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Composer Interview - Nigel Westlake



My name is… Nigel Westlake.

I'm aged... 60 (….although about 23 in my mind)

I work from... home.

I've been composing for screen... (on & off) for about 35 years.

I began... dabbling with composition in my mid teens. As a composer I am mostly self taught, however I have been fortunate enough to receive mentorship from a number of composers who’s work I admire such as Richard Gill, Peter Sculthorpe, Richard Meale, Richard Mills, Bill Motzing and Theo Leovendie (Holland). 

In 1980 I was one of 8 composers selected for the first ever “Music in Film” trial course at AFTRS.

The 6 week course involved a single assignment – to score a 10 minute film called “The Bus Trip” by Karl Zwicky. My tutor, Bill Motzing was an inspirational person, and a highly skilled composer, conductor & arranger.

It was pre-computer days, so Bill taught me how to prepare the click track using “Project Tempo”, a massive book of information providing a reference to metronome markings, frames, clicks, click numbers and tenths of seconds for timing purposes.

Bill conducted the session, an ensemble of 10 players or so.

On the final day of the course, the 8 students and tutors gathered to watch “The Bust Trip” 8 times with 8 completely different scores. Needless to say, it was a revelation to see how the film was dramatically altered by each score.

James McCarthy (head of music / Film Australia) was at the screening that day and subsequently offered me the chance to score a string of documentaries over the next few years. It was my first “break.”

Something people don't know about me is... that I was expelled from the school choir in 4th class for failing my maths test. [….obviously scarred for life.]

My musical journey began... at age 11 when I started learning the clarinet from my father. I had planned to follow my dad into the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (where he held the principal clarinet position for some 18 years), and at age 16, I began to pick up freelance gigs as a classical clarinetist, working with ballet orchestras, film recording sessions, a circus band, and symphony orchestras.

In the early 80’s I formed a jazz/classical/ ethno/fusion band called The Magic Puddin Band which served as an outlet for my novice composing attempts.

I continued playing clarinet professionally & picking up writing commissions until the early 90’s, by which time my composing career was beginning to pick up momentum. Even though I had a fantastic position playing & touring with the Australia Ensemble (resident at UNSW) It became increasingly difficult to keep up my clarinet “chops” once I began scoring features, so the horn went back in the box & (sadly) has not seen the light of day since!

These days I don’t play, but love to conduct my own work in concert, which has been happening more frequently in the last 10 years.

I'm best known for... my scores to Babe / Miss Potter / Paper Planes.

[To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Babe, I recently re-orchestrated the score for live performance with film. I’ve conducted this concert version of the score a number of times with various orchestras including the SSO, MSO, TSO, RTE (Ireland) and also the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Centre in 2016.]

A score I'm proud of but received little recognition is... Solarmax, (2000) an Imax documentary about the sun for director John Weiley.

John gave me my first big break on his Imax movie Antarctica in the early 90’s. It was a massive leap of faith on his part, as I had only had prior experience scoring small budget docos and some little known features, but it lead to a life long friendship plus 4 Imax movies and one TV doco together.

John is an inspirational visionary who has a deep passion for music and loves to push boundaries.

A typical spotting session might go something like this –

Me “So John, what sort of music would you like for this scene?” John –“I’d like you to write music the likes of which no one has ever heard before!” Me – …..silence……total intimidation……

I'm grateful to John for regularly pushing me out of my comfort zone.

The score I wish I wrote is... anything by John Williams. I've heard directors criticize his work for being predictable and old fashioned, but very few composers seem to be able to hit the melodic sweet spot like he can.

His themes are iconic and his scores play such a crucial role in defining the identity of the film and the tone of the narrative, that it would be nigh impossible to imagine a film without them.

I once played the interval of a perfect fourth to a room full of 300 schoolkids and asked them to identify what film it came from. They all yelled out in unison “Harry Potter”.  There aren’t too many composers who could elicit such a response.

If I wasn't me, the composer I'd love to be is... Dmitri Shostakovich. Such astonishing invention and such a prolific output. His 8th string quartet, a work of immense genius, was written in just 3 days.

