Alexandra Harwood on storytelling and the art of composing for screen.

Alexandra Harwood discusses musical 'illustration', her scores for 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' and 'All Creatures Great and Small', and the challenges facing young composers.

BAFTA Cymru Award-winning composer Alexandra Harwood is passionate about using music to communicate stories and portray characters. Alexandra’s best known scores include the movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with Lily James, and the TV series All Creatures Great and Small with Nicholas Ralph and Rachel Shenton. After beginning her career as a classical composer, Alexandra began composing extensively for theatre, television, and film, including The Escape starring Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper; Growing Up Wild, a feature documentary for Disney/Netflix USA; and A Celebration of Harry Potter for Warner Bros. Orlando USA.

Alexandra began composing as a young child, using music to ‘illustrate’ stories, and wrote her first musicals aged seven. Alexandra trained classically at the Royal College of Music, was Composer in Residence for the Juilliard Drama Division during which time she wrote music for theatre productions in the US and UK, and is a member of the Alliance for Women Film Composers. Alexandra’s work as a composer has been recognised with multiple awards, including BAFTA Cymru for Best Short with Dancing in Circles, and BAA British Animation Awards for Best Music for Neck and Neck 2018.

Alexandra Harwood by Benjamin Ealovega

You started composing at a young age, what are your early memories of music around you, composing and storytelling?

It started before any conscious memories. When I was three I would watch TV and go to the piano and pick out the tunes I heard, my mum immediately realised I had an ear for music. She was taking piano lessons and I would go with her and sit and draw, hearing the music. My parents also played a lot of music in the house. My Dad, Sir Ronald Harwood, was an Oscar-winning playwright and film writer, so there was a lot of creativity in the house, with classical, jazz, and quite eclectic music playing. We had a grand piano in the house, so it was easy for me to access music straight away, and I started piano lessons when I was four. 

“When I was three I would watch TV and go to the piano and pick out the tunes I heard, my mum immediately realised I had an ear for music.”

Before any conscious memories of wanting to be a composer, I already was because everybody was encouraging me that way. I went to an amazing artistic school where my piano teacher taught me how to write music into a notebook. I wrote a musical about The Wombles, and another about Beatrix Potter’s Tailor of Gloucester with a little orchestra which were performed. When I was 13, I started lessons with the contemporary classical composer Oliver Knussen. He would dictate incredibly complicated rhythms, very much of the avant garde. It wasn’t my style but I learnt quickly to become good at imitating. I had a good ear to imitate which has become helpful in my film life because often people want things a certain way, so I’m able to slightly adapt my language.

I went to the Royal College of Music where my teacher, Joseph Horovitz, took me right back to the beginning. He tore away everything I knew and built me up again. We studied Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, analysing them and writing in that style to learn the great craft of composing. I think the real gem of composing is where you get a melody from, you can’t really teach someone to be good at that. You need an idea, but how to craft it is much more mechanical, that is a set of learned skills which takes a lot of time. 

By 18, I almost had no choice in my head, composing was just what I do. After I had my first son aged 28 I purposefully decided to stop composing. I thought I’d had enough, I’d been composing since I was four and had my three kids. 14 years later, however, I started composing again. I think life doesn’t let you forget where you came from, it all came full loop.

Alexandra Harwood by Benjamin Ealovega

You were originally a classical composer of concert works and later moved towards film and TV. What made you switch into TV and film composing? 

​​I did all this classical training and a lot of theatre. When I got to Juilliard, I became the resident composer for the theatre department. My love was always collaborating and storytelling, because that’s what my father did. It was very much part of me. I realised that my comfort zone was really collaboration, be it for dance or theatre. In the classical world, it was very hard to make a financial living, and I think I was beginning to get a little fed up that every time I wrote a piece of music it would get one performance. In the early 80s, you didn’t get recordings of every piece as it is now with digital recording. 

“My love was always collaborating and storytelling”

I happily gave up and had my three kids, but as they were getting older I felt a restlessness in me wondering where that other part of me had gone. I bumped into an old friend Ben Parry, the then Head of Music at Saint Paul’s School for Boys. He suggested I should come and teach music theory there, so I did. It’s a slightly tedious subject to learn and teach, but it really got my brain thinking again. After four years, I realised I wanted to compose again, and that I wanted a career in film. 

