One of the most sought-after composers of the twenty-first century, Craig Armstrong has somehow managed to keep a low profile. He has a wide range of interests that is satisfied by working with hit pop artists as well as composing for his country's national orchestra. He has won a multitude of awards for a wide range of scores, underlining his ability to adapt to changing demands. He has won numerous awards for his contributions to movie soundtracks, including Ray, the 2004 biopic of Ray Charles, and the 2002 adaptation of The Quiet American. Throughout it all Armstrong has emphasized that his primary desire is just to write music.
Armstrong was the second of three sons born to Barrie, a midwife, and John, a clerk at a local steelworks. He grew up in Shettleston, Scotland, which is located in Glasgow's east end. Armstrong recalled to Alan Jackson of the London Times what life was like growing up on the tough side of a tough city: "However rough the east end is or might have been, inside our house was as safe an environment as that in which I, my wife and children live today."
Armstrong now lives on the west side of Glasgow with his wife, Laura Mazzolini, and their four children. Despite his fame and the ability to live anywhere he would like, Armstrong has chosen to stay in Glasgow. There he has a full studio, where artists such as singer Madonna and English trip hop stars Massive Attack meet to collaborate with him. He explained to Allan Brown of London's Sunday Times, "If there was a sound stage for recording orchestras here, I'd hardly leave at all."
Armstrong had two very important influences on his musical life at a young age. His Aunt Bella, who played piano and had attended the London Royal Music Academy, taught him to play piano. His Aunt Morag attended weekly concerts by the Scottish National Orchestra and always made sure that Armstrong went along with her. In 1978 Armstrong moved to London to attend the Royal Music Academy. It was an entirely new experience for him. One thing he noticed right away was that people in London did not care if you were carrying a violin down the street. Throughout his school years in Glasgow, Armstrong had had to deal with bullies and cynical teachers who disliked his focus on music. While at the academy, Armstrong studied and attended classes by day, while at night he played piano at a wine bar. By the time he graduated, Armstrong had won most of the compositional prizes handed out by the school. Lack of funds kept him from continuing his studies in Cologne, France.
Of his time at the Royal Academy, Armstrong told Dan Bye of London's Sunday Times, "It's uncool to say you loved going to college, but I did." After college he tried his hand as a jazz musician, and at the age of 22 earned the Young Jazz Musician of the Year award from the Greater London Arts Association. He then moved back to Glasgow, where he joined rock bands such as Hipsway, The Big Dish, and Texas. He explained to Cary Darling of the Miami Herald how he became involved in the local music scene. "I was one of the guys who could program and play synthesizers. I just started doing sessions for all the bands, and I started to do work for the local theater here." He co-wrote a song with Texas that went on to become a hit, but he quit the band before its release. He then found work with the Tron Theatre, taking on the roll of in-house composer.
Armstrong's big break came when he met producer Nellee Hooper. Hooper introduced Armstrong to a range of popular artists, and he began working with artists such as U2, Madonna, Tina Turner, and Massive Attack. In the late 1990s opportunities arose for Armstrong to begin working on soundtracks for film. Most notable was his contribution in 1996 to Australian director Baz Lurhmann's film Romeo + Juliet. Other film scores included The Bone Collector, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet American, and World Trade Center.
In 2000 Armstrong was commissioned to write a symphony for the grand reopening of Usher Hall, a famous concert hall in Edinburgh, Scotland. The piece that Armstrong created was titled "When Morning Turns to Light." The ten-minute composition featured orchestra as well as a mezzo soprano part. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra played the piece in its debut at the reopening of Usher Hall. In an interview with Phil Miller of the Sunday Times, Armstrong addressed the concerns of some critics who had questioned whether a composer of popular music was the appropriate choice to write the music for this particular event: "It's a big honour. I don't believe there are any rules against doing both pop and classical—I don't think it's something you should be embarrassed about." In general, though, Armstrong has stated that he finds composing for film much easier. He explained to Neil Fisher of London's Times, "It's really the director's project, and my role as a composer is … to help this guy with his vision."
