Best known for his evocative film and TV scores to Agatha Christie's Poirot and La Vie En Rose, composer Christopher Gunning feels equally at home in the concert hall. He recently released a new album through Signum Classics, featuring his 2012 Violin Concerto, 2013 Cello Concerto, and 2016 symphonic poem titled Birdflight. All three works provide a musical and emotional rollercoaster that is both whimsical and daring. In this Q&A, Christopher shares his experiences composing these concert pieces.
Nick Dolan: In general, many film and TV composers – even those who have studied composition at university – don’t have much practice in writing music with the level of sophistication that is required of concert music; your music, however, rivals that of 20th-century composers of the highest regard. In your opinion, how do you feel you’ve managed to maintain this level of sophistication without living in the world of academia?
Christopher Gunning: I have never stopped listening to concert music, and have always gone to concerts of many different kinds. But I prefer not to use the term “academia,” and hope that my concert music doesn’t feel “academic.” That, to me, would remind me of fugues and strict counterpoint, which are devices I don’t use, preferring my music to sound natural and even spontaneous at least to some degree.
Nick: In your opinion, aside from having to work to picture, what are the biggest differences between writing music for film and TV and writing concert music?
Christopher: The biggest difference lies in matters of form. In my concert music I like to use longish movements which, for obvious reasons, one cannot use in commercial work. To compose a properly developed movement, one has to use techniques you cannot usually use in short film cues, and even if the cues are longer, it would be inappropriate to use similar structures because one has to follow the dramatic structure of the film.
Nick: What was your process like when writing your Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto? Did you start with a theme first or a harmonic palette?
Christopher: With the Violin Concerto I started with a single chord which is outlined in the very first clarinet phrase; the chord is built on a series of rising thirds. In fact the whole of the first movement was composed by using the chord and its transpositions and derivatives. The 2nd movement was built using different techniques in order to create the atmosphere of a sleeping town in Wales. The last movement needed to be more lively so the composing ingredients are different, but towards the end there is a return to some of the opening ideas. The cello concerto is a very different piece; I suppose one could say it alternates between a lament and some very lively ideas. The liveliest music comes in the 2nd movement which is called “racing” and in this I imagine tearing about on bicycles.
Nick: How long did it take you to finish your concertos?
Christopher: About a month to six weeks for each one.
Nick: Was there ever a moment in your writing process where you struggled to figure out where the music wanted to go? If so, how did you overcome it?
Christopher: Yes! And when I wasn’t sure where to go next in the composition, I’d wander around the garden or in the local woods trying to sort out in my mind where the music should go. Sometimes I’d improvise at the piano trying to establish the next stage of the music. This may take quite a time, and occasionally I’d get stuck in a quagmire of indecision, which could be a nightmare!
Nick: Do you have a favourite musical moment in your concertos or Birdflight? A moment that you feel you captured just as you wanted to?
Christopher: Some pieces go smoothly from start to finish, but that is quite rare - there was usually a bit of a struggle somewhere. I remember being quite happy with the violin concerto when I discovered how I could bring back the very opening idea towards the end of the last movement. To bring back material from earlier in the piece can be a very satisfying idea.
Nick: And what are you working on now?
Christopher: I am working on a 2nd violin concerto for Harriet Mackenzie, who is a marvelous violinist and a great person.
Thank you, Christopher, for sharing your brilliant music and insight with the world! His newest album featuring his Violin Concert, Cello Concerto and Birdflight was released this year by Signum Classics and can be found on iTunes and Spotify.
Film | Music
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