Visiting Colston Hall on Friday 29 January, George Fenton guided the Philharmonia Orchestra through an epic score to accompany the BBC series Planet Earth.
George has composed for both film, television and theatre for over forty years and created the original score for the BBC Natural History series in 1990 and subsequently Blue Planet in 2001. Now, he works alongside vocalist Haley Glennie-Smith to bring the spine-tingling sounds of his compositions to audiences worldwide.
Learning to read music at an early age, he poignantly sums up his decision to follow the path of music – albeit a decision that almost happened unwittingly. A journey that he needed to pursue, for reasons that are often hidden and disguised until revealed later.
“So few people did write film music when I started, particularly in the UK. I didn’t really intend to become a film composer, I used to play for a living and I ended up writing something in the theatre which was then made into a film. I am quite grateful in a way because it meant that I was into music before I was into film music. I worked with a lot of musicians so I was able to develop my own language before I started doing films, which I think looking back, was a great privilege actually.” George explains.
“Music is constantly evolving in the way that other language doesn’t evolve at that rate.”
Part of his education came from his determined perseverance to master his technical ability, which came in many guises and forms:
“I used to play the church organ. It’s like having a synthesiser before synthesisers existed. You’ve got so much power sitting there, and I am sure that it is partly a substitute, deep down for me wanting to arrange things and hear different colours. So that was really important to me. I also studied a lot of middle eastern music quite seriously so I had this strange path, educationally.” George says.
Upon exchanging thoughts on the ways in which music has the power to move us and become a solace from the realities of the world, we agreed on the vitalness of this art form that has always, and will probably always, flow through the human race and connect cultures no matter what.
A generous spirited man, with an ear for what will enhance a visual, an intuition for the purity of the natural world and a sense of what it means to stay true to your art and your voice in a world that so often wants to dilute, confuse and deplete this sense of individuality, George Fenton has been fortunate to have received guidance in his earlier career of composing film scores from Ever After (featuring Drew Barrymore) to the recent Alan Bennett true story, The Lady in the Van. The guidance he received would enable him to fully throw caution to the wind and really explore the infinite possibilities contained within the process of musical composition.
“The biggest luck for me was the people who taught me, were all people I could call when I started, if I was really worried or stuck for reassurance.” George explains.
“You can lock on to a piece of music that reminds you of a certain person, or a certain moment.”
George learned to read music from an early age, and although he didn’t come from a particularly musical family, he did discover in his twenties that his Auntie was a pianist and his Dad’s Great Grandfather was a conductor. Yet, the reason he immersed himself so fully into his music is still somewhat unknown to George.
“I was drawn to it in a way. I liked to play music because I was quite shy and quiet, and I liked to escape into it. I could sit and plink away at the guitar and it was like I was locked out of everything. I disappeared into my music – into this funny world.” He adds.
His experience in his field has lead him to this point where he now single-handedly holds together what would seem to be a perfectly well-oiled machine, of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Touring Planet Earth both within the UK and the USA and beyond, it is that accessibility of the form of linking orchestral music to a tangible, beautiful piece of visual documentary that ultimately speaks to audiences the world over:
“The music is there to help people appreciate the film. I think that when you’re doing everything to picture, it’s so defining because it does give you a beginning an end. With film, we attach music to a moment in a film, and because of the background significance that the music has, it can move people.” George explains.
And it is his job to enhance the truth that might not always immediately come across, in the original script:
“It’s incredibly hard for film makers to go through the process of film making and still listen to their inner voice. It’s a rare privilege.” He explains.
“Firstly, in natural history the characters don’t follow a script (obviously) and secondly, they are perfect.”
Working as a composer, George has the privileged position of being able to influence and affect our emotional responses – ultimately contributing to each person’s unique history and soundtrack. A universal phenomena.
“I think that we all have innately in us, music, and I think that music is a language that we all share. It’s one of the only things that can be constantly reinvented. You can lock on to a piece of music that reminds you of a certain person, or a certain moment, and you know that that song is never going to be repeated because music has this amazing capacity to be constantly reinvented.” George explains.
