Inside the Music with film & TV composer Alexandra Harwood

Interview with Alexandra Harwood

Alexandra Harwood is an award-winning British composer whose films have screened worldwide. Most recently, she scored the popular drama-comedy series All Creatures Great and Small for Channel 5 and PBS Masterpiece. We caught up with Alexandra to discuss how she became a film & TV composer, her writing process, her proudest projects, and more.

Download All Creatures Great and Small sheet music

Interview with film & TV composer Alexandra Harwood

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): So firstly, can you just can you tell us a little bit about your background, how you got started in composing, and then eventually writing for film and TV?

Alexandra Harwood ("A"): So, I started writing music literally when I was three years old. We had a piano in the house, and I would pick out tunes I heard on TV. Back in my day there were only three channels on television to begin with. I just watched a lot of TV and my father bought us one of the first video players so I watched constant films. I was a bit obsessed, and I would watch and then pick out the tunes at the piano. My mum realised that I had this ability and got me piano lessons when I was four. So really music became my first language before learning to read and write words. I happened to go to a school called Bedales School, which was incredibly good at encouraging and embracing the arts. It was all there at my fingertips and I didn't feel that I was an outsider at all. I wrote my first musical when I was four years old and the school put it on. Obviously, I'm not talking fully orchestrated, but the fact is I was writing music. I have no memory of thinking "Oh, I'm a composer" or "I'm going to try and write music." I just did it.

   I wrote my first musical when I was four years old and the school put it on. Obviously, I'm not talking fully orchestrated, but the fact is I was writing music."

My father, who now sadly isn't with us, was the writer, Ronald Harwood, who wrote The Dresser andThe Pianist and various other plays, films and novels. So in our household there was always writing and creating going on around me. I saw the highs and lows of that career and the moods swings that go with it. It was all very normal to me, this kind of atmosphere. By the age of 18 I knew I wanted to be a classical composer and I went to the Royal College of Music to do my undergrad in classical composition. There was no film composition course in those days. I think there were very few film composition courses, if any, in the UK at that time.

I had an amazing teacher called Joseph Horovitz at the Royal College. He was a classical composer but had also composed for ballet and film, so the idea of film composition was always there in the periphery. But I think I'm really glad that I didn't enter the film world at that age because I wasn't secure enough. I don't think I could have handled the politics of it and I would have taken things too personally. When you're older, you learn a little bit more to realise "it's not about me." But when I was young my insecurities were very much about me.

I then ended up at Juilliard doing a Masters in classical composing under Milton Babbitt, who was a completely different kind of composer to me - as my mother would have said, "bumps and squeaks." He was particularly noted for his serial and electronic music and he was an amazing person. He'd taught one of my favourite composers Stephen Sondheim and that was my reason to learn with him! My time at Juilliard was absolutely crucial to me because they have an incredible drama department. With my father having been a playwright and film writer, I immediately went into the theater department and said, "Does anybody want music written for their plays?" They ended up employing me as their resident composer after I graduated. I would say that was about my first taste of writing underscore as it is in film, because it has the same function and I absolutely loved it. I had this incredible year group, now lifelong friends, working with Laura Linney, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tim Nelson and Michael Suhlbarg, these extraordinary actors who have gone on to great, great things. But we were just there making theater together. And it was fantastic.

Cutting a very long story short, I got married to an opera singer and had three kids. I had my first son at 28, and decided that having had a lifetime of composing, (having started when I was four) I didn't want to compose anymore! I was very determined to have a family and so I had my three kids. We moved back to England from New York, and then I ended up being a single mum, which obviously took up a lot of my time. Plus, my eldest son was born with a kidney disease so there was an awful lot going on, and I'm so glad I was not working during that time. I couldn't have done it. But by the time my kids got to around the ages of 12, 10, and 8, I started to get itchy feet and it felt like life was saying, "Where have you gone? You've turned your back on the thing you're meant to do." And I realised it was the thing I really wanted to do again. I think it must have taken that break for me to appreciate it. In 2011, I decided the most realistic way of making a living would be as a film and TV composer, because the classical world doesn't pay much and I needed to be able to support myself and my family.

