Jacquie Lawson e-cards

by Christopher Morley

It's always a joy when an e-greetings card plops into your inbox, not least at this festive time of the years. It's easy to understand why the sending of these cyber-messages has become so popular, given the huge cost of postage nowadays
At the forefront of this trend are the e-cards produced by Jacquie Lawson, and in addition to the attractive artwork, witty and sensitive storylines, and interactive opportunities offered by these little gems, comes the input of music, atmospheric and appropriate.
Whether specially composed or arranged from other sources, these sound-pictures are masterminded by Mike Hughes-Chamberlain, who has made the seamless connection between a musical education and Information Technology in order to create scores for these scores of delightful little gems.
He was brought up in Hindhead in Surrey, where his octogenarian mother still runs the music school which she founded in 1975.
" I even taught the piano there for a while," he remembers, "but decided that teaching was maybe not my thing when I woke up in the middle of a small boy's lesson to see him looking enquiringly at me: I'd obviously just said something completely mad while dozing away."
After a music scholarship to Marlborough Mike moved on to Oxford University's Hertford College. He had begun by studying Philosophy, but after a few months his tutor (Mary Warnock, no less), advised him to move over to Music, where his tutor was the great baroque expert and conductor, Jane Glover.
Despite not feeling comfortable with baroque opera, Mike relives happy memories of his undergraduate years.
"Giving piano lessons, and playing in the pubs, were both handy ways of supplementing my student income. There used to be a dreadful old upright in the basement of the Oxford Union bar, on which I used to play everything from Chopin to The Beatles. The Steward once paid me the compliment of telling me I was the best pianist he'd heard down there since Dudley Moore!"
Then came a crucial career-development, which ended up with Mike as Jacquie Lawson's musical maestro.
" On leaving university in 1981 I was faced with applying for a handful of jobs which had some connection with music, or doing something different.
"I was fascinated by the emerging world of personal computers, having had the run of a Tandy TRS-80 at college.
"So after graduating, I got a job at a London software house which had a bit of a thing about recruiting Oxbridge graduates with arts degrees, and thus I set out upon a very happy career in IT. By 1998 I was working for a small software company which I'd set up together with a friend.
"The internet was the next big thing and we wanted to get into developing websites. We needed someone who could do the arty stuff and make the sites look pretty. The only person I knew who had an artistic background was my aunt – one Jacquie Lawson. She had no experience of computers but was keen to learn, and she soon started helping us out with graphics and Flash animations for the websites we were developing.
" In brief, Jacquie's experiments with Flash led to a couple of animated Christmas cards which went viral, leading to the launch in February 2002 of jacquielawson.com.
"Our e-cards needed music, and inevitably this task landed on my plate. As you'll have seen, we sometimes steal fragments of favourites from the classical repertoire; but especially where the animation demands a soundtrack closely matched to the music, I'll compose something original, mostly in classical styles but with the occasional foray into ragtime and light jazz.
"I have to be careful about using the verb 'compose'. A couple of nights ago, in a conversation around the kitchen table, I carelessly referred to myself as a 'composer'. My daughter brought me right back down to earth: 'Dad, you're not a composer – all you ever do is make arrangements of Jingle Bells!' Thanks, Meg.
"I've never really got on with sequencers. If I'm writing or arranging something, I like to see it written out properly on five-line staves with key signatures and crotchets and quavers and all that. So my preferred tool has always been Sibelius, together with a collection of samples from the Vienna Symphonic Library, Kontakt and what have you.
"We do use some live music too. The most obvious example is our successful collaboration over the last three years with Salisbury Cathedral Choir. I look forward eagerly to our sessions there: there's something a little surreal about singing Christmas carols in the Cathedral in mid-July!
"I also usually record piano music live: I've never been able to get the results I want from a computer, and since I have a lovely Bösendorfer 170, it seems silly not to use it – the main problem being that I have to practise the piece first! We're also lucky that my sister Sally, who is one of our most talented animators (we do like to keep it in the family), is married to a professional pianist, James Lisney, and on occasion we've been able to ask James to record for us also. Sally herself used to be a violin teacher, as is evidenced by the cards where her teddy bears play the violin: their bowing and fingering is correct!"
So Jacquie Lawson really does have the feel of a family cottage-industry?
"In many ways, yes. But obviously there's a lot of water under the bridge since the early days when it was just Jacquie and myself and a couple of others, and there are aspects of that family cottage industry feeling that I prefer to forget!
"For example, for the first few years Christmas was a complete non-event in our household. Being personally responsible for keeping all the web and email servers going 24/7, at a time when the traffic to the site was stretching the systems to their limits, was not conducive to a feeling of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.
"Nowadays we have teams of people to handle all the programming, server maintenance, helpline enquiries, and so forth, and from a personal angle, being able to take a back seat is wonderful.
"My biggest worry is where to find inspiration for my umpteenth arrangement of Silent Night!"

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