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The Academy Series: The Music Soundtrack - Alternative Scores

The Music Soundtrack: A Composer’s Forum of Contemporary Scoring Techniques Topic for Sept. 27, 2007: “Alternative Scores

The Society of Composers & Lyricists has been sponsoring a lot of events recently, and even if they are not the official sponsor, the organization does inform its membership of other events that would be of great interest to them. Such is the case with a three-part series put on by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences under the category of “The Music Soundtrack: A Composer’s Forum of Contemporary Scoring Techniques,” held at the Academy’s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood, CA.

I attended the second session on September 27th on “Alternative Scores.” The event was moderated by Bruce Broughton (Silverado, Tombstone, Young Sherlock Holmes, Lost in Space) with the following panelists:

Mychael Danna (Capote, Little Miss Sunshine, The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm) Mark Isham (Crash, A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, Nell)
Rolfe Kent (Sideways, Election, Mean Girls, About Schmidt)

As to their film credits, this is a case in which the phrase “and many others,” really applies. These are A-list composers who, fortunately for the rest of us, donated some of their time to share their film scoring experiences. The topic, “Alternative Scores,” was meant to cover “non-traditional” scores, as opposed to those provided by the typical orchestra of various sizes. Indeed, many of the examples shown in film clips were non-traditional by definition, but worked incredibly well with picture. But, as we will see later, the term “alternative scores” may require a broader definition in practice.

Bruce Broughton started the evening off by stating “You know who we are…but who are you?” as a means of polling the audience, which, as it turns out, were composers by a vast majority. He brought up each of the guest composers one-by-one in the order listed above, and then at the end, brought up all three for a roundtable discussion. This format proved very effective.

Mychael Danna was up first and the clip shown was from “Ice Storm.” Danna used Indonesian gamelan and small orchestra for the scene…a highly emotional scene in which the contrast and uniqueness of the orchestration elevated the emotional content to a higher level than traditional orchestration might have done while lending a surreal quality to the picture. Bruce asked Mychael if he was “aware” that he was scoring an “alternative picture” or scene. Mychael replied that he didn’t know what the music for this film was “supposed” to be. He didn’t think of it as alternative. “We not musicians, we’re part of the filmmaking team. You have to understand what the director is trying to say.”

The next clip, from “The Sweet Hereafter,” used renaissance and medieval instruments. Again, the emotional power and surreal quality of the scene benefited greatly from the unusual instrumentation. “I like to come at things from a different angle. It’s easy to score with orchestra because the industry is set up for it. A medieval orchestra is different.” Broughton asked how he mocks up a score with unusual instruments, especially if the scales are not standard.” Danna replies that with a non-conventional score, you have to approach it differently…you have to start with the unusual instrument and go from there. In one case he did start with gamelan samples, in another, he put together a medieval band. He sold the director on the sound and the approach, rather than complete, detailed mock-ups.” He answered Broughton’s question regarding whether or not it helps to have a long-standing relationship with the director. Naturally, the answer is yes, and this was a recurring theme throughout the evening.

Mark Isham was up next and the clip was perhaps the most emotional one from the popular movie, “Crash,” in which the young police officer rescues the woman he previously had intimidated in a racial incident. Here, the word “contrast” is an understatement. The scene was scored with an almost serene, ambient bed and a female vocalist who wove her singing in an out throughout the musical background. It worked incredibly well. Broughton noted that this was a six-minute scene. “How did you decide on the structure?” Isham replied that this was the second-to-last scene completed for the picture. They had already established that previous scenes worked well this way, and in fact, did not work nearly as well with traditional scoring methods as used in the temp track. This new approach brought the score another level completely…and, in a very effective way, made the music “sit above the scenes.” Mark noted, “The music is sort of three feet above the movie.” The score was done completely on a G3 Mac in Isham’s home studio. “The director has to be brave”, Mark stated. In this case, director Paul Haggis was very open to limiting traditional sound effects and was the impetus behind the idea to use vocals in the film score.

The next Isham clip was “Afterglow,” a jazz-based score in which the music actually inspired the script. Isham and director Alan Rudolph have a long-standing relationship and for a long period of time, they would send each other music clips or film clips to check out. One day the director told Mark that he had finished a script inspired by Mark’s jazz tracks. The final score was done with the best jazz players in real time with lots of improvisation. Tracks were dumped into Pro Tools and Isham did some basic two-track editing – that’s all – in order to create the final score. “I believe that the happy accident is better than 14 hours of working at something,” Isham remarked. He obviously had a good point. (This made me think of the “good old days” of taking two studio-days to get the perfect kick drum sound. What importance did this really have to the final product? None, usually. But a great live recording could make all the difference in the world.)

