Tag: film music

A View Behind the Curtain

One of the really interesting opportunities that I’ve had over the past fifteen years or so is to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, into the worlds of both concert composers and film composers. There are many differences between the two career paths, but one striking similarity is how little those who aren’t intimately involved with the process know and understand about what actually happens as concert works or film scores are being created. In the realm of commercial composition (film, TV, video games, etc.), that lack of accurate insight into what really goes on during the pre-production, production, and post-production of a score can give those who yearn to pursue such a career path a very skewed sense of what it entails, and with so many composers looking to multimedia as a potential vocation, it is important to find ways to clarify the process.

I recently came across an interesting bit of insight into the inner sanctum of one of Hollywood’s most successful composers, Hans Zimmer, via violinist/composer Michael A. Levine, a long-time collaborator with Zimmer. Levine posted “Why Hans Zimmer Got The Job You Wanted (And You Didn’t)” a few months ago on the website Soundtracks and Trailer Music, and I found it to be a realistic window into that world, focusing on both the technical side of doing the work as well as the interpersonal aspects of collaborating with a multitude of people. Levine himself is a successful composer within that industry and his comments realistically reflect the various issues and challenges that one faces in that world.

In the essay, Levine touches on several different aspects of Zimmer’s work, including spotting (deciding with the director where and how music should be used in the film), work schedule, interaction with directors and film producers, and the difference between being a film music producer and being a film composer. Composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini were experimenting with alternative microphone placement and recording techniques to achieve effects that were considered acoustically impossible fifty years ago, and after digital technology came to prominence in the 1990s that concept of production has expanded to the point that for composers like Zimmer, the performance of the composed score has become only the first step in building the finished product. Whereas before composers would need to elicit the entirety of their score with the performers in a linear, analogue medium, today composers have the ability to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the finished score in a non-linear fashion using whatever initial ingredients the composer decides to record. Here Levine describes one example of that process:

“Later, [Zimmer] asked me to double every ostinato (repeating phrase) pattern the violins and violas played. There were a LOT. And a great studio orchestra had already played them all! I spent a week on what I considered an eccentric fool’s errand, providing score mixer, Alan Meyerson, with single, double, and triple pass versions of huge swaths of the score. Months later, I joked with him about how “useful” my efforts had been. Alan told me that, actually, they had turned out to be a crucial element of the score, that he often pulled out the orchestra and went to my performances when something needed to be edgy or raw.”

Probably the most telling and potentially valuable point that Levine makes is during his recollection of getting fired (a lesson that could be easily mapped on to many concert music situations as well):

“…[Zimmer] is also very aware of what the power structure is–who really makes decisions. I was fired—or more accurately not hired after a trial period—from a film because I jumped through hoops for the director who brought me in while not spending enough time figuring out what the producer—the actual power—wanted. Rather than being sympathetic, Hans told me I had failed in a fundamental task: determining who was my boss. He was right, and I haven’t made that mistake again.”

These insights not only illustrate the pitfalls and challenges of a very competitive and stressful creative environment, but they serve as a reality check for those who dream of attaining such a position, as well as for those who have high hopes of reaching the pinnacle of any artistic endeavor.

Wearing Two Hats: Stewart Copeland on Playing and Composing

Since the The Police disbanded in the mid-1980s, drummer Stewart Copeland has composed soundtracks for numerous films and television shows and has had works performed by such acclaimed ensembles as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. In May 2013, Copeland’s Edgar Allan Poe-inspired chamber opera, The Tell-Tale Heart, was performed by the Long Beach Opera, and in May 2014, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will premiere his new percussion concerto. I reached Copeland at his home studio, the Sacred Grove—where he’s been recording jam sessions with a host of accomplished artists and uploading videos to YouTube—to talk about his approach to composition.

– DB

Stewart Copeland in his home recording studio, the Sacred Grove

Stewart Copeland in his home recording studio, the Sacred Grove.
Photo courtesy Stewart Copeland.

David Brensilver: Your drumming strikes me as rather impulsive. So I’m curious as to how necessarily different your approach to composition is, and whether you tend to capture and develop ideas. Or is your approach more systematic?

Stewart Copeland: Very different. Two different guys. Two different parts of the brain—almost unrelated to each other, although there is probably a connection somewhere.

DB: What about from commission to commission. I mean, do film soundtrack commissions come with specific parameters in terms of mood or attitude?

SC: Oh, absolutely. That’s why decades spent as a working-stiff film composer, I think, is the best education I ever had. Unlike an artist with a capital “A,” you are forced to learn things and go places that you would never go on your own accord. The professional film composer has had to deal with more types of music, more kinds of orchestration, a wider range of emotion, period, than any serious composer—than any serious Artist composer. And by the way, having had that education, I’m not in the film-score business anymore.

DB: Do you make a habit of revisiting and revising music after it’s been performed, like The Tell-Tale Heart?

SC: I’ll probably get around to fixing the score the next time it goes up. I’ll immediately reach for the score and fix a couple things—mainly, removal of percussion. I got a little carried away, because when I was writing it, I was playing it, to make sure it was playable. And the percussionists (would) look at me and say, “Well, of course you can play it.”

DB: You’ve been commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to write a percussion concerto, and I imagine this feels a bit like a mad scientist being handed the keys to a well-appointed laboratory. Was there instrumentation requested or suggested?

SC: Well, yes. As a matter of fact, my last percussion concerto [Gamelan D’Drum] was for gamelan and orchestra. It was a gigantic piece with five percussionists who are actually an ensemble [D’Drum] and they do all kinds of cool stuff—they’ve got not just their Indonesian bells—[both] Balinese and Javanese—but also African stuff, South American stuff, just a really wide array of cool shit that they do. And so, next commission comes up, “O.K., guys, Liverpool, what do you guys do?” “Well, not traps.” “O.K., that’s fine.” “No improvised solos,” like I can’t just write, “Take it away, Bob.” They play the classic, orchestral percussion instruments. Actually, that’s a good thing. Limitations are so often—or, in fact, problems are so often—the seed of great inspiration. So many great ideas are the result of solving a problem. And, by the way, imposing these limitations makes the piece more of a square peg for a square hole as far as other orchestras are concerned. It’s just easier to program if I don’t call for exotic instruments.

DB: Is it fair to say that the “genres”—and that’s in quotation marks—that you work in are really dictated by the commissioning entity and the desired instrumentation, and really not coming from you so much?

SC: Well, it depends what you’re talking about. If it’s a film score, you’re absolutely right. That’s why I don’t do film scores anymore.

DB: But in other words, it doesn’t seem like you’re actively trying to adhere to stylistic traditions.

Stewart Copeland on tour with The Police

Stewart Copeland on tour with The Police. Photo by Lara Clifford, courtesy Stewart Copeland.

SC: Oh, absolutely not. And forms of music that demand that are just tempting for me to just trample all over. Reggae, for instance, absolutely does not demand adherence to its rules. You know, reggae musicians are the most accepting and nonjudgmental of all, I think. I learned that [by] playing with a complete reggae rip-off band called The Police. All the reggae guys really embraced us and were really welcoming. Whereas if, say, instead of reggae The Police had had a strong flavor of any other genre—country, jazz, or punk, for that matter—the other practitioners of that genre would be saying, “No, that’s not the real thing.” Whereas reggae guys just don’t have that attitude.

DB: Do you compose on a particular instrument?

SC: Yeah, it’s called a computer. For composing, it’s all about Digital Performer.

Stewart Copeland in his home recording studio, the Sacred Grove

Stewart Copeland in his home recording studio, the Sacred Grove.
Photo courtesy Stewart Copeland.

DB: Are there moments from the Sacred Grove sessions [1] that you take note of for potential future composition projects?

SC: Not really. The original material that I work with—[it’s] wildly inspiring, really cool, but rarely has there been like a tune or a theme or something. But I do rob myself a lot. A curious discovery is that when you work too hard and too fast, the work is actually better. I learned this on episodic TV, where you have a new show every week, for 24 weeks. Or doing a game, you know, Spyro the Dragon, where for the gig I’ve got to write basically a double album worth of backing tracks. And so you just get your game on and turn on the computer and get working. And I’ve found that some of the themes and melodies and chord progressions that come out of those seat-of-the-pants composing sessions, those are some of the strongest ones. And I tend to go back to those. And when I’m looking to write a big orchestral piece or a really important piece of music, I’m really drawn to that little three-note trick that I came up with on this television series or that.

DB: Are you usually working on commission?

SC: Yeah, I do work on commission, that’s my day job.

DB: So there are no ensemble pieces that you’re writing just for the sake of writing, in other words?

SC: No. I sometimes get a hint of a commission, or even a real commission, and, like I say, I don’t wait around. By the time they’ve sent the contract for signing, I’ve pretty much written the piece. One time I had a huge piece that I was working on and the person who commissioned it was fired, the new person just wiped the slate clean to bring in their own agenda, and before the contract arrived for signing it was over. And so I’ve got this piece sitting in the cookie jar.

DB: What about working with, let’s say, orchestral musicians versus the artists who work with you in Orchestralli [2] or the guys who come over and play at the Sacred Grove? I mean when you went to do The Tell-Tale Heart or when you did Gamelan D’Drum, is there a different sort of working style that the musicians have, in your experience?

SC: Absolutely. The Sacred Grove players are one category of musician, and The Tell-Tale Heart or Dallas Symphony or Cleveland Orchestra players are an entirely different category of musician. Separated at birth, these two enormous and richly varied families are completely distinct: readers and players. Players experience their instrument through their ears and their fingers. Readers, they get their music through their eyes, and the connection goes straight from the page to their fingers—using the brain to interpret the page, but basically it goes from ink to fingers, and that’s basically where the music comes from. All the musicality comes from expressing that ink and really interpreting it, and the ethos is worship of the composer’s intention.

DB: What are a few things that you’re working on now, in terms of compositions and commissions?

SC: Well, I’ve got the Liverpool piece, which I’ve pretty much written—I’ve got the music, I’m just working on the score, which takes me longer than writing the music, by far, but I’m getting faster at it as I do it more. When I was film composing, I had arrangers. But when I got out of that business, and there wasn’t that time pressure, I got into orchestrating myself. And since I haven’t done as much of it, it just takes me longer. But I’m getting faster.


Stewart Copeland behind the drums

Stewart Copeland behind the drums
Photo by Jean Carter Wilson, courtesy Stewart Copeland.

DB: What about performance indications?

SC: Oh, well that’s where all the fun is. That’s exactly the reason why I’m orchestrating myself now.

DB: So that when you get somewhere, it’s fairly all spelled out for people and there’s not a whole lot of ambiguity.

SC: No, no. As little as possible.

DB: And so rehearsals, I imagine, are—

SC: Much easier than band rehearsals. [Laughs] A band will take two weeks to get an hour set together. An orchestra will take one rehearsal or two.

DB: When you go back to playing the rock stuff, is all the work you’ve done in terms of writing—whether it’s film scores or orchestra commissions or what have you—do you find that you’re much more efficient and is it frustrating to be around people who aren’t working that way, especially after you’ve been doing so much of that?

SC: No, because that’s what you expect. When I’m hanging with my buddies and we’re rocking out, I have an expectation of what they’re good at and not good at. There are many things that they’re good at that I’m so thankful of, such as they groove, they play by instinct, and we can talk in a language that we each understand. And you can ask things that you just can’t ask an orchestral player, such as, “Give me a 16-bar solo,” or, “Just improvise this” But the upside of the orchestral experience is: two rehearsals and you’ve got it. But it is sometimes frustrating. It was frustrating to go back to The Police environment, which was sort of like a harsh combination of the worst aspects of both, but [with] rewards that transcend both. The music is sacred, the songs, which means that you can’t just make it up as you go along, because you’ve got to deliver what folks spent too much money on tickets to hear. And it’s very formal, The Police creative environment. Whereas when I’m jamming with my rock buddies, usually it’s very informal. And when I’m working with an orchestra there’s no debate at all, there’s no compromise, there’s no negotiation, it’s on the page. There it is, count it in.

Full interview audio:

1. Copeland invites musician friends to jam sessions (at his home studio, the Sacred Grove), which he records, produces, and posts to his YouTube page. Musicians who’ve jammed at the Sacred Grove include Neil Peart, Stanley Clarke, Ben Harper, members of Primus, Andy Summers, and Snoop Dogg, to name a few.

2. An ensemble with which Copeland has performed arrangements of his music.

hoto by Cheryl Albaine

Photo by Cheryl Albaine

David Brensilver is the editor of The Arts Paper (a monthly publication of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, in Connecticut) and has contributed to a diverse collection of publications. He is a percussionist with performance degrees from The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and The Juilliard School.

New England’s Prospect: Movietone

Brando Noir

Students of the New England Conservatory Contemporary Improvisation department in “Brando Noir,” January 29, 2013.

Near the beginning of The Wild One, biker gang leader Johnny Strabler (played by Marlon Brando) pays a visit to Wrightsville’s local diner, where Kathie (played by Mary Murphy) is working behind the counter. If you’ve ever wondered what the big deal about Brando was—if, for instance, you only know him from some of the more baroque extravagances of his late career—this little scene will get you up to speed. Brando lays down a rhythmic track of amazing fluidity: he swerves, he swaggers, he dances; his dialogue has laconic syncopation; he uses props—gloves, money—to provide his own punctuation, his own percussive fills. Everything he does—the way he swirls the chairs, the way he glides away from the bar, even the way he uncurls his fingers after digging in his pocket for jukebox change—is insistently musical. He’s a bit of jazz dressed in leather and moving through space.
I suppose that’s why “Brando Noir,” the concert mounted on January 29 by the New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation department, seemed so promising on paper. But that scene—one of the few from the concert’s anthology of Brando moments that was screened with its original soundtrack—had what about half the music on the program, as fine as much of it was, lacked: a sense of engaging with the music and cadence that’s already present in a film. The evening bounced in and out of sync with the cinematic dynamic.

The concert, produced by Boston jazz hero (and co-founder of the Contemporary Improvisation department) Ran Blake and Aaron Hartley, took the form of a four-act suite. After opening remarks by current department chair Hankus Netsky (which I missed—thanks, Boston parking) and NEC President Tony Woodcock, selected scenes from four Brando films—The Wild One, the World War II drama The Young Lions, the method Western The Appaloosa, and the kidnapping thriller The Night of the Following Day—were projected on a screen at the back of the Jordan Hall stage while various collections, large and small, of student musicians played live accompaniment.

The Wild One opened at the source: Leith Stevens’s original score, in a brawny arrangement by Ken Schaphorst, conducting a performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra that hung just out of swinging focus. A later cue, Schaphorst again arranging Stevens’s music for a sequence where the gang ominously yet balletically circles Murphy’s character, was tighter. And—especially in that second scene—it scaffolded the mood and action better than the contributions of Full Tang, a student quartet (Eric Lane, Ryan Dugre, Adam Clark, and Danilo Henriquez) that provided blocks of genre: a jazz-funk ostinato and a stylized ’50s-rock beat that, while confidently done, mostly sat alongside the images for a while. But for the vigilante-mob action sequence that sends the film to its final denouement, violinist Yasmine Azaiez and accordionist Cory Pesaturo went to the opposite extreme: free improvisation, both instruments distorted and amplified, the music shadowing the action—sometimes a bit too closely, but fully engaged with the movie’s own rhythm, not trying to impose a rhythm from outside.

The sequence of scenes from The Young Lions, stylistically varied, was the most consistently solid. Survivors Breakfast, a 16-player improvisation loosely directed by Anthony Coleman, started out promising—an out-of-focus Biedermeier dance band—then turned to soft clouds of extended techniques that tracked dialogue between Barbara Rush’s American tourist and Brando’s German ski instructor (later to become an ambivalent Wehrmacht soldier). Tim Leinhard, conducting vocalist Sara Serpa and an 11-piece ensemble, scored a couple scenes with the most conventional film music of the night, but did it with skill: dark, romantic, vaguely jazzy, with a sweep calibrated to the movie’s shifting moods. Two other sequences, one with percussionist Jeremy Barnett, the other a duet between Jussi Reijonen (on bass) and Nima Jannmohammadi (on kamancheh), went back to avant-garde improvisation, layering austere unease over the film while following its contours.

The second half of the concert had moments like that, but also a number of incongruous set pieces. After an opening vocal solo by Serpa that set the mood but failed to shift into storytelling, Dylan McKinstry and Robin Lohrey offered a similarly moody mandolin-and-piano piece of songwriting that nevertheless ignored the slippery shifts of power and mood in their scene from The Appaloosa—a bit of witty, treacherous byplay between Brando’s wandering cowboy and John Saxon’s deliciously villainous pistolere chieftain. And while a bluesy cue from Ilya Portonov, Anna Patton, Daniel Pencer, and Andria Nicodemou pleasantly set up another confrontation between the two characters, the confrontation itself took place alongside a Spanish/English version of “What a Difference a Day Makes” that (however nicely sung by Natalie Cadet and Greta DiGiorgio) grew more ill-matched as it went. (It was partially redeemed by a showdown scored—by Nedelka Prescod, Amir Milstein, Brad Barrett, and Jerry Peake—with understatedly fractious ruminations, Leake clouding the scene with a haze of soft cymbals and bells.)

The Night of the Following Day had the full gamut of the concert’s ups and downs. It opened with a lovely, deft piece of pure illustration: Rachel Panitch, Abigale Reisman, Valerie Thompson, and Vessela Stoyanova followed a landing airliner with a baleful pizzicato-and-vibraphone aleatory, then shifted into a Parisian cafe waltz, foreshadowing the establishment shot of the Orly airport, and then—just when one was starting to wonder how earnest or satirical such a musical cliché was meant to be—swiftly, ruthlessly deconstructed it as the kidnapping plot kicked into gear. The movie’s other, most improvisatory accompaniments were similarly effective: Hui Weng, on guzheng, producing a host of strumming effects for varied punctuation; Tal Zilber with a lurking piano, overlaid with electronic processing that neatly traced the dramatic thread.

But those were interspersed with sequences that seemed more like blind dates. Deepti Navaratna and Sonny Lalchandani chaperoned a bad guy exposition scene with lovely voice-and-sitar ragas, but it felt like a disconnected notion. Eden MacAdam-Somer, on voice and violin, was accompanied by Netsky on piano in a charming, accomplished original cabaret tune, “Cocktails at 4,” but the ironic distance was simply too far from the violence of their scene to register even as commentary. In fact, it was a double distraction—the music pulling attention away from the film while the film pulled attention away from the music. That figured in the finale, too, the film’s beachfront standoff scored by the Sail Away Ladies (MacAdam-Somer, Mia Friedman, Sarah Jarosz, and Ari Friedman) with a bewitching cover of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On” that nevertheless seemed to cancel out the on-screen suspense. (The ironic record-collection curation technique of a Kubrick or a Tarantino is harder than it looks—and requires a director willing to relinquish the cinematic rhythm to the music.)

Film music is weird and alchemical, no matter how it’s produced. The familiar tradition is through-composed, precise, timed, the vein that Leinhard effectively mined for The Young Lions. But otherwise, it was the groups that hewed to an older tradition, the silent-movie tradition of organists and pianists in every theatre—improvising—that best served the films, using the structure and flow of film to spark unexpected sounds that, in turn, sparked a different perception of the filmed image. That was Brando’s method, anyway, at his best: distilling the energy of a scene or a film and then amplifying it into something a little more outlandish, a little more subtle, a little more dangerous.

Isolating the Senses

I completely concur with Alexandra Gardner’s assessment in her most recent post that “selfless engagement can make the individual an even better composer.” However, I was initially troubled by her albeit correct observation that when composing for film “the music holding its own is never the main goal of a score; really the goal is to, well, vanish. To be an invisible cloak that makes the entire experience work.”

I know I’m not the target audience for most motion pictures, since for me it’s always about the music to the point that I will sometimes pay such close attention to what’s going on in a film score that it impinges on my ability to stay engaged with the narrative. This probably explains why I appreciate the films of someone like John Carpenter, even though I tend to really dislike horror films, since I really like the music in his films (which he actually writes himself). This means I can focus on the music and ignore the gore much of the time. (Although, true confession time, I loved his film They Live when it first was released in 1988, and perhaps love it even more so now in an era where its bizarre sci-fi take on 1% vs. 99% seems strangely prescient.) This might also explain why I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to see a film in a movie theatre in the last decade, preferring to watch and keep DVDs of any film of interest. This enables me to watch them as many times as I need to in order to let the music take me where it inevitably will and still eventually come to appreciate other significant things, such as the screenplay, acting, cinematography, etc.

Despite all that, I would be duplicitous if I claimed that I could listen without the intrusion of other senses. The way I sometimes listen to music in a film—even if it results in my foregrounding it more than I should—is still very influenced by whatever it is I am seeing on the screen. How could it not be? I was extremely mindful of this last Thursday night when I attended the New York re-premiere of the 1922 Ernest Lubitsch film Das Weib des Pharao (which translates as “The Wife of Pharaoh” although its official English-language title is, “The Loves of Pharaoh,” rather confusingly since in the film the Pharaoh Amenes has but one infatuation). Although Lubitsch’s ancient Egyptian epic had been lost until it was reconstructed this past year from various fragmentary prints (portions of the film are still missing), the music that was originally composed for it—by German composer Eduard Künneke, survived intact. However, for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s screening, the original score was replaced with a brand new one by Joseph C. Phillips Jr. written for his ensemble Numinous which he conducted live.

Though I was thoroughly engrossed in Lubitsch’s mise-en-scène, I also found Phillips’s score to be totally riveting. Curious about how certain timbral combinations were being made (specifically some including harp), I would furtively steal my eyes away from the film screen to look at the musicians every now and then. (Good thing most motion pictures don’t feature live soundtracks or I’d never know what was going on story-wise in movies.)

Loves of Pharoah

One of the most effective moments in The Loves of Pharaoh is when a guard spots Theonis and Ramphis (the heroine and hero in the film) trespassing in Pharoah Amenes’s newly-built treasury (for which the punishment is death). In Joseph C. Phillips’s new score for the film, the guard’s trumpet call is matched by an equally forceful trumpet blare. (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy Lisa Thomas and Sandy Sawotka, Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Optical components, of course, are part of any auditory experience, whether they are conceptually part of the design or not. Even when we close our eyes to listen to music using headphones, we are determining a visual frame for the listening experience. For most people, closing their eyes is a way to better foreground music since visual stimuli tend to dominate our sensory perceptions. But, just as there is no such thing as a silent space, there is also no such thing as an invisible one.

Vanishing Act

Last weekend I went to see the movie Looper, largely because I was interested in hearing Nathan Johnson’s musical score after checking out the following videos:

Combine music constructed of field recordings with anything related to time travel—I am a total sucker for both—and I am there. Resistance is futile.

Well. About three-quarters of the way through the movie, I realized I had gotten so caught up in the story—which is something, considering the movie has very little dialogue—that I hadn’t even registered the music at all. Not one bit! So I immediately told myself I was going to pay attention to the music the rest of time… I think that lasted maybe 15 seconds. Again, I was hooked into the big picture.

Does this mean that the score was lacking in some way? Nope. It means the score is really, really well done. This is what a movie score is supposed to do—blend so seamlessly into the entire picture (so to speak) that you don’t even notice it. It never jumped out into the foreground, even when technically it did (because it was the only sound happening), but rather, it always solidly supported the storyline.

Having missed the music almost completely, I went back and listened to the score alone and, as is often the case with movie scores, some of the pieces stand on their own, and some don’t. But the music holding its own is never the main goal of a score; really the goal is to, well, vanish. To be an invisible cloak that makes the entire experience work. In the case of the Looper score, this kind of vanishing act may have seemed so thorough because the music had very little melodic content and leaned heavily on rhythmic material (about which I, as a former percussionist, have no complaint whatsoever!).

That said, there are scores that do stand out in a movie without detracting from the full experience. A few examples are Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, Glass’s scores for Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, or Ornette Coleman’s score for Kronenberg’s Naked Lunch. However, I think it is safe to say that the primary focus of those collaborations was still on the entire cinematic landscape, and that both composer and director were able to make room for the other’s creative voice to shine.

There are already plenty of composers out there who make amazing film music, music for video games, and who collaborate with artists in other fields such as dance and visual art. I wish that even more composers would—or would be willing—to take on the challenge of something so contrary to the field of concert music (which is so much about ego: about listening to MY MUSIC and understanding MY UNIQUE VISION) as creating something that is truly about a collaborative, group experience that requires everyone involved to somehow leave space for everyone else. I think this is a bit of what Isaac Schankler was getting at in his wonderful post this week, and in the end, this kind of selfless engagement can make the individual an even better composer when s/he turns back toward meeting specifically personal musical goals.

The Good, the Bad, and the Experimental

Recently I was asked to create a couple arrangements of the music of Ennio Morricone for wild up, a wonderful new music collective in Los Angeles. Morricone has had an astonishingly prolific career as a film composer, having scored over 500 films in the last 50 years, but he’s still probably best known for his iconic work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, like A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Working on these arrangements has been a great excuse for me to watch a bunch of amazing movies for “research purposes,” but it’s also been a chance to get better acquainted with some of the more obscure aspects of Morricone’s history—namely, his long association with the Italian avant-garde even before he started writing for film. It’s been fascinating to listen to his film music with that in mind, searching for traces of the experimental in his grandiose tonal harmonies and immediately hummable melodies.

Morricone’s theme for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is almost certainly the most recognizable piece of music that he’s written. It’s been referenced and parodied so many times that it’s become easy to take for granted, and harder to hear just how strange and original it is. Morricone was a member of the experimental improvisation collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, and it’s not hard to imagine that the musical discoveries made in that context had an impact on the way he thought about musical timbres. The theme’s unusual mix of whistling, vocalizations, assorted percussion, plus instruments like recorder, harmonica, and electric guitar, created a unique sound that was Morricone’s signature for many years. It was also quite different from most orchestral film scores at that time; in some ways, it’s closer to electronic music or musique concrete. The format also allowed him to adjust instrumental balance in ways that would be impossible in a live setting. While it’s true that composers and producers often artificially adjust the balance of recordings, Morricone calls attention to this process in an extreme way that’s impossible to ignore, blurring the distinctions between loud and soft, large and small, near and far. Is it too much of a stretch to relate it to Leone’s visual direction, which juxtaposed sweeping vistas with extreme close-ups?

Of course, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly showcases Morricone’s great gift for melody as well, including a brilliantly economical twist on the Wagnerian leitmotif. Instead of using different themes for the various characters, Morricone uses the same two-note theme for all three main characters. Supposedly this was to show that the three were really one character; that in spite of their circumstantial differences, they were all driven by the same desires. Variations of this idea crop up in other places; in Once Upon a Time in the West, Morricone intertwines two motifs, a menacing fuzzy guitar melody and a plaintive chromatic harmonica riff, to create one theme for two characters: Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed villain named Frank, and Charles Bronson’s mysterious man-of-few-words called Harmonica (naturally). This clues the viewer in to the fact that the characters are somehow intimately connected, even though they don’t share screen time until late in the film. When they finally do meet, it’s like a musical revelation.

Morricone was a master at creating these revelatory moments, and Quentin Tarantino, a huge Leone fan, often borrows Morricone’s music at crucial or climactic moments in his own movies. The music from the final duel of Il Mercenario (released as A Professional Gun in English) also appears in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 as The Bride punches her way out of a coffin. Here the music seems at first to be a fairly straightforward bolero, until the trumpet enters with a new, exuberant melody that dramatically changes the character of the scene. At the peak of the melody, the trumpet lands on an A-flat over a B-flat major chord, also recontextualizing the harmony! In Tarantino’s coffin scene the music announces The Bride’s seemingly inevitable triumph, but in Leone’s duel the emotional content is more tense and ambiguous, since the question remains: whose triumph?

Perhaps the greatest strength of Morricone’s music is his ability to seamlessly integrate this traditionally tonal language with the eerie effects and rigorous processes of avant-garde music. It’s something Morricone himself rarely talks about (maybe because no one asks), but he does address it briefly in an interview with The Quietus:

Let’s say that what I did was quite unique because I used tonal music which you might call melodic music. And I used this style and into this type of music I sneaked in some styles of avant-garde music and this was unnoticed. No-one really realized I was doing this directly. At this time I was a student of the School Of Vienna. It was a unique historical process that I did at this time. And I just wanted my work to be based on that because I just thought that it was very interesting and important for me to be following this process. And this resembled a clock going backwards because I was taking new things and adding them to very old ways of doing things. It is not very easy to explain this process! To give you an example for your reference, if you watch the opening credits to A Fistful Of Dynamite, in that particular score you will be able to definitely understand what I am talking about, being a student of the School of Vienna and the rest of it.

The “School of Vienna” undoubtedly refers to the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, and the music he refers to appears as “Inventions for John” on the soundtrack to A Fistful of Dynamite (also known as Duck, You Sucker or Giù la testa in Italian). But unless you were already listening for it, you might never imagine that this gorgeous, dreamy interlude was inspired by the thorny serialism of Schoenberg and company. On closer inspection there is a relationship, perhaps, in the pointillistic texture, recalling Webern’s klangfarbenmelodie. At any rate, this process allowed Morricone to create something that sounds absolutely nothing like anything else of its time—it’s almost as if he invented post-minimalism 20 years early!


I’m in California this week–ostensibly to knock out five more interviews for my book project–but what I really find myself focused on is something more personal. I’ve had several “adventures” in my life that on the surface seem relatively unrelated, but have ultimately been spiraling me towards where I am today, and my visit to Los Angeles has been unearthing old and forgotten memories of one of those adventures. I will admit that this particular episode is not one that I talk about or think about much these days, since it is so very different from where I am now and in some ways, represents a “failure” in my life, but this seems to be as good a time as any to revisit it and, hopefully others will find something valuable in it as well.

I am of the lucky generation that got to experience the film music renaissance of the late 70s and early 80s at a pretty early age (I got to see Star Wars on its opening weekend when I was seven years old), so after I discovered that composing was my true calling during my undergraduate days, it did not take long for me to decide the direction my career would take–I wanted to be a film composer. Not just a little bit–for most of my twenties, I was a voracious film music geek, and once I decided that that was where my destiny lay, that was it.

Somehow I was accepted into the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television advanced degree program at the University of Southern California, and while I was there I was absolutely in heaven. Imagine a class of almost 20 students from across the country–all just as geeked-out as I was–getting to meet and interact with giants like Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, Buddy Baker, and many others. In addition to the courses, there were scoring assignments for the coursework and extra scoring opportunities with the film majors who always needed music for their projects.

It was during this time in my life–through the year of studies at USC and the two years following–that I truly thought I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. Slowly over time, however, I discovered that the person I was turning out to be was not necessarily the type of person who could be content with that vocation; the instability of the freelance culture, the lack of control, and the growing realization that my career was going to always be dependent in one form or another on that of the filmmakers with whom I worked. As my composing skills improved and my confidence increased, the stronger my belief became that if I was going to succeed, I wanted to succeed on my own and with my own voice. Add to that the fact that I really missed teaching and my decision to move back to the Midwest to pursue my graduate studies in composition and conducting seems obvious and, in hindsight, the best choice I could have made.

Now, that narrative sounds nice and all, but there was a darker aspect to it that lingers to this day…

I quit.

I’m not sure I’ve ever admitted that in public before, but in my own mind one of the primary reasons why I don’t focus much on my time and experiences in film music is because instead of making a left or right turn down my career path (such as my decision to switch focus from education to composition), I stopped, turned around, and backed up. Leaving Los Angeles and changing career directions like that was the bitterest pill I’ve ever had to ingest, and for a good long time I was loathe to talk about it, much less encourage others to pursue the goal of being a film composer.

I bring this up not only because my circumstances are forcing me to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, but because of the relationship that the film community, the music community, and the general public has with film music. One only has to go to the local Barnes & Noble and leaf through the array of film directing “DIY” books to get a sense of how filmmakers view composers and music–there are usually variations of either “find music that already exists and that is cheap to get permission to use” or “track down a student composer at the local university and they’ll surely do it for free.” In the same way that so few composers are being taught how to score films, most filmmakers are rarely if ever taught how music can be used to augment their own films, thereby forcing them to use preexisting (and usually current) film scores for their scoring concepts in what has become a slow spiral of artistic inbreeding.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between the concert and film camps; detractors in the classical music community have existed since the early days of cinema and continue today to look down upon film as a lesser cousin. That being said, there have been a good number of concert composers who have ventured into the scoring booth as well as several film composers who have done well on the concert stage. I can safely say that there is a lot to be learned from the act of scoring films that any composer would find beneficial, and I have often compared introducing students to the skills of film scoring to a personal trainer introducing a client to a new set of exercises in the weight room–both will work muscles that are not yet developed. By incorporating basic scoring concepts into their studies–even something as simple as re-scoring a preexisting Hollywood film clip as an exercise (I prefer Hitchcock’s The Birds as a resource for scoring scenes), students will quickly discover how visual information drastically alters the way someone could interpret their music.

That being said, one only has to sit through a few audition interviews to discover that writing music for film and/or video games is the predominant reason why young musicians get interested in the idea of composing. The composition education community really should be aware of what is going on in the film–and yes, the video game–worlds, at least to be aware of the context in which many younger would-be creators are wanting to delve into music composition.

Would I score a film if I got the chance? You bet. I have quite a few friends who were classmates at USC who have done extremely well–Deborah Lurie (9, Dear John, Footloose), Ed Rogers (Warehouse 13, NYPD Blue), and Lee Sanders (This Amazing Race, Family Guy) are three that quickly come to mind–and I know of many others that are thriving in an exciting genre of music-making. But as my own history shows, while the idea of a young composer deciding to move to Hollywood or New York to begin a career in scoring films can be a viable one, it can also lay bare one’s own strengths and weaknesses and force an individual to weigh his or her dreams heavily against the challenges and benefits of such a journey.