If you managed to catch Mahalia Belo's brilliant The Long Song on BBC One over Christmas then you likely would have been left moved, enlightened, and, above all, surprisingly uplifted. This is somewhat thanks to Jonathan Hill's ingenious underscore.
Based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Andrea Levy, Mahalia Belo's screen adaption of The Long Song follows the story of the resilient July during the course, abolishment and lasting consequences of slavery in 19th Century Jamaica. The three-part series is underscored by up-and-coming British composer Jonathan Hill who we were intrigued to get to know. To begin, we asked him to provide a little musical background about himself:
"It’s a pretty conventionally classical one on paper: I started flute and piano at 8, studied at the Junior department of the Royal Academy of Music as a teen, then music at Cambridge and a masters in composing at the National Film and Television School after a year out. But it always felt strange and exciting, especially as a kid: learning to play my favourite Disney songs by ear, improvising for hours every day on the piano (driving my family nuts in the process). I felt like a little explorer. But I’m not from a particularly musical family. My dad was a good pianist but gave it up before I was born to become a preacher. My parents were as supportive as their means allowed, but there was never any music on at home. It all felt a bit solitary, but I think that was part of the thrill. Music was a weird fantasy world I could escape to."
So when it comes to actually composing music, from whom does Jon take inspiration?
"The ones I keep coming back to are Bach, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Steve Reich and Thomas Adès. To be honest though, when I actually sit down to work, I just need two things: a good story and great players to collaborate with."
Despite being relatively new to the industry, Jon has a few notable credits to his name:
"There was a great Channel 4 feature film a couple of years ago called Ellen that did well at the BAFTAS, and before that, lots of shorts. Most of my TV credits so far are on current affairs films. The Long Song is definitely the most exciting thing I’ve done so far."
Moving on to the title in question, we were interested in how Jon landed the opportunity of working with BAFTA-winning Mahalia Belo again.
"May and I have worked together on-and-off since her NFTS graduation film, Volume. We worked on Ellen together. She invited me to pitch for The Long Song, which I did. The producers liked what I wrote and decided I was worth a punt."
And worth a punt he certainly was. What instantly struck us as the opening scene unfolded was the elegant choice of instrumentation for such a harrowing subject. It's tricky to decipher in hindsight what exactly we were expecting, but it certainly would have been on the solemn side of the musical spectrum when in actuality the score was touching upon the exuberant. We asked Jon to explain more...
"Yeah, this was tricky. It’s a big story, but intimately told by an elderly July. The mood and perspective are constantly shifting - from comedy to tragedy, from old to young July - so it needed a score that could keep pace; nothing too big or clunky. And we didn’t want it to sound like a ‘normal’ period drama, because, well, it isn’t one. I tried out a bunch of things and eventually whittled it down to a delicate acoustic palette: classical guitar, mandolin, solo strings, piano and harp. I fleshed out and embellished as necessary, but that was the crux of it."
As viewers watching this inevitably tragic story, we're left feeling staggeringly optimistic thanks to the clever musical relief. The score is often uplifting and even playful. Was this a big consideration in the compositional process?
"I’m so glad to hear that! Yes, absolutely. I read the novel before writing my pitch, and it’s hilarious. That lightness in July’s otherwise horrible story is what makes it distinctive, so it had to be in the score."
Over the three episodes, it's evident that the instrumentation evolves with the storyline. The piano stood out to us in particular as it entered when Emily was born in the second episode. Could this have been intentional symbolism or an indication of the music freely transitioning with the story?
"Personally, I find the more I impose self-conscious musical conceits on a score, the more it strays from the story and the less it works; at the same time, the more I just let the story dictate the terms, the more the little links and signposts appear organically (if the story is any good, that is). I was just trying to feel with July, and what she’s feeling in that scene is bliss, something totally new to her, so in that sense, I was marking a transition. At the same time, what we’re seeing is a memory (old July’s), so it’s shot through with a painful nostalgia - she knows it won’t last long. So there had to be some sadness in there too. I loved writing that cue - that kind of exalted sadness, the sense that beauty is only possible because it never lasts, is very much my aesthetic territory, and there were plenty of moments like that in The Long Song. Sorry - I think I’ve strayed a bit from your question..."
