Composer Alex Heffes on going solo with Sudden Light

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Alex Heffes. // Photo by AnnaMariaFotograf

Composer Alex Heffes is best known for his work with director Kevin Macdonald on films such as The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void or his Golden Globe-nominated score for Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom.

With a career stretching back over 20 years, the British musician’s filmography even encompasses action and horror, making for a selection of scores both touching and heart-pounding, especially when you factor in his early years as an assistant to composer Simon Boswell.

On Friday, May 6 SilvaScreen Records will release a collection of piano performances of Heffes’ iconic themes from cinema. Entitled Sudden Light and performed entirely by Heffes, the album features two ragtime pieces that he wrote for Kevin Wilmott’s The 24th, expanded for this album with new sections.

We spoke with Heffes via Zoom from his home in Santa Monica about his composing career and this new leap into solo work.

The Pitch: Your career over has involved working with some very varied people. You’ve done a lot of work, obviously, with Justin Chadwick and Kevin Macdonald, but you also started off your career working with composer Simon Boswell. This album is very different from what someone might expect from someone who has worked with Simon Boswell.

Alex Heffes: I know. We did the horror films and we did a movie with Elton John and we did stuff with Blur and I’ve been really lucky to work on such a wide range of stuff. That’s what I like. I’m an eclectic person. My background is quite a classical background, so I came to work on those early things with that orchestral classical background. Then I learned all of those chops from working with the bands, as well as with Simon and all those people. I guess I’m a collaborative person. I like collaborating.

I worked with Tim Burton on his movie of Sweeney Todd. I arranged some of the songs and did quite a lot of the arrangements in there, working with the amazing Sondheim score. I’ve never gone looking for collaborations. They seem to come to me.

It’s sort of crazy. I’ve been asked to travel a lot. Kevin Macdonald sent me out to Uganda–where we did Last King of Scotland –to go and record a whole bunch of stuff out there in Africa. I think people thought of me as a real expert in ethnomusicology after that. I’ve done a lot of films in in Africa and last year we did something in India–Suitable Boy with Mira Nair–but it’s more like I’m not a great traveler, but I’ve ended up doing it loads and I’m grateful for it.

It’s funny: the opportunities that come your way are not necessarily the ones that you make. You’re just there in the ether and you just go for it.

It’s very funny, hearing you say that you’re not a great traveler because one of the works we most enjoy by you is that score for Earth: One Amazing Day, which is literally global.

Incidentally, we actually had an adventure because the BBC in their wisdom sent me to China to record that score in Beijing, which was the first big orchestral score that anyone had really tried to record in Beijing because they tend to record everything in quite small groups there.

They had a huge studio. I mean, massive. So much so, we brought our engineer, Andrew Dublin from Abbey Road in London to go and record there because they’ve got this huge SSL desk and they’ve never had the whole thing turned on. They were really great that people over there–I’m not meaning to diss them–but the first thing they wanted to know when we got into the studio was, “So how does this mixing desk work?” ’cause they’d literally never used 90% of the channels on it.

We had this incredible experience recording with the symphony orchestra there and it was another wild travel adventure. I mean, I can’t complain. I guess I’m saying I do love it actually, but I’m not one of those people who’ve got itchy feet that wants to go and visit every different country in the world. It’s just that people have sent me on these musical missions, which I’m grateful for.

Silcd1686 Suddenlight CoverWhat is very exciting about your career is that you’ve done action. You’ve done documentaries. You’ve done the horror work with Simon Boswell and things of that nature. What makes Sudden Light such an interesting collection is that it covers a wide swathe of your career. How did you decide which songs you wanted to adapt–was it a case of, “I think this would be fit for piano” or was it that you wanted the challenge of adapting it for piano?

Originally, it started out not as a record, but almost as a bit of a therapy session, because I broke my left hand really badly a few years ago, to the point where I had a metal pin in my finger and I was in a cast and I really couldn’t play the piano for at least a year. It was a good year where I couldn’t use my left hand and I was never going to play again. I had just stoically written it off, as well–“That was part of my life when I could play the piano.”

Not to exaggerate, but one day I realized I hadn’t played the instrument for so long because I couldn’t and I was sitting down at it, just trying to pick up some of those tunes that we just talked about from some of the movies, just for fun. I came back the next day and I tried a little bit more and it turned into a way of me thinking about that music and trying to reimagine it on the piano with what I could do– because I couldn’t stretch.

My hand is still–it’s not perfect, but it began to work a lot better, actually. I had to adapt how I could play. After a few months, I actually found that the movement was coming back in the hands so much more than just physiotherapy or something like that, but that’s sort of how the project started, really. It was just me sitting there thinking, “Hmm, I haven’t played this instrument for so long” and “What can I do?”

