Tag: commercial music

Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising—Why I Keep Doing This

A still from the Cadillac Super Bowl ad scored by COPILOT featuring a n almost robotic-looking female model with prominent silver lipstick and eyeliner as well as a silver earring

Revision & Expansion

In my previous post, I looked at the very thorny issue of how we communicate with clients to understand what they are looking for and why. Communication is probably just as important as composing chops when it comes to successful collaborations with clients, but I often tell my students that what really makes or breaks a relationship with a freelance composer is the revision process. Composers who can make changes in a quick and friendly way rise to the top of the list, whereas those who constantly present resistance and debate fall to the bottom of the list.

I certainly believe in taking a stand at times. There’s a basic level of respect that artists deserve, and clients who don’t listen to their vendor’s ideas are only limiting the creativity of their own work in the end.  If I feel strongly about an approach, I will also advocate to at least include it as an option alongside the client’s preferred approach. But similarly, composers who assume they always know best and can’t possibly improve their work by incorporating client feedback are closing themselves off to expansion and growth.

Composers who assume they always know best are closing themselves off to expansion and growth.

While in the heat of the moment I’m often loathe to admit it, hindsight makes it abundantly clear that there have been many counterintuitive feedback requests that have pushed my work to new places, opened up creative doors that I assumed were closed, and revealed to me things I didn’t know I could do. When the artistic voice in my head screams “that’s impossible!” after receiving a request, it’s the business voice that mutters “just try for their sake” that pushes me forward, often into a better place.

Take, for example, the music I wrote for a Cadillac Super Bowl commercial. The original demo included the key elements of the final music that the clients loved, such as the tremolo lithopone and lullaby synth melody.

Cadillac Chrome Couture Demo Mix from COPILOT on Vimeo.

But the original drum and percussion section was more tribal sounding with a quarter note pulse, pushing the whole piece slightly into the world of dance music. One of the big gut-check issues with the spot was whether it was skewing too far towards a female-only demographic given its fashion show milieu. So this eventually made its way into anxieties about my music, and I was tasked by the agency’s creative director with revising the drums until they got more muscular, primal, live, and raw sounding, with less of a groove. There was no time for studying these hunches. (There rarely is.) Revisions like this one just happen when creative people are motivated by a deadline and an open-ended problem.

These and other changes to carve sections out and create more surprising moments (perhaps they worried about the visuals not being impactful), and edits to follow changes in timings, which seemed like an arbitrary hassle to me at the time (my original demo was perfect, couldn’t they see that?), pushed me to write something that was ultimately weirder and more attention-grabbing. Boy did I appreciate that when it came on in the middle of the biggest TV slot of the year, with no voice over or additional sound design cluttering up the final music.

Here’s the final version:

Cadillac “Chrome Couture” from COPILOT on Vimeo.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent countless hours executing bad ideas. Many come from clients that know just enough about writing music to cause trouble. They need to hear the idea not working before they give up on it. Many others are simply compromises between two strong creative positions with different motivations and stakeholders. “Splitting the difference” or “finding the midpoint” usually means watering down in the end. Nonetheless, I’ve grown to really embrace feedback as a moment where I get pushed and challenged, and I’m ultimately grateful for those moments as they make me learn new tricks. You can’t get too possessive about your music in this industry. You have to be completely 100% emotionally invested in what you are doing when you are doing it, because that is the level of artistry that’s required to be successful. But once the music leaves your computer, it takes on its own life, and you must simply wish it luck and offer support when needed.

As a young composer, I got down about having to try ridiculous things mentioned by folks with no idea what the process would entail. Now I see it as a challenge: a great composer can take any note on a piece and address it so well that the client feels like a genius for suggesting it. Many clients, after all, want to feel like they are adding something creative to a project, that it wouldn’t be the same without their ideas. If you show your client that you care about their ideas and won’t leave them hanging, you have a pretty good shot at another project.

Sometimes as a composer you are creating notes for musicians to play, sometimes you are creating a space for collaborators to play in.

There’s another very practical advantage to bringing the client’s ideas directly into the piece and making them work. In situations that involve a lot of stake holders and layers of bureaucracy, and when agency teams have listened to many other options for a spot, you can turn that person into an advocate for your composition because of the sense of ownership that comes with contributing ideas. Sometimes as a composer you are creating notes for musicians to play, sometimes you are creating a space for collaborators to play in.

Why I Keep Doing This

If you are reading NewMusicBox, it is likely you’ve seen rumors about our new president eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. We could be entering a dark period for federal arts funding.

I’m going to use a controversial economic term, but stay with me: music for advertising allows money from companies to “trickle down” into the arts community. These projects provide us an income and hone our skills while we continue to pursue our passion projects. The year I scored that Super Bowl spot, for a product I personally disliked (due to its poor fuel economy), was also the year I wrote and produced my band Charming’s third album, without the need for label support. Not only was I able to live comfortably in the midst of recording an album that was at best a niche product, but I had free studio time at the jingle house.

What I do could easily be seen as a selling out to corporate interests. By definition it is. Yet it doesn’t feel that way.

The greatest joy I get from my job as lead composer and creative director at COPILOT is being able to bring work to my talented friends. What I do could easily be seen as a selling out to corporate interests. By definition it is. Yet it doesn’t feel that way when I’m also hiring a diverse group of composers, musicians, singers, and engineers for projects.

Session work took a real hit when high-quality sample libraries became ubiquitous, production schedules shrank, and budgets imploded. Live recording became thought of as a time-consuming luxury. But now, when I meet a musician, the first thing I ask is, “Are you set up to record yourself?” With a good computer, quiet room, microphone, audio interface, studio headphones, and software, a musician or singer can be available for session work at a moment’s notice. While I love working face-to-face in the studio when I can, the ability to work remotely has opened many smaller projects up to live recording, mostly due to how much quicker things can get done.

What’s Ahead

In the ensuing debate following the election, I heard many pundits talking about how it’s not trade deals and immigration that will kill American jobs, it’s automation. And lo and behold, last week The New York Times published a piece about a company called Jukedeck. Apparently they’ve developed an artificial intelligence system for writing original music for media projects. There were rumors for years in the jingle industry about composers and programmers dabbling in this area, so it wasn’t a complete shock.

I’m not terrified yet. In some ways, an AI system for cranking out music doesn’t seem like a far leap from the crowd-sourcing scale of library music. Can an AI system keep up with current trends in composition and scoring? Can an AI system make the kind of mistakes or breaks from convention that create new trends? Can an AI system understand comedy? Can an AI system move beyond a single emotion or style and combine things in new, unexpected ways? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “We’ll see.”

A composer’s job is not just to crank out music.

But if I’ve tried to communicate anything through these posts, it’s been that a composer’s job is not just to crank out music—it’s to understand a problem, understand the trajectory and context of a project, and to build relationships and trust through communication.

If AI figures out how to do all of that, its final hurdle would be authenticity. As a “jingle composer,” I know this challenge well. No matter how inspired my work is, if it’s coming from a company that specializes in jingles and a guy that does that for a living, it will seldom carry the weight of any artist’s work for a certain percentage of clients. Having written music in both contexts, I don’t believe that my spirit suddenly dies on commercial projects and soars on my passion projects, but I do believe that in the razor thin margins of subjective judgement about music, perception becomes reality. In fact, it became common for jingle houses to sign a few well-known artists to their roster to add luster, or—even more cynically—to invent identities for successful underscores to lend them more credibility. With the proliferation of sync licensing, I certainly see this bias going away down the road, but I have to imagine that when it comes to AI, most human beings would like to know that another human being wrote the music they are using. At least for now.


It’s been really fun trying to form coherent sentences around a half-life of instincts and lessons from the trenches. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them here, and wherever your career is headed, good luck and be yourself. One last bit of advice: Attaching files to emails… please… just stop. The kind folks at WeTransfer, Dropbox and the like, would love to offer you some free services.

Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising: References, Briefs, and Conference Calls

A spiral bound notebook with handwritten notes next to a digital keyboard

In my previous post I tried to present an overview of the different strategies we use when thinking about music in advertising and marketing media. Being able to look at an underscoring assignment through the lens of theory is a huge head start to writing a piece of music that gets chosen and aired. Yet most clients I’ve worked with don’t have this vocabulary, nor do they often have any vocabulary about the building blocks of music.

So how do we communicate?

References (or “temp score” or “needle-drops”) are pretty much the starting point for about 75% of the conversations I have about the creative direction for a project. By references, I mean existing music sent over with the note “something like this.” They can be sent on their own, or mixed into a piece of video as a placeholder. References can be legally dangerous, creatively soul-crushing, and in some cases red herrings. Yet in the age of YouTube, they have only become more entrenched as creative shorthand for non-musicians working with composers, bolstered by the technical ease of pasting a few links into an email.

I have to imagine that it’s empowering to paste those links in. And in many cases, as a composer, it is a relief to have a concrete starting point to the conversation. Sometimes, following a creative call that seems vague, we even pull our own references to send back to the client to see if we understood the conversation correctly. As a communication tool, they’re invaluable. But not all references lead to great work on their own.


The mistake editors often make is placing a piece of music that is clearly unattainable.

A big red flag appears when only one piece is referenced. That often foretells a bad case of “demo love.” That’s industry lingo for a track that the client can’t get past. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less judgmental about demo love. When a piece of music is placed against a piece of film, even if it’s not right from a practical or strategic standpoint, a powerful connection is made, and in the minds of those stakeholders that have seen it, nothing else may sound right because it clashes with their expectations, which have been created in that first moment. The mistake editors often make, in the interest of demonstrating their cut, is placing a piece of music that is clearly unattainable. It sets up an irreversible path leading to disappointment, and the composer is usually the one to absorb the brunt of the angst this creates. Often a client who is unaware of demo love as a phenomenon will be convinced that a composer is simply not capable of “nailing it” on an original track. It’s an unfair fight.

The other big red flag is when a client has actually approached the rights holder(s) for one or more of the reference tracks sent over. I’m no lawyer or expert in copyright law, but thanks to common sense and the wise counsel of my Executive Producer Jason, I’ve learned over the years to be very wary of this situation because it establishes an “intent” to infringe, and puts the project on the radar of that artist’s management. When we know someone’s been contacted, we need to take an overly cautious approach to what we will write and subsequently warrant to be original work. Female singer? We’ll use male. Major? We’ll go minor. 4/4 time signature? We’ll do 6/8. No one wants a lawsuit, even if the musicology doesn’t support it. The world of advertising music is littered with lawsuits, so much so that some agencies have, as a matter of corporate policy, prohibited sending rough cuts of spots with reference music placed.

A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.

A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.


Moving past those obvious pitfalls, there is so much to learn from references beyond the music itself. How many tracks are sent—three or twenty-three? How wide or narrow is the focus when it comes to genre, mood, energy, and instrumentation? What language is used by clients to describe the references—“we love these and they’re perfect” versus “we haven’t really found a home run but this is the general territory”? Listening carefully and parsing each word at this stage can avert huge misunderstandings. When a number of ideas are sent from multiple stakeholders, stepping back and reading the politics of a situation can be critical. Who’s going to drive the project forward and be the loudest voice in the room: The creative team? Their client, the brand manager? The director or video editor? I can think of a number of times that my role as a composer has been to referee a creative struggle over what role music might play and ultimately try to back the winning horse.

