Chris Nicolaides

Screen composer Chris Nicolaides is BBC’s go-to musician when it comes to scores for historical documentaries. We got the lowdown on his career and how new composers can survive from writing music in 2014…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 30 Jan 2014
  • min read
If you’re a fan of the BBC’s historical documentaries, then it’s likely you’ll have heard the music of composer Chris Nicolaides.

His scores have underlined the action of Empire (presented by Jeremy Paxman), Shakespeare in Italy and more recently Britain and the Sea with David Dimbleby and Britain’s Great War (with Paxman again).

Not only that but Chris has worked on some more high-profile pop projects include recording Mika’s Life in Cartoon Motion and producing tracks for chart-topping Chesney Hawkes and Zero 7 collaborator Mozez.

We recently caught up with this talented musician to quiz him about his career, the challenges of scoring for historical documentaries and why writing library music is the future for composers…

What inspired you to start making music?  

I’ve played piano and violin since I was young. But I never thought I’d be able to write music. However, I started messing around with a friend who played guitar. We tried to make music and it was a lucky coincidence that my late uncle was a BBC camera man. He’d worked on programmes like Some Mothers Do ‘ave Em and Monty Python for the BBC. After his son, who I was working with, had put together some TV style music, my uncle dragged a producer friend of his round to listen to our stuff in our bedroom studio.

He liked what he heard, sent us a script for a TV series called Mulberry. We came up with some ideas, wrote a song they really liked and were thrown in at the deep end. We had to write some incidental music for the series too in days before computers - how did you synchronise back then using VHS? It was really hard.

Back when we did Mulberry, we were inspired by just doing it and writing music to picture. I find that really fascinating - trying to write music to visuals. It’s a journey I’m still enjoying.

So that first foot in the door was from contacts and being in the right place at the right time?  

I became a musician by just doing it; by listening to the music that I loved and sitting down at the piano to figure it out. It stood me very well for what I’m doing now.

After Mulberry, the dream was to carry on and write music for film. I put an ad in free paper Loot advertising a hard disk case and the guy who answered it brought his composer friend along with him.

The composer was Charlie Mole, and it turned out he lived effectively on the same road. We got on and I started off helping him with his computers before working on some mock ups for films An Ideal Husband and the Importance of Being Earnest. He was running out of time to get everything finished. I chose a couple of scenes to work on and ended up with two repeated themes.

So a lot of it is luck - a Hollywood film score for me came from an ad in Loot. You never know when the opportunity is going to come.

Another call from Charlie came when he had to turn down a BBC drama, The Impressionists. He was one of three composers on this drama but he'd landed a major film with Christopher Walken and couldn't do both.

I inherited the drama from him - the editor called me up saying how much he liked my music. He recommended me to one of the production team for a series called Dan Cruickshank’s Adventures in Architecture. I landed that and have been working for the same production team ever since.

Is it a challenge to score different styles for each series?

It’s always a challenge. Each series is a different one. I watched a roundtable with some Hollywood composers and one commented on the difficulty of starting a new film; ‘Oh god what am I going to do?’ I have to remind myself that I’ve done this five or six times before because at the beginning, it always feels like the first.

There’s always that panic on how to find the sound of the series. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a production team which has accepted my first attempt for the title music of each one I’ve done. I’ve instinctively managed to get that right. The editor is a real film music aficionado. As long as I understand the mood he’s after, then it gives me a framework in which to work.

Is the film scoring industry easier to get into now than before?

It’s tough to get into. As a young composer, you need to hook up with a director and editor who likes what you do. But the future for most composers, and I include myself in this, is library music.

I’m working on a library album now which I’m recording with a live orchestra. I’m trying to create something different to a library album created using samples. It's going to be out there for years and hopefully get licensed again, again and again, so from my perspective it has to sound as good as a score for a Hollywood film. Which is why it’s taking some time.

I started on it a year and a half ago and have done two sessions with the Macedonian radio orchestra. It’s basically much cheaper recording out there than here. I became more aware recently that even Hollywood composers are using the Macedonian radio orchestra. Which shows you that the budgets are no longer there.

The other side of the coin is, equipment is so much cheaper now. I spent a fortune on equipment when I started out 15/20 years ago. There’s gear in my studio which I look at and almost cry when I realise how much I paid, and how worthless it is now!