Jocelyn Pook in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

I met Jocelyn Pook over a coffee. Sat across from me is one of the UK’s most refreshing and versatile composers – Pook has worked on scores for the stage, the screen, the opera house and the concert hall. Since graduating from Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1983, Pook has embarked on a dizzying career, collaborating with an eclectic range of musicians, directors, writers and institutions. Pook is often remembered for constructing the film score for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; her contributions earning her a Chicago Film Award and a Golden Globe nomination. Pook also wrote the film score for Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino.Her contributions to cinema also expand to working on Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and more recently, Sarah Gavron’s adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane.

The versatility of Pook’s talents has ensured that she has also flourished in other fields of the performing arts. Her first opera Ingerland was commissioned and produced by ROH2 for the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in June 2010. A commission from the BBC Proms and the King’s Singers propelled Pook towards collaborating with poet laureate Andrew Motion on Mobile. Her experimental work, Portraits from Absentia received a great deal of critical acclaim after airing on Radio 3. The work was a collage of sound, music, words and voices woven from messages left on her answerphone.

Pook won an Olivier Award for the National Theatre’s production of St Joan, and for her music-theatre piece Speaking in Tunes she won a British Composer Award. She won a second British Composer Award for her soundtrack to DESH, which accompanies Akram Khan’s dance production of the same name. Pook has also composed scores for television shows and commercials, and was nominated for a BAFTA for Channel 4’s The Government Inspector (Dir: Peter Kosminsky).

In 2014 Pook composed the score for a new dance piece Lest We Forget choreographed by Akram Khan for English National Ballet to mark the centenary of the First World War, as well as the score for King Charles III, a new play by Mike Barlett being performed eat Wyndham’s Theatre, London.   Both Lest We Forget and King Charles III won Sky Arts Awards in 2015 for their productions.

Pook’s schedule remains hectic and we are grateful she has squeezed us in for a coffee and a chat as we explore music, cinema, the stage and her dazzling career thus far.

RJ: Jocelyn, it’s a pleasure to meet you. You composed for films, stage, opera houses; you’ve composed an opera yourself. What is the difference in approaching each medium?

JP: It’s such a hard question. In a way, what I would say is that every project is different, whether they’re in different or similar mediums. Of course there are differences between the mediums and it’s so dependent on what kind of role the music plays in a piece, what sort of voice it has. A lot of theatre I’ve done has been quite filmic, actually. My early experiences were in experimental theatre and it was often very visual. My work in theatre provided very good grounding for my work in films.

Something like Charles III is a very text-based piece, a brilliant play, but the music has a slightly different role to, say, physical theatre, where I did most of my original work. I did the music for the film version of The Merchant of Venice, and in a way there was more of a connection to that. When Mike Bradford, the director, was shooting that film, there was music in vision – you know, there was music being performed in the scenes. So I had to prepare the music for those scenes.

She explains how she prepares for her work:

I think firstly you need to simply absorb the piece—the play, or whatever medium it is. It’s really about that first, and I don’t think of anything else until I absorb it, and talk to the director and try to understand his or her vision, and really immerse myself in the ideas. Then you respond; from there, you have to respond musically. It’s always a to-ing and fro-ing of trial and error.

She adds: ‘ I think we work quite intuitively actually. So that’s why I said that I absorb myself in the ideas of the piece, and work quite intuitively in terms of producing musical ideas. There was also some clear guidance in terms some of these being, scenes that involved choral singing; and I really enjoyed that.

RJ: Is it intimidating working with famous directors?

JP: Yeah! I mean, my God, can you imagine when Kubrick rang me up, I hadn’t even done a film score before and so I was really thrown in the deep end.

RJ: He approached you?

JP: Yeah, because he heard a piece of mine on an album. A choreographer had my album, and she played it in a rehearsal. He’d seen her work on a late night “dance on camera” programme on television, and he hired her to choreograph that masked ball scene. She’s called Yolande Snaith, and she had my CD. For the rehearsal she was playing it, and it had this particular track, he walked in and immediately he rang me. It was really out of the blue. I would have thought someone was joking—but I was warned he was going to call by his assistant. Luckily it was in stages, because it would have been too much. When he first hired me, it was just for that masked ball scene, originally; then I got to do the rest of the original music later on, much later on. So it was in stages. It was still very daunting. As I got more experience, I am not as quite filled with terror, but it was really daunting for that particular experience.

RJ: Then you did The Merchant of Venice?

JP: Yeah.

RJ: Was that daunting?

JP: I had quite a bit of experience by the time I did Merchant of Venice. I had done a lot of film work after Eyes Wide Shut.

RJ: You said that every project is different, whether it’s a film or a play. How did you, for instance, approach Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut?

JP: What was great was that Kubrick was so bold with the way he foregrounded the music, it was so unusual. That’s why it was so memorable. A lot of people would just tone it down even if they did use something like that. It’s very refreshing the way he uses music.

RJ: Do you think Kubrick’s use of music as a foreground rather than a background enhances the dramatic tension in the film?

JP: I think it’s that he acknowledges just how important music is, and the power of music. He was passionate about music, and very knowledgeable actually. It really came to life when I was talking to him about it. So my experience with working with him was really lovely—he always had the time to talk about music, and to talk to the musicians. So I think it’s just that: the understanding of music’s power and enjoying playing with music. He’s one of the rare film directors who actually shoot to the music; I think a lot of The Shining was shot to the music. And obviously that masked ball scene was shot to music. Other scenes were edited to music; that often has a priority. He’s going with the rhythm of the music and he’s editing to it. It’s a dialogue.

