Interview with composer Debbie Wiseman

Debbie Wiseman (c) Michael Leckie

Image credit: Michael Leckie for the Sunday Times

Have you ever listened to a music album obsessively on repeat? I am normally a fussy listener, taking advantage of the ability to pick and choose tracks in the digital age. Last weekend, however, I found myself captivated by the Debbie Wiseman’s soundtrack to the BBC series Wolf Hall. Its music is highly original: urgent and timeless at the same time, mixing traditional Tudor era instruments with the drama one would expect from a contemporary TV series. The soundtrack, released in March 2015,  went straight to #1 on Classic FM, staying in the top ten for weeks thereafter.

I have been dying to interview Debbie Wiseman MBE ever since I had listened to her interview with Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. Debbie is one of Britain’s most successful classical musicians, composing, conducting, teaching and presenting music. Her music credentials in film and TV include Wolf Hall, Flood, Jekyll, Father Brown, Haunted, Land Girls, to name a few of her 200+ music scores, composed over the last 20 years. In 2004 Debbie was honoured with an MBE for services to the music and film industry. She has been awarded Honorary Fellowships at both colleges where she studied, Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

With such a diverse portfolio of works and roles, I asked Debbie: “What brings you most joy?”

“Writing, sitting at my piano, finding an idea and then exploring it until the magical moment when it feels just right – that’s priceless. Of course, it’s not always easy, but the sheer love of writing music means I enjoy every step of the process.”

While writing is typically a solitary process, the collaborative nature of composing music for TV attracted Debbie to film and TV projects. It’s a different experience working together with the director, the editor, executive producers and sound mixers. For a creative person, it helps a lot to be able to ask someone you trust: “What do you think?”

BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was Debbie’s sixth collaboration project with BAFTA Award winning director Peter Kosminsky. Normally, TV deadlines are tight and you only get 3-4 weeks to get the score ready. With Wolf Hall, Debbie had a lot more time to experiment and try things out. In fact, she wrote a couple of pieces before Kosminsky started filming. The director had the music playing on his mind from the first day of shooting. Then Debbie wrote music for the specific scenes, feeding off first rushes. They spent a year working together to produce the series and the music to the public and critical acclaim.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Be brave, be positive, be tenacious. Look after yourself and everybody around you. Once you find that special something that you love doing, all other questions fade away, and everything else falls into place. [By the age of 15, Debbie already knew that she’d wanted to be a musician and was becoming interested in composition.]

What are you good at? Creating something from nothing: time and time again I come up with something that previously didn’t exist. On the other hand, I am not very good at practical things:  shopping, cooking, directions… Luckily, my husband is very good at the day-to-day stuff!

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? I’d still not attempt to cook! The possibility of failure is actually a good thing: it drives you to do your best.

What is your greatest achievement? The ability to do the job that I love.

Who inspires you? Many people have been inspirational to me in life: my mother, my Dad, my composition teacher… I am always inspired by the films that I work on.

Currently, Debbie is working on the score for a new 10-part drama series called The Coroner for the BBC and also the series 4 of the BBC’s Father Brown drama series, starring Mark Williams.

Wolf Hall is available on iTunes or from Amazon. For Debbie Wiseman’s full discography, please visit her website.

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