After learning the piano and drums from a very young age, composer Segun Akinola later turned his attention to composition, graduating from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with first-class honours and the National Film and Television School with an MA in Composing for Film and Television. He was a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit in 2017, with the composers other works including the scoring of BBC Two’s landmark four-part series Black and British: A Forgotten History, written and presented by Historian David Olusoga OBE. Regularly collaborating on BBC projects, he completed the scores for the major three-part series The Human Body: Secrets of Your Life Revealed and two-part series Expedition Volcano, both for BBC Two and PBS. He is better known for his music in the latest series of Doctor Who, series 11 and 12, which feature the first female Doctor, portrayed by Jodie Whittaker.
Can I start with series 11 of DR.WHO which is when you began to score the show, How did you become involved on the show and did you like so many of us watch the series when you were younger, and were you given any specific instructions as to what style of music you should compose for it?
Chris Chibnall was looking for a new composer for the show and had come across my work, so we started to talk from there. I had not watched the series, but I’d always been very aware of its musical history, particularly the ground-breaking work of Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop. My remit was to start from a clean slate musically, bring my personality to it and to take it in a new direction.
Are any of your family musical in any way, and can you remember the first piece of music that you took notice of?
My sisters both learned instruments during their teenage years and my mum always sings around the house but that’s it really! What I can say is that my family love music and it’s always been a big part of everyday life. Sadly, I have no idea what the first piece of music I took notice of was, but I do know that I always enjoyed it.
When you began to work on DR. WHO were you aware of the style of the previous scores and was it a little unnerving creating a new arrangement for that familiar theme?
I was very aware of all the music that had come beforehand. For the main score, I had so much creative freedom to come up with a new sound world, which was a lot of fun. The main theme was of course daunting to tackle but, once I’d figured out the overall sound world for the series, it made the main theme much easier to approach.
Do producers use temp tracks at all on TV shows to let the composer know what kind of music they want if so, do you find this practise helpful or distracting?
Yes, they definitely use temp music which can be incredibly helpful and can also be a little limiting but it depends on the particular situation and I’ve certainly experienced both. Fortunately, I’ve found that a lot of the people I work with really do see it as a guide and they’re very happy going in a different direction that works for the storytelling or, are happy to do something that fits better with their overall desire for the score, or, are happy to take general ideas from the temp music without becoming too attached to it.
The scores for the series 11 and 12 I think have been amazing, so atmospheric and they really do give the series storylines a great lift and create an even higher level of intensity and atmospherics, what size orchestra do you tend to utilise for the series and what percentage of the instrumentation is made up of electronic or synthetic elements?
With the change of sound world that arrived with series 11, there was also a change in approach. As the stories each week took place in different locations and time periods, the intention was also for the music to change with the story whilst maintaining a core, recognisable series sound. As such, the instrumentation changes almost every episode! There’s usually at least one live instrument in the score unless the specific musical approach for an episode really doesn’t call for it and an orchestra is only used on select episodes too. I’ve created a number of bespoke sounds, synths and atmos that are used throughout the series so there’s a healthy blend of acoustic instruments, synths (both created from synthetic and acoustic sound sources) and electro-acoustic experimental elements too.
I noticed that even when there is an action cue on the soundtrack, it still maintains a level of thematic content, do you think it is important for films and TV shows to have a theme or themes that the audience can identify with and do you think that the main title as we knew it is now a thing of the past in movies?
Thematic material is (generally) very useful in the storytelling but that doesn’t mean that a theme has to be melodic. It could be a sound, a motif, a harmonic progression, a texture – anything goes! The most important question is: how can the music best serve the storytelling? A lot of the time, themes will be part of the answer but that’s not always the case.
What in your opinion is the purpose of music in film and TV?
At its core, it’s quite simple: the purpose is to help tell the storytelling being depicted on screen in the best way possible in conjunction with any other sound e.g. sound design.
When you are asked to work on a project do you like to see the film or show a number of times to allow you to become familiar with it and then start to figure out what style of music is required and also where it should be placed?
This depends on when I’ve been brought onto a project, but I don’t tend to watch it a great deal of times before I start writing. At the moment, I generally get brought on early enough to write some sketches based on the script or on conversations with the director and then when there’s a rough cut ready, I can watch that through and have a spotting session with the director and possibly the editor and/or producer too, to figure out where music is needed and what it should be doing.
There is a cue entitled MI6 in series 12, which sounds a little 007, was this something that you did consciously, or did it just develop as the scoring process progressed?
It was very intentional! That particular piece is from the first episode of series 12 which was titled ‘Spyfall’ so it of course required an equally Bond-influenced score throughout which was enormous fun!
Do you score the episodes for DR WHO in sequence, and how long approx: does it take to score an episode?
This depends on the production order and when the edits get completed. Sometimes I follow the order they are aired in and other times I’m jumping around the series. As for how much time it takes, this can vary quite a lot and it’s very much a question of how much time I’ve been given! For series 12, I was usually working on different stages of two or three episodes across a two-week period on average, but usually that time shrinks a bit the further into the series we get.
How do you work out your musical ideas, maybe straight to manuscript or via PC or keyboard, and is there a particular routine that you have when scoring something, ie; main title to end title, central theme first and build the remainder of score around this etc?
Because of time limitations, I generally work straight into my computer. If I have time and I’m working on quite a traditional or classical-based score or theme, then I’ll sketch it out first and that may be on manuscript paper but that’s quite rare at the moment. The approach I take depends on what I’m working on so I don’t have a routine as such but I do like to figure out the central theme, idea or whatever the heart of the score will be, before I get into the rest of the score.
Do you work on the orchestrations yourself or is this sometimes not possible due to schedules, also do you conduct at all or do you prefer to have a conductor so you can monitor the scoring process from the booth?
With the time constraints and everything else to keep on top of in this line of work, an orchestrator is very handy! Orchestration is incredibly important to me and I write into my computer exactly as I’d write on manuscript paper, so all the same detail is there. I work with a great orchestrator who also conducts my scores, this way he already knows the music and my intentions and I get to sit in the booth very much with a composer-producer hat on rather than a composer-conductor hat on. I really enjoy conducting and take every opportunity to do it but when I’m recording, I prefer to be in the booth.
What artists or composers would you say have influenced you or inspired you and was writing music for film and TV something that you always looked at as a career?
I’m very influenced by a wide range of artists, composers and producers so there’s a very, very long list. I think some of my key influences are Earth, Wind and Fire, Quincy Jones, Hans Zimmer, Brian Tyler, John Williams, John Powell, Xenakis, Walter Afanasieff, Leonard Bernstein, Holst, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Foo Fighters, Snarky Puppy and many, many others. I was particularly influenced by arranger-producers so from a young age I wanted to be a record producer but, as I watched more films and read more and more books, that slowly morphed into film/TV composition, at which point it definitely became my focus.
You have been presenting a show on Sundays for Scala radio which is called TV ON THE RADIO it’s been brilliant to listen to, do you compile these shows and when will you be returning as I think it’s now finished?
It’s so good to be able to celebrate the brilliant work of many composers, it’s a real joy. I do compile the music along with the producer and we work really hard to put together a list of some of the best music around from many different TV shows and composers in different stages of their career. For now, I’m just grateful I was asked to come back for a second series!
What are you working on at the moment, and has the pandemic affected your work schedule a great deal?
Yes, the pandemic definitely affected my work schedule as projects were temporarily put on hold but thankfully things have picked up again and I’m currently working on the Doctor Who festive special and a feature-length documentary.