Thinking back to my last post, the different strategies behind music become apparent when looking carefully at references and asking the right questions. If all of the references stay in a narrow stylistic lane—youthful indie-EDM, for instance—it can be surmised that a sympathetic audience is being targeted. On the other hand, if there’s a wide range of genres but a consistent emotional tone, it seems clear the client’s first motivation is to create that emotion with music, no matter what style is used. If the music has been placed to picture, did the video editor intentionally place/edit the music so certain events and sections happened at specific times? Asking about, and understanding which of these moments were particularly successful can really help define what the key scoring moments are.

No matter how reasonable or unreasonable the references might appear at first glance, I try to approach conversations about references respectfully, understanding two things:

  1. Selecting music is probably easier for many than designing a plan for its creation, and just because the strategic thought is happening on a subconscious, rather that conscious level, doesn’t make it any less legitimate.
  1. Mistakes, juxtaposition, and serendipity are creative catalysts, without which much of our media would be dull and predictable. (Side note: advertising creatives understand this so well that they have frequently tried to mandate it—they call it “unexpected.”)

While I often sit back and let my partner Jason lead project kick-off calls, when I do try to drill down on references, I start with open ended questions, like “What do you like about this piece?” When the responses are vague, I narrow down to multiple choice and yes/no questions, like “Do you feel like the pacing is right?” At some point during the call, my gut will tell me to turn off the faucet of information, feeling there’s enough to start writing but not a stifling or confusing amount.

After these calls, as the creative director at COPILOT, I’m often in the position of writing creative briefs for the teams of composers we bring aboard. There’s an art to this task. When a client is looking for a very specific emotional or cultural tone, one misplaced word can send the whole group one degree off, rendering many hours of work futile. A good creative brief isn’t a set of instructions but rather a well-marked space, with a few inventoried tools and materials and a reasonable amount of time to play with them.

This brings me to one of the philosophical challenges of working on commissioned music: How much is your job giving them what they think they want, versus bringing new, more experimental and creative ideas to the table? Ideally when I write demos for a project, I give them one of each approach, and when we create a presentation at COPILOT, we try to cover the brief as written, and then always try to include some options that might have been written in the dark. The demo review process is usually when clients show their risk tolerance and open-mindedness. We experiment because it’s possible that we have insight into what music could bring that surpasses what’s been discussed. We nail the brief because it’s always possible that there’s a level of context to the project that we simply don’t have access to as a late arrival to the team. (Music is usually the last thing on the production schedule, aside from postmix.)

I always assumed the account people were the least relevant voices in the equation, but I’ve learned to listen carefully when they speak.

Early in my career I learned about the basic roles in most advertising agencies: the creative disciplines (art direction and copywriting) employing those who came up with all the ideas; the broadcast production folks who were often gatekeepers and points of contact on budget, schedule, and revisions; and the account people, who we might encounter once or twice on a call or at a final mix, but who were mostly corporate types that dealt with the brands and not the vendors. I always assumed the account people were the least relevant voices in the equation, but I’ve learned to listen carefully when they speak. The broadcast producer rarely tells you that the client hated the last campaign and wanted a complete shift in approach, or that the brand is struggling with sales in the millennial demographic. If the music strategy is the “why” behind what you are executing as a composer, the overall marketing strategy is the “why” behind the music strategy. So when that is not clearly articulated, sometimes the overall context will reveal what the music strategy should be. This kind of information is gold when it comes to being a thinker and problem solver rather than a vendor and widget maker.

Scoring the Voice Over

The final piece of the puzzle is another thing I was never formally taught, but it revealed itself to me over time: the announcer track (a.k.a. voice over) is often a creative brief in itself. Early in my career I took a very literal approach to the idea that I was “scoring” a spot. I took that to always mean that I was scoring the visuals and action. And sure, in numerous cases that was the right approach.

But as the centerpiece of the final mix, and the literal message being amplified by the spot, the voice over cannot be ignored. Everything you want to know about the intended audience for an ad is probably hiding in plain sight within the casting choice, performance, and actual words of the voice over. Just as music must be relatable to the intended audience, a voice must speak to its audience. I think of the casting this way: if the voice actor is on camera and the music is wardrobe, how are we dressing up our hero? What clothes would look appropriate for that person and that context? When it comes to performance, I turn the voice over into the lead singer of the band—Is the band following the energy of the performance? Overpowering it? Underplaying it?

When it comes to the actual words, I have developed the habit of transcribing the script, if I don’t receive one (which is frequently the case). By looking at a voice over, seeing what rhetorical conventions it uses, understanding its flow, its structure, and its cadence, so much of a good underscore—particularly its musical form—can be reverse engineered. It could be as simple as recognizing where a shift from problem to solution happens, and having the music shift from tense verse to euphoric chorus at that moment.

Scraps of Context

Clients make decisions about demos often in a blink.

Beyond these big pieces of communication—references, creative briefs, voice overs, and of course the picture itself—I have learned to sniff around like a hound for any other scraps of context that can give me a hunch about what a client might respond to. When we get involved early on a project, early enough to see a director’s treatment, just the language used to describe how the piece of film will look can give us stylistic clues. Clients make decisions about demos often in a blink, so understanding their motivations by any means short of stalking is sometimes how to get it right.

I’ll be back in a week with one last post. I look forward to hearing from you!

Stuff I Learned Writing Music for Advertising—Problem Solver, Not Widget Maker

In my first post, I talked about many of the changes that technology has brought about in my industry and described a world where walls were evaporating. The problem with change, of course, is that it alters the playbook. During the early parts of my career, I benefited from being inside that exclusive world, where a large portion of advertising projects involved composers and original music.

Today, stock music—now more euphemistically called “production” music—is a huge business that leverages the democratization of music production technology, the ease of cloud storage and tag-based searching, and the growing and diverse needs of media creators for inexpensive solutions. If you just need some underscore in a certain genre, maybe with a build and an ending, your track is out there.

Simultaneously, the battered world of music publishers and record labels has been like a scrappy tree that grows sideways towards its one source of light. Not only are artists eager to place a wistful lost-love song underneath a diaper commercial, some of them are even considering the needs of advertisers and TV shows as they write. “Sync-friendly” is a real term in the business now!

So you can have a million options at your fingertips, all cheaper than original music, and you can license almost any song in your iTunes library, if you want the authenticity. Why incur the hassle of hiring a composer to write something from scratch? The answer to that exact question is the first thing I try to teach students I work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

The composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media.

The short answer is that some projects simply need to be written from scratch because of the specificity of the scoring needs or because they are conceptually unique. And while one could perhaps find production or licensed music, the road to the perfect score involves a whole bunch of thinking that hasn’t been done yet. Either way, the composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media, rather than simply the creator of a commodified piece of music that is used inside it. And the key to becoming that partner is understanding all of the different ways that music can function in a piece of advertising, and then helping to determine what is right for the task at hand. In short, it’s not the “what,” it’s the “why” when it comes to writing original music for advertising. So where do we start?

A Strategic Approach

Why does an ad use music? Television advertising grew out of radio advertising. Early radio advertising started as live sponsored announcements, much like the small segments we still hear on NPR. But as pre-recorded material became available, advertisers seized upon humanity’s most ancient memory technology and began to package messages within neatly crafted songs—jingles—and a medium was born. Look at television and streaming advertising now and it’s harder to find jingles, but they are still there. Think McDonalds’ current jingle, “I’m lovin’ it,” with its series of notes that immediately makes you think of the golden arches when you hear them played or sung. It’s primarily a catchy memory device. Secondarily, there are demographic and emotional reasons for what that melody is, who wrote it, and how it’s often arranged. In my experience, most advertising uses music for multiple reasons. Thankfully, agencies and brands are usually able to prioritize, either consciously in their creative briefs, or unconsciously in that mysterious process of choosing among multiple strong approaches created in the competitive demo phase. Figuring out what the strategy is behind a piece of music is, in my humble opinion, THE skill to develop to be successful doing this.

Here’s my cheat sheet:

1. Branding with Music and Lyrics

Fusing recognizable, unique musical events with a brand is a powerful way to make it stick. Something that is mentioned often by clients (so often that it’s a cliché) is the “other room test.” This is shorthand for saying that the music we write should be so good and so recognizable that if it’s on TV, you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room. Clients also love to ask for something as memorable as the Intel logo.

Functionally, I tend to split this strategy up into two tactics:

Music we write should be so recognizable that you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room.

Logo treatments/mnemonics are the musical versions of visual logos: a discrete sequence of notes or sounds, like that beloved Intel logo or the NBC chimes, that identify the brand. Over the years, I have found these are easy to write and hard to sell. They’re easy to write because they are like little puzzles that you have to solve. Most brands want to communicate something within that short moment: an emotion, a cultural space, a sense of modernity or tradition, so once you start trying to address those sub-motivations, it becomes a fun musical game. They are hard to sell, however, because clients often arrive with unrealistic expectations. How could you ever write something as recognizable as the Intel logo without the benefit of drilling it into people’s heads over a number of years?

I’d like to share two sonic logos that I helped create. The first is the ID for cable network American Movie Channel (AMC), and I would describe the approach as sound collage.

The second example is a recent Jell-O campaign that revived their historic melody from the 1950’s.

Jingles, in the traditional sense, are songs with lyrics that mention the brand by name and, through the magic of the lyricists, manage to tell a story or paint a picture of a brand. This tactic seemed to peek in the ‘70s and ‘80s and fall out of favor in the last couple decades, meaning that when they are done well now, they really stand out. I could share something I worked on more recently, but I think this is the perfect time to revisit a melody of my childhood:

2. Storytelling: Scoring the Mini-Film

As early as the ‘60s, advertising creatives realized that film and television were powerful storytelling media, and that perhaps rather than simply telling the audience that a product is great, a brand could present a short, digestible, and entertaining story as a Trojan horse for its message. While the point of the ad is still to sell the product or raise awareness, the job of the composer in this case is to treat it as a condensed film cue, drawing on whatever aesthetic and stylistic influences might be suggested by the story being told and the way it is being told. If the story is artfully conceived, the emotional and narrative inflection points will naturally drive home the message in subtle ways that an announcer or jingle can’t. In my experience, director’s treatments and storyboards are really helpful for understanding what needs to happen and how it needs to happen. For example, when looking at a director’s treatment, I can probably get a sense of whether this would be a Michael Bay action scene or a PT Anderson character study.  Each of these directors would select a distinctively different composer and musical approach.

I always love showing this long-running television commercial for GE, because it feels so much like charming moment in a a Disney or Pixar film.

For a different approach to scoring, here is an Oxfam Public Service Announcement that owes its visual language to the modern psychological thriller.