So in 2010, I applied to the National Film and Television School to take a second MA. I knew it was a very difficult school to get into. At that time they only took four composition students and all the other film schools didn't have film composition courses. The NFTS seemed like the best chance for me to learn to compose to picture and work alongside other filmmakers. And amazingly, I got in! It’s a very special school and luckily for me they're not ageist (I was 44 years old when I applied) - they'll take anybody who they think will fit. And that was the beginning of the next chapter of my life. I graduated in 2013, and had about three years of doing lots and lots of short films. I think I did something like 60 short films during that time. And then I landed my first break for Disney and Netflix, scoring a beautiful feature documentary Growing Up Wild and then things snowballed really, really quickly. So, I feel I've had three completely separate lives and two different careers.

S: That's fascinating how you completely went away from it, rededicated yourself and then it all worked out!

A: It really did work out. I have to say, I am forever ambitious and always wanting the next thing. I never quite feel I've reached my goal. It's forever shifting and elusive. But the fact is, I'm really grateful to my kids because they were young teenagers when I went to the NFTS. They didn't have much of a mum around because I was so busy at film school. I remember asking them before applied, "You're not going to see me much, are you okay with that?". I don't think they knew the reality, so happily agreed! But they ended up living off M&S microwave meals for two years! But yeah, they were great. And I'm so grateful to them as it gave me the turning point.

   I am forever ambitious and always wanting the next thing. I never quite feel I've reached my goal. It's forever shifting and elusive."

S: That's great. And next up, can you tell us if you had any particular musical inspirations growing up?

A: Well, I have a very eclectic taste in music. I listened to music nonstop growing up, and it was always around me. In the house, classical music was being played the whole time, and my parents also loved jazz. The composers I feel the most affinity with would be Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Britten, if I had to name four. They were constantly in my life, I would say, as a background inspiration. And one of the first films I watched as a kid, Fantasia – that obviously made a massive impact. And then on top of that, if you asked me what was I actually listening to, I was in my room listening to Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel. You name it, I was listening to it. And I think at one point I inherited a violin that I had to look after for my grandfather. I don't play the violin, by the way! But I would be upstairs in my room, squeaking away very unpleasantly to any pop record! And I was obsessed with film and I used to keep a diary of every single thing I watched. So by the time I was 18, I'd watched The Producers with Zero Mostel 52 times! But in terms of the film composers that made an impression on me musically, John Williams was the first really big one. My Dad watched loads of old movies - all the spaghetti westerns that Morricone scored. It was just there the whole time. It all went in.

S: Absolutely. So next up, we'll talk a little bit about All Creatures Great and Small. It's obviously been very well received, and the theme you've done is so joyous and quintessentially English sounding. How did you go about creating that?

A: So, the subject of the theme was a very big question, when I started working on the show, because the iconic 1970s series which has a very well-known theme that was by Johnny Pearson. It had been a piece of library music that they picked up and then he ended up writing the music for the show. So, when I landed the series, I was trying to suss out what the production company, the producers, and directors were really wanting, because the show itself is very, very different to the original 1970s show. One is very much a typical BBC show set mostly in small intimate sets. It's like theatre. Whereas this Channel 5/Masterpiece PBS version is very cinematic and beautiful to look at. The directors (there are three directors on each series), producers and I were on the same page that really it should have a new theme and that it would be wrong to use the old theme, whereas the broadcasters I think were a bit worried wondering "maybe we should keep the Pearson theme as a nod to the original series?"

When I started work, we took about two months on this theme. Firstly, I came up with a couple of ideas that weren't quite right. They felt they weren't "quite memorable enough." And then I remember going on a walk with my dog, Brinkley, and a little tune just popped into my head, which is often what happens actually - when I'm on walks or doing mindless things like brushing my teeth. It doesn't normally happen when I'm at the actual piano or computer. So, I quickly sang it into my phone as I didn't want to forget it. But all the way home it kept on repeating through my mind and I thought, "Okay, I think that's memorable." When I got home I did a quick draft on the piano and sent it off, (it's pointless orchestrating it at that point if they don't actually like the melody.) And they all got back and after a few days, having listened to it a few times and said, "Yes, that's it!" That is the one that now, by the way, is our theme!

   That's what theme music is for, isn't it? To invite the audience into the world they're about to watch."

