Tag: film soundtracks

The Impossible Dream: Scoring My First Documentary

A smoky, black and white perspective shot of a man in a beanie

I didn’t grow up watching movies. I never liked sitcoms or reality shows. Ever since I was little, I always had a strong aversion towards watching TV because I always felt it to be meaningless mind poison. Playing, learning, and listening to new music have always been my favorite forms of entertainment and my main sources of enjoyment. Gradually, as I continued to explore different worlds of music, I found myself more and more fascinated by soundtracks. The more I listened to them, the more intrigued I became by the story, characters, and context of the movies themselves. I needed to know what was driving all of the passion behind the scores. I gradually came to see how music has the power to transform stories and make characters feel larger than life. Since this realization, it has been my mission to create music that supports the narrative of humanity’s beautiful stories. It’s incredibly fulfilling to create music that supports a theme or character by playing up aspects of the situation or personality that might not be so obvious to the audience. It was only a few months ago when I scored music for my very first documentary, The Impossible Dream, that I realized this was my path. This was the first opportunity I had to do what I want to spend my career doing.

The Impossible Dream, directed by Javid Soriano, is a documentary that portrays creativity, poverty, and addiction in San Francisco, as experienced by Tim Blevins, a homeless opera singer and Juilliard graduate living in the Tenderloin. The film, intimately capturing Tim’s journey of survival and redemption on the streets, has received support from The Sundance Institute, the Independent Filmmaking Project (IFP), and Skywalker Sound and Music Labs, among other film institutes/foundations around the country. The moment I heard about this project, I could not contain my excitement. I, along with other third-year TAC students, had the opportunity to collaborate with the director to not only score the documentary but also to arrange, perform, and record unique accompaniments for the classical repertoire that Tim sings in the film. When I found out that we could “try out” for as many scenes as we wanted to, I immediately attempted to write for all 13 scenes in one sitting. After about an hour, I stepped back and recognized that I was only human, so I settled on focusing all my energy and efforts on a select few scenes that really spoke to me. I ended up scoring three scenes, one of them being the “Comeback Scene.”

The Comeback

In the “Comeback Scene,” Tim goes through a hero’s monologue, explaining how real heros aren’t beyond getting their asses kicked every once in a while. He describes how, when it looks like they’re at the end of their ropes, they get back up and start working harder to make a comeback. Through sweat and blood, real heroes are reborn. I felt moved by Tim’s confidence, and wanted to highlight both the struggle of Tim’s daily routine and his unyielding determination. I decided that a bouncy staccato string bed with a striving legato violin line climbing up to the highest register of the instrument would work best to play up Tim’s perseverance. The director came back and noted that he’d like to hear a tinge of darkness to emphasize the sense of painful struggle that Tim will have to endure to overcome. I agreed with him; I had made the music a bit too positive and had missed the humanizing element in the story. I then altered the harmony to better fit the spirit in his monologue and the scene was instantly brought to life.

The Finale

Another scene I scored was “The Finale.” It’s the last and one of the more emotionally intense scenes in the documentary. This one was especially unique because in the very final cue of the scene Tim goes into singing Colline’s “Coat Aria” from La Bohème. On top of composing the music to accompany Tim’s singing, the director had also asked me to write in the style of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. These tricky notes combined with the pressure of scoring the grand finale scene caused me to experience a massive mental block. After days of trying different compositional techniques for this cue, I completely ran dry of ideas. Feeling defeated, I sat down in the studio and pulled the session up on the monitors. I watched the picture playback a few times, still trying to come up with any form of solution my mind could muster up at this point. I then decided to try a different route. Instead of thinking anything at all, I let out a deep breath, closed my eyes, placed my hands on the MIDI keyboard, and let my intuition take over. I completely surrendered, leaving whatever would happen next to be purely instinctual. I felt the weight of Tim’s story and his rich voice flow through me. I felt his pain, bravery, and heroism. I felt music that represented both Tim’s charismatic nature and hardship. For the first time in my life, I composed from the heart instead of through some learned technique. The next day, the director reviewed my work and wrote back that it was “chilling at the end.”

The entire experience of composing for The Impossible Dream was a transformative one. Never had I thought that a film project could come into my life and completely change the way I think about composition. Through this process, one of the many things I learned was that sometimes thinking less and trusting more is the best way to go. I see media like TV and film in a different light now. I see it as a medium to explore the narrative of our humanity. It’s this process of sharing our stories, our lives, and our dreams that makes it so compelling, and music can participate by highlighting these aspects. Music may be just a series of tones and pitches at different intervals, but when constructed in a thoughtful way, it can evoke even the subtlest of feelings, sometimes indescribable ones. Composing music for this story confirmed that this is what I see myself doing for the rest of my life.

Taking a Cue: Accompanying Early Film

Starting in 1908, film industry publications frequently included regular columns by cinema conductors, composers, and arrangers such as Samuel Berg, Ernst Luz, and Clarence Sinn. These articles offered suggestions—sometimes called “musical plots”—to cinema musicians on selecting and performing music for silent motion pictures. By the 1920s, cue sheets published by movie studios and independent publishers had become ornate, including cue titles, musical incipits, length of cue, and other information. The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive currently has 65 cue sheets available for free download and will be adding another 40 later this year.

While some film and film music historians think that these cue sheets were followed closely and that accompanists frequently purchased the music recommended in them, archival materials tell a different story. Cue sheets were often modified, used merely as the basis for ideas, or even ignored. This means that although we have an idea of what some accompanists might have played for individual films, we can’t know exactly what they played for individual screenings.

Many cue sheets in Silent Film Sound and Music Archive’s holdings show notations where the performer swapped out a suggested piece with one they already knew or owned. Claire Hamack, an accompanist whose scores, photoplay albums, and cue sheets are now online at SFSMA, often made changes to cue sheets—including adding her own original music.

For the 1925 film Stella Dallas, she made notes on the cue sheet of pieces she wanted to use in place of those recommended.

Hamack’s cue sheet for Stella Dallas.

Hamack’s cue sheet for Stella Dallas.

She also changed cues for the film When Knighthood was in Flower, a 1922 movie. Hamack replaced suggested themes by William F. Peters and Massenet with Franz Schubert’s “Moment Musical,” Edwin Lemare’s “Meditation,” and other selections. She specifically wrote over the printed titles for cue 5, “While Mary dreamed,” changing it from “Serenade Romantique” by Gaston Borch to “Wakey Little Bird,” and changing the music for cue 11, “It is near to midnight,” from “Romance—German (The Conqueror)” to Grieg’s “Dawn” from Peer Gynt. The cue sheet for The Dangerous Age, a 1927 German film directed by Eugen Illés, is covered with Hamack’s notes, including notation for an alternate, possibly original, theme, and indications that suggestions were replaced with other works (“In the Gloaming” is preferred over Otto Langey’s “Dream Shadows” for cue 23). Other cue sheets, including that for My American Wife (directed by Sam Wood, 1922), also bear short passages of handwritten notation for original themes and motifs. Hamack’s audiences would have heard Hamack’s musical interpretation of the film rather than that of the studio compiler.

The cover of the cue sheet for My American Wife (1922)

The cover of the cue sheet for My American Wife (1922), showing Claire Hamack’s theme.

One great find for SFSMA was a cue sheet created by cinema organist Hazel Burnett for the 1920 film Humoresque. Burnett had an incredible musical career, beginning by playing for live theater and small cinemas in the Midwest and working her way up to being a featured organist at the famed Aztec Theater in San Antonio. (More on Burnett here.) After her death, Burnett’s granddaughter Josephine gave all of her music and other materials to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The Burnett Collection contains a wide variety of resources, including printed cue sheets and full scores, photoplay albums, sheet music, and hundreds of pieces clipped out of The Etude and Melody magazines, which Burnett used as cues. Much of Burnett’s music is marked with performance indicia that confirm that she used it in accompanying silent film.

Numerous pieces of sheet music in her collection are labeled with cue numbers and descriptive notes: Frederick Vanderpool’s “The Want of You” was used for the cue “maw asleep” in one unidentified movie, and Edvard Grieg’s popular “Ase’s Death” accompanied another unknown film’s cue 27: “Mary prostrated.” “No. 5 Molto Agitato” from Breil’s Original Collection of Dramatic Music for Motion Picture Plays is marked as “14 phone rings”, while “No. 6 Andante Misterioso” was used for “[Cue] 2[:] man enters.” Burnett wrote the titles of accompaniment-appropriate pieces on the covers of the photoplay albums that contained the pieces, often including the page number for quick access. She also interleaved pieces of sheet music and pieces cut from Melody and The Etude between pages of her photoplay albums to create original modular scores. For some, it’s impossible to know what film the cues went with, but others are much clearer.

Cues for an unidentified film or films

Cues for an unidentified film or films, Josephine Burnett Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas—Austin

Humoresque is a classic melodrama about a young Jewish violinist. Celebrated film music composer and director Hugo Riesenfeld composed an original score for Humoresque for the film’s premiere, and it was this score that was most likely performed by a cinema orchestra and organist both at its premiere and on the road tour that followed, although Riesenfeld made slight changes to the score depending on where it was being shown. While Burnett almost certainly had access to Riesenfeld’s cue sheet, she compiled a rather different score from her own personal library. She kept two pieces Riesenfeld recommended: Dvorák’s “Humoresque,” which she could hardly avoid, and Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Here’s how her first five cues compare with Riesenfeld’s:

cue sheet

Note: ‘D’ refers to a direction cue or action; ‘T’ refers to the text of an intertitle. Punctuation modernized for clarity.

You can see Burnett’s full cue sheet for the film here. The Ransom Center is currently in the process of setting up a screening of Humoresque with live accompaniment using Burnett’s cues.

Having Burnett’s and Hamack’s cue sheets offers a glimpse of how these tools were used, adapted, or jettisoned by cinema musicians, and also conveys to us how score compilers interpreted scenes and assigned music to them. Would you or I think of recommending “Hail America” by Drumm as a piece for a Tudor-era picture (When Knighthood was in Flower)? Probably not, but prolific cue sheet author James C. Bradford did, and that alone tells us about scoring for early film and how aesthetics and approaches have changed since then. You can explore all of the cue sheets in the Archive by clicking on “Cue Sheets” under “Categories.”

Electroacoustic Music with Video: Comparison with Sound for Film

A table with a variety of electroacoustic music gear. Image courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates for NYCEMF and the New York Philharmonic Biennial)

Electroacoustic music with video is now frequently programmed in classical concert venues. In such a concert, a video is projected on a screen and seen.  It can present changes in tempo color, shape, distance, density, and gradual or abrupt transitions.  The electroacoustic composition played with this video is projected from loudspeakers and heard. It can also present changes in tempo, pitch, loudness, distance, duration, timbre, rhythm, and gradual or abrupt transitions.  With so many parameters available in both these sense modalities for artistic coordination and relationship with each other, there are clearly many exciting and dramatic or delicate and subtle ways in which video and sound can be organized together into an effective work of art.

But after attending a number of recent concerts in which pieces for electroacoustic music with video were performed, it struck me that in many of these pieces there is only the most minimal relationship between the video and the audio.  Whatever parameter was changing or remaining static in the video was not occurring at the same rate as changes in any parameter of the electroacoustic music. The differences in their rate of change and the type of change did not seem to be patterned or deliberate.

Spoken text has the power to bridge over and meld together music and video, whatever their relationship to each other. But most of these pieces of electroacoustic music with video had no spoken text. That lack of spoken text draws attention all the more to the lack of coherent organization between the video and the audio.

But could what I experienced in those concerts of electroacoustic music with video be a deliberate aesthetic, in which the composer and video artist are consciously avoiding any tie-in with the other sensory modality?

The Theoretical Aesthetic of Independent Music and Visuals

Could there be a deliberate aesthetic in which the composer and video artist are consciously avoiding any tie-in with the other sensory modality?

Earlier examples cited of such an aesthetic often include John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s collaborations of the 1960s. These were often presumed to be in a style in which there was a deliberate non-relation of music and dance, in which neither supposedly related to the other. This aesthetic still persists in certain collaborations between composers and choreographers.

Nonetheless, in the performances of Cage and Cunningham that I attended, the two artists managed to limit and control their music and movement quite carefully, so that the random synchrony I’ve seen in current music with video seemed rarely, if ever, to occur. What I witnessed was a palpable tension between the live dancer and the sound. One could see Cunningham’s bodily resistance to falling into moving in the pattern of the music. His dancing became counter-movements that opposed the patterns being heard in the sound. This tension was for me the aesthetic they were aiming for, and was for me the most interesting part of their performances. But as far as I could tell, that interesting tension relied primarily upon Cunningham’s highly trained professional movement skills, and secondarily upon the tendency for Cage to choose a limited number of timbral possibilities in his musical accompaniment.  The limited timbres created a bland, tension-less sound palatte that helped frame the subtle tension of the dancer’s patterned muscular resistance.

While moving, the aesthetic required Cunningham to counter what was going on in the music, to not fall into the natural tendency to move his body with the music.  By moving in patterns not present in the music, Cunningham created a distinct relationship of opposites between his movements and the music. In short, the aesthetic between Cage’s music and Cunnigham’s movement was indeed a relationship, one of opposites, of avoidance of the pattern of the other modality, not a random or chance relationship.

But the aesthetic of opposing patterns is not what I observed in these recent electroacoustic concerts with video.  Instead, there was essentially no patterned relationship at all.

Weak correlation communicates irrelevance.

What we see on the video and what we hear from the live or prerecorded music is mostly unrelated to each other: not rigorously opposed, just weakly different. They are not radically different from each other and therefore there is little tension or drama evoked.  The music and video even sometimes, for brief moments, resemble each other’s degree of change, and then change into something else.  The result is weak correlation, not opposition. Opposition communicates tension and drama. Weak correlation in anything onstage or off is likely to communicate irrelevance, non-relation.

If a concert composer is using video with their music, that composer is writing a film score.

I found myself needing a more precise way to analyze what I felt is successful and what I thought might be improved upon in these works of electroacoustic music and video. The basic issue seems to be how to clarify and intensify the relationship between sound and video image.  So I looked into some concepts from the world of film sound. After all, if a concert composer is using video with their music, that composer is writing a film score.

abstract business background with media screens and silhouettes of business people holding two giant puzzle pieces

Sound and Visual Categories in Film

The three sound components used in the film industry are: speech, music, sound effects/ambient sound, and the interactions between them.  For concert electroacoustic music, we could also include sounds constructed through software synthesis or other electronic means in either the “music” or “sound effects/ ambient sound” categories, based on the dominance of identifiable pitch or unpitched noise in each sound.

Two aspects of film that may be relevant to this discussion are mise-en-scène, which is what is visible in the frame, and the way it’s arranged and shown, through editing the transitions between different shots.

Ways of Relating Video to Electroacoustic Audio, Based on Film Sound Techniques

A. The direction and depth of the image, in relation to the direction and depth of the sound

The composer has a choice when a particular image occurs on the video. He or she can:

(1.) Match the perceived direction and depth of the visual image.  When the visual image changes its position, change the direction and depth of the sound to match.

(2.) Contradict the perceived direction and depth of the visual image, by using the opposite in the sound, e.g. if the image appears far away, then have the sound be very present, close to the audience.

(3.) Maintain a constant sound placement, regardless of the direction and depth distance of the video image.  This is the current preference of the film industry, which tries to produce a continuous sound track with approximately the same sound volume and depth of distance to the microphone for every character, regardless of where the character appears.

Any of these choices could be effective in electroacoustic music with video, if applied with enough precision in the use of reverb and timbral filtering to move the sound to its intended depth.

B. Continuity of sound, as opposed to disjunction of sound: Smooth versus Rough editing

In smooth editing the sound is continuous, a flow with no sharp breaks. All of the sound edits are gradual. In rough editing or “jump cutting” the sound begins and ends abruptly, a series of sounds with sharp breaks.  All of the sound edits are abrupt or even separated by silences.

Through smooth audio editing, continuous sounds can bind together disparate images.

Through smooth video editing, continuous visuals can bind together disparate sounds.

The composer has a choice when a smooth visual flow occurs on the video. He or she can:

(1.) Match the smoothness of visual flow with the smooth editing of the sound score, resulting in a continuous flow of sound score. Any rough edges have been smoothed over.

(2.) Contradict the smoothness of visual flow with rough jump cut editing of the sound score.

The composer has a choice when a smooth visual flow alternates with jump cuts on the video.

He or she can:

(1.) Match the video’s changes from smooth visual flow to jump cuts, resulting in a smooth flow in both video and audio, which then changes into a sharp jump cuts in both video and audio.

(2.) Contradict the video’s changes from smooth visual flow to jump cuts, resulting in smooth visual flow along with rough jump cuts in the sound, and then rough jump cuts in the video along with smooth, continuous flow of sound.

(3.) Maintain a consistent smooth or a consistent abrupt editing of sound events, regardless of whether the video is moving smoothly or in jumps.

However, when sound and visual image are synchronized, that is, moving in the same tempo in the same smooth or abrupt manner, then the video movement is perceived more clearly.

C. Some other possible relationships between a sound and a video image:

Empathetic relation: The sound expresses the same emotion as the video image.

Anempathetic relation: The sound is without emotion in relation to the image.

Ironic sound: The sound expresses the opposite emotion from the image.

Surrealistic sound: Without rational connection to the video image.

Counterpoint: Loosely connected in time, a series of musical phrases of similar content is heard while a series of images of similar content, unrelated to the sounds, is seen.

Expressive editing: A sound is exaggerated and paired with a similar visual activity in an image.

Some additional references:

Zetti, Herbert. Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics, 7th Edition. New York: Cengage Learning (The Wadsworth Series in Broadcast and Production), 2013.

Chion, Michel. Audiovision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Ribrant, Gunnar. “Style parameters in film sound.” Stockholm: Stockholms Universitet Filmvetenskapliga insitutionen, 1999. (This article is available directly online as a PDF download, or through emailing the author.)



Andy Milne on Star Trek

How did William Shatner choose eclectic jazz pianist/Dapp Theory frontman Andy Milne to score his series of Star Trek documentaries? It turns out that Avery Brooks, the actor who played Captain Benjamin Sisko for seven years on the Star Trek spinoff Deep Space Nine, is an accomplished jazz singer and pianist in his own right and had performed with Milne. So when Shatner asked Brooks whom he thought could create music for this project, he immediately suggested him. Milne’s Trek score (released on the CD From The Bridge) has led to multiple performances at Star Trek conventions. But for this lifelong science fiction fan, the greatest experience has been sitting in the captain’s chair on the Enterprise.

Cover of Andy Milne's CD From The Bridge featuring a photo of Milne sitting on the captain's chair of the Enterprise from Star Trek.

The cover of Milne’s From The Bridge Listen to excerpts from the CD here.

(You can read more about Milne and his music here.)