3. Emotional Response

There’s an imaginary line that most film scores stay behind. Transmitting the emotion of the scene is often the goal, whereas manipulating the viewer through hyperbolic emotional material might seem tacky, over-dramatic, or—even worse—dated. But in thirty seconds, there’s so little time for subtly and craft. And in advertising, manipulation just might be the goal and the music must be a blunt instrument, going directly for the viewer’s emotional gut. While some spots meditate on one feeling, many others take the shape of a problem/solution story: a problem is depicted, the product/service introduced, and voila, problem solved. This is very common in the ubiquitous category of pharmaceutical ads. While the shift from dark to light is certainly scoring, I see this as a unique strategy because it’s common that the client is looking for an emotion that goes beyond what we’re seeing in the story.

This Johnson & Johnson television commercial is a perfect example of creating one emotion, which I will call “heartstrings.” Notice how a feeling of warmth and humanity is created, and then the brand, by simply being there, benefits from that feeling.

This piece, for a large hospital network, is a great example of a subtle but powerful shift from tense to hopeful.

4. Brand Embodiment and Demographic Identification

“Well, I don’t really know about this, but if you tell me this is what the kids are listenin’ to, I’ll sign off on it!”

This is how I remember a senior officer (general?) signing off on my first big TV campaign for the US Army. I got that gig, my very first, primarily because I was 22 years old, going out clubbing, and listening to techno curated by my brother, who was a DJ at the time. I knew just enough about writing music to put down ideas that were closer to what I was listening to than anything they’d heard from other composers. The spot featured an edgy, young voice actor reading a pretty in-your-face call to action, and lots of hyper-saturated shots of technology. This was the late 1990s, during the “dot com” boom, and recruiting numbers were way down. The strategy of the campaign was clear: connect with young Americans and convince them that they could get a free and highly relevant education in technology by signing up. And in order to be heard, the Army felt they needed to break from previous campaigns rooted in proud, militaristic brass/orchestra/chorus, and speak the lingua franca of “the kids,” techno.

Thinking back, sure, there was thought given to creating an emotional feeling (excitement), and there were moments that artfully helped add drama to the story being presented in montage form (like when the music drops out as the skydivers jump from the helicopter). But for my money, the strongest motivating factor for the agency—evident in everything from the video edit, the hyped color correction, and the many rounds of demos of music—was to “rebrand” the Army as young and tech-savvy, and music was perhaps the strongest statement of that in the piece.

The music must be relatable to the intended audience.

I should note that in the last ten years, the most direct route towards doing this musically has been licensing an up-and-coming artist, leveraging the artist’s authenticity and removing any doubt about whether an original demo might be “of the moment.” But in my experience, this strategy is broad, deep, and often subtly superimposed on other strategies, even when it’s not the driving force. Regardless of the story or mood, just imagine a financial spot with a dubstep track or an energy drink spot with a Copland-inspired orchestral anthem! No matter what other strategies are at play, the music must be relatable to the intended audience, and this strategy is omnipresent in modern advertising.

5. Source (i.e. “diagetic music”)

This last strategy is the easiest to spot, but also the rarest. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few projects requiring source music, and it’s always a fascinating process. Source music, also known as diagetic music, refers to music that exists in the world being portrayed on camera. Street performers and bar bands are a common example. Clock radios are also great examples, though those moments are more often solved by licensing something that might actually be on the radio. My favorite bit of source music is undoubtedly the “cantina” band in Star Wars, particularly because John Williams wrote something that felt alien yet relatable enough to help tell the story of where they were.

As a composer, the process of writing source music takes a completely different creative shape than any other process. To get it right, it’s one part ethnomusicology, one part composing, and one part method acting. You have to understand just what that ensemble would be playing at that moment, in that world, and then you have to pretend to be that composer until the music comes out. This strategy is less likely to mix with others, though it’s easy to imagine scenarios where the type of band portrayed on camera speaks to the audience demographic being targeted, or the emotion created by the piece is central to the scene making sense narratively.

I cannot tell you how much fun it was to work on this Florida Citrus spot, which involved two trips to Miami and Ricky Martin’s drummer. I’ll just leave it at that.

These are the broad strokes, and there are certainly areas like comedy that don’t follow the rules. Next week I’ll be back to talk about the scraps of certainty we start writing with—needledrops, creative briefs, and voice overs.

Still from U.S. Army ad scored by CO-PILOT featuring a group of enlisted men and the caption "Paid for by the U.S. Army"

Charlie Morrow: Wearing Different Hats

A conversation on the second floor of the historic Ear Inn (est. 1817) in New York City
April 17, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

The variety of activities that Charlie Morrow has been involved in for more than half a century is staggering even by today’s standards, when the wearing of numerous hats is almost a pre-requisite for being successful as a composer. The almost always Bowler hat-clad Morrow was writing conceptual pieces that predicted Fluxus as a high school student in the 1950s, twelve-tone scores under the tutelage of Stefan Wolpe at Mannes in the 1960s. He went on to develop alternative performance spaces, environmental music (including a widely publicized concert involving performances with fish), and music for multiples of the same instrument in the 1970s. While immersing himself in all those activities, he built one of the first private electronic music studios and wrote hit arrangements for Simon and Garfunkel, as well as The Rascals and Vanilla Fudge. He also penned some of the most earworm-inducing commercial jingles which promoted everything from Diet Coke and Hefty garbage bags to special express subway service to JFK airport.

Although I had never had a lengthy conversation with Morrow until we met up with him for this NewMusicBox presentation, he was a major role model for the choices I have made in my own life: he was a Columbia grad who, during his time there, immersed himself in world music; a musical creator who was never beholden to any particular musical genre or the limitations that adherence to any genre demands; for many years he was also the publisher of EAR Magazine, a seminal publication for new music which was one of the main inspirations for NewMusicBox. So I had tons of questions I wanted to ask him. Some of his answers led in directions I didn’t anticipate. For example, when I asked him about his earliest musical experiences, he actually spoke about events from the first year of his life and even shared a memory he had of being born.

“I always wanted to remember my birth,” Morrow explained. “I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. … I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved.”

When we talked about his 1967 Marilyn Monroe Collage, which he created at the invitation of Andy Warhol to accompany an exhibition of Warhol’s legendary iterative Monroe silkscreens, I thought it would lead to a discussion of his gorgeous Wave Music pieces, which are scored for multiples of the same instrument—a process that seems aurally analogous to filling up a wall with iterations of the same visual image. Instead, he said, his impetus came from attempting to perform concerts with toadfish!

“I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert,” said Morrow. “In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish … as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other. … Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. … We’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication.”

As luck would have it, the fish concert took place right after Richard Nixon resigned from the United States presidency, and it became an international news story since it was a quirky distraction from current events.

“It was a total accident,” Morrow acknowledged. “He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like ‘a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?’ You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. … Since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics. … I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.”

Although Charlie Morrow is the quintessential DIY composer, he often thinks big—extremely big. Over the past decade, he has developed a revolutionary three-dimensional soundscape design, and his recent projects have included everything from a 72-speaker immersive environment as part of Nokia World in Barcelona to a permanent sound installation at the new display of the Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle in England. For next year’s summer solstice, June 21, 2016, he is mounting an unprecedented 24-hour concert that will take place in 24 different time zones.

“A mass performance should be either a totally composed piece like the Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it,” Morrow opined. “I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. … My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings.”

A Bowler-hat clad Morrow sits at a desk and triggers sound from his laptop.

Morrow demonstrates 3-D sound for us using his laptop.

Frank J. Oteri: We usually tend to begin at the beginning, in so far as we can begin at the beginning. There are many beginnings. But where I wanted to start our talk isn’t exactly at the beginning. I wanted to talk with you about your years as an undergraduate at Columbia, because I’ve read in several places that you studied with Colin Turnbull, who wrote a very popular ethnography about the Ituri rainforest pygmies and made some amazing field recordings of their music. So I was curious about how you, as an undergrad, became interested in the music of other cultures.

Charlie Morrow: Well, I’ve always been interested in the music of the world because I’ve been interested in radio. I’m a radio amateur. I started out by being a short wave buff; I would listen on many frequencies to sounds from all over the world. I came quickly to understand that there was a wide variety of music that was—I would say—misunderstood, or marginalized, or made other than mainstream by— at the time—the prejudices that divide anthropology from sociology. It was almost as if there was a racist component to it. If you weren’t white and from Western Europe, or amongst the elite of Asia, that what you did was somehow on a second category.

This impulse has been running through all of my work. A large part of it is because some of the more excellent things that music’s about are actually part of world music and older cultures, and it has been lost by the commodification, commercialization, and conversion to listener-directed product making. I come out of signaling—bugling, music for the time of day and for the location that you’re in, the idea of it being involved in some social structure like the Boy Scouts, the military, or the church calendar. I come from a multi-cultural city, Passaic, New Jersey. We had representatives of practically every religion and many, many countries there. So there was a sense, just walking through Passaic, of a wide variety of people. There were many small communities—Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, many flavors of Judaism, small synagogues the size of this room. But the one thing that characterized most of these groups, I found later on, was the incredible insularity of “we’re right and everybody else is wrong,” which is what I think created an atmosphere, when there finally was a kind of elite majority that controlled the pantheon of Western arts, that they said, “Well, this is ours.” And there were basically too few of everybody else holding onto their own traditions.

That’s a long introduction to the fact that I studied principally with Willard Rhodes at Columbia, because he was my ethnomusicology teacher, and then I met Colin Turnbull informally through the Museum of Natural History. I met him and I would go through the storeroom. Our discussions were based on the functionality of music. Functionality is a huge issue with me. Not just signaling, but ceremonial aspects and particularly the power of materials. A lot of my early writings concerned how, for example, something living has to die in order to become a musical instrument.

It’s a big theme that runs through my work. The relationship of death and life in Western music and, in particular, instruments—that’s what was so fantastic. You know, people play elephant tusk horns, Tibetan thigh horns, and I’m a horn-trumpet-wind person. The idea of blowing the breath of a living person through part of something dead was a connection to a larger world, rather than something morbid for me. I think this is what brought Colin Turnbull and I to our relationship because he felt very much the same. He saw magic everywhere. And he also saw clearly the way people treated each other. I think that he, in his own life—particularly in choosing a male pygmy as his husband—was putting himself on the line. He was a high-risk guy.

FJO: It’s fascinating to hear you say that as a teenager you already had the idea of infusing the past into the present and that it’s been a running theme in all of your creative and theoretical work ever since then.

CM: Yeah, actually it was earlier. I think it came from one particular question which I had had until I answered it, which was that I always wanted to remember my birth, and remember before I was born. I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. And I finally went back and was able to remember my own birth. I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved, so going backwards into that process led inextricably to an explanation of why I thought this way.

FJO: This is amazing! Usually we begin these discussions at the beginning, but we’ve never talked to anyone about the very beginning.

CM: My beginning, anyway.

