So many creative, gifted individuals live in Clevedon, and I seem to discover many of them through Instagram; such was the case with the hugely interesting music composer and producer Chris Hope, my latest ‘Humans of Clevedon’ feature. I loved learning about Chris and discovered that we share many ideals, such as equality of opportunity, inclusion and having a creative purpose.

After a short time in Bristol, Chris and his wife Ruth moved to Clevedon seven years ago; before this, they had both been based in Birmingham. The move from Birmingham was related to Ruth’s job as a television director and producer. They enjoyed Bristol but found it a little impersonal and loved escaping to Clevedon at the weekends.

Clevedon has inspired Chris’ music; he feels it has ‘……a wonderful vibration: a sort of musicality and pulse of its own.’ And like many people who have moved here, Chris speaks very fondly about Clevedonians, whom he finds to be warm, interesting and engaging and very interested by the people around them, which is always endearing.  Chris loves that locals feel so proud and protective of their town. To be honest, I could write an essay about Chris’s love of Clevedon, and you’ll find it woven into many aspects of his story.

Chris grew up in Birmingham in an extended musical family that numbered over a hundred on each side, meaning he was immersed in music. His mum, from Bradford, played piano and guitar and had a vast, eclectic record collection, so there was always music on the go. Chris has clear memories of his piano lessons ‘with a very formal and ancient lady with incredibly veiny, angular hands like a benevolent witch… ‘, and although he didn’t always appreciate it at the time, he recognises that these lessons gave him a great musical foundation. Not surprisingly, Chris urges anybody, at any age, to take up an instrument.

Chris remembers his debut in composing very well. He was thirteen, and a family friend ‘smashed open my brain (metaphorically) by giving me a copy of a ‘new’ programme called Cubase Lite: a very simple and primitive DAW’ (Digital Audio Workstation).

Chris began to listen to music and reverse engineer it: classical; rock; film scores; songs: anything! He would sit and listen to the individual parts: the cellos, the guitars, the flutes, the individual synthesisers… rewinding and rewinding his little tape deck to listen to each piece of music but only focusing on one part at a time. He got good at filtering out all the other sounds until he could only hear and understand one part. Then – as he found that he could ‘play by ear’– he would record that one part into Cubase and then move on to the next piece. He unraveled and then rebuilt hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music: simple stuff and really complicated classical pieces. He didn’t know he was doing this: he was thirteen and just having fun. He was learning the fundamentals of instrument choice; melody; phrasing; pacing; even scoring the music so that it made sense on paper and sounded good!

I was curious to know if Chris had any other musical influences growing up besides his very musical family, from whom he inherited a broad musical taste, from classical to electronica and everything in between. He identified four musicians as having greatly influenced his life and work: The Beatles, Ben Folds, Liam Howlett and Damon Albarn.

Chris cited many others: Sidney Bechet, Rachmaninov, John Williams, The Chemical Brothers, Chopin, Nick Drake, Tony Allen… like any musician, the list goes on and on and on… but The Beatles taught him the art of song-craft; Ben Folds taught him that a piano can be played, smashed or hammered; Liam Howlett taught him the fundamentals of complex digital rhythm; and Damon Albarn taught him that being prolific and varied is possible: it’s okay to write classical music AND electro AND jazz AND folk. Boxes don’t matter! A philosophy I love!

In terms of formal ‘composition’ training, Chris is self-taught. He is a massive believer and advocate of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours theory’, notably that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, which may be at university, college, school, through your own hard work or a combination of these.  Chris was also lucky enough to have enjoyed the latter part of his piano lessons, so some of the theory had sunk in. If he then needed to expand his knowledge of something specific, like the range of an instrument – its highest and lowest notes; what a violin score looks like; or how to write for jazz drums, he just looked it up, all of which is easier these days with the internet. Chris believes there’s arguably almost little use for university study if you have a natural passion and interest in something and are self-disciplined – the information is all out there – which is great and very egalitarian! He admitted to being very hard on himself in terms of discipline. His attitude to my question about ‘creative blocks’ is a case in point. ‘I rarely get creative blocks. I used to believe ‘creative blocks’ were for people not really invested in their creativity: for the weaklings; the part-timers; the ones with ready excuses… that’s because I didn’t get them and am very disciplined: so I’ve never been allowed them.’

If Chris does find himself slowing down on something or it isn’t working, his solution is to change. For example, if a piano or string composition isn’t going where he wants it to, he will write some ambient or electro, or he’ll write a poem or add to a story he’s writing. Or write a song! Anything! Chris calls it ‘clearing the gutters’ – getting rid of stuff that might be blocking the flow, then the original impulse will usually come back – often better. On the odd occasion this doesn’t work, he will turn his attention to some new music of any genre., perhaps something offbeat, and in no time at all, his inspiration returns. 

I asked Chris to describe his creative process and his approach to collaborating with other musicians or directors. For Chris, it very often starts at the piano.  If he’s working with a director, he will ask them for emotional words, to begin with, before he even reads the script. This gets him into mood-board mode, where he can free-compose and create sounds. He will then usually present some of these ‘mood boards’ to the director at the very start of the project. This gives the director a starting point. If he’s in the right area, then they will have something concrete to say: ‘Yes, more/less of that… but slower/faster.’ Chris finds it easier than expecting a director to talk in musical terms. Sometimes, as was the case recently, he might find himself in totally the wrong place, but he is very positive about this because it gives the director something to propel away from. They can then say, ‘No! I don’t want lots of trumpets or drums or synths… I don’t want drums at all,  I want electric guitars.’  – it can help them to define their sound ideas by knowing what they don’t want.

Chris loves collaboration; he finds it very exciting because it takes him on unexpected journeys.

