A PILGRIM'S PROGRESS: A CHAT WITH COMPOSER AMIE DOHERTY

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Amie Doherty was--as might be expected--by way of her music. It was in the late spring of 2012 and I was in Valencia, Spain, the first American hire for Berklee's new (and still very much unfinished) international campus. The school had set up a makeshift FTP site for applicants to the maiden class of the MA in Scoring for Film, Television & Videogames (of which I was, at the time, director) to post their audio submissions. Many of the applicants, trained in European or Asian conservatory settings, had submitted chamber music or raw orchestral recordings--some quite good, some not so, but few evidencing much understanding of what we think of as "film music." Amie's file included a full-blown digital mockup of a symphonically orchestrated cue with a stylistic lineage that somehow encompassed BACK TO THE FUTURE, HARRY POTTER, and GLADIATOR. It wasn't the style choices, however, that made me shout across the room, "We've gotta get this girl to Spain!" It was the command of the language. This was a composer with ears. 

Getting the girl to Spain wasn't a piece of cake. Her application gave County Galway, Ireland as her home, but Amie was off the grid. When I first managed to track her down, she was in a remote village outside of Hanoi, teaching English to Vietnamese children. Our cell phone connection was tentative, as was her readiness to abruptly abandon her mission for an untested post-grad program. And Amie did seem to be a creature with missionary impulses and a strong sense of duty. Before Vietnam, she'd been a kindergarten teacher in Seoul, a post she'd taken shortly after earning her degree in composition from Trinity College, Dublin. And at 19, she'd undergone a baptism by monsoon, teaching the rudiments of English to eighty-five kids in a rural village outside of Calcutta, all under one corrugated aluminum roof.

Students in college fiction writing programs are told that they should "write what they know," and that if all they know is the work of other writers as opposed to life-shaping personal experience, the best they can do is to hit their marks and pray that a winning style will offset the lack of authenticity. The longer I work with aspiring film composers, the more I come to believe that the same imperative holds true for musical authors. The best film music emerges from an understanding of story, and understanding emerges from a life deeply lived. This story has a happy ending, as we finally did convince Amie to migrate to Valencia for the one-year program (she made stops in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia en route).  She worked as hard in the composer lab as I presume she did in those Third World schoolhouses. She listened. In fact, Amie was so diligent that I took to calling her Hermione. Diligent, but never stuffy or self-important. Always the Irish wink and an attitude that said, "Teach me." Soon after graduating and securing an artist visa, she migrated again, to perhaps the most exotic and culture-shocking of all her destinations: Hollywood. 

I interviewed Amie on a break between assignments as orchestrator for Jeff Russo on the new STAR TREK:DISCOVERY skein. Amie's most recent feature score is KEEP THE CHANGE, and she's on-board for a new project from Oscar-winning documentarian Rob Epstein (Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt). 

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AH: First of all, how are you? What’s your state of mind like at the moment? Are you deep in the trenches with a half-dozen deadlines looming, or in-between projects?

AD: Hey Andy! I’m great, thanks for asking! I’m definitely deep in the trenches with multiple projects on the go, but life is good and an overabundance of work is a champagne problem, so cheers! I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of work over the last few years both as a composer and orchestrator, which can mean splitting myself in two sometimes. I’m currently scoring a feature, a mini-documentary series, and 2 other documentaries, as well as orchestrating 3 TV shows. Staying on top of it all is definitely challenging and can be extremely stressful at times, but it’s what I signed up for.

AH: You’ve been in Los Angeles for less than four full years, but on a number of counts, you’ve already beaten the odds. If things keep going as they have been, you may well pull ahead of the typical 5-7 year “gestation period” for a film & television composer’s career. You’re working on your seventh feature film, you’ve scored a bushel full of shorts, and you’re a principal orchestrator for Jeff Russo. Truthfully, I know many young composers—some of them very talented—who after four years are still asking how they can land an unpaid assistantship with the potential for cue sheet credit. What is it you’ve done right?

AD: I’m not entirely sure...I still have a long, long way to go but things have gone mostly well since I moved to LA in 2013. I'd done the program at Berklee Valencia, of course, which equipped me with some great tools. Over the years, I've been accepted to many of the film scoring workshops/programs (ASCAP FSW with Richard Bellis, Sundance Composer Lab, SCL Mentor Program, etc) which were all milestones for me along the way. Through the ASCAP workshop, I got my first assistant job here in LA. Through the Sundance Lab, I met Rachel Israel, an incredible director who hired me to score her film Keep The Change, which won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. I guess what has worked for me is having two streams of work in composing and orchestrating. My orchestration work (and assistant work for the first few years) keeps the lights on when I take on lower budget projects to score. I work very, very hard and probably take on too much at times, but I’m realistic about this industry and what it takes to get to where I want to be. I believe in the 10,000 hour rule (and then some!), and I hold no one responsible for my success and failures but myself.

AH: Anything you would have done differently?

AD: No. Everything that has happened, good or bad, has been a learning experience. Cliché answer, I know. I suppose I wish I had learned not to sweat the small stuff earlier and saved myself some mental trauma. And maybe learned to drive before I moved to L.A....

AH: Yeah. Driving is probably not in the “optional” column for L.A. You also appear to have broken a curse that plagued Hollywood orchestrators for decades, which is that the industry can only perceive you as what you are at the moment, and if what your are is an orchestrator, you’re not seen as a composer, though you may be the equal in talent of some of those you orchestrate for. It seems to me that the fact that you’ve continued scoring short films and earning composer credit all along is a key reason you haven’t been “pegged” as Amie Doherty the orchestrator. Do you agree?