Charlie Morrow climbing on a Keep Off sign

A maverick from the very beginning. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So, alright, since you went all the way back there, I’m going to try to go back there with you. Do you remember the first time you heard something that was described as music?

CM: Yes, I do. I remember that my parents had a record. I must have been about three-years old, and they said, in playing the record, that this was music. I remember hearing a recording of Stravinsky, a narrated record about music, and then they said there’s some new and wild things like Stravinsky. And it went on from there. I had limited experience of music making outside of our house. But actually, my first real experience of the power of music was much, much earlier when I was about a year old. I was born in ’42, and my father and mother both were psychiatrists. My dad wanted to practice psychiatry in the military. He had volunteered for the Navy, but he was too short by some tiny amount. So he wound up in the Army. They put him into an army psychiatric hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. And my mom and I took a long train trip down to visit. It must have been the summer after I was born. There was a military parade for the officers. I remember how I could not keep the sound of the drums outside of me. It seemed to penetrate my body. I had never experienced anything that loud or that close. That became the earliest experience for me of music, just that very, very intense military drumming.

FJO: What’s so interesting about that is that one of the instruments you would have heard in that military parade—trumpet—became your first instrument, and also that you wound up doing so many outdoor, environmental pieces. So the seeds of those later developments go all the way back to this initial musical encounter.

CM: I think you’re right. It also came from the intense liberation that I felt as a bugler in the Boy Scouts. The experience of blowing “Reveille” or “Taps” from a hanging metal cone megaphone, and blowing it in three different directions—I think that that completely convinced me of where I was going. It sounded so different in each direction. Having three shots at playing it, having learned and heard the first and then the second, and the third, was an iterative experience that made me well aware of what environments are about.

FJO: That also ties into your whole development of the 3D sound cube and directionality much later on.

CM: You’re absolutely right, because what I wanted to achieve with the 3D sound cube was a natural feeling that you could locate where sound came from. Because it makes you nervous if you can’t, because your life is threatened on a very primordial level if you don’t know where sound is and what’s making it. It could get you, or you might not get it if you needed to eat it or any number of things that are defined by instantly resolving where something is, and instantly making a judgment about what it’s about. You know, is it threatening? Is it appetizing? Is it intriguing?

A diagram showing the speaker alignment to simulate 3-D sound

The schematics for the MorrowSound 8.1 System Single Cube array.

FJO: In that sense, sound is very different from visual information because we’re trained to sense perspective, which enables us to know how far away something is just by seeing where it is. Sound, on the other hand, we perceive as a non-corporeal, disembodied thing. But of course it is physical, too, but it’s not something we can necessarily see.

CM: Also our eyes are frontal, but our ears—divided left and right—resolve sound in a full spherical environment. Your eye is not trying to invent anything for the portion that it doesn’t see, unless you stick it in an oculus or another kind of enhanced, immersive experience. But your ear does that all the time; your ear is resolving x, y, z, w, and t at least—w is where the observer is, t is over time.

FJO: Before we get too theoretical, I want to head back to Columbia. There’s another person whom you studied with there at that time who is one of my heroes because of his incredible open-mindedness—Otto Luening. So I’m curious to learn more about your relationship with him and what his influence was on you.

CM: Well, I had a class in music history with him, which was quite nice because he was able to speak very personally about the materials in music. I think that his most fascinating teaching was the multi-level interpretation of everything. You don’t just hear the music or see it in one way; he always explained what it was for, who did it, and what the environment was at the time. He was also interested in the gestural aspect of the music. And he had a great sense of humor. I remember once he was talking about one of the Scarlattis, about the tight little playing of very delicate and carefully honed keyboard music. And he said, “They did that ‘cause in those days you couldn’t go like this: bang-bang-bang-bang.” He always had little side trips like that. He was constantly riffing on what he taught, which created open doors because he took everything he said with a big grain of salt.

FJO: Did you have any involvement with the electronic music studio that he was developing?

CM: I didn’t work in it, but I became very familiar with it. Being a techie, I was fascinated and I met a number of the people who worked there. I knew Bülent Arel and some of the South American guys who were working there, and I continued to have a connection to the studio. I maintained a steady relationship with Charles Dodge. I stayed connected because they were proactive in creating a world of their own. Early sound studios were very particularly made to the interest of their creators. I had one of the first privately-owned sound studios in New York. When I moved to 365 West End Avenue, we built a studio there and I had a team of people working with me. Our studio was totally different from what Columbia was about; it was concerned with programmability, repeatability, and the accuracy of a lot of the work. All of those issues distinguish what I’ve eventually done with 3D immersive sound from what the entire industry is doing with it.

A long-haired Charlie Morrow leaning at a table and surrounded by a lot of electronic equipment

Charlie Morrow at his NYC studio, circa 1969. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

In a way, Columbia’s studio set me off on a path of being a staunch independent, doing more gesturally-based things, working with cheaper equipment, working with approaches that were more connected to the natural world. I always wanted to get closer to electrons as part of nature; my field at Columbia was chemistry. Chemistry’s an extraordinary embodiment of metaphysics.

FJO: So you weren’t a music major?

CM: No, I was a pre-med student.

FJO: So you were trying to follow in the footsteps of your parents?

CM: Yeah.

FJO: Interesting. I didn’t realize that. So you studied music history with Luening, not composition?

CM: Yes, but I had studied composition. My first composition teacher was a guy named Carlo Lombardi, when I was in Newark Academy. Carlo was a student of Dallapiccola, so I got a really interesting education right away—a really Italian take on Viennese 12-note music. Carlo was also a very good keyboard player; he could play anything I could write, so I suddenly started to have good performances of what I was doing. And he encouraged me to go to Interlochen where I was in high school composition and orchestration classes. I worked with a number of teachers there and things got played. What really took my career along was the idea of having the work played, because I’d written for years before that but I didn’t have anybody to play it, except if I wrote it for trumpet, which was my instrument.

FJO: But what interests me is that already, before you went to college, as a high school student, you were writing conceptually based pieces. And this was music that was 180 degrees away from 12-tone music. You were writing downtown music in high school back before the words uptown and downtown took on polemic meanings.

CM: Yes, I was. I did a slow Gabrieli piece.

FJO: That piece [Very Slow Gabrieli] actually reminds me of the music of a younger composer, Jacob Cooper, who—nearly 60 years after you wrote that piece—has created a whole body of fascinating repertoire based on slowing down older music.

CM: Interesting. It’s nice to know that the door, once it was opened, is happening. But my favorite [among my early pieces] is the surprise music where at a pre-arranged time, when an orchestra’s playing, everyone stops and squirms and belches and makes funny little noises, unknown to the conductor. It’s a guerilla event in the middle of an orchestra performance and it really worked out well.

FJO: That’s a very Fluxus idea, but this is pre-Fluxus.

CM: It is. We’re talking the 1950s.

FJO: But it makes me wonder. I went to Columbia in the ‘80s, which was at the tail end of what some people perceived as the period of 12-tone hegemony in many academic institutions. It was a time when many folks still didn’t really look too kindly on alternative compositional approaches. So I could only imagine what the reaction was there to the wilder side of your music at that earlier time.

CM: Well, basically I divorced myself from the non-ethnomusicological part of Columbia. I played with Philip Corner, James Tenney, and Malcolm Goldstein and was part of the Tone Roads concert series. I guess we had our own world. I met Cage through them, and it was like finding my people.

FJO: Yet in the middle of all that, you wound up going to Mannes and studying with Stefan Wolpe, a fascinating composer who was at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.

A photo of the back of Charlie Morrow's head, wearing a Bowler hat

Charlie Morrow. Photo by Colin Still (courtesy Charlie Morrow).

CM: I was bouncing back and forth. I have works in different styles from that time. I guess what I was discovering was that I could work in a number of styles. It’s how I wound up in the jingle and film scoring business. I could work authentically and non-imitatively in other styles, and that became interesting for me. Having done that for a while as the business became more codified and referential, that stopped being fun. It was fun as long as the door was open. When I first went into that world, I went into it as a combination composer and sound designer, because those were two separate things: two people that got a job. I could get a job, and they could pay me once, instead of paying two people. But once the ’80s came, I began to look for something else to do with myself because it had become pretty much like Columbia and 12-note music. The commercial music scene had become formulaic.

FJO: But we’re jumping ahead here. You weren’t doing commercial jingles when you were studying with Wolpe at Mannes.

CM: No, that hadn’t happened yet. That happened after I did a piece for tenor and orchestra that won a prize and brought me out to San Francisco. When I came back to New York, I had imagined that since I’d met Leonard Bernstein and had suddenly been introduced to the mainstream world that I’d get phone calls and letters and requests for commissions. It was a wild fantasy. It never happened. I think at that point, I wrote an essay called “View from the Bottom of the Heap” which was published in 1966 in the American Music Center’s newsletter. John Duffy encouraged me to put my ideas out there about being an independent composer and earning a living from it. So it was at that time that I began to part company with the concert hall. I did a protest concert called “For the Two Charlies,” with Ives’s music and my own, and that was the end of my life in the concert hall. I just devoted myself to music outside the concert hall.

FJO: At the time you complained about the constricting of sound in the concert hall, that it’s a very artificial idea to create a blank slate for music to fill up, since in every other environment outside of a concert hall music co-exists with many other sounds. So the concert hall environment artificializes the listening experience.

CM: It’s true. Later on, as an outdoor event-maker turned soundscaper, I began to realize the concert hall was just one of many possible environments. When I started to build things in 3D, the idea was that you make a location and then you populate it with sounds and sound scenery. But first you make an environment. Every place is an environment. I think it was a conceit on my part to see the concert hall as being too quiet for what I had in mind.

A photo montage from three different musical events: an event composition involving violins and bathtubs, two people standing under a bell, and an ensemble atop a tractor.

Charlie Morrow’s journey outside the concert hall has led him to create music with bathtubs and tractors as well as experiment with new ways to hear sound. (Photos courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So how did you make the transition from writing for tenor and orchestra to creating music for experiences that were outside the concert hall? Building your own studio and production company takes money and time. And to be successful at it also requires connections. I know one of your classmates at Columbia was Art Garfunkel.

CM: Right. I also met people who had studios. I learned how the studio world worked. At the same time, I had a bit of interesting input from my mother who was a psychiatrist and introduced me to a fellow named Andy Mashberg, whom she’d met at a medical convention. After I came back to New York and actually saw Leonard Bernstein sitting at the Bavarian Inn at the next table from me, I met Andy Mashberg whom my mother had talked to. Andy had said to my mother, “I know how he can survive without teaching.” He met me and he said, “You can be a writer of jingles and corporate music and film scores. This is what you have to do.” And he talked me through it. He gave me a list of people. He told me how to make a demo reel. So I was basically walked right to the door of work. And fortunately, within a half a year, I started to have some good opportunities. I did a kind of humorous Cinzano radio commercial. “Please, don’t pinch Cinzano ashtrays. Try Cinzano vermouth instead. Cinzano vermouth is better than ashtrays. Get it into your American head.” These were the lyrics of a mad man named David Altschuler. We became lifelong friends. And fortunately he had work for me. My career has been meeting people who thought that what I did could be useful for what they did. So in terms of being a producer, I quickly learned to do what was needed by people who liked me and thought I could do it.

