Last week, composer Alex Baranowski welcomed us into his lovely home in South London. We had a great chat about his career and his recent score for the post-war BBC drama ‘The Windermere Children’, a story which resonated with the experiences of his own Polish grandparents during and after the war. The film was broadcast on 27 January to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust.

Stella: You’ve mentioned in a previous chat that it was your grandfather who instilled the love for music in you when he gave you your first violin, when you were five. But what was the first moment when you realized this is what you wanted to do for a living? You could have just left it as a hobby.

Alex: Oh wow. I’m not sure. I think it was something I’ve always really loved. I think it’s one of those things where it was kind of my life but I didn’t really think it will end up as a job. I think it was when my wife Jenna and I went travelling when we were about 21 and spent about a year going to India, Thailand, Japan and Australia, where we worked for a bit.

When we were in India, I remember that we saw all these people that were working day and night really hard doing all these amazing things. The people had no money, but they were happy. And it was really funny, we both had this epiphany then, that when we got back home we could do what we wanted. We were really lucky that we could go and do music or do art. So we said, ‘Let’s just do it! Let’s just try and do it!’


Stella: So both you and Jenna had the same feeling at the same time. Amazing.

Alex: Yeah. And so we got home and we both told our parents that I wanted to do music. And they were like ‘No, you’re going to get a job, right?’ [laughs] ‘No. We’re going to live with you guys for a bit and just going to try and do music.’ So I got a loan out and borrowed some money from my mom. I bought a computer and some instruments and just went to junk shops and bought more instruments. And for about a year and a half we lived with Jen’s parents in Southport, Liverpool. I just wrote music every day, seven days a week.

At the beginning it would be really slow and we’d be using samples. I did a sound degree so I sort of knew a lot about recording so knowing it in the context of what I wanted to do in my work, in my music. And that’s one of the most amazing times because you just learn yourself, your sound. If you wanted to write an orchestral piece it would take a week. Then you’d want to do it again, and it would take four days. And then again, and it would take a day. You’re just really getting better and getting quicker and learning how to use Pro Tools and other digital machines, listening to other pieces of music that really inspire you and you sort of try and copy them.

I remember trying to listen to some pieces by Thomas Newman. I just loved it, so I just tried to take it apart and just make something. I mean, you take your favourite bits from these other pieces of music and you will do your own thing. The thing you were trying to copy is sort of gone somewhere else. Through that you’re learning how you like to work yourself. This was kind of the process and then I would just work harder and harder.

After about a year and a half, Jen got a job working as an assistant buyer in fashion – she was designing her own jewellery at that time – so we came to London. So I arrived in London without a job and managed to get one as an assistant at the National Theatre in London. The composer there, he just loved what I’d been doing in my attic, working on the music I’d been working on. He was very kind and showed me how to use Sibelius and stuff. So this is how I started really.


Stella: That first gig you got at the National Theatre, was that completely by accident or were you curious about theatre in general?

Alex: You know what? I met some really lovely people when I was back North in Southport. This lovely lady, Claire Bourne, who did some work in advertising said, ‘Your music would be really great in theatre’. And I was like, ‘Really? I didn’t know you could have music in theatre! Great! I’ll do it!’ So she introduced me to this composer called Adrian Sutton, who did War Horse and some other big theatre productions.

It was a show that was based on a Terry Pratchett novel called ‘Nation’. The show ended up being the biggest flop. It was a Christmas show. But I loved it. It was like learning the ropes, learning Sibelius. There was a live band. I was in the rehearsals. So I had this love of theatre and I ended up doing all these theatre shows. Again, being in the right place, making myself useful. They were looking for a composer for a show and a bunch of people said ‘No’. So I was more like the ‘Should we get him to do it?’ guy.

So I said ‘Great, I love it!’ And that was a play by a director called Rupert Gould – he just directed ‘Judy’. I really loved his work and music was such a big part of all his shows. So this was one of my first shows as a composer. I was just thrown into the deep end. I was loving it. It was great.