AD: Yes and no. I agree that scoring anything I could get my hands on to build up credits and relationships definitely helped my case for putting ‘composer’ in my email signature. I’ve met some composers who've turned down orchestration jobs because of their fear of being pegged. But I feel like the pegging is mostly done within the film scoring community. In my experience, most people outside it have no idea what an orchestrator does. Orchestration work can be all-consuming and often pays well, so it’s easy to see how one’s career as a composer could be back-burnered. If your orchestration to composing ratio is 2:1 or more then you probably deserve to be pegged as an orchestrator. It’s not a dirty word!

AH: You earned an undergraduate music degree at Trinity College, Dublin and a masters at Berklee Valencia. There’s been a lot of discussion in various composer forums lately about the value of formal education in music, and even about the importance of knowing how to read music. How valuable, in concrete career terms, has your education been?

AD: My education is everything to me. I’m so grateful for it, and so lucky to have grown up in a country that invests in its young people by providing free, quality education all the way through college. I went through the classical music training route and had the strict rules of fundamental harmony, counterpoint, theory, etc., etched into my brain. In concrete terms, I could not be an orchestrator without this training. I apply all of that knowledge I have acquired over the years to everything I orchestrate and it’s vital, in my opinion. As a composer, I think formal training is probably less important, funnily enough. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences, which all adds to the musical lexicon from which they draw to compose. I've worked closely with some very successful composers who have no formal training and it doesn’t seem to be holding them back at all. In fact, I sometimes think they have more freedom in their writing because they’re not limited by rules. Years of aural training means I often hear traditional no-nos as nails on a chalkboard which can be very restricting. Having said that, I don’t think there's a downside to having a solid understanding of at least the basics. Film scoring programs are a different kettle of fish. Personally, I got a lot out of my masters at Berklee, but I didn’t think of it as a golden ticket that would suddenly propel me to success. I definitely learned invaluable skills there and being incubated thoroughly in film music for a year is like a crash course or starter pack. Those skills can be learned outside of school, as an assistant or just flying solo, but the programs at Berklee, USC, UCLA, Columbia, etc, all provide a no-pressure environment to learn and experiment without the fear of messing up badly and being fired. It was one-hundred percent the right call for me. As long as you keep your expectations at bay, and see it for what it is - training - a program like that is totally worth it. You can’t expect to put in one year at school and walk out with a ready-made career. I think unreasonable expectations is where some of the negative opinions about formal film scoring education come from.

AH: You’ve been orchestrating a great deal for Jeff Russo, including shows like the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery, Fargo and HBO’s The Night Of. I’m guessing the orchestration work is a lot of what’s paid the rent. Is there any downside to it? Do you enjoy “putting flesh” on another composer’s bones?

AD: I do enjoy it, yes. At first it was very daunting, the thought of someone handing you the responsibility of getting their creation over the finish line and sounding as best it can. But after a while, you come to know the person’s music so well that you know exactly what they’re looking for. I’ve been orchestrating for Jeff for a little over a year and a half and have built up his trust in me over that time. I also conduct (as does Jeff) a lot of the sessions, which is always fun. The only downside to orchestration work, I think, would be the quick turnarounds. For an episode of TV, I'll often have only 2-4 days to orchestrate and prep 30-40 minutes of music, and it’s not unheard of for a new cut to arrive the day before, or even of, the session, meaning a lot of last-minute chaos. It can be extremely stressful at times, but we always get there in the end!

AH: What would you say are the three or four most critical career decisions you’ve made in the last five years of your life?

AD: Firstly, I would say applying to Berklee was a major turning point in my life and sowed the seeds of a career. I'd been, as you know, living in South Korea and traveling Asia for a few years and thinking I really ought to come back to reality-- and return to music, if those two things are compatible! I'd known I couldn’t afford the program fees but applied anyway. Taking a big lunge forward into the unknown and trusting that the ground will appear in front of me seems to be how I live my life, and it worked out. I was accepted, but as you'll remember, I still had no idea how I'd pay for it!  When I found out two days later that I'd been chosen for the Howard Shore Scholarship, I was all-in. Berklee set my mind to turbo focus and as I mentioned earlier, gave me an important starter-pack skill set.

Secondly, moving to LA was critical for me. I had the option of moving home to Ireland or back to London, where I'd lived previously and where I would have a better chance at being a big fish in a small pond, or I could move to LA and battle it out with hundreds (thousands?) of other small fish. I can’t say how things would have turned out had I chosen the former, but I feel like I made the right decision in choosing LA. It wasn’t easy at all. Obtaining a work visa is nothing short of a nightmare as many composers know, and the cost of living in LA would put anyone off, but it was worth it. I got a part-time assistant job within a week of moving here and, fortunately, have been run-off-my-feet busy ever since.

Thirdly, I chose to only take part-time assistant work in the early days, to leave me enough time to work on building up my own credits, etc. I definitely struggled financially in the first year, but it paid off in the end. There seem to be three options: working solely for yourself and slowly building up your credits and relationships; working full-time as an orchestrator/ assistant to a busy composer--which has proven to be hugely successful for the right people--or doing both part-time. All three streams can provide great results, if you’re willing to put the work in. I’m still figuring it all out, so ask me again in 5 years, but for now, I feel like doing both is working for me.

