Interview: Composer Joby Talbot

Jobi Talbot ,Potrait,2011, Credit: Johan Persson/

When the curtain rises on the latest Australian Ballet production this month, audiences expecting the comforts of Mozart or Tchaikovsky will instead be assaulted with shuddering screeches of violins, angry bleats of brass, and monstrous thudding bass.

Chroma, originally created by choreographer Wayne McGregor for London’s Royal Ballet, opens with a blistering track by Detroit rock duo The White Stripes, as interpreted by composer Joby Talbot. Three songs in the Chroma score (‘Aluminium’, ‘Blue Orchid’ and ‘The Hardest Button to Button’) are takenfrom Aluminium,a full album of Talbot’s White Stripes arrangements. Aluminium excels where the majority of orchestral rock makeovers fail dismally: in conveying the visceral energy of the original. (Frontman Jack White’s reaction upon hearing the music the first time: “This is badass!”)

“They’re more than arrangements,” Talbot says. “I call them reimaginings. What we wanted to do was far from taking the obvious route of orchestral rock songs, where you’re kind of taking the rough edges of it, making it nice and schmaltzy. We wanted to take everything that’s rough, and abrasive, and difficult in the original, and amplify that using the whole palette of the orchestra.

“So yes, the beginning of Chroma will be a marked contrast to the Tchaikovsky.”

Aluminium was premiered by a small orchestra at a secret gig in an underground car park in London’s SoHo with White’s latest band thrashing their instruments alongside. The orchestra held its own.

The tension between rock and orchestra is exactly the sort of thrilling musical contradiction Talbot lives for. In his career as a composer, he has written as extensively for the concert hall as he has for film, television and the stage. He’s a former rock star now at work on his first opera, a respected classical composer who once had a bestselling mobile phone ringtone.

Despite not coming from a musical family, Talbot developed a voracious musical appetite from a young age. He was equally obsessed with Stravinsky, Sibelius and ’70s American funk and also had a weakness for the pretensions of prog rock. “It’s not like I had a completely undiscriminating taste,” Talbot says, “but I certainly was finding things to love in all different kinds of music. When I sit to write a piece of music now, all those things come in to play.”

Without knowing it, Talbot began composing by age nine. “I was just making stuff up on the piano because it was more fun than practising the dull stuff my piano teacher gave me – or scales, worse still.”

He played bass guitar – poorly, he admits – in his high school concert band, and the oboe in any orchestra or wood band that would have him.

He was also writing songs for a band of his own – an ungainly bunch with too many guitarists and lots of mediocre singers. “Even though the band was appalling, I learnt how to write for it very quickly. Before I knew it was writing for my friends in orchestras.”

Though he was taking science subjects and had a vague interest in becoming a marine biologist, Talbot’s passion for music led him to study composition at the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. It was in the mid-’90s, during his postgraduate composition degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, that Talbot met baritone-voiced singer-songwriter Neil Hannon. He joined Hannon’s band, The Divine Comedy, as pianist and occasional oboist but, more importantly, as arranger and conductor.

The lovechild of Morrissey and Electric Light Orchestra, The Divine Comedy was a big player in ’90s Britpop. Talbot’s contribution was crucial: songs were draped in lush strings, or else erupted into majestic mini-symphonies that ventured far beyond the frontiers of pop-rock. The band’s biggest LP, 1996’s Casanova, builds to a finale worthy of Puccini.

Talbot downplays his role in the band – “Mostly it was Neil Hannon’s show and I was his right hand man, musical director” – but it was a musical partnership that lasted, on and off, for nearly a decade.

“It was great travelling around the world. One minute I was driving around south London teaching recorder in primary schools, the next minute I was in Europe playing festivals and having a whale of a time.

“And it taught me an awful lot about music making. Doing the arrangements for Neil, I was really learning a lot from his songwriting craft, finding out how different musical elements could relate to one another. Looking back at it now, it was the best school for learning more about music really.”

When Talbot started getting approached for large-scale classical commissions, he realised he needed to do some reprioritising.