But soon after that was approved, they then asked, "Maybe we should have that theme with a bit of the old theme included." So, then for the next two weeks, I was asked to do a few different versions weaving in the other theme into mine. And I'll confess it now, that I actually tried to do it really, really badly so that they didn't like it! I just kept on sliding a little bit of the old tune into the middle section of my theme. But the fact is the theme music is only 30 seconds long, which is not very long to weave two themes together so that you can identify both. Luckily, in the end, they agreed to use just my theme that you all now know. Some people have written lovely fan-mail to me saying, "Oh, we love the fact that it sounds so like the old one." But the weird thing for me is that I didn't intend it to (nor think it does!). What we were trying to embrace in the theme tune, which I think the first one does so beautifully for the old series, is this kind of feeling of joy, The Dales, and inviting the audience into that world. That's what theme music is for, isn't it? To invite the audience into the world they're about to watch. I think a theme tune becomes a synergy with the program. So when people first heard it, they might have thought, "oh, I wish the old tune was there." But by the time we were a few episodes into season one, suddenly my theme tune belonged to this series and that helped me. I think the production team themselves were very much hoping to be accepted as a new television series of the original James Herriot books that it's based on, rather than being compared to the old series as a remake of.

S: That's very interesting how that came about. And you sort of alluded to this a little bit just now, but how does your writing process normally work? Do you get an idea in your head when you're doing something random like walking the dog or brushing your teeth? Or is there ever more of a deliberate process?

A: A lot of deliberate attempts! And I think having written music my whole life and studied it, I think there’s this muscle memory where my fingers and ears will lead me to a certain place on the piano without me even thinking, because a lot of getting the initial idea is quite a subconscious process. And obviously being stuck is a horrible, horrible feeling. Fear can get in the way of creativity big time. If you're thinking, "I've got to replace this iconic theme," that could be about the most destructive thing you could ever think. So for me, it's always trying to get my head back into the story. What am I trying to create? What am I trying to support? Getting away from the fear aspect, and then either my fingers will do something that I'm not really thinking about, in a kind of semi-improvised way, and then I can go back on it and rework it, or it will be whilst doing those things like walking the dog or brushing my teeth and "ping!" a melody or answer just pops in. But that doesn't normally happen until I've tried a few times in my studio. It's like it's there whirring in the back of the brain. Or it can happen when I'm asleep.

S:Do you ever have that thing where you dream up a tune and then you wake up and can't remember it?

A: Yeah, I've literally written symphonies in my dreams and I have woken up wanting to write it down and either it's all gone, or I do write it down and go to the piano and play it and it's absolutely terrible! In the dream, it was the best thing that ever existed. I've always wished there was some little plugin you could have in your brain and it could just extract the ideas as they happen!

   I've literally written symphonies in my dreams and I have woken up wanting to write it down and either it's all gone, or I do write it down and go to the piano and play it and it's absolutely terrible!"


A: Oh, it's so frustrating, isn't it?

S:It really is. Obviously, aside from All Creatures, you've worked on a great number of projects over the course of your life. Are there any that you are particularly proud of?

A: That's a nice question. Of my previous classical life, there are a few pieces, but of more recent times I would say I am proud of and I really did love working on Mike Newell's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with Lily James. That was my first film, and what an amazing experience it was for a first movie. That's just something I will never forget. Mike is just a really extraordinary director - he brings out the best in everybody. And then three years ago, just before the pandemic, I wrote a ballet called Geisha for Northern Ballet. I think to this day it's just something I'm very, very proud of. It was a full-length 2 hour ballet. And really, really sadly, we got the first night in Leeds to five-star reviews across all the papers, and then lockdown happened and the theatre shut the next day.

S:Oh no, that's heart-breaking.

A: There were meant to be 28 performances and it was going to Sadler's Wells. And the really sad thing now is that there's been a bit of an issue with one of the dancers complaining about cultural appropriation in the story. And so the whole thing's been shelved and I cannot tell you how much that's broken my heart, because we poured our heart and soul into creating it. But I'm about to create another full-length ballet with the same creative team, so hopefully we'll get another chance.

S:And aside from your own work, do you have any favourite scores or soundtracks?

A: I thought we might talk about this, so I have to confess I wrote some down because I've got such a bad memory when being asked! So at the top of my list I will say all of John Williams, because I cannot pick one. Everything and anything that he's written I can't really fault and love. Then the Harry Potter movies which of course he scored the first three, but the two films that Nicholas Hooper scored I think are top notch and so perfectly beautiful. Alan Silvestri's score for Forrest Gump is a really beautiful score, and I also love his work generally. He's a big inspiration to me. James Newton Howard's Hunger Games score is an incredibly moving score. Every time I hear one of his particular chord sequences, it gets me right in the solar plexus. I always try and analyze why it is that particular harmonic move gets me right in the heart. It's so clever. And then in TV, I mean this most genuinely, Carlos Rafael Rivera's score for The Queen's Gambit really blew me away. I reached out to him, having not met him before. I don't often write fan-mail, but I was so pleased that this kind of score can exist on a film or television. And it's the same with scores by Nicholas Britell, because coming from a classical background, the fact that classical based scores can exist is very reassuring to me, because it means that that kind of music is still being embraced and used.