Recognition and Awards
In 2002 Armstrong won a Golden Globe Award for best score for Moulin Rouge! He explained his surprise at winning the award to Tamara Conniff of the Hollywood Reporter, "I just thought it was going to be a nice dinner for me." That year he also released his second solo album, As If To Nothing. While dubbed a solo album, it was far from a one-man show. Armstrong was able to garner several special appearances by a diverse range of artists, including Bono from U2 and American alternative rock musician Evan Dando, formerly of the band the Lemonheads. In 2004 Armstrong accepted a short and controversial term as a member of the Scottish Cultural Commission. Within a few months Armstrong quit over disagreements surrounding the lack of working artists on the board and the decision of the commission to cut jobs and stop productions with the Scottish Opera.
In 2006 World Trade Center, a film by American director Oliver Stone, won Hollywood Movie of the Year at the Hollywood Film Festival. Armstrong worked with Stone creating the soundtrack for the film. He described to David Mermelstein of Daily Variety the mental process he used to create the score. "I eventually saw the music as a requiem for anyone who had lost his life to violence. I found that was an easier way into the project." He further explained to Fisher, "Often in a film you're being asked to dramatise what's happening, but … I had to do the exact opposite. I had to find another way of writing which was a more restrained, poetic kind of music that works in parallel to the narrative."
Armstrong has continued to explore new avenues of musical expression. In late 2006 he formed the electronica group called Winona. He explained to Bye his theory about artistic life, "You're born with an idea, and if you're lucky and get a chance to do what you love, you spend the rest of your life trying to refine it." To emphasize his goals as an artist, he told Brown, "I just want to write music." Armstrong has plenty of options open to him to write music, whether it be popular music, personal or classical compositions, or experimental electronica. He does not appear to be running out of opportunities.
For the Record …
Born c. 1959 in Glasgow, Scotland; married Laura Mazzolini; children: Niall, Stefano, Jack, and Angelina. Education: Royal Academy of Music, early 1980s.
Member of pop bands Hipsway and Texas; resident composer for Tron Theatre, 1980s; co-wrote song for trio Big Dish album Satellites (1991); collaborated with Massive Attack for Protection (1994); scored soundtrack for Mission: Impossible (1996); released The Space Between Us, scored soundtrack for Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet (1998); scored soundtracks for Cruel Intentions (1999) and Moulin Rouge (2001); scored soundtrack for The Quiet American, released As If To Nothing (2002); scored soundtracks for Love Actually (2003), Ray (2004), and World Trade Center (2006); formed electronica group Winona (2007).
Awards: Golden Globe Award, Best Score, 2002; British Academy of Film and Television Award (BAFTA), Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, 1997; British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, Ivor Novello Award, 1997; Golden Globe, Best Original Score, 2001; American Film Institute, Composer of the Year, 2001; BAFTA, Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, 2002; British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, Ivor Novello Award, Best Original Film Score, 2003; Grammy Award, Best Score Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, 2005.
Addresses: Website—Manager Lucy Pullin: music ltd, http://www.iemusic.co.uk/; Craig Armstrong Official Website: http://www.craigarmstrong.com/.
Slow Movement (strings), 1994.
20 Movements (orchestra), 1998.
If Time Must Pass (violin, strings), 1999.
Escape (orchestra, vocal), 1999.
When Morning Turns to Light (mezzo-soprano, orchestra), 2000.
Northern Sounds … Islands (orchestra), 2002.
One Minute (orchestra), 2005.
The Space Between Us, Melankolic, 1998.
As If To Nothing, Melankolic, 2002.
(compilation) Piano Works, Sanctuary Records, 2004.
The Fridge, 1995.
Plunkett & Macleanne, 1999.
Best Laid Plans, 1999.
The Bone Collector, 1999.
Moulin Rouge!, 2001.
Kiss of the Dragon, 2001.
The Magdalene Sisters, 2002.
The Quiet American, 2002.
Love Actually, 2003.
The Clearing, 2004.
Fever Pitch, 2005.
Must Love Dogs, 2005.
World Trade Center, 2006.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007.
Daily Variety, January 3, 2007, p. A2.
Hollywood Reporter, January 23, 2002, p. 12; November 6, 2006, p. 2.
Miami Herald, May 31, 2002.
Sunday Times (London, England), October 8, 2000, p. 8; May 6, 2001, p. 2; February 16, 2003, p. 6.
Times (London, England), March 30, 2002, p. 29; June 17, 2004, p. 12; September 23, 2006, p. 6.
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