It’s amazing. I got a lot of the facility back that I honestly thought I was never ever going to have again.

That’s so uplifting! Considering the music on Shining Light includes Earth: One Amazing Day, the theme for Touching the Void, and Mandela, but also a couple of ragtime pieces that you composed for The 24th, this definitely feels like an exercise in presenting what you can do, but what you can do takes on a new meaning, having heard that story.

It’s true. Once I started doing it, it dawned on me, “Oh, this could actually be a project that could be interesting to me and to other people.” The piano really speaks to people musically and it was a chance for me to think I could really connect with an audience through the piano.

It did become a bit of a challenge. It’s like, “What could I do that I have in my catalog that could be interesting.” You brought up The 24th with a fellow Kansan of yours, Kevin Wilmott. He’s a wonderful director and writer and kind. I really loved working on that film and I really wanted to include those two songs because the character in the film played the piano.

It’s set in the first world war, that time where ragtime was just coming in. They’re very, very early jazz numbers. I’m a big jazz fan, but the early roots of jazz–it’s really interesting to me, so I was definitely drawn to those kinds of pieces that I had to write for the movie that you see the character playing.

I just thought it would be really interesting. Sometimes you get to write a piece of music in a film, but you can’t quite go as far as you’d like with it because the movie then needs to go off in a different direction and do something else, so I thought what would be really fun is to take Marie’s theme and just go, “If Marie was sitting down at a piano, how would the whole piece go, rather than just the first page?”

In my head, I’m rerunning the movie and just saying, “Okay, Marie: just play me your tunes.” That became a bit of a fun challenge, to see where could those pieces of music go outside of what they needed to do in the original movie?

Shining Light is being released via SilvaScreen, who are known for putting out quite a few film and television scores–including yours. It seems like that’s another long-running relationship you have. Did you approach SilvaScreen or did they approach you about releasing this project?

Well, it is a film-related project, in the sense I’ve taken music from films, but also it’s outside of that, as well, because it’s taking the music to a broad audience and saying, “You don’t need to watch this movie. You can just listen to the music.”

I did talk to a few labels and I took the temperature of some people. I’ve got a long-standing relationship with SilvaScreen, though. Brilliant company. They’ve got such an interesting catalog and we’ve done a lot of work together. I talked to David Stone over there and I floated the idea to him and he was like, “Well, this is a bit different for us. This isn’t usually what we do, but yeah, I like it.” I love working with them and I really wanted a partner who was wanting to do it–a creative partner–so it’s been really fun.

It’s a different experience. Usually, when I do a movie score, the director comes in and listens to the music and they give feedback, whereas this is almost the other way round. I was creating something and gave it to SilvaScreen to listen to expecting them to say, “Can you change part 42,” and they’re like, “No, this is great. What can we do to help? What can we do to make your vision come to fruition?”

It’s great to have a creative partner and they were excited to record it at United Studios in Hollywood. It’s a very historical place and it’s a great sounding room. It was just perfect for me. They really wanted to support me to do it there on a fantastic piano.

Steinway have been a wonderful partner. I went and went down to the artist room of Steinway’s and they showed me their six or seven best pianos, pretty much in the country–certainly on the west coast, I would say–and they’re like, “Which one do you like?”

There was one that just jumped straight out at me and I said, “It’s gotta be this one.” They smiled and Ben at Steinway says to me, “Well, I’m not surprised. This is the one that John Williams uses on all of his films. This was on the last couple of Star Wars films. John Williams always likes this piano.”

So, we’re in good company. There’s something about it. As soon as I played on it, I was like “I know this is the one.”

You’ve played piano on some of the scores you’ve released, but was there a bit of nervousness on your part, given that this is not you playing as part of a full orchestra and being involved in a film? It’s just you and your fingers and a very nice Steinway.

It’s true. It’s a very different experience. I was a little reticent originally, partly because I was just nervous that technically my one hand would not work well enough. As I started the project, I was thinking originally, maybe a concert pianist should maybe should play this, but then, as I talked to friends and colleagues about it, they really said, “No, you need to do it. We love hearing you play.”

It’s really interesting for an audience to connect straight to the composer. It’s a way of me connecting to an audience that I don’t usually have because, as you say, I’m quite often behind the screen, writing the music, but someone else is playing. I quite often conduct, but being upfront is a different experience– and one I really like, actually. It’s a chance for me to poke my head above the parapet.

Alex Heffes’ Shining Light is out Friday, May 6, from SilvaScreen Records.

Categories: Music