I then did another big show called ‘Hamlet’ with Sir Nicholas Hytner who ran the National Theatre and then Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ with a band called Underworld. So I went on quickly from no credits to doing quite well in the theatre world. So through that I met all these other people. It’s how it sort of came really.

Every performance is different. Every performance’s timing is different. Everything changes. And as soon as you have a show and you take it to an audience to a stage, it’s going to be different every night.

The best thing was meeting people of my own age, going off and doing shows with them. We’d go and do shows above a pub. No one would be paying us any money but we learned the ropes. And we all grew and grew and became more successful. And now I’m doing big shows and films with all these guys who were just assistants back in the day. It was a really interesting way of meeting people.

Stella: You’ve worked in both theatre and film, which are two mediums that are based on storytelling. As a composer, how do you approach writing music for each? Is it the same or do you approach things differently?

Alex: It’s completely different. What I like about theatre is that you’re in rehearsals from the first day. Whereas with a film, it’s locked and you have to come in and write the music. A theatre show is never locked. Ever. Every performance is different. Every performance’s timing is different. Everything changes. And as soon as you have a show and you take it to an audience to a stage, it’s going to be different every night. The way you approach the music is so different. Being able to be quite fluid in working out how to underscore, to write, to create stems of pieces of music. It’s not like you have a button and you press PLAY and say ‘Go.’ It’s very fluid in how you write, you work and create using sound and using environments and having speakers all around. So it’s a very liberating way of working. It’s very collaborative.

Not that film isn’t. Film is very collaborative as well. Often, with film, when you’re coming in, they’ve already put some temp tracks in, they kind of know what they want the music to be. With theatre there’s no such thing as a temp track. You’re there. Let’s make something. You’ve got your keyboard. In the rehearsal room you’re like, ‘Let’s just do it.’ It’s terrifying in the beginning. You can have a big dress rehearsal then sit with the audience to see what works and what doesn’t. You have previews and there are so many things that you can tweak and change. It’s very collaborative with lighting, with the director, with the actors.

Stella: Would you say theatre is more flexible when it comes to the decision makers?

Alex: The team is a lot smaller. And as a creative team you’re very much together and building decisions together. I guess it depends on the director, of course. Especially if a director is really interested in sound and music and how they all work rather than them being, ‘Alright. Scene change. Music on. Scene change. Silence.’ I hate that kind of scenario. But you know, I’ve done enough of those as well and stopped doing those shows on purpose because it’s the collaborative ones I like.

I did a show called ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, with Gillian Anderson as Blanche. The director asked me to come to the rehearsals with my keyboard. I think I spent four or five weeks just in the rehearsals with my laptop and keyboard and just trying underscores. Music was such a big part of the show. And it was really wonderful, really collaborative. Where if that was a film, they would’ve just put temp music and I’d come in a lot later and had less of a creative say, I guess.


Stella: And I suppose with film there’s also the issue of ‘temp love’, when they’re so used to listening to that temp music they’ve used as a placeholder, that they’re not as flexible and open to changes when you propose something new.

Alex: Yeah. I make it sound like film is not collaborative at all. I have had such wonderfully collaborative times on film. Again, it’s up to the editors and the directors, how willing they are, when it comes to temp music. My view with temp music is you’ve put some music that was written for something else on the film, which is not developed. It’s not going to change; it’s not going to grow throughout the film like you would do with a theme. It’s not going to even compare to having a written score because this is about a whole piece of music that lasts for the entire duration of the film. It’s about having something that organically builds. So actually, there’s no contest. But the only problem is, you’re in a contest over something that’s been recorded, probably beautifully for a big orchestra or something, and you just write some demos to try and convince the directors and editors. But I’ve been really lucky in all my experiences. I haven’t really had tempo love at all. But I know it’s not always going to be the case.

