Frozen Planet Composer Comes to Ballymena

Braid Arts Centre welcomes George Fenton as part of the Ballymena Arts Festival

'Music came along for me. I didn’t go looking for it.' That was what George Fenton, the distinguished composer of music for theatre, television and the silver screen, told an overly loquacious Sue Lawley on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs ten years ago. You can still hear that interview on the internet.

If the world of music wasn’t one which the young George Howe (Fenton is his later pseudonym) initially looked for, it’s become the vehicle of his considerable success. By a series of unplanned events and pure luck – something he completely embraces – Fenton moved from actor to musician to composer by meeting the right people at the right time.

A natural talent had probably more than a little to do with the process as well. Speaking to Fenton, one is struck immediately by his total lack of self-importance, his unassuming manner, his modesty and his willingness to talk like 'just any other' musician.

And this is despite his many awards and accolades from the music industry for his beautifully detailed and colourfully evocative scores. My personal favourites backlight in sound the stunning images of the several nature series he has worked on, such as the BBC's Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet documentaries.

Fenton's music is not just complementary, not just an adjunct to the visuality of these natural documentaries – or, indeed, to the drama of such films as Ghandi, Cry Freedom, Dangerous Liaisons or The Madness of King George.

Those are only four of the long list of film for which Fenton has provided the enhancement of his scores, drawing the listener into the unfolding series of events, expanding their potential comprehension and magnifying their emotional impact. It’s not an easy task to undertake or to accomplish as any composer would know. Fenton wryly admits that 'people imagine it is a flash of inspiration, but it is such a labour'.

Northern Irish audiences will be able to appreciate the fruits of that labour at From Attenborough to Hollywood: An Evening with George Fenton at the Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena on Wednesday, April 17 at 8 pm when, as part of the Ballymena Arts Festival.

It’s true that modern technology has helped to reduce the manual labour of actually writing a score – computer programmes such as Finale or Sibelius in the right hands can provide the clarity of score demanded by modern professional players.

At the touch of a button, a composer can extract the fully annotated 'parts' with which each individual player in the orchestra is issued. In the olden days, the score and each and every part had to be handwritten.

There are also programmes available for realising the instrumental sound of a score and for timing it to exactness, all important factors in creating film music in particular. These sounds can then be exported as midi files to those avidly awaiting indication of, but perhaps not capable of reading the score, which the composer has in mind.

Ultimately, computers can only churn out what is put into them, and that is where good composers are still the indispensable lynch pins. Without their aural imagination, there won’t be any life about the consequent music.

Nowadays, anyone wanting to infiltrate the exclusive world of film music should probably undergo, de rigueur, one of the many academic courses which, like hothouse forcing, are available at a great many universities.

Amongst his several educational positions, Fenton teaches on occasion at the Royal College of Music in London, and he is a visiting Special Professor of Film Music at the University of Nottingham. Ironically, he avoided that particular type of formal academic training. So many years later, does he feel that was a disadvantage for him?

'I did at the beginning, yes. I couldn’t read music until I was 13, and I wish I had started to learn the piano at five. As I wasn’t “a joiner”. Music was a world I could fly away to, and I knew I wanted to be in that world because it was very liberated.

'I didn’t really care what I did, and I would have been perfectly happy if I’d ended up being a recording engineer, or a roadie, or a producer of some sort,' Fenton adds. 'I didn’t have any particular ambition to compose.'

But his flight path led him to becoming one of the most sought after of film music composers anywhere in the world and, as I indicated at the outset, it was marked by chance encounters and lucky breaks.

It’s that added ingredient, that modicum of fate, which Fenton can demonstrate to his students through his own career and it’s an invaluable example. No matter how talented, no matter how educated, without the right connections at the right time there is no guarantee of success in any profession.

'One of the things you can’t explain to the students is how those things work, and yet they do affect your life,' he agrees. 'You can’t really say that you’re going to study to be a film composer and here’s what happens, and then you apply for a job, because there isn’t a job. You have to meet somebody who wants you to write the music.'

That series of events in his own life is part of the fascination of listening to George Fenton – or at least it was for me. If you want to hear more about this talented composer and his music, and see him in person in Ballymena on April 17. There Fenton, rather than the stars of stage and screen, will be the central attraction.