Oh, and fourth, I bought a good-quality coffee machine. 

AH: The best-known film and television composers have a “sound,” and that sound is often associated either with a genre of film or a particular filmmaker. And behind the sound, there’s usually a distinctive “voice.” Have you had the opportunity yet to score a project that allowed you to fully express the “Amie Doherty sound” and voice?

AD: I've probably scored a couple of projects in almost every genre by now and I definitely have preferences, but I’m still dipping my toes in lots of different styles (of both filmmaking and music) so I’m still figuring out what my forte is and learning to be adaptable. I think the best-known composers who have a distinct sound all got very lucky (“luck” is a whole other topic) in that they worked with a filmmaker who was willing to let them take risks with the music. I think a lot of the criticism you hear about scores--mostly from people who lack any authority--fails to acknowledge that at the end of the day, the music has to be approved by the director/producer.

AH: And God knows how many others.

AD: Right. In my experience, it’s not uncommon to be told at the spotting session they want a unique score that sounds like nothing else in the world, only to receive an email after version four saying, "we like the feel of the temp." And I do understand that they’re playing it safe and above all else want the score to support the emotion they feel is on-screen. What's rare is to find a filmmaker who's willing to stand up to the pressure, fully trust their composer, and work together to allow the score to take the film to a whole new, previously unthought of place. It’s an ambition of mine to find and work with a visionary filmmaker like that. Those are the artists who push composers out of their comfort zone and into that place  that fosters a distinctive ‘sound’. 

AH: Yep. The gate has to be opened. Except in those rare cases like Trent Reznor or Jonsi,  where the composer has a pre-existing sound signature and is hired for that, it's the filmmaker and the project that enable the sound. Mica Levi undoubtedly brought her own musical personality to Under The Skin, but Jonathan Glazer's images gave it a place to go. David Wingo, an Austin-based composer I recently profiled here, has become known for a kind of haunting High Plains sound, but when Jeff Nichols asks you to score films like Take Shelter and Mud, that spirit is free to roam.  

To come back to earth, say a composer has just arrived in L.A., as you did in 2013, and he or she has just two weeks to accomplish things that will nourish a future scoring career? How would you advise them to spend that time?

AD: Reach out to as many people you respect or admire as humanly possible and offer them coffee/lunch in return for a quick chat. Aim high--you'll be surprised at how many good hearts there are in this industry who'll take the time to respond. I sure was! Find some film festivals to go to--LA has tons of them--and meet filmmakers. They're the 'bosses' we want in the end. And, if orchestral scoring is your interest, try to find a way to sit in on a recording session on one of the stages (Warner Bros., Fox, Sony, The Bridge, etc). You may learn some details about how sessions are run, but more importantly, it will provide endless inspiration and motivation for you to follow through on your dreams. It did for me.

AH: What’s the most important lesson learned in your four years since graduating Berklee?

AD: To be prepared for anything and be ahead of the game as much as you can. Opportunities often arrive without warning and you have to be ready with the skills required to get it done and the stamina to move on it quickly.

AH: Yes. My biggest takeaway from my early years in Hollywood was that if you can't 'turn on a dime,' you're dead. One of the first things I noticed was how many people came to work in running shoes. It was as much a practical consideration as a fashion statement! It's a marathon...but are you having fun?

AD: Yes! I wake up every day and make music. That is a privilege I don’t take for granted. I’ve never been happier. :)

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AMIE DOHERTY would be the first to say that she's been lucky. But it's apparent from a glance at the musical territory she's covered over the past four years that every drop of luck has been matched by two drops of hard work. It isn't supposed to be easy, but if you come to the game prepared, the goal line is never entirely unreachable. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Boulanger, But Not Bad

Putting aside Craigslist and LinkedIn (and I do), there are no "want ads" for film composers. Nor are there employment agencies, headhunters, or professional talent scouts. Then there's the famous Catch-22 regarding representation: "you can't get an agent until you've scored a feature film, and you can't get a feature without an agent." In lieu of these things, you are told by the wisemen of the entertainment business that, to quote the (ousted) CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, you must "always be hustlin'." Network. Build your brand. Think like an entrepreneur. 

Hmm. 

And so, you wind up spending as much or more time working on your website, rehearsing your elevator pitch, and attending conferences attended by other under-employed composers than you do on your craft. I wonder what Nadia Boulanger would have to say about that. 

Like many of you, I check in from time to time on the various media composer forums scattered around the web. I don't do this for the sake of my own professional interests as a composer--I'm now firmly settled into the role of teacher, mentor, writer, and would-be scholar--but for the sake of my students and the many young composers who approach me for advice about how to make a name for themselves and not get swallowed up by the quicksand of this business. The questions I see posed on these forums indicate one thing very clearly: the schools, institutes and online courses that offer training to aspiring film and media composers may be doing a great job teaching them how to line up a cue in Logic or Pro Tools, utilize libraries, master basic mixology and stem-making, and even conduct a live ensemble to streamers, but not so great a job shepherding their trainees into a profession with no clear entry points. With a few notable exceptions, they aren't building a stable bridge to the industry, much less offering "halfway house" services such as internship/ assistantship placement, professional introductions, or post-graduation mentoring. The upshot is that a lot of very talented composers fall through the cracks. Clearly, someone needs to catch them before they fall. 

