Insights: Composing for Newton

Insights is the series uncovering the stories behind our composing work.

Isaac Newton: The Last Magician is a 60-minute biography about the scientific genius who transformed the understanding of the universe, made for BBC Two.

More about the project.


John Hardy:

As often happens with the more creative TV projects, whether documentary or drama, there were many unknowns when key decisions had to be made on this. Before seeing the script or any footage, I had to decide whether or not to allocate a significant proportion of the fixed music budget on specialist musicians playing instruments of the period of Isaac Newton himself, and which he would recognise in his own lifetime.

Taking my courage in both hands, I plunged into the exciting but scary decision to invite some of the most distinguished and respected baroque specialists working in the UK to come to record in the beautiful and acoustically perfect Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

On the appointed day, just before Christmas, our supervising recording engineer Odilon Marcenaro, assisted by Benjie Talbott & Tic Ashfield, set up the Soundfield microphone array, and many other mics as well, to capture the performance of Baroque violinists Dr Simon Jones and Andrea Jones, and David Miller, specialist in the Theorbo [a bass lute], playing arrangements I had made of works by Corelli and Purcell, as well as some specially composed original material which I hoped would be useful in illustrating and underscoring aspects of Newton’s life and thought.

The Cardiff session went extremely well, and was followed by a London recording of Clare Salaman playing Hurdy Gurdy and Nyckelharpa [Swedish keyed tenor fiddle]. Almost immediately work began in my studio in Cardiff on editing and mixing the Baroque music, and beginning to build atmospheres, themes and textures which I hoped would be useful once we received the full brief.

Ten weeks later, the editing room in London had included many of the new pieces we had made for the programme, as well as placing several items from my personal collection. In the final stages there was a flurry of requests for pieces to be composed to picture, adjusted and in some cases remade altogether. By this stage my close team consisted of myself, Benjie and Tic, and their hard graft, enthusiasm, work ethic and moral support were crucial in achieving the resulting soundtrack which is now mixed into the programme, and which we all feel very proud of.


Victoria Ashfield:

For me, working on Isaac Newton - The Last Magician enabled me to use a broad range of musical skills, whilst working on an exciting professional project.

From recording music played by some of the best baroque instrumentalists to production, sound design and performance, the project allowed me to apply my musical abilities in numerous ways.

Working alongside both John and Benjie, it was a unique and positive experience, as we worked together towards a common aim. Huge thanks to John for providing me with such a valuable experience!


Benjamin Talbott:

Continuing my collaboration with John, after the success of Coriolan/us for National Theatre Wales in 2012, I was involved in the construction of many of the music cues, in the role of co-composer and engineer, using skills accumulated from years of training at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

It was a big learning curve putting everything into practice, building on all my previous composition experience. Turning pieces around quickly, considering the end quality, with high expectations of ourselves, producing music at speed, for a broadcast of international standard. Frantic at times….