BWW Interview: Composer Howard Goodall On ETERNAL LIGHT's New York Debut
Composer Howard Goodall's remarkable career ranges from lauded choral works to West End musical Bend It Like Beckham, the Emmy Award-winning score for HBO film Into the Storm, and themes for beloved British TV shows like Mr Bean, Blackadder, Red Dwarf and QI. On 20 November, Goodall's Eternal Light: A Requiem makes its New York debut at Carnegie Hall, presented by DCINY and performed by ensembles from both America and the UK.
What first sparked your love of music?
It was always around the house - my parents loved music, without being professional musicians. I went to be a boy chorister in Oxford aged seven, and it's quite hard to be in a choir like that, singing every day, and not become very involved in music. In fact most of the people I went to choir school with went into music, or it's an important part of their lives.
When did you start composing?
I actually started writing for the choir, so when I was about eight. Then in my teens I wanted what every teenager wants, which is to be a pop star, and from writing songs I got into musical theatre. I wrote my first musical when I was 15 for the school and I got the bug - I started writing musicals every year. At university, I joined the student revue, and on my first day I met Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis. We actually just celebrated our 40th anniversary of that meeting a few days ago. I got involved in writing for TV as part of that team.
Did it feel natural to mix classical and popular music?
I've always had the two running alongside one another. When I was reading music at Oxford, that was classical studies, and in the evenings I was driving into London with my mate to record an album, so I've always been in those two worlds. It's hard to believe now, when genre hopping is the norm, but it was very unusual back then.
I found you could transfer skills from one to the other. As a music student, you learned to write in the style of great composers like Haydn, Mozart, Bach so you could analyse how they worked. When I worked on Not the Nine O'Clock News, we did a song every week in the style of a popular group, from ABBA to ska or heavy metal, so I did exactly the same thing - analysed it to find out why it sounded the way it did. Now, in my TV programmes, I often demonstrate how music works by comparing, say, Stevie Wonder and an opera by Purcell. It's interesting finding those points of similarity in different styles.
Is it frustrating that we tend to compartmentalise?
That stems from the way we educate people, which is to specialise very early on. The benefit is fantastic expertise, but the problem is missing out on what's going on in another field. In principle, though, there's nothing wrong with being a jazz pianist and focussing on that, as long as it doesn't create a hierarchy - X is better than Y because it's posher or done by cleverer people.
In classical music, there are some areas that are always going to be niche, and that's fine. Something like mid 20th century modernist music or medieval music has a vigorous but quite small following. We've inherited this idea of music as a series of competitions, with the charts and so on, but you can really enjoy playing Chopin and accept that it'll never be as popular as One Direction. Lots of TV programmes have cult audiences - not everything has to have Bake Off numbers.
If you're composing a classical piece, do you mind that it might not get the same audience size?
I feel different emotions about it. I love the fact that this requiem is very personal to the people who perform and hear it, because it's about loss and grief. I get amazing letters from people who are affected very deeply - one of those is worth a million sales of a record. Though actually Eternal Light has had nearly 500 live performances around the world, which is a humbling number. And of course every composer wants lots of people to like and engage with their music. If I write for Red Dwarf or Mr Bean, that's millions rather than the hundreds who hear some choral pieces. But I feel like a craftsman - I do my job well on each project, and I hope that the people for whom it's written get the most out of it.
Were you more aware of trying to reach a large audience for something like Bend It Like Beckham?
I attend to the work in the same level of detail - I don't put on a new hat with a label saying "This is for a broader audience". There are pressures in a show like that, when the stakes are very high, but it's not a menacing producer demanding you make it more accessible - it's more that everyone is working very, very hard. It was a four-year period, which is a long slog on one piece, constantly honing and revising. We weren't writing to an audience, because we really didn't know who our audience would be, so we just tried to make the best piece we possibly could.
Why do you think new British musicals often have a hard time?
I feel we should give ourselves a break. As creators, you can't judge what will be a hit - if you try to second-guess it, you'll probably fail. Hamilton wasn't predicted to be the enormous success that it now is, but it's become such a phenomenon because audiences chose to make it one. It's now being talked of as a "game-changer", but I don't think pieces like Hamilton necessarily change games, in the sense that no one can write like Lin-Manuel Miranda. If we get 20 new rap musicals, they won't be as good as Hamilton. What's better to say is that it demonstrates something original, fresh and really of the composer can catch the public imagination - that's reassuring and exciting for creative people.