Bruce asked Mark how he decides on a traditional versus an alternative score. “It’s done on a case-by-case basis. A symphony orchestra is a simple solution. With independent films, you have more leeway.” Bruce asked Mark if he reaches out to do independent films. “Absolutely. I am responsible for my career.” Isham has a list of credits which demonstrates great range in the films he scores and great versatility the scores he creates for them.

Rolfe Kent’s clip was from “About Schmidt.” Although there were some traditional instruments present, there were also some unusual Chinese stringed instruments. Bruce noted that a previous interview with Rolfe revealed that he liked solo instruments a lot…that there was an inherent magnetism in one human voice or in one instrument. Rolfe replied that he sometimes “gets stuck” doing the same thing but then thinks of Michael Kaman, who used lots of different colors in his scores. This helps him to reach out for a broader palette in his own work, which often times features a single soloist.

The next clip from Rolfe Kent was from “Sideways,” his fourth collaboration with director Alexander Payne. The jazzy score was originally demoed with synth mock-ups (which is very hard to do with jazz). One of the main objectives in this score was to stay out of the way of the dialog. Regarding his overall philosophy on alternative scores, Rolfe said “We’re artists. We will get there. We need to try new things. We’re good at what we do…combined (as a team), we will get there. We want to do something new.”

A short break ensued, during which I spoke with Bruce Broughton a few topics. His take on the evening was “I don’t know if “alternative scores” is the right description here. I think it’s less about alternative scores and more about doing what you like.”

When everybody appeared on stage for part two of the event, there was a brief introduction of impromptu music – Isham on trumpet, Danna on tambura, and Rolfe on saw. It was completely unrehearsed and yet it sounded pretty good – and put a smile on everyone’s face. Broughton remarked that “this is how low budget scores are constructed.”

Before introducing questions from the audience that were given to Bruce on 3x5 cards, he made an interesting comment on how composers “write differently because we live differently. Our metabolisms are different. All these things affect what we write.” This led to the first question, “Can you write ego-less music?” The question itself caused some controversy, but ultimately, everyone agreed that putting one’s own agenda aside and working as a team is an absolute necessity when creating film scores.

Another question posed by the moderator: “Is it harder today because you’re expected to do so many things (as apposed to Bach, Mozart, etc., who had a specific style to write in)? Danna said “everything can be questioned these days, the way the process works, although the word “difficult” may not be the right word. The choices are greater.” Isham said “you have to start with a concept. Writing in a smaller box is what can be more difficult.” Rolfe Kent felt the difficulty was in getting distracted by a specific style.

Another audience question: “Do you ever get about half-way and just feel “This is wrong.” Mychael Danna said “Yeah, just about every day.” Broughton asked about writer’s block and Mark Isham commented that “sometimes you just have to get out of the electronic environment.” After a full day in the studio, he has had the experience of walking into his house, sitting down at the grand piano, and finally “getting it.” “And,” he stated, “there are two parts: the “gurgitator” who throws ideas out there to try, and “the editor” who tells me to shut up. Writer’s block is when the editor takes over.”

Question: is it harder to do the score when the director knows about music? All agreed that this was the most difficult scenario and that it’s best to deal in directors terms…emotions, etc. “You need to talk about energy, point-of-view, etc., not musical terms.”

A live question from the audience asked whether or not it was a challenge to write “wallpaper” scores with no melody, as is often the case today. The composers agreed that this was hard, yet, there were examples given in which the non-melodic score was actually appropriate for a particular picture.

Rolfe Kent stated that there are four questions he always asked in order to understand what the director wants in a score: - Whose point of view is the music taking?
- What is the energy of the music?
- What would be missing without the music here?
- What do you want the audience to feel?

He added that even if this line of questioning doesn’t bring him to a total finished piece, it is most certainly enough to get the ball rolling along the right track.

The common theme of the night seemed to be that alternative scores can be a creative choice which actually produces a score more powerful than a traditional one, even if, in fact, the original decision for a non-traditional score was based on budgetary concerns. A great example of this, I think, is the score for “Crash,” and as is often the case, these types of films ultimately enjoy commercial success as well as creative freedom. The panel and moderator for this second series were excellent choices to cover this topic.

-Bob Safir September 30, 2007

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Comment by Mark Taylor on October 1, 2007 at 12:03pm
that was amazing! thanks for the report. One of the things I do miss about LA is the chance to go to events like this
Comment by Chris Merritt on September 30, 2007 at 10:46pm
Bob, you are so freaking awesome for witing theses things. I, among many here, GREATLY apreciate you taking the time to do this. High fives all around.

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