Jocelyn Pook Ensemble – Filmic 2014 – Friday 9 May, St George’s Bristol, 8pm.
After receiving an Olivier Award for her music and sound design for the National Theatre production of Shaw’s ‘St Joan’ starring Anne-Marie Duff, the composer Jocelyn Pook has another hit on her hands. She has written the music for Mike Bartlett’s new play ‘King Charles 111’ starring Tim Pigott-Smith, which runs until May 31 at London’s Almeida. Her film credits are also very impressive, beginning with ‘Blight’ (1994-96) directed by John Smith for the BBC’s ‘Sound On Film’ series, which won eleven international awards, and the television film of DV8’s ‘Strange Fish’, which won the Prix Italia in 1994. Since then, Jocelyn has written scores for ‘Brick Lane’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Julio Medem’s ‘Room in Rome’ and ‘Chaotic Ana’ and many more in a wide and varied filmography that also includes a contribution to Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’. Throughout, she has continued to write and perform for theatre, opera, the concert platform and her own albums, becoming one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music.
Jocelyn will discuss her work in film as part of a special Filmic 2014 event at Watershed on Saturday 10 May at 2pm (http://www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/4706/filmic-14-jocelyn-pook-in-conversation), the day after her St George’s performance. But aspects of how that career began – or at least began to develop – can be seen in the following two interviews I did with her for the Independent and the Independent On Sunday at the time of her big breakthrough (one “pre”, and one “post”), and which I shamelessly re-publish here, warts, gratuitous repetitions and all:
WHEN STANLEY KUBRICK telephoned the composer Jocelyn Pook to talk about the possibility of her working on the soundtrack to his new film, Pook was taking another call at the time. Alerted to the new caller by her call-waiting service, Pook quickly asked the stranger to hold and continued her conversation, leaving the reclusive film director hanging on the telephone for far longer than he can be used to (one likes to imagine him tapping his fingers on the exquisite veneer of an antique desk or perhaps playing with a set of model-soldiers in Napoleonic uniform). Happily, Kubrick did not hang up and they had a brief but pleasant chat.
Later that day a large black limousine arrived at Pook’s Islington flat to collect the cassette she had hurriedly put together as the sample of her wares that Kubrick had asked for. The next day, the limo appeared again, and this time Pook herself was whisked off to Pinewood Studios to meet Kubrick face to face.
Ironically, what alerted the very famous Kubrick to the fairly obscure Pook in the first place was the theme to a TV commercial for mobile phones: the wonderful Orange Telecom ad featuring a sample of Kathleen Ferrier singing “Blow the Wind Southerly”.
A version of the theme, “Blow the Wind – Pie Jesu”, was included on Pook’s debut album of last year;” Deluge”, when it provoked a very silly – yet for Pook, profoundly damaging – controversy over whether the music should be classified as “classical” or not. But more of that later. Let’s get back to Stan.
“The reason he heard my music was that a choreographer called Yolande Snaith was working with him on a scene, and she was playing a track from my CD at the time,” says Pook, who tonight performs in a concert of her works at the Islington Festival. “He picked up on it, felt it was really appropriate for what he was doing, and then rang me. When the limo took me to Pinewood, it was all very normal and we had an interesting meeting. He was very musically literate.”
The film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, remains pretty much a closed book for Pook, as she has yet to see any of it. “I don’t know a lot about it and I’m waiting until there’s stuff to see,” she says. “Up to now I’ve just done sketches, blind, and since the meeting there’s just been phone calls. It’s been very loose and I haven’t really found out what he wants yet.”
Pook is a self-taught composer who followed her studies in viola at the Guildhall with three years of touring with the Communards. She then co-founded the Electra Strings, the all-female ensemble who have played for everyone from Massive Attack to Meatloaf. The Kubrick experience is also just the latest in a series of film and television projects that Pook has been involved in. She co-composed the music for the brilliant film of DV8’s Strange Fish, which won the Prix Italia Award in 1994, and has written scores for John Smith’s “Blight” (in the BBC’s Sound On Film series), and Colin Spector’s BBC documentary “Following Strangers Home”.
Even the music for “Blow the Wind” was originally conceived as part of a proposal for a film by Pook, to be called Requiem for a Spiv. “For me, Kathleen Ferrier’s voice represented a special kind of Englishness and a kind of nostalgia, something I associated with my mother’s youth and that whole radio world,” she says.
A version of the piece was first released on a compilation CD by “Unknown Public”, an experimental audio-periodical available only by mail-order. “The writer of the Orange ad, Larry Barker – son of Ronnie – was a subscriber and he contacted me. Normally you get ads from an agent so this was a real break from out of the blue, like the Kubrick thing. It was a really beautiful advert and lots of people wanted to get hold of the music, but it took a long time to get the album out.”
On release in February 1997, the album became the subject of absurd controversy, when a self-appointed Star Chamber of record industry representatives deemed it unfit for either the classical or crossover charts, effectively consigning it to commercial oblivion. Despite which, two of the panel later included the track on classical compilation albums for their own labels.