“I’d be sat at the back of the tour bus, trying to ignore the sound check, trying to write. Periodically people would come in with girls on their arms or a bottle of wine or whatever, having a good old time, and see me squiggling little dots over humongous sheets of manuscript paper.

“That went on for some time and it was very inspiring and exciting. But after a while I realised that I was having to turn away so much stuff of my own to work on somebody else’s project and, however much fun it was, it had to end. And that’s when I left.”

In the following years, Talbot wrote and conducted string arrangements for Paul McCartney, Travis, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Air. But even before leaving The Divine Comedy, he was busy building his credentials outside of popular music.

After premiering his first major orchestral work, Luminescence, with the BBC Philharmonic in 1997, Talbot went on to compose works for choir, orchestra, piano, percussion and saxophone quartet alike, including three commissions for the BBC Proms: the madrigal The Wishing Tree for The Kings’ Singers, Sneaker Wave for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and an arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor.

In the meantime, he also began a successful association with television and film. His comically sinister and wildly popular theme for BBC comedy-horror series The League of Gentlemen was followed by projects for the British Film Institute, scoring Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger and the Evgeny Bauer ballet film The Dying Swan.

Then, in 2005, Talbot composed the first of many feature film soundtracks, for the movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was a gigantic undertaking that called for, among other things, space station cocktail music, a frothy Busby Berkeley-style dance number (‘So Long and Thanks for All the Fish’) and the electronic muzak of the eponymous device itself.

But Talbot’s orchestral score for the film was especially remarkable, not least for its sincerity. The scene in which a whale plummets through the atmosphere – one of the memorable moments from Adams’ original – was given an unexpectedly tender waltz. Amid the absurdity, and whatever the merits of the movie, Talbot’s score conveyed genuine heartfelt wonder at the cosmos.

Part of Talbot’s suitability composing for television and film is his skill at creating sound pictures – an uncanny ability to express immense and complex ideas in accessible musical terms. His music has described water in its various states (Sneaker Wave evokes a wave that absorbs the energy of smaller waves), the effects of global warming (in National Geographic’s feature documentary Arctic Tale) and the ideas of Charles Darwin (in Genus for the Paris Opera Ballet). And, for the Philharmonia Orchestra, Talbot returned to the outer reaches of space, continuing Holst’s musical journey into the universe with a companion piece to The Planets.

Much of Talbot’s musical inspiration is rooted in the scientific fascinations of his younger days. “I’ve often thought if I was going to write a sea symphony I wouldn’t want to write it about all the boats on all the seas of the world – I’d want to write it about a drop of water. There’s something so lovely and clear and beautiful about those kinds of scientific processes: the idea of ice crystal forming, or the first trickle of water that will eventually become a mighty river flowing out to sea. Those things are such musical ideas to me.”

Talbot has also enjoyed a close partnership with Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet, and Christopher Wheeldon, its artistic associate. Talbot composed the score for Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Royal Ballet’s first full-length ballet commission in more than 20 years, and A Winter’s Tale, again for Wheeldon, which premiered in London earlier in April.

Accustomed to shaping his music to match someone else’s vision or visuals, Talbot still gets excited watching his music inspire moving bodies on the stage.

“I remember going to the studios for the first time for Chroma and just seeing these superhuman demigods moving around the room in these hyperkinetic, extraordinary ways. I’ve just been pinching myself ever since. With Wayne and Chris, you get an extraordinary complementary structure, like a crystal that fits exactly with the music. There’s an amazing synchronicity. It’s just a whole new level.”

For a composer constantly seeking new terrain and greater challenges, the title of Talbot’s first opera– a 2015 Dallas Opera premiere – feels appropriate. It’s called Everest, and based on the 1996 disaster that has already inspired numerous books and films.

Talbot is cheerfully daunted. “This is a whole different thing,” he says. “Writing music is the hardest thing I ever have to do in my life. Certainly the challenges of the projects I now get offered force you to really up your game. I’m trying to get constantly better at this thing that I do.

“One thing for sure is that I’ll know an awful lot about opera by next year.”

This interview originally appeared in The Australian in April 2014.

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