2017 – The Year of Getting Out Of My Comfort Zone

Golf Course In The Fog Simon Harrod Flickr

It’s the last Friday of 2017. It snowed last night and this morning, and I’m fully ensconced in the cosiest comfort zone here, sipping piping hot rooibos tea in the studio. I’ve just checked over some audio files I delivered last week on a mighty tight deadline – you know, just to make sure, peace of mind and all that – and having a think about the mountain of work and life stuff I’ve somehow managed to plough through in the year just gone.

I think my theme for 2017 might have been ‘getting out of my comfort zone’. I said YES to bunch of opportunities I perhaps wouldn’t normally have gone for. Sometimes it worked really well for me, sometimes it… didn’t quite turn out as I’d hoped. I learned a LOT about how, why and when to ‘get out’ of said ‘comfort zone’ for maximum value…

HOW to get out of the comfort zone

… when I’m properly recharged, when I’ve researched and prepared, when I’ve had sufficient thinking time to weigh pros and cons in order to prioritise the events or projects I’m considering. A nibble at a time, not every opportunity all at once. With ‘buffer’ time scheduled in afterwards to decompress, analyse the experience and extract the juicy educational matter, mmm…

WHY to get out of the comfort zone

… when the return on investment potential is high and the journey is also a reward in itself; when it cements or encourages a pre-existing business or personal relationship (love your tribe, etc); when there’s valuable information to be learned or it encourages personal or professional growth or a less fearful way of being in the world.

Not because someone else, or society at large, said I should.

WHEN to get out of the comfort zone

… when there isn’t an imminent deadline. Leaving the comfort zone is a learning opportunity, a time for exploration, for taking risks with the potential for failure, not a time for added ‘fight or flight’ stress. The former leads to unexpected inspiration and creative insight; the latter leads to anxiety and panic attacks (which is a new and unexpected development for me! Yay. Jeez).

WHAT IS my idea of a comfort zone anyway?

I’ve banged on about it enough now – what do I mean by comfort zone? Time to get specific.

It’s both physical and mental, work or home related. It’s everywhere and every person with whom I feel safe, supported, and secure. It’s where my energy reserves aren’t depleted but rather replenished. It is a gift – a place to recharge and come out fighting for the next great adventure into uncertainty.

It might be a duvet day; a breakfast date with John; a project that’s well within my abilities and fits in comfortably around other work and life commitments; working in a warm studio at home; working on my own or with people I’ve worked with many times before; reading a good book; food I like; emailing instead of phoning, wrapping up in a blanket in front of Star Trek TNG. I’m talking ease. 

I recommend making your own comfort zone list. I feel rather cosy and calm after typing that out. It’s quite lovely.

I also learned to LOVE the comfort zone…

For some reason, I can’t possibly think why (hellooooo, catholic upbringing and media industry culture!), up ’til now I’ve felt guilty about being in the comfort zone.

I’d get all comfort-zoney, and enjoy the heck out of it, but I’d feel like I’d have to be secretive about it. I’m pretty sure I could unpack a ton of catholic guilt out of this if I was so inclined, but that’s not fair on you. Instead, let’s just say the guilt was three-fold (ooh religious connotations?):

  1. I didn’t want to be seen to be bragging about how much I was loving the ease of it.
  2. I didn’t feel I’d earned it (I hadn’t worked hard enough to justify it).
  3. It wasn’t valuable – I wasn’t stretching myself, I wasn’t being ambitious enough, I wasn’t suffering enough for my art etc etc.

BUT when I ‘do’ Comfort Zoning™  right…

After a while, I naturally want to push on and poke through that bubble edge into riskier territory. My resilience is buoyed and my battery stats are full – with these resources I can withstand any unpredictability. In fact, I’ll actively seek out novelty, variety and challenge for the sake of it. I’m open, motivated and inspired rather than cagey, distrustful and judgemental (moi? oui, it me). Especially if I know there’s another comfort zone at the other end.

Typical Introvert.

Lesson learned: Don’t be ashamed of the comfort zone. It is my friend. It is essential.

Happy New Year everyone xxx

Image: Simon Harrod

The Themes of Flood

Set from Flood Part 2 (Malcolm Johnson Photography)

Flood, a show of four parts, had four main themes.

