Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
From the age of 7, I was a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral, singing almost every day until I was 12. I was surrounded by music there and at home, and I think I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in music in some capacity. My interest in composition arose only slightly later, as a teenager, and then became more important to me professionally as my musical career developed and I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in the creative team for various West End productions.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Attending the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I found myself immersed in a musical environment and surrounded by talented and enthusiastic peers undoubtedly had a profound effect on my life and career decisions. (Finding myself next door to the King’s Head and spending many an hour in there with my college mates probably had an effect too, all positive of course!) Later, when I started arranging and composing in a professional capacity, I was lucky to work with some fantastic composers – in particular, Joby Talbot – which certainly inspired me and has influenced my career. Particularly in the early days, working with Joby was an amazing, steep learning curve – working on everything from television and film soundtracks to ballet scores. I learnt hard and fast but it was extremely fruitful, and working on ‘The League of Gentlemen’, ‘Psychoville’ and the Hollywood animated film ‘Sing’ with Joby are a few memorable collaborations of my career to date.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Professionally, I’ve conducted, orchestrated, played and composed. Sometimes it’s difficult to manage having a passion for many musical disciplines with the expectation that you should be a specialist in one. Often, people like to pigeon-hole artists or performers. It’s natural; we all like to place people and what they do. However, this is understandably a frustration of mine. I’ve always felt that having experience in many disciplines, and trying to be the best musician possible in all those, has helped me to grow musically and compositionally, and to improve skills and understanding which I’ve been able draw on in all my work projects.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
It’s always daunting making the first dent into a new commission, and it can take time to find a way in. You have to listen to and really understand the aims of the commission and any members of the creative team. However, once you have found that common understanding, working to a particular aim or brief and then sharing the end results with the creative team/commissioner is hugely satisfying. Some of my closest professional relationships and friendships have developed from being commissioned to write a particular piece of work.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I’ve been really lucky and privileged to have worked with some amazing musicians and orchestras over the years, not only as composer but also as an orchestrator and conductor. Each project is so different, but for me the fundamental thread that runs through them is always being so appreciative of the skill and dedication of the musicians. Without them nothing comes to life whether it’s a studio or concert environment. I remember conducting at the BBC Proms. I never imagined I would conduct in the RAH with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sir David Attenborough. He seemed just as nervous as me, which in an odd way helped me to focus.
Of which works are you most proud?
I think more recently the score I wrote for the Passing (Yr Ymadawiad) has a particular place in my heart. Producer Ed Talfan had sent me the script a year before it had started shooting and I was blown away reading it. I went to Cardiff to view the final cut and it just looked stunning. Gareth Bryn, the director was finding it tricky to put any temp music on the final scene, but it was clear to me what the music needed to do at that point. So, I raced back to my studio and wrote the final cue that night. The whole score derives from that cue, and even though pride is a sin, I have to confess I do feel proud of the end result.
I’m also proud of the music I wrote for Martin Webb’s documentary, ‘I Shot my Parents’. This was a really tricky subject to score and intuitive collaboration came into play. I would spend hours talking to Martin about the documentary and that day’s edit in the evening, and we both just knew when the music was right even though sometimes it took a while to get there.
Last year, I wrote a piece for The Docklands Sinfonia, ‘The Caretaker’s Guide to The Orchestra’. The piece is designed as an introduction to an Orchestra and is performed in collaboration with the wonderful illustrator, James Mayhew, who narrates and paints live on stage. We performed the piece to over 1,500 children who attend schools in Tower Hamlets, many of whom have never heard an orchestra or attended a classical music concert. It was an amazing experience to hear that many children screaming, clapping and yelping so enthusiastically.
Oh, and of course my new Album, 3 Point Charge. I’m very excited by this, it’s been a hugely rewarding project to undertake and the result of much of what I’ve been writing and experimenting with over the last couple of years.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
That’s tricky. Open, rhythmic, tonal but with nooks and crannies…
How do you work?
I have a studio next to my house where I have a fair bit of technology and instruments, including the piano I learnt to play on. As I have three children, time is pretty precious. I try to knuckle down when they are at school but it doesn’t always work out. More often than not, I’m working when they (and even the dog!) are sleeping. It seems like it’s the only time when there are no distractions.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Too many, but if I had to pick a few composers they must include Aaron Copland, John Adams, Michael Nyman, Sibelius, Bach and Tallis. As for performers, Wynton Marsalis playing Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto, Glenn Gould playing Bach Goldberg Variations and Nigel Kennedy playing Bach with the Berlin Philharmonic come to mind. I did the Heavy Metal/Hair Rock thing when I was in my teens, does that count?!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To be respected and to work with people that you respect, to feel proud of the work that you produce, and to be busy!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To work ever so hard, be kind-hearted and humble but have the confidence to have your sound, your voice and your identity.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In the sun! (not the newspaper!)
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A happy wife and three happy children.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you enjoy doing most?
Sitting and thinking in the sun.
What is your present state of mind?
I need some sun!
Jeremy Holland-Smith’s new album ‘3 Point Charge’ is available now on iTunes and Spotify. More information and sample tracks here
Jeremy Holland-Smith is a composer, orchestral arranger and conductor who has amassed an extensive range of work in film, television, ballet, concert hall and theatre.