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Friday, 11 April 2014

Composer Harry Escott talks about Channel 4's New Worlds

Some people have a gaydar, that goes ping! under certain circumstances. Me, I have a folkdar and it went off watching the first episode of New Worlds on Channel 4 the other day. Episode two of four was on this Tuesday, available to catch up with on 4OD.

I'd been looking forward to this series. My undergraduate degree was a lot about comparative US and British democratic theory and Last of the Mohicans, of which New Worlds reminds me a little, came out while I was working in Washington DC for a US senator, a formative period. This part of our history with its religious zealotry and high stakes seeking-after-freedom still, it seems to me, echoes in news bulletins every time a US gun nut shoots a load of people or Mitt Romney fails to be sufficiently religiously normal - ha! - to satisfy the Republican mainstream... to say nothing of the countless tiny ways in which the British remain to this day less "free" than their American cousins. (Try telling an American that they're not allowed to know how their tax dollars are spent.) I love this period of history: it contains the seeds of everything the US and Britain are today, but with proper, pioneering adventure and the danger of dying from a horrible disease at every turn (especially, unfortunately, if you are native American).

New Worlds is set in the 1680s, 20 years after the English restoration and its plot takes place on both sides of the Atlantic. There are two love stories but the dynamic of the tale is religious and political freedom, and many of the most sympathetic characters are unhappy with Charles II's monarchy. Balefully, the king's influence extends across the Atlantic, defeating the attempts of some non-conformists to start a new life - something that would eventually lead to the war of American independence.

It is visually lavish and there were intriguing musical flurries all the way through: a slightly dramatically implausible drinking song for the wig-wearing Earl of Monmouth, nice incidental music and then this, brilliantly, over the credits at the end.

The series' composer is Harry Escott, 37, whose previous work included Shame starring Michael Fassbender, by Twelve Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, the man who won all the oscars this year. And this is not something to be sniffed at given the who-you-know nature of the film industry. I asked Escott whether he'd been in the running to do the music for Twelve Years a Slave? "I wish!" he said. "No, I'm not big enough, I'm afraid. I hope to work with him again though - I think he's doing some TV stuff next, so I may get a look in."

So what did working on New Worlds involve? "I've worked with the director, Charles Martin, once before, on a mini-series called Run for Channel 4, which had Olivia Coleman in it, and this time there was a lot of involvement for me while the shooting was going on. There were a couple of scenes where there was music taking place in the action and I had to devise bits and bobs.

"There was a drinking song for the Earl of Monmouth, which was in the first episode, and then later on there is a Native American death song. The director asked me whether I could come up with something that would have been sung in the 17th century by the Abernaki people. So I set about doing some research, but there wasn't much to go on because death songs were improvised on a riff and it looked for a while as if there was no record of this riff because it was a sacred thing.

"But god bless the internet. I managed to find the tribal leader of the Abernaki people and he was very generous with his time. His name is Paul Puliot, he is Sag8mo and speaker for the Cowasuck band of the Pennacook-Abenaki people: the '8' in the name is a long, nasal oo sound. He said that the native Americans were nearly entirely wiped out on the eastern seaboard but that down in the south and west of the United States there was a lot more in the way of cultural heritage to go on.

"Puliot is an ethnomusicologist and he was able to track down a death song that dated from the late 19th century that had been recorded on a wax cylinder - and then he sang it to me down the telephone. He had rattles on his wall that he took down and played, and he gave me a lot of background. As a result I was able to go down to the set and teach the song to some extras."

Cecil Sharp eat your heart out.

"For the incidental music, the director didn't want anything particularly traditional. His main concern was that the story should emotionally connect with the viewers and he thought there was enough of a barrier with all the wigs and the the other costume drama-y stuff. So he wanted to emphasise the universal themes - the love stories and the fear of living under tyranny - and make the music a bit more current."

So what's the song over the credits?

"I wrote it... partly. In an early version of the show there were lots of shots of ravens, which were symbolic of things about to go wrong: a harbinger of doom. There were also these two big love stories and a fair bit of god involved. And I thought it might be nice to have something a bit lighter at the end, just to lift things. So I thought it would be good to find something that was originally 17th century and make it more modern.

"I was going through a book of Broadside Ballads and there was this song called Three Ravens, whose words really struck me. It was a story about three ravens sitting in a tree, asking each other 'Where should we take our breakfast?' And there's this dead knight in a field nearby, and they're considering flapping over. But he has a horse and some loyal dogs that are nearby to prevent it, and then his lover comes by and buries him, only to die herself immediately afterwards. The ravens are enormously impressed by this and so was I.

"The melody was sad, though, and kind of depressing, so I wrote a different one and added a clappy version of a hip-hop beat. It was recorded with singers from St Thomas on the Bourne church. The director really liked it but there are a lot of people involved in making TV and some of the others weren't so sure. The children of one of the executive producers said that they thought it was cool, though, so it stayed in."

This feels like a salutory tale. So how long did it take?

"The shooting was in the summer last year. And then I started to do the proper score early in January this year and went in to lockdown mode. I find it difficult to work on more than one thing at a time because I get very emotionally engaged and become immersed in these things. I was seeing the dailies as they came out and it's my job to get engaged with the characters and their concerns.

"Musically there were two separate worlds: the English world, which was more harmonically complex and poshly orchestrated. And then when the drama moves to America there are more drones and tones and I tried to incorporate a kind of Appalachian folky sound. But the Englishness did seep across the Atlantic - that's a big part of the story - and Abe, the English outlaw, (below, played by Jamie Dornan who is shortly to star in the movie of Mumsnet's favourite book, 50 Shades of Grey) has a rock and roll thing going on with electric guitar sounds because, well, he's rock and roll."

So how did you get into this line of work?

"I went to the Royal College of Music for a year and studied music at Oxford. Then I spent many years doing lots of strange things, which is probably par for the course. My big break was meeting a girl called Molly Nyman, who is the daughter of a composer called Michael Nyman. In 2004 he was offered a film called Hard Candy to score and he couldn't take the work, so he offered it to his daughter. Molly wasn't comfortable doing it on her own, so she asked me to help. I'd done some music for TV and documentaries by that stage, so I had a little experience."

Escott is also, it turns out, a cellist in band beloved of Ben Eshmade at Daylight Music, called the North Sea Radio Orchestra and the next film he's working on is called Face of an Angel for Michael Winterbottom.

* New Worlds is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 9pm and available here on catch up.

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