On ‘The Windermere Children’, the director wanted to send me the film without the temp. But I actually find it quite useful to just listen to see what their thoughts are on the music. And some things differ to the way I thought about them The only times when the temp’s a real killer is when you’re writing a cue and maybe it’s not working. You get to the fifth or sixth version and you know it’s the temp music. [laughs] There were a couple of cues in the film that I couldn’t quite get right and I had to keep going. The temp was really interesting and had an interesting feel which I really liked. I think temp love is the hardest at the end when you’re just fatigued and you want to just get it done. But I think everyone has that, where you have one track that just can’t sit right.


Stella: When you have moments such as these, when you’re struggling to nail a cue and you go back and forth with the director a lot, how do you handle these moments? Do you panic, or feel disappointed, or on the contrary, do these make you roll up your sleeves and say, ‘OK, let’s do this!’

Alex: I guess the good thing about theatre, being used to just trying stuff and checking in all the time and also working in ads, you’re so used to just trying stuff and pitching. You get used to using your music as a bit of a commodity, ‘let’s try this, and this, and this’. People get so worked up about a piece of music they’ve written, but you’re not doing a music video. You’re writing a score for a film and the film is the important thing, not the score. Even at the time when you’ve spent a day working on a track and you think it’s really great, but then the director hears it and they go, ‘Meh. Nah, not really.’ You may get disappointed, but then you go back and start writing a new idea the next day, and when you listen back to the previous idea you think, ‘Yeah, he was totally right’.

Most of the tracks on ‘The Windermere Children’ went through change. There’s this big moment at the end, where all the original boys, the old generation turned up. There’s this long five or six-minute cue. I remember taking a good two or three days just really carefully going through it note-by-note. It was only a string trio, but I remember thinking, ‘I love this piece.’ I got emotional, you know. I cried a lot, just trying to write while watching it. When I showed it to the director I was thinking, ‘Please don’t hate this, because I can’t do it again’. [laughs] He didn’t say anything for weeks. And I think he just played it a few times and thought it was good.

But, of course, with other tracks you just keep working and working. And I’m really happy listening to older versions. It’s good to rework stuff, because it usually makes it better.


Stella: And perhaps, in this case, you were so invested in this particular scene because of your grandparents’ history, that you might have taken it personally on some level.

Alex: Absolutely. It can be harder when you get emotionally invested in the film. But you just want to make it as good as possible. So yes, it’s disappointing, but you also want to make it as best as you can.

Stella: When a composer is scoring a film, the success of that score also depends on how well they can empathize with the story, so they need to find that angle which resonates with them in order to successfully underscore it.

Alex: Oh, yes.

Stella: In your case, for ‘The Windermere Children’, you had the history of your grandparents to help you relate to the story. But did you also try to put yourself in the children’s shoes, or were you more like a third party observer?

Alex: I think it was more of an emotional reaction. What I felt watching it. I guess it’s not so much as being in their shoes, but it’s quite an affecting story. It’s really hard to get it right. Because you can really easily get sloppy and write a big string, or you can be really dark and depressing, as it’s a Holocaust movie. Or you can get very traditional, like with a BBC drama. I was trying to dial it back and not be so prescriptive. It’s about having just the right amount of notes.

Some of the really early cues were all about texture rather than melodies. The big thing for me was a couple of little melodies. Once I got them right, I really started to understand the journey of the children. From the very first moment I read the script I just thought about this little melody being played really high on a cello. Just really strained. Because that’s what these children were on this bus. And the further we go into the film, the melody would go on a viola, and at the end it would really soar on the violin. That was my idea for the film.

From that point of view, I was trying musically to tell the story of the children emotionally, rather than try and be in their heads.

Stella: You know, the first time I listened to the album, I could actually hear the story developing from one cue to the other, even before watching the film. It started off on a gloomy, melancholic tone and ended up bright and hopeful with that long final piece, following closely the action on screen, when we go back and forth between the boys and the actual survivors. You did a very effective job there.