This wasn’t deliberate, honest. It just evolved that way.

Inventing and developing themes is massively rewarding fun that you only really get to do on long projects – for example, on multi-part theatre, or feature films. It’s all about exploration and trying to push the boundaries of these tiny motifs in melody, rhythm and sound design.

An audience member may notice thematic development, or they may not. They may hear it only subconsciously, a sense of familiarity creating a feeling of significance.

But never mind the audience – working with themes is both really useful and really fun (but don’t tell them that!).

At one end of the practicality scale, developing themes in the way I’ve done in Flood enables you to make a coherent score – it feels like part of a whole, it feels deliberate, it’s a signal that all parts of the show – performance, set design, lights, pyrotechnics – are held together in this sonic net.

At the other end of this ‘practicality scale’ (where practicality isn’t even the vaguest consideration), developing themes from tiny motifs is deeply satisfying and the challenge of putting all these little mathematical moments together into something that feels gloriously musical and maybe even deeply moving is what it’s all about. It’s about trying to find the point at which form, function and aesthetic become inseparable.

If that makes any sense at all?

Theme 1: Gloriana’s theme

Gloriana’s theme was tripartite, a trinity of musical elements, which seems appropriate – she’s some sort of Holy/magical being after all, according to most of the other characters…

Part 1 – a melody:
Gloriana's melody

This is a cryptogram of Gloriana’s name using the ‘French’ method.

Part 2 – a rhythm based on morse code:

Gloriana's Theme - a rhythm based on morse code

This was Alan Lane’s idea, can’t take credit for it. The rhythm isn’t quite precisely morse code – I made it more rhythmically regular. It feels more musical by having a sense of a steady pulse.

Part 3 – an ambient sound design for when she uses her powers:


(There’s also a recorded sound montage of voices and city sounds for when Gloriana is listening to the thoughts and ambience of the city and its inhabitants made by Matt Angove, Slung Low’s sound designer and engineer.)

Theme 2: Look Across The Ocean – a love song

Listen to the whole song on iTunes etc.

Theme 3: The Fisher Man

Super simple, and derived from a moment in the original string quartet accompaniment to the Love Song (the one I sketched up before I got it properly recorded with real musicians). Just a little, subtle something to underline any mention of this character in Flood part 2, it evolved into big tunes in parts 3 and 4.

Theme 4: The Little Boats

In parts 2 and 3, this was a theme for boats, refugees and anything to do with things that happen at sea. This evolved into a handy underscore in part 4 to describe the relationship between the Captain (the ‘Fisher Man’) and his son.

i.e. dark and stormy and not going well at all.

Most of the material in all four shows comes from these four themes.

Orchestration, the instruments or sounds that are used to perform each of the themes, plays an equally significant part in how the themes are voiced. Originally I limited it to a pallete of mainly string quartet with string ensemble support, harp and piano.

For example, here’s the opening titles to Flood part 1, the Prologue (featuring Gloriana’s melodic theme):

The orchestral palette then evolved to string orchestra with electronic bass rhythms in Flood part 2, with chorals (from Sheffield Chamber Choir), electric viola (at one point I thought the Captain was represented by the viola, but changed my mind as it got too restrictive), and solo singer. Here’s the moment the Wave approaches the City by the Sea :

Did you spot Gloriana’s rhythm in the bass and the first 5 notes of her melody in the strings a bit later?

I used a lot more sound design and electronic synths in part 3, bringing in the occasional french horn or brass moment.

Then, finally, in part 4, I used a full orchestra alongside big chorals and a more extensive percussion section. By then, the show needed a really big and varied sound and a larger palette made it much easier to show a clear definition between the three islands. James and I put together another song for the 3 Islands and I ended up with three more melodies to represent each island which were intertwined through the show with these four overarching musical themes.

I can sometimes go a bit overboard with the thematic machinations, but, hey, I enjoy it, and it means I’ll probably never run out of ideas. Touch wood.

You may not have seen some or all of Flood…

Part 1, From The Sea, is a short film, a prologue or introduction to the series. It shows how Gloriana came to be brought up for the ocean depths by a fisherman and his son on a trawler out in the North Sea. Watch it here.