FJO: So you were already doing commercial work when you started doing production on pop records in the late ‘60s?

CM: No, the other way around. What happened was my then-wife didn’t like me up all night and away, you know, because in the daytime I was also trying to find work and it was stretching our relationship. So what I’d learned from the pop music world was that I wanted to work in the daytime if I was going to keep a home together. So that’s what happened. I more or less started out by getting into the commercial studios through the pop music connection, but then making connections into the advertising world. I already knew good performers from all the worlds that I was in. And that was from a long history of being a producer as well. I had helped Charlotte Moorman produce an avant-garde festival and I had worked in Norman Seaman’s office, who was a promoter—all of this with my mother behind the scenes trying to figure out how I might survive doing what I wanted to do. She was a great admirer of [Sol] Hurok, and she said, “Look at that guy. He finds the talent, he finds the venue, he finds a sponsor, he spends other people’s money, and he makes money for himself.” She was constantly encouraging me to figure out what was on the table and how to move it around.

FJO: So she never tried to get you to go back to med school?

CM: No. My father did, but not my mother. When I was 38, my father, having seen a concert of mine at MoMA, said, “Haven’t you had enough fun now?” I was trying to figure out what he meant. At the time, I was making a very good living, so it couldn’t have been about money. I think he was embarrassed by my eccentricity.

FJO: So getting into the pop world was through Garfunkel?

CM: Yeah, it happened through Garfunkel. And then I had a business partner named Barry Minsky and through him I wound up doing an orchestra piece for The Young Rascals. Then I met other people. Through Atlantic Records, I wound up working for Vanilla Fudge. Then it went kind of back and forth. Studios would put together teams, and so I wound up doing arrangements on various records; the Record Plant studio became a kind of home for me. It evolved from A & R studios where Simon and Garfunkel had recorded originally. I think it was a Columbia studio on lease, or they bought time at A & R. But from A & R, it led to the Record Plant. And everybody hung out there. It was kind of the club house for all different kinds of music production for the pop scene.

FJO: In terms of its production, Simon and Garfunkel’s record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was radical at that time; it was the first eight-track record. Considering your ideas about the directionality of sound, which an eight-track recording would have emulated much better than any previous technology, did you have something to do with that?

CM: I created hit charts for them. I talked to Paul Simon about the sounds, using a Renaissance keyboard instrument. None of them read music; it was all about sharing ideas. So I had something to do with it, yes. But I didn’t write a note.

FJO: But did you have anything to do with the multi-tracking? It was a vital step toward the way most pop music recordings were subsequently made. Nowadays, with digital studios, you can theoretically record an infinite number of different tracks and then mix them together however you want to during post-production. But before that album, most recordings were one-track or two-tracks as stereo came in. Then George Martin made the first four-track recordings of The Beatles in 1963. But Simon and Garfunkel beat even The Beatles to eight-track, and from thereon in there was no turning back.

CM: Well, I think it came from the engineering side; that wasn’t my idea. I was just a hired hand. I would come in and do the sessions, or talk on the phone before. For the real artisanal work that was done in the studio, there was as engineer involved. I think his name was Stan Tonkel. He was extremely far thinking. Of course, Columbia Records themselves bought a lot of multi-track machines. They had the money. Commercials lent themselves to multi-track machines also because you wanted to be covered for different versions and be able to do very polished work based on a lot of fragments. Directionality was not such an issue. It was more about layers. Layering is still very important in the work that I do, as you’ll see in the software that I’ll show you later. We layer in 3D. We can create as many layers as we like in order to be able to create a world of sound, and that is similar to what an eight-track machine has to offer.

A concert poster for an all-Morrow concert listing performances of his Marilyn Monroe Collage (1967), Sound Piece for Rock Amplified Piano (1968), and A Little Brigati Music (1969).

A poster for an all-Morrow concert at Town Hall in NYC before he decided to create music outside the concert hall.

FJO: One of the reasons I thought there might have been a connection here was that you used multi-tracking in the multi-layered Marilyn Monroe piece you did around that time [Marilyn Monroe Collage].

CM: Well, actually, I had to do that piece as a series. I remember, I had a classmate, Mike Shapiro from Columbia, and Shapiro had gone to work for a sound library. They had an excellent mono studio. I think we did the Marilyn Monroe piece by creating all of the elements and rolling them in on two-track machines, doing them as very careful sound on sound. So that was because I had a guy who was really good at being my hands and he engineered the whole thing for me. It was such a juggle.

FJO: It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s just two tracks.

CM: No, it doesn’t. But I think that might have been just prior to eight-track recording. I knew about four-track recording.

FJO: That piece opens up doors to all kinds of things, like taking found sounds and using them as sonic objects for your own ends, which is a very post-modern idea and something you’re still doing now with your recent re-compositions. It’s an idea that has a lot of currency right now—sampling something and turning it into a new creation by remixing it and making it your own. Everything in your Marilyn Monroe piece came from something she actually said that was recorded, but you turned it into something that she never said.

CM: That’s right.

FJO: Also since she was so iconic, and was someone that everyone could immediately identify, there was something very populist about your piece, even though it was experimental conceptual music.

CM: It’s true. It had grown out of an invitation by Andy Warhol to create a piece for his Marilyn Monroe show at a gallery on 57th Street. My motivation for it was actually seeing everything and, in terms of ceremony, thinking of the artist as a sacrificial lamb. And I thought, coming back always with this death image, that I was taking Marilyn Monroe and reviving her for my own benefits. She was a beautiful vehicle for the thoughts I had about her, which concerned, in my way, the exploitation that show business does.

FJO: Another interesting aspect about what you did with Marilyn Monroe, which makes more sense now that you’ve referenced an exhibition of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, is that you’ve taken something very popular and turned it into something much more rarified and abstract, just as Warhol did by silkscreening those images of her. Her image became just a form in which to explore a process, just as he had done earlier by painting sequences of Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes. Which connects to another thing you have done as a composer—all the stuff you’ve composed for multiples of the same instrument. Having 30 harps or 40 cellos, all the same sonority, is the sonic equivalent of a whole room filled with the same visual image.

CM: That’s a very interesting reading. I was on a panel about animal communication. I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert and had before that done a lot of field work with peepers where I could get into dialogue with them. In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish and the peepers as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other.

Page of a manuscript score showing sequences of numbers shaded in various colors.

From the score of Charlie Morrow’s Book of Numbers. © 1974 by Charlie Morrow / Other Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

But then you remind me that when I first went to Mannes School of Music, I met a guy from the neighborhood whose mother had an empty flat. He said, “You’ve got to come over here. My mom let this crazy art director from advertising do a show in one of her empty flats. It’s a block away. Come with me, Charlie.” I walked in and there was Andy Warhol, and it was his first show. And the walls were exactly as you say. And I remember thinking about the simultaneity of duplicates at the time. But until our conversation it had not surfaced that this is a piece of that, because I’d always seen it through the herds and other multiple images from nature, rather than from the manipulation of the artist.

FJO: That fish concert happened during the period between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford being sworn in as president. Was that some sort of an artistic statement?

CM: It was a total accident. He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like “a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?” You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. Morty himself was the one who said, “You’re working with all these sounds. Why don’t you do a concert for fish?” And I said, “What a great idea, Morty. We’ll do it.” At the time, I had been working for large industrial, multi-media projects with a guy named John Doswell. Doswell just died a month ago, but he’s been significant in my life because he was very active in the harbor life here. And he arranged tugboat races and so forth later, but Doswell said, “Come on out. Let’s do it from my boat.” So I suddenly had a boat, and I knew the technology, and so Morty Wax’s suggestion turned into reality. And since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics.

FJO: Although I would imagine in terms of it being a world press event, it was overshadowed by Nixon’s resignation.

CM: Of course.

FJO: So that’s the bad part of it happening the same day.

CM: But it was mentioned worldwide. I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.

FJO: At that point, you had already done stuff with birds, the Central Park pieces.

CM: Well, I had done the solstice events. Let’s see; let me put it together: ’74 was when Nixon resigned and we did the fish concert. I had already started The New Wilderness Foundation and the New Wilderness Band. We had already been doing solstice events, and we were communicating with birds in those events.

The New Wilderness Band in performance sometime in the mid 1970s.

The New Wilderness Band in performance sometime in the mid 1970s. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So in terms of how that works, you say communicating with birds or with fish. I’d like to unpack this a bit.

CM: Sure.

FJO: We’re hearing their sounds, but do you have any sense of what they’re hearing from us? Is there really a two-way aspect to this or is it all just our interpretation of what this is?

CM: Well, I would say that it’s both. First of all, I believe in the bandwidth of perception. Every essay in the book I’m working on has to do with the fact that every creature hears and sees vibrations on different wavelengths. Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. It’s absolutely true, for example, that a horse and a human might be riding and spending days together, but they’re not getting the same world because their ears are in different positions and the evolution of our sensory systems are different. So going then beyond a fellow warm blooded animal to reptiles, talking to each other through a black hole, so to speak, we’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication. They basically both have a simple language and it was the complexity of such a simple language that turned my interest.

Toadfish make a sound [demonstrates] and they tend to have a lead toadfish that’s making a sound and the others want to reply. So groups follow the leader. And then that toadfish, once he’s got a group, starts to increase the tempo, jumping the beat, and the group follows until another starts over here at a much slower tempo. This goes on every day. That’s an auditory transactional state that those folks are in, or those critters. So if you make those sounds, and they answer you, they play; if you can play in that band, you’re there, at least for the part that you hear and the part that they hear.

FJO: That’s absolutely fascinating. What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that at the same time that you’re doing this really out there stuff like this concert for fish, you’re making a living doing commercial jingles. I’m curious about the spillover. Some of your commercial stuff is quite avant-garde in some ways. Your Hefty garbage bag theme, in particular, is pretty wacky musically; it’s full of really unusual harmonies which never resolve.

CM: My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings. Soundscapes are like that. We build soundscapes that people will hear for a permanent installation. There is this balance that has to be achieved between every element in relation to the other elements.

That’s something you learn from orchestration. This is just a contemporary equivalent of orchestration. Whether it’s a trumpet orchestra in West Africa, or a Western orchestra, or an opera. It functions transactionally. Everybody’s got to have a role in it and have a good time somehow. Like in a good gamelan piece, the social fabric is illuminated when all the pieces come together and the music ticks. A trick with being in the jingle world was always to find that balance. However, I don’t think it’s possible in the same way now. I have a job right now, which shall go nameless. The environmental pieces of it were created and were fine with the client. But all the tiny sound effects that were in it they wanted copied exactly from today’s latest high-tech, game-oriented feature films.

