In the run up to The Magic of Christmas 2013, Hannah Nepil interviews composer and conductor Debbie Wiseman.
One perk of being a film and TV composer, says Debbie Wiseman, is getting to ‘keep it fresh’. This year alone she has delved into the music of the fifties for the TV series Father Brown, composed seafaring melodies for a new BBC film called The Whale, and juggled Welsh musical influences with echoes of New York jazz for a film about Dylan Thomas. A glance at her CV reveals music credits ranging from the 1997 film Wilde, about the well-known playwright, to the TV series Land Girls, in which she harked back to the nostalgic songs of the First World War period.
So how did she make it? Wiseman, 50, decided on her career path after studying piano and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. ‘My natural composing style is quite melodic, and I thought the best place for that was in film or TV, where there always seems to be some sort of melody or theme,’ she says. Then it was a case of ‘being persistent, getting directors and production companies to listen to the music, and gaining their trust’.
Now that she has it, directors will give her their general vision for the music, whether ‘haunting’, or ‘magical’, but the rest is up to her. ‘I watch the film over and over again, without any music on at all. And then I start to improvise at the piano,’ she says. Luckily, ‘you’ve got a lot to steer you: the location, the drama, the characters, the story and the period that it’s set in’.
She conducts her own scores in recording sessions and concerts, often working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This December, for example, she will conduct the RPO at Cadogan Hall in a concert in aid of Breast Cancer Campaign, featuring Christmas classics such as Sleigh Ride and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, alongside three of her own world premières: a piece entitled The Christmas Party, based on a story by the author and actor George Layton, an orchestral suite from Father Brown, and a piece inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.
Wiseman, however, never used to consider herself a conductor. Although she had some conducting lessons at conservatoire, they were few and far between. ‘Conducting for me grew out of necessity,’ she says. ‘I’m best placed to conduct my music because nobody else knows it as well as I do.’ Although it was daunting at first, she says that by now, ‘conducting is the treat at the end of a really long writing process’.
What makes the RPO so suitable for recording her music, in her opinion, is the players’ uncanny knack for reading music quickly and accurately – a godsend when you’re on a tight recording schedule. Plus, they respond well to the ‘click track’ – the metronome in their headphones that keeps them in time with key points in the film. ‘That’s a skill that a lot of musicians find very difficult to start with, because it’s so unnatural,’ says Wiseman, ‘playing in concert is much less rigid than playing in a studio, where every note is examined and under the microscope.’
Such call for precision can be stressful for the musicians. But Wiseman tries to avoid frayed tempers in recording sessions. ‘If you’re not relaxed and confident as the conductor, how can you expect the musicians to be? We are there to do a job, but if you get the mix right, then you get the best result,’ she says.
Debbie Wiseman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra present ‘The Magic of Christmas’ for Breast Cancer Campaign at Cadogan Hall on Sunday 8th December, 3.30pm.