Alex: Thank you! I worked really hard on that. That last scene, for example, came to me quite naturally, as I’ve done a lot of documentary scoring. Just the way the men spoke about their experiences. There are lots of moments of speaking, but there are also lots of moments of just seeing the men standing on the hill, looking out, plus the captions. I was really conscious about it and in the sound mix I went up and down. The dynamics follow closely what’s happening on screen. So for example, as soon as they start talking, I would just maybe go down to a single violin, or a duo with viola, and then maybe get bigger when there’s silence. Hopefully, it sounds quite naturally when you listen to it. That’s why it’s really useful, I guess, to be working on so many different mediums.


Stella: There are so many films these days that feature way too much underscore. As much as I love music, I feel that sometimes you need silence in specific moments.

Alex: Absolutely, yeah.

Stella: And ‘The Windermere Children’ stood out to me as having found a great balance between music and quiet bits. There are certain moments in the film when silence actually accentuates the dramatic nature of the situation. For instance, right after the moment when the children hear that all of their families have perished, we see a few individual reactions to the news. Such as, for example, when Ben jumps into the water. I personally felt that the moment was so dramatic precisely because there was no music in the background. It really makes you feel that tension.

So my question is, when you met with the team to do the spotting session, did the director come directly with those ideas or did you discuss these on the spot? Did you argue about it?

Alex: [laughs] Not really. That moment when the Red Cross comes and tells them about their families…We really looked at that a few times. I remember that each time it got less and less prescriptive. The first time I wrote it, I began with that melody that the child sings. I wanted that melody to be the melody that their mother used to sing to them as a child. You’ve lost your mother but you can sort of remember her sing it to you. So that was my first thought, to put that melody there. I thought it worked beautifully, ‘This is our best piece of music ever. I so love this piece of music!’

With music it’s so subjective. I learned that especially with ads. You can really put your heart into something, but if someone’s listening to twenty other pieces of music, it doesn’t matter.

And then someone played it to the director to listen to it and watch it in context. He came back a few days and said, ‘I really love it, but I just think it’s too much.’ And I said, ‘I kind of agree with you’. [laughs] So I did another version without vocals but still using the melody. It was still too much. It was still getting in the way of this incredibly emotional thing that’s happening to these characters.

Early on in the film, I was playing string harmonics, really really delicate. So I based a really simple piece on that. And I recorded it in stems. So the strings were doing one low bit, and then I recorded the harmonics on their own, first and second violin. And then there was a solo line on top.

What they ended up doing for the film version, not the album version, is take out all the stems, except the harmonics. I didn’t know they had done that until I watched it at the screening a few weeks ago. I really loved it. I thought it was great. I and thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ [laughs]

But yeah, I’ve always thought there has to be just nothing. And I think Michael agreed. I don’t remember writing anything for that bit. I mean, what can you write for that?

Stella: Well, we don’t know in that moment what Ben wants to do. Is he simply jumping into the water to cool off, is he trying to kill himself? We don’t know. In other films with very similar dramatic situations, the composer may choose to underscore the scene with some very low strings or brass, or create some sort of dissonant, tense music.

Alex: Oh yeah, of course.

Stella: But here we have this boy, in the middle of the day, in this moment that was so quiet, that the silence in itself created the tension. I thought that was very clever.

Alex: It’s funny, because when you’re in the midst of a film and you have four weeks to write it, there are so many decisions to make at the same time. Now, looking back, it looks like it was a clever decision, but it wasn’t quite as clever then. [laughs] But yeah, it’s good luck. It happened really naturally.

Stella: How did the director, Michael Samuels, choose to work with you?

Alex: I think that, as they always do, they start by asking very famous names, but the budget wasn’t great.

Stella: So you were Plan B once again.

Alex: [laughs] Exactly! Always Plan B…But all the films I’ve done, especially for cinema, have all been documentaries. For example, ‘Nureyev’, which was sort of half-documentary, half new commission ballet. It’s a really beautiful film. And I’m really proud of the music. So I was not high on the director’s list. I haven’t had done a drama before, it was a BBC and Warner Bros. production, kind of a big deal for them, you know. But I think a few different people, very lovely people, my agent and various friends all recommended me. I was quite lucky in that respect.  And a lovely chap called Ariel Sommer, who was the music supervisor, advised the producers.

