Daniel Pemberton, composer, on a view from a Welsh mountain
GB Tell me why you chose this.
DP This is a fairly small mountain in North Wales, near a cottage where I stay with my family every year and have done for the last thirty years. This mountain isn’t on a footpath. I just found it through exploring and it has the most phenomenal view. It’s not particularly challenging to climb up it, but at the top the view goes for miles. You can see down to the sea and you can see towns like Portmeirion. You can witness the changing of the seasons and the weather. You can see where it’s sunny and where there are rainstorms. But what’s so powerful about it is that there’s so little human impact on what you’re seeing. You can only see about twenty buildings across the entire view and you know every single one of them, even if they’re twenty miles away. This is my number one place to rest my brain. I’ll go up there and listen to music and watch nature. It’s the best show you can ever see, with the clouds moving and the shadows changing over vast landscapes, or you can watch the sun set to your right. My favourite music to listen to there are Debussy’s Nocturnes. The choral stuff works so well in that setting, but there’s also something about being able to observe the vast panorama of nature that’s really relaxing. No one knows where this particular spot is. I told my sisters about it, which I slightly regret because I don’t want to be up there with anyone else.
GB So does that ownership make it more beautiful to you?
DP It’s not that. I’ve never seen anyone else on top off this mountain because it’s not easy to find and you have to go through a lot of quite rough terrain to get to it. There’s not a lot to do once you’re on it apart from take in the view. Sometimes I wish it was easier to get to because it can be a bit of a drag, but then lots of other people would go there.
GB I’m fascinated by the fact that you’re a soundtrack composer and you really do have a soundtrack to everything. Does listening to Debussy improve the experience for you?
DP Yes. It’s been hard to find the right soundtrack for there. I’ve tried a few different pieces over the years and never bettered that. It’s a piece of music that’s slightly intangible. It’s quite hard to grasp in the way that the landscape you’re seeing is. A lot of modern music is very uniform, almost grid-like and you can feel the structures in it, whereas that piece just feels very free-flowing. When you’re watching clouds and the sunset and this huge array of nature, which is very random in a way, the music seems to respond to that. There’s about a 270 degree view so if you don’t like what you’re looking at you can just move your head. I’ve been going to this part of Wales for so long that I’ve walked up most of the mountains and walked through many of the fields. It’s a rare thing to be able to look so far across a landscape and be able to understand it all.
GB So the familiarity is important to you? You prefer Wales to the Grand Canyon?
DP I prefer Wales because it’s green and solitary. I’ve come to realize more and more that I like the peacefulness of solitude. It’s a point where my mind can breathe and I find that it can breathe more powerfully on this mountain than anywhere else I’ve been. I also think that seeing the horizon is a built-in human need and when you live in the city you can never see the horizon. I try to walk in the countryside most weekends but seeing a horizon as vast as this is almost humbling and yet majestic at the same time. I think we have a fundamental human need to experience nature in that way.
GB I guess that for most people, vision is their primary sense. Is that different for you?
DP I think my aural perception is probably better than my visual perception and I spend more time thinking about the sound of things than I do the look of things. I think the landscape helps me to clear my mind because there’s so much there but so little. You can’t take it all in so you let it wash over you. One of the things I find interesting about cities is that you’re bombarded by so much information. I remember walking down the street once with a friend and we played this game of reading out every single thing we could see with letters on, from “For Sale” to “Dry Cleaners”. There is so much information, it’s ludicrous and you don’t realise that your brain is still processing every single bit of information. You might not be thinking about it but your brain is seeing those words and understanding them, so it’s processing them and I think that’s one of the reasons that being in a city is quite stressful. When you’re looking at this view in Wales you know that it probably hasn’t changed much in the last 300 years and probably won’t change much in the next 300. Your brain doesn’t have to work in the same way.
GB Do you think this is a different kind of beauty from beauty in music?
DP I think this is a very primal beauty but someone like Debussy manages to capture that. It almost feels old-fashioned to celebrate nature and landscapes. It’s what people did two or three hundred years ago. No one does that any more. Minimalist music is often based around fairly grid-like systems. I’d say a lot of that is a reflection, not just of the processes involved in composing music now, but also the landscape we live in. It’s very designed and you don’t get that free-flowing journey that you do in the randomness of nature.
GB I suppose being in the city is a constant process of editing. Do you think that’s relevant to the way music is composed?
DP I think there’s a big element of fashion to how people write music these days. There always has been. I think most modern composers are guilty of being influenced by what’s around them and I’m no different. You don’t have to call it fashion, it’s just reacting to the world you’re in. I guess if I lived on top of that mountain I would write different music.
GB You’d be like Elgar!
DP Well I do wonder what Elgar would write if he were around now. He’d probably be brown-nosing the Royal Family and making banging house music for William and Harry.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
DP Anything that elicits some kind of emotion inside you that you don’t necessarily understand.
GB And do you think your music can help that to happen in a film?
DP Yes. With music, I’m often trying to do what I call ‘emotional response’. I think there’s no such thing as bad music. Everything depends on the context. You could take One Direction’s last single and if you’d never heard any music before, it would sound like the most amazing thing you’d ever heard because you’re hearing it for the first time. We wouldn’t have a strong emotional response to it because it would sound so by-the-book and not new. Our understanding and our reaction to music is all based on what’s been built up over the years combined with the context of the music you’re hearing. Music that doesn’t work in one place can become very powerful in another. I’m always trying to find a way to create a new emotional response in people through something they’re hearing for the first time. It’s hard to do. If you write a really strong melody and it’s unusual enough, that will elicit a strong response. You can also do that with sounds if you use them in the right way. There are also basic chords that always elicit a response even though you’ve heard them a million times before, but you kind of know you’re being cheated and you feel bad for allowing yourself to be manipulated in that way.