Julie Cooper on composition, and the connection between music and art.

Composer Julie Cooper discusses her visual inspirations, her latest album 'CONTINUUM', and her upcoming album 'OCULUS' featuring Rebeca Omordia and Grace Davidson.

For award-winning Welsh composer Julie Cooper, art has long been an inspiration, along with her visual imagination. Julie released the album CONTINUUM in 2022 on Signum Records, an evocative musical diary written during the year of lockdowns in the pandemic and the emotional impact it had on our lives. The heightened awareness of changing light through the day and its effect on our circadian rhythms. The emotional journey we all experienced during that time is vividly depicted in a narrative written and recorded by renowned British actor Adjoa Andoh for the title track of the album, ‘Continuum’.

Julie’s interest in light continues in her upcoming album OCULUS, which centres around musical depictions of colour inspired by synesthete conductor Jessica Cottis and the Italian Renaissance in art, a period of rebirth in art similar to that needed post-pandemic. Julie has so far released two tracks from OCULUS with celebrated soprano Grace Davidson and the Oculus Ensemble, one based on Shelley’s poem ‘To A Skylark’, and the second released for International Women’s Day 2023 inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus – ‘Venus in Sunlight Grey’. She has composed extensively for film, TV, advertising and the concert platform. Julie’s works for drama include multiple BBC Radio dramas and soundtracks for theatre productions. Her album Haunted By The Secret on Universal’s Chappell Noir label won Best Score Production Music Track in The Production Music Awards with ‘Game Of Trust’.

Julie Cooper and Clio Gould performing ‘Contemplation Suite: Dawn’ from ‘Continuum’, by Tim Vaughan.

Your album ‘Continuum’ was composed during lockdown. It features vocals from Grace Davidson and a narration by actress/director Adjoa Andoh which touches on loneliness, community, and climate change. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this album, and the meaning behind your ‘Contemplation Suite’?

I have recorded a lot of production music albums, and reached a point where I really wanted to write an album of my music which celebrated the musicians and artists I’ve recorded with who’ve been a constant inspiration to me.  

As we went into lockdown there was a very strange atmosphere around us all like we’d never experienced before. There was an eerie stillness and a newfound awareness of nature around us. ‘The Contemplation Suitewas created from days rolling into one as we were confined to our homes, ‘Dawn’ – ‘Day’ – ‘Dusk’ – ‘Dream’ became the titles of the 4 movements of the suite. 

“As we went into lockdown there was a very strange atmosphere around us all like we’d never experienced before. There was an eerie stillness and a newfound awareness of nature around us.”

The title track ‘Continuum’ came about through my friendship with actor Adjoa Andoh. Adjoa and I have known each other for a very long time – we met at our first  professional job audition when we were 21 and 22, her as an actress and me as a musician. We both luckily got the job and toured a theatre-in-education musical about gender stereotyping as part of a women’s theatre company. We toured together for three  years in the UK, Canada, the States and Italy. The ‘Continuum’ track was the last track to be written on the album, coinciding with the end of the lockdowns. I had heard Adjoa’s evocative BBC Radio Four Today programme monologue about the pandemic and had her voice resounding in my head as I was writing this track, I just knew it needed a narrative spoken by Adjoa. Being so incredibly musical, Adjoa instinctively followed the ebb and flow of the music making recording it a complete dream.  

CONTINUUM Promo Film featuring Adjoa Andoh, by Alex Barnes.

Your release ‘To a Skylark’ from your upcoming album ‘OCULUS’ features the mother and son duet Grace and Joshua Davidson. You also worked with Grace on ‘CONTINUUM’, what inspired you to write this particular piece for them with the Shelley poem?

Grace sent me a clip of Joshua rehearsing for the Britten Ceremony of Carols with Camilla Pay who is the harpist on CONTINUUM and OCULUS. I was completely taken by his voice and how similar it is to Grace’s, and also his incredible musicianship. I suggested to Grace that we should do something with them together. I was looking for a text to set it to and came across the Shelley poem ‘To A Skylark’.

Having used the Shelley poem ‘The Cold Earth Slept Below’ on CONTINUUM, it seemed apt to draw inspiration again from his text, especially as for me OCULUS  (meaning ‘eye’) is very much an album about looking up, I wanted something in the sky, so ‘To a Skylark’ felt the perfect text to set. 

Joshua was extremely chuffed to hear that he would have the words whilst his Mum  would just have the ‘Aahs’ with her ethereal voice! I think it really highlights how similar their voices are. Joshua was such a pro to work with, such a privilege for me to write for them both, and Grace and I both felt it was a unique moment in time that we needed to capture before his treble voice changes.

‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sandro Botticelli.