I had an argument with people who were half my age—actually in this room—in which I said to them, “I think that you’re making a terrible mistake. I think that just simply copying that without a reason other than that you think people will identify with that is basically to burn them out faster. What you’re doing will be trivialized faster in my experience.” At which point, I put somebody else from our team on the job. And a note came back. “It’s a problem working with Charlie; we have to listen to philosophy.” From my point of view, I’d given them sound economic advice, and from their point of view, I was wasting their time because they were in a hurry to do something they thought was right. It kind of epitomized what has happened at all stages of my career.

At one point I was asked by an agency guy to write a Pan Am commercial. He said, “Would you make me a commercial? I want you to do this with an original flair. It shouldn’t sound like anything that anyone’s heard before.” I said, “Do you really mean that? He said, “I do.” I said, “Well, it’s opportunities like this that I live for.” And so I wrote two pieces, for the same ensemble. We read through the first one, and the guy came out screaming. He said, “What is this shit? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life.” I said, “Well, did you hear what you just said? Wasn’t that my assignment?” He said, “Don’t fuck with my head.” I said, “Well, I’m just teasing.” We played the other one. He said, “Don’t ever do that again.”

FJO: Do you have a recording of those? I’d love to hear them.

CM: I actually do. I have to dig them out.

FJO: The jingles you created for Hefty and WINS radio were both used for years. Those were really successful.

CM: They still are.

FJO: And they’re both instantly identifiable. So there were—and clearly still are—folks that were accepting of these more unusual kinds of sounds. People obviously liked them, because they’re still popular.

CM: There are tastemakers who do it right. There’s also such a thing as good luck. But my style has always been to create something that’s a little bit on the edge. Generally that seems to work to keep it fresh for as long as it lives. I mean, that’s in my mind and what I’ve learned from composers of the past. The good stuff still sounds fresh and sounds right. So I try to impart that, whether it’s a three-second logo or a ten-day event.

FJO: At that same time, you also wrote a tune that could very well have been a Billboard hit single, if it wasn’t written for a commercial—your “Take the Train to the Plane” jingle for the New York City subway system. It’s actually almost a pop song.

CM: It really is. Well, that was a remarkable situation where I wrote for two very bright marketing guys who were great fans of things that were just like that. They wanted me to write something that’s memorable, that people would sing, and that would possibly have a life outside of the use by the MTA.

FJO: And did it?

CM: Yeah, there were a number of releases of it. It’s been licensed for a number of feature films. It hasn’t been what you call an avalanche of coverage, but it has lived.

FJO: So you worked in all these different genres. You created avant-garde music, and you have this academic music that you’d written earlier, you did pop music production, you did improvisatory stuff with the New Wilderness Group, and then commercial jingle work. Then you were part of the creation of EAR Magazine, which was a publication for new music that embraced it all. It makes sense now, because your background was doing it all. But I’m wondering what made you decide to participate in a publication for this stuff.

CM: Well, it’s just like my mother or Morty Wax suggesting something. I’m not so much an inventor of things, but a selector of good ideas that float past my nose. First of all, Beth Anderson and a guy named Charles Shere from San Francisco developed a community mimeo publication called EAR. And Beth came and lived in this house. R.I.P. Hayman has had many people come and share his roof with him. He’s a very generous guy. And Beth and he put out EAR together, and then Beth wanted to get out. Magazine fever is something people usually have for short periods of time—I mean, a certain number of years. But Rip wanted to keep it going. So Rip asked me, since we were already working together on so many things, whether New Wilderness could be its fiscal agent, its bank account, and its tax status. And I said of course. Then I wound up working with EAR a lot. I took an interest in EAR because I believe in thematic publication. So under my tenure with EAR, we had issues on music of healing, poetry, politics; the EARs were basically anthologies.

I also have to say that I’ve been very much inspired by my long-term relationship with the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who was a master anthologist. Poetry appears in the first person. You print the poem and there it is before you. The idea of EAR was that we’d have essays and actual compositions, a direct communication from the creator to the reader, which is quite different from the way music is generally handled. Music is generally written about—it’s critiqued, it’s promoted, but the actual primary content is very rarely presented other than in books of scores. So I would say that in that way we fell together as people who were interested in what the other was doing and then seeking a community through publication.

FJO: Well, as I’ve told you before, EAR was one of the main inspirations for the creation of NewMusicBox—people who create this work talking and writing about it themselves, rather than there being filters. Initially, for the first few years that NewMusicBox was online, each month was a thematic issue. Ultimately, though, we realized having a monthly thematic format wasn’t the perfect fit for the instantaneous 24/7/365 communication mechanism that the internet was evolving into, so now we post stuff almost every weekday and the pieces don’t all connect to each other in the same way. But I’m curious; you talk about EAR on an aesthetic level. I always thought of it as a socio-political act. We have this world outside of what we do that doesn’t necessarily understand what we do. So the media often gets it wrong in terms of how they describe it. Sometimes they’re dismissive and at times they’re downright hostile toward it. But we can create our own publication. We can create our own world. Let people know about what we do by telling them ourselves. Rather than relying on tastemakers to do it for us, we can be our own tastemakers.

CM: I agree, and program makers, too. Our solstice broadcasts were lengthy compilations of material done in celebration of a holiday, and promoted to the world through broadcast and getting people to physically show up. So I agree with you. The idea of artists curating artists, and artists writing in the first person was definitely in the air and I felt very strongly about it. After all, my whole career has been stepping out, making my own studio, making my own way as a producer, and I thought that in this sense a community is built by people who are able to do that and then sharing the skill sets. Bringing that together, how wonderful EAR became under different editorial leadership and different art direction!

It was quite unusual for a publication within music to take on such great graphic interest. This is where R.I.P. Hayman’s particular inspiration—and all of us, in that way—all feeds back to Philip Corner. Rip and I met through Philip Corner’s sound out of silence spaces. Philip had learned calligraphy in Korea and made calligraphic music; his calligraphic scores had opened the door between graphics and communicating and music and sound. So we were looking to get the word out. At that time, I became the music critic for the Soho News, and I wrote essays about Jackson Mac Low, Alison Knowles, and a number of other people who were important in their thinking to me, because no one knew who they were. They weren’t mainstream artists. They were just doing their work and I think that publishing the work and also writing about it within a framework of the art community is very positive.

A poster for the Ear Magazine benefit concert on April 8, 1983 featuring an illustration of a giant ear and listing the participation of Charlie Morrow, Joan LaBarbara, Robert Ashley and many others as well as the world premiere of John Cage's ear for EAR

Ear magazine was much more than a publication; it served as a central hub for the entire new music community. The April 8, 1983 benefit concert for Ear brought together a widely diverse group of music creators including Laurie Anderson, Derek Bailey, David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, Nam Jun Paik, and the Gamelan Son of Lion as well as John Cage who especially created the composition ear for EAR for the event.

FJO: The other thing that I found so inspirational about EAR was its definition of what new music was. It was really open-ended. I first became aware of the rock band Sonic Youth through EAR magazine. EAR was a portal into a broad range of genres, not a place that passed judgment on what was “uptown” or “downtown” or what had pedigree or lacked it. It presented everything on an equal footing, which was incredibly mind opening and made for a more inclusive new music community.

CM: I think you’re right, and in that respect, EAR also demonstrated that a community could be supportive of each other. While there had been this weird uptown-downtown split, it was really a tiny fissure in a community of people who otherwise were quite frankly really hungry to be more connected to other people and to know about things. I mean, your own experience shows what we found with EAR, because the readership went up. People were hungry to learn, and it was easier to understand it if you could see the real work, and understand that it had been either an impulse or been thoughtfully put together. It was transparently primary materials. What made it exciting for all of us was that we were constantly amazed by the breadth of the community and the diversity of what was called new music. It didn’t have to be pigeon-holed. Every time anyone would describe it, it would become something else.

FJO: But EAR eventually went away. We were talking before we began recording about finding ways to digitize the EAR archive to make those incredible issues available again, but it’s weird. All of this existed before the internet. It almost predicted the internet in terms of its interactivity and its attempt to join communities. At one point, I know there had even been an EAR Music East, and an EAR Music West on the West Coast. All these things are so much easier to do now that there’s an internet, yet by the time the web became used by the general public, EAR no longer existed, which is a tragic irony.

CM: It was unfortunate. You know, EAR kept evolving, and at a certain point EAR wanted to separate itself from New Wilderness Foundation and I think it was a time of a changing world. In my own case, I became a father in 1989 and producing the big solstice project that year for June 21, I barely was able to attend my daughter’s birth and be there for when she came home. I suddenly had a whole other world. After that, it kind of came to an end. EAR got a board together and then it went bankrupt. One of the differences throughout the whole project was that Rip and I, when there was no money, would put money in. That’s a necessary and magical ingredient; no matter what happened, we would keep it floating. The new board for EAR had a situation. The printer had gone out of business for some reason and EAR was impounded by a creditor. But EAR had already sold substantial advertising like in tens of thousands of dollars. In order to collect it, EAR had to appear. Generally speaking, EAR paid for its printing after it got its advertising money. So, this chicken-egg effect worked out that then the board, who were a lot of nice people, a lot of them with money, when it came time to put their hands in their pockets, they put their hands in the air. And something very wonderful came to an end. I think no project like this can exist unless there’s somebody who’s a tireless fool who will pay the bills.

FJO: The other amazing thing about it is that magazine was created in this space, the Ear Inn—a building that’s been here since the second decade of the 19th century. In a way, it’s a remarkable parallel that connects back to what you were saying earlier about creating new work through a relationship with old things. We’re in this really old place, certainly by New York City standards, that became one of the meccas for really new music. It seems wonderfully contradictory and yet it makes total sense.

CM: True. It’s a nice thought. I think that very much has to do with R.I.P. Hayman and his great generosity, imagination, and tenacity with keeping a space like this from being totally wiped off the face of the earth, which it’s been threatened with so many times. It makes this a very vital location for doing things.

FJO: I know your feelings about the concert hall and what it represents. So you created a musical existence beyond it and I think, to some extent, that idea translated into your idea about recordings as well because for a very long time your music was never available on recordings. Once again, just like a concert hall captures sound and puts it in this one place, a recording does that even more so because it captures time. John Philip Sousa rallied against canned music a century ago, but unfortunately in our world, unless you can your music and commodify it that way, people aren’t aware that it exists. A few years ago, after all these incredible things you did across many decades, XI finally put out a three-CD retrospective so people who weren’t around to hear these things when they happened could actually hear them.

CD cover of Toot! featuring a drawing of a Bowler hat filled with musical notation against a black background.

In June 2011, XI Records finally issued the first-ever album devoted exclusively to the music of Charlie Morrow, Toot! (XI 135), a generous 3-CD retrospective containing works spanning half a century.

CM: I think that I’m not so good at making records. My whole career has been in making soundtracks, making events, and broadcasts. For all of these things I’m an expert, but I was never a good producer for my own work. They say that a lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. I think there are people who are excellent record producers for themselves, but it just was a skill that I lacked. There was no other reason for there not being recordings of my work. There were small editions of my work along the way, as part of anthologies or some collection or another, but my work was primarily in broadcast and in media and in public spaces, because that’s what I knew how to do. It is a picture of my limitations, about presenting what I do to a wider audience in that medium.