‘At the time I didn’t realise what it meant. I just thought it was a drag and like, who cares,” Pook says. “But the only way the company would promote the album is through the chart system, and they also rack it in shops according to category, so the classification is all-important. As it is, you can’t find it anywhere. It’s only been released in Iceland and Hong Kong. I don’t even know who’s going to put out my next album because Virgin are worried the same thing might happen again.”
Pook continues to write and to perform, both with the Electra Strings and in the group 3 or 4 Composers, who last year presented the stunning music-theatre piece Still Ringing. Her rich and evocative music, often accompanied by the marvellous voice of Melanie Pappenheim (with whom she appears in Islington tonight) is also staged with a filmic visual flair that makes most “straight” music-theatre look sadly deficient.
While Pook may not have been deemed suitable for the masonic lodge of the “classical” tradition, she shows an eye for the details of presentation that even Stanley Kubrick might commend (if only he could get through).
Even if you haven’t heard of the contemporary classical composer Jocelyn Pook, it’s almost certain that you’ve heard her music. Pook’s beautiful composition “Blow the Wind – Pie Jesu”, which sampled the voice of Kathleen Ferrier singing “Blow the Wind Southerly”, was used as the theme-tune for a noted Orange Telecom mobile phone TV ad a few years ago.
You’ve probably seen Pook on television too, for as a viola player with the Electra Strings – the all-female string section she co-founded after leaving the Guildhall and touring with the Communards for three years – Pook helped to provide the backing for Jools Holland’s Later series on BBC2, and worked with Meatloaf and Massive Attack, among many others. If neither of the above strikes a chord, don’t worry: you will definitely be hearing an awful lot about Pook very soon, for she was chosen by Stanley Kubrick to be the principal composer for what has turned out to be his final film.
Eyes Wide Shut is released in the US next month, and in the UK in September, and Pook will be at the premiere in Los Angeles on 16 July. She’s loath to reveal any details about the film itself – especially the rumoured steamy sex scenes between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – because she’s already been reprimanded by the film’s producer, Jan Harlan. “I’ve had my knuckles rapped for saying what I thought was common knowledge, so I’m very nervous about saying anything at all, let alone talking about all this sexy stuff.”
The Kubrick commission goes back to the days of the Orange phone ad, when Kubrick first heard Pook’s album Deluge (which includes “Blow the Wind – Pie Jesu”) being played by the choreographer Yolande Snaith. He called Pook up, but she was on the phone at the time and put him on “Call Waiting.” When he eventually got through, he asked her to prepare a cassette of her works for him to listen to. Later that afternoon, a large black limousine pulled up outside her house in Islington to collect the tape. The next day the limo returned, and Pook was whisked off to Pinewood Studios to meet the director. “It was all very normal and we had an interesting meeting,” she recalled at the time. “He was very musically literate.”
“A lot has happened since,” Pook said when I spoke to her again last week. “I’ve been working on the music and continuing to finish it, and the soundtrack includes original material and some things from the album, plus music by Shostakovich, Ligeti (whose music Kubrick also used for 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Chris Isaak. There’s about 25 minutes of my music in all, and I’ve got the original screen composer credit. It’s been very exciting, and we’ve been finishing off a few little things recently, with Jan Harlan taking over Kubrick’s role.”
When she was first commissioned, Pook was required to write blind, without having seen any of the footage. “Kubrick was very open, but then he began to home in on what was working and what wasn’t,” she says. “There were no explicit instructions, and you’ve got to be sceptical until the music is actually in the film, because so many changes can happen.”
She first heard of Kubrick’s death when a friend telephoned after hearing the news on the radio. “They’d just had a screening in New York and everyone was jubilant,” she says. “I hadn’t seen him for a while but we’d been in contact on the phone. It was a lovely experience working with him. I just feel very privileged to have had that relationship. The way he uses music is so thought out, so careful and bold. I was asked if I want to do Hollywood films, but it’s difficult not to be choosy after working with Kubrick, especially given the way music is normally used in Hollywood. Working with him has made me continue to question the way music is used in films, and it’s been a real learning process. I went back and looked at his other films, although I still find The Shining too scary to watch unless someone else is in the house. The space in his films, I love that, it’s so bold.”
Pook’s other work is perhaps too far out even for Kubrick. A performance of her works at the Islington Festival later this month includes Portraits In Absentia, a piece built around answerphone messages; Arsenal: Trevor’s Conversion, which samples crowd chants from Highbury; and a series of lyrics sung backwards by Melanie Pappenheim.
The football stuff reflects her interest in “found” noises, especially the sounds of crowds. “There’s this incredible togetherness,” she says, “and this thing about football as religion, when the crowd becomes as one. I didn’t go to a match until after I’d written the piece, but Trevor Stuart, who recorded the sounds of the terraces for me, was absolutely converted. My first match was Arsenal versus Coventry, and I was transfixed by the way the chants catch on like fire from just one person. It’s like a religious text.” Sadly, Stanley Kubrick’s great football movie will never be made.