I realised the most realistic route would not be using my father’s contacts who were never going to take me seriously as his daughter, I knew I’d have to do this on my own. The iconic National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield was the only one in London to take filmmakers as well as composers. It has every department of film. At first I thought I just needed to meet filmmakers, but I learnt a huge amount about filmmaking and collaborating with directors and producers. Part of the skill of being a film composer is the communication with a director and producer. The course was hard work and my kids hardly had a mother, and I was a single mum, so it was really amazing of them to let me. I was really lucky it worked out!

‘All Creatures Great and Small’ score at Air Edel Studios.

Does the composition process change significantly for you with film and TV? Has creating soundscapes always been visual in your mind, even without visual media?

That’s a lovely question. In my early classical life I didn’t have computers so it was piano, manuscript, paper and pencil. Even if I was writing a piece for an 86 piece orchestra I’d have to copy out all the parts. It was massively exhausting and slow. I often took a poem and pretended that I was illustrating it. I think Mum said when I was really little, I’d get storybooks out on the piano and pretend to ‘illustrate’ them. I definitely needed that visual or story impetus. I find it almost impossible to do it without.

“I often took a poem and pretended that I was illustrating it…when I was really little, I’d get storybooks out on the piano and pretend to ‘illustrate’ them.”

The beauty of film/TV music now for me is that I can work to picture, and the digital age has arrived so I can work quickly. I can pull sample libraries of orchestral instruments and orchestrate straight into a computer. Even if you end up with a real orchestra in the end, you can do mock ups that sound pretty great. I have really enjoyed that, I think I did it at the right time for myself because I think I would have struggled as a younger person without those tools. 

You’ve composed the music for the new series of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. It is an interesting series, it gives a comforting feel as reflected in the main theme tune, but it also weaves through a variety of landscapes, animal stories, elements of comedy, and more serious themes including the approach of WWII. How did you find the process of approaching these themes whilst maintaining that level of warmth? 

A lovely question too. When we first started the series I had to approach writing the important theme tune, because the iconic 1970s series had a very beloved theme tune. Before I began, the producer Richard Burrell invited me to the Yorkshire dales because it’s really important to absorb that incredible landscape. You can’t describe it or get a sense from pictures, so it really helped to see that vast expanse. It’s quite harsh and beautiful up there, especially in winter. Producers and directors will always steer you with their ideas, you’re really serving them and their vision. They wanted it to be pastoral, like a ‘warm bath’. I listened to music like Vaughan-Williams and English pastoral composers. Once I received the picture, however, it didn’t matter what had been discussed as the moment I have that visual and see the actors’ performances it becomes clear.

“The music does have to embrace that world and invite you in.”

These actors are really good, and the better the performance the easier it is for the composer. For me, bouncing off their warmth, storylines and characters is really what helped me get into the centre of what we were trying to tell. The music does have to embrace that world and invite you in. It could have gone rather twee, I think season one is probably the lightest of the three seasons, although it was really loved as an escape for people during COVID. As the stories have progressed towards the Second World War you’re going towards darker tones, but we didn’t want it to get too dark because the audience loved this warm comforting feel.

‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ recording at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall

The story also reflects very different characters. Can you tell us how you reflected them musically?

When I started Series One I thought I’d almost do it like Peter and the Wolf where everybody has a theme. I tried to read their characters, for instance for James Herriot (Nick Ralph) I made him link to the Dales theme itself because I felt like the stories are from James’ perspective. I also somehow felt that his character is quite like the Dales. Siegfried’s character to me was a bit like Rumpole of The Bailey, an old TV series, and I chose the bassoon for his character because I felt it had a slightly pompous element to it. As the series progressed, his character became less comic, so I can use his theme slightly differently now he’s becoming a more complex, emotional character. 

