We Create Music Blog
November 27, 2012

Catching the Wave: Composer Alex Heffes on Improvising

By Alex Heffes

Alex Heffes

Alex Heffes

Maybe it's no coincidence I'm a movie composer. For one, I've always loved movies. However, for as long as I can remember I've also sat in front of a piano and improvised music. I don't know how it started, but as a child I would imagine a story while sitting at a keyboard letting my fingers and my mind wonder. From the age of 10 it became second nature for me to play the piano without any music in front of me. Which isn't to say I couldn't read music. I was lucky enough to have a very thorough classical music training, but into adulthood, improvising became as natural to me as brushing my teeth. I never gave it a second thought. That is, until now...

Fast-forward 30 years. Where does all that dreamy sitting at pianos fit into the pattern of my professional life as a movie composer? Is improvisation just noodling, or is it a technique for tapping into a deeper and more spontaneous part of your musical mind? I thought it would be fun to delve into this question. My answer was to make an album that was totally improvised, from start to finish. To see whether any of the ideas that arose could become pieces that would turn into more than just a noodle, and to see what I could learn about composing in the process. This idea turned into a project that led me to record at Abbey Road and the Tate Modern Gallery in London, to central Africa and the East Bronx with artists such as Regina Spektor, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yasmin Levy. I called the project Face to Face.

Creating Face to Face has been an adventure in so many ways. I found myself pushing a piano up a deserted hill in Uganda and lashing together makeshift mic stands out of bamboo poles. I found myself in the sweltering heat of a New York summer that was so hot my co-writer, Regina Spektor, was literally gasping for air into the microphone and, in doing so, created a really unusual and beautiful vocalised track. I have enough musical adventures to fill a small book. But looking back now, the thing that strikes me the most about the project is how much it confirmed what I already have come to learn about being a composer. Namely: it doesn't matter how you arrive at an idea, whether you struggle for days with a theme or whether something pops into your head while you are taking a shower. The most important thing you can learn is which one is the right idea - the one that has the spark of something that is going to pick you up and take you where you want to go. I call this catching the wave.

If you sit on the beach in Santa Monica and watch the surfers, you'll notice a pattern. There are some that seem to know which is "their" wave. Just before it comes they start moving in the right direction in order to let it catch them. It's the same with improvising and composing. Let yourself be open, whether improvising or sitting with pen and paper. It's not always about coming up with that one golden idea straight off the bat, but spotting which is the right spark to pick you up and take you where you want to go.

There are lots of waves out there. Just keep on looking over your shoulder for them.


Alex Heffes (PRS) has scored many major award-winning movies including The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, Inside Job, The Rite, Touching the Void and One Day in September. Originally classically trained at Oxford University, he has also worked with bands and producers on many film and record projects. He was awarded the Ivor Novello for best film score of the year in 2012 for his score to The First Grader and was named Discovery of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards in 2011. He has also been nominated for BAFTA, European Film Academy, ASCAP, NAACP and Black Reel Awards and his music has been performed at concert halls around the world. Visit Alex Heffes on the web at www.alexheffes.com.

Face to Face is out now. Read more about this remarkable project at http://face-to-face-album.com.