Absinthe & Cigarettes with Keefus Ciancia

AH:  I’m corresponding today with composer-songwriter Keefus Ciancia, who is a man of many talents and who has, I am guessing, a very interesting interior life. I’m truly excited about this conversation, because not only have I loved his work on TRUE DETECTIVE and KILLING EVE, the crazy Anglo-French Hermetic horror movie, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, and his equally crazy but lovable Jeff Bridges project, THE SLEEPING TAPES, but, Keefus, like his partners-in-crime T Bone Burnett and David Holmes, is also a curator, in his case, of pop music that was ‘alternative’ before there was any such category. He’s like the Alan Lomax of late 50s/early 60s Cold War pop. This is the same vein that artists like David Lynch and, to some degree, Lana Del Rey, tap into, and it’s a rich one. To get it right, you have to get it just right, down to the tubes in the compressor and the flat-wound strings on the Fender Jaguar, not to mention the lead voice, which always seems to be that of a woman a too wise for this world and looking for ways to kill the pain, even if it kills her. That would be Keefus’s muse (and mother of his child), Jade Vincent. When you have collaborators like these, you can pull it off. 

Just to get the biographical stuff out of the way so that we can get to the music, Keefus is first and foremost a musician, and he was keyboardist for Everlast and co-wrote the theme song for SAVING GRACE. He goes back a ways with T Bone, as well, and in fact he did the arrangement for one of my all-time favorite movie musical moments, “Troubles Of This World” for the Coen Brothers’ THE LADYKILLERS. But the spiritual genesis of a lot of the stuff that has put him on the map with KILLING EVE and defines the sound of both of the UNLOVED albums he’s done with Jade and David, seems to be a music salon called The Rotary Room at the Virgil in Los Feliz, where spinning records led to this Grail Quest for a retro modern sound that most people can only hear on mescaline. 

Is that even close to right, Keefus? 

KC: Pretty much, Andy. Here’s the embryonic portion if you want. First a young classical pianist hack, then a teenager in basement bands, then a full high school band geek.  College student Jazz School, College Student 1st year drop-out to sign a record deal and hit the road.  Hip Hop session player on the West Coast scene in the 90’s, met Jade and started a ten piece experimental band, then pick up from where you start!

AH: As I was listening through the terabyte of tracks your manager, so generously sent me, I started jotting down the names of artists and songs and films that floated into my imagination by association. Some of them I hadn’t thought of for a long, long time. If you’re game, I thought it might be fun to do kind of a Rorschach test—I give you a name, you tell me the first thing that comes to mind, or even just a spontaneous reaction. 

 Link Wray

     He Bad


    Let’s go.

 Jack Nitzsche

    Technicolor Symphony

 Night Of The Hunter


 I Want Candy

    Mom, Summer.

 Henry Mancini

    Elegant genius

 Touch Of Evil

    Opening sequence

 Skeeter Davis

     Love and tears

 Julie London

    Butter & Syrup

 Salut les copains


 Francoise Hardy

    Comfort and Sunflowers 



 Cilla Black

    Blast Off

 Brigitte Fontaine

    Punk rock Circus train.

 Incense and Peppermints

    Dream Circus train.

 Baby I Need Your Lovin’ 

    Backseat of my parents Tornado 

 Serge Gainsborough


 Greg Garing

    Gut wrenching

Mercury Rev

    Rainbows of Buffalo

Julee Cruise

    Steaming Lake

Bill Laswell

   Collage-sonical- Pioneer?

 How are we doing?

KC:  Great Andy, my brain is tingling. That was hard..

AH: I’m damned impressed. You know your neighborhood. You weren’t alive when most of that stuff was happening. I want to start by asking about your work with T Bone Burnett, since it’s through that work that many people have come to yours. I know the two of you go back at least to 2004, since that when LADYKILLERS came out, but does it predate that? What’s the origin story? 

KC: I was on tour in Germany 1998, I called Jade to check in. She said a producer named T Bone Burnett called, that Sam Phillips and he had heard our radio performance on KCRW (The Jade Vincent Experiment) and wanted to meet. He really heard something, and I’m still so amazed and grateful the music made a connection with him. He started throwing me in the hot seat on the records he was producing. I wasn’t the right keyboardist for these records, but later realized that’s why he wanted me. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, and T Bone would not necessarily give me any specific direction, just let it happen, so it could break, or explode in that moment. It was such a fresh approach to making records, a huge period of growth for me. 