Your latest release ‘Venus In Sunlight Grey’ which was released on 7 March to mark International Women’s Day has been inspired by three women: the Roman goddess of love Venus, soprano Grace Davidson, and conductor Jessica Cottis. What can you tell us about each of these women and how you have reflected them in this piece?

A lot of the album OCULUS is about colour and light. I am fascinated by colour synaesthesia. Synaesthesia applies to lots of things, shapes and sounds. For Jessica Cottis, when she’s conducting in a particular key she sees very specific vividly descriptive colours. When I was writing the tracks, I’d ask her what she sees in eg. E minor and she’d send me incredibly evocative descriptions of colours. So the ‘In Sunlight Grey’ refers to the key the track is written in and what Jessica sees when conducting in that key. 

Italian Renaissance art has inspired a big part of the album as well, because it was such a significant period of new creativity for the arts, science and technology then.  For the Arts now, coming out of the pandemic has been such a huge challenge financially, all crippled by the closures of theatres and concert halls with no income for musicians and actors as their diaries were wiped. A renaissance is needed now too. 

“Italian Renaissance art has inspired a big part of the album as well, because it was such a significant period of new creativity for the arts…A renaissance is needed now too.”

I also felt we’ve had to recreate where our inspiration is coming from. Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is such a beautiful painting, the depiction of Venus’ birth with the cherubs blowing her onto the shore, such a lovely image. Then you have Grace’s uniquely pure voice, she really is such a muse for me. I am never lacking in inspiration if I think I’m lucky enough to have Grace’s voice on a track. Grace is one of the most naturally gifted musicians I have ever worked with, so effortless when she sings, we all listen in absolute awe in the control room! Jessica unfortunately was ill when we recorded and the wonderful Simon Hale stood in to conduct, but she is conducting when we go back into the studio in June to record the rest of the album.

Julie Cooper and Grace Davidson: ‘Venus in Sunlight Grey’, by Alex Barnes.

Compositions such as ‘Venus in Sunlight Grey’ are directly inspired by art, but your works have also been used for art such as in ‘Reflected Motion’ in Joaquin Restrepo’s ‘Amor Fati’ Exhibition. Is the connection between art and music important to you?

I originally wanted to pursue a career in art, not necessarily as a fine artist, but studying Art A-level I planned to do a foundation course and degree in art. This changed through winning a BBC television Christmas song competition, the ‘BBC Nationwide Carol Competition’ aged 17. Recording it in London in what is now known as Air-Edel Studios was the most life-changing experience for me, I’d never felt that kind of adrenaline. My happiest place from then has always been in the recording studio! From that moment with a session orchestra recording my song, that was it. I went home and changed my university forms to apply for music! 

I’ve always had a huge amount of art in my life, my mum’s a really amazing painter, and my grandmother was an amazing musician. I’ve always needed some kind of stimulus to create something, whether it’s a script, a poem, a brief or a painting. I can then go down a rabbit hole into a journey to create something.  

Julie Cooper: ‘Reflected Motion’ used in Joaquin Restrepo’s ‘Amor Fati’ Exhibition.

For Your albums for film, TV and advertising, did you have particular visuals or soundscapes in mind when writing these? 

The briefs are very specific, they are targeting certain areas such as human drama, film or wildlife documentaries, although the music doesn’t necessarily end up in those areas. Symphonic Skies was for Audio Network, it was the first album I recorded with Grace with a 45 piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. I had approached them with the idea of an album for cinematic aerial drone footage of panoramic expanses. The album is about the 4 elements, so the titles stem from them. 

One track from that album, called ‘Glory of Earth’, ended up on a television ad campaign advert for a new Innocent Smoothie launch! One day I was watching TV and thinking ‘that music sounds familiar’ and realised it was one of mine! It comes up occasionally in things I would never have dreamt it was going to be used for which is extremely amusing.

‘Earth to Infinity’ featuring soprano Grace Davidson, by Lush Films.

You have also composed for dance, such as ‘FourSquareFireDance’ for Union Dance which was performed to choreographed fireworks. This is an interesting piece which is quite different to your other compositions. Can you tell us how this piece came about, and what sonic themes you were trying to portray?

It was an interesting brief. It was for Henley Festival, a beautiful outdoor festival on the side of the River Thames. The artistic director at the time, Stewart Collins, had these really incredible, wacky ideas for creating spectacular events on the side of the  river. His idea was to put four platforms in the middle of the Thames with two dancers on each with a backdrop of fireworks. The image was really quite extraordinary because it’s against a black sky, reflected in the water with stunning choreographed fireworks. They had white costumes and were lit beautifully. His brief was for a ten minute piece of music that involved ‘fire’, ‘square-dance’ and the number ‘four’ scored for a soaring sax (Phil Todd), electric violin (Ralph Allin), percussion (Alasdair Malloy), piano (Simon Hale) and an electronic atmospheric bed.  