Part 2, Abundance, was a play performed to a live audience. It was set on a floating stage in a dock in Hull, showing life before the Flood, the coming storm, and the way that it destroyed England as we know it. Part 2 was audio-recorded and became a 5-part podcast featuring interviews with cast and crew.

Part 3, To The Sea, is a play like part 2, instead filmed for broadcast on BBC2. It shows what life was like immediately after the wave struck, bookended by moments on an island set six months after that.

Part 4, New World, was a play performed to a live audience again. It started at a point six months after the Flood, when England has become three islands with wildly differing philosophies. Holy Island worships Gloriana; Renaissance Island looks only forward whilst ironically believing the only way forward is to build the world back as a ‘new and improved’ version of what it was before. Albion Island is a harsh, cruel place where it’s treason even to speak Gloriana’s name.

#MeToo: Some Sexism This Way Came

black and white image of vintage condenser microphone for voice

Emma Bright wrote this rather excellent post, Girl On The Platform Smile, about her experiences with sexism.

Inspired by her article, and in the spirit of solidarity, here are a few of my experiences with sexism that some may consider easily walked away from, ignored; as unimportant. Not worth making a fuss about.

Sometimes I did make a fuss; sometimes I didn’t.

Age 9

In year 5, a boy in my class told me I should perm my hair. It would, “make you prettier.” I don’t know why this has always stuck with me.

Age 11

In year 7, during lunch break, a boy made obscene jokes about me and a particular vegetable. He went on for about half an hour, all the other kids laughing and joking, oh my – it was hilarious. I stayed with the group because my friends (at the time, not for much longer after, thankfully) were there and I felt as though I had nowhere else to go.

The bell went for end of lunchtime. On the walk back from the field to the school building, I punched him hard in the face. Apparently he had to put ice on it and afterward everyone laughed about that too. I was so nervous I was shaking the rest of the afternoon. However, he never made lewd jokes or bullied me again.

Age 14

I wrote a story in year 10 English about GM brain/body swapping and politics. The (male) teacher said it was unusual that a girl would write such a serious science-fiction. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this as my life to this point had been steeped in sci-fi, books and film, both serious and humorous, for as long as I could remember. He wasn’t to know this, of course, but it does not excuse the sexism. So I smiled and agreed. Yes, wasn’t it unusual.

This was from one of my best teachers too, one whom I respected, whom I actually learned useful English-y things from.

He was not one of those wretched excuses for a teacher, one who would ‘go for a drink’ at lunchtime and then tell a friend in an afternoon class that she needed ‘holes in her trouser pockets so she could play with herself’.

There was an investigation; the friend in question had witnesses; he still teaches there 20 years later, last I heard.

Age 21

Whilst at university in 2001, I was at a club and a man grabbed my arse. I slapped him really hard; he didn’t expect that. The shock on his poor, little, pathetic face… I do not advocate violence on the whole; nevertheless I’d consider this a proportional response. And if felt really fucking good.

Age 24

I was working for a company in the early 2000s that made films with young people who were at risk – those who were excluded from school, or homeless, or refugees. I was a production assistant and sound op.

On one occasion when we’d taken the group of mainly male young people to lunch at a cafe, we got onto the subject of having children (I say ‘we’. I would sit and listen to their inane chatter as I’m really rather introverted and small groups of people whom I don’t know well make me less than comfortable). Upon being asked the usual questions, answering no, I didn’t have children, and no, I didn’t want them, I was offered help to have them by the head of the film company, sitting to my right. I laughed it off.

I was furious. By that time, somehow, I’d had the notion to fight back socialised out of me, or perhaps I wanted to keep my job so I didn’t hit him. I berated myself for not pointing out how inappropriate and offensive it was. He was in his 40s. What a brilliant example to the at-risk youths in our care.

Age 37

I fell off my bike early this year (2017) near a pub where there was a big group of men standing outside, pints in hand. Oh, the laughter (to be fair, it probably was pretty comedy from afar)! Then a couple of guys came over to help whilst I popped the chain back on, which was nice of them: faith restored in humanity.

Then, as I cycled past the pub, one of them yelled, “Get ‘em out!”. God how I wish I’d had the courage to go back and give him a gobful but I was not brave and it would only have served to give them more comedy fodder, I’m sure. So I cycled on. It was easier. It was safer.

