By JJ Barnes
NOV 2, 2021
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am a composer who was born in Belgium where I grew up in a musical home. I believe myself to be creative and an artist at heart, previously and currently exploring various dimensions of multiple art-forms. I have been a theatre actor and director, been an acting teacher, done metal art, sculpted and explored photography - all at the same time as being a composer. My greatest passion has always been writing music. I moved to South Africa as a teenager, which is also where I started my composing career, writing music for television. I spent countless hours writing music to accompany wildlife and sports programmes like pro-basketball and the Rugby World Cup, the later project being my first paid assignment. These early assignments taught me an incredible amount and also instilled in me a strong sense of professionalism and discipline. I have also lived and worked in the USA for a while. I moved around a lot in the past but have been happily settled in England for quite some time now.
When did you first want to write music?
I started making music at a young age, my father had a wonderful piano and I took private piano lessons at the local music school and attended group solfège lessons. A more serious interest in wanting to write music emerged during the time I was studying for a drama diploma in South Africa. Piano playing was a part of my personal creative process, I used it to find character dimensions and especially to explore their emotions. I realised then that writing music was a key part of what I really enjoyed. I specialised in directing during my final year of study and led a workshop where music, singing and movement were the main focus. The music I wrote for the workshop was the part I loved best and the trajectory to writing music in my future was set.
When did you take a step to start writing music?
Professionally, my music became a career choice after I met a sound engineer at a post-production company in South Africa. The big step I took was accepting an offer to write some music for the sport programs that he used to edit. I ended up writing music in all kind of genres but also learned a lot about specifically writing to picture and progressed to writing music for wildlife documentary programs.
What was your first piece of music released, and what inspired it?
The first independent productive release of music was ‘The Complete Eternal Lies Suite’ a globespanning 1930s campaign for the tabletop RPG Trail of Cthulhu. . I was part of a team of composers where we each contributed several tracks of original, fully orchestrated music for the Eternal Lies campaign. I was inspired to collaborate with other composers and also to write in a very specific old world dramatic style, which required a cultural fit to a range of locations in the world.
Focusing on your 'I am Belmaya' Soundtrack - what were your biggest challenges with it?
Dealing with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic during the project was definitely a big challenge. Thankfully, I had a chance to meet with Sue Carpenter for an in depth spotting session before the pandemic. There had been improvised authentic music recorded on traditional Nepalese instruments which needed to be incorporated into the final score. As the film evolved and the score emerged with the story, we got into a great rhythm and creative pattern and things became easier. Being able to score ‘I am Belmaya’ during the pandemic lock-down turned out to be a blessing and beautiful focal point. The story itself also inspired me to develop greater resilience.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on an album for a graphic novel which is very exciting. More than half the expected 70 minutes of music has already been completed. The music is set to a great adventure and can be emotional at times, mixing real life history with fantasy. Creating the music has been a voyage on its own. I am enjoying it immensely and each new track has directed me through different creative avenues. I have been free to experiment with a diverse pallet of instruments and sounds which has been a privilege and joy so far.
Do you keep to a theme with your music, or just go where the mood strikes?
I always try to meet the client’s brief when writing music and this may include one or several themes. When I write music for myself, however, there seems to be a common thread and theme that emerges; I especially like returning to a piano piece with variations then dictated by my mood.
What is your favourite piece of music you’ve recorded, and what do you love about it?
My favourite piece of music is called ‘Rebirth’. It was written for ‘The Silver Notebook’, a multi-artist production library album published by Lovely Music label. The album is a collection of piano and strings compositions, where the strings are performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Each time I hear it, I relive the experience that inspired me to write it in the first place, in which I had a profound sense of the cycle of birth and death and the miracle of rebirth, when seeing emerald green young plant shoots emerging from the black fissures in a barren volcanic lava flow on the Big Island in Hawaii. Here is the link to ‘Rebirth’.
Do you find other people’s music inspires you? Who do you listen to most?
Absolutely! It changes all the time; at the moment Max Richter’s music inspires me. Lately, I have gone through a wave of listening to Nordic music, Wardruna, Ólafur Arnalds, Heilung to name a few. I listen to tons of different genres of music, mainly world music, classical, electronic, folk and film music and especially enjoy live concerts.
What’s something you never expected about writing music? What have you learned that surprised you?
Music to me is a great means of connection: to connect to a feeling, connecting to people and connecting a message or emotion through music is always fascinating. It awakens memories and can bring me back to relive treasured moments. Any emotion can be expressed through music, I have yet to find one that cannot. It always surprises me too when a piece of music seems to emerge unexpectedly out of nowhere.
Have you had any experiences that really stand out because of your music?
I’ve had many unforgettable experiences because of my music and being involved with music generally. Being invited to the NAMM show in Anaheim USA and meeting developers I have had a chance to work with, and still do. Being able to attend the Cannes Festival with composer colleagues who I now consider as great friends too, and attending the BAFTA awards thanks to the BAFTAcrew inittative. Forming a strong connection to diverse groups of people that I have met because of my music has resulted in numerous experiences where shared passion for music really stood out for me. A recent moment that stood out for me, for instance, was when Mark Kermode had a request to play music from ‘I Am Belmaya’ on his program on Scala Radio and then played two tracks from the score.
Do you have any important events coming up we should know about?
'I am Belmaya’ has new screenings being added and if anyone hasn’t had a chance to view the film, I urge them to see it. Here is the full list of venues and booking list.
What is the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to write music?
I truly believe that the purpose of writing music is the art of bringing into the world something original and something new, expressed in a universal language. My first piece of advice would probably therefore be to remember this, and to then believe that you can do it - but also to be patient, it takes time for your own established brand of authentic music to unfold.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Capturing Belmaya’s emotional journey was a unique opportunity to underpin, through music, a story of courage, determination and love, and to discover so much about Nepalese culture and music. I believe I accomplished both. The nature and essence of every culture is embodied in their music and so I felt that preserving this in the colourful Nepali cues was vital and I believe I accomplished this too. When I felt the positive audience response as the final credits rolled at London premier, I got a deep sense that all the tremendous effort that everybody had invested into this film was so very worthwhile!
Link to article
In January 2016 the NAMM show was held in Anaheim, California. Marie-Anne attended the show and has written about her experience at the show in the latest Sonozine #7 Spring release magazine.