I’d read the script at that point and I was deeply affected after reading it. I just thought it was beautiful. And I wrote a piece of music straight after reading it. Which is the last track on the album. I was doing a job with a cellist friend of mine the day after. And I said, ‘Can you play some cello on this?’ I didn’t even score it out. I just said, ‘Play this note, this note and this note.’ We did it at the end of the session, just in my little room upstairs. That exact track hasn’t changed at all. That’s the one I sent to the director. So maybe that helped a bit.

He said, ‘You haven’t really done dramas before’. And I told him I really loved the story. Not that it helped me get the job, but I did tell him I was looking into my grandparents and their stories and writing music about that as well. We had a good connection and a lovely collaboration. I’m very happy we worked together. I was so happy they worked with me as it was a dream project.


Stella: There’s this one scene in the film where the children are painting and the cue (‘Painting Pictures’) you wrote for it really struck a chord with me. It’s such a dissonant and distressing sound. I love it.

Alex: Thank you! Well, actually, that scene was inspired by my grandma’s paintings. Especially this one. [points towards ‘Memories’, displayed on the wall behind him]

Stella: What do you see when you look at these paintings and how do you relate to that particular scene, knowing all this history?

Alex: I think it made me look at them completely differently. That’s what I found really interesting and emotional from my perspective, seeing these children and what they went through. Speaking to my grandmother and reading my grandad’s poetry and what they went through. My grandmother’s mother died on the train I think, and my grandma on my father’s side, her dad got killed in the war. There was a lot of disease and death in Siberia.

When you’re told that story, it’s very difficult to put yourself in that position, even though you know it’s awful. So I realized that what she has painted was something that she’d seen. There are no photographs of that, but this would be clearer than a photo. It came out of her head. It made me really emotional just looking at those paintings again. So I was literally starring at these paintings, writing that piece of music. It puts things in a different context. So that’s what’s really special about it and I’ve discovered through the film and through talking about it.

It’s funny that you mentioned that cue. That piece, it’s not particularly long, just a minute or two. It didn’t take a particular long time to write either. But you finish it and you sort of feel like you’ve run up a really steep hill and you feel floored and exhausted.

I remember sending it to the director and him saying that it didn’t really work. And so I wrote another piece, but it wasn’t as good. And then a few days later, he said, ‘That first one was actually really good, wasn’t it?’

But it’s difficult. With music it’s so subjective. I learned that especially with ads. You can really put your heart into something, but if someone’s listening to twenty other pieces of music, it doesn’t matter. I guess it must be difficult to be in that position, to try and choose music. You’ve got so many decisions to make.

Stella: I can only imagine. On a more personal note, I know that you’re working on your first album.

Alex: Yes, I’m writing it at the moment. I’m not quite sure when I’ll be ready to release it. When I’m working on a film, I work with certain musicians. I sort of have them in my head as I write. There are also other musicians that I’d love to work with. So I’m trying to write a few pieces for them. So the aim is to go and record it in Abbey Road in three or four months and get a great band together and just do it. That’s my plan.

I love people like Jóhann Jóhannsson and Max Richter. All these people that make all these wonderful pieces of music. I want to really make my own proper album project.

Stella: But now you’re so used to writing for theatre and film, where you have specific requirements and the music needs to support the film or the play. Do you feel that perhaps being so used to that frame and those restrictions, having suddenly so much freedom with your own album could make it more challenging?

Alex: Yeah, absolutely! Having a blank sheet of paper is the hardest way to write. If you’ve got a visual, you’ve got a starting point. But I’ve been loving it. It’s been great to try and write. Over the years I’ve been collecting lots of old weird tape echoes. I don’t know a lot about old synths, but I’ve got a couple because I really love to try and make some noises. It will be a combination of experimenting and playing in the studio.