Game of Thrones composer Hannah Peel prepares to 'Mix the City' for Culture Night Belfast
The Craigavon born artist discusses her Emmy nominated score for HBO documentary The Last Watch and curating a rich tapestry of Belfast sounds for a new global music platform
I can remember catching Hannah Peel at the last edition of the NI Music Prize. There she stood, with the 1st Old Boys Brass Band at her back, holding a beautifully delicate music box in her hands. The intricate threesome of band, voice and music box made for one of the most visually mesmerising and emotionally captivating performances that I’ve ever seen in the Ulster Hall.
The Emmy nominated and RTS Award winning composer is without a doubt one of the most interesting artists to emerge from Northern Ireland. She was born in Craigavon in 1985, but moved to Yorkshire quite young, and has since enveloped the worlds of science, nature and art with the forward thinking melting pot of electronic music and classical composition.
'My youngest memories are going to see my grandfather perform at Christmas,' she tells me. 'He was a conductor, organist, choir leader and singing teacher in Lurgan. In the choir were my granny and my aunties and the people he would have taught. He was called Duncan Peel, and he was born in Manchester but lived in Ireland for about fifty years.'
Peel’s grandfather actually appears on a track from her Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia record – a concept album which tells the story of a fictional elderly stargazer. The track is titled ‘The Planet of Passed Souls’ - the finale of the album - and contains a recording taken from Manchester Cathedral in 1927, making him one of the first choir boys to ever do so.
Growing up with such a musical grandfather obviously had its influence on Peel.
'What was really lovely about that was that he had a piano in our house and he would play for me,' she says. 'With no music, he’d just sit and play. When you’re that young I don’t think you really acknowledge that. You just think, ‘oh, there’s granda playing the piano!’ '
'When it’s in your family it’s such an influence, I just didn’t realise it until much later.'
Meandering the conversation from Peel’s musical past to her sonic present, we begin to discuss the Mix the City concept – an online interactive mixing website where Belfast’s distinct sights and sounds can be sampled in order to create unique sequences, and which will act as a live finale for Belfast’s Culture Night at City Hall on September 20. Belfast’s edition featured over 95 artists curated by Hannah herself, ranging from the Ulster Orchestra to Duke Special, and Kaidi Tatham to Una Monaghan.
It’s a global interactive platform that includes cities such as Tel Aviv, Moscow, Hamburg and Mumbai, thus encouraging interaction and discovery with not only our own musical heritage, but with that belonging to different cultures around the globe.
'Pairing the instrument with the correct space was so important to me,' she says. 'Someone actually made a noise complaint when we were playing drums down at the old Harland and Wolff cranes and we were moved on by the police, so we couldn’t use the footage. That was an experience!'
It’s the pairing of different musical cultures and the breaking down of musical stereotypes that seems to really enthuse Peel.
'I wanted to pair the Lambeg drum with, like, Indian drummers, just to show that breadth of music,' she explains, 'Using the Mulholland Grand Organ in the Ulster Hall was incredible too. One of the first things I wanted was Duke Special playing that organ with his dreads on display, and getting rid of that classical music stereotype – that you’ve got to look a certain way in order to play an organ.'
Duke Special in the Ulster Hall
The combination of such a diverse range of artists makes for the sound of contemporary Belfast. Peel cites the city of Hamburg as a key video in the Mix the City collection, with its raw spaces and dense exploration of backgrounds and heritage.
'It was something to bounce off', she says. 'There is a massive melting pot of different sounds and different artists that people don’t realise are here in Belfast. I think people can still just assume it’s going be an indie band or a rock band.'
'For me, it wasn’t about being traditional. A lot of people come to Belfast and find a home here. They become part of the scene and that was something important to show. It was about pushing a few boundaries. Of course, it hasn’t got every cultural identity in the city in there, but I definitely think it’s not too acoustic, not too Irish - it is Belfast.'
We conclude our conversation with, what else? Peel’s Emmy nominated score for Game of Thrones documentary The Last Watch.
I’m keen to learn of her creative process in creating the soundtrack. Working alongside a director with a certain vision must be much different to creating an album where the vision is entirely the artists own. Given Peel’s personal connection with much of her work – her album Awake But Always Dreaming acted as part exploration of dementia, part celebration of her grandmother’s life - was it difficult working with the creative perception of another?
'I think because it was filmed here, and the documentary was based here, there was an instant connection,' she tells me. 'It wasn’t like I was just coming in from it not knowing what the vibe was going to be like.'
'It’s my job to make the music tell a story just as the footage does. It was really nice as Jeanie [Finlay, director] let me do not just what I needed, but what I wanted. It makes such a huge difference when you’re working with a director who knows their music, like Jeanie does. All of her other films are about other musicians or record stores. It was a real pleasure to be a part of that.'
Mix the City Live will take place at Belfast’s City Hall on September 20, from 17:30 to 20:30 and is a free event. Culture NI wishes Hannah the best of luck with her Emmy nomination.