AH: You’ve been through three seasons of TRUE DETECTIVE with T Bone, and without violating any confidences, I wonder if you can tell us a bit about the way you evolve ideas together. I’m asking for two reasons. One is that I teach and coach film composers for a living—if you can call it a living—and I know that the line between sideman or orchestrator and co-writer is often a fuzzy one. I see that as a positive thing. Something that will make the music feel more like the product of musicians working together. Secondly, as I was watching the third season, I began to become aware of a kind of undercurrent in the score, something deeply affecting but almost subliminal, and it felt like a new voice to me. That was when I first looked up your credit and discovered who you were. 

KC: Well, first off, scoring Nic Pizzolatto’s stories is a composing, collaborator’s dream. When T Bone asked me to join in, I was sent the first season to watch in one day before flying to New York to dive straight in. It was sent with no score, no temp. It was the first and maybe greatest binge of my life. It was so strong, played near perfect with no score. I knew the score’s role would be to enhance. It immediately started to find it’s own tone, and subtle themes. T Bone knew what I’d been holding in my sound vault. I had been building my sound library for nearly a decade, thousands of lo-fi, mid fi non musical grains, tones, off-rhythm pulses, and so on. A ton of these seemed to be “meant to be” for Season One, never used until this moment.  Once Director Cary Fukenaga and T Bone latched and loved what was coming out, we started to move fast, almost like we were being led. T Bone and Cary also pushed for me to use my Minimoog heavily, layering, and non-musically. It was making a new sound, made only for True Detective. T Bone wrote the main theme very early, and his concept was to slowly leak the theme, wait, and wait, to tease and subliminalise all the way till we’re deep in Carcosa Episode 8, then we unleash the full theme in all it’s booming glory and full orchestration. I was working remotely and with T Bone in Los Angeles. I definitely was possessed/obsessed and channeling, always eager to get back into Hart and Cohle’s world. We also had the amazing Patrick Warren (composer/musician) coming at it from his huge, rich orchestral writing and sound, as well as hi-fi dirty drones, which all counter-acted with my tones in a beautiful way. Darrel Leonard, the wonderful orchestrator and horn master, gave us non-conventional performances on his various wind instruments, as drones, tones, and thematic elements. And most important Jason Wormer at the master mixing controls, there to bring all this cross texturing to life.

Season 2- had to be a completely new score, since the show took place in greater Los Angles. A more industrial setting, still with disturbed, mangled lo-fi undertones throughout. For this one we set up at Ocean Way and recorded with each of our own setups for about a week, not to picture, but of looping images from the season. Night shots, overhead images etc. We had Jay Bellerose playing, making incredible industrial-esque tones, beats, and pulses. All the incredible tailor-made sonics captured by Jason Wormer and Michael Piersante. Now we could make our own personal Season 2 libraries and began to throw it to picture. Completely different approach, and again Nic’s new detective story made for a great field to bob-n-weave throughout. New themes kept expanding as the plot twist n’ turned.

Season 3- Nic has us now back in the South and bouncing between 3 decades of time on a single case. This time there were more themes needed per character. Multi-layered themes for Wayne, and his interactions with the others. New tones for settings and timelines. Wayne’s character had so much going on in his head, inner dialogue and disorientation, the tones and themes had to follow. The town was like many smaller towns and had its own emotional baggage and self-destruction. There was definitely a new voice coming out of this series. T Bone was pushing me, and encouraging the new sound. I was deep in a bubble here in France for this story, sending back and forth with T Bone. A bit more thought on how these themes would all lead to each other by episode eight. It was a puzzle, just like the series. Maybe more complex than any of the other series score-wise. Also so great to combine the broken sounds with rich orchestra and broken orchestra. We hope to release these and the other seasons one day.

AH: I came across a great piece on the web where T Bone talks about being inspired for the first season TD score by Walter Schumann’s work on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, a movie scripted by the great James Agee. Once again, as with the Unloved records, we’re talking about something new being created by looking back fondly, almost reverently, at something that doesn’t exist anymore. Were you around to share in that inspiration? 

KC: I was. The film’s lost children and TD’s lost children had a connection. When we started, T Bone and I spoke about that score as a feeling or space to remember. Schumann’s score was so strong, themes, orchestrations and tone masterful!

 AH: You, Jay Bellerose and T Bone have just released a beauty of a record called THE INVISIBLE LIGHT. (This is one of the reasons I put Bill Laswell on your Rorschach Test!) There are no conventional roots rock instruments, just drums, percussion, electronics and various found or created sounds. I suppose NARAS will categorize it as a spoken word album, but I’m not sure it’s categorizable. Why don’t you tell me what you three guys were after?

