Neil Cooper

When Pete Harvey was spotted on the train to Perth a few weeks ago surrounded by pages of music manuscript, he looked every inch a genius at work. As it was, the composer, arranger and Zelig-like presence with some of Edinburgh’s most enticing off-kilter bands was proof-reading the score for choreographer Christopher Hampson’s Scottish Ballet production of The Snow Queen, which has just opened in Glasgow following its five-star run in Edinburgh last month. Dates in Aberdeen, Inverness and Newcastle follow.

As copyist and music setter on the production, Harvey had the herculean task of copying Rimsky-Korsakov’s music into an orchestral conductor's score, then making a set of individual instrumental parts for each of more than 70 players in the orchestra.

This sounds a far cry from Harvey’s tenure as cellist with chamber pop ensemble Modern Studies and both the Dan Mutch and Paul Vickers fronted versions of The Leg. Harvey also plays live with Withered Hand and recently toured with Kristin Hersh. In the studio, Harvey has recorded string arrangements for albums by Lomond Campbell and Andrew Wasylyk, as well as King Creosote’s soundtrack for Virginia Heath’s film, From Scotland with Love. There has been recent work too with Deacon Blue and Emma Pollock, as well as co-leading the classically inclined Rose Street Quartet. With all this activity, perhaps it’s no wonder Harvey was so ensconced in his work on the train.

“I was coming back from a session doing some cello for another dance project,” he says. “Ben Chatwin’s commission for The Shadow by Company Chameleon. But it was the day before submission for The Snow Queen as well, so I was pretty distracted.”

For the Snow Queen, Scottish Ballet would send Harvey various sections of different editions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera that had been edited to make the narrative work in a ballet format.

“The primary concern is to produce something which is as clear and error-free as possible for the conductor and orchestra to work from,” says Harvey, “and which minimises queries, corrections or technical difficulties during rehearsal once the orchestra are sat in front of it. But there is inevitably a race to the finish as the choreography changes day by day, and so the music is subject to swift edits as the run and orchestral rehearsals approach. This used to be the stressful bit of a project like this, but now I find it kind of fun. It’s nice knowing that you’re pretty much the only person in the world at that point who knows the technicalities of the score well enough to do it on the hoof and fast enough to keep up.”

Harvey’s early exposure to music while growing up in Darlington included Doris Day, MGM musicals, Rush and Magnum.

“I think I saw a pal playing the cello on TV when I was about seven, and thought it would be a route to superstardom, so I took it up too.”

Harvey studied music at Edinburgh University, and ended up playing strings on a record by Dan Mutch’s first band, Khaya, which was being released on Ed Pybus’ newly set up SL record label

“I was totally green, with no idea how all that stuff worked, and I ended up joining the band and going on a variety of eye-opening, popping and watering adventures.”

This ran parallel with the Rose Street Quartet.

“From early on I did a lot of string arrangements for the group, whilst also getting absorbed by orchestration, counterpoint and harmony at uni, so that laid all the foundations.”

Harvey was recommended to then director of Edinburgh International Festival Jonathan Mills, who was reworking the score of his opera, The Eternity Man, for a film version by Julian Temple.

“I’d never worked on anything on quite such a scale before,” Harvey admits, “but I didn’t tell anyone else that and assured all involved that I knew what I was doing and that I was the exact right person for the job.”

This led ultimately to Scottish Ballet, working on Alice by Robert Moran in 2010. More recently, Harvey worked with Peter Salem on what he describes as “a profoundly affecting” production of The Crucible. He is currently working with Salem again on a production of Frida, a new piece based on the life of Frida Kahlo, for Dutch National Ballet.

A major turning point for Harvey came when he set up his own Pumpkinfield recording studio near Perth.

“Primarily I just wanted to be able to keep doing what I was doing,” he says, “but with less physical effort, playing music with all my pals, and writing and recording string arrangements. We ended up finding a place and converting a big chunk of it into what is now Pumpkinfield. I can record chamber ensembles and bands, but it’s not so big as to be a financial burden when it isn’t running to full capacity or when I’m going through periods of writing or working on my own. Obviously, if I hit the big time I’ll move into the disused church down the road that I’ve had my eye on for a while.”

The ultimate aim for Harvey is simple.

“Keep hanging out with folk I love whilst making good music. I’ve got a musical in me, but right now, the best thing is that The Snow Queen is on stage and all those invaluable jobs which nobody has any idea exist are all complete and have come together to make a spectacular show.”

Scottish Ballet’s production of The Snow Queen runs at Theatre Royal, Glasgow until January 18; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, January 22-25; Eden Court, Inverness, January 29-February 1; Theatre Royal, Newcastle, February 12-15.