An interview with Alex Baranowski

by Sylvia Villa

Alex Baranowski is a composer, arranger and sound designer based in London. Recently he scored BBC One comedy Staged starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen; and The Windermere Children for Wall to Wall / Warner Brothers (with a soundtrack released by Sony Classics); he was previously nominated for a Tony Award for Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway; won Music + Sound Awards including Best Feature Film for McCullin (also nominated for two BAFTA’s) and his ballet adaptation of 1984 for Northern Ballet won the South Bank Award for dance after a sold out run at Sadler’s Wells.

Photo: Marc Brenner

How did you get into writing music for dance? What attracted you to writing for this particular art form?

To be honest, as seems typical in my career, completely accidentally! I’d been composing music for some plays at the National Theatre in London, and a young choreographer called Jonathan Watkins had seen and enjoyed a show I’d scored and emailed out of the blue, asking if I wanted to collaborate on a project with Ballet Black in the Linbury Theatre. It was something I’d always wanted to do so of course bit his arm off to do it… We’ve gone on to collaborate on many works together since over the years which has been wonderful. Around the same time I also met a brilliant choreographer called Tamsin Fitzgerald who ran an all-male dance company called 2Faced Dance and was commissioned to write a comparatively very different, modern score, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to work on two very different dance projects very early on. Both are friendships and working relationships I still have closely a decade later!

Did you have much knowledge or experience of dance before you composed music for a dance-related project?

As a composer, not too much! However, working on theatre productions had really prepared me for the collaborative nature of the process. There’s something really exciting as a composer to be in the room and write on a piano/laptop whilst a choreographer and dancers respond to what you’re doing. You’d never get that in the film world of course, when writing might start weeks/months after a film is shot and edited!

What sort of research do you do in order to prepare for a project? Do you have a particular method?

It completely depends on the project. The two full length ballets I’ve scored (Nineteen Eighty-Four for Northern Ballet and Kes for Sheffield Theatres) were both based on books, so that was the first thing to start with! Creating narrative through dance and music is a fascinating process and can be such a wonderfully collaborative way to work as you try to find the best way to tell the story. It can be quite liberating to strip everything out of a scene and re-work anything that isn’t helping to drive the story forward.

When something is based on a story you can immediately start to think how it can be translated into a score… what characters there are, how they can be represented by themes/instruments/orchestration. And thinking about how the score can develop throughout to best convey the story.

Describe what the relationship between music and dance means to you.

They are both so entwined – in a dance piece you can’t have some form of one without the other, even if it boils down to a simple rhythm. I love to work and re-work pieces collaboratively with the choreographer so that everything we are doing is completely in sync with each other, working for a purpose. It is wonderful to be inspired by an idea from a choreographer, which develops into a musical form.. which then inspires a development in the movement.. which in turns inspires how the music changes… For me working on a dance production certainly isn’t about composing a piece of music for a choreographer to start working to when I’ve finished writing!

Do you think that writing music for dance requires a different approach compared to writing music for a different art form?

Whatever medium you are working with – film, theatre, dance – as a team of creatives you are a group of people coming together to tell a story. Perhaps the approach changes from one project to the next – because we always want to find new ways of telling stories – but I’ve always found a benefit having the opportunity to switch between different mediums because you learn so much when you’re out of your comfort zone and not doing the same thing the whole time! Often ideas and ways of working I’ve discovered in the theatre can have huge influence when working on scoring a project to picture (and vice versa).

I’ve been lucky on some projects that I’ve managed to combine both – a made for cinema documentary about Rudolph Nureyev featured a newly commissioned ballet (choreographed by Russell Maliphant) to tell parts of Nureyev’s story, so I was asked to write a score for a ballet which also intertwined into a film score. That was a wonderful thing to do.

How do you navigate a working relationship with a choreographer and/or dance company?

Of course everyone has their own ways of working – I love spending time in rehearsals, really feeling what the piece needs in the room by talking about it at an early stage. The most recent dance project I scored, Hollow in a World Too Full (with 2Faced Dance, a tour which mostly ended up getting postponed due to the Covid-19 Pandemic) was a solo piece, and the choreographer Tamsin Fitsgerald and one of the soloists came down to my studio to try working on some ideas in the room. It really made such a difference them coming to my studio, thinking about what sounds could be connected with movement, and what movements could inspire more sounds.. we were all able to create something that none of us could have created on our own! With Jonathan Watkins we used to spend hours in quiet coffee shops discussing, listening to ideas and he’d act out different bits of the story. I’d go and write/re-write some more and we’d do it again!

What advice would you give a composer looking to write music for dance? (What would have helped you when you were starting out or working on your first project?)

As a young composer it can be frustrating trying to find work especially when building up your list of credits.. but some of my most fulfilling relationships in my career have been with people I met very early on, with other creatives at a similar point in their career. Find a young choreographer who perhaps hasn’t had the luxury of a commissioned score before and build on that relationship. Starting off on smaller fringe productions enables you to learn new skills, work with people and make the inevitable mistakes we all make starting out! Dance isn’t just about creating big productions on the stage – more recently I’ve seen people choreographing and writing short pieces at home to put online which have been incredibly powerful! It’s about having a calling card that other people can see and hear… Hopefully after doing a great job (and being easy to work with), some other people will want to work with you too! Just keep writing and keep pushing to get your work out there. The only person you can rely on to do this properly at the beginning is you!

How would you describe the role of music within a dance production? Does this change depending on the nature of the project?

It certainly depends on the production. As I mentioned earlier, for me the music is about telling the story in the best possible way (and least complicated), because you have to hold an audience for all that time…

I think being able to have the music performed live with a dancer can make an incredible difference – not just to the audience watching/listening – but to the dancers on stage too. When the score is performed live it is able to breathe with the dancers in tempo/dynamics in a way that just isn’t possible with a track that is identical every night!

But if that isn’t possible… it’s about using whatever resources you have to the maximum effect. Go out on a limb to find sounds and instruments that are unique that can bring something new to the story you want to tell. Don’t just reach for the obvious tools. That sort of thing can make a real difference to a production.

Do you have any opinions on the current state of the ballet and dance industry and how that affects the creation of new music for dance?

Well of course it’s presently a very difficult time for the whole creative industry (and beyond). There are many difficult times ahead simply trying to stay afloat whilst Covid-19 becomes the new normal at least for a bit longer. But I think there are a lot of positives – digital theatre is a relatively new art form and perhaps one to exploit more in the coming months whilst audiences are not allowed to go to live performances.

I do feel strongly that there are many artists, dancers, musicians, creatives unable to work – and supporting them, as well as the dance companies, should not be lost. There have been a number of dance productions being released for free online recently – which is wonderful that they are seen – but these of course don’t support the artists who have made them! Of course the dance/theatre companies are going through an extremely difficult time themselves so I understand their need to get work out there.

A few of my productions were released online earlier this year for free and in some cases I didn’t even hear from the company to ask my permission – let alone receive any royalties from it! Supporting artists needs to be key moving forward, otherwise there will be many less artists by the time we’re able to go back to create.

Thank You!

You can listen to some of Alex’s music here:
Link to listen/download to Alex’s Nureyev film score
New TV Series Staged out last week soundtrack link (Spotify)
Musica Universalis by Daniel Hope