To make things more difficult, the schools and tutorials (again, with some exceptions) seem to fall short in the two areas of training most critical to the success of a media composer: dramatic vocabulary and musical storytelling. Both of these fall into an area we might call "musico-dramatic." It's the same territory Wagner staked out a century and a half ago, but you couldn't score a film with Wagner's vocabulary today. The pudding would be too rich, or "over-egged," as my Irish colleagues like to say. The trend today is ever more toward a leaner, more stripped-down approach that underlines plot points and gets across essential emotional values with a minimum of showiness. All the more reason why composers need to understand how music can be embedded in story. Composing for the screen really ought to be thought of as a branch of filmmaking, or more broadly, cinema studies. But we can only deal with the situation we have. 

In the vital years that I have left to me on this earth, I want to do my part to make that situation better, using perhaps the only God-given gift I have: the ability to recognize and develop talent. Most of you have probably heard the name Nadia Boulanger, the legendary French composer/ conductor whose claim to fame is having tutored many of the most notable composers of her day (Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Virgil Thompson, Quincy Jones, and Philip Glass among them). Boulanger was a true master teacher of the old school, trained in the European conservatory system. Let me say emphatically: that's not me. If you need to get seriously "under the hood" in terms of technique, there are people out there like the great Conrad Pope, or Richard Bellis, who can offer more. What I will do is listen to your music with a producer's ears, separate what is authentically YOU from what isn't, prescribe a regimen to bring out that authenticity more fully, and then help make certain that if you have a voice worth hearing, the right people will hear it. 

As I've written in a recent mail-out, this is not agenting or personal management. I have no desire to charge a commission or to attach myself to the success you attain. The pleasure will come from having lit a fire under your creativity. As there is no fixed "standard" for what this kind of coaching should cost, I'm going to begin with three basic tiers of client service: 

  • An initial consultation/assessment after hearing a sampling of your music; coaching can continue in "one-off" sessions scheduled and paid for an hour at a time
  • A 12-hour private coaching engagement, to include exercises and score analyses, as well as introductions to people in the industry who I believe will respond to your music and can open doors for you. Sessions can be concentrated or spread out as schedule permits. 
  • A more comprehensive program of study, critique, targeted exercises, and strategy-building, culminating with the assembly of a new composer reel, website (if you don't already have one), and a targeted outreach via phone, email, and social media to agents, managers, music supervisors, and executives whose blessing can take you to the next step. My commitment will entail being "on-call" for you over an intensive 6-week development period, and then available to you on a continuing as-needed basis. Think of it as a little like having a lawyer on retainer and being able to call him/her whenever you need good advice. 

I'll price these options at what I believe is a very fair "market rate" on a separate page of this website, and you'll be able to purchase them with credit card or via Paypal. In most cases, our sessions will take place via Skype or FaceTime. As I get a better sense of your needs and the level of response, we can tailor both programs and pricing more individually. 

As with many new ideas, this one is triggered by a crisis. Let me be clear: I believe the noble craft of composing music for the screen is at risk of being devalued by a number of factors: an imbalance of supply and demand, cheap technology, diploma mills, diminishing respect for intellectual property, and all too often, mediocre writing. I have no illusions regarding how serious the situation is. But you know what they say...better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  

 

 

A Wink And A Prayer

For an aspiring screen composer, scrolling through IMDb credit listings for any number of the high-profile longforms broadcast on HBO, Showtime, FX, Amazon, etc. can be dispiriting. We’re likely to see the same names repeatedly, whether as episodic composers or show “godfathers,” and as lustrous as these names are, we can’t help wondering how a newcomer ever gets a break. This is especially true if the “newcomer” lives and works anyplace but Hollywood and/or lacks a kinship with that extended musical family known as Remote Control Productions! I’ve always been partial to ingenues—new voices keep the craft vital—so I was pleased to see a name I hadn’t seen before attached to HBO’s ten-episode saga, THE YOUNG POPE. The name is that of Italian autodidact Daniele Marchitelli, professionally known as Lele Marchitelli. After watching the first five episodes, and finding myself enthralled by the combination of satire and solemnity in this very Italian production, headlined by Jude Law as both the titular pontiff and show producer, I reached out to Lele. Graciously, he responded and sent me the show's core library. 

At 61, Lele isn’t really a newcomer, but no composer ever really is. Goldsmith, Morricone, Williams, Desplat—all put in years of yeoman service on sometimes forgettable TV shows and regional films before they “hit it big.” Lele’s credits go all the way back to 1987. But as I’ve written in Scoring The Screen and never tire of saying to anyone within hearing range, no film composer ever truly finds his or her voice until they find their director. In the case of THE YOUNG POPE, the director is Paolo Sorrentino (Youth, The Great Beauty), a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner for the latter and nominee for the former. Sorrentino is as close as the young 21st century has to a Fellini, and to the great good fortune of those of us who don’t speak Italian, he works (brilliantly) in English. Like both Youth and Beauty, THE YOUNG POPE achieves, in the slyest way, moments that come very close to being sublime. It’s a reverent satire, if you can reconcile that!

