When you’re working on a project that’s to do with an established “property,” like ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, how much freedom are you given in terms of initial constraints? Specifically on ALVIN, were you given strict guidelines or given a lot of creative freedom? If you had guidelines, how did you deal with them while maintaining creative integrity?
Well, with Alvin, Ross Bagdasarian really wanted my score to be the heart of the Chipmunks’ characters. We all knew that there would be plenty of songs throughout the movie, so my main job had to do with enhancing the emotions and really musically telling the story of how Dave and the boys came together and developed a real family relationship. My only guidelines were to stay true to the story that was being told.
When you’re creating music for film, did you already have a final edit to work from or were you changing things on-the-fly? I’ve heard horror stories about Bruce Broughton doing the LOST IN SPACE movie, for instance, where the structure and style and mood of the film changed from day to day and he was composing, recomposing and cutting and rewriting almost up to the date of release for the film. Can you describe the experience you had working on CHIPMUNKS in this regard?
Actually, the movie was very close to locked quite early due to the combination of live action and animation. The shots had to be planned out very carefully in advance in order for the animators to be able to do their job properly. The only things that really changed toward the end of the process were facial reactions as well as some dialogue, but for the most part, the story remained intact, which is a blessing for a composer. Post production schedules have gotten much shorter and that does make the job of adjusting to last minute changes quite difficult, but as log as it is for the good of the film, I’ll do whatever needs to be done.
On CHIPMUNKS, was there any series of instrument “voices” you wanted to use, for the different characters, and can you go into a little detail as to your thought process on this For instance, were you trying to create specific styles and not just themes for the characters, approaching them differently in terms of your creative process – or was the piece as a whole just organic ? I’m really just trying to get into the CONSTRUCTION process. I know that with a movie like CHIPMUNKS that features a lot of song material, the score’s presence may seem limited, but I really did enjoy the score work you did for the movie, which gave the little emotional moments some strength they might not otherwise have had (you honestly did some of Jason Lee’s acting for him, no offense to Mr. Lee) without Mickey-Mousing so much as might be expected.
At the outset, we decided that in almost all cases, since the chipmunks were usually together on screen, they would have a theme that represents them. It may change somewhat orchestrationally depending on whether the scene focuses on one more than others, but this kept everything from getting too scattered thematically. I also created a theme for Dave as our father figure, with the thought that his theme should be able to lead into the Chipmunk theme and vice-versa as well as intertwine as their lives begin to merge toward the end of the film. While the themes did appear in many of the different instruments in the score, Dave’s theme always features the guitar somewhat, in order to emphasize his songwriter background.
For SUPERNATURAL, you are creating something that is the bane of existence for a lot of “serious” composers (so-called!), and that is “television mood music.” And yet, your work on SUPERNATURAL definitely doesn’t seem to be the old standby of “one-note of concern, one note to raise tension” flat music-making. You seem to enjoy themes for particular characters, even though they might not necessarily be themes in, say, the way John Williams uses them. By themes here, I mean the structure, giving Sam and Dean’s more pensive moments a specific tone that repeats throughout or approaching action sequences with a different timbre depending on whether or not the events transpiring on-screen are otherworldly or mundane. Can you discuss your approach to CHARACTER in terms of music? How do you think the musician tells the audience about the character while still being true to the overall episodic narrative itself?
I love doing Supernatural, specifically for that reason. Eric Kripke created a dynamic on the show, between the brothers and also with their family, that goes beyond the average “horror” emotions. There’s family drama, the occult, some religious overtones, gore, terror, humor, investigation…one of the reasons TV very often seems to be following a predictable pattern is that many shows don’t have the dynamic range that we do. Because there are 2 composers (also Jay Gruska) and because it is a weekly show with the same leads all the way through, the tone remains familiar, but often we write themes for individual episodes or situations…or variations on themes from earlier seasons, but we don’t want it to get boring. I did write a theme for the yellow eyed demon, and I know Jay has written some great ones as well throughout the past few years. I think what we have done, is create a musical language or vocabulary that fits the show well, but we are free to use that vocabulary in many different ways to help tell the story and enhance the emotions of our characters.
