Isobel Waller-Bridge on Creating a Soundtrack for Alexander McQueen

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Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2020Courtesy of Alexander McQueen

The composer – who has debuted new work as part of the house’s #McQueenMusic project – speaks on the “divine and thrilling” experience of soundtracking Sarah Burton’s warrior women and why she is continuing to make music in isolation

The British composer Isobel Waller-Bridge has created the soundtrack for numerous television shows and films, from Netflix’s Black Mirror to a recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma by Autumn de Wilde, but is perhaps best known for scoring BBC Three’s comedy-drama Fleabag, written and performed by her younger sister Phoebe. With the latter – and having provided the sound design for the original Soho Theatre stage play, which has since run off-Broadway and on London’s West End – her eclectic score swayed from soaring church chorale to grinding heavy metal, matching the show’s sly humour (in season two, Waller-Bridge hid lewd ancient Greek and Latin incantations and entendre within one ecclesiastical composition).

Last September, the composer made her first foray into fashion, creating the soundtrack for Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2020 runway show in Paris, which she performed alongside The London Contemporary Orchestra. Written in three acts and adapted from the songs Arise and Last Words of M from her 2015 album Music for Strings, the music sought to capture the “fierce energy” and “strength” of creative director Sarah Burton’s collection. Waller-Bridge calls it her “favourite and proudest collaboration” yet: “McQueen is such an iconically British house, I knew of its genesis, and story, and much of the style,” she tells AnOther. “From the very first moment it was completely spellbinding ... I feel very lucky to have seen behind the scenes.”

Now, Waller-Bridge has collaborated once again with Alexander McQueen as part of #McQueenMusic, the house’s new Spotify channel which launched with a selection of songs and playlists from memorable McQueen shows. As part of this, the composer has created her own playlist titled Energy & Rhythm, which is music “for a positive mood, for peace and hope, and for strength,” along with a new score titled Suspended in Air, which is performed by musicians Robert Ames and Galya Bisengalieva in the Peak District, where they are both currently isolating. (A film of this performance is available to view on Alexander McQueen’s YouTube channel.)

Here, in her own words from her studio in east London, Waller-Bridge – who is currently working on an new album, having been signed by Mercury KX – speaks on creating a soundtrack for Alexander McQueen and why she’s continuing to make music in isolation.

“I’ve been listening to music more than ever. I think I’ve replaced Netflix with listening sessions. It’s been great to sit down and listen to whole albums from start to finish – I’ve really liked getting to know artists’ work this way. I’ve been writing music a bit, too; at the start of lockdown I really didn’t want to make music – I released myself from all pressure to write. There will be lots of people who will be prolific in this time, but I really stood back from it all. Every artist is different. I honestly spent two months giving myself lots of space – I’ve only been back in the studio the last few days or so. I’m building up to writing the things I’ve been thinking about, which feels really good now.

“To start getting the ideas down I need to be totally relaxed, and to finish the ideas I usually need to be pretty stressed! Relaxation and fear are my two modes. There’s not really anything in-between. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work on leaving the internal critic out of the room. I find it’s not useful to question every move at the beginning – for me, it can be quite debilitating. When I start an idea I usually just try to be completely instinctive and free, and then get to the end of it – I need to get the shape down start to finish, even if it’s very broad strokes, otherwise I start obsessing over something too early on and can get stuck. The obsession is the reward for getting it all down.

“The last ten years or so have been almost exclusively commissions for theatre, film and TV. I’m proud of every single project in its own way – with each job I’ve learnt something new, grown a bit and it’s taken me towards the next one. Working with other creatives towards a shared goal is very exciting – when the chemistry is right, it’s an incredible feeling. Working with McQueen is hands down one of my favourite and proudest collaborations – it is a completely new medium for me. It feels like theatre, film and art all wrapped up in one. Writing music for McQueen is different in every way to how I usually work! The only thing that is the same is the listening to my collaborators – in this case Sarah Burton and her team – listening to the feeling Sarah wants from the music, and interpreting that. Outside of that, it is a completely unique experience.

“For the show, Sarah showed me all the research and inspiration for the collection – everything from splintered materials such as wood, hair and grass, to cotton and lace from clothes dating back 100 years, early embroidery examples, stills from art and film. Then she showed me the final designs – the show – illustrated on a huge horizontal sheet of paper. Knowing Sarah’s inspiration for the collection, I felt the layers to the drama in the clothes and the story in the way the runway had been curated.

“I saw the show in three acts. The opening, Act One, had a fierce energy to it – the clothes had real power. Most were monochrome in black or white – the models looked strong and confident, like warriors. I wanted to open the show with music that reflected this instantly. After three or four minutes, there was to be a transition to more pale shades, and delicate clothes – the dresses inspired by exotic flowers were introduced – the story developed and I saw the romance in the collection here. This was Act Two. The music slowed down, became romantic but still full – long suspended chords, which would surge with tension and then release and find a calm. Going on from here, I saw the finale begin with suits, and powerful dresses, but charged with the romance we’d just seen. This was Act Three. The music returned to a pace, but this time building, heralding something positive, victorious on the horizon. I thought it felt as if the warriors were winning their battle, and we were with them, excited by them, rooting for them, invested in their journey, witnessing their glory. It was their strength that was beautiful. I felt the music should track the journey that Sarah and her team had created in their curation of the show. The orchestra were dressed in McQueen, as was I. The musicians were in the centre of the runway, fully visible, and played so beautifully. My heart was pounding through the whole show. It was divine and thrilling. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

“The McQueen playlist [for #McQueenMusic] is all about energy and rhythm. I wanted to curate a playlist for a positive mood, for peace and hope, and for strength. Especially at the moment, I feel community more than ever. Community is a word so deeply associated with McQueen, and I wanted to celebrate that connectivity with diversity and energy. That doesn’t always mean in a major key, or fast paced, but two hours of diving into a world of excellent music to walk to, to stare at the sky, to run to, and to think of each other.”

Visit #McQueenMusic on Spotify to find out more.