KC: T Bone had been and has been writing lyrics/poetry/tales for a long time. He’s always been deeply in touch with the state of humanity, the state of technology and the guarding of the arts.  He wanted to use his lyrics as the sheet music. In the beginning he sent me the lyric for “A Man Without A Country”. Asked if I wanted to make a “backdrop” for it. I love creating this way. It’s another version of using that childhood imagination. Maybe you read a story or make one up, imagine your own set, characters, then imagine/create the score. Scoring without “picture” is very freeing, no doubt.  This is what T Bone wanted to do as a band with Jay and myself. We needed Mike Piersante at the console to make these “sonic landscapes” possible.  We recorded most at T Bone’s studio. He had a stack of lyrics he’d come into the studio with, then put one in front of us. He’d read it and we’d discuss for a bit. Then begin the backdrop, the three of us playing live together. It was voodoo. At the time there had been and was a lot boiling in the world all around us, so it was also medicinal. I kept feeling like I was reading these stories from the future, kept in a broken time capsule. T Bone’s chants and words fueled us like Fela, Marley. It would conjure the music you hear. There was no rule, or restriction. Really freeing to take time, have time in one piece.

AH: KILLING EVE has obviously been a breakthrough for you as a ‘film composer,’ as well as for Unloved, the band formed by David, Jade and yourself that contributes so many of the series’ most iconic tracks. You probably won’t stop working till you’re ninety. The people who are reading this blog are mostly aspiring and very hard-working film composers who dream of a similar breakthrough. A project that will let them be them. How did it come about? Was the key creative connection with Phoebe Waller-Bridge? Or maybe someone at Endeavor? 

KC: I think it’s important to know that compositions/songs have a long life and may one day find a perfect home. It’s important not to be discouraged if some things are not used, heard or acknowledged immediately. KILLING EVE was one of those occasions for us. A good chunk of the material used was created 5 to 10 years ago. Some unreleased or just sitting on our hard drives till now. 

David was asked by Sid Gentle/Endeavor and Phoebe if he’d be interested in scoring the series. He sent me the scripts to see if I’d be interested in working  with him on it.  He was a big Phoebe fan and I was new to her and Fleabag. I was totally blown away by her approach, really unique and totally edgy. The first creative meeting with everyone, Phoebe and the team said they were hoping that any or most all source music would have a female vocalist. David started playing them some new Unloved tracks we had just been working on. It sparked excitement pretty fast, so we gave them about 40 Unloved tracks to play with in the edit. Next month we were sent the first 3 episodes, which were temped with quite a lot of Unloved music. It was exciting to see their choices and inspiring to feel the enthusiasm from our new collaborators. Now it was time to go in deeper with the multi-tracks and make the songs fit, create the original score, and remix our songs, multi-tracks as score. Scorce right? The ability to strip back or add to the songs is what started making things blossom. Jade’s lyric somehow falling in perfectly, or her non-lyrical vocalizing to back these female assassins was the glue to this process.

AH: Everything about the music used in KILLING EVE has an attitude. It’s totally consistent. From the old Francoise Hardy tracks to the neo-Jack Nitzsche, Shangra-Las tracks like “When A Woman Is Around” to the underscore cues like ‘Bletchem’ and ‘Tune Station.’ Even Satie is in there. Whose attitude is that? It seems to be Villanelle’s more than Eve’s, but it also colors most of the Unloved songs. It’s expressed most eloquently by your wife’s voice, but it’s baked holistically into everything you do. Are you comfortable saying that it’s, well…just your voice?

KC: HA! I think it’s when the three of us work for sure. We all share the same love for “taking a ride” when listening to music.  Attitude, instrumentation, emotion,  the story, unexpected turns, barren, extreme, playful, aggressive etc…. I really love to have these options to play with.

AH: Let’s segue to the new Unloved record, “Heartbreak,” because in your case—as with many of the most compelling composers working in ‘media’ these days—the distinction between your score work and your album work seems almost meaningless. Like Daniel Hart, and Colin Stetson, and T Bone, for that matter, you’re all over the map. The sound of “Heartbreak” is explosive, and the production feels more confident than on “Guilty Of Love,” as good as that one is. The sonic impact of a track like ‘Love’ is something you guys must have labored over. It’s almost like 21st century mono. Do you mind being a little geeky and telling us about some of the tools you used? And any musicians you brought in, Wrecking Crew-style?

KC: We made the blueprints in two different sessions, both in Belfast at David’s studio, each about a week and maybe 6 months between. David has an amazing collection of instruments, analog synths, organs, electro gadgets and so on. We would do a lot of listening the first couple days, sharing music and letting things soak in, remind us how many things can be done musically. I’m a fan of building a fresh sound chest before starting any project. For me it’s variety of synthesizers, samplers, making a new set of samples, odd electro gadgets, basically new, fun options. 

We’d just go for it, and not get hung up on one thing for too long, just throw everything at it and move on. It’s a great way to work and great to come back and listen at different times when your feeling and hearing things differently. 

Next is building the frames and giving Jade time to experiment and write. Not filling the space up too much so she could have room to stretch further or have us change things. 

