29 of 50

2019 is our 50th anniversary and we are championing some of the people who help make Scottish Ballet a great place to work. Each week we will introduce you to a different career at Scottish Ballet and the person behind it.

Composer Peter Salem has put together a vivid and haunting new score for our new full-length ballet The Crucible. We caught up with Peter to find out what he loves about composing for the Scottish Ballet Orchestra.

When did you first discover your interest in composing? 

When I was eight years old. I used to go to the piano a lot and just start making stuff up.

Any favourite instruments? 

Keyboard and violin. I started playing the keyboard when I was four years old and I still play.

There was a violin being offered at my primary school one day, I went home and announced that I would like to have it. I think children have a good idea of the instrument they would like to try.

What did you study?

I studied Music at The University of York. Then a post graduate course in Composition at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I was nearly going to study violin at college but my interest in composing took over.

What are the differences between composing for film/TV and for ballet?

Music has a much more integrated role in ballet and a far greater narrative function and drive than is ever the case with a film or TV score. In ballet, you are usually composing for something that doesn’t exist yet - apart from in the imagination of the choreographer. Some choreographers use guide music to get started, but it’s more liberating if they don’t. Then you don’t feel compelled to recreate a style of music.

What did the process involve for creating the score for The Crucible?

Helen and I spent a lot of time discussing ideas via email before she started choreographing. It was important to me to find out what was inside her head. Even though there was a ‘treatment’ of the plot for me to work from there were always questions and decisions to be made and narrative problems to solve as I worked through the scenes. 

We tried out a few musical versions for the scene with the girls dancing in the forest. Helen had the idea of using an electronic track to reflect the teenagers and their sexuality. Then we tried a more natural version to give a sense of a connection to nature and the forest. In the end, we went back to the electronic idea and kept some of the natural elements. You can still hear animal sounds, rustling sounds along with the electronic music; my library of sounds now include many more wind and forest sounds thanks to The Crucible.

What has been the most exciting project that you’ve worked on? 

All storytelling through music excites me, especially in ballet. As there are no words, everything has to be expressed through music, movement and design. What adds to the excitement of this project is its inclusion in the Edinburgh International Festival and Scottish Ballet's 50th Anniversary celebrations.

What are the challenges of being a composer?  

Having ideas - the plain manuscript paper. The loneliness of being on your own in your studio and being the judge of all the musical decisions.

Any tips for aspiring composers? 

Stick at it. Try not just to imitate but learn from the music of others. Don’t beat yourself up if you are not being totally original (note to self!), treasure your collaborators and listen to lots of stuff. 

What’s your ‘get up and go’ song? 

It might be anything from Indie-rock to 17th century Italian violin music to 20th century orchestral music... and I always keep an ear on what is current in contemporary classical and experimental music, it depends how I’m feeling. I don’t really use music as a motivational tool though! When you’re working with sound all day sometimes you just want a bit of silence.