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Welcome back to the Northern Film Orchestra Blog.

In our latest post, we have a brand new edition of Composer Spotlight, the blog series where we talk with emerging composers across the globe about their creative process. Today we are pleased to bring you an exclusive interview with UK-based composer Gaby Ambler.

Gaby is a multi-instrumentalist composer and orchestrator based in Birmingham, UK. Her main focus of work is composing original music for film, where her use of the orchestra combined with atmospheric synths and soundscapes creates powerful, emotive scores.

Many of the short films she has worked on have been featured at film festivals across the world and have been selected at BAFTA qualifying festivals in the UK.

Read on below to discover more!

UK-based composer Gaby Ambler.

How did you get into composing music?

I grew up playing the piano and clarinet and kind of always knew I wanted to do something with music, but I didn’t really know of any options other than performing or teaching.

I’d always loved playing and listening to film scores and thought I wanted to join a professional orchestra. When I realised the standard you have to be (and it turned out I didn’t actually like performing that much!) it suddenly clicked that if I can’t perform the music then why don’t I try to be one of the people writing it? I’d always enjoyed coming up with tunes and composing in Sibelius at school so it seemed the right path to take.

When I went to Falmouth University to study music it confirmed that I was most at home learning about film music and writing it. Once I was set up with a decent computer and DAW I got to work composing a portfolio of cinematic music and practicing writing to picture so I had something to show to people. I composed for a few student short films and some unpaid indie shorts, which led to meeting more filmmakers and working on more projects.

When you’ve had a few good short films under your belt it makes it a lot easier to meet and work with more people, and I think confidence has a lot to do with it as well. At the very start it was only my family and friends who had heard my music which is probably the case for a lot of composers starting out, and they’re always going to tell you it’s good, so you just have to believe that they’re telling the truth and put yourself out there as much as you can!

Gaby working in her studio.

How would you describe your creative process?

Firstly, I have to think about the purpose of the music I’m about to compose. If it’s for a film then it’s usually the visuals or storyline, as well as a conversation with the director, that would give me an idea of the tone I need to go for.

I always start off in my DAW and from there I decide on the instrumentation and a basic chord progression. I usually then improvise a melody or add other details, but if I’m struggling to think of something I’ll go to the piano and improvise there as I find it more natural and easier to play than a midi keyboard. After fleshing the idea out to a more coherent piece I’ll sometimes get to this point and decide it doesn’t work with the picture, in which case I either discard that idea (but never delete, always just move to the back of the project!) or I adjust certain elements to see what’s working and what’s not.

My final piece is often an evolved version of the first idea and if you were to look inside my Cubase projects there are usually variations of that idea at the end, which I have so far never gone back to but always keep ‘just in case’.

Occasionally I’ll improvise a whole piece on a piano or strings patch, then change the instrumentation, add harmonies and structure, and everything just slots together. It doesn’t happen very often but it’s very nice when it does!

You recently recorded your piece "A Day in October" with us. How did you find the experience of working with the orchestra and has this changed how you look at your music in any way?

Working with the orchestra was as fun as I thought it would be! It was the first time I’d heard my orchestral music played live so that was a really exciting experience and I definitely want to do it more.

Because I orchestrated the music myself, I tried to make sure that during the composing stage I was writing the parts idiomatically to avoid having to change much later on, whereas usually I’d be writing for MIDI mock-ups with no intention of having it recorded. However, I think it’s good practice to write parts as though they could be played even if you’re not planning on having them recorded, and for the most part it makes mock-ups sound better and more realistic.

With the recording and orchestrating for ‘A Day In October’ the hardest part for me was ensuring that each part would be heard amongst the whole orchestra; would a solo cello be heard over 12 violins and the woodwind section? I had to do a lot of research for things like that throughout the piece which I can now apply to future projects - I feel like I came away with a wealth of knowledge that you can only gain from having that experience, especially seeing it through from composing to orchestrating to recording and having the final product.

Do you have a favourite project that you have worked on so far?

I’ve been lucky to be on board some lovely projects, but I think my favourite one would be an animated short I scored called Dreary Days, directed by Ella Greenwood from Broken Flames. I love animation and I always think composers can go that bit further with their music and not hold back so much.

This one came right at the beginning of lockdown, it’s only about 3 minutes long and very light-hearted but with a good twist. The music plays throughout the film and it really gave me the opportunity to have some fun with it and be really musical, playing with different instrumentation and themes. I’m always up to score an animation, they’re so much fun!

What's next in store for you?

I’m continuing to work on short film scores which I always find exciting as you never know where each film will take you, especially when they start doing the festival rounds. I’ll also carry on writing some stand-alone tracks. Now that I’ve done a big orchestral piece I’m finding myself going the opposite way and have started on some subtle underscore piano/strings tracks that I’ll either pitch to production companies or release myself. I’d also like to find more opportunities to work with live musicians again, whether that’s with my own music or assisting or orchestrating for other composers.

Thanks for checking out this edition of composer spotlight. For more from Gaby you can follow her via the links below:


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