Interview with Composer Tim Mountain
Tim Mountain has composed and produced music for Channel 4 TV, BBC TV and Radio, ITV as well as many corporate clients and Arts Council Commissions.
As a former BBC studio engineer, Tim Mountain worked for many years in the world famous music recording studios at Maida Vale in London where he learned to record and produce music to a very high standard. He now is a freelance music producer/engineer and composer. Tim's music is of a contemporary cinematic classical style, fusing modern sounds, rhythms and styles with traditional classical composition. Originality and a signature sound is evident in all his work.
Amongst Tim's many commercial, TV and Radio work, Tim has recently composed three ballets and is currently working on his fourth Dracula, which will tour in 2018.
The Sandman (2017)
Ulysses Unbound (2016)
Chasing the Eclipse (2015)
Tim Mountain is one of the Cotswold’s hidden treasures. As a former BBC studio engineer, Tim worked for many years in the world famous recording studios at Maida Vale and Broadcasting House in London where he learned to record and produce music.
A prolific composer of Contemporary Classical Music, Tim left the BBC and now works independently as a freelance music producer/ engineer and composer. Tim has composed and produced music for BBC TV, Radio and Independent film. Tim moved to Cheltenham in the Cotswolds in 2012 where he lives with his wife Catherine and their lovely Grand Piano.
Since moving to Cheltenham, Tim's music has taken an interesting turn and moved into writing for contemporary dance and ballet. Tim has written three ballets so far and has just been commissioned to write a fourth, which will begin touring in 2018.
Tim's music is of a contemporary cinematic classical style, fusing modern sounds, rhythms and styles with traditional classical composition. Originality and a signature sound is evident in all his work.
Q: I've listened to all three of your ballets now and it's extraordinary how each one is so distinct and unique yet, when I listen, I certainly know it's the music of Tim Mountain. Where did you learn to produce music?
TIM: I learnt to record and produce music when I worked for the BBC in the world famous music studios at Maida Vale in London. I was there for years, but predominantly in Radio and live sound production. I was really lucky to have been employed originally on the BBC's Graduate training scheme at that time. It was amazing working at Maida Vale, they had a Steinway Grand in one of the studios which I used to play during my lunchtimes, working on new ideas.
Q: You music is so unusual in that it's intellectual, yet at the same time accessible and now that I've heard it, I feel that I have known it forever. When did you first realise that you could be a composer?
TIM: When I first started to make my own tunes on the piano when I was a teenager. It was at this time that I discovered the whole palate of chords and their interrelationship wth each other. I began experimenting using that fabric of chords and just pushing the boundaries all the time to come up with new ideas. For me, it was like a voyage of discovery. I would sit for hours at the piano just creating music. I remember the first time that I discovered a 2nd (chord) or a major 7th; it was just like an awesome thing.
Over the years I've let all these chord progressions permeate me and so now when I write, that's like the bedrock and I just push it and experiment with different things and then something just happens. That's how I work. and I also like looking at how the Great Composers have constructed their works and letting that sort of permeate (little old me). Where does it come from ? It just evolves.
Q: How would you describe your music to someone who has never listened to you before?
TIM: My music is of a contemporary cinematic classical style, fusing modern sounds, rhythms and styles with traditional classical composition. Originality and accessibility are both really important to me when I am composing a new piece. I use melody a lot. I like to surprise with harmony, I prefer not to follow any rules and do something interesting. I would like to think that it's a piece that is different.
Composing is about creating something that is original. For me its really important to be original. It's to say that, if I write something and I hear it and it sounds like it's something I've written, it sounds like it has its own signature. It's of itself. , that's what I'm about. It's very easy to be generic, it's hard to be original, but it's particularly hard to be melodic and original. People like just a few chords, or just one chord, which is fine but it's not that interesting. Music needs to engage you on many levels, emotionally, intellectually, creatively but most of all originality is the most important thing. If it's not original, what's the point?
Q: Not to follow rules is interesting, because I know that you've not been to music college or studied those rules in an academic setting like many other composers. Have you found that not going to music college has held you back in any way?
TIM: Of course, it would be nice to know a few more techniques, but then as soon as you know the techniques then you follow those techniques and I guess it will be harder to try new things. I If am free of the constraints of technique. If it sounds right for me it is right, obviously if you're using real musicians then you have to have some understanding about what is achievable with that instrument, articulation wise, progression, speed and that sort of thing. So that can be a bit of a hindrance, so it would be nice to have more of an orchestration background. But, as a musician myself, I do have some understanding and I can produce something that is interesting, that is highly complex and also playable. I am not constrained by techniques, I am liberated.
Q: Tell me more about your earlier musical life and where did it all start?