Now I have marvelous spatial systems. I’m quite capable of presenting large spatial events. I do them once, and I have not attempted to publish them and make them repeatable. It’s just simply a limitation that I’ve got. I think that if I had somebody helping me over those years, that side would have been much better handled. Without Phill Niblock saying that he would like to do a triple CD of my work, I would simply have not done it because it’s just a little bit off of what I do well. So I worked on it with a group of people and they helped select things that would be good on CD. I think what makes me a terrible record person is that I’m a terrible A & R guy. I can’t figure out what belongs on a disc, what’s a reasonably good experience and so forth.

Alyssa Hess standing and leaning on a harp with Charlie Morrow, John Cage and R.I.P. Hayman seated in front of her.

Harpist Alyssa Hess with Charlie Morrow, John Cage and R.I.P. Hayman at MoMA in 1984. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: Well there are certainly some pieces on there that work wonderfully as stand-alone sonic experiences, particularly that gorgeous multiple harp piece [Wave Music VII]. But of course it makes me eager to hear more. I read that there are three string quartets that you wrote early on. Are there recordings of those? Might those be released on another recording one day?

CM: Well I’ve assembled an archive now. I’ve started to put together collections on SoundCloud that are private. Jerome Rothenberg and I have done a lot of collaborations, so I’ve put all the Rothenberg ones together. A friend of mine has an online radio station, so we did a Rothenberg celebration for a bunch of months. But radio is a funny medium because people aren’t necessarily going to listen to long works on radio. But everything’s available in the archive. So we have a number of solutions. David Rothenberg thought there should be a retrospective museum. Owen Bush has suggested since I’m working in virtual reality that we create in virtual reality our own virtual museum, and put all the work in there, since it is site specific. It could then be performed in a more or less site-specific way. And we’re building that virtual reality museum right now with the help of the Unity Studio in Denmark. I think that will come along, but if any of the pieces are interesting to you, and you had some idea how they might be best presented to others, I’m totally into it. I just haven’t taken that step.

On the other hand, we’re remastering all the audiographics cassettes. We had 42 of them. It’s probably the seminal series of sound art and anthropological music: Philip Corner’s first recordings, Dick Higgins’s stuff, Alison Knowles’s stuff. I’m going to make all that available, because there’s a French label that’s interested in doing a sampler and then helping to collect orders for it. I have such big chunks of things that making them meaningful and making them available in a way that’s sensible is just slowly coming to me.

FJO: Since you mentioned Denmark and a French label, there’s one last thing I want to ask you about. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time doing projects in Europe. For some of the larger-scale activities that you’ve done there—like that piece of yours that involves 2,000 people—we certainly have the people and the enthusiasm to make it happen here, and yet these kinds of things seem to happen more in Europe these days.

A page of handwritten manuscript score for Charlie Morrow's event composition CityWave

From the score for Charlie Morrow’s CityWave, an event composition involving more than 1000 performers. © 1985 by Charlie Morrow / Other Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CM: I think as always, it has to do with who the organizers are. I’ve been recently talking to Aaron Friedman, who was my successor to Summer Solstice celebrations as large scale music events. But I discovered that one of the biggest differences between the stuff that I did and the stuff that he does is that we paid people. He doesn’t pay anybody anything. So therefore the group that’s going to organize itself as 15 percussionists are going to play their own works because they’re there for free and they’re going to want to organize what they’re doing. So it’s a pinch point in doing a curated performance. We were able to do what we wanted because we paid for it—we went to the music performance trust fund and got half the money from the musicians’ union, and they matched the funds. Nobody got a lot of money, but it made it easier to rehearse, say, with cellists or more or less mainstream performers whose time is very precious and now even more so as it is even harder to live in New York.

But I don’t think it’s any easier to organize these large-scale things in Europe any more. First of all, anything like that tends to bear the aegis that they’re retro, ‘60s events; they’re post-hippie stuff. I mean, there’s a variety of ways in which mass performances are described. And in a way, a mass performance should in fact be either a totally composed piece like the [Balinese Ramayana] Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it. I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. The fact that you and I are sitting here talking about it hopefully will lead people to go to the website. Because now on my website, I have a sample of all of the major works. You can see the piece—not on video, but there are photos—and you can hear a good sample of what they’re like. At this point there’s now a lot of material, so hopefully people will find it useful and want to bring it to life.

A Bowler hat on a speaker mounted on the ceiling

Selling Out is Not Selling Out

I thought it would be interesting to finish my guest posts for NewMusicBox by telling three stories of new music finding its way into advertising, an industry that is rarely—if ever—exposed to this kind of music.


A year and a half ago my music company, Found Objects, was approached by an advertising agency to write music for a new BMW commercial. It was a really compelling project that featured beautiful imagery of futuristic cityscapes paired with a recording of Arthur C. Clarke speaking about innovation.

I knew this would be a great opportunity to look for a fresh musical perspective: one that could take the project to a new artistic level. So I brought in an award-winning composer to write a few pieces for the BMW commercial. What she came up with was really special and a really great example of innovative new music.

In advertising, music producers expect multiple options to present to their client, so we submitted her tracks along with a batch of other compositions, including new pieces that my business partner Jay Wadley and I had composed. The BMW team found the work incredibly interesting but ended up selecting a different track. Her music wasn’t used in the commercial, but I really loved the pieces and kept them in our library, waiting for the right project to come along. Eventually one of the pieces, written for voices and violin, found a home on a similarly beautiful commercial that aired last year for IBM.


Our most ambitious attempt at exploring new music for advertising was thanks to a recent Maserati campaign.

It was a series of 60-second commercials shot in Death Valley. The imagery was incredible: a deep blue Maserati car set against the white landscape of the illustrious salt fields.

The music producers wanted to explore unusual sounds, particularly vocal and ambient colors. That was certainly outside the typical commercial music direction, so in addition to digging into our own library we looked to the work of our colleagues. This was a big outreach to the new music world, but because we were often in a rush to provide examples, we had to present the music without getting in contact with the composers just yet. These were tests so we didn’t need to start that conversation until the process picked up steam with the music producers.

The reaction from the agency and the creative team was exciting. They had never heard music like this before and they were intrigued. When a piece was singled out by the Maserati team, we reached out to the composer and asked about the recording’s availability.

But as a perfect example of the competitiveness of the advertising industry, despite the days of work we spent sending in this music and the encouragement we got from the Maserati team, we were only able to land one of the six Maserati commercials with an original work for voices and electronics that Jay wrote. Still, it was an exhilarating experience to expose an eager audience of advertising producers to music they’ve never encountered before and promote new music in an unexpected way.


Last week, I was honored to be shortlisted for an AICP award for best original music in an advertisement. I thought I’d end this post on a short deconstruction of the piece that was nominated. This might be somewhat revealing as to the creative possibilities within a commercial, as it’s sort of a hybrid of new music and advertising music. The commercial is called “A New Way To Create.”

The music producer for the project came to Jay and I to work on a big IBM campaign. He wanted to come up with a unique sound that could play off the stuttering visuals of the film. What if you were to explore an electronic texture based on chopping apart you own classical music in a remix-like fashion?

Immediately Jay and I dug into our old recordings, finding a few things from our Yale years in 2006. There was a vocal piece of his and a piano piece of mine that caught our ear. I also had snippets of Potential Energies, a ballet I wrote last year.

I created a sample library by slicing the audio file into 88 pieces (to span an 88-key piano). I took tiny moments and stacked them to the point at which they became a thick layer of piano lines which turned out to be very reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Six Pianos.

The piano piece I sampled, written in 2007, is called Unsound Grounds:

When I chopped it up, I made it the driving palate of the IBM piece:

This is the movement I sampled from Potential Energies. The section I grabbed occurs at about a minute and a half in the original track:

I sampled the moments where the ensemble hits short notes that could be manipulated in the same way that the piano samples were constructed:

I combined these elements with electronic synths and beats to create an electro-acoustic sound. It came out as an interesting, new take on the IBM brand—it’s infused with a new music/minimalist vibe that is rarely heard in advertising.

The possibility for “new music” to find its way into advertising is there, it just needs to be the right sound for the right project. When advertising producers work on compelling commercials they seek compelling music. Their choices reach the public. With all of the questioning I’ve done in previous posts about my work in advertising, I’ve been lucky to have built access to this forum and be able to expose the great music I hear and the new music I compose to a new audience.

I’ve really enjoyed guest blogging for NewMusicBox over the last few weeks. I’ve received a great reaction to my posts from musicians and composers whom either wrote me personally or commented on the articles with compelling thoughts

I hope I’ve shed some light onto the journey I’ve made over the past seven years of developing Found Objects as a business, and as a composer seeking what truly fulfills me as an artist.

Lost in Translation

Composing concert music is a conversation with the composer and the audience, like it or not. Your captive audience members can understand what you want to say or completely miss your idea and in some cases insert their own, which can be a little vexing.

But for some work outside of that medium—including film and especially advertising—the relationship is completely flipped. Instead, a composer is tasked with writing music the audience wants. The only problem being that it’s an audience that has trouble parsing what it wants in the first place.

In the work that I do for my music production company, Found Objects, we’re often tasked with bridging this gap. Most everyone we work with is very open about how hard it is for them to talk about music, so we all know we’re in a relationship based on both translation and trust. They trust we’ll translate their ideas into music and we try our hardest to get that right.

To do this, I’ve learned to take a step back, go along for the ride, and constantly keep an eye out for what really needs to happen.

My favorite anecdote to demonstrate the difficulty people have in explaining what they need from a composer is a project I did a year and a half ago. The producer and creatives from the advertising agency had settled on a track for a big online commercial. The track was an interesting orchestral piece that had mixed meter and an evolving chord progression that led to a triumphant climax. It was curious that they chose that track out of the 10 options we had sent them, but it was exciting that something so different was beating out the typical ad style. The team focused on how they liked the piece’s build and strong resolution and how well it paired with the arc of the emotion of the spot. All I did was make a few minor adjustments in preparation for their presentation to the clients, who are the decision makers for the product. Everyone was in a good place but the reaction from the client was awful. I could hear it in their voices when the advertising agency team called me afterwards. The producer needed to fix the problem ASAP.

I wasn’t in the meeting (we never are), so I’m not sure what the client had said exactly. But the producer had to take these comments and relay them to me, making their best effort at providing some guidance. They struggled with how to interpret these directions as they weren’t musicians and they could only speak in broad terms. The word I got was that it didn’t sound “finished.”

Here begins the translation: finished how? It could be a logistical thing like the mix sounded weak. Maybe some of the elements felt stiff and too computerized. Or it could be musical. That it doesn’t have enough material in it. It’s not developed enough.

Well, as it was written for full orchestra and we didn’t plan on contracting 20 string players, we relied on a lot on sampled instruments. So we brought in a violinist to add the nuances of a real string player to back up the sampled strings. We worked on the percussion to achieve a more ‘live’ sound in the mix.

