Peter Edwards is the award-winning Musical Director for the acclaimed Nu Civilisation Orchestra (NCO)
In October 2022, Edwards was announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in partnership with Mercury Studios, as one of two recipients selected for the Jonas Gwangwa Music Composition Initiative, a one-year career development program for Black British musicians interested in composing music for film.
We spoke to him about his journey as a composer and what projects he has coming up next …
Please introduce yourself …
My name’s Peter Edwards. I am a composer and musical director and pianist. I’m musical director of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra. I’m from London and my family are from the Caribbean, Grenzada and Guyana. I grew up in Harrow and currently living in Walthamstow.
Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …
Hectic, but in the good sense.
You have been on quite an exciting journey, firstly please tell us how life as a composer has evolved since you won a spot on The Academy’s Jonas Gwangwa Music Composition Initiative alongside Oleta Haffner?
Yeah, my composing career has evolved. It happened very quickly following the Jonas Gangwa Award and I’ve been given lots of opportunities to write for film, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and it’s a very exciting journey. I’ve been introduced to lots of other composers, I’ve had mentoring from composer Segun Akinola. I’m learning how to write music in a very different way. It’s all about storytelling, conveying emotion and collaboration. So that’s been amazing to learn about the whole industry of film making and this opportunity has really stretched me. The mentoring has helped me build my confidence and allowed me to learn more about the craft of writing for film and TV. It has also showed me that a lot of the skills that I already have are quite transferable. And there are other aspects like learning to manage your work but remembering your values. My family life is really important to me – there is more to life than just work. It’s been really helpful to be aware of that going forward.
What was composing life for you like before you were involved with the Jonas Gwangwa initiative?
Well, a lot of my compositions previously were more commission based. I’ve written a lot of things for Nu Civilisation Orchestra and composing for my small band and so I was writing fairly regularly, but mainly for performance purposes. As opposed to writing for screen TV.
Who or what fired up your interest in composing?
I was really curious about how music was put together. I grew up playing in orchestras and was always interested in scores and how composers came up with musical themes and ideas. When I started to see other people like me, like Jason Yarde, then I could see it was possible to have a career in in composing and arranging. Then it was just a case of getting the opportunity. A lot of work came through Tomorrow’s Warriors, lots of opportunities to write things with small bands. Then I went to university to study performance. I had the opportunity to write and do arrangements for larger ensembles. It’s not a huge step to go from arranging music for large ensembles to actually composing.
You’re currently the Musical Director for Nu Civilisation Orchestra, tell us more …
Being MD of Nu Civilisation Orchestra, it’s more project to project than it is day-to-day. The projects come together through conversations between myself and the artistic director, Gary Crosby. Between us, we talk about the types of things that we want the orchestra to do, whether it be Charles Mingus projects or doing the Joni Mitchell project. Once we decide what type of project it is, I’ll do some research on that particular album or music or particular artist. The next process is trying to devise a set list. I will speak to the producer of the show, Fish Krish, and we’ll talk about rehearsals, how much time, what resources are needed etc. I think about that period as devising, trying to shape a project. And then in the meantime, I’m thinking about what is it actually going to look like on stage and have we got guest artists? What do they need? Then there’s lots of meetings that are put together to work out how the show’s going to work. Then later along the line I’ll do the arrangement. And over a period of weeks we put together a band. We’ll rehearse the week before the show. Whilst we’re working on one project, another project comes through for later in the year or the following year and so that process starts again. That’s normally how it works. A combination of devising the actual project, doing the actual writing of the music, then doing the performance and make making sure all of that runs really smoothly.
Please tell us about Focus taking place at the Royal Festival Hall, the Southbank Centre in September …
‘Focus’ is an album that myself and Gary Crosby have been talking about for years, and it’s a very famous album featuring tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. It features strings and is something we’ve wanted to use to help develop Nu Civilisation Orchestra string players. The style of music is not 100% jazz or classical music. It’s somewhere in in the middle and the term that’s used for it is Third stream. Which is a really exciting concept that we wanted to incorporate into the orchestra’s repertoire. Particularly seeing as we have string players who are also very interested in improvisation. The prospect of working with Nubya Garcia is exciting, as she is going to be performing in the role of Stan Getz. I worked with her when she was starting out, and it was a really good opportunity to work with her again, seeing how far she’s come.
Lessons learned from working with the legend Gary Crosby OBE?
