Anne Nikitin was born in Canada to Romanian and Polish parents. She immersed herself in avant-garde music while studying composition and English literature at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and was also awarded the SOCAN prize for Young Composers of Canada. Nikitin went on to complete her master’s in composition for screen at the Royal College of Music in London, United Kingdom. Her break came in 2006 when she won the BBC New Talent, New TV Composers scheme, which led to composing scores for major United Kingdom and United States broadcasters.
Nikitin is an Ivor Novello-nominated composer who is best known for her work on Bart Layton’s critically acclaimed heist movie American Animals and BAFTA-winning film The Imposter. Her recent scores include Sulphur & White for Modern Films, Little Birds, a Sky Original drama series, Four Kids and It for Sky Cinema, Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, and Stardust, a mini biopic about David Bowie’s early years, for which she worked as a co-composer.
We reached out to Nikitin to see how she got her start in film and television music and any advice she has to offer other up-and-coming composers!
SSM: You mentioned in a Film.Music.Media interview with founder and editor Kaya Savas that when you got into music at age 8, you invented your own way of writing it. Can you speak more about what led you to fall in love with music at that age, and how you developed your own musical language at such an early age?
AN: It’s hard to say how or why I was so consumed by music as neither of my parents are musicians, but there was always music in the house: my mum loved classical and pop/rock, my Dad loved jazz, and I loved listening to the latest albums in the charts. Also, MTV had just started, so I was glued to all of the, now iconic, music videos! I was learning piano at the time, and my Dad had a portable tape recorder that I hijacked for recording myself singing and playing into. So I guess a culmination of all these events made me think I could make music too…
Weirdly, my grandmother was a pianist for silent movies in Poland before the war. So maybe there’s some sort of film music gene in the family!
SSM: You previously mentioned that Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano, starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill and a very young Anna Paquin was the first time you ever noticed music in a film. Can you speak into what about that film’s score made you take notice?
AN: I grew up watching all the classic 80s family films, and distinctly remember loving and humming those wonderful music themes: Back to the Future, E.T., Star Wars, etc, but I don’t think I was aware that these were ‘film scores’.
While watching The Piano I was, for the first time, consciously aware of the important role that music plays in film, and the emotional impact it has on its audience. And yet, the music is able to exist independently from its film as an equally seductive entity. It was the first time I realized that that was what I wanted to do.
SSM: You attended McGill University in Canada and then later attended the Royal College of Music in London. While attending these schools, is there a person or event that inspired you during your time in school?
AN: My composition professors at McGill University made a huge impression on me and taught me so much – I was in awe of them! The composition class was small, so we all bonded and felt that we were going on a journey together. Montreal has such a rich music scene from contemporary music to indie and jazz – it felt like a melting pot of creativity and inspiration.
At The Royal College of Music I ventured into film scoring, and realized that everything I needed was on the doorstep – from studios to top notch players and collaborators – I felt very fortunate to be there.
But the most important people who influenced my path as a composer were in high school: my music teacher, Andrew Wright, who was always supportive and wanted me to pursue my musical dreams, and Vanessa Lann, a dynamic teacher and contemporary composer who opened up my eyes to the idea of becoming a composer and encouraged me to give it a go!
SSM: You composed for several true story- to- film projects, including American Animals and The Imposter. Similarly, Sulphur & White is based on the true story of city trader David Tait who comes to terms with abuse from his past. How did you come to work on this project and, like your previous projects, were you drawn in by the true-story aspect?
AN: My first commissions were documentaries, which is how I met Bart Layton who directed The Imposter and American Animals. Although I love scoring all genres of film, there is something captivating about true stories. As soon as I watched the first cut of Sulphur & White and saw what David Tait had achieved, I understood the importance of this film and wanted to play my part. I was also a fan of director Julian Jarrold’s previous work, so was over the moon when he asked me to come on board.
SSM: For Sulphur & White, which is about a man’s journey who is disconnected due to his past, can you speak into your process of crafting a score to accompany this type of journey? Can you also talk about yours and director Julian Jarrold’s goal with the score?
AN: Julian and I were always aware that the score should support but not overwhelm this already emotionally-charged story. I didn’t want to add more to the drama, so I tried to keep my music minimal and to follow David’s journey respectfully – using music to delicately enhance the darkness and light that he experiences into adulthood.
I wrote for string quintet and piano, which is my favourite ensemble to compose for due to its versatility and range.
SSM: What do you hope people take away from this film and what would you like audiences to glean from your score in Sulphur & White?
AN: From watching David Tait’s story, I hope people have a better understanding of how survivors of child abuse carry the scars well into adulthood and how it impacts family and friends. But equally to know that there is hope and support, and that wounds can heal. David is an Ambassador and Trustee of the NSPCC and wants to spread awareness of the incredible work that they do to help children.
SSM: You mentioned previously that after you left the Royal College of Music, you struggled with getting started in film music and that it was winning a BBC competition that gave you the push in the industry. What is a piece of advice you can give to women composers trying to get started today?
AN: Yes, it took a long time before I landed my first commission, and that was through winning the BBC competition. Before that, I was scoring many short films, which I enjoyed and they allowed me to hone my skills, but it wasn’t a viable way to earn a living.
The truth is, it’s an incredibly tough industry to break into whether you’re a man or a woman, but I have always acknowledged that there’s a huge dearth of women who are composing scores for a living, especially at the top level. I would like to see this changed. The advice I can give to women today is, if you have that burning desire to write music and you love film, then write, work hard, and persevere – have the confidence to call yourself a composer and own it! There are plenty of opportunities these days, as the film industry is starting to acknowledge that they have a responsibility to open up their doors to new and exciting talent.
SSM: What’s coming up next for you?
AN: I’ve finished a wonderfully wild and bold Sky Atlantic series called Little Birds, based on Anaïs Nin’s erotic stories – it stars Juno Temple and comes out this summer. Also an episode of Soulmates – an anthology series set in the future for AMC created by William Bridges (Black Mirror), coming out this fall. And I’m currently scoring Fate:The Winx Saga, a dark and exciting young adult fantasy series for Netflix created by Brian Young (The Vampire Diaries) – about sassy teenage fairies who fight monsters!
Sulphur & White (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) out now: [Download/Listen]