After the first batch blueprints, we went to London to work with Emre Ramadanoglu, an amazing producer, engineer, drummer and programmer at HOXA studios. We just went for it with drums, bass by the phenomenal Sam Dixon, horns by Idris Rahman and more vocal and keyboard overdubs. One thing added makes the next door open and so on.

You're right, some definitely took longer than others.  Some are just like that and sometimes you end up trying everything before going back to the beginning. Jade and I were working on it in our travels throughout Europe and David back in Belfast. It was great to have the time and space so when we met next we were listening fresh. After the second batch I went to LA to record Jay Bellerose on as many as possible. Jay and Emre’s drumming worked so great together and was making that sound we love. It was a more scattered Wrecking Crew this time!

AH: Jade Vincent is a character in each of those songs, in the same way Debbie Harry was in Blondie. What happens to a song when she steps up to the microphone?

KC: Jade’s ability to change character and have no fear of style or odd arrangements makes all the Unloved music possible. It means we can play with almost any genre. Once she steps onto microphone the song becomes song. Also the intuition to leave space for instrumental sections. We also made the music around some of her a capella writings like the song Lee, which she wrote and sang most of the orchestration arrangements for me to recreate. 

AH: I picked out a handful of favorites from the Whitman’s Sampler that Larry sent me, and I’m hoping you can give us the short story behind each of them. 

AH: ‘Cult Feminine’ from AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

KC: The Brothers Dowdle were really encouraging, brave and  great conceptually for the score. I was working in a temporary studio in LA that was so dark and dirty, almost catacombs-esque. The score had to be only sounds that could be coming from the catacombs. In the distance, or right in your face. It was so meticulously arranged and orchestrated, but so subliminal and as sound design/score. This piece would weave in and out throughout and was first heard when the team first sees the cult/ghost women in the room chanting and possessed.

AH:  ‘Jerry Shoots Himself’ from THE MOTEL LIFE

 KC: The first film I scored with David. It was a raw and rural setting, based on the Flannigan Brothers true accounts. I really love this piece, it was our main theme and went through a lot of tone and emotion. Jason Falkner’s guitar playing is so beautiful, as well as the incredible Martin Tillman on electric cellos weaving in and out. It was made to follow some of the animated stories as well as push like the wind, or the Flannigan brothers in motion on the road.

 AH: ‘Alone’ from STRANGERLAND. 

 KC: This was the last piece I wrote to button up Kim Farrant’s beautiful film. Written in 5 minutes. I won’t give the ending away but there’s an incredible aerial shot of the land where it takes place (Australia). I stayed in the outskirts of Sydney and in the bush to score this film. It was an emotional time and couldn’t have been more appropriate to be there for this score. I also was in before the locked picture with zero temp, building as Kim built.  My favorite way to collaborate.  


 KC: Jackie Earle Haley was absolutely brilliant, so fun to work with. I loved the tone set and the genre crossing possibilities throughout. The Main Titles was one of the more difficult to get, partially because we barely knew each other in the beginning and had to work fast. There’s always a getting comfortable side to new collaborations. Me holding off to send my first ideas, worried that no one would like them. The breaking the ice of first ideas is always hard for me, maybe the hardest part. Luckily I had my engineer Jeremy Carberry with me late that night while I was still trying things for the nearly second week in a row. I stopped playing all these keyboards/synths around me and went to old faithful piano. Jeremy heard me playing the bulk of it and encouraged me to finish.  That’s what came out.

 AH: There’s a second project with Jeff Bridges, in addition to THE SLEEPING TAPES, called LIVING IN FUTURE’S PAST, that I wasn’t aware of and sounds really intriguing. Came out last year, right? 

KC: That’s right. Jeff’s great friend/director Susan Kucera worked so hard on this film. A new way of thinking of how our earth is changing rapidly, not in a doomsday-downer way, more in changing our own personal perspectives on how we each live individually. Not easy to make in a documentary. Susan is amazing. I got to see it grow on and off for about 3 years. It still affects my daily thoughts in a very positive way.

 AH: Two final questions. First, now that you’re in the game as a film composer and more able to be discriminating about projects, do you have any desire to do a fully orchestral score? Not necessarily a traditional score. Even something like John Luther Adams?

 KC: Most definitely. I’ve got a lot ready to come out of me with some secret ideas for orchestra. I’m actually chomping at the bit to get moving with my imagined orchestral ensemble. I’m planning on making some for personal listening hopefully this year. John is just incredible. Just blows me away. Toru Takemitsu as well.

 AH: Lastly, some advice for the youngins’. You and your family live in France. Would you advise more American composers to dodge L.A. and do the expatriate thing? Has the pond in L