Joshua and Grace Davidson recording ‘To a Skylark’, by Alex Barnes.

As well as your works for visual media, you have composed and performed a variety of concert works for musicians such as ​​’SEASONS’ for Dame Evelyn Glennie and ‘Ascensio’ for Rebeca Omordia. Can you tell us about these two collaborations?

SEASONS was my first professional concert commission. Director Hugh Wooldridge  wanted to create The Four Seasons in a different way. This was back in the late 80s,  before there had been many reworkings of it. It was a reinterpretation of Antonio  Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with a prologue. Evelyn was coming to the forefront as an incredibly talented percussionist so it is scored for a vast selection of percussion to feature her with a stage band including the amazing sadly late Barbara Thompson and Jon Hiseman, Rod Argent and many other talented musicians. Evelyn performed SEASONS twice and then the Danish percussionists the Safri Duo performed it at the Royal Albert Hall with the finale featuring the iconic grand organ played by Stephen Disley. It was performed there again a few years ago, as part of a  charity fundraiser for cancer with Calendar Girls and Tim Firth, Oliver Cox as percussionist with the City of London Philharmonic Orchestra. 

“[Rebeca Omorida] somehow combines these wonderful African rhythms with the sensitivity of the Vaughan Williams. I just loved the juxtaposition of the two styles.”

‘Ascensio’ will be the third single to be released from the OCULUS album in May. Written for and recorded by the extraordinarily talented pianist Rebeca Omordia. We met via social media as Rebeca released her album African Pianism in February 2022 at the same time as I released Continuum. I had my eye on Rebeca since her beautiful album The Piano Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams with pianist Mark Bebbington. I was really taken by her playing on it, and later her stunning album African Pianism last year with the most incredible, intricate African rhythms. She somehow combines these wonderful African rhythms with the sensitivity of the Vaughan Williams. I just loved the juxtaposition of the two styles. We were both very keen to work together so the result is ‘Ascensio’.

The piece is also inspired by the incredible ‘Tulip Stairs’ in the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Designed by Inigo Jones in 1635, they were the result of his time spent in Italy inspired by the creativity of the Italian Renaissance architects. This inspired ‘Ascensio’ as the spiral staircase leads up to an oculus. The album is called OCULUS because I have an obsession with skylights and looking up at the sky through glass at the top of a building.

Julie Cooper and Rebeca Omordia recording ‘Ascensio’, by Alex Barnes

In 2022 Rebeca Omordia, who runs the African Concert Series, premiered ‘Ascensio’ from ‘OCULUS’ at the Royal Albert Hall. This steinway series concert with Donne also included works by other women composers such as Florence Price and Kristina Arakelyan. Can you tell us how this concert came about?

I am passionate about reaching gender equality and diversity within music, working closely with the Donne Women in Music Foundation and the Her Ensemble. Gabriella di Laccio, the founder of the Donne Women in Music Foundation, has created a partnership with the Royal AIbert Hall for a concert series in the Elgar Room highlighting Women in Music. This was the first concert as part of the Steinway Concert Series. It featured works by women composers performed by the Her Ensemble, who will also be featuring on OCULUS, and Rebeca Omordia. I performed a piece with the Her Ensemble called ‘White and Silver’, and Rebeca performed ‘Ascensio’. ‘Ascensio’ will be released 10 May just before her African Concert Series concert at the Wigmore Hall on 13 May. 

For Drama, you have composed numerous scores for both theatre and radio drama, such as Black Sheep at the Young Vic Theatre and BBC Radio 3’s A Winter’s Tale? Does your compositional process differ when writing for radio drama without visuals?

Not really, the stimulus for me is a script and the actors on a stage. To me it works in a very similar way with theatre. You don’t want it imposing on the dialogue, but you want it to add drama to a scene. I started out in theatre touring with Adjoa, I then moved into scoring for theatre and then into BBC radio drama. 

Julie Cooper, by Alex Barnes

You support Donne, Women in Music, a charitable foundation dedicated to achieving gender equality in the music industry. Donne’s research shows that almost nine out of ten scheduled orchestral works in 2022 were written by white men. Can you tell us a bit about your experience and hopes for women in composition? 

In my experience, I started out professionally in the mid 80s, and it was very male orientated. There were no women composers publicly known in classical music, no repertoire being programmed or being commissioned, no visibility of film or television soundtracks by women composers, no women conductors, no women recording engineers. I started off with a dream to write music for film with no idea how to pursue that or known inspirational female mentors. I listened obsessively to the great John Williams and Ennio Morricone. It was quite extraordinary, until the wonderful Anne Dudley and Rachel Portman started winning Oscars – it was totally male dominated – still is!

