After Hurtwood: the composer, Alex Baronowski
Meet one of the most talented students to have passed through Hurtwood, who is also one of the most self-effacing. It is hard to know where to start enumerating his considerable abilities, and where to start to explore his achievements over the years since he left in 2002.
A composer and sound designer, his work has taken him from theatre to ballet, from cinema to television; he has collaborated with some of the most innovative and influential creatives working today, people like photographer Don McCullin, theatre directors Danny Boyle, Rupert Goold, Sir Nick Hytner, and musicians as varied as The XX, Jungle and orchestras aplenty (the list is long). He clearly remains at the vortex of a creative frenzy that is truly impressive.
His recent work? Well his score for the newly released film Nureyev is blistering, there is a very interesting theatre project opening in London this summer with Matthew Broderick and Elisabeth McGovern, and he has recently been working on a fascinating new film take on Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, featuring a stellar cast, blending all kinds of elemements of storytelling, from choreography to song, and all grounded firmly in the text. Right now, you can hear his work daily if you tune into BBC 2 where his are the magical soundscapes behind the mesmerising ‘Idents’ that intersect and introduce the different programmes. Ready to talk about any aspect of his work, he is as excited about this commission as any other, suggesting that it is a passion for sound as communication and provocation rather than mere ego that drives him. What stands out immediately is the integrity of his engagement with the way that sound creates meaning, the way that it interprets and gives shape to human experience. Be prepared to meet a creative of the highest order, masquerading as a very understated decent fellow.
Meeting recently for lunch to catch up with his onward journey from Hurtwood, I ask Alex about some of the key moments. There are many. His skills were apparent from the first, and he left Hurtwood with a portfolio of English, Music Tech, History, Theatre Studies and Media A levels to study at LIPA, Paul McCartney’s academy in Liverpool. It was then out into the world of creativity and production. The first big break was working at the National Theatre, where he busied himself wherever he could. He soon found himself helping the official composers on different productions, albeit working for little money, assisting with the practicalities of composition and scoring music for the performers, meanwhile absorbing the trade. ‘I thought I was a millionaire,’ he tells me. ‘I loved it. As a first job, you don’t get luckier than that.’ He makes it sound easy; but through hard work and flexibility, taking on a variety of roles, he began to impress, and to make powerful connections.
Once again, he explains much of this as luck and, while there is an element of that, it is clear to me that his innate graciousness towards everybody, together with his extraordinary passion and ability, soon brought him great job offers from powerful people. He identifies a key moment of seismic change as his involvement with the then director of the National Theatre, Nick Hytner (now Sir Nick) who invited him to take part in a number of projects, including a funky and very approachable production of ‘Hamlet’ with Rory Kinnear. The music was a fundamental part of a fresh contemporary take on the play, and earned him, as I recall, praise from none other than Stephen Sondheim. Alex found me a ticket for the sell-out production, and I loved it.
Even more impressive, I felt, was ‘Earthquakes in London’ in one of the most intimate spaces of the National. An exciting and challenging text, the production was daring and innovative, challenging space and time, introducing fluid audience movement around the set and action. Alex’s score was stunning, vibrant and very much part of the success of the play: he was very firmly off the blocks.
More challenges followed, but a particular highlight for me was his soundtrack for the Young Vic’s production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ with both Gillian Anderson and a then unknown Vanessa Kirby (the latter coached in part by our very own Director in Residence, Andy Johnson). I saw this production without realising that Alex had done the music – which felt intuitively part of the meaning, illuminating the sexy, self-destructive allure of the characters and their actions. This was particularly impressive as music is used symbolically by Tennessee Williams, illuminating inner turmoil as well as outer action. Alex’s score worked brilliantly with the contemporary setting, successfully breaking away from the blueprint of the original film version, and indeed held the whole audience experience together.
Many, many other extraordinary productions followed, including a seminal version of ‘Frankenstein’ with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, alternating their roles as Creature and Creator. Not confined to theatre, he was commissioned by Northern Ballet to write the score for a production of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. The performance was televised and enjoyed a sell-out run at Sadler’s Wells, also winning the prestigious South Bank Award for dance.
Over the years Alex has worked everywhere, it seems: Broadway and the West End, the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Donmar and Royal Court, Manchester International Festival, the Crucible Theatre. The list goes on, the impressive connections multiply, the sheer range of his creative talents are stunning. He has been nominated for numerous aspects of his work: a Tony award for ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ on Broadway, a Music and Sound Award for his score for BAFTA nominated film ‘McCullin’. Indeed, Alex tells me in passing that spending a number of days with this extraordinary photographer in preparation for the film left a profound impression on him: ‘He was almost shell-shocked from what he had experienced,’ he tells me, and ‘doesn’t realise his own power.’ The tension between the photographer as witness to suffering and the urge to intervene, to help, raised profound questions about empathy and the artist’s concern with communication. Here, of course, is the core of his own shared commitment to communicating human experience, in his case through sound and music.
So this post-Hurtwood journey has taken him to interesting places and introduced him to many extraordinary people. Most recently, he was thrilled by the privilege of recording his score for Nureyev at the Abbey Road’s ‘Studio 1’. The Beatles, then: a big influence? Absolutely! ‘They found so many ways of expressing emotion,’ he tells me. Like Alex, I think. The discussion leads on to other seminal influences – and with mutual delight we discover a shared passion for that iconic Christmas animation, ‘The Snowman’, now enjoyed by his own little three-year son. Alex’s childhood pleasure in it was apparently immediate and profound, he recalls. ‘It’s how I taught myself orchestration... the music telling the story in every single frame.’ We swap highlights: that swelling moment of anticipation as child and Snowman take hands and fly over snowy Sussex and Brighton Pier, the mischief and the magic. ‘It’s why I’m good at Christmas ads,’ says Alex, reminding me that he has successfully created a little commercial niche for Marks and Spencer. I love the gentle interest and pride that he takes in all his work, as well has his awareness that commercial work allows him to ‘pay the mortgage and take a month off’. And to work on more esoteric, creative projects, I suspect.
So many projects... we could talk all day. Time, however, to get back to that day. Any final advice to those who want to make music their living? ‘It’s about working hard... mucking in. Variety. Escape being typecast if you can.’ He has clearly manged that. ‘When you get that bit of luck, don’t squander it. Take the challenges as they come.’ Eventually, he recalls, ‘You get the break and... people return your calls.’ They would be foolish not to do so now.
What would he most like to do next? Impress his son and do the score for ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’? alas that particular box is already ticked. I think he’ll impress his son in other ways. He is also working on his first album, and along the way I know that he has both his grandfather’s accordion and poetry, and newly unearthed recorded memories of his experiences as a Polish refugee, longing for home and the old country. No chance of running out of inspiration there, I think.
Finally, given all that he has achieved so far, what does he consider his greatest achievement? ‘That I'm still doing it!’ he replies without immediately. Making music, having a great time - making Hurtwood proud, I say.