As with the composers tasked with writing for auteurs like Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese and Peter Weir, Derek Cianfrance and Denis Villeneuve—all filmmakers very fond of and very good at tracking pre-existing concert music into their films—Lele Marchitelli faces the challenge of weaving his original score in and out of the likes of Arvo Pärt, Henrik Gorecki, and Béla Bartók, not to mention a number of evocative pieces of minimalist electronica—and songs. THE YOUNG POPE aims for a kind of wry religiosity (another contradiction, but a Latin one!). Often, Pärt and Gorecki furnish the religiosity, and Lele provides the wry. The fact that Marchitelli appears to be (principally) a guitar player/producer, and largely self-taught, may actually make this delicate balancing act a little easier. Like Malick’s Hanan Townsend, whose low-profile but exemplary underscore has embellished the legendary director’s last few pictures, Marchitelli never tries to outshine the “classical” composers whose iconic masterpieces he precedes or follows (e.g., Bartók’s Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 3rd Movement, which—incidentally, was also the model for Jerry Goldsmith’s formative Twilight Zone score for the episode titled “The Invaders”). A few of his key cues reference the concert composer whose piece has set the tone of the sequence—something that even the great Morricone did when faced with Terrence Malick and Saint-Saens. He understands that, to some degree, he is building musical bridges—something that takes humility, a DJ/producer’s sense of the artful segue, and the arranger’s ear for texture, timbre and movement. Yet, when it is needed, he breaks through this auxiliary role and makes a statement with cues like “The Miracle” and "The Prayer."

In the last bit I wrote for this blog, I tried to make the case that “something was happening” to film music and to the film composer’s role that we didn’t quite understand yet. Some of us like it, some of us aren’t so sure. A few even hate it. This is the best way I can put it: the most vital “young” filmmakers of our era like music that is of a piece with the alt-pop, experimental, vibey electronica, and contemporary classical music that fills their playlists. They also seem to like music that feels a bit “unfinished” i.e., not too slick. In a very different way, even a film like La La Land exemplifies this trend toward deliberate simplicity. It’s a period we’re passing through now-- the film composer as handmaiden--and it’s hard to say how long it will last. But sometimes, great strength is earned through the exercise of humility, and more is heard by speaking less--as long as you are ready to rise to the occasion when called!

 

Something Is Happening (But You Don't Know What It Is...Do You?)

While eager young graduates of scoring programs at Berklee, USC, Columbia College, Royal College of Music and a dozen other institutions of less renown fight it out for a small piece of sod in the brutally Darwinian media music market--angling for brand recognition and the attention of agents and music supervisors--and fewer than a dozen big-name film composers continue to command the high ground like generals from the ramparts of an impregnable fortress, the ground beneath all of them is being tunneled out by a new kind of interloper. A new kind of film music that's emerging almost more like an indigenous folk tradition than a top-down or academically-ordained trend.

Call it the Sigur Ros Effect...there are probably better labels, but Iceland--or at least, the frozen north, does seem to be entwined with this sound. A good bit of Radiohead is in there, too, along with post-rock acts like Explosions In The Sky and artists even more obscure and recondite: Kwoon, Anoice, and other latter-day "shoegazers" in that long lineage from Pink Floyd to Tangerine Dream to M83 and beyond, all making deeply introspective music in the least introspective of times. The sound does sometimes seem to emerge from the cavernous, subarctic realm: murky, half-formed, with blurred edges and strange artifacts, but when it surfaces, the wind blows clean through it, and that makes it a natural draw for filmmakers like Denis Villenueve, Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, Jonathan Glazer. These guys are also, in their own way, shoegazers. To their number we can add veterans like Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese, whose latest efforts, Knight Of Cups (Music by Hanan Townshend) and Silence (Music by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge) lean in this direction. 

And then there's Arvo Pärt, the most influential film composer never to have scored a film, whose Für Alina, Spiegel Im Spiegel, and Fratres suffuse contemporary film music from American Beauty to Perfume to There Will Be Blood and a score creditable to the subject of this blog, Foxcatcher.

Mica Levi (Jackie, Under The Skin), Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans (Enemy, The Gift), David Wingo (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) and the above-mentioned Townshend and Kluge/s are part of this underground wave, to which we can now add the name of West Dylan Thordson--a name, by the way, that any composer would kill for. West, as he is called, is also a man of the great north, in this case, Minnesota, and when he speaks of his native ground, it almost seems to conjure music: "I love winter in Minnesota. It evokes the depth and complexity of the people... There's an unspoken darkness about them, unresolved from generations ago." Good music begins with good thoughts. Johann Jóhannsson once told me that before embarking on his composing career, he had studied Icelandic mythology. That says a lot about why he is where he is professionally. 

The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan's extraordinary first feature film, was endowed with narrative gravity and all kinds of terror by one of the finest scores of the last twenty years (the subject, also, of the first chapter in Scoring The Screen). So when I read a Daily Variety review of what some are calling M. Night's "comeback film," SPLIT, checked IMDb (inexplicably and inexcusably, Variety is no longer listing composer credits) and saw that James Newton Howard's place in the music block had been taken by someone called "West," I was at first surprised, then doubtful, and finally, intrigued. A seventeen-year string had been broken, and there was something sad about that, but the review of the film was so strong that, despite its omission of any mention of music, I felt there had to be something musically potent going on. 

