempo of the action and drama on screen.
When I write without a picture, for an album or for a concert work, I create my own pictures and compose with those in mind. It's therefore much more flexible and I can feel the natural flow of the music without having to fit the phrases into a pre-existing structure.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
My composition teacher always taught me that when you think of a melody, at the same time, you must think of who is going to play that melody. So the composition and orchestration are completely intertwined and seamless. This means that, through my training, the sound and composition are interlinked right from the very start. I always do my own orchestration as the orchestration is done at the time of composition.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
When writing a film or television score, collaboration is central to the whole process. I work closely with the director, producer, editor and the whole team to make sure that the score is everything they could possibly wish for - and we spend many hours together working on every sequence. I enjoy this part of the process hugely - it's inspiring to have their feedback and know that I'm creating the score that lives up to their expectations.
If I'm working on an album or concert piece then the collaboration starts with the orchestra, musicians, and also the record company. Working with the musicians is always the most exciting part of the process - hearing them bring your music to life for the first time and play it with their own interpretation and skill. Without musicians the music is just little black dots on the page - the musicians bring it to life and give it heart and emotion.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My working day is very varied. If it's a writing day, then I try to start as early as possible as I find the ideas flow more freely first thing in the morning. I don't have a fixed schedule for writing - I usually just keep going until I feel there's a natural pause in the process. If it's a recording day, then the structure is much more fixed as we usually have a limited time in the studio with the musicians.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The BBC TV drama series "Wolf Hall" was a very special project. I'd worked with the director, Peter Kosminsky, many times before and he loves to work with me on the score as early as possible, so I worked with him on Cromwell's theme and Anne Boleyn's theme before he started shooting, and then he took these themes on set with him to listen to as he was filming.
Even though I did use a few Tudor instruments within the score - harpsichord, theorbo, lute, recorder - the main orchestration was a contemporary string quintet and oboe as Peter was keen to avoid any type of Tudor pastiche within the score.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I find that as long as I'm at the piano then I can compose. Even though ideas sometimes form away from the piano, the piano is my home for composition.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I know that music is healing and, especially during the pandemic, it has become even more important and valuable. I can't imagine music hurting - perhaps only if it's played much too loud!
I'm currently Classic FM's Composer in Residence, and during the pandemic I composed a piece called "Together" and encouraged listeners to download the sheet music, which was made available on Classic FM's website, and come up with their own versions of this new piece. We had a huge response and it was wonderful to hear how creative everyone was able to be, even within a period of lockdown.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Music crosses all barriers and cultures and is the purest form of communication. With that in mind, it should be shared freely, but it is necessary for there to be limits on the sharing so that creators of music can earn a living. It's hard to think of music commercially, especially as an artist, but artists have to live too!
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Sight, smell, sound, hearing - these are all inextricably linked together. When writing a piece of music all the senses overlap, almost unconsciously.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My job as an artist is to write music that will hopefully connect with an audience, whether that's within a film, a television drama, or in a concert hall. I don't feel I need to take on a political role - my job is simply to create music - there are others far more qualified for political and social roles.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music is often more powerful than words - it can say much more in a more profound and intensely meaningful way. Music goes straight to the heart of the emotion.