Tuesday 17 September 2019

'I'd never, ever do it again' - composer Hannah Peel talks discrimination in the industry, and Emmy nod for Game of Thrones doc score

With an Emmy nomination for her emotive score to documentary Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, composer Hannah Peel admits doors have been opened. But there's still a sense of discrimination in the music industry, and she won't let it stand in her way, she tells Lee Henry

Hannah Peel by Paul Heartfield
Hannah Peel by Paul Heartfield
Hitting the right note: Hannah Peel performing in Belfast last year
Hannah Peel on stage at The Lunar Festival in the UK in 2012

Lee Henry

Even if you haven't seen English director Jeanie Finlay's epic feature-length documentary Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, broadcast in Ireland on Sky, May 26, to mark the culmination of the network's multi-award-winning fantasy series, chances are you will have stopped scrolling and pressed play for what has become its most famous scene.

Partially included in the trailer, it shows the lead cast assembled for the final script read-through. The tension palpable, the stars listen on as show co-creator David Benioff narrates the fate of Emilia Clarke's Daenerys Targaryen, diminutive Mother of Dragons. Upon discovering that his character, Jon Snow, delivers her death blow, hirsute actor Kit Harrington becomes visibly emotional. No one saw this coming.

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Least of all composer Hannah Peel, commissioned by Finlay to score the documentary in the winter of 2017. "It was pretty emotional, to be honest," says Peel. "When you work in the arts and it's a real labour of love, it's hard to say goodbye. Seeing the cast age through the years - from the first table read-through to the last - as they discover their characters' fates, it had a real sense of mortality to it."

Listen closely and you can hear Peel's emotive score, brought down in the mix to become almost inaudible during what was already an incredibly dramatic scene. "It features piano and cello and was written for all the read-through parts," Peel explains. "Jeanie wanted movement yet a sense of journey too, and friendship. I felt that the cello had the necessary resonance with a melancholic edge."

Hitting the right note: Hannah Peel performing in Belfast last year
Hitting the right note: Hannah Peel performing in Belfast last year

Before being commissioned to score her first full-length feature, after writing the music for several short films and releasing five electronic, contemporary classical albums over the years, Peel - born in Craigavon and raised in Yorkshire; the thick Northern accent unmistakable - was not a fan. She hadn't watched the series or read author George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books, liberally and expertly adapted by Benioff and DB Weiss for the small screen.

"I didn't know any of it," Peel admits. "But once I started scoring, I became very attached to the whole thing. Over the course of the summer, I binge-watched the entire box set and loved it. Then I was invited to visit the studios at the docks in Belfast and was blown away by the sheer scale of the production. So many talented crew members have worked on the show and transformed the film industry in Northern Ireland as a result. It was then that I thought, 'I have to do this justice'."

That she did. In July it was announced that Peel had been shortlisted for an Emmy Award in the inaugural Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary (Original Dramatic Score) category, alongside heavyweights of the form including Oscar-nominated American composer Marco Beltrami and Miriam Cutler, shortlisted twice for Love, Gilda and RBG, the story of Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"I was completely blown away," Peels recalls of learning about the nomination. "In the last few years, documentary scores have become more of a thing, I guess because there just wasn't the budget previously, so producers would have been forced to use licensed music. But I'm a total newbie. The biggest industry award I've been nominated for until now was the Northern Ireland Music Prize and I didn't win. I'm not optimistic about the Emmy either but it's surreal just to be in with a shout."

Finlay commissioned Peel to score The Last Watch after hearing a song by her former band, electronic super group The Magnetic North. The track was built around a twinkling music box melody and Finlay envisaged running a reimagined version of Tomas Hilber's iconic Game of Thrones theme over footage of the Game of Thrones tapestry, currently on display at the Ulster Museum, to open the documentary.

Peel was "overjoyed" to be given the opportunity and appreciated Finlay's "no nonsense" approach to direction. "She always knew what she wanted," says Peel. "That made my job a lot easier." At the time, Peel had been considering relocating "back home" to Northern Ireland; the commission seemed fortuitous. Having signed a non-disclosure agreement, however, she was forced to keep it a secret from friends and family.

Hannah Peel on stage at The Lunar Festival in the UK in 2012
Hannah Peel on stage at The Lunar Festival in the UK in 2012

"The timing of it was strange and amazing," Peels adds. "Jeanie had 950 hours of footage that she had to get down to two hours and they started editing in September 2018. She was interested in the extreme weather conditions prevalent in Northern Ireland, so I went away and wrote pieces to do with snow, wind and rain. That's how it began."

Peel moved to Barnsley with her family aged 8 and subsequently studied at Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Her latest album, Chalk Hill Blue, written with English poet Will Burns and released in March, follows Peel's conceptual approach to music and has been described as "electronic ruralism". A more recognisable name, however, stands out in her list of recent collaborators: modfather Paul Weller.

"I was involved with his last two albums, arranging for strings on True Meanings and arranging and conducting the orchestra for his live shows and live album recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in London," says Peel. "Paul is such an incredible artist to work with, very trusting. I've just written and conducted for an 18-piece string section to feature on his next album. That session was a truly magical."

Another master of his craft, choreographer Wayne Sleep, invited Peel's ire earlier this summer when he announced the track listing for a compilation of modern electronic and contemporary classical music featuring just two female composers. In response to the Mercury KX label release, Peel took to Twitter to vent her spleen and list off a plethora of artists that Sleep could and should have considered.

"The fact that he had worked with other female composers, like Anna Meredith, but didn't include them, that says it all really," Peels observes. "But that's the classical dance world, if I'm honest. Before I started doing my own records, I worked at Sadler's Wells a few times and it was a closed door, solidly closed, if you were female. I'd never, ever do it again."

Peels cites the Alliance of Women Film Composers and Elizabeth Alker's Unclassified programme on BBC Radio 3 as signs that the industry is, perhaps, changing for the better. While she admits that "having the word Emmy attached to me might open a few doors", she's adamant that a pervading sense of discrimination won't stop her from releasing new music. "If the labels find it difficult to pigeonhole me, that's fine," she concludes. "I don't need them. I'm bloody-minded like that."

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