Of course, no apology is necessary as we delve deeper into understanding the workings of Jon's ever-more perceptibly brilliant mind. Could there have been any more symbolism at work?
"Luckily for me, May is very alert to anything artificial or tricksy in my work. So I only really resort to this when I run out of more instinctive ideas. For example, I was a bit stumped by a scene near the end of the first episode, where Caroline finally swallows her pride and restores July to her status in the house. I wasn’t sure how to convey their weird codependence musically, so I had a go at combining their themes. I’d unconsciously done myself a favour early on by making them both waltz-like, and they turned out to be a snug fit. It’s nice when that sort of thing just appears without having to dig too deep for it.
"The only part that called for a more self-conscious gesture was the love scene between July and Nimrod that ends with them floating magically above the bed; I couldn’t help giving this a rising scale in the strings. Again though, what worked about this was the feeling it expressed, a kind of yearning for freedom, and it recurs throughout the series - even when no one’s actually flying!
"You could say that the continuous restatements of July’s theme in changing musical and dramatic contexts reflect Old July’s growing sense that history is not just something that happens to or around her, but very much is her. This is especially true of the third episode, where the historical magnitude of the events seem to engulf the July-Caroline-Robert triad as they unfold. There are scenes that July couldn’t have witnessed directly herself, but her theme is woven into them anyway. I think this was my musical response to one of the main concerns of the novel; that is, the blurred and, for people like July, hazardous lines between the historical and the personal. Right at the end, she reminds us that her voice is just one among many that have been lost, as the camera lingers on the faces of the other characters. When I hear July’s theme there, it’s not really ‘hers’ anymore - it’s become a song for all those voices lost to a history written by the white rulers who silenced them."
For some of the more intense, dramatic scenes (a particularly prominent death scene would be an example), the arrangements contrasted to what we had become accustomed. We were interested to ask Jon how he created such dark, atmospheric soundscapes, to which he candidly responded,
"Dissonant flutes with loads of verb and Omnisphere pads."
Among Jon's sparkling arrangements, some scenes were delightfully sprinkled with traditional Jamaican chanting...
"I didn’t write or have anything to do with the selection of all that beautiful vocal music. It was a mix of traditional field songs and choral arrangements by the Jamaican Folk Singers. It would have been weird for me to be involved here - those bits needed the authentic voice of the island and its history."
Composing the score is only half of the story. How involved was Jon in the production and recording process?
"I was a total control freak. I recorded and mixed everything at home, and worked really closely with my string players to get just the right tone, vibrato and phrasing in the rather exposed string melodies (thank you Sophie Gledhill, Lara Agar and Helen Downham). The only thing I didn’t record myself was the kora, which appears in three cues. This was done remotely by Kadialy Kouyate, who’s a truly amazing artist - if you haven’t done already, check him out online."
Currently, there aren't any plans to release the soundtrack but you can find it on Jon's website. What's next for the composer?
"I’m a composer, so probably a life of penury and suffering? Nah, it’s actually looking good - I’m about to sign with Faber and have some exciting meetings lined up, so who knows where all that will lead. I’d love to develop the kind of relationship I have with May with a similarly exciting, original director. The Long Song was a dream job because it combined all that humour, depth and beauty with a socially conscious, powerfully political message. More of that would be great."
Jon's score for The Long Song acts as the perfect example of the young talent currently flowing through Britain's music schools. It's refreshing to witness big production companies putting their faith in newcomers as opposed to relying on the usual suspects. A newcomer no more, however, we're certain this won't be the last time we hear from humble Jonathan Hill.