Music and spy school

I was corresponding with David Attenborough while I was still at spy school. Perhaps I should explain.

Since the 1950s the School of Oriental and African Studies has prepared hundreds of budding spies, teaching them exotic languages prior to their first assignments out in the field. I was there studying for my degree in African languages and world music. It isn’t entirely clear that they were really set up for undergraduate degrees without a side order of spy at the time and most of my time there I was the only student in my class.

It was while I was studying world music that I wrote to David Attenborough seeking his advice on what you had to do to be commissioned to produce the music for wildlife documentaries. I sent him a sample of music I had produced using thumb pianos and other percussion instruments and he replied explaining that in order to succeed I would need to demonstrate that I had experience.

The classic chicken and egg dilemma that almost everyone faces at some point: how do you get a job without experience versus how do you get experience without a job? It would be ten years before I landed my first wildlife documentary film score, and another four on top of that before I produced the music for a wildlife film narrated by David Attenborough, but I got there.

In the meantime I had produced the music for a raft of other productions: sports production theme tunes, cookery series, magazine shows, etc.

The world of producing music for wildlife documentaries has a logic of its own. My first commission was a short film about the honey possum, one of the smallest mammals in the world, weighing in at 7 – 11 grammes, around half the weight of a mouse. I progressed from there via the hyrax (2 kg to 5 kg) to the leopard (30kg – 90kg), and the crocodile (430 kg to 900 kg). It's a bit like boxing, you start at the lighter weights and gradually build up until you can tackle heavier and more dangerous animals.

The degree in world music proved invaluable as it enabled me to combine film music with authentic instruments and musical styles from dozens of different countries and I have produced the scores for all sorts of documentaries and dramas that required those world music skills, from the documentary series The Story of God to the supernatural adventure drama series Bishaash and a whole lot of other things in between.

I have always made a point of bringing instruments home from my travels; the largest and smelliest of which were, undoubtedly, two talking drums from Nigeria. They are made of wood and hide; a wooden hourglass-shaped drum with a skin at either end, connected by leather tension cords that are squeezed between the arm and the body of the musician in order to change the pitch of the drum note. The drums I bought from a market in Lagos were fresh from the cow. And I mean fresh. For the first two years I had to milk them every evening when they came back from the fields. They still smell of cow fifteen years later!

Fortunately there are also shops where you can buy exotic instruments without having to travel thousands of kilometres, and I have produced the music for films set in Africa, Latin America, India, Australia, Europe, North America, the Middle East. The music that features on the video and sounds page of this website comes primarily from films I have scored.

At the same time as producing the musical scores for wildlife films I have composed the music for all sorts of historical documentaries, drama documentaries and dramas. One of the ironies of producing music for films is that directors are very often wanting the composer to give a sense of place, to help the audience feel that they really are in a soukh or an oasis in the desert, on a mountain top in Peru or in the Indian jungle. The composer creates these worlds in his or her head, sitting in their studio, while the director gets to visit the mountain top or jungle, etc. I have on more than one occasion asked, very sweetly, if it might not be a good idea for the composer to tag along with the rest of the film crew … in order to get a feel of the locations and hear the local music and sounds … You see where I am going with this.

In the end, I have accepted that whether it is a piece of South African jazz or a Cajun dance groove, an Italian operatic aria, a string quartet, the haunting melody of an ocarina, a piano minuet or an orchestral score, the music has all to come from my head, using my imagination! Just like writing stories.

It’s either that or go and make the films yourself, but that’s another story.