Film composer, theatre composer, TV composer, ballet composer... Why be one when you can be them all?
“I love to collaborate,” says Paul Englishby, the Emmy‑winning British composer whose work includes music for theatre, TV, dance and films. “And one thing you learn is not to be precious,” he adds. “In the theatre, and particularly TV, you’ve got to be really thick‑skinned about losing stuff. I don’t ever get offended if somebody wants to suggest changes.”
In fact, Paul explains, nothing is ever really lost completely. “Not that I have a bottom drawer where things cut from one show end up somewhere else. I don’t have that. But whenever you write — a template, an idea, a turn of phrase, whatever it might be — you’ve learned something in the process. It’s all good.”
He recalls pre‑production work on his score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company, back in 2005, when his music kept getting cut. “So my friend Mike Ashcroft, the movement director, brought in a manual paper shredder for me, put it on a desk, and then each time a cue was cut, I’d really ostentatiously walk up and shred that part in front of everyone — to make the point of how much of this was going in the can. But I really don’t mind,” he laughs. “It’s a fact of a composer’s life.”
Paul has worked on more than 20 productions at the RSC through his career, and he was back there for his most recent theatre job, composing for Rebellion and Wars Of The Roses, a pair of plays based on Henry VI that opened in April 2022 to wide critical praise.
“To their massive credit, the RSC always commission scores, and they always have live music, for every show,” he says. “They must be one of the biggest commissioners of music in the country. And from a composer’s point of view, it’s wonderful, because the music can be quite supple around what is really a moving target, in the theatre, as opposed to film or TV. It’s never the same. So, for example, you can play underscore and let it move at the pace it needs to at that performance.”
The wide scope of music that Paul is asked to compose suits him well. “I guess I’ve always felt that a composer should be somebody who writes music wherever music is required. So rather than be ‘a TV composer’ or ‘a theatre composer’, I’m really lucky I do a range of things. And that’s what I always wanted to do,” the 52‑year‑old remembers.
“Starting as a teenager, I would get involved in everything and anything. And I think I’ve done pretty much every job there is, from audition piano to playing for ballet, MD’ing shows, gigging to session music, and plenty in between. So I could always find work in my formative years while I was trying to establish myself as a composer.”
An early break came in 1995, when the documentary maker Mike Grigsby commissioned 20‑something Paul to write music for one of a series of half‑hour BBC programmes, Sound On Film. “I had an orchestra in Abbey Road, a budget, and I thought, ‘Ah, this is what it’s gonna be like.’ And it was, oh, 15 or 20 years later until that happened again!”
But it did open a new avenue for Paul. “I picked up a few theatre composing jobs, all the time subsidising my income with playing piano in hotels, doing jazz gigs. I was Associate MD at the National Theatre for a bit. I was stealthily doing everything I could, and along the way I met Will Tuckett, the choreographer. We established a good working relationship and I’ve done lots of shows with him since.”
For a while, Paul also became The Guy To Help Movie Stars Look Like They’re Playing Instruments. How so? While MD’ing at the National, he did a show with the composer Stephen Warbeck, who asked Paul if he’d like to work on a film job he’d just secured. “He said it’s called Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and it’ll mean three months on Kefalonia,” Paul recalls. He said yes. Quickly.
One of his tasks during the shoot on the island, in addition to arranging Greek music and Italian arias, was to be a music teacher to the film’s star, Nicolas Cage. As well as his first love, piano, Paul can put his hand to most stringed instruments. He taught the actor to look as if he were playing the mandolin, an essential part of the film’s story. “It was a bizarre and wonderful job. On one weekend off, Nicolas and I went to Venice in a private jet, so that he could have the gondoliers say his lines, to improve his accent. My hotel room was bigger than my whole flat back in London.”
That led to a job teaching Hugh Grant to look as if he were playing guitar in the film About A Boy. “I’d go round to Hugh’s place to show him the chords to ‘Killing Me Softly’. He’d ring me up out of the blue — I’d be with my friends, I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s Hugh Grant on the phone, sorry.’ Hugh would say he had a bit of time tomorrow, could we have a guitar lesson? Just weird and wonderful! I’m so lucky that music has given me all these chances.”
Paul composed the music for the documentary series They All Came Out To Montreux, which premiered in March 2022. Directed by Oliver Murray, it tells the story of the famous Swiss music festival and its creator, Claude Nobs. Which means it’s packed full of great live performances from its 50‑plus year history, from Nina Simone to David Bowie, Miles Davis to Prince. So why the need for any new music?
“I created a band that could slip between all the different styles as a way to join these stories together,” Paul explains. “It was quite a task, as I had to write links that would move supplely from jazz to rock and blues and more. We were coming out of lockdown, so I played guitars, bass, keys, some percussion, and I had a sax player and trumpet player and a violin player, local people, come round to my studio to work on it. I also used some synth samples to add a little bit of orchestral colour.”
