Theatre and concert composer Adrian Sutton looks back on the trajectory of his career, from computer magazine reviews editor to becoming the musical brains behind the score for War Horse.
Theatre and concert composer (2005-18)
Composing is a solitary job, so I’ve decided recently to start writing more pieces that I can also play in (I’m a violinist). Today I played in the premiere of Montana Peaks, a chamber piece I wrote for Blaze Ensemble. The past 20 years has seen me spend way too many hours at a writing desk or behind a mixing console, but there’s no escape from it really; orchestration and studio production is detailed, painstaking work. There has been much of it to do; over the past few years I’ve completed orchestral scores such as War Horse: The Story in Concert (which we recorded at Abbey Road with the RPO) and A Fist Full of Fives, and a number of smaller chamber works. All of this has enabled me to build up my experience and craft in sedimentary layers that cumulatively have a bearing on the next thing I do, even subconsciously. So I always take the opportunity to learn something new if I can.
But the other side of my writing over the past 13 years in particular has been about theatre. Producing scores for the National Theatre has been an absolute joy for me. It has opened the door to another vibrant world and taught me the value of collaborative environments in rehearsal rooms, with world-class actors and directors.. real flesh-and-blood performers, whom I can react to in real time. The score for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is something I wrote almost entirely in the rehearsal room, riffing off what I was seeing the actors in front of me do.
The score for War Horse began in a similar way, even if its greater complexity meant much of the detail was back at my desk. My most recent was the score for Angels in America, which ran at the NT and transferred to Broadway earlier this year.
Composer, sound designer, post-production engineer (1992-2005)
Before working in theatre, I spent many years as a partner in a Soho firm providing music, sound design and post-production services to the advertising industry. This involved writing an absolute ton of music for TV ads. But as one of the firm’s two studio engineers, I also spent much time recording and mixing voiceover sessions, often in high-pressure surroundings.
The ad world is brutal. You’re given very little time to turn around a brief, and you’re mostly likely in competition with many other music companies. But it taught me the ability to work very quickly and effectively in a very wide range of musical styles, which stood me in good stead for my later theatre years. It seems directors like the fact that I work fast and am unfazed when something I offer for a scene doesn’t work and I chuck it out and start again. I’m not precious. In 1997, one of our clients at the studio was the satirist Chris Morris; I began working with him on his Blue Jam (BBC Radio 1) and Jam (C4) projects.
This in turn lead to my being introduced to his brother, the director Tom Morris, who was shortly to become an associate at the National Theatre and, after putting me forward for my first theatre score Coram Boy, invited me to the War Horse project. So personal connections have been an important factor in my career, and I realised quite early on that they are at least as important as the quality of your work, which - at the professional level - is a given anyway. It is assumed by default that you’re good at what you do. What makes the difference is what you’re like to work with.
Reviews Editor, PC Direct Magazine (1991-92, while still composing)
From the beginning of my writing career, technology has been at the heart of how I get my job done. Alongside music, computers have always been a fascination of mine, and I taught myself to write software from my early teens. After a lecturing and research assistant stint at Goldsmiths following my music degree there, I was employed by Ziff Davis as a reviews editor. This had absolutely no musical connection, but what it did do was give me an even more solid grounding in technical matters of computing that to this day save me a lot of time in my professional work, whether it’s knowing how to configure networks or taking things apart to diagnose problems.
Adrian Sutton is a theatre and concert composer.
Adrian’s War Horse: The Story in Concert has been re-released on CD and vinyl by BMG. It is narrated by Michael Morpurgo and Joanna Lumley. For more information, please visit: warhorseinconcert.com