I had a theme for ‘home’ in the series, every time we returned to Skeldale House I wanted this nice, warm, homely theme. That’s really become Mrs. Hall’s theme, because she is really the centre, or rock, of their home. It’s funny how themes and characters started to blend a bit. By the time we got to series two and three a new editor might take something and use it away from its intended purpose, but it’s all become this world of All Creatures Great and Small, so we’re getting further away from individual themes.

In the first season when you’re introducing the characters, I noticed Tristan’s theme with its playfulness.

That’s become a generic comic theme. Now that Tristan has gone off to war we can use its comic element. Perhaps when Tristan’s not there I can use his theme to help the audience feel him. That’s the beauty of music is it can be present when somebody isn’t.

You composed the music for ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’. In a somewhat similar way to ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ this film also creates a sense of calm comfort, exploring human tales and community, yet in the shadow of World War II and German occupation. Was the creative process similar at all for you?

That is funny you should say that because as a film composer or composer, you can get labelled as a ‘type’ of composer. I like variety and can write in various styles including horror films. The more you get a reputation for high profile shows like All Creatures Great and Small, or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the more people think ‘well that’s what you do’, and they lose the imagination that you’d be able to do something else. James Horner, who did Titanic and Avatar, was an old family friend of ours and I remember he felt that even though Titanic gave him his massive career, it did trap him a bit because from then on everybody wanted something like Titanic from him. As a composer it can feel stifling. I am lucky because I still have this other side of my life, of classical music. I did a chamber series for Musicanti a few years ago and I’ve just been asked to write a full length ballet for Tulsa Ballet which gives me a whole other world to go back to. Even though I turned my back on it, it keeps coming back!

Geoff Alexander conducting ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ at AIR Studios, Lyndhurst Hall.

Does composing for a long TV series have different challenges to a film, other than more screen time?

I actually love movies, I like that it’s a compact story. In one go, you sit down in a cinema, my favourite place in the world, and you watch a movie from the beginning to the end and you’ve seen the story. I have grown to love TV more and more, especially nowadays because it’s become cinematic. All Creatures Great and Small is very cinematic to watch. So is The Queen’s Gambit. Netflix, Apple, and Amazon have poured this money into a new kind of TV compared to what I had growing up. It’s become a very rich world for composers to write music for, but you don’t get one sitting. You have to sit through eight hours and binge to get from the beginning to the end of the story. That’s a big commitment! As a composer, however, it is rather nice because once you’ve created some themes in that world, you keep on using them and reinventing them across the episodes. Obviously you can do that in a film, but you get this series that goes on. 

“A repeated series is another thing that’s very different…To reinvent your themes is challenging, but nice, otherwise I would get bored just repeating things – as would the audience.”

There’s the good and bad of repetition. A repeated series is another thing that’s very different, I’m now on season four of All Creatures Great and Small, and I need to reference back to old themes without making it repetitive. To reinvent your themes is challenging, but nice, otherwise I would get bored just repeating things – as would the audience. I’m always trying to just slightly reinvent things, and luckily the stories make me introduce new things as well. The biggest difference of a TV series compared to movies is the deadlines. For a movie you might get 4 or 5 months, it’s a longer process to develop ideas and is intense in its own way, but on a TV series I’m churning over an episode roughly every two weeks. I’m writing in a week, and then rewriting the second week. That’s 25 minutes of music a week, and it is exhausting!

Recording ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ at Air Edel Studios.

You composed the music for the BBC programmes ‘Thatcher’ and ‘Blair & Brown’. How did you explore themes of political tension musically? Did your creative approach differ with political storytelling, as opposed to fictional?

It is different for documentaries. I like to approach it like a drama in my head because that’s the best for me, but in the end the editors and directors really do like tracks. They want a piece of music that they can edit to, and you become like a glorified music library! I end up writing loads of generic tracks that I think might suit the mood or the atmosphere, and then I send it over to their edit. I struggle with that process a little as I like writing to pictures. On Blair & Brown, I was sending them music that I was writing as an idea rather than to picture. They would then use it, cut it up, and send it back to me and then I could refine it to a picture. 