RJ: So the music becomes an inseparable part of the unfolding drama?

JP: Sometimes, yeah, he’s allowing it, and he’s playing with it. A lot of the time you get a film composer brought on at the last minute; you get the final edits—or the rough cuts, more or less—and you’ve literally got to slot in two minutes here, one minute there. It’s very perfunctory. So it’s really nice when you get a chance to really affect the film, and have a dialogue and collaborate.

RJ: You have a dialogue with the actual events that unfold on the screen?

JP: Yeah, and with the director. One of the best experiences of collaborative work I’ve had with a filmmaker was an experimental film called Blight. It was actually conceived and commissioned as a music film. What was lovely about it was that we both worked so closely that we both affected each other’s work. It sent my music off into unexpected directions.

RJ: Do you discuss with the director what sort of music you would want, or do you just read the text and say “This is what I have in my head, how does it work”?

JP: It’s both. Yeah, you come with some ideas, and they’ll also talk about ideas. For King Charles III, Rupert had some very strong ideas about the kind of music he wanted, and that’s (in a way) why he brought me in because he thought my music and musical voice would definitely lend itself to this production. A lot of directors come to me because of my work rather than expecting me to be a pastiche composer, which I’m not very good at. I’m much better when it’s more subconscious.

RJ: In a creative way?

JP: Yeah. For King Charles III he definitely felt it had to have resonances of British history and monarchy, of this incredible regal and torrid kind of history we’ve got. It’s set in the near future as well so it’s more or less contemporary, and needed to have contemporary and historical resonances going on. That was one thing, and I kind of immediately connected with that and was excited about that. What was also exciting about King Charles III was that there was going to be live musicians and singers. I wasn’t sure how strong the cast would be, but the original cast had really strong singers. It was almost like having a ready made choir. After we had our first rehearsal and after messing around with some vocal ideas, I really thought, “Wow, this is a really good choir!” I mean, a lot of actors are really good singers, but not always.

RJ: when did you decide you wanted to be a composer? Was it a gradual process of flirtation with the idea?

JP: Yeah, it was gradual. I had dabbled in it as a child. I think it’s that confidence thing. It wasn’t that it was gender; I think it was the person I was. I thought, “Composing isn’t for the likes for me; it’s for virtuoso pianists, and that confident person who’s going to become a conductor” So I went away from it. But I had been interested in it before. When I started working in a theatre company—an experimental, brilliant company called Impact Theatre Company, which really opened my eyes to a lot of stuff that was happening in new music. I hadn’t even heard of Phillip Glass and minimalism and systems music when I left Guildhall. It just wasn’t something that was talked about there at that time. Then I worked in this theatre company and it was actually a really good education, with a lot of stuff that I was introduced to musically, as well as theatrically, like Pina Bausch, Jan Farbe. I was very involved with this theatre company for quite a number of years, then gradually started to get some composing opportunities through little contacts; just small things at first—so it was a gradual thing.

RJ: What was the first piece you composed that was performed?

JP: Well, I did a video for a friend’s art video. I did some pieces for Lancaster University because my then-boyfriend was working there at the theatre department, and I composed for student productions and was able to use resources from the music department, so I got a lot of experience there. Then I was working with some small experimental theatre companies as a composer rather than player.

RJ: So you never really studied to be a composer in a formal way?

JP: No, no.

RJ: Is it a recipe you would recommend?

JP: It worked for me, yeah. I am still learning though. More recently I’ve had commissions with orchestras—English National Ballet and BBC Concert Orchestra. And that’s really challenging for me, so I’m learning all the time. I’ve done a lot of orchestration in my film work, but not full symphony orchestra usually. I’m very at home with strings, and maybe with woodwinds. So yeah, I’m always learning, but that’s quite a good thing, I think.

RJ: Would you say that your training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama provided you with good grounding for your work?

JP: Yeah, I would. I had really inspiring teachers, and it’s always about music. It’s a really good grounding in music education. I think you have to have that before you can take off into something else. It’s definitely good to have gone through that.

RJ: what advice would you give young students who don’t know really where to go from being a professional violinist, cellist or oboist?

JP: There are some courses, for instance in film music writing at the National Film School, and at most of the colleges there are courses. At Guildhall, there are a variety of courses in different forms of music making.

RJ: And, we’ve just learned that schools are not the best recipes for being creative composers!

JP: Well, but I also came from a different time.

RJ: So you think today’s teaching is very different from what you had?

JP: I think there’s more openness to exploring different areas of music now as a player, to improvising and composing. Whereas it was really discouraged in the 80s and when I was learning as a child; I remember my teacher catching me playing by ear before she came into the room, and she really scolded me, because she was worried I was going to go that way. You know, now my daughter’s learning the violin and she’s encouraged to play by ear, and on the piano she’s encouraged to improvise. It’s a very different climate now for music. It’s very hard to give advice, but perseverance is the main thing.

RJ Thank you so much for coming along at such a short notice. It is a great pleasure meeting you and listening to your exquisite compositions that tease out brilliantly the mood in King Charles III, now staged at The Music Box Theater, on Broadway.