At the time, I blamed myself for choosing to cycle through an area that I didn’t know very well and, though it’s a recommended cycle route, wouldn’t be somewhere I’d like to be caught alone at night. The best way I could describe it is a bit dodgy. I’d learned my lesson not to cycle past there again, even if it was one of the more useful cycle routes into town.

Age 38

On the train recently returning home from work in Hull, I had to sit with my bike in the vestibule rather than leave it there to go sit in the adjacent carriage. There were already two bikes there (there’s only officially room for two bikes on Northern trains) so I was making sure mine didn’t fall or get in anyone’s way.

I was there on my own, reading a book, when a man, clearly drunk, came and sat in the opposite chair and started talking to me. I smiled and went back to my book. He offered me a brownie. No thanks, I’m fine. He bumbled on for 5 mins or so, drinking his Stella. I gave up trying to read (just like Emma in her articleand stared out of the window, offering a smile whenever it was clear he was waiting for a response. I just had to keep him quiet till he got bored with me and went away.

He offered me a brownie a few more times. Really, that’s very kind but no thank you. I’m really not hungry. I’ve just eaten. I DON’T TAKE FOOD FROM STRANGE MEN.

He asked me what my name was, where I was going. Alarm bells. I lied. Helen; Doncaster, I said. I went back to my book and desperately hoped he wouldn’t sit with me for the entire journey.

He eventually got bored (tf for that) and stumbled off. I heard his raised voice with the train guard in the next carriage. They put him off at the next stop.

I blamed myself for getting a busier, later train at rush hour. I could have got through work faster that day, I could have been more efficient, I could have even started work earlier, I could have chatted less with the friends I was working with on site.

The blame game

This is nowhere near everything, but it’s pretty representative.

What’s become clear to me in recent years is for some reason I think it’s my responsibility for being in the way of any misogyny directed towards me. That, if and when it happens, it’s something I’ve invited somehow – never deliberately, but by being naive and not expecting it, or by being too trusting. This leads me to think I must be more ready, more prepared, so I don’t ever find myself giving that opportunity to someone.

The inverse is that I’m wary of any man I don’t know merely making conversation, as polite people sometimes do, when, for example, the weather is poor and you’re waiting at a bus stop for a bus that’s running late. He was just being nice, but it was dark, and I’m hypervigilant… which, it’s becoming increasingly clear from writing this, seems unsurprising.

It is hard, individually, for women to fight against the constant, pelting, daily sexist hail; often it is safer to just ‘laugh it off’. Until we live in a society where women don’t feel like their jobs or lives are on the line for standing up for themselves, it will be nigh impossible to make any progress.

That’s why the Weinstein and Stafford-Clark cases and the #MeToo hashtag are so important: to make it known that we are not alone in our experiences, it is important, fixing this sorry state of affairs benefits both women and men , and it is not the fault of the person targeted by sexism, in all its forms: outright barbaric, insidious and everyday. It is never benign; it is always toxic.

It is never fucking ok.

Flood is over, and other news.

handwritten musical score with pencil


And now I’m on with scoring a couple of new animations for Red Star.

I’ve plans to release the Flood soundtrack Album (did you know you can still buy/stream ‘Look Across The Ocean’ in most online music stores?). There’s a series of posts I’m currently writing about the musical themes of Flood and how they all interconnect.

Also, I quit Twitter. It’s weird that it’s even a thing to mention. 

However, if you want to get in touch, here are the deets.

Social Media is screwing with my ability to focus so I’m probably going to quit it. Maybe. At some point.

A woman holds a note that says 'focus'

Focus is sometimes… challenging, isn’t it? I sometimes think I used to be better at it. Then I read an article that said I’m probably right:

“In fact, paying attention involves two separate functions: ‘enhancement’ (our ability to focus on things that matter) and ‘suppression’ (our ability to ignore the things that don’t). Interestingly, enhancement and suppression are not opposites, they are distinct processes in the brain. The latter becomes less reliable as you get older.” [my emphasis]

Continue reading “Social Media is screwing with my ability to focus so I’m probably going to quit it. Maybe. At some point.”