If he’s working on one of his own projects with one of his project bands, Chris lets the music come to him. He keeps relentless sound notes on his phone and the little recording gadgets he carries so that he can listen back to little snippets and start to expand them into fuller pieces.

Chris frequently works with PROJECT TWO and LOST SOUND CLUB, where he will provide the scaffold to a song or composition and then see where another musician goes with it. For a jazz piece he created a few years ago, he had scored up a trumpet part which the trumpet player diligently played. It sounded good, and they used it in part of the composition. But then, seeing that the trumpeter was proficient in improvising, Chris asked him just to fill ten bars with whatever he liked. And he did! They took about five takes and got some incredible sounds that Chris admitted he could never have written. ‘Collaboration is magic.’ The word magic crops up a lot in my interview with Chris.

I wondered if Chris had a favourite musical composition. Apologising for sounding cliched, he described each one like a child and could not choose between them. He loved each one! He took the greatest pride in breaking a creative or technical barrier in ANY composition – a song; a piano piece; something with strings; or a piece of ambient/electro. He loves mastering a technical skill or unusual chord progression mix of sounds. Most recently, he has been exploring modulations: moving from one key or colour into another key or colour. Like a piece of music moving from one familiarly coloured room into a totally different coloured room – but with similar, familiar furniture. Even with no formal schooling, anyone can HEAR a modulation, which has a strange emotional effect, like the world changing colour around you.

We returned specifically to Clevedon as an inspiration for Chris’ music. Chris wrote most of his last LOST SOUND CLUB album in Clevedon, and several songs began from spending time in Court Woods, which he describes as ‘the epicentre of the magic.’ Photo credit: Steve Thole. @steve_thole.

He is currently completing a classical album based on Clevedon… it is a collection of solo piano pieces which follow his 2019 piano album, ‘EVENING’. This is a track from EVENING.

It is Chris’ attempt to capture some of that Clevedon magic and isn’t based on any specific geographical location like the Pier or Poets’ Walk. It’s a series of pieces totally inspired by living and breathing Clevedon. The album will be out at the end of the summer into autumn… and Chris, who loves collaborating, is hoping to work with a Clevedon artist.

I pressed Chris further on the use of music and technology and the opportunities it offers. He talked about the age of digital enlightenment and more people having access to the tools for self-improvement and creative expression. He feels that better technology has removed some of the elitism from creativity. In the past, you needed a certain degree of wealth to afford the university training to gain access to many creative processes. Nowadays, even with modest equipment and just a little training, many more people can be creative, compete and excel. He feels strongly that having a creative purpose is good for the soul, good for mental health and collectively good for society. There is no denying that the digital world has transformed our lives beyond recognition and given us a wealth of opportunities for enriching our lives, but at the same time threatens the very ideals that Chris (and myself) hold dear.

In terms of his own mental health, Chris likens the impact of music to taking Prozac. He cannot imagine any drug or substance could give a bigger high than bringing a piece of music to life.  It can hold off the heaviest skies and transport him to another place.

‘Like sea-swimming, everything stops when I’m in music –  composing or just noodling about. I’m sure it’s a frustration for my wife and family (not that they ever say that) but I can be lost at sea for days… existing in a piece of music… riding its swells and trying to keep afloat. Then, once I’m back on shore, I can look back and see the whole journey with its stormy skies and brightness… and then I have to harness it, trap it. And write or record it.’

Talking about the impact of music on Chris’ mental health took me back to my conversation with Curtis Disley, featured in a Humans of Clevedon story in 2020. Curtis talked about the idea of music and mood being interrelated and how a change in listening habits boosted his mood and reduced his anxiety. Check out Curtis’ story here.

Chris’ passion for music is intense. He once again compared his music to his children and felt that, having two children of his own, he could make that comparison. ‘My girls and my music are siblings. And it’s important to note that that is how much music is bound to you.’

Chris compares his passion for music to the feverish, lifelong passion that some people show for a football team: ‘They live, breathe, bleed and believe wholly in their team – it’s soul-deep… and evidently closely connected to their mental health. That’s the same for me and music. And, I’d like to think the same for anyone who takes pleasure and has a passion for ANYTHING… passion is a great antidote to life!’

I asked Chris to tell me about his greatest accomplishment as a composer and the most exciting project he had worked on. His greatest accomplishment was being made an associate with Manchester’s ‘Box of Tricks Theatre.’ Check them out here. It was an acknowledgement from a big, award-winning company that he admired – that he was okay at what he did, and they had faith in him and his music.

Chris’ most exciting project was his recent work with a film director that he had not worked with previously. Their collaboration went really well, and it was exciting for them both to discover each other’s styles and working methods. The finished project, which Chris described as hard-hitting and beautiful, is due for release later this year.

Chris’ most challenging project to date was a children’s musical for a company in Aberdeen. The project was exciting, varied, and complicated, but sadly, after much work, funding issues led to its collapse. The impact on the team was heart-wrenching, but Chris was philosophical and embraced it as a learning opportunity. ‘I think success teaches us to be smug and complacent; failure teaches us how to be humble and how to get better.

And that brings us nicely to Chris’ current work – he has two albums to complete – one classical HERE based on Clevedon and due out tomorrow the 4th August.! And another album of ambient sound landscapes… plus several other albums bubbling away. He joked about needing three lifetimes to get it all done! Chris will be doing some composition for theatre and some exciting work with poets later this year.

Chris’ passion for his craft is inspirational, and I asked him what advice he would give to aspiring composers who share this passion. I wasn’t surprised by his response:

‘Don’t give up! Be disciplined: there’s always somebody out there working longer and harder than you are. There’s no quick fix and little fame to be sought: hard work, focus, and imagination must be your super-powers. Be varied. Be interested. Network. Keep listening…’

Thank you Chris – I loved talking to you.

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