Hollywood composer hosts Composition Department at famous Abbey Road studios

John Powell -JK-body

Trinity Laban's Composition Department was invited by alumnus and Honorary Fellow John Powell (centre) to sit in on an orchestral session for the soundtrack to How To Train Your Dragon 2 at Abbey Road Studios recently.

Over the last 25 years John has become one of the most sought after Hollywood composers, writing the music to over 50 feature films, including the Bourne Trilogy, Shrek, Rio and many more. His 2010 score for the film How to Train Your Dragon earned him his first Academy Award nomination at the 83rd Academy Awards.

The visit came about through John's relationship with Dominic Murcott, Head of the Department. During a break John chatted with Dominic and his students in the Green Room.

Q. How did you get interested and then actually into film music?

A. I came out of what was then Trinity College of Music as a composition student and worked as an assistant at the original AIR Studios when it was in Oxford Street. As well as music programming I learned about mixing and balancing before automation came in and that gave me an advantage later on. Although I got to work with people such as Nile Rogers, Ricki Lee Jones and many others I also discovered that in this business you don't make money until you are at least 30! Gavin Greenaway, another Trinity Laban alumnus, and I began to write music for art installations and then commercial jingles. Our jingles became more cinematic and as I was someone who had technology and instrumental writing skills I moved into TV and films. As a child I watched lots of cartoons and heard lots of great music by Scott Bradley and Carl Stalling so that is perhaps why I've done so much animation work.

Q. Both Bradley's and Stalling's music was surprisingly experimental. Do you get the opportunity to be experimental in your work?

A. Yes and No. In Rio 2 we turned an almost 12 tone bird song into a theme that reappears is a different guise whenever the bad guys do. We called it the Schoenbird! But this is really intellectual conceit that no one in the film industry really cares about. I have done films where I have been criticised for having evolving themes. The MTV generation is less interested in long structures. The score is essentially as complex as the composer wants to make it provided it works.

Q. Do you describe yourself as a composer or a film composer?

A. I actually began as a concert composer and am about to stop doing film scores for the time being to return to it. To succeed as a film composer you need to be monstrously tenacious. It could be argued that an understanding of dramaturgy is almost more important than anything else and that drama training would be more beneficial.

John Williams is a great composer but he is also the supreme dramaturgist. The artistry is what I am interested. Pragmatism is what makes it all work - sometimes you need to keep your ego in check!

Dominic Murcott, Head of Composition, said: "Many young musicians develop an interest in composing through contemporary film music. There is however considerable tension between most film music that usually must sound like other very familiar things, and concert music where composers may be trying to create an individual language.

"Having contact with John Powell is extremely enlightening as he is willing to discuss these issues from an elite position but with great clarity and frankness. Here at Trinity Laban we encourage students to spend their time exploring their music as artists first and foremost. If anyone does break into the film music business (and as John says there is a very long queue) they will probably look back at this period of their lives and realise that their music has never had so much freedom. There is little money to be made as a concert composer alone, but it is perhaps not surprising that John is returning to this sphere now that he has made his mark elsewhere."


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