Compose yourself

  • Posted on 9 May 2000 at 3:29pm
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Want to write music but worried that you don’t have the right background? Don’t be. As Peter Kingston discovers, classical, popular or avant-garde, there are many ways to be a composer.


Howard Goodall

Composer and broadcaster. Age 41. TV and film theme scores include Blackadder; Mr Bean; The Vicar of Dibley; Red Dwarf. Compositions include The Hired Man (which won the Ivor Novello Award for best musical); Marlborough Canticles; We are the Burning Fire. Recently presented Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs on Channel 4.

Like most other new students at university, Howard Goodall went along to Freshers’ Fair, where the university clubs and societies try to sign up new members. His only clear notion was that he would like to write music for student revues. And there, in front of him, was a stall with a sign saying Revue.

“I said: ‘I’ve done these musicals’, and the bloke behind the stall said: ‘OK, my friend will come and see you this evening’.” Sure enough a young man did call on him. He was called Richard Curtis and he would later write and co-write a string of hit TV scripts, including Blackadder, and the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The bloke sitting behind the stall was Rowan Atkinson, later to gain fame as Mr Bean. Three weeks later they were putting on a revue called Tongue-Tied, with music by the 18-year-old Goodall.

“Not many people have meetings as fortuitous as that,” he laughs. “The show was overshadowed by the obvious fact that Rowan was a comic genius of world order.”

In Tongue-Tied, Goodall recalls doing something never seen in an Oxford revue before: using a synthesiser.”Up till then, the revues had been accompanied by a jazz ensemble – clever people’s music.” One of the numbers was for a mime character which Atkinson did – the prototype for Mr Bean.

“I had this synthesiser which looked like a telephone exchange and could only play one note at a time.”

Goodall enjoyed the classical English musical education which so many composers have had. At eight, he went to be a choirboy at New College, Oxford. “The total immersion in music technique at choir schools is a very good starting point.” He was starting to write little bits and pieces, but nothing which was performed. “I just liked the look of it on the page and liked the idea of being a composer.”

A stretch at Stowe, the well-known public school, followed. Then a switch to Lord Williams’ School, Thame, a “big jolly comprehensive where the music was fantastic”.

At 15, all he wanted to do, he says, was write songs at the piano for his band Halfbrother. It made an album, but you sense he doesn’t want to dwell on that too long now.

By the sixth form at the comprehensive, he was writing musicals for the youngest children in the school to perform. One was based on John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, another on CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

He read music at university. The Oxford music course was rigorously academic and on the dry side, with a heavy emphasis on “techniques of composition” – rewriting the great composers’ works from the 15th to the 20th century, with just the top line or bass to give you clues. It did no harm – far from it.

He continued writing for student shows. One of the university drama societies took his musical The Loved One, based on the Evelyn Waugh novel, up to the Edinburgh Festival.

“By then I knew I wanted to write music for a living but I was pretty realistic that most people who want to do it can’t.” It was going to take another eight years after leaving university before he was making his living solely by composing.

“There’s no composer in the world who didn”t have a lean period.”

After Oxford he shared a flat in West London with Rowan Atkinson, who was taking part in a new TV comedy series: Not The Nine O’Clock News. “Does anybody know somebody who can help play instruments?” the cast was asked one day. Atkinson mentioned his flatmate. “I just went in and helped them a bit as a musical director.”

Then it was suggested the show needed an original song in a different style each week, sometimes pastiching well-known singers. The pressure of doing this to order at the last minute was an invaluable experience.

“The big thing I learned was that I was working for other people and that their views mattered a great deal. “You may write what you think is a gorgeous tune but they say it’s not funny or it’s not right. The first thing I say to students now is: don’t be passionate about the stuff you write. Accept that if you are writing for TV or film you are writing in a visual medium and you are number two. You can’t be luvvyish about it.”

His advice to any young composer is to write as much as possible and in as many voices as possible. “The great composers of the past had usually written a hell of a lot before producing their big stuff. Today people can be slightly lazy and get attached to their own music, hawking around the same piece again and again.

“The best thing to do is just write another piece. Write. Write. Write.”

He has another pet theory, that all concert composers should be made to spend five years writing for film and TV. “They would learn how to edit their music. If somebody had told Wagner when to stop, he would have produced work you could sit through.”

The collaboration with Atkinson and Curtis continued. He wrote the theme for the phenomenally successful Blackadder series and was paid £172, which now looks measly if you forget to include the fee he gets every time it’s played.

Some more struggling composers might envy his luck in hitching up so early with such stars. He says: “Everybody will find people to work with of their generation. The chances are that you already know people who will be your equivalent in other fields. That’s why universities and colleges are so vital.”


This is part  of an article (full article here) which appeared in The Guardian on Tuesday 9 May 2000