Refreshingly, and a little incredibly, West Thordson's IMDb listing featured nothing but an email address. Not a "corporate" address but a personal one. So I wrote, and he responded, and a dialogue commenced. He sent me two cues from SPLIT, the cue that plays behind the main titles (I wouldn't describe it as a "main title cue") and one from the body of the film. 1M1 was a very, very frightening piece of sonic architecture built around what seemed to be a snarling pack of feral contrabasses, bowed aggressively at the bridge and then processed into fragments of aural menace. I hadn't (and still haven't) seen the film, but I heard what M. Night must have heard. It was madness as music. The second cue, There Are Things That Are Hard To Believe, was far gentler, even pretty, but equally disturbing. In a slightly Herrmannesque way, it makes use of that fluid succession of common tone triads, linked only to one another and not to any recognizable key center, in order to obliterate time and alter perception while still allowing us the comfort of consonance. This is the style that some theorists are calling pan-triadic...music that masquerades as tonal but really isn't...and it's a harmonic language that has been enthusiastically appropriated by film composers and is likely to be with us for some time. I can't say whether or not West Thordson was aware of any of this stuff as he wrote. He says he is self-taught, and that his musical bequest came by way of an old Wurlitzer upright in an abandoned room of his parents' Minnesota house, on which he taught himself to play Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme. "Farmhouse Piano" is how he characterizes his sound and style.

Thordson's tracks, both those he's created for films like Foxcatcher, Joy, and the HBO series, Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, and for his extra-curricular band project, A Whisper In The Noise, are so determinedly lo-fi and first-take basement demo-ish that at first listen I thought he might be having me on. This is neither virtuosic playing nor bravura production, but it is moving in that shaggy, unkempt way prized by indie filmmakers. It makes perfect sense that West's entry to the scoring trade was in creating rough temp scores as style models for more experienced composers like Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen. A lot of those temp cues wound up in the films, some through the influence of music supervisor Sue Jacobs. But it doesn't appear that the credited composers were ungrateful. West seems to have given them a window into the director's mind, and in return, they taught him a few tricks. It shows in SPLIT. That's how it works. 

It's not possible to understand where someone like West Dylan Thordson "comes from" without taking a trip through the world of indie art-rock bands with 10+ members and only 9,573 views on YouTube. This is the matrix from which bands like Arcade Fire and Edward Sharpe emerged, and where Sigur Ros found its nearly religious following. It's also where Jóhann Jóhannsson's voice was heard prior to his film breakout on Villeneuve's Prisoners, with pieces like The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black and Fordlandia, and where he continues to turn ears with his Gorecki-like A Pile Of Dust from his recent album project, Orphée. On a hidden channel of this same indie underground, West Thordson also became visible/audible, with pieces like As We Were and Your Hand, to people like Sue Jacobs, and ultimately, to M. Night Shyamalan. Pieces with the wind blowing clean through them. It seems entirely fitting that West's introduction to M. Night happened by way of his arrangement of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A'Changin'. 

 

 

Ten Reels That Shook The World

Twenty-eight year-old actor-turned-director Brady Corbet's debut film, THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, is that rarest of things to appear on the screen since the passing of artists like Stanley Kubrick: a film of ideas that's also a wonder to look at and to listen to. Corbet's vaulting formal and conceptual ambitions can't help but recall the young Orson Welles, and if he'd opted to be both behind and in front of the camera (which he could easily have done, replacing Robert Pattinson), the likeness would be even greater. The movie's title, and its binding idea, are borrowed from a 1939 short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, but just as essential to its thesis is psychologist Wilhelm Reich's prescient 1933 study, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which found in the bloodstream of the authoritarian family the "germ cell...of the reactionary individual." CHILDHOOD, which takes place in period surrounding the 1918-19 negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, is a genuine historical epic, at least in its sweep, if not in its budget (estimated at a mere $3mil, but every dollar is on the screen). 

But what people in the professional community addressed by this blog are talking about is the music. Even considering its shoestring cost, it's like nothing we've heard in the cinema since the days of Alex North, or maybe a young Jerry Goldsmith. Like the film itself, the score has an awareness of its artistic lineage that belies the relatively spare screen credits of its creator. Its closest kinship in twentieth century concert repertoire is probably Shostakovich (particularly his 8th Symphony), and indeed, it's far more "classical" and maximalist than most of what we hear these days. But make no mistake: this is film music through and through, which makes it all the more remarkable that it's only Scott Walker's second score. Of course, Walker, who is 73, is no ingenue. As a member of 60's pop vocal group, The Walker Brothers, he experienced a few intoxicating (and for him, toxic) years of rock star idolatry. As an increasingly idiosyncratic and uncompromising solo artist in the 70's and 80's, he walked the road less traveled along with pop auteurs like Brian Wilson,  Van Dyke Parks, and Jimmy Webb, although never achieving their fame or fortune, and in the 90's and early 00's--in middle age--he began to explore the use of orchestral minimalism and textural writing in the song form, always with his still-lustrous baritone voice in the lead. A true recluse, Walker had a cult following among musicians, including ground-breakers like David Bowie and Radiohead, and his output veered wildly from the weirdly accessible (English covers of Jacques Brel) to the determinedly avant-garde (e.g., Tilt, 1995 and The Drift, 2006). In 1999, he scored his first film, Pola X. 

Nothing Walker did over a five-decade career, however, really prefigures what he's done with THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER. From the opening frames, it's evident that music will dominate the film--not because it's overbearing (although some critics will argue that), but because it's clear that Corbet wanted the score to be the thing to breathe fire into his ideas. The movie opens with, of all things, an orchestral tune-up, a bold demolishing of the fourth wall, and only gets bolder when the next title card announces 'Overture' and a CITIZEN KANE-like WWI newsreel sequence follows, accompanied by Walker's propulsive and massively stirring title cue, a piece of music that is almost guaranteed to make any cinephile rise up from the couch and say, "What the f---?" If you're looking for comparisons, a number of critics have already cited Bernard Herrmann's PSYCHO opening, but for me, the true antecedent is "The Strength Of The Righteous," the cue that leads off Ennio Morricone's score for THE UNTOUCHABLES. Other cues, including ones like "Printing Press," "Third Tantrum," and "On The Way To The Meeting," are as good or better, but it's the opening that offers the hook. 

