Resident in Hastings since 2016, New Zealand-born composer Christopher White has written extensively for film and TV, as well as collaborating with musicians as varied as Van Morrison and Noel Gallagher. He wrote the soundtrack for documentary How Art Began with Antony Gormley, broadcast on BBC 2 earlier this year. 

Chris White
PICTURE: Lize McCarron

Here he talks to Andrew Myers about his creative process

AM: It’s fair to say you’ve reached a point where you can pick and choose your projects. What was it about How Art Began that appealed to you?
CW: How Art Began explores a fundamental desire for humans to leave the best of themselves for future generations. And that’s what we as artists are still trying to do now. It’s the second time that I’ve worked with Antony and I can really relate to his approach to making films. He’s able to riff a monologue – to take one example, about the sound of a million reindeer hooves emanating from across the plains of Europe – in a way that inspires me to write the most beautiful music I can.

AM: How ‘completed’ is a film by the time you get involved as soundtrack composer?
CW: My ideal approach is to collaborate with the director and editor as a fellow filmmaker. Assuming we’re all on the same page, I’ll be intrinsically involved from the very early stages, as I was with How Art Began. If there’s the opportunity, I will even start writing at script stage, composing music based on themes derived from the narrative arc. Initial reactions are often the most accurate, and these musical ideas normally persevere through to the end result.

AM: Your music was so subtle – it responded to Gormley’s sense of wonder, rather than telling the viewer what to feel, like a lot of soundtracks do!
CW:Thank you so much. That’s always my aim. For me every note has an intention, and in this case that intention was to provide the psychological context as Antony made his journey.

Hand-stencil rock art from Gua Tewet, Borneo, thought to be over 10,000 years old
PICTURE: Luc-Henri Fage

AM: Those hand stencils are absolutely amazing, aren’t they! They look like simple hand prints, but they’re actually produced by a much more laborious process of spitting charcoal around the hand.
CW: There’s some fascinating recent research (which didn’t quite make it into the film) about how early humans would use the reverberant nature of particular chambers in cave networks to ascertain whether it was a safe place to be.

While spitting onto their hands to make the stencils, they were simultaneously making beats and enjoying reverb – an intrinsically rhythmical and therefore musical process. So it’s quite possible that what we are seeing in these hand stencils is not only the origin of visual art, but music as well. And I love that idea, because I’ve always felt that music and image are two sides of the same thing!

AM: So what’s next?
CW:I’m involved in a writing project with actor/singer Doon Mackichan and have various other projects which enable me to enjoy collaborating with other musicians, Samaki, my Afrobeat collective, being one. Recently, I’ve also composed the score for a BBC documentary with the actor David Harewood. The film follows David’s intensely personal revelations about his journey through psychosis early in his career. I’m also really excited to be working on a European feature film at the moment called White Plastic Sky. It’s a Hungarian/ Slovak / French co-production, set in a dystopian near-future where soil is no longer arable and the population is strictly controlled by an algorithm. It’s a feature length animation, so it’s a huge undertaking. Hopefully it’ll be finished before it pivots into a documentary. Lastly, I’ve composed the score for documentary Sex on Trial, which airs on Channel 4, on 6th May. It will examine high profile cases of student sexual assault and other complex topics.

David Harewood – Psychosis and Me is broadcast on Thursday 16th May at 9.00pm on BBC 2

Visit Christopher White’s website:

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