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In conversation with Hugh Brunt, of the London Contemporary Orchestra

Photo Credit: Will Milligan

Written by Nick Carvell

Today, the cinema is the place most of us will experience contemporary classical music - original scores that not only soundtrack the action on screen, but elevate the imagery on-screen to a higher emotional plane. This ability for music to communicate to the soul what cannot be communicated by our eyes alone is something that has been a defining feature of classical composer, conductor and co-artistic director of LCO Hugh Brunt’s career. In fact, when I ask him which musician he’d loved to have worked with in the past, his answer focused in on a specific, iconic moment in movie history...

“I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the Vertigo (1958) scoring sessions. Bernard Herrmann was an unparalleled genius in his field; an incredible communicator and chameleon. ”

Photo Credit: Will Milligan

Despite being born around a quarter of a century too late to be a part of this event, Brunt’s career has been filled with superstar collaborations and movie scores that are no less iconic thanks to his work with the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) - an organisation he established with his university friend Robert Ames in 2008. Today they both serve as co-creative directors and co-conductors.

“Founding LCO was driven by a desire to champion bold new music and cross-arts collaborations,” says Brunt. “ We wanted to challenge the way in which orchestral programmes are presented (for example, through staging site-responsive work) and, more generally, to consider the role and relevance of ‘the orchestra’ in the 21st century.”

Over the past 13 years, the LCO has travelled the world to work with popular artists including Beck, Imogen Heap, Belle & Sebastian, Goldfrapp and Radiohead (Brunt conducted the string and choir arrangements on the band’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool), as well as brands like Vivienne Westwood and Nike. Needless to say, Brunt and the LCO have also been involved with the soundtracks of TV shows such as the BBC’s McMafia and blockbuster films including Phantom Thread (Brunt wrote additional arrangements for the movie), Alien: Covenant, Assassin’s Creed and There Will Be Blood (Brunt conducted the first live to film presentation of the Academy Award–winning score).

Photo Credit: Will Milligan

Now free from pandemic restrictions, Brunt’s next project will see him travel to LA this November to conduct the LA Philharmonic Orchestra in their home venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Entitled Reel Change, this series of concerts will showcase music by the new generation of film composers, and Brunt will be conducting the work of Hildur Guðnadóttir (who won an Emmy and Grammy in 2019 for her score to Chernobyl and won an Oscar for Joker the year after) and (who composed the scores for Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, as well as the hit TV show, Succession).

As he prepares to fly to cinema’s spiritual homeland, I speak to Brunt about what links musical and personal style, his career highlights and how he selects clothes that work when he’s out on stage, baton-in-hand.

Photo Credit: Will Milligan

What has been the most challenging thing to learn when it comes to conducting?

I’m constantly assessing how I can be more economical and effective with my gestures and, in rehearsals, with my words. When it comes to arranging or orchestrating, I aim to be very detailed (but hopefully, concise) in my notation for realising specific techniques and textures. It’s important that the arranger’s or composer’s intentions are clear from the get-go. And, given the time constraints of recording sessions, it’s necessary to limit any ambiguity within a written direction so there is a collective understanding from the very first take. If the right level of information is on the page to begin with it’s much easier to mine deeper into that particular sound or colour and create something really special together with the players.

What’s been one really special moment of your career?

Not tied to any one particular artist, but my first concert after the pandemic - BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall for BBC Radio 3’s This Classical Life - was quite surreal. Just to be back in a concert hall with a live audience (albeit a small, socially-distanced one!) after so long, sharing a stage with some incredible musicians, felt very special.

Photo Credit: Will Milligan

What current musician would you love to work with and why?

Tamar-kali has been writing some incredible scores - I’d love to collaborate one day. Bobby Krlic, too.

When you are on stage, what do you like to wear?

What I tend to wear for concerts is very simple: typically a tailored, black collared shirt and black trousers; clothes that are light and easy to move in. Sometimes I’ll wear a black suit with a white, cutaway collar shirt and a black, knitted tie.

Is this motivated more by practicality than personal style?

Dark clothes are important for live film concerts and other multimedia presentations so the musicians on stage don’t distract from the main visual focus of the screen or lighting. Also, when working with larger groups of players, a white baton against a black shirt is going to be easier to pick out than against a white shirt. Essentially, what I wear is driven by the practical necessities of the performance rather than any individual sense of self-expression!

Photo Credit: Will Milligan

I once read that Mozart used to spend a whole hour getting dressed in the morning as the ritual of doing so helped his creativity. Do you have any rituals around style that help your work?

If I’ve been arranging till late for a recording session that I’m conducting the following morning, I’ll do my best to avoid looking like I’ve just rolled out of bed! Choosing what I wear helps me switch my mindset from working at home to going into a studio environment where I’ll be recording with anywhere between ten and 90 musicians and interacting throughout the day with composers, engineers, music executives and producers.

Oh, and for concerts, I tend to wear the same pair of cufflinks due to their sentimental value.

Style is a term you're just as likely to hear to describe someone's musical flair as their dress sense. What is style to you and who, in your opinion, has a superb musical style?

Style is conviction in your creative ideals. To give one example, Mica Levi’s music has a fearlessness and boldness to it - that, to me, is style.

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