An interview with Pete Wyer

by Sylvia Villa

PETE M. WYER is a composer and musician from England. He has created scores for the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Juilliard, the orchestra of Welsh National Opera, The Crossing, BBC Television and the Royal Opera House as well as creating seven operas and music theatre works. His works for dance include English National Ballet, Juilliard, Alvin Ailey, Carol Brown Dances and Jessica Lang.

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

I loved the ballet music of Stravinsky, Ravel and many others. I knew nothing about dance, so in the mid 1990’s I started going to The Place, near Euston – back then they had a video library where you could request video tapes of companies who had performed there (yes, I am VERY old). I watched a lot of tapes and wrote to several choreographers whose work I liked. Eventually I got together with a choreographer named Matthew Hamilton in 1996 and, actually, that project revolutionised my artistic journey, for which I remain grateful.

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

No, I was totally naive. I thought everything was like Ballet Russes! But dance was a great and unexpected teacher for me: working with not only dancers and choreographers but lighting designers, set designers, directors introduced me to new approaches and renewed my faith and joy in creating music. It completely changed the path I was on (where I had largely fallen into the trap of basically writing for other composers).

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

I don’t have a set method but I love my work and like to be immersed in the subject so, depending on the project the research can be extensive. My best experiences have been where the dialogue is open but the boundaries also clear. If I am passionate about it I will spend a lot of time to explore and create the sound-world of the piece even if very little of that is apparent in the final result.

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

For me it is intuitive, movement and mood often inspire music in me or sounds, directions to explore. I’ve discovered that I instinctively, for example, have a ratio between the number of dancers and the number of instruments or sound sources. But the relationship has often surprised me; some choreographers have a totally different concept of the relationship of sound and movement which can be challenging and sometimes, amazing because you create something you like but would never have written without the dialogue.

Practically though, the relationship between music and dance is always filtered through the relationship of composer and choreographer so for me that’s always the first thing I consider. I will often ask: ‘do you want to work with me as a craftsman or as an artist?’ I’m comfortable with both but I prefer to work as an artist and it is always helps to have clear boundaries/expectations.

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

Well I think you certainly need to feel inspired by it and prepared to learn from it. For me I have always felt like a storyteller who primarily uses sound so I feel a strong affinity for other forms of ‘storytelling’ (I would include non-narrative storytelling) but I have witnessed successful collaborations that don’t work this way and so I’d never say there is a specific requirement.

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

It can vary but usually it’s about personal chemistry. I have been lucky to work with many different choreographers over the years, everyone has been different with different ideas about how movement and sound work together. I think you need to check your ego at the door but not your boundaries, you need to be clear about those otherwise it can become messy. Beyond that it’s really like anything else: listen, be kind, serve the needs of the piece, tell the story, learn from others.

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?)

Ha ha ha… if I were to talk to myself when starting out I would need to sit myself down for a VERY long talk. The first thing would be to really enjoy and learn about dance and to enjoy it, see what inspires you and see a wide range of performances/choreographers.

I would say that the world of contemporary ballet/dance is like others in the art world; it can be wonderful but it can be cliquey and self-indulgent too. So it’s worth finding people who you admire and are generous in collaboration.

Also, on the pragmatic side, if you start writing music for dance then set clear boundaries in terms of time, money, who takes responsibility for creative decisions, who makes final decision in event of disagreement, how you will be credited etc. (I know I sound obsessed with boundaries but it does help). But most of all, I think, be open to being taught by it and to giving back, it can really inspire a composer to new approaches, new language, new opportunities.

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

Of course, every project and every production is different. Without a doubt my happiest experiences have been when I have worked very directly with the choreographer and with the company, exchanging ideas and trying things out, the end result can feel like more than the sum of the parts but that doesn’t work with some people – some creative people don’t work well this way, it’s all going on inside them and trying to make it more collaborative causes frustration and dilutes the vision.

If you work as a composer for TV or film generally you’ll sit with a director and editor who will play you ‘temp score’ – they already have a clear idea of the effect they want the music to have and your job is to create original music that evokes the same effect – sometimes this is the composer’s role, other times it’s far more collaborative and creative.

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?

I am not qualified to answer. However, it’s 2020 and so having no credentials isn’t going to stop me… so I will say that I think it’s nearly always messy and difficult but those moments when something extraordinary emerges make the rest of it worthwhile. I also find much that makes me hopeful: I recently saw ‘Refuge’ by Farm in the Cave in Prague, directed by Viliam Dočolomanský – I found it an astonishing feat of creative intelligence with an extraordinary vision for integrated movement, design, sound combined with incredible performance, all in service of profound storytelling. For me that’s the whole point. Those incredible moments where everything comes together remind me why it’s all worthwhile in the end.

Thank You!

For more about Pete’s music, visit