Do you believe in a piece like SUPERNATURAL that you are equally a storyteller along with the visual images, or do you think music in such a piece ought to be strictly in SERVICE to the visuals? I’d honestly like to know your opinion on this question very much, even at the expense of some of the others if you don’t have time.
I think that absolutely, the music needs to be a part of the storytelling. Especially in horror, there is a real danger in merely “being scary”. I’m not sure you could sustain interest in a show over many seasons if there is not more depth to the story. I think that often, the music gets to add that subtle layer beneath the scare that plays up things like Sam’s torment and frustration, or Dean’s memories from his time in hell. It’s very important for the music to keep those other emotional beats in mind in order to stay true to the overall arch of the story as a whole. Eric is really telling the audience all about these brothers and the world in which they live, not just the demons that they hunt, but why they do what they do. I owe a lot of the credit to Eric for creating characters and situations that can handle this type of scoring. Its such a pleasure to be involved.
Do you believe in using narrative traditions in music – what people might call cliches but which also WORK (i.e. jagged strings for tension, the “jump scare” dissonance effect, etc.) in suspense material ike SUPERNATURAL? You use them, I observe, but they tend to be used more creatively and in a lower-key fashion than in their big-screen counterparts by less talented composers. Do you think these are just traditions that are like “if” and “the” in language – practically unavoidable to the point where avoiding them becomes pointless and muddles the material’s voice – or do you think they’re tired cliches that should be minimized?
There’s a reason that certain techniques or cliches get used often, and that is because they are effective in getting the desired reaction from the audience. My ultimate and only true goal is for the music to do its job. If I can find a creative and original way to accomplish this, then that is great, but if it doesn’t WORK as you say, than it doesn’t matter how creative or original it is. That said, I think all of us in the business of writing music for drama do try as often as we can, to find new and interesting ways to tell our musical story.
How did you get started in the field of composing music for narrative pieces? Have you composed any material of your own? If we wanted to hear this material, to appreciate your talents further, what would we hve to do to covnince you to make it more publicly accessible? We like your work!
I actually wrote my first song in 5th grade and played guitar and wrote songs for bands all through high school. As I got more into music, I began exploring jazz and classical, studied theory, and decided to pursue music in college at USC’s Thornton School. I was mostly focused on playing and writing for my own ensembles until one day sophomore year changed my life. I managed to sneak into a Henry Mancini scoring session just before he passed away. After a day of watching in amazement as he directed the orchestra and made changes to fit the picture, I was hooked. The next day, I changed my major to composition and have never looked back. As far as my own concert works, I did do some writing in college, but for the most part, I like to write for drama and I am always very busy, so when I do have a day off here and there. I usually spend it with family.
On your new movie ADAM, the description of the types of instruments you used interests me greatly – especially the description of percussion – interested me greatly. I don’t know if you can see the comments I made at the top of this letter, but I was letting your friend Melissa know that I am an autistic person, an Aspie specifically, and auditory input is one of the most important elements of my entire life. I get more from auditory input than sight, touch or any other emotion. People with autism can often hear very high/low frequencies – can tell, for instance, that a television is on anywhere in a room because they can hear the sound of the humming of the electricity input, and the same with other electronic devices (including some kinds of sonic alarm systems). Slow, repetitive sounds like breathing and syncopation on percussion are very strong elements to an Aspie like me, and I tend to notice other Aspies tend to enjoy similar types of sounds, especially sounds that replicate things like a heartbeat or water moving over surfaces. Were you aware of these things when you went in to create ADAM’s sound or is this new information to you? I would be curious what your research showed, if anything, about what kind of sounds Aspies enjoy listening to, and wonder if your conscious effort was to replicate the Aspie world inside the minds of the listeners or to convey to the non-Aspie listener a sense of what such a perception shift might be like? Were either of these your approach here?
The director of the film, Max Mayer, did quite a bit of research on the condition and really did a wonderful job of directing me as well as the actors in the film. He explained how people with Asperger’s tended to get overloaded in thought and how many times repetition can be a way of coping with this situation. While I did not set out to write a score that Aspies would enjoy, I did want to write a score that might represent them musically in a way that would make it possible for NTs (Neuro-Typicals or the rest of us) to understand a bit more and perhaps get a slight feeling of what it might be like to be inside the head of someone like Adam. There are some moments in the film where Adam gets almost paralyzed by his condition, and it is at those moments that you will hear things like repetitive breathing and feedback from bowed percussion. When he is nervous around Beth’s character, we decided to use a very simple syncopated patter in the marimba to try to express what his mind might be going through at the time. I truly hope that the score makes it a bit easier to relate to Adam, and encourages the audience to realize that the story is a universal one and more importantly, it is one that they can all relate to.