A Recipe For Undeniable Creative Success

A wooden sign in a green field points to 'creativity'

Time is short and I’ve still got work to do. Rather than curl up in denial under the duvet with Netflix and a bottle of Belvedere, this is how I try to approach a challenging amount of creative work, such as the epic beast that is Flood.

Accept it. Don’t fight it. It’s going to get done. Have faith in yourself. If you don’t, who will?

Prioritise. Cut out all the chaff. Remove extraneous work and social obligations – anything that can be postponed, do it. What’s the most urgent music to be written? On this project, I had several songs to write for choir, so these were written first so that the performers could get to learning them as quickly as possible.

Schedule. Break all the work up into smaller bitesize chunks. Take a reasonable amount of time to plan your time so that you can…

Concentrate on today only. Worrying about what you have to do tomorrow, the day after, next week is a waste of your energy.

Focus. Turn off email, twitter, let the phone go to voicemail. Go offline. Work hard and jealously guard your time against anything less worth your while. This is important. No-one is going to write this music (or whatever work it is that you do) but you, and no-one else will get blamed when deadlines are missed. Work hard, whilst remembering to…

Communicate. Keep everyone in the loop who needs to be. On this project that meant the director, the writer, the sound designer, the producer, and a number of others at different times and in different ways. Whilst it’s important to get the job done, it’s also important to get the right job done, especially on something as fluid as new theatre. Scripts get re-written, budgets get squeezed, new technologies have their unforeseen quirks. Plans change, and you’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Recharge. That amount of music cannot be written and still remain top quality when you’re running on fumes. Factor in at least a day or two every week where you step away from the  mac/piano/manuscript paper and do something else. Anything else. Get your head out of the game. Your subconscious will continue to work on the problem and you’ll find a miraculous pool of ideas are ready for you to dip into when you’re back at work the next day. Trust me on this, it really does work. I work anywhere up to 5+ times faster that morning after a day off. It’s truly bizarre if you’re not used to it. 🙂

To recap…

Accept – Prioritise – Schedule – Concentrate – Focus – Communicate – Recharge

A recipe for undeniable creative success.

This is a retooled post from 2010 when I was working on Anthology with Slung Low for the Liverpool Playhouse. I was far busier back then with work besides composition, including violin teaching and performance. Now I’m solely a composer, the method still holds true – so I thought it was worth another share.


Are Decisions Based On Emotion Bad For Business?


What Would Mr Spock Do?

I’m going to come right out and say it.

I think emotions are key to business. They are a precious tool that should never, ever be ignored. They are the central line of dialogue between your higher brain functions and your subconscious, the route to your creative well.

And you can be creative in business. In fact, you must.

The important caveat in all of this: first you must disconnect from those feelings. Be the observer. Your emotions must not rule your behaviour, but instead inform that behaviour, balanced by the facts.

I like to condense this question down to: What would Mr Spock do?

As a Vulcan, Mr Spock has learned to disconnect from his emotions. As a half-human, he must work harder to rule those emotions, however. Mr Spock uses his emotions as an evaluative tool, that’s why he’s such a wonderfully popular character.

If a business choice feels good, that is a good sign.

Sometimes the pros and cons balance and cancel each other. Relying on cold, hard facts and logic will not make the decision.

Sometimes the pros will outweigh the cons, but there’s that one huge, hulking great ugly con that just churns your guts when you think about it.

The trick is to learn to interpret these emotions correctly. They are a tool, never forget. They do not rule you.

So, whilst a certain business decision may make you feel fear… is there an element of prickly excitement about that fear? That’s good fear, that probably means you should go for it!

Does the thought of spending time with a prospective new client on a particular project make you feel tired? That’s a seriously bad sign. How are you going to create awesome music (or whatever it is that you do in your business) when you’re feeling so low?

These are just a few examples. The point is to learn to read the emotions for what they are, subconscious pointers – yay or nay – for what’s right for you, business… and otherwise.

Flood Part 3 on the BBC and New Single Released

Set from Flood Part 2 (Malcolm Johnson Photography)

Flood: To The Sea, the third part of the Slung Low show for Hull City of Culture 2017 will be broadcast on BBC2 at 10pm this Saturday, 12th August as part of BBC Arts strand ‘Performance Live’. It’ll be on iPlayer for a month after that if you miss it. But you won’t miss it, will you? It’s too good to miss.