   Coming from a classical background, the fact that classical-based scores can exist is very reassuring to me, because it means that that kind of music is still being embraced and used."

S:Yeah. It's fantastic. Good choice. And are you a recreational musician yourself? Do you ever sit down and play other people's music or anything?

A: I mean, yes is the answer. I don't like performing because I get very nervous. As a matter of fact, there are talks about putting together a concert production of All Creatures with a narrator. The person putting it together asked if I'd be the pianist, and my answer was an immediate "No, I get so scared!" So at home I will play, and growing up I constantly was playing and performing. I was a clarinettist back then as well as a pianist. At Bedales we put on a lot of productions and I was normally musical director, so for some reason I was a bit fearless back then. But now I like hiding in my room, composing music. It's safer! But I do play a lot of music at home. My daughter is a singer-songwriter and a music editor for film and tv, and my youngest son is an amazing guitarist and drummer, so there's a lot of sharing music at home. I just don't want to do it in front of the public!

S:And if you could take on a dream project, what would that be?

A: That's a good question right now, because I've been thinking a lot about this. I would say that having done The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as my first proper feature film, I would really love another movie. I'm about to start on series 4 of All Creatures which I love, and I'm really, really grateful for. I wouldn't want to leave that show, but I also really, really want another movie. And what kind of movie that is I'm not so particular about because I love all sorts of movies. But yeah, if Steven Spielberg called me right now, I wouldn't say no!

S:Great. If you're listening, Mr. Spielberg, you know who to call!

A: I mean, gosh, there are so many amazing things made nowadays, but I do really love the movies. I love being able to sit down in a cinema, which is my favorite place to be, and to be able to see a story from the beginning to the end in one sitting without any distractions. There are many amazing TV shows which I watch a lot of. But the fact is, you either have to binge 8 hours-worth to get from the beginning to the end, (which I have done!), or you have to wait. And I find it torturous to wait. But at least with a movie you get the whole story in one go!

S:This is true. So maybe something Queen's Gambit-esque? Something along those lines.

A: If I got a TV series like The Queen's Gambit, I would absolutely say yes. The lovely director, Brian Percival, who directed The Book Thief movie and also directed the first three seasons of All Creatures as the lead director, has another project that's in development and that he's asked me to score, so we've just got to wait whilst they're putting the production together and it might take a while. I love working with Brian. Like Mike Newell, they're both very giving and trusting directors, true collaborators and it's really an amazing gift to work with directors like that. I'm very lucky as all the directors on All Creatures have been incredibly lovely to work with. It's a really lovely production company, who are very supportive. Everybody's really invested in it and those things make a big difference.

S:Yeah, I imagine that must make a huge difference in how much you enjoy your work?

A: Absolutely. There was an article recently in The Guardian that's circulating about the #MeToo movement and how it didn't address composers, i.e. women. Composers are still having a hard time. Still only 3% female composers are being used on the top movies. An incredibly low percent. That article also reflects on how difficult the composing industry is, because it is. It's long hours, day and night, every day, no weekends off. Even though we do it because we love it, it's got difficult sides to it. So if you've got a lovely team of people you're working with, it makes an enormous difference and it also makes you want to go the extra mile. I will give everything to people like that because they give back. But if you're on a production where things are really difficult and people are disrespectful, then you're just going to crumble. It's a funny old industry!

S:And then lastly, what are you working on next that we can look forward to?

A: So, I start work on the next series of All Creatures starts in May. Right now I'm writing a classical piano piece commissioned by the Danish concert pianist, Michala Linn. It's based on a medieval piece by Saint Hildegard of Bingen, who was a Benedictine abbess, writer and composer during the middle ages. She wrote a medieval chant that I am using as inspiration. Michala is commissioning an all-female-composers concert series, and she thought a contemporary female composer basing a piece on a medieval female composer's piece would be very interesting. I then will start work on the full-length ballet, but have a year or so to write that and will weave it all around my work on All Creatures.

S:Fantastic! You're certainly keeping busy. Thank you so much for your time, it's been great chatting.

A: Thank you so much!

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