The Night Of...

JORDAN GAGNE, one of my former Berklee Valencia scoring students (and a wicked-good composer himself), steered my attention to HBO's new series, THE NIGHT OF, and its music. Jordan is working as a studio assistant to the show's composer, Jeff Russo. The first episode hooked me; the second episode went to the pit of my stomach with the weight of dread. I don't have a good feeling about where the trajectory of the plot may be taking us, but it's an accident I'm not going to be able to look away from, any more than I can look away from a nightmare.

With the show's creative architects being Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List and Gangs Of New York) and Richard Price (Sea Of Love, The Color Of Money), it would be well worth giving attention simply to see what these brilliant guys came up with. But it's the infrastructure of the show, including the score and the spellbinding, Sidney Lumet-ish cinematography by Igor Martinovic (Man On Wire), who I'm betting will be the next Janusz Kaminski, that takes it completely out of the realm of "TV" and into that new place halfway between the living room and the old 8th Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village (where I first saw films by Roman Polanski, Claude Chabrol, and Sam Fuller)--a place that is now, and will continue to be, the proving ground for new composers.

There's a single shot in the final act that's worthy of Alain Resnais. The protagonist (played by Poorna Jagannathan) is being transferred to Riker's Island to await trial, and as he's being led through the  exterior prisoner door, the camera drops to the event's reflection in a puddle of dirty rainwater. In the hands of lesser artists, it might've felt like a show-off shot, but as with almost everything else about the show, it is embedded in the story. 

Herrmann, Bernstein, Goldsmith & McCreary

 

It's not the name of a Century City law firm, but as a group, they are powerful advocates for the art that is, along with jazz and rock 'n' roll, one of the three most important musical forms of the last hundred years. 

And why is that "upstart" Bear McCreary featured alongside the titans of the film scoring trade? A taut little thriller called 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, released in March of this year by Paramount and Bad Robot and under the wing of J.J. Abrams is why. Remarkably, it doesn't reveal itself as a "sci-fi thriller" until deep into its final act, and when it does, McCreary's score moves seamlessly along with it, aiding and abetting the shift in perspective and genre as powerfully as any score in recent memory. This hat trick wouldn't have been possible if the score had not already had us in its thrall for 80 minutes or more. On many levels, both the film and the score recall the impact of THE SIXTH SENSE.

Check out this cue, titled 'Michelle' after the film's intrepid protagonist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who, backed by John Goodman's character, Howard, is on screen for nearly every frame of the picture. The nod to Messrs. Herrmann and Goldsmith is open and gracious, but McCreary's work here is no knock-off. It's truly in the lineage of the masters. 

"Michelle" 

For more than ten years, as a teacher of film composers, I have challenged my students with scenes and sequences of almost claustrophobic interiority with the simple but Zen-like instruction, "Get inside that."  (Otherwise, all that many of them would want to do is write main title themes!) Contemporary film music, from Herrmann on--and particularly in the present era--is about scoring from the inside of the picture. That doesn't mean scoring small, or creating "wallpaper." It means getting under the skin of it and making creative synergy with the film's look and overall soundscape. Music plays an above-the-line role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE as much as Winstead and Goodman do, but it is always inside the movie.

McCreary blogged extensively and generously about his experience in scoring the picture here:

http://www.bearmccreary.com/#blog/blog/films/10-cloverfield-lane/

The man he cites as his mentor, Elmer Bernstein, would have been proud. 

 

Reply to Samantha...

Samantha van der Sluis of Pulse College writes: 

Good read, Andy. It's an interesting point you make - I recently had a debate with a fellow composer over the importance of having a presentable website and overall representation of yourself. It's reasons why Giacchino (who doesn't have a website), J. Williams (website not updated) and Zimmer (mad site as if it was designed when the internet first came out) are getting the gigs - they focus on the music and not their presentation. Some would argue they don't need to anyhow. But if we spent that hour looking at a DAW tutorial, listening to various music styles or studying counterpoint instead of updating our websites, it would be much better use of our time. I've learnt over the winter break that studying is not always the answer. (This is good, I swear!!) Studying is good, yes, but it's not EVERYTHING. You learn this -especially creative work- hands on, when you're on the job. I had my nose stuck in books too much but when I went to my DAW and just wrote, did mock-ups, etc, I learnt so much within a few hours than a few weeks reading a book. Then again, how does one who may have the skills get the recognition and appreciation they deserve? The easy way out is marketing, websites and all that business jazz. I think most composers, including myself, have been prone to watching our virtual "brand" online - keeping Facebook clean, constantly updated our website, etc. As much fun as business is, (cough), and watching how many people in which country have viewed my piece, I think I will go back to writing any and every day!!

 

Hi, Sam. I think it’s commendable that you’re giving this matter serious thought. After all, for any real composer, writing music isn’t just a “career goal,” it’s a vocation. A “calling,” i.e., something you’d do even if it wasn’t putting money in your pocket. And you can be sure that there will be years when it won’t. You have to ask yourself what it is that will get you through those years. 

I don’t mean to say that self-promotion isn’t important, or that composers who hope to break into the crowded and competitive marketplace these days don’t need to develop a “brand” (though I strongly dislike that word and would prefer to say “identity” or “signature”). You have to put your music, and increasingly, yourself “out there” for people to hear and see, because when they do hire you, they’ll be hiring a complete package: writer, producer, co-dramatist, collaborator and “personality.” 

