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Composer Christian Henson on what he would tell his five-year-old self

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As a five-year-old, Christian Henson (Alien: Isolation, Inside No. 9) already knew he wanted to be a composer. Today, as the father of a five-year-old, he knows that someone of that age is in no position to make career choices. That is not to say he regrets his highly successful career path, on the contrary – yet, there are some things he might have done differently if he had known what he knows now. During our interview at SoundTrack_Cologne 13, he shared some of the things he would tell his former self today, including some things he believes not a single young composer realizes.

When asked about advice he wanted to share with young colleagues, Henson started off by talking about the business side of things. “What you have to learn – and I don’t think is taught in schools – is that part of your job is being a composer, part of your job is being an HOD, a head of department. You’re running a business, and that business is you. I’ve never met a composer ever who’s had a business plan”, he said. But that’s when jobs are already coming in, which tends to be the least of your problems when you kick off your composing career. If you’re struggling to get paying gigs at all, Henson said, that’s not unusual at all: “When you’re young you don’t realize that to a 45- or 50-year-old, when you’re 20, you don’t look 20 to the 50-year-old, you look 14. When producers give you a huge amount of responsibilities, not about making the music, it’s about delivering stuff across the deadline, they need to be confident in you that you have experience and that you have some years behind you. So I think it’s important to understand the frustrations of why it may take a very long time when you’re very young. And why you may get a job and then maybe another one doesn’t come straight away.” In short: Professionalism will get you trust, which will get you jobs, which will get you experience, which will get you more and bigger jobs.

Does that mean that you primarily need to find people who will put their trust in you again and again? While this might be something you have heard from some successful composers, Henson urges you not to rely on connections: “This is a total myth and it’s basically based on Steven Spielberg. You know, if you look at Ridley Scott, equally successful, he goes to different composers. It is naturally very important to build great, fantastic working relationships with people. And if a director really hits the big time, like [Michael] Nolan, you’re going to get 20th Century Fox going: ‘Nah, you’re not going to use this guy. You’re going to use Hans Zimmer, because this is a 200 million production.’”

Find your voice

Most, if not all, successful composers have a unique sound or composition style they can be recognized by. For Henson, this is a key ingredient of success: “That’s what I would recommend anyone before you have children or family, before you have a responsibility of having a career: to gain as much experience, travel and really find a voice yourself.” A process which, he admits, takes a lot of time, even adding: “I’m not entirely confident if I have found my own voice or sound, to be honest.” One way to work on that is by looking for inspiration in other composers’ work: “Make sure that your heritage is as rich as possible. I think something John Powell once said is: ‘Don’t fucking listen to film music.’ And don’t listen to the mimicry, listen to the original.” One of the most fruitful ways of doing that, of course, is to look for work as an assistant: “I would try to watch as many people who are good at their trade work. And that’s a way of earning money, to assist people on that.”

According to Henson, another great way of finding your voice, or especially your own sound, is getting a microphone early-on to record your own samples instead of buying orchestral samples. This piece of advice, of course, is no surprise coming from the founder of Spitfire.

Not using orchestral samples, Henson said, was somewhat shocking to some young composers he has talked to: “People go: ‘That means I can’t use big orchestral sounds.’ Well, don’t. Just use what’s around you. Go to junk shops and find bits of musical instruments and stuff. I think if anyone were to actually ever follow my advice, which they never do, I know they would come up with something so original. And that’s something I just wish people would do more of. Tips for sampling: It’s the quietest levels where the magic happens, I don’t know why. Use technology to control reality, don’t use technology to create it.”Go your own way

Go your own way

In most of what he told us, Henson emphasized the value of a personal journey instead of a path of quick success towards Hollywood, discouraging young composers from being “really brute” to their health and not looking after themselves: “Because there are workaholics in the industry, and we all know how hard Hans Zimmer works etc., etc., that’s the only way to be successful. I think that all my greatest ideas come in the park. On the train. You know, composing isn’t a computer screen. It’s just a means of communication, a computer.”

Even traditional notation and music theory, Henson said, don’t need to be mastered by a composer. He himself has been composing since he was five and didn’t learn about music theory before the age of fourteen. But Henson abandoned musical education altogether, realizing he got “muffled” by it: “Basically, instead of going to university and studying music, I spent a decade learning how to make technology enable me to do what I wanted to do since I was five years old.” However, Henson realizes that everyone needs to find their own style in this regard: “I’ve spoken to a very big composer, Eric Whitacre, and he said that he, although he’s not a massive theoretician, writes stuff down because, as a keyboard player, he finds himself repeating himself, whereas actually by working on the page, it uncovers all sorts of mysteries for him.”

“Aiming for the mainstream is a way to possibly not hit the mainstream.”

Henson has worked from the UK almost all his life, which is another tradition he is knowingly breaking: “I was only for six weeks working in L.A. and it was a very worthy experience because it enabled me on someone else’s payroll to establish that I wasn’t going to end up in Mekka. I don’t find L.A. particularly meritocratic, there is a paranoia that runs through. It’s like everyone is on hot coals.”

So instead of trying to work his way up through ever bigger projects in Hollywood, Henson appears to have come to realize that doing only projects he is interested in is the much better choice for him. He even believes that a personal career-breakthrough is to be expected from smaller rather than larger projects: “The ‘big job’, it never comes from the big break you think it’s going to be. You know, this small horror series I’m doing which no-one has ever seen, it’s getting me more openings than anything, as opposed to maybe Alien: Isolation, which has not particularly led on to anything”, he said, adding: “I think that on the smaller, more independent projects, you create more interesting work.” These projects, he said, ultimately get you more follow-up jobs. “I think a prime example of that is a little independent film called ‘American Beauty’. I don’t know how many individual copies of that CD have been sold, but I think far more people have heard that music than have seen that film. Yeah, so I think aiming for the mainstream is a way to possibly not hit the mainstream.”

Henson, of course, has done a lot of work over many years to get to the point where he can pick and choose his preferred projects. Gaining the required renown and financial independence to get there is still far, far away for most young composers, but with Henson’s advice, it is hopefully going to be a little easier.

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Freelance composer, producer and sound designer at Mediacracy Music.

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