With Thatcher it was the same creative team, because they were related in a sense. It was a really amazing one to do because Thatcher herself, whether you love or hate her, is a very strong character. I remember saying to the producer ‘Well, how about we treat her in the way that she saw herself, potentially as the queen?’. I wanted to give it some royal element of gravitas, because she took herself very seriously. That really helped us hone in on the tone of that series. I wanted it to have this gravitas, rather than just ‘oh, it’s politics’. Blair & Brown was much harder because it was more modern. With the two characters we could do a kind of ‘Shakespeare tragedy’ between their relationship, like two brothers falling apart. As it’s set in a more modern time, we needed to use some existing music from the 80s to give a present day feeling.

When writing for film or ballet there is usually a narrative to work with, when composing for a nature documentary such as ‘Growing Up Wild’, did you have a narrative or image in your head, or was this also ‘generic’ music?

Growing Up Wild was my first film, it was really lovely because I did have picture straight away, they sent me each clip as they were editing, such as a cheetah sequence. It’s funny because some of the music I wrote for that, for example for monkeys climbing up a tree, was recorded really beautifully and that was the music that got sent off to Mike Newell and his editor when they were first working on Guernsey. When they were considering me as the composer for the movie, they sat me down in a Soho cutting room and showed me an early cut. There was this scene where Juliet (Lily James) is coming over the sea bobbing on a little rowing boat, and they’d used my music from Growing Up Wild of these monkeys climbing up trees because it had this nice bouncy element. I couldn’t get my head around it because I knew what I’d written the music for! It was a really surreal experience, but it did help me to understand the film. Growing Up Wild was a really lovely film, they had this incredible footage of Africa – it was just beautiful.

Northern Ballet’s ‘Geisha’ with Minju Kang, by Emma Kauldhar.

As well as scoring for screen, you also compose for dance, such as ‘Geisha’ and ‘Kin’ for the Northern Ballet, and ‘Automatic Flesh’ for Rambert Ballet. For ‘Geisha’ I understand you wrote the music before the choreography, which is often the other way round with film and TV scores. How did you find this? 

It was the most extraordinary process. Kenneth Tindall, the choreographer of Geisha, is brilliant at having a vision of his entire ballet in his head. I don’t know how he does it, he really maps it out. We also had a librettist Gwyneth Hughes who had written the shape of our story with Kenny. It was all done by phone, Kenny would ring me and talk through scene by scene and describe what was going to happen visually. I like images, so I would write the music to the scene described and I would make up the choreography in my head to give the music shape. 

“I like images, so I would write the music to the scene described and I would make up the choreography in my head to give the music shape.”

Kenny and I would go back and forward making changes. We did the whole ballet like that, two hours of music scene by scene. He was so clear with his vision, it was a really incredible process. We did just one performance, it was meant to have 28 performances including at Sadler’s Wells, but then lockdown happened. The day after our first night, after incredible reviews, all the theatres shut and it was never done again. I don’t know if it will ever come back, I hope so. With our creative team and set designer Christopher Oram, who did the sets for Frozen in the West End, we’re creating Alice in Wonderland for Tulsa Ballet as a full length ballet. It will be lovely and very rich for me as a composer with all the characters and craziness.

Alexandra Harwood at the recording of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ at Air Edel Studios, by Daniel Gadd.

Ideally we will get to a point where this topic won’t be relevant, but it still is today. Women composers have often been overlooked or struggled to get the same opportunities, and are still underperformed or recorded. What has been your experience of this, and particularly in the film world where a small percentage of women are scoring major Hollywood films?

I’ve been lucky and had work, but as a young classical composer I was the only female composer at college. A very good friend of mine, the classical composer Roxanna Panufnik, was the year below me at Bedales school, we were really unusual back then. There were only very few female composers back then, and in film and TV probably none in the 70s/80s.

Perhaps if I’d tried to be a film composer back then it would have been even harder. Coming into it at the time I did, ten years ago, it was a different world and it was beginning to be discussed along with the MeToo movement. People became more aware of female composers being overlooked. In came positive discrimination, which is needed sometimes to get balance, but it can result in box ticking which doesn’t always change everything in the way you really want it to be.

“The real problem is that women composers in film (not TV) are still not being used on the really big and successful films…3% worldwide are being used.”