We went through another round of revisions with the producer and creatives and we provided multiple options for the same piece. Exploring different openings and endings. One started with piano, another started with a simple solo violin line, another started with a moving flute line, etc. The work was progressing and I felt we were communicating effectively.

Nevertheless, we hit the wall once again. It’s not “finished” enough.

Ninety-five percent of the time we work remotely through conference calls and emails as many people are working on multiple projects and are either taxi-ing around the city or flying around the country. Found Objects on the other hand is very stationary because we have tons of gear packed into our studios. We can’t move this stuff. But let’s make this communication even stronger. Come in and let’s hash this out in person.

We all sat down in my studio and played back the track on high quality speakers with a big screen. This is what I had and this is road we had all traveled. One of the creatives turned to the producer anxiously and said something to the effect of, “It needs to sound more like this.” Hitting play on their laptop an indie rock instrumental with acoustic guitar, drums, and some piano came out of the tinny speakers.

What I wrote was a thousand miles away from this and there was no way I would be able to turn this into that.

Ok, ok, ok. We had provided 10 options 2 weeks ago, including some songs in that style. Why did we spend all of this time going the wrong way? Well, as we discovered while talking through our problem, they liked the arch of my piece but the sound of this other song they had found on Spotify sounded more ‘finished’ because it was cleaner and clearer, certainly it was because it didn’t have a 40 piece orchestra sound.

Sure enough, I put up one of the tracks we sent in the indie rock style and it worked perfectly for them. With some shaping and extending, we finished the job promptly with an indie instrumental song – instead of a full orchestra piece.

Looking back, this is certainly something to laugh at and it hasn’t happened since, but it clearly showed to honest failure of communication that can happen with music. There are so many options, so many things to like and dislike in any one piece of music, that it can be overwhelming to anyone.

It can happen whether you’re telling someone else’s story or your own.

Right Place, Right Time

…Or, how I ran out of time to care about what other people think.


What’s your plan here? What’s your voice going to be? Is this music going to be current enough? How derivative will people hear you as? Are you going to play that game where there’s enough dissonance to prove that you are somehow “aware”?

…What are you even doing?

I bet these questions of mine are a common scenario that a lot of composers consider while they’re writing a new piece of music. It happens continuously as you navigate your way, bar by bar. You’ll be writing something, getting into the nuances of whatever has caught you ear, and the seed of doubt will creep in and distract your compositional flow.

I definitely think about this when I start and I usually approach the first question by listening to a lot of other people’s music to get my bearings. The problem with all of this of course is that it can terrorize you and inflict sleepless nights as you toss and turn, searching for an answer.

However with my commercial music production company, Found Objects, I face these first notes of a composition everyday but I don’t even notice these questions. Yes, it’s often a different kind of music, but it’s still music and in my experience it requires just as much focus as if I were writing an art song, etc.

At Found Objects, we write a lot of music. Your job is to get it right the first time and to do it better than 20 other composers and 5 other companies. In the best outcome, you pass the finish line with a win and then move on to the next one. It’s so temporary that you begin to forget what you’ve written the week before. Even if it’s a composition that explores elements I find interesting outside of the commercial medium, I sometimes forget it happened. This constant push to be more and more productive makes your attachment to what you’ve written minimal.

It was an interesting challenge to face coming from a conservatory-like atmosphere at the Yale School of Music and even from my own previous thoughts on the matter of composition. I always felt we were taught to suffer over the act of composing with thought and time. With every note you needed a reason and with every other note you need a direction. I would spend a few months writing a 12-minute solo piano piece. This now sounds like a crazy proposition.

As I moved further and further along the path of experience, music production, and the world of turning projects around in a few days, I learned to block out these concerns and focus on getting it done. Or else.

But that doesn’t mean you lower your standard of quality. I still maintain my attention to proper voice leading and orchestration. I even explore thematic development through rhythmic and melodic retrograde. In reality, it was more that I learned to ignore my doubts and fear of relevance and instead focused on completing the task at hand.

Here are 2 examples of a 6 part campaign that my business partner and composer Jay Wadley and I completed in an intense week for an IBM project:

IBM: Cloud

IBM: Watson

This abandon flowed from my day’s work into my night’s compositions, because there isn’t time to write other music during the day, of course. There’s a certain utility that I picked up that has since informed my writing of new music. Nothing is sacred and most things are functional.

So when I was writing Potential Energies, a 50-minute ballet, the process began at around 8pm and I left for the day around 11pm. That meant that for those 3 hours, when not occupied by social events like industry parties and gatherings, I had to move quickly.

This added up to a really thrilling experience as well as an interesting open collaboration with the director Sugar Vendil. There were two instances when I was told to scrap a piece and start over. This was a very strange request for the usually autocratic artistic role of a composer. But I did it and moved forward without looking back. That music is lost in the backup folders of the Potential Energies sessions.


What’s your plan here? What’s your voice going to be? Is this music going to be current enough? How derivative will people hear you as?

I figure the best way out of this is to just start writing and “Do it live!” to quote a Fox News hack.

What Have YOU Been Up To?

The studio for Found Objects showing a chair at a desk with a computer, keyboards, speakers, and a large screen

The Found Objects Studio

A couple weeks ago I was at the New Music Bake Sale in Brooklyn. I was walking around meeting composers and performers at this social gathering/concert/pastry sale—occasionally reconnecting with people that I haven’t seen in a while. I even ran into some people that I had not seen since my grad school years at the Yale School of Music. I had a few exchanges that night that really stuck with me afterwards. They started with the most common question between fellow artists: What have you been up to? I was a little stumped.

I did have a ballet performed at BAM in the summer of 2014, but since then and very much before then, not a lot of new music activity has been happening in my life. So in that moment, I didn’t feel I had anything compelling to discuss. There was nothing that I was finishing or that was in progress. And so the conversation became a little awkward.

I later thought about these moments. My next ballet premiere? Where is my opera or orchestra commission? This isn’t to say that I deserved these projects, but more that I hadn’t thought about them much until now. Between the years of 2010 and 2015, I’ve written a total of three substantial works.

But I have been ‘up to’ something over these years. I’ve been building a commercial music company called Found Objects. It’s not “new music”, but I write a lot of music and it’s an immense amount of work.

The unintended consequence of building Found Objects is that the focus and energy required to create and maintain it has in some ways forced me to withdraw from other fields of interest. While my friends and colleagues were pursuing projects in concert, dance, opera, and other artistic mediums, I was meeting music producers for new commercial opportunities. These opportunities were required to make Found Objects a success and, if I missed them, Found Objects would suffer.

Jay Wadley, Bryan Senti, and myself started Found Objects while studying at the Yale School of Music. It began as a simple composer collective but eventually grew into something completely different. Eight years later, Jay and I now have a producer, an accountant, and a lawyer, as well as health insurance, workers’ comp, freelancer agreements, musicology reports, and many more responsibilities. But more importantly, we have a beautiful music studio with three writing rooms and a common space looking towards the Empire State Building in which we write music for advertising, television, and film almost every day.

I remember imagining that I was going to be a concert composer who moonlighted as a professor at a major university, just as my teacher at the time, Kevin Puts, was making it work at the University of Texas where I got my undergraduate degree. That made sense to me at UT and during my first year at the Yale School of Music.

My ideas began to change when I interned for Nico Muhly at Philip Glass’s studio in NoHo. This was the summer of 2006. Nico was just beginning to get consistent commissions and collaborations. He became busy enough to need a full-time intern to help with his assisting of Philip Glass.

I had been a very serious superfan of Philip Glass’s music since high school, so the whole opportunity blew my mind. I knew everything he wrote. I knew all of his popular canon but also his more hidden works—symphonies, concertos, and orchestral overtures, etc.—which rarely get played. (They are amazing pieces that are completely ignored by the traditional classical music industry.)

But Philip seemed to be making it just fine by himself. He was always writing and he was living comfortably. He only had a few employees to help facilitate his extraordinarily busy career. Nico worked for him as his sole music assistant for about nine years. Philip wrote all of his music fully orchestrated by hand and he needed someone to transfer his manuscript into Sibelius and, when working on films, Digital Performer to make orchestral mockups.

What I found most interesting was that he was writing so much music and he was open to whatever assignment that came to him. As long as he thought it was either artistically interesting or was needed to pay the bills, he took it on. It looked like a great balance and a great way to be a composer for a living.

I was interning when he was writing his Oscar-nominated score for Notes on a Scandal. That film was a struggle and he had to write the score twice. At the same time, however, he was writing a 40-minute oratorio called The Passion of Ramakrishna. But Philip’s approach to music had a Zen-like abandon. Keep moving, keep writing, and never look back.

I returned to Yale for my second year with a new perspective. This guy was doing it all by himself. He was completely artistically fulfilled and self-sufficient. I was talking with Jay and Bryan at a School of Music event and we agreed: individually we were no Philip Glass, so let’s band together and make it happen.

For the next few years, we navigated our lives through various positions of apprenticeship. I was working for Philip full time when Nico left to pursue his own extraordinary career. Bryan was assisting Rufus Wainwright on his first opera, Prima Donna, and Jay also assisted Rufus and was an assistant composer on the TV show Lie to Me, among other projects.

After working with Rufus, Bryan landed a job for an ad music company called Human. Human has offices around the globe and employs some 13 full-time composers in their NYC studio alone. Bryan was a music producer there for about nine months and learned about music in the advertising industry in great detail: the most notable detail being money. Maybe this was the route for our artistic success. Make Found Objects a music company that writes original music for advertising and then turn that financial stability into a way to balance the work that pays the bills and the work we found most artistically interesting, just as Philip Glass does.

This was 2011 and, for the next four years, we had a new path to follow. We knew we were getting into an extremely competitive industry so we quickly learned that the only way we were going to make this work was to drop everything and go full force. It was a grueling process that took place in our apartments until 2013 when we built our studio in the Flatiron District.

Since then the amount of work has only increased and we struggle to find time for other projects. It’s a real issue that Jay and I discuss when we get overwhelmed. How are we going to find the time that we hoped we would have? I sit in this chair nearly nine hours a day, and I had to look carefully for a break to write this very article.

Ultimately, however, I think it’s time to take the next steps forward. Our business is stable enough for us to now think about our own careers as artists for once. It has always been the plan. It’s part of the reason Found Objects exists in the first place.

Coming out of those conversations at the New Music Bake Sale really opened my eyes and helped me remind myself that I’m still interested in new music. I still want to be ‘up to’ things other than advertising. I’ve been out of the game for almost five years now and while I know I’m starting from square one in many cases, I’m looking forward to this new challenge.


Trevor Gureckis in front of a window from which a building across the street with many windows is visible.

Trevor Gureckis

Trevor Gureckis is an award-winning composer and producer working in New York City. Major ensembles around the country have performed his music and his modern ballet Potential Energies received its premiere at BAM in the summer of 2014. Trevor owns a music production company called Found Objects that has offices in NYC.