John Welsman, composer

After several months, moreover years, another dream of mine has come through. I could successfully make an interview with my favourite composer: John Welsman. The interview was made by e-mail, although I could meet John in person three times during last AvCons. Enjoy the interview!

John Welsman First of all, what should we know about you in your private life?
I have two daughters, who are both studying at university. I live with my partner Cherie Camp in Toronto.
You studied piano and theory at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and attended the Faculty of Music, University of Western Ontario in 1974-75. When did you realize that music was your life and you would study music? Do you have musician roots? Your parents or any other relative?
I knew from about the age of 9 that I wanted a life in music after discovering and being inspired by the Beatles and other artists of the time. There was a great deal of music in our family culture growing up. My mother playing piano beautifully and taught piano for a number of years. Her piano teacher was Alberto Guerrero, who's more famous student was Glenn Gould. My father also played piano, clarinet and sax, though almost completely by ear. His mother and father were musicians - his father founded and conducted the original Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and was a well respected figure in the Toronto music scene. We grew up listening to all kinds of musicals, classical, jazz and pop. I would have to say music is in my blood.
What was your first score? I read on an old website that you composed the score of The Fir Tree, directed by Kevin Sullivan.

My first score was indeed for Kevin Sullivan. We'd been school mates at high school, and in 1979 when he made his first film, Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir Tree and it seemed a natural thing for me to write the music. Together we followed our instincts and learned something about how this was all supposed to be done.

[I recall an early recording session, which was for the score for a later film of Kevin's, Kreighoff, that took place in the stairwell of North Toronto Collegiate, where we.]

When and where did you meet Kevin Sullivan?
I first met Kevin in Grade 9 at high school - we were in the same class from Grades 9 through 13 as we played in the school band - he played flute, and I played bass clarinet.
Road to Avonlea themes might be your most famous work. You're an eleven-time Gemini Award nominee, and you were awarded the 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1996 Gemini Awards for Best Original Score For A Series for the series Road To Avonlea. Eleven years after finishing the show your music is still very popular and famous and fans who connect music of Avonlea with you and your work despite of the fact that not only you composed the themes for the series. Were you shocked when you realized this huge success?
I think I've always known that Road To Avonlea was a very high quality series, one that would entertain many people for many years. I'm not surprised to know that its success crosses generations - they are good stories, well told, beautifully shot, and well acted. It was a wonderful surprise, however, for me to learn that fans around the world had put together a petition appealing to Sullivan Entertainment and myself to release a CD of some of the scores that I wrote for Avonlea. Other composers work had been released, but for a number of reasons, not mine. I think the petition ended up with 1200 or so signatures asking specifically for my music, and that made quite an impression on me.
Which episodes did you compose theme for? Could you enumerate some?
In the early seasons, I composed themes for any main characters that presented themselves. Initially, we had a King Family Theme, as well as The Story Girl Theme (for Sara Stanley), Jasper Dale, Old Lady Lloyd and Peg Bowen. Sometimes a theme was composed for a story in general, not a person - an example of this would be The Blue Chest of Arabella King. That whole episode had an air of intrigue and mystery, and demanded its own theme with that tone. Later, of course, came Gus Pike's Theme, Captain Crane and even Clive Pettibone had his own theme.
What's you favourite theme and why?
I think my favourite theme is the Story Girl Theme, the Opening Theme for the series in Season 1 and 2. (Later versions of the Opening Theme included other theme material from the show.) It's tone is influenced by the music of the British Isles, and I think it unfolds in an interesting and memorable way melodically and harmonically. It's difficult, looking back, to describe where these theme ideas really came from - sure, there were cultural influences at work, but the actual writing out of that particular sequence of notes and chords - thats the magic part. I have been very fortunate, throughout my composing career, to find that melodies flow from my brain (or heart) out through my fingers without a great deal of effort. Often my strongest ideas burst forth without a whole lot of thinking or deliberation. I'm very grateful for this.
Do you have any favourite episode from the series, scene or character?
One of the most memorable episodes in the series for me was the one in which an old beau of Aunt Hetty's, Romney Penhallow, came back to Avonlea to say a quiet goodbye. All along we've known Hetty King as a very proper teacher, a little reserved and conservative, a pillar in the community. When Romney returns we see her blossom into something we've never seen before. It all ends quite beautifully sadly. Romney's theme is another favourite of mine, one that took a long arc approach in revealing itself. It had lots of minor chords too, which I love!
You worked with Hagood Hardy and Don Gillis on RTA. Did you compose different tunes, themes or is there any theme that two of you together worked on? Did you get to know both other composers in person? Unfortunately both Mr. Hardy and Mr. Gillis passed away...
I did know Hagood Hardy fairly well, and got to know Don Gillis quite well too, though we never collaborated on any themes together. Each composed their own episodes, though I'm sure in some way we knew the sound of the show's score, and used virtually identical instrumentation and a similar approach to the compositions. But I think we all had individual and fairly different musical styles, and I think that probably made the series richer.
You worked on other Sullivan productions such as Lantern Hill, Looking For Miracles. Is there any other series or movie that Avonlea fans might know and you composed its music? What other works do you have?