What prompted my response to Richard Kraft’s comments on the Deniz Hughes page was the suggestion that (at least as regards students enrolled in scoring programs) the ability to write well was somehow ancillary to a constellation of other qualities—all of which fall under the heading of business development or “enterprise.” The point I hoped to make was that students like yourself are not, at the early stage of a career, supposed to be developing a business. You’re supposed to be developing a craft that is finely tuned enough to become a livelihood. You’re there to experiment with sounds and colors and expression, and to allow everything musical inside you to be drawn out by great teachers and challenging assignments. At the end of that process, an identity emerges, and yes—that identity can be marketed and “branded” (though preferably not by you, but by people skilled in those areas). 

Undoubtedly, some will read these words and conclude that I’m behind the curve—that I’m ignoring the reality of things like the DIY trend, the “gig economy,” tech startups, disruptive innovation, etc., etc. But it pays to bear in mind that “the curve,” by its nature, is constantly changing. If you can see it, you’re not on it. Barely a dozen years ago, no film composer had a website, and yet, they found work. How? By taking their talents directly to people who could make use of them. Websites are like business cards: they make us feel legitimate and they stroke our vanity. They’re a useful substitute for reels and headshots in an age when no one wants to carry CD’s or 8x10’s around. But I’m not sure that any composer has ever gotten a project on the strength of his or her website, just as I’m not sure anyone has ever really gotten a job through LinkedIn! Rather than thinking of yourself as a young marketeer with a product pitch, think of yourself as an Olympian athlete in training, and when the gun goes off, be ready to run. 

The Write Stuff

Earlier this evening, I posted the following reply on Deniz Hughes' "For Film Composers Only" Facebook page to agent Richard Kraft's assertion that the majority of students enrolled in college and university scoring programs were "wasting their time" because they lacked "the right stuff," i.e., the entrepreneurial grit and commercial drive to succeed in the marketplace. Richard is a very smart and successful guy, and head of the Kraft-Engel Agency, arguably the premier "boutique" composers agency on the planet. His taste and discrimination in the selection of clients has been impeccable. 

Yet Richard clearly sees the contemporary film composer as an entrepreneur: a commercial artisan peddling his artisanal product in a marketplace that values style as highly as substance and where innovation is as much defined by clever self-promotion as game-changing music. I don't dispute the importance of these things. But at root, I see film composers as a very high order of "assignment writer," commissioned by production companies to create music that enhances the experience of a film in much the same way that Bach and Handel were commissioned to create music that enhanced the experience of the mass or ceremony. As a teacher and developer of talent, I will always seek out the artist, even if he or she has very little natural instinct for merchandising. Merchandising should be handled by those with a gift for commerce.

"At the risk of stringing out this thread, Richard, I'd like to respond to a couple of your points. While I agree that a significant percentage of the students now enrolled in scoring programs may prove to be badly suited for the profession, it's not quite for the reasons you cite. 

'The Right Stuff' is a great reference. Re: the Mercury astronauts, Tom Wolfe described TRS as a combination of steel nerves and superb eye-hand coordination. With respect to media composers, I'd characterize it as "unflappability" (as well as adaptability) paired with superior technique. But in neither case are we talking about "business acumen." That's another thing altogether, and that's where the problem with your assessment lies. 

A business person's principal skill is the identification and exploitation of a market need, including the ability to reach that market through skillful (and sometimes manipulative) advertising. This is not what astronauts, composers, or for that matter, professional athletes have traditionally done. They train, train, train, affiliate with a cadre where their training can be appreciated (the military, a college or minor league sports team, a guild or regional orchestra, rock band, etc.) and then wait to be "drafted" by people whose skills lie in recognizing talent. Such people once worked for studios and record companies, agencies and management companies. David Geffen is a good example of one of them. 

This is the way it was, in one form or another, for centuries, and it remains the best model for the development and use of talent. As head of music for Fox over three decades, Alfred Newman "drafted" the likes of Bernard Herrmann and David Raksin, to name only two. As head of A&R for Columbia Records, John Hammond "drafted" Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. As founder of ECM Records, Manfred Eicher all but "created" the Arvo Part phenomenon. In my own way, from a more lowly position, I was able to use my station as a Disney music exec to advance the careers of guys like John Debney, Don Davis, and an "electronic composer" named Zimmer, who few thought could handle "Lion King."

The "privatization" (for lack of a better term) of art and artists has been a cultural and commercial disaster. It's why we're stuck with Lady Gaga doing a Vegas drag impersonation of David Bowie instead of having new David Bowies to celebrate. It's why we have Kanye instead of Prince. It's why some film composers worry more about their hair than their harmony. I shed an invisible tear for every wasted moment that a talented composer spends designing her website or developing her "brand," and I pray that I see this amateur hour end before I go to my grave.

WELCOME

For anyone who happens to have wandered by, whether out of curiosity or as the result of a misdirected Google search, this will be, in the coming year, the blog associated with SCORING THE SCREEN: The Secret Language of Film Music. I hope to use this little corner to discuss issues raised by the book and its readers, promote the work of screen composers new and old, and engage in the same sort of irreverent banter I do with my students in the classroom. 

Don't be intimidated by the leering face of Frank Nitti (THE UNTOUCHABLES). You truly are welcome.