‘Be practical; don’t be snobbish about media music, and don’t delay that symphony until you’re too old and frail to have the energy to actually do it!’: Christopher Gunning doles out some sage advice to emerging composers.
From his quintessential Poirot theme tune though to his latest release Symphony No. 10, he has managed a are balance of writing for the screen and being well-regarded as a classical composer.
With a career spanning 40 years, Christopher is responsible for some of the most recognizable film and TV music, including Rosemary & Thyme, Wild Africa and When the Wales Came.
He has received four BAFTA Awards for La Vie En Rose, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Middlemarch and Porterhouse Blue, as well as three Ivor Novello Awards for Rebecca, Under Suspicion and Firelight.
Alongside his work for screen, Christopher has also produced a body of concert music to critical acclaim, including Symphonies no. 3 and 4, and his Concerto for Oboe and Strings.
We caught up with the prolific composer to chat about his first big breaks, how he balances screen work with classical composition and what advice he has for emerging composers…
What do you consider to be your first big break into composing?
In 1969, when I was 25, I was commissioned to score a documentary film for P&O Lines entitled Runaway to Sea. I was allowed 30 musicians which included Dudley Moore and Richard Rodney Bennett and the film was broadcast every day on BBC 2 as a test film. It led to several more documentaries and even TV commercials and within a couple more years I could stop playing the piano in the Old Kent Road and was beginning to earn a decent living!
Who or what inspired you to start making your own music?
I was always composing. By the age of four I was writing little waltzes, encouraged by my parents and, later, friends. My sister loved ballet music, so there was loads around the house. I especially loved Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel – and still do so today. The effect of this glorious score is always profound, and it is partly the colours from the huge orchestra which attract me. It is not surprising that much of my music is orchestral.
How has your approach to composition changed since then?
Well it has developed a good deal and has taken onboard lots of influences. In my teenage years it was jazz and pop music and in my 20’s I had a career as an arranger for solo artists – Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, the Hollies, Mel Torme and Colin Blunstone were some. I also wrote a lot of TV commercials which could be in any style from Bach to rock…
Where do you prefer to write?
Music has always been my first love, and there is constantly music in my head, so I think up tunes and other bits and pieces on the tube, driving, or just walking about. But the serious work always happens in my music room, at my piano or Apple Mac.
You composed the iconic theme for Poirot, what is it like to create something so universally well-known?
Primarily Poirot is something I’m proud to have composed. Occasionally it becomes a minor irritant when the tune gets stuck in my brain but I’m trying to think of something else. Nevertheless, there are many more advantages to having invented something which people love than disadvantages.
Do you have a set way of approaching new composition?
Not really. The all-important thing is to think clearly and decide exactly what you’re trying to create. When you have established the emotional flavour you can go on and piece together matters such as tempo, intervals, and harmony. Sometimes pieces drop into your lap almost like magic, and those can be the very best experiences.
You write for the screen and compose symphonies and concertos – where do you feel most at home?
For the past 15 years or so I have concentrated almost exclusively on my symphonies (12 so far) and concertos (for the flute, saxophone, oboe, clarinet, piano, violin, guitar, and cello) and have recorded most of these. Generally, I prefer to work in this area, because this is where I find the greater challenges to lie, along with the greatest satisfaction. I hope to continue working like this for as long as possible, but if something unexpected arises I also hope to remain open to that.
How difficult has it been to traverse both worlds?
Ah – now it can be difficult! To establish yourself as a symphonic composer takes time, and audiences, artists and concert promoters may not realise that the same composers who write commercials for Martini, Black Magic or Winalot could also write symphonies! The only answer is to persevere while your reputation grows.
What’s your current take on British contemporary music?
There are plenty of composers, but not all their music gets played. As regards classical, audiences still veer towards the classics – Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven etc., so contemporary composers don’t always get a look-in. Things are better with choral music, but one must still be prepared to travel to more unusual venues to hear a wide range of music.
There seem to be plenty of clubs and pubs where rock/pop musicians can play so I don’t think the same problems exist in those areas. Jazz musicians also have opportunities to play in pubs and clubs.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am halfway through Symphony no. 13. I expect to be working on a trumpet concerto next, and possibly a second work for solo piano. I would also love to write some songs and am currently looking for suitable texts.
Do you have any advice for young composers starting out?
To young composers I would say, ‘compose what you believe in! But also, be practical; don’t be snobbish about media music, and don’t delay that symphony until you’re too old and frail to have the energy to actually do it!’
Symphony No. 10 is out now via Signum Records.