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Inside the Music: Interview with George Fenton

Ahead of Friday’s Planet Earth In Concert, Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy caught up with composer and conductor for the series and concert, George Fenton, to find out about the inspirations behind his music, the process of writing music for a documentary, and what concert-goers can expect from Friday’s show…

George Fenton is one of today’s most prolific television and film composers. His extensive filmography includes the soundtracks for Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Shadowlands, Dangerous Liasons, Memphis Belle as well as, more recently, The Lady in the Van. Fenton’s work with BBC Wildlife has stretched over more than a quarter of a century, his music adding drama and emotion to dozens of programmes, culminating in the Earth Trilogy: The Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.

What can the audience expect from Planet Earth in Concert?

They can certainly expect a much more immersive evening than what they might have experienced on television – there isn’t any commentary, so you can listen to the orchestra or watch the pictures – or both – and respond to it all in your own way. There’s an extra dimension, too, because of the live music and the shared experience; you’re in a concert hall with hundreds of others which is obviously very different to watching it at home! And let’s not forget the wonderful Philharmonia Orchestra who, in my view, are among the top three orchestras, if not the best, in the country.

Throughout the concert, I’ll briefly introduce pieces we’re going to play and give the bare minimum of information. The film sequences we use aren’t the same as the television programme – they’ve been re-cut to make much more of a narrative, so Planet Earth is about the movement of the sun and its effect on our world and, of course, the Earth’s relationship with wildlife.

The idea of watching the natural world accompanied by a symphony orchestra is, at first glance, quite unusual, isn’t it?

I think music is a universal language for us – everyone understands it. It makes you see with your ears as well as with your eyes and I think the energy that the orchestra brings to the images above them is an endorsement of the status of those images. Music here replaces commentary, so that you don’t have to be told you’re looking at the driest desert or the highest mountain or biggest flock of birds – the music portrays that for you. But yes, I agree, it’s a paradox: there’s the natural world up on a screen, and sitting beneath it is one of the most sophisticated, artificial things you could imagine!

How do you synchronise the music with the film?

It’s a very precise process, but I have the advantage of having a five-star orchestra in front of me, so it would slightly defeat the object of the exercise if they all listened to a click track on headphones [which plays a beat to each player]. So I just conduct it like an old-fashioned film session with a screen in front of me. The screen has lines travelling across it that tell me where salient points in the film are so I can time the music to the action. But there aren’t so many cues that the orchestra has to play mechanically.

How do you portray animals in your music?

I’ve never consciously thought of animals’ characteristics as an abstract thing. The advantage of writing film music is that the character of the animal you’re writing about is decided by the camera and, to a degree, the editing of the film. So if a shark is meant to be threatening, it’ll be filmed and cut it so it looks threatening. So it’s not my responsibility alone to portray its character. Of course, there are certain groups of instruments you wouldn’t associate with an elephant, particularly lighter sounds, but they can be so graceful. There is a sequence with elephants and their babies but really it’s just about mother and child. My approach is more about that than about elephants as such.

Have you and the series producer ever disagreed about the music?

Sometimes it’s possible to get it completely wrong! When I first started, I knew nothing about natural history and quite often I’d write some music before they’d done any commentary, so my understanding of what was going on wasn’t necessarily quite right. Planet Earth’s producer Alastair Fothergill isn’t a musician, but he’s quite musical and has strong opinions, so I look to him to endorse what I do. When I’ve composed the music for a film and Alastair has actually been to the location, in the water with the killer whale, and says ‘you’ve absolutely caught that’, I feel I’ve done it justice. It’s been a happy collaboration.

Finally, what advice would you give to budding film and television composers?

It’s very hard now because there’s so much competition. I always say that music came before film – in the beginning, film makers wanted music for their films – they didn’t want film music. If you look at the history of successful film composers, in any area, including Henry Mancini, Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Hans Zimmer, John Williams – they all came from the position of having done what they liked in music and they brought that to film. If you can find your own taste and develop your own taste and style of music and bring that to film, you’re instantly more interesting, rather than someone who’s trying to ape what they last heard on film. Your own music is always going to be your friend. The only other thing is to practise – collaborate with a band, with someone’s art installation, write music for a theatre show; making your music practical – that’s the thing.

Words: Oliver Condy

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