“There were no women composers publicly known in classical music, no repertoire being programmed or being commissioned, no visibility of film or television soundtracks by women composers, no women conductors, no women recording engineers.”

Supporting and encouraging young female composers needs to start right at the beginning – in schools – because if they haven’t been inspired and encouraged and feel it’s an option for them, they’re not going to apply to study it in colleges and universities. I have had a lot of young female composers who’ve just come out of  college who’ve contacted me and asked ‘How do you break through?’. They have maybe been one of two women on their course, and maybe the only one writing for media composition. How demoralising is that!

Julie Cooper, by Alex Barnes.

You have been Composer-in-Residence and Orchestrator at Crazy Composers, an education project devised by BAFTA award-winning television producer Robert Howes providing courses for young composers in partnership with The English Concert. Can you tell us about this, and the importance to you of working with young composers?

Crazy Composers is the brainchild of Bob Howes. Bob was also the brainchild of the BBC Nationwide Carol Competition all those years ago (later known as ‘A Song For Christmas’), so many people came through that competition such as Tim Firth and Gary Barlow. We all owe Bob so much for creating an opportunity for young people to express themselves through music. He is amazing and an inspiration to us all, so passionate about music in education. 

He came to me a few years ago with an idea to create an experience for children taking them on an historical journey through music, creating their own music to be performed by a choir of 600 school children with The English Concert baroque chamber orchestra. The result was Crazy Composers. 

We had funding to go into schools with The English Concert musicians through Arts Council England. So wherever the orchestra was performing an opera, whether it was Birmingham Symphony Hall or Buxton Opera House, we would spend several months doing workshops with the children and then perform the result together with the orchestra.

“Many of the children, and some parents, had never seen most of the instruments in the orchestra, or been to a concert of any kind.”

They went on a magical journey led by Bob and created music which we incorporated into a ten minute soundtrack of a song called ‘Crazy Composers’, which Bob and I wrote together and performed with The English Concert. Many of the children, and some parents, had never seen most of the instruments in the orchestra, or been to a concert of any kind. It made a real difference to the many children involved.

OCULUS Ensemble, by Alex Barnes.

What music and sounds influenced you growing up, and how has this shaped your compositional style?

My immediate family weren’t musical, they’re all medics, accountants and scientists. My mum painted, but not professionally. My grandmother however was very musical. I’m absolutely the black sheep in my family, but they were very supportive. If you’ve got a musical child in a family who loves listening to music, but isn’t musical, you’ve got to rely on schools. My grandmother played the piano, she hardly had any lessons but she just had this amazing musical ear and she could fly up and down the piano. I would sit next to her from a very young age mesmerised by it. When we moved to  England from Wales, we finally had room for a piano and my grandmother gave me her old honky-tonk piano and I started lessons. 

I was incredibly fortunate to go to an amazing state Sixth Form, King Edwards VI College in Stourbridge, which had a hugely inspiring, passionate head of Music, John Griswold who offered just about every combination of ensembles possible from rock bands to swing bands to full orchestra, all of a very high standard. It all starts at school! Two of the alumni record on all my sessions and play on OCULUS, hugely talented flautist Eliza Marshall and violinist Matthew Scrivener. Music in Education is vital.

“If you’ve got a musical child in a family who loves listening to music, but isn’t musical, you’ve got to rely on schools.”

I’ve always heard music in layers and listened really carefully to the instrumentation and orchestration. I was utterly fascinated at school by pop songs with big string arrangements and spent many hours trying to transcribe the arrangements so we could play them in the sixth form with a small studio band I had formed. Must have driven my poor parents mad hearing the same track over and over again! The orchestral sound worlds of Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Berlioz were such a fascination for me at university.  

Sometimes I write at the piano, sometimes on Sibelius. I flitter between the two in my  studio and sketch on a very big manuscript as I’m going along. I love percussion and the colour it adds to music. I have Evelyn Glennie to thank for discovering the colours of percussion. Whenever there’s been a budget for it I will always add a percussionist, there’s some percussion on OCULUS recorded by the amazing Joby Burgess.  

My sound world was definitely film soundtracks and the drama that they could create. A lifetime of loving listening to lots of soundtracks. This definitely led me on my path.

Our playlist in this spotlight Julie Cooper explores Julie’s career, and the music mentioned here.

Julie’s music also features in our playlists In Focus, Sounds of Paintings, and Contemporary Women Composers.

Read more about ‘To A Skylark’ in our spotlight with Grace Davidson.

‘Venus in Sunlight Grey’ can be purchased here. OCULUS will be released in February 2024 on Signum Records.

Music mentioned in Spotlight

Music mentioned in Spotlight

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