‘I’m choosing not to be a victim’: War Horse composer Adrian Sutton on his incurable cancer diagnosis

As he prepares his final two concerts, Sutton shares what he has learned from a life in music

A devastating flash-flood recently swept away the pleasant landscape of my imagined future: an incurable cancer diagnosis. B**tard. How to process that news? My mind has lurched for two months. Obviously, this is all some terrible mistake. I have a healthy lifestyle. You’ve got the wrong guy. Come on, there’s more living to do, more music to write. But such pleadings – to whom or what I don’t know – rebound from a stone wall. The reality is immutable.

In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman highlights the obsession we have with the future: always trying to lasso it from the present, writing to-do lists around it, deluding ourselves that we have it all under control. That’s been me, right there... years spent dreaming of the pieces I’d yet to write and record; tweaking my studio set-up to optimise future workflow; stacking a tower of useless to-do-list cruft.

Well, that sense of control was an illusion. The future has flagrantly disobeyed my instructions. Even so, I’m pretty pleased with the work I have got done. Coram Boy, War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and other National Theatre productions fuelled the most exhilarating years of my career. They changed my writing process too; working on them schooled me refreshingly in how world-class creative work really gets made.

Before my time at the National Theatre, I’d earned a living writing a lot of applied music in various styles, something I’d always been good at. The composer Richard Rodney Bennett called this “musical journalism” – useful for income, but to be kept meticulously apart from the rest of one’s serious work. My “journalism” was largely in music for TV commercials; an unforgiving high-octane world of maddeningly opaque briefs, short deadlines, demands for perfection – and scant time or patience for proper creative exploration.


The pivot came when I worked with Chris Morris on his Radio 1 series Blue Jam in 1997. Chris introduced me to his brother Tom, then artistic director at the Battersea Arts Centre [in the UK], later to become an associate director at the National Theatre. That connection led to my first stage score, Coram Boy, a project that suited my aptitude for stylistic writing very well, because it took the music of Handel – a character in the play itself – as its substrate.

In truth though, we all have limited time – and resources. How to make best use of them? In my situation, there’s only one answer

Soon, I was learning a fundamental principle missed earlier in my career: making lots of bad ideas is how you find the good ones. War Horse’s early workshops saw grown adults prancing around the room with cardboard boxes on their heads. No demands for instant perfection here; these rehearsal rooms were welcoming, exploratory and curious. “A-ha!” I thought. Tackling a score should be no different, a gleeful and fearless exercise in dreaming, researching, sketching, discarding and remaking ideas. Procedures that most experienced artists in any field would confirm as essential, in some form, to their work.

I learned, too, that making a collaborative theatre show demands all creative team members set ego aside. The job is to serve the director’s vision, a fact that some composers have trouble coming to terms with. But this doesn’t mean one’s own musical voice needs silencing. War Horse was especially rewarding to work on, because its panorama resonated on the strings of my own musical DNA. I’m essentially a harmonist with a marked “Englishness” to my sound (so I’m told), probably from my love of Elgar, Walton and Britten. The arc of War Horse – moving from tranquil English countryside to the shattering horrors of trench warfare – afforded me a wide exploration of my palette.

Later, I turned the War Horse score into concert-platform pieces. War Horse: The Story in Concert – performed initially at the Royal Albert Hall with the RPO (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), Michael Morpurgo and Joanna Lumley – was a satisfying chance to bring the music into a fully-acoustic performable setting.

Orchestras are my home patch, but I’m also a studio animal. As a teenager, hearing Mike Oldfield’s first four instrumental albums from the 1970s – impressive one-man studio canvases – blew my mind and completely upended my view of how music could be made. This fascination with technology later led me to admire and study electronic trailblazers like Aphex Twin, an interest that proved the perfect launch pad for another NT project: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

What would Jaws be without that brutal two-note phrase repeated in the double basses?

In Mark Haddon’s novel, Christopher is an autistic teenager who can’t relate well to other people and their confusing emotions; he prefers the inanimate solitude of outer space, the logical certainties of maths, computers and computer games. This was a gift, because it strongly suggested a score rooted in mathematical patterns (especially prime numbers), bleeping video game sounds and sensory overload. The best approach, in fact, was to imagine that Christopher had written the score himself.

Finding a core concept for a score like this – an “engine” if you like – is an essential step for me, ideally before a note of music is written, because it defines scope and provokes necessary questions, scene-by-scene, about what job the music is there to do (if any). Music in both theatre and film is a powerful weapon that carries responsibility. It’s best used to illuminate characters’ unspoken thoughts and feelings, or to underscore the audience’s own emotional reactions to a scene. And the wrong music can be dangerous: too easily used to manipulate the audience, tell the wrong story, or telegraph information that needs holding back until later. It can also distract. The human ear is attracted to any and all new changes in the sonic environment. Simultaneous combination of busy music and speech therefore undermines the clarity of both. If the music draws undue attention to itself, I’m not doing my job properly.

That said, I mutter occasionally about press reviews of shows – not just mine – that seem to mention every creative department except music, as if it can safely be assumed superfluous. Has music’s value in our society receded so far, with a tsunami of choice in millions of commuter earbuds, that we’re now desensitised to its contribution? What would Jaws be without that brutal two-note phrase repeated in the double basses?

This question of music’s perceived value – and one’s personal contribution to the mountain of music already available – vexes me somewhat. More than 10,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day. That’s quite a hurricane to shout into with any confidence, especially if you’re a composer just starting out. But shout you must, with your own voice, while honing your own craft. Too many composers appear to be calibrating their work against their YouTube heroes at the expense of their true daily imperative: exploring their own musical identity, as I have striven to do for my entire career.

A commissioning colleague of mine recently lamented the number of composers submitting scores to him for consideration that all sound like Hans Zimmer, no doubt believing that’s the requirement to get a film or theatre commission these days. He’d rather composers come to him with the defiant declaration: “This is me. My music, my unique style and voice. Take it or leave it.” Young composers take note: we want to hear you, not your second-hand idols. It’s a stance all the more urgent against the inevitable rise of AI music-generation algorithms that are – likely – already doing Hans Zimmer better than you, and much cheaper and quicker than he does himself.

I’m currently visiting secondary schools and university music departments to talk about all this. To share my career experience with young composers, to show them how to sharpen creative skills, and pay attention to nurturing their own unique identity. This focus on personal voice will, I hope, ensure my own works will have a future life, even after my own. As recordings, yes, but as dots on paper too, enabling future live orchestral, chamber, theatrical and domestic performances in all their visceral human glory. More moving atoms.

To that end, we’re planning a big celebratory concert in early 2023. With a top orchestra in a major London venue, this will feature my concert orchestral works and some previously unheard material from unused theatre cues. I’m writing new things for this right now. There will be a follow-up concert of my chamber music works. All this I hope to complete before my time is up. Alas, I’ll be missing out on 30 or more years of life that could have been spent on the things that ultimately matter: my partner, friends and family, good food, lively discussion, playing chamber music.

In truth though, we all have limited time – and resources. How to make best use of them? In my situation, there’s only one answer: avoid egregious waste of both time and energy ruminating on things I can’t change. Instead, I can choose how I react to the facts – and I’m choosing not to be a victim. – Guardian