Lessons I’ve learned from Gary Crosby. I’ve learned to have confidence in in myself and my abilities. And then also to share what I have learned with other younger musicians who are on their way up. And not to forget where you’ve come from. Gary’s motto ‘Each one teach one’ is so important, there’s very much to continue to try and pass on.
How did the performance of ‘Aladdin Sane’ live at Royal Festival Hall in April go?
Aladdin Sane Live went really well. It was a sell out show and there was just an incredible feeling all the way through and the audience were with us. The guest artists were fantastic and I really thought we did a great show. In terms of highlights, I think all the artists brought a completely different approach to Bowie’s music. I think for me, one of the standout moments was Tawiah and her performance of Drive In Saturday which was given a standing ovation. Which happened quite early on into the set. That was amazing. Also seeing Lynks running around stage in the full Bowie costume was pretty amazing. It was great doing the encore with all the artists coming back on stage to sing ‘Rebel Rebel’. It was an amazing night and looking forward to doing something equally innovative next year.
Highs, lows, solutions …
The highlights and obstacles of putting on Focus – we are at the earliest stages. So right now we’re putting together a string group. I’m trying to create the musical approach that we’re going to take and how we’re going to do our version of the record. And I’m working on the music right now. But I definitely wanted to have our distinctive Nu Civilisation Orchestra stamp on it. Most of the time obstacles or problems get solved during rehearsals. The musicians that we work with are of such a high quality many times they will solve the many musical problems themselves, or we will work them out altogether. Highs points, well I’m looking forward to getting into the rehearsal studio with the musicians and Nubya. For me the high points always in these projects are the actual process of the music making, and the performance for me is always like the cherry on the top. It’s when we get to show everybody what we’ve been working on.
The biggest misconception about being a composer, getting into composing is … ?
The biggest misconception is that you don’t necessarily have to have gone to music college to study composing. Because I never did a degree in composition, I studied performance and was interested in composing and tried to find as many opportunities as I could to compose. Sometimes there is a worry about not having studied composing, when actually the best way to learn is to just do it and ask lots of questions of people who do have some of these skills.
Is the world of classical composing becoming more representational?
I’ve seen a few changes. Small changes. I think diversity is now something that is becoming valued more and talked about more. I think there’s still a long way in terms of the culture and music making in the classical composing world. To change that you need to give people from diverse backgrounds more opportunity and support and encourage more diverse audiences. It’s a long term process, it’s not something that will happen in a year or two. We’re talking about 15-20 years. Trying to change things and encourage lots of different people from different backgrounds. It’s going to take time.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
What’s your current plan B?
To be honest, I tried Plan B. I worked in the city for a little while, it didn’t suit me. So I went back to Plan A which was to become a musician and composer. So B has been implemented and didn’t work.
What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?
This week in the news, it was hearing about the deaths on Bournemouth beach. That was really sad. And when Tina Turner passed away, that was really sad. What made me glad is I’ve had the opportunity to meet composers George Fenton and Alexandre Desplat. I was invited to an event and I got to meet them in person and got to speak with him. Both incredible composers and lovely people.
What are you watching right now?
What are you reading right now?
How To Be An Anti Racist by Ibrahim X Kendi
What are you listening to right now?
To be honest, I’ve just been listening to Focus album by Stan Getz.
The last thing you saw on stage?
What’s on your bucket list?
I’d love to travel to Brazil. I’d love to work on a feature length film. I would love to perform with Nu Civilisation Orchestra at Glastonbury.
Where’s your happy place?
With my family at the dinner table.
Celebrate someone else …
Right now, a composer based player called Renell Shaw. He is someone who’s won awards for composition and is really a fantastic bass player, but also very good musical director and composer.
Whose footsteps are you following in?
I feel like the a lot of the doors that have been opened to me have come from people like Gary Crosby and Jason Yarde. British musicians who have actually forged a path and opened a lot of doors that some of our younger musicians have been able to walk through and have benefited from. There’s other people from the past that I found out about recently. Leslie Jiver Hutchinson, who’s a very celebrated trumpeter and musical director from the 40s and 50s.
The Focus concert is next. I’m working on three short films and they’re due to come out very soon. Within the next month or two Ted and Noel (Happenstance Films), George the film and The Golden Boy (both from Slick Films ) These have all come from being on the Jonas Gangwa Initiative.
Where can we find you?
I’m on Twitter and Instagram @peteredwardsmus and I’ve got a website peteredwardsmusic.co.uk
Where can we find your latest work?
You can see and hear my work on my website. There’s that’s the best way to find me.
Focus will take place at Royal Festival Hall, the Southbank Centre on 15th September 2023.