Stuart Hancock: my musical journey as a composer
Posted on 30th October 2023 at 10:48
From hobbyist to professional: my musical journey as a composer
This month on the blog, composer Stuart Hancock tells us how he first began playing and composing music, and the light-bulb moment that led to his career. Stuart also gives us a sneak preview into what promises to be a special event this November: a series of family performances of the classic Oscar-winning film Peter and the Wolf, complete with live orchestra.
MWC is pleased to be able to offer our blog readers a discount on tickets for the 18th November Peter and the Wolf performance - see the end of the post for details.
My name’s Stuart Hancock and I’m a jobbing composer with fingers in many pies: the commercial world, music for film and television, as well as music for the stage and concert hall. I’d love to share a bit about my music education and the journey it’s taken me on.
Music began for me at school at the age of 8 with lessons on the piano – an instrument I’d been besotted with since seeing an older cousin playing at a family gathering. My parents rented a piano, just in case the lessons didn’t work out. But I loved it – and they bought that piano (which I still have 40 years later!). School thrust a violin at me at the age of 10. That didn’t go quite so well, but graduating onto the viola was a better fit and I progressed through the grades. Notated music fascinated me and I dabbled along the way writing my own compositions: usually hugely ambitious concertos that never made it off the first page of manuscript, but I loved it nonetheless. Joining the symphony orchestra at the borough music hub in my teens (Redbridge Music Service) was a huge eye-opener and gave me a deep appreciation and enjoyment of orchestral music, plus a wonderful new circle of friends.
I never seriously considered a career as a ‘composer’ though – since, after all, when I thought ‘composer’ I thought of Mozart and Beethoven and Rachmaninov. Proper composers. I didn’t do Music at A-level and a Geography degree followed, but I never lost the creative music bug, composing and staging two college musicals. Coming to the end of my Geography degree left me wondering ‘what next?’. My light-bulb moment was spotting an ad in the programme at a Prom at the Albert Hall for post-grad courses at the London College of Music, include ‘Composing for Film and Television’. Suddenly there was a whole new meaning to the job of ‘composer’ and perhaps a future career path. Despite a lack of an A-level or an undergrad degree in Music, I was able to enrol on the course on the strength of my small portfolio of hobbyist compositions.
Rehearsing Stuart's violin concerto around the piano at Watford Colosseum, with soloist Jack Liebeck and conductor Lev Parikian.
The one-year course at LCM didn’t really teach ‘how to compose’ but it gave the opportunity to try things out and to make connections with student film-makers, and it provided a valuable grounding in the technology and techniques that a future career in media composition would require. And it led to my first and biggest break into the industry: a try-out with a Soho-based music production company specialising in music for adverts, which became a full-time salaried studio composer job. Thrown into the deepest of deep ends, the learning curve steepened exponentially through the experience of composing and producing music full-time to commercial briefs on crazy same-day deadlines, meeting and presenting work to clients from advertising agencies, and learning to say the right things (and regularly learning from saying the wrong things).
Fast forward twenty years or so, I have a ton of experience. Whilst no two working days are the same, it’s tiring, solitary work and the hours are feast-or-famine. I’m still in the cut-throat world of music for ads and there are a lot of client eccentricities to deal with, plus a whole heap of rejection (everything is a ‘pitch’, after all, and there are a lot of composers out there fighting for the same pieces of work). But the thrills of being a composer are undeniable. The main one is when you have the budget and time to record your music with professional performers: music that has been shaped on a computer with sampled sounds suddenly has life and vibration and human performance injected into it. The first take of a recording session with a singer or an orchestra will often leave me quite speechless with emotion! And there’s the undeniable kick of seeing and hearing something on TV – be it a TV drama or an advert – that carries your music. Career highlights in film and television include the orchestral scores for the BBC fantasy drama Atlantis, the Channel 4 animated special We’re Going On A Bear Hunt and the forthcoming animated feature film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom. Adverts currently on air featuring my music include Pampers, Sainsburys (an arrangement of Hey Big Spender), Tesco and Robinsons.
Channel 4's Going on a Bear Hunt.
I find myself right now in an exciting period with several performances in the pipeline. Kensuke’s Kingdom has just had a tremendous premiere at the BFI Imax as part of the London Film Festival. On October 25th, I have a new piece having its first performance at St John’s Smith Square (a commission from the London Phoenix Orchestra to mark the start of its centenary season). And the weekend of December 16th/17th sees curtain up on Pandora’s Box, my new show composed for London Youth Opera at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music. I am thrilled to be involved in rehearsals with the talented young cast starting out on their musical journeys.
And the afternoon of Saturday November 18th will be a very special day. I’ll be conducting a series of family performances of the Oscar®-winning stop-motion animation Peter & The Wolf, with live orchestra playing the timeless Prokofiev score. The film’s director Suzie Templeton will be there to present with me along with her puppet stars, the London Prokofiev clan will be in the audience, and profits from the event will benefit the music charity Music Masters empowering children to reach their creative potential through music, no matter their background.
It’s a good fit: the Prokofiev original has stood the test of time for generations as a brilliant introduction to musical instruments and story-telling through music. Music Masters strives to give youngsters the opportunity I was given as an 8-year-old to try music for the first time. I was lucky to pursue music further, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to create and entertain and tell stories with music, a bit like Prokofiev. That’s priceless. I’d do it all again, and hope that today’s youngsters get the opportunity to find their musical voices too.
Saturday November 18th 2023, at 1pm / 3pm / 5pm
PETER & THE WOLF: The Film Live In Concert
Regent Hall, 275 Oxford Street, London W1C 2DJ
Use promo code: “MWCPETER” for 10% discount on ticket purchases
Profits to benefit UK Music Masters
Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th December, at 3.30 / 7pm
PANDORA’S BOX – World Premiere
London Youth Opera
For more information about Stuart and his work, visit his website.
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