The real problem is that women composers in film (not TV) are still not being used on the really big and successful films. I can’t say why that is, but all I know is that 3% worldwide are being used. It’s a tiny percentage and therefore when it comes to awards and nominations you’re going to look at the best scores which often sit on the best films because there’s a synergy. A great film can make a score shine, but a really good score cannot fix a terrible film. They do go together, it’s very hard to judge a score without the film. Therefore, if your top five great movies or great TV series are only scored by men, women are not going to get those nominations. And then you fall into the trap of whether to use positive discrimination and nominate women who are not necessarily on a great film with an ‘okay’ score just to tick the box to level out? That’s not right either.

“There is a slight boys club still, and old fashioned views. It will shift bit by bit, and it is.”

So much of the film and music world is also about networking and who knows who. I’ve come across some incredibly old fashioned sexist men. There is a slight boys club still, and old fashioned views. It will shift bit by bit, and it is. In certain areas like music editing they are becoming incredibly accepting of female music editors, including my daughter now, who’s a music editor. That world is really improving because I think it’s not such a ‘publicised’ world. It seems to be that directors and producers don’t really mind if it’s a woman or not because they’re just wanting it to be done well. Somehow, when it comes to a movie, they just want the big name and the music they think is safe, and suddenly that’s just men again. I think it’ll just take a long, long time. It’s so complicated!

All Creatures Great and Small score

What are your hopes for women in composition, aside from addressing any industry biases, do you believe we can do more in education?

I think you’re right, that’s where it should really begin. In order to keep encouraging women to compose, which is happening more and more and more, the balance with that will have to come from the opportunities. Otherwise you’ve got a lot of women training and hoping but not getting opportunities. Ideally, what I would love to see is not just women-only concerts, but a balance of men and women equally. I want it to get to the day where we are just playing music that’s great and not having to include female composers for the sake that they are female, but because their music is great and equally valued. In order to get rid of the label, to get to that point, we’re going to have to label it.

“In order to keep encouraging women to compose…the balance with that will have to come from the opportunities. Otherwise you’ve got a lot of women training and hoping but not getting opportunities.”

One of the commissions which I’m about to start is a classical piano piece for a Danish pianist called Michala Linn. She’s doing an all female composers concert on the piano from old to new. She had this fantastic idea of me basing my piano piece on a beautiful chant from the Medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen. It’s really lovely to be able to embrace a historic female composer’s music, and then do something new with it, to link the past to the present. When I was at college nobody talked about female composers except for Clara Schumann.

Fenella Humphreys recently released a recording of your ‘Variations on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A Minor: Never Forget’, is this a recent composition? Do you have more classical concert compositions coming?

Fenella is an amazing violinist! I first met her in the chamber group I Musicanti who I wrote four chamber pieces for. We stayed friends, and she had this fantastic idea to take Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24 in A Minor and commission a set of composers each to write a variation on this theme. When she asked me it was just coming up to the Jewish Holocaust anniversary, and my father was Jewish. My mum was Russian Orthodox and I’m kind of agnostic, but I really wanted to do something in memory of survivors and victims.

I realised that if you put the Paganini theme into the Jewish scale, the harmony of the scale, it’s just incredible. I took the theme and slowed it right down. I put it into this minor key and it’s really evocative, and she played it so beautifully. In my mind I was thinking of the famous violin theme from Schindler’s List with its haunting feeling. It was a really lovely project, and she has been nominated for the Caprices album for the BBC Music Magazine Instrumental award.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects?

After the Michala Linn piano piece, I start All Creatures Great and Small Season Four which will take up the rest of my year. I’ll also be starting on the Alice in Wonderland ballet, and that will take me a year to write. Those are my three upcoming big projects right now. It keeps me busy!

Our playlist in this spotlight highlights Alexandra’s works, and the music mentioned here.

Alexandra’s music also features in our playlists Contemporary Women Composers and Weekend Classics.

The sheet music for ‘Juliet and Dawsey’ from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been released for the first time on International Piano Day (29 March). Alexandra’s other works can be purchased from Sheet Music Direct.

Music mentioned in Spotlight

Music mentioned in Spotlight

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