TIM: My father was an Evangelical Vicar and I used to play regularly in Church. It was a big influence and a great education, particularly having to play any tune in any key. It was that great gospel tradition and a very good background. B ut then also, it wasn't just Gospel, more classical choral music also played a big part in my formative years.
Q: What sort of music did you listen to when not playing in Church?
TIM: It was a bit more rock and roll, but at the same time, I loved listening to a lot of 20th Century Composers, like Vaughn Williams, Gustav Holst, and then later ones like Bernard Herman. I particularly like the earlier composers that have created music that sounds like it's of our time, except they were very much before their time. I just think that it's quite amazing. I love their Strong melodic ideas, I guess it's not fashionable to be melodic, and actually, I think that it's really hard to be original and melodic and not in a cheesy way.
Q: With your formative years a bit rock and roll and gospel, how did you go from that to ballet?
TIM: The first time I worked with them (Chantry Dance Co), I watched them dance and improvised with them and came up with something on the spot, which was an interesting idea to actually improvise. I didn't know anything about dance at the time, but it was like working with another musician, or rather a group of musicians where we just improvise and come up with something in the moment. The dancers were blown away. Chantry Dance are amazing to work with, they are incredibly talented and creative. I love working with them and their ideas seem to resonate with my music.
Q: Having listened and watched your last ballet, The Sandman, I thought that it was really eerie in places and quite dark. How did you get that effect in the music and did you use electronic or real musicians?
TIM: I used a technique on the violin called flautando. It's a pure note without vibrato. It gave an eerie feel to things. I use flautando quite heavily in The Sandman to create that dreamy, other worldly, edgy, dark feel. I used a combination of real musicians and electronic sound, but I used real musicians for all strings, its something that is so difficult to reproduce using sampled music.
Q: I know that you teach music technology to musicians, in the world of digital music technology, can anyone become a composer?
TIM: It's not about the technology. Technology gives you a lot of opportunities and we are actually at a point where, in the first time in the history of the human race, a composer can write something and hear it back with sampled acoustic instruments that would sound pretty much what it would sound like if it were a real instrument with a real player. That is a privileged position for modern composers to be in. I wouldn't have been a compose if I hadn't had that technology to be able to do that. I need the feedback of hearing what it actually sounds like so that I can continue to develop the piece. I can't hear it in my head, which is what the Great Composers did. It would be great to do that but I can't do it. They wrote with a pen, but I write with my ear. It's a feeling that I get that evolves into something great.
I've got to the point where I have enough technology to make it sound great, but I don't chase technology for it to somehow give it that little extra or make me into a better composer. You have to set the boundaries so that you work with what you have and that that discipline makes you a better composer. If you think I need this and that, more and more, then, your focus is wrong, You should focus on what you have and creating something out of that, And for me, that's true creativity, If you are an artist and you have every paint colour under the sun it doesn't mean you're going to be a better artist. If you have just three colours and you have to mix them together, that's what makes you a great artist if you come up with great stuff.
Q: Great analogy !
TIM: I know that writing for film, you would usually see the images first, which makes me wonder
Q: how do you know what the dancers want if you’ve
never seen the ballet?
TIM: They send me a cue sheet of scenes and sub sections of scenes, and how long each one is and what the mood is, what's going on; temporary musical ideas just to give a feel, So it's like working backwards compared to writing for fim. You have the written cues, you don't have the visual cues to write to. Once I get the storyboard, I have a dramatic vision in my head which evolves from the cue sheet and I just.. make stuff up. I start with a bit of improvisation on the piano, then a feel for the theme evolves. I don't write scene by scene, but I play around with ideas until I find that them that will become the signature of the ballet, t's only when I finally see the dance, that the work is finished.
Q: What is your relationship with the music during that process?
TIM: I get a feeling, but it's about discernment. Composing is about discernment, knowing when something is right and knowing when to stop when something is wrong and that comes with experience. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking something's right and actually, it's really not right. But you've got to be hard on yourself, but not so hard that you never do anything. So, when you've written something you know it's right and t's that knowing that you know it's right.
Q: How long does it take you to write a ballet?
TIM: It takes about three months to write an 80 minute ballet. I work usually day and night for up to about 12 hours a day.
Q: With all that time developing the music, how does it feel afterwards, when you’ve finished it and you finally hand over the music to the dancers?
TIM: when I've finished it, I feel that it's not mine. But that's the case for anything so if you're writing for others to play, or even if you're writing and you do the whole production yourself, as soon as you hand it over and it's gone, and it's no longer yours; though the royalties are (laughs). When it becomes something else and I see it in its entity and I've left it (the music) alone, and I’m watching as the observer, I don't understand how I came up with it. It seems like it's some entity thats just out there and exists now separately to me.
Q: Thanks Tim, fascinating. Looking forward to seeing your next production!
If you want to find out more about Tim Mountain, or would like him to get involved in your next film production, please visit his website: