Tag: film

And the 89th Academy Award Composer Nominees Are…

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards have been announced, including nods in the category of best original score to composers Mica Levi, Justin Hurwitz, Nicholas Britell, Thomas Newman, and the team of Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka.

In December 2016 it was noted that scores such as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s notable contribution to Arrival would not be eligible.

Winners will be awarded during a ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, February 26, 2017.


Mica Levi
Justin Hurwitz
Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
Nicholas Britell
Thomas Newman


from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Trolls; Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Jim: The James Foley Story; Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting
from Moana; Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda


Sylvain Bellemare
Wylie Stateman and Renée Tondelli
Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman


Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye
Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow
David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth

Two Lou Harrisons

Last Friday I saw a screening of Lou Harrison: A World of Music, a remarkable new documentary about the American composer, artist, writer, and activist by Eva Soltes. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who has a chance to see it—it’s a thoughtful and fairly comprehensive look at one of American music’s most fascinating figures.

One of the things that struck me about Harrison’s life is how easily it could be divided in two. There’s the period up until 1947, when he was incredibly active and involved in the American new music scene. And there’s the period after his nervous breakdown, when he retreated to the countryside to work mostly in isolation. (I say mostly because for several decades he was accompanied by his life partner and collaborator Bill Colvig.)

Post-breakdown Lou Harrison is the version that fans of his music would be most familiar with—the easy joy of his personality that shines through so clearly in his compositions, the abiding interest in Javanese gamelan music, the awesome beard. But I found pre-breakdown Harrison to be eerily familiar, too. Just before his breakdown, Harrison was living in New York City, the epicenter of American new music at the time. In addition to his composing, he was a music critic under the guidance of Virgil Thomson, sometimes racing to multiple concerts in the same evening. And he was preparing the music of Charles Ives for performance, translating Ives’s chicken scratch into something legible, even interpolating ideas of his own when the scores were incomplete or unclear. This culminated in the first public performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 3, which Harrison also conducted.
In other words, pre-breakdown Lou Harrison is like almost every young composer I know, taking gigs left and right to keep his career going. In fact, he had a career that many of my colleagues would probably kill for, working with nearly every significant figure in American music at the time…Ives, Thompson, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg…

But for Harrison, this environment was poisonous. Not only to his state of mind, but perhaps also to his creativity. We don’t remember Harrison for the imposing serialist works that he was writing while in New York. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with serialism,” I quickly add.) It seems that he needed to get away from all of that to become the Lou Harrison we know now. Sure, in retrospect we detect hints of it in some of his early percussion music, like the still-popular Double Music collaboration with Cage, but it makes me wonder: What kind of a composer would Harrison have been if he had never left New York?

This is an absurd hypothetical question by any measure. But I also wonder what kind of creativity the current climate of careerism is killing. One characteristic of being very busy is that it can leave little time for introspection, musical or otherwise. Certainly there’s an economic imperative at work here, and another very familiar aspect of Harrison’s life is the anxiety about financial insecurity that comes through in his letters.

But I also think there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy going on here. If you don’t stop to think now and then, you may not be able to even see what options are available to you. Personally, some of my most rewarding musical projects and experiences happened when I let go of what I felt I was supposed to do, and did what I wanted to instead. I only hope that every composer is able to allow themselves this luxury. Preferably without a breakdown.


I should also mention that the documentary was presented at REDCAT as a part of MicroFest, and was preceded by a great performance of Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, played by Mark Menzies and percussionists from CalArts. Old Granddad, the gamelan that Harrison and Colvig built, was brought down from Santa Cruz for the occasion, and it was a treat to hear this beautiful instrument in person!

(Film) Music

I’m currently working on a commission that is a collaboration with a videographer and we’re both creating our parts simultaneously—I’ll give her a chunk of music or she’ll send me a clip of video, and those glimpses of what one of us is doing will inspire the other to either dig deeper in the same direction or fling us wildly around to an unexpected place. This particular process is both maddening and exciting, since so much of what I’m doing is contingent on what someone else is doing—and often I have no idea what that is! I’ve written briefly about working with collaborators as well as my own adventures in Hollywood in the past, but this new project has not only forced me to remember methods I haven’t used in years, but it’s gotten me thinking about how film scoring techniques can fit within a concert composer’s toolbox.

One of the issues that composers who don’t have experience with film music run into when they try their hand at scoring is form. They may try to break down a scene or cue in the same way they would a short movement of a concert piece, creating a formal structure that makes sense musically but that has very little to do with what’s going on in the film. It is only when they forget the traditional concepts of form and allow the action and dialogue on the screen to dictate the wax and wane of the music that the two will fuse effectively. On the project I’m currently composing, I’m forcing myself to not create a strong formal structure with recaps and complex developments because I can tell already from the clips I’ve seen that any pre-formed structures will simply clash with the natural flow of the visuals.

Conversely, it is very easy to fall into the trap of creating the equivalent of aural wallpaper. (Composer Jack Smalley is known for calling this technique “Scotch Tape music” because it sounds like whoever wrote it taped down a tone or chord on their synth and went out for coffee during the scoring session.) During his seminars at USC, Elmer Bernstein would rail at our class to never let the energy or the intensity of our music relax, and his words not only resonated at the time but stuck with us; whenever I find myself allowing my music to lag too much, I imagine Elmer in one of his many turtleneck shirts smiling benevolently and saying, “Never let up…always keep going!”

What to do with thematic material seems to be one of the biggest challenges in transitioning to film from the concert stage for composers. Whereas with concert music many composers will emphasize the development of musical thematic material over statement or restatement of such material, in film music one generally finds the opposite to be true. An old saw from the “Golden Age” of film goes something like, “If you think you’ve repeated your theme too much, that’s a good time to repeat it again!” A more traditional composer’s reaction to this can be seen with Elliot Goldenthal’s early take on his first forays in film music—he said that the experiences were primarily great ways to experiment with orchestration. While I wouldn’t suggest utilizing this “rinse and repeat” technique verbatim—there are way too many examples of cut-and-paste music out there already—one aspect of film music that concert composers could always look at is the naked statement of a theme itself while being unafraid to bring that theme back in its entirety (albeit in different guises).

Members of our own audience, including potential composers, grow up with film and (increasingly) video game music. It only makes sense then to look at these fields not as curiosities and targets for scorn, but as genres rich with tradition and techniques that could easily be incorporated into a contemporary composers’ palette.

Test of Time

Paradoxically, the less free time I’ve had in recent years, the more fascinated I have become with works of art that require an extraordinary time commitment in order to be appreciated. I’m hopelessly attracted to musical compositions involving durational extremities (like La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano), time-based art installations (like the work of Marina Abramović), and extremely long novels (like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Mathias Énard’s Zone, even though I still need to figure out a way to actually finish reading the latter). Even further afield from temporal practicality, I’m completely enamored with the idea of works that last 24 hours, because the concept of filling an entire day with a work of art seems like a magical and extremely beautiful proposition. Eventually I would love to create something this long myself, something that would be constructed to parallel the details of a specific day—sunrise, sunset, rush hour, sleep, etc. That said, I have yet to experience any 24-hour piece and I am not completely sure how I would do so. Time constraints aside, there are some other basic issues that would require planning and navigating around, not the least of which are such mundane matters as physical stamina, dealing with hunger, and other bodily functions.


Anticipating noon was one of the highlights of my own experience of The Clock. Christian Marclay, Installation view of The Clock, 2010; Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours; White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, October 15-November 13, 2010. Photo Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Therefore I was extremely excited by the prospect of finally experiencing Christian Marclay’s The Clock last week, although to describe it as a 24-hour work of art—as publications including The New York Times and The Guardian have done—is a bit of a misnomer. Although the work consists of a total of exactly 24 hours of unique content, a mash-up plundered from literally thousands of film and television segments in which the exact time of the day is depicted (either visually—e.g. an image of an actual clock—or in spoken dialog), it is a seamless loop that hypothetically could repeat in perpetuity. (A crew is required to ensure that the video is always completely in sync with the exact time in whatever location The Clock is presented in.) “There is no beginning and no end,” according to Marclay, who addressed a press conference in New York City on July 12 prior to the private press viewing of The Clock at NYC’s David Rubinstein Atrium. As part of the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, The Clock opened to the general public on Friday, July 13 and it will remain open and free through August 1. Although closed on Mondays and only open from 8:00am to 10:00pm from Tuesdays through Thursdays, it will run continuously from 8:00am on Friday morning to 10:00pm Sunday night which offers folks the possibility of experiencing at least two complete cycles of it uninterrupted.

However, Marclay does not expect anyone to sit through The Clock for a full 24 hours; he admitted that he himself has never done so when I asked him if he had. (I had to ask.) “It is not an endurance test,” he explained. Rather, unlike cinema, which he adamantly proclaimed The Clock is not, it is designed for people to come and go as they desire. The audience members themselves determine how much of it they want to experience, and any chosen time frame is theoretically an equally valid experience of the piece. But as an audience member, I find being given that much liberty somewhat unsettling. If somebody has created something and I decide to experience it, I feel I have an obligation to endure all of it; to me it is part of the social contract of being an audience member. I never walk out during a concert, I always try to see every work that is part of an exhibition, and I invariably finish books once I start reading them, even books which are ultimately not fulfilling—often I will appreciate a book only once I’ve completed reading it. Admittedly, sometimes experiencing an entire work is not feasible or even possible. I was a bystander to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (a performance art installation in which individual audience members sit across a table from a silent Abramović for an indeterminate amount of time). I was afraid to actually sit across from her, worried that I might never be able to stand up again. Similarly I have yet to travel to Alaska to experience John Luther Adams’s The Place Where You Go To Listen. This is another work with no beginning and no end, its electronically generated sonic content—determined by weather patterns—set up to last ad infinitum. There are very few things that I’m more interested in hearing, but how would I ever be able to tear myself away once I got there?

Thankfully if one were to attempt to experience all of The Clock, it would offer less of a challenge. After 24 hours, it becomes less like The Place Where You Go To Listen and more like Groundhog Day. And even if, like Phil Connors (the character played by Bill Murray in the film), your experience of going through the cycle over and over again eventually leads to a major mental breakthrough, the guards will kick you out after a maximum stay of 62 hours (the weekend hours at the David Rubinstein Atrium).


Between noon and 12:30pm, this particular clock made several appearances in The Clock. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. Photo: Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Last Thursday, I stayed for only approximately three hours (from roughly 10:45am to 1:45pm, which is a mere 1/8th of the work). I wanted to stay longer, but I knew that I’d only be allowed to remain for only about an additional hour before the screening room needed to be cleaned in preparation for the next set of advance opening guests. As the time wore on, I decided I didn’t want the jolt of being told to leave, especially after hearing Marclay’s remarks about wanting the audience to decide when to come and go, meaning that the only way to be true to his intentions is to leave on your own accord. But it was really difficult to do so.

Yet on another level it was extremely easy to leave since there were no cliffhangers whose resolution I knew I would be missing when I did. I knew exactly what would happen next: time would continue its unstoppable progression. While thousands upon thousands of narratives are woven through The Clock, contained within its constituent snippets from pre-existing films which are just long enough to actually get you interested in the characters, the individual story lines never resolve; rather they get lost and replaced with others as time marches forward. And in the three-hours of the work I sat through, interspersed between classic and more recent Hollywood fare, there were excerpts from French, German, Chinese, and Japanese films as well. None of the segments in foreign languages included subtitles, since what the people were saying didn’t matter. Yet that is not to say that The Clock has no plot. I witnessed the birth of a bunch of babies as well as a few murders, a suicide, and a couple of executions, but the details of every one of these were never revealed; their sole purpose was merely to show the passing of time, which is the ultimate plot line. When I left at 1:45, my biggest disappointment was not finding out what was going to happen to anyone I had been watching for the last three hours, but rather in missing his portrayal of 2:00pm—this was something I did not need to stay there to know he would do.

Of course, I experienced 2:00pm on Thursday after noon even though by that point I was no longer inside Marclay’s construct, or was I? After walking out of the space, I found myself walking south on Broadway to get to a subway train to return to my office—actually I needed to take two trains to get where I needed to be. Bizarrely, it felt as if I had never left. At the 59th street station, a digital display announced that the local train would be arriving in 0 minutes and, suddenly, there it was. Changing for the express at Times Square was as effortless: a similar sign displayed 0 as the train I needed to get on pulled into the station. I got off at Fulton Street and walked up onto the sidewalk. I decided to take some food back to my desk since it was already later than when I usually have lunch, and yet again, no wait. No one was in line ahead of me. It was jump cut after jump cut, just like The Clock, until I got to my desk, ate my lunch, turned on my computer, and attempted to begin to write down my thoughts about what I had just experienced which finally eroded my constant awareness of time over days and has morphed into what you are now reading.


2:00pm according to The Clock; something I didn’t stay to see. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

If art is a mirror of life, and the most effective works of art change your experience of life, then The Clock totally worked for me. Back in February, when The Clock was being presented at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Will Brand expressed disappointment that Marclay broke his own rules and included many clips which did not seem to directly reference a specific time of day. But that didn’t bother me at all. We don’t always look at clocks in our day-to-day existence. So a relentless barrage of clock images and verbal time references without anything else would actually be less sincere. And in order for The Clock to be believable, the editing together of all of these audio and video fragments had to appear seamless and I thought that it did. If in order for his stitches to be perfect, he required footage to cut away to from time to time, as far as I’m concerned it’s as valid an artistic license as slightly flattening pure perfect fifths in order to work within a completely circular modulation chain. But I nevertheless had my own pet peeves. While it was nice to see noon on clocks all over the world, it is temporally impossible. When Big Ben chimes noon in London it’s already eight hours later in Tokyo and only 7:00am in New York City. But I travel too much, I suppose. Ultimately art is not life, art is art.

Part of why The Clock is so effective is it creates its own paradigms. That it does so by exclusively mining pre-existing work adds to its allure because it takes things that are familiar and makes them completely unfamiliar. And the fact that it eschews narrative plot lines through the use of content that constantly reinforces a collection of tried-and-true same story formulas, commercial motion pictures, makes it completely subversive. What is perhaps its most revolutionary aspect, however, is how it deals with time, which after all is the only thing it is about. Daniel Zalewski, in an extensive exegesis about The Clock’s genesis which appeared in The New Yorker, describes the essential challenge that The Clock poses to audiences of the cinema and/or television:

“People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.”

But Zalewski’s assessment of Marclay’s challenge for film and TV audiences holds equally true for audiences for any kind of artistic product, especially music. Although music exists in time, it is most effective when you lose your sense of time within it somehow. Isn’t it only the 10 minute pieces you don’t like that feel like they’ve gone on for half an hour, while a 25-minute piece that you’re in love with seems to race by? The Clock, on the other hand, doesn’t ever move too fast or too slow. Yet, according to Marclay, who in addition to his recent forays in video art remains active as a composer and a DJ, even though “you’re constantly being told the time, you still can get lost in it.” I know that I did and still am.

In that sense, The Clock, shares a kinship with the “The Entertainment,” the mysterious final creation of avant-garde filmmaker James Orin Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. “The Entertainment” was purported to have been so dangerous that anyone exposed to it would become incapable of doing anything other than viewing it. (Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but during the portion of The Clock I saw, one of the only clips that did not reference a specific time was the famous “Alas Poor Yorick” scene from the Laurence Olivier film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which includes the words “infinite jest”.) Marclay might be concerned about our sanity when he suggests that we should not feel compelled to sit through all of The Clock. But even when we are not viewing it, we are, since its plotline, the passage of time, is something from which we can never escape.