John Welsman Sullivan Entertainment did a mini-series directed by Allan King which starred Zach Bennett (Felix from Avonlea) called By Way of the Stars, aka The Long Way of Lukas B. I believe it was based on a popular German story of a boy's journey. The score for that was one of the most ambitious that I've ever written - lots of adventure and intrigue. We had a fair size brass section in that orchestra - something we'd never used for other Sullivan projects. It's always difficult to choose favourites, but other films or series that come to mind that Avonlea fans might be interested in knowing about would be Borrowed Hearts, with Eric MacCormack and Roma Downey, a very nice Christmas movie, In His Father's Shoes was quite a wonderful film for Showtime Networks - also Robin Of Locksley for Showtime. I recorded that in Ireland at Windmill Lane, a beautiful sounding studio. A whistle and pipes player named Ronan Browne played on the score on a very memorable session. Great musicians bring so much to the party, and we composers owe them many many thanks for helping bring our music to life.

I'm currently composing the score for a couple of childrens' series - one is animated called My Friend Rabbit, the other is a puppet show called The Mighty Jungle. It will be airing this fall on CBC in Canada and The Disney Channel in the United States.

I've heard that you are composing music for not just television series and television movies but for commercials and documentary films too.
This is true. Over the years I've scored many documentaries, the most famous and notorious of which might be James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici's The Lost Tomb Of Jesus. People might also remember David Suzuki's The Sacred Balance, as well as numerous episodes of The Nature of Things. Documentaries are great - I always learn lots while working on the project. Sometimes, though, the subject matter can be extremely difficult to live with, viewing it over and over for weeks - one such case was Peter Raymont's Rwanda - In Search of Hope. I scored many films directed by his late partner Lindalee Tracey - she was a good friend and collaborator and many of her films tackled tough subjects. Then again, she did Anatomy of Burlesque, a history of burlesque, that was lots of fun.
What work of yours are you the most proud of? The Avonlea series or something else? And why?
That's really a difficult question to answer. I find listening back to some pieces I've written, I'm most proud of the ones I really can't imagine having composed - ones which, looking back, I'm surprised to think that I wrote. One of these is a Wagnerian style operatic piece, with German lyrics, that I wrote for Tender Loving Care. I must have been channeling someone from another era with that piece playing in their brain - I can't imagine having written it.
Your wife was singing in one of the Avonlea themes called She's Like the Swallow. Were you working together in other projects too or was it just a one time collaboration?
Cherie Camp and I have a long history of working together, original performing in two bands, Available Space, and Cherie Camp Band. We've co-written many songs, some for film and TV, some not, and she has sung on many pieces I've done over the years. We co-wrote the opening theme songs for both My Friend Rabbit and The Mighty Jungle. In fact, the piece for My Friend Rabbit is a bit of a family affair, with our daughter Amy singing the lead vocal. We needed a fresh younger voice so she song on the demo, and the producers decided to have her sing on the final production. Most recently Cherie and I wrote Oh Love for a scene in the feature Nurse.Fighter.Boy, with Zaki Ibrahim singing the lead.
Your Avonlea music was finally released in May, 2006 as a promotional CD added to a RTA DVD package. Is it possible to purchase this audio CD with your wonderful RTA music one day as a single item? Are you planning to release more from your RTA themes?
It is my hope that at some point, an Avonlea fan will be able to order the Avonlea CD alone for the cost of shipping alone.
Are you working on any project now? Shall we get some information about it?
My next score is for a film by Stornoway Productions called 11-11, a feature documentary about some of the last battles of World War I. It promises to be a very interesting film, as it is revealed by historians that the German government suppressed the facts about the results of these final battles to the people of Germany, with far reaching results a few decades later. The film is going to need some rather epic themes, and I'm in the research stage at the moment.
Thank you for the interview.
You're very welcome.

Created in May, 2008.