New Single Released – Look Across The Ocean

I’m releasing the song from Flood, ‘Look Across The Ocean’ – sung by the brilliant Gina Walters, backed by Archordia Strings – as a single to coincide with the broadcast. Yes, I’m attempting to do cross-platform marketing! But also I’ve had a couple of requests for it so I thought this was one of the better ways to give the song a bit more life.

For all of 99p from all the online music stores, or on whichever music subscription site or app of your choice, you can have a your very own piece of Flood to listen to when you need another fix.

Get it in yer ears! 

Look Across The Ocean is on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Google Play and everywhere else good music is available online.

Flood Part 3: To The Sea Goes Into Post-Production

sea and sky

The beast of a show that is Flood, Part 3: To The Sea was filmed last week. It’ll be broadcast in mid-August on BBC2, and now it’s in post-production.

I’m still unpacking what I’ve learned from the experience and all the memories from those few months of scoring the show and working on site with a flipping brilliant gang of fellow theatre makers.

The score has been an intriguing and enlightening hybrid of my theatre and film work. For example: the show plays from beginning to end, like theatre eg NT Live; unlike film or television, where we would film a scene or a section repeatedly with several takes.  The music and sound is cued live and the actors can hear it and can react to it. However, we do have a contingency: once the film is edited together there’s still a small opportunity to edit the music to fit, but hopefully there won’t need to be much of that. Touch wood. Oh shit, I’ve jinxed it haven’t I.

The fidelity of the music is higher for broadcast that it is for little radio receivers that the live audience usually wears for Slung Low’s shows. So I’ve allowed the music to have a greater dynamic range (the quiets are quieter and the louds are louder) than I normally would, and there’s more intricacy in places that I know will be heard. There’s also lots more bass!

Now that Part 3 is in the can and off to post-production, it’s easier to take bird’s-eye view of the whole of Flood so far – the trailer, the short online film, the play on water in April earlier this year and this, latest instalment. Thematic development on this show has been an absolute joy! I’ve developed motifs for Gloriana, the woman from the sea with extra-human powers, and referenced the Love Song – ‘Look Across The Ocean’ – all over the place. In Part 2 it was a song first known only to two of the older characters, memories of their time together many years ago. Now it’s transmuted into a talisman of the strength and value of love in itself and as a way to power us into a future worth living for.

At least, that’s how I read it. Maybe you’ll hear something similar when you watch it on BBC2 in August. Date tbc..

Starting the Score – Flood, Part 3: ‘To The Sea’

Set from Flood Part 2 (Malcolm Johnson Photography)

I’ve started the score for the next instalment of Slung Low‘s Flood this week. ‘To The Sea’ is part 3 of the year-long project for Hull City of Culture.

Flood: To The Sea will be broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday, 12th August at 9pm. It’s live theatre, and the action takes place on and in the water of Victoria Dock, with several floating sets, pyrotechnics, and a beautiful, brutal script by James Phillips.

The story follows some of the characters who survived from part 2, Abundance, a show that played to audiences in April. In that show, we told the tale of the end of the world. Next, in Part 3, To The Sea, tells the story of what happens after.

Alan (director), Matt (sound designer and engineer) and I met on Monday at the Twisted Burger Diner in Sheffield to talk about the details in the score’s tone, purpose and scale; the schedule and technical/technological stuff. We discussed strategy for meeting the challenges of a piece of theatre to be broadcast on television. We also ate copious amounts of fried and baked vegan brunch goods***.

Now* I’m sat in the studio looking at that Monday meeting scrawl on the script, reminding myself of the score for parts 1** and 2 of the show, seeing what to cannibalise and where we need brand new material. It’s clear from the worlds the script inhabits that we’ll need a substantial amount of new material. Hopefully (!) how we incorporate the original themes and motifs from Parts 1 and 2 of Flood should prove fertile ground for some very interesting experiments when we head, in Part 3, back To The Sea…

*aside from writing this blog post. Classic displacement activity, Fenoughty.

**Watch Flood part 1: From The Sea here

***Thank you Twisted Burger Company for opening your lovely new diner not 25 minutes walk from my door. This vegan is very happy.

Image by Malcolm Johnson Photography for Slung Low