My composing style is... traditional symphonic (usually with an abundance of percussion). Most of my early films were orchestral, and like actors, I guess composers tend to get typecast.

My favorite sample libraries are... Spitfire. They are a bit eccentric and have character, although I’m not too obsessed with sample libraries as I always replace demos with real instruments.

My must have plugin is... Altiverb. My boyhood years as a chorister in the sumptuous acoustic of St James Church, Sydney instilled in me a love of big reverberant spaces.

My most memorable recording experience was... recording Miss Potter at Angel Studios in London.

At 10AM the engineer opened up the faders and hit “record.” From the very first downbeat every take was gold, the standard of playing was breathtaking, the recorded sound so warm and detailed.

Important to keep in mind that those guys are recording massive scores every day of the week, which of course is very different to the way it works here. We mixed at Air Edel and Air Lyndhurst, [which has to be one of the world’s truly great orchestral rooms.]

One other particularly memorable experience was recording Ali’s Wedding in 2017 at Trackdown with the SSO.  It was the perfect trifecta of:

1. Great director (Jeff Walker) 2. Dream producers (Helen Pankhurst & Sheila Jayadev from Matchbox) and 3. Great story.

The orchestra were on fire and the whole crew blissfully excited hearing it all come together.

The sessions were produced by the incredible Jessica Wells, who also assisted with orchestration (along with much other stuff as well).

Jessica’s reputation as one of the most talented composers / arrangers in the business is extremely well deserved. I’m yet to discover something she cant do.

All my scores seem to feature... Harp. I cant play it at all, and Im not sure why, but its an instrument that I gravitate to frequently. We are blessed to have some amazing harp players in Australia. [Louis Johnson, Yinuo Mu, Alice Giles to mention a few that I have worked with.]

My workflow is typically... in the studio by 7AM (or earlier depending on the impending deadline), & work until the river has run dry. Physical activity is important to break up the long sedentary hours…..bike riding, walking, gym etc.

I compose using... Sibelius for notation and Digital Performer for sequencing demos.

My screen composing income is supplemented by... APRA, without whom I could never survive as a full time composer. Conducting my own works in concert and fulfilling symphony and chamber music commissions is also an important source of income these days.

The person that helped me get to where I am now is... my wife Janice.

I am very blessed to have such an amazingly supportive, understanding, helpful, tolerant and wise partner. She is a demon critic and also looks after publishing the catalogue and attending to contracts, amongst many other things.

If I wasn't a screen composer I'd probably be a…. I dread to think....maybe a National parks ranger? I love the great outdoors.

The thing I love about my job is... the challenge. I get bored easily.

The thing I dislike about my job is... when I cant access “the zone” (i.e. creative block).

My favourite piece of technology are... loudspeakers. How is it that a cone of cardboard can sound so good?

My favourite piece of non filmscore music is... The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. In the stroke(s) of a pen, Stravinsky re-wrote the orchestration text book, re-defined the symphony orchestra, changed the course of western music and defined a new language that to this day remains a touchstone and an inspiration for composers around the globe. Over 100 years later it still sounds so visceral & fresh.

My favourite film is... Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) based on the life of the French baroque composer and viol player Marin Marais. The score (mostly featuring the beautiful works of Marais) was performed by the brilliant Jordy Savall and his baroque ensemble Hespèrion XX. Those guys are seriously funky!

To relax I... go walking, preferably in the forest.

A day wouldn't be complete without... coffee…..at least 3 before 10 AM.

The last concert I went to was... the Sydney Symphony 2019 Gala season launch.

My oboe concerto Spirit of the Wild was included in the program featuring the prodigious talents of oboist Diana Doherty who played the whole thing from memory. An incredible joy to hear ones work played with such energy and commitment.

A book that resonated with me was... No Minor Chords – My Life in Hollywood by the late Andre Previn, because every film composer should read it!

A message to my fellow composers would be... that I feel very privileged to be working in such a colorful and creative community that engenders such goodwill and collegiality.

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