George has composed o film scores for Sweet Home Alabama (2002) and Ever After (1998) which can often involve forming a ‘make-shift’ band for the purposes of the filming – a task in itself, that depends upon the cohesiveness of the musicians. Not dissimilar to conducting an orchestra of over 75 players in the Philharmonia, George sees the process as being distinct for the unique qualities affected by both the visual cues, as well as the narrative, and the characters themselves – which, incidentally, tend to be all the more complex when you’re dealing with humans as opposed to penguins:
“Sweet Home Alabama draws out my days of playing guitar, and I still do quite a lot of research – for instance, the Nashville scene. Yet when I do a score for Planet Earth, they will just read the score, and provided when I wave, they play, we’re good. But with something like Sweet Home Alabama, the pleasure and the difference is that although the players can read music, we spend two or three days not recording, and just playing – because I want them to end up feeling like they are a band. There’s a special pleasure in working with a musician where the musician is allowed to give you back more than just is written on the page.” George explains.
It is this sense of cohesion and an innate appreciation and understanding of the musicians whom George works with that feeds into the emotional core of his compositions. With an empathy for what moves people, he can bring soundscapes to an entire auditorium of complete strangers, and really alter their lives in often indefinable ways.
“Music can attach itself to certain things, events and feelings and they remain special and I think for that reason, it has a power in everybody’s life, which means that they are susceptible to that power. If you hear something you like in music it acts as the back catalogue to your brain or your heart.” George says.
Always motivated by the pure reason for depicting an honest and sensory experience for both the listener and the musician, George’s compositions have seen him working alongside Alastair Fothergill, in an enduring working relationship spanning across twenty years or more on the BBC Natural History series, beginning with Trials of Life in 1990. As well as Richard Attenborough’s films Cry Freedom and In Love and War. Always striving to tap into unchartered territory, has lead to some serendipitous moments including meeting soprano Haley Glennie-Smith who has since worked with him on pioneering musical works.
“If you hear something you like in music it acts as the back catalogue to your brain or your heart.”
“One of the features of the Planet Earth concert is the duduk – it is normally played by Martin Robertson who is really good at the duduk. But the first time I was going to do it, at the Hollywood Bowl, he couldn’t go. So I called up Haley and said ‘if I sent you this thing, could you imitate it?’ so she began imitating it, and then changed it into a vocal thing that she does. Quite a lot of the time her voice is wordless, she sings like an instrument. She is so good.” George says.
Haley Glennie-Smith has a wealth of experience singing soprano vocals including on the BAFTA and Oscar winning score by Steven Price, Gravity. Haley has also worked on soundtracks including I’m Not There (a tribute documentary to Bob Dylan, starring Cate Blanchett) and Stoned (a tribute to the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones) where Haley contributed two Robert Johnson songs to the soundtrack.
“For me, one of the loveliest parts of performing in Planet Earth in Concert is the way that my voice feels almost like another instrument nestled in with the orchestra. It’s a wonderful feeling! I can’t see the screen while performing, so I am definitely responding to the music more than visible cues from the footage. It’s been brilliant working with George. He has definitely encouraged me to push outside my comfort zone vocally.” Haley explains.
“They never disappoint you in the frame because they are so brilliant to watch.”
Inspired by Bobbi McFerrin’s ‘Circle Songs’ which are performed by around a dozen vocalists, yet without a single word being uttered, it really expanded Haley’s repertoire to consider the ways in which the human voice could be used in a whole new way. In imitating the duduk – an instrument from the woodwind group, made from apricot wood and indigenous to Armenia, Haley developed her vocal capacity and stylistic range:
“The duduk has a very haunting sound and rather than trying to sound just like it, I focus more on trying to produce the shape and nuances of the sound, and though I can’t see the screen while performing, I know the visual story that the music is accompanying.” Haley says.
Haley performs alongside the Philharmonia Orchestra, lead by George Fenton for what promises to be a euphoric and powerful transmission of the natural world and one of life’s most meaningful and evocative forms of communication — music.
“George’s music is beautiful and it is such a pleasure to contribute my voice to the soundscape. It is new every time. Our audiences give out an energy of their own and it’s always interesting to note their reactions to the different pieces. I have never looked down from a stage to an audience with such dynamic facial expressions. Because they are often focusing on the picture, they lose themselves much more than they maybe would at a concert with only music. It’s lovely to see them so absorbed!” Haley says.
Planet Earth – composed by George Fenton (conductor) and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, will be accompanied by soprano Haley Glennie-Smith for a truly unforgettable experience at Bristol’s Colston Hall on Friday 29 January.
For more information on George Fenton: www.georgefentonmusic.com
For more information on Haley Glennie-Smith: www.haleyglenniesmith.com
Tickets are now sold out, but you can catch a glimpse into this magical world below:
(With thanks to YouTube and the BBC).