There’s a discussion about astronomy being a favoirte subject of Adam in the press release. To convey sound to an environment that has none as far as science is aware must have presented a serious challenge. Aside from the elements mentioned in the press release, what other sounds/subjects did you use as the inspiration for planetary/star sounds? I’d be REALLY interested in hearing you talk about your process from A to Z here. So few composers in interviews ever really go into detail about their process – I’d love to hear how you started to how you finished on one specific piece in ADAM dealing with planetary elements or inspirations.
One of the most important issues here is not only how to represent space and stars and the universe, but how to do it musically. After some creative discussions, it was clear that we didn’t actually want to use sound design elements to represent this, but to use musical elements to merely suggest to the audience that this is the world in which Adam lives. So after I saw the footage of the Planetarium scene and talked over my ideas with Max, I began searching for things that would be able to live within the texture of a melodic musical piece, but would convey things like the vast expanse of space and the lonely twinkling of far off stars. I sampled finger cymbals at different pitches and reversed them. When I added echo, it began to sound like a twinkling star. I also recorded some eastern bansuri, which is a very breathy wood flute. I then transposed it down an entire octave, so it became otherworldly and quite distant. Finally, I created textures with swelled notes on electric guitars and tapped harmonic pitches on acoustic guitars that added to Adam’s musical universe.
A lot of people think movie music serves a purpose and, unattached from the source, has no business being listened to on its own. Others seem to see this kind of music as the new symphonies – commissioned pieces that tell stories and which may or may not be attached to some larger work. What’s your opinion on this? To this end, which score are you most proud of in terms of how it integrated into the overall piece, and which are you proudest of when heard on its own – or are they the same piece?
I Think that movie music must serve the film foremost, and that it can do that without being a satisfying listen on its own, BUT it is absolutely possible to accomplish both. John Williams does it quite often. Ultimately, I think that the scene or picture for which the piece is written has a direct connection to the complexity of the musical work. The compositions that are usually the most moving away from the screen are usually the ones that had the greatest story to tell in connection to the film. The more inspiration that the visuals, or dialogue, or acting give to the composer, the better the likelihood that he or she will write an amazing piece of music that will live on with and without the picture. As for myself, I’m incredibly proud of what we accomplished on Adam, I think it is very well integrated into the story as a whole and really draws the audience in to such a subtle and inspiring story. One piece that I think stands well on its own is my theme for the video game, Medal ofaft Honor European Assault; I’m proud of the theme and I think that it is developed well throughout the score and really captures both the honor and nobility, as well as the loneliness and fear that our brave soldiers went through during World War 2.
MONK FREESTYLING BELOW:
BTW, I did a search on youtube for your name and had a listen to some of the materials of yours I had not heard (IE the “unsed score for GUN” for instance). I liked the one that a person can hear right here –
It reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s PLANET OF THE APES mixed with a little Sergio Leone ! Nice one.
I also listened to this:
I liked it! It reminded me of one of my favorite scores of recent memory, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and believe me I am not trying to suggest it as derivative but more like evoking a nice 70s “sneakiness” motif that I thought worked really well in both pieces – though yours is clearly influenced by a little more of a “spy” sensibility to go along with Bartman’s sneaking around – nice sparing use of the trumpets with them appearing in bunches like that. Good job!
Again, not in a derivative way – I found it evoked the same things I liked in some (though not all) of the themes in APOLLO 13 – nice, strong Americana music with an edge of sadness that fit the pictures extremely well! Good show there.
I also wanted to share with you some material that hits my “autistm/aspie” brain centers with the pitch, instruments and tone. These aren’t even all necessarily “good” or favorrable pieces of music, but rather ones that really get into my mind at the spot where my autism/aspie way of thinking really functions in sync with the music. Since you did ADAM, I thought you might find these pieces interesting if you ever work with Asperger/Autism subjects again: