Wael Binali brings the same rigorous approach to classical composition as he does to film scores
Tomorrow’s orchestral concert at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall – in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority and featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Paul Goodwin, the choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral and cellist Guy Johnston in Elgar’s Cello Concerto – might seem like an anomalous event. But it is part of a year-long UK-wide initiative to strengthen cultural links between Qatar and the UK, and in this particular case brings a London-born composer with Qatari parentage back to the country in which he was educated, and where his earliest musical urges were nurtured.
Not that 45-year-old former Gordonstoun pupil, Wael Binali, is a household name. Living in California now, his main line of work has been in the film and television industry, where he has composed original scores for such movies as Closure, for popular TV hits such as Power Rangers, and for the internet feature animation Atlantis Falling.
Tomorrow’s programme, however, focuses on his concert material – three Scottish premieres that he is particularly proud to be having performed in front of the Gordonstoun teacher he says “made me and who I am in music today”.
“Gordonstoun was the beginning of everything,” says Binali. “It was there that Marjorie Downward put me on the oboe. She was my mentor in music, she opened doors, she taught me a lot and I ended up joining the orchestra. I fell in love with classical music. My musical ideas came with her influence. Everything she taught me I gulped it up. I’ve invited her to the concert, and I can’t wait to see her again.”
On leaving the prestigious Scottish school, Binali headed for California, where he took a first degree at Pepperdine University in Malibu, before undertaking postgraduate composition courses in London and then on the film scoring programme at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where his mentors included Elmer Bernstein and David Raskin.
And there’s no doubting the Hollywood flavour of his music – works such as The Oryx and the Unicorn glow with filmic warmth and a masterful handling of large orchestral colour. It’s one of tonight’s three works by Binali, part of a larger suite that was written for children with special needs. “A long time ago in the Middle East, these kids were shunned by society and put away because the families were ashamed of them. This is happy music that shows how things have changed considerably and these children are now adults who have a home and a function in society.”
But Benali, whose international profile was boosted in 2006 by the exposure of his commission Through Time for the Asian Games, is adamant that he should not simply be labelled a film composer: “I don’t see film and classical music as two different things. If you write music, and as long as it’s for orchestra, it’s symphonic. So for me it’s sort of the same.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the films he claims got him hooked on movie scores were, among others, The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood and Gone with the Wind. “I grew up on these movies and they had unbelievable scores by Julius Korngold, Max Steiner and Franz Waxman. They were basically incredible composers with fantastic scores from the golden age of film music.”
What really excites him about writing film music is that you can take a theme you used for a movie and develop it further as a concert piece. “Korngold did this quite a bit. For instance, in his Violin Concerto the last movement uses the main theme from The Prince and the Pauper. John Williams made concert suites from his film music: there is a little motif from Seven Years in Tibet that he developed into a gorgeous elegy for cello and orchestra.”
Yet, when it comes to the other two works in tonight’s programme, Binali’s inspiration comes more from his political beliefs and his Middle Eastern background than anything derived from the silver screen.
Earth was written for the COP 18 United Nations Climate Change Conference last December. “It’s about topics close to my heart – pro-animal-rights, protecting nature and the environment – so I delved into it with full gusto.”.
Journey to the Oasis, on the other hand, is a collection of different works by Binali, notable for their Middle Eastern rhythmic qualities, that Edinburgh-based composer David Heath – whose piano concerto El Hedaiya will also be performed tomorrow by the Glasgow-born Qatari pianist Amira Fouad – has arranged into a suite.
For Binali, however, the final outcome of any piece has to be his own creation through and through, particularly when it comes to the all-important orchestration of the music – a part of the process that isn’t always in the film composer’s toolbox.
“In the world of film, there are people who are hummers – they hum a tune but someone else writes it. There are others who can write a piano sketch of their themes, but cannot orchestrate, so orchestrators are brought in.
“For me, it has to be 100 per cent my own work. Every single instrument must be written by me, every dot and every line is mine. Otherwise I cannot say it is my own work.”
Binali puts a lot of his success in film down to the seminal names he encountered as a student, not just because of the help and advice they gave in dealing with studios and the industry, but also because he was able to examine their scores and see the genius of their craftsmanship.
“Reading over the scores of Elmer Bernstein, Christopher Young and David Raskin, and talking to them about their musical ideas really helps you discover your own sound. Listening to their stories about Hollywood and relationships helps you develop yours with directors, producers and editors. Just sitting with them you realise you are sitting with Hollywood royalty.”
• Qatar UK 2013 – Year of Culture Musical Celebration, featuring the RSNO, is at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, tomorrow, www.usherhall.co.uk