We also shouldn't judge musicals a failure unless they make millions or win a Tony - there's no other art form that demands as much of itself. Not all books win awards or get made into movies, but they're still excellent in their own right. Bend It Like Beckham still had a quarter of a million people coming to see it and enjoying it. Shows like Phantom or Les Mis aren't the norm - they're the freakish things.
Should we do more to nurture musicals in the UK?
We're harsh on ourselves comparing work with America, where the musical is much more of a core art form. Audiences wise, we both have those big, long-running shows and the experimental fringe world, but the difference is in New York audiences turn up in large numbers to see challenging new musicals as well. Traditionally, we have those audiences in London for new plays, not for musicals. But there are now various organisations and funding, and a fringe scene for musicals which didn't exist when I started, plus spaces like the Menier Chocolate Factory and Southwark Playhouse where you can put on work on a smaller scale. I think the future is bright.
What's it like revisiting your work, as you are with Eternal Light?
When I first do pieces, I'm very aware of difficulties that need to be tackled - should I trim this, is the audience still with us. Now it's too late; this is the piece as it is, so I just hope people get something out of it. I've learned, because it's been done a lot, that everyone responds to it differently, and having this performance in New York is a chance to have that response from a different country, to people from all over the place performing it - that's a great privilege for me. In the past, composers wrote pieces, saw them a couple of times, moved on and died young - Mozart never got to hear things mature over time.
This particular requiem has such resonance at the moment
Yes, the central movement, the Dies Ire, mixes Latin with English poem "In Flanders Fields", which is by John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and physician in the First World War. I juxtaposed them because the Dies Ire traditionally paints a possible hell - a day of terrible judgement. I thought, one of the things we've learned from the 21st century is that there's no hell worse than one mankind can create, whether the trenches of the First World War of the gas ovens of the Second World War. We don't need fire-breathing dragons; if we're describing bad things, it can be from our experience. Since I wrote it in 2008, we've had all these centenaries, so recent performances have been associated with remembrance. That's in the forefront of our minds - history has reframed it.
Do you think the current geopolitical context will affect people's responses?
It will certainly be an unusual experience for me to see this so soon after Trump's election, in America - it's a changed country. The same goes for Britain. I wrote a piece for a the joint German and British marking of the First World War in 2014 - it was performed at a military ceremony in both German and English, with two governments coming together. That's just two years ago and it seems like a different world. We've gone from wholly committed to working with our allies, part of the European story and understanding the terrible past we share, to this dominant political discourse of separating ourselves. I was very proud to contribute to the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony - I look at what it said about a diverse, at ease with itself Britain, and now how angry and divided we are.
Might this performance be therapeutic for audiences?
Individually, this piece has been cathartic for many people. I don't know collectively what the audience will feel. In comedy, you know if everyone's enjoying it - they're looking at each other and laughing more because they're laughing together. If people are moved, they often cover up the fact they're tearing up.
Eternal Light originally had a dance component - how did that affect your process?
Dance, in some ways, wasn't that alien to me: if you've been in an orchestra or a choir, there's a similar experience of having to work together to create something collectively. It was fascinating seeing my work being danced by Rambert. You hear it differently - it really transforms in front of your eyes.
When we did the first shows at The Lowry in Salford, it was remarkable. This young dance company attracted a very young, diverse audience, including large school groups. They'd never heard of a requiem, they didn't care what the structure was supposed to be, and actually they'd applaud at the end of a number - because this wasn't some choral concert, as far as they were concerned it was a show. If I'd gone into a classroom with a recording of a requiem, they wouldn't have responded in the same way, but in that context they were so warm and open towards it. Now it's mostly performed without the dance, but it still gets varied responses from all these different audiences, which is thrilling.
How does it feel to have your work at Carnegie Hall?
It's wonderful. This is my Carnegie Hall debut, and it's such a prestigious venue. I'm really looking forward to seeing how it's received here.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz, Claire Lim, BBC