The documentary might move from an Oscar Peterson performance, and then go into Paul’s underscore for an interview clip with Claude Nobs, and then out of that and into Led Zeppelin. “I’d shift the colour, and often literally segue — I’d modulate so you were in the right key for the incoming music, so that the whole thing tied together, so that it didn’t feel like a series of tracks. My score made it one big homogeneous story. And it really was a lot of fun to piece it all together.”
Paul recorded his Montreux music at his studio, where the central tool is Steinberg’s Cubase. “Until I was 18, I’d had a very traditional classical‑stroke‑jazz upbringing, and then got into big bands and that side of things. So I came to composing as a pencil‑and‑paper person. But when I studied at Goldsmiths in London they had an electronic music studio, and that’s where I first had a go on Cubase.”
He’s been using it ever since. “And with the Montreux job, once I’d recorded everything, I sent all the timestamped stems and the film to Toby Hulbert to be mixed, as I often do. I always think another pair of ears is a good idea. Toby then provided all the deliverables the production people needed, in Pro Tools, directly to the dub.”
He notes how some of the changes in working methods brought about by lockdown have continued into current practice: “We used to go and sit with a mixer for a day or two. Now, we just send each other WAVs for comments. That means people have been able to work at their own speed, and that remote way of working has sometimes been a bit more convenient. Now you can be in a rehearsal room over Zoom — nobody ever did that before. It saves a lot of time. If Toby’s mixing at his place, I can be writing the next episode, then just listen when he’s ready to play me something. Before, I’d go over to London, sit with a mix engineer, mix it, and then start the next thing.”
Paul Englishby: I’ve always felt that a composer should be somebody who writes music wherever music is required.
Often when a problem appears, Paul’s method is to write his way out of it. How does that work? By way of example, we talk about one of his jobs for TV, a 2021 BBC four‑parter, The Canterville Ghost. It was a lighthearted romp through the Oscar Wilde story, with Anthony Head playing the aristocratic ghost whose antics fail to disconcert new residents in his old pile.
Paul describes his music as a fantasy adventure score in the orchestral vein, and he wrote individual themes for each main character. “I’ll create a lot of melodic or harmonic ideas, sketched on paper at the piano, and then I’ll have those to hand when I move to the computer and start scoring. And with these individual character themes, much of this sort of score is about variations on those themes. My work is to find out how I can use a melody in different ways, maybe re‑harmonising it for different situations, varying it rhythmically, and so on.”
And this is where, if a problem arises or he gets stuck, Paul writes his way out. “I can always rely on a technique, if I don’t know what to do. I’ll try a contrapuntal approach, for example. Or what if I make a canon out of this? What if I do some shifting harmonies over a pedal point? How about making it into a chorale? These are old‑school compositional techniques, but I know I can immediately go to those. And suddenly, hopefully, you’ll be inspired, and the piece will take on a life of its own. This way, you’re not relying on trial and error, that terrible blank‑page thing.”
It’s also important in a character‑theme score such as Canterville to try not to be too obvious. “The ghost has a theme, obviously, but what you don’t do is just whack out the theme every time he comes on,” Paul says. “The trick is to present each character’s music in a way that supports the theme and depends on the drama and the action and what’s going on. And one of the beauties of thematic scoring is that you can reference somebody when they’re not actually on screen — it’s a storytelling device. If someone’s thinking about or scared of the ghost, but it isn’t in the room, you can reference the ghost with his theme in some way.”
Canterville was another job Paul was working on as we came out of lockdown, and for the most part it was done remotely. “I had one guy do all the trombones, a couple did all the strings, another colleague did flutes and clarinets, all remotely, all recorded in Cubase. I used lots of orchestral samples, trying always to only play them idiomatically, in a way the real instruments would be played.”
Not all stories are suitable for the character‑theme approach, of course. Sometimes, as with Paul’s recent job with the pair of Henry VI plays for the RSC, the requirement is more single‑minded. “There are so many characters in those plays, so much going on,” he says, “that I wanted one strong thematic idea. It amounts to one idea, musically, that I then put through the wringer and present every which way I can. I needed to come up with something that really bound the whole production together.”
He describes the two productions as very modern, with a nod to the Middle Ages. “There’s a lot of live camera work on stage, a lot of projection — it’s something of a filmic world that Owen Horsley’s created, and quite naturally so from a young theatre director and film‑maker.”
Owen wanted a suitably epic, filmic score. Paul employed sample libraries, notably Native Instruments’ Straylight and Ashlight, which mix granular synthesis and sample playback modules. “We also created lots of sounds for Nick Lee, the resident guitarist at the RSC. I sat with him for a session before we had any band calls, going through my instructions. He’d ask: ‘What do you mean by grainy wash?’ Or, ‘What do you mean by f**ked‑up distortion?’ I’ve worked with Nick a lot, so I totally want to hear what he’s got to offer, based on my vague notions of different textures.”
Rebellion and Wars Of The Roses featured a seven‑piece band, with Nick’s guitars, plus low brass (tuba, cimbasso, euphonium) and a French‑horn player, plus a cellist and a violinist, who were bolstered with keyboard string samples, along with a percussionist and a keyboard player. “Up in the band box, they hear what they need through their Aviom [personal monitor mixers], but it’s a shame they don’t get to hear how magnificent it sounds out front,” Paul says.
“Out front we used lots of surround and delays. I worked with the sound designer, Steve Atkinson, and we did get the big, epic sound Owen wanted — quite wonderful in the large room. I do also like the smaller Swan Theatre there at Stratford, though, where you you can see the musicians, and hear them acoustically — they’re above the stage. We usually amplify them very slightly, just to add a little sheen to what is already quite a beautiful‑sounding room.”
A further strand to Paul’s work comes with his dance compositions. Writing for dance and collaborating with choreographers, he says, is a bit like scoring a film in reverse. For dance, the composer writes the score first, and then the choreographer creates his or her content. In 2021, he was invited to contribute to a Birmingham Royal Ballet strand, Ballet Now, intended to showcase up‑and‑coming choreographers.
Daniela Cardim chose Paul because she liked his jazzy score for the movie Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and the melodic feel of his music for An Education. “She wanted a very direct, emotionally accessible score, boldly melodic,” he recalls. “We had various conversations, and it ended up as an abstract ballet, but loosely based on climate change.”
Not that you could write a narrative ballet about climate change. “But that gave me a shape to hang the music on. It starts with everything in harmony and at peace, then glitches and distortion start to appear, until it gets to breakdown and, ultimately, a violent climax, although in the dying minutes there’s a ray of hope. And that general shape, for me, was quite a lovely idea musically. That’s what I need to get going, a tangible form to then be free within, both for me and for Daniela.”
Paul wrote the piece, creating a big orchestral template. “I used a mixture of orchestral samples, Spitfire, EastWest, Project SAM, many more. Then Daniela and I went back and forth for a bit until she was happy. Ballet companies usually want the score quite far in advance of rehearsals, so then it’s pretty much locked off — I send it off with the score and the parts. And, you know, it’s a joyous thing to see people jumping up and down to music that I’ve written.”
Especially at Birmingham, he says. “Because there’s an orchestra there, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, and it’s becoming rare to go to a dance show and have an orchestra in the pit, unless it’s one of the big subsidised houses. And that’s one of my things. If you’re writing for people, give them something that they’re going to enjoy playing. Use them in the right way — let them do what they do best.”
We take a look around Paul’s studio, a commercial property in Brighton that used to be a printers. “Yellow Technology worked with me on the setup in the control room, and I had them build me a desk with my Doepfer LMK4+ master keyboard built in. Much better for your shoulders.”
Paul admits he is not a deeply techy person — “I need my gear to do what I need it to do” — and he still sketches a lot on paper and works quite a bit at the piano. “I never do entirely electronic scores, or very, very rarely. There’s always the human element, always real players in there. And sometimes, if there’s the budget, then the entire thing is orchestral. I’m very much a traditional composer in the sense that I think in notes and rhythms. I don’t make sounds, if you like — that’s the design approach.”
He uses a UA Apollo Quad interface, a Focusrite Control 2802 console, the ‘trashcan’ Mac Pro, and as well as Cubase he runs Steinberg’s Dorico notation software when he records here with other players coming in, while on big projects he’ll hire a copyist. There are lots of essential sample libraries too, from Spitfire, Project SAM, Soniccouture, Output, and more. Speakers are PreSonus Sceptre S6s, while mics include AKG C414s and a couple of Neumann TLM 103s, though visiting players often bring their own favourites. There’s plenty of instruments knocking about, too: guitars, a double bass, ukuleles, violins, percussion odds and ends.
And is that Nicolas Cage’s mandolin, by any chance? “Well,” he laughs, “I did end up with the stunt mandolin from Captain Corelli. It’s a beautiful thing, and actually more playable than the one Nicholas mimed on. It’s appeared on quite a few TV jobs I’ve done.”
That double bass? “After piano, double bass was my second instrument at music college, so I can play the bass and consequently the bass guitar, and I do a bit of guitar playing. Any real guitar playing, though, I hire a guitarist.” But he can find his way around one? “Exactly. I can play a riff.” So did he have a go at ‘Smoke On The Water’ for the Montreux series? “Ah yes, that’s in the film. I had to segue into it, so I nearly got to it... Let’s just say I hinted at it!”