Anne Chmelewsky is a Los Angeles-based composer who trained at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and went on to do a master’s in composition for screen at the Royal College of Music. Chmelewsky is a 2019 World Soundtrack Awards Discovery nominee for the Where Hands Touch score whose work spans film, television and stage.
Her recent credits include The Looking Screen, a one-woman operetta composed and written by Chmelewsky; Do We Belong, featured as part of The Atlantic Selects; Derek, the British comedy-drama written and directed by Ricky Gervais; and Where Hands Touch, which had its soundtrack released on Music.Film Recordings.
We reached out to Chmelewsky to discuss her process for composing music and to see what’s next for this talented composer.
SSM: I read that Bernard Herrmann made an impact on you in your early years with getting interested in film music. Is there a specific film of his that stands out to you today?
AC: I’ve always been fascinated by Herrmann’s music, and so many of his scores in my opinion are genuinely brilliant. The soundtrack to North by Northwest is perhaps the one that had the greatest impact on me, mostly because it was one of the first Hitchcock films that I watched when I was young. I love Herrmann’s harmonic language in it, his juxtaposition of dissonances with more traditional idioms. The score conveys the tension and suspense of the film, the epic nature of the undercover spy operations at hand, but also Hitchcock’s light touches of humour. It’s a perfect musical translation of the movie. There are similar elements in his unused soundtrack for Torn Curtain too, which I also regard very highly.
SSM: What music college did you attend? And while in college, was there a teacher that had an influence on you in any way that stands out? If so, can you speak into how that shows up in your work ethic or musical stylizations today?
AC: I did my undergraduate degree in composition at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and then went on to do a Masters in composition for screen at the Royal College of Music, both in London. My first degree was really focused on standalone concert music and we worked a lot on harmony and counterpoint, as well as the importance of visualising structure in a piece of music. The latter especially is something I still think about a lot, especially when I’m in the early stages of working on a concert piece: the development of ideas, climaxes in the music, and so on.
I also had an orchestration teacher who also taught me about the importance of making every single instrumental part have its own logical shape and direction – extremely useful advice. After I finished at the Royal College I ended up working as an assistant for composer Michael J. McEvoy, who had actually led the screen music course while I was there. He gave me my first opportunities in film music and I’ve learnt so many practical skills from him over the years – I still call on him for advice frequently!
SSM: I can imagine you work with some amazing musicians! Has there been someone or an event that stands out as having positively influenced you over the length of your career?
AC: I’m in awe of pretty much every musician I’ve ever worked with. I’m neither a great sight-reader nor a great performer, so I’m always especially inspired by people who can get up on stage or in a recording studio and make a piece of music come to life. As for my writing, it has definitely been influenced by numerous people in my life. I used to live with brass players and that led me to write a lot of chamber music for brass, which I still do today. Similarly, I started writing operettas because I spent a lot of my time at college alongside some particularly talented singers.
SSM: I am sure life can become myopic when composing for a film within a tight deadline! What things do you do to decompress during those times, and how do they influence your creative process with creating the score for that project?
AC: To be honest, I’m not great at decompressing during projects! Part of my creative process (unfortunately) is to cut myself off from the rest of the world for chunks of time and try to live in isolation as much as possible… During some recent projects I’ve tried to build a daily routine of exercise and meditation which helps a lot, but although my friends are used to me disappearing for chunks of time, I’m still actively working to improve my sociability. Locking yourself in a room for long periods of time isn’t really sustainable in the long run. Once a project is over though, I tend to get back to ‘normal’ fairly quickly.
SSM:I read that improvising is one of your favorite exercises. Can you speak into how that plays a part with creating your amazing scores?
AC: I really like improvising to a narratives. I aim to improvise for an hour each day, which I’ll always record just in case I come up with something interesting. I grew up on European comic books and used to keep them open on the stand of the piano so I improvise along with their stories. I basically still do this today, but the books are loaded onto an iPad. At its core, improvising trains your ability to develop your material: taking a small group of ideas and reworking them in every way possible, stretching them to their maximum potential. I find that this extremely useful for film scoring, where we so often have to compress or elongate material to fit changing scenes and situations on-screen.
SSM: I find the score for Where Hands Touch to be delicate and yet resplendent. How do you balance the softness and intensity of your scores to craft such stunning music?
AC: Where Hands Touch felt like a precious gift in many ways. The story was so poignant and incorporated the intimacy of an adolescent bi-racial German girl exploring her identity against the enormity the Second World War. So musically, there were really interesting extremes to explore and convey in the same space. Amma Asante, who wrote and directed the film, spent a lot of time with me sharing aspects of the story and its history, both impenetrable in horror and at the same time so deeply human. While the softer, more intimate themes in the music came first, the more intense and tragic thematic material took a longer time to refine and came together towards the end of the process.
SSM: What is coming up next for you?
AC: I had a few concert performances cancelled due to Covid 19 – think it’ll be a while until they are re-programmed, but later this year I have a new album coming out of chamber music for strings, trombone, harp, vibraphone, and piano, so at the moment I’m writing the follow-up record. And I’m also working on a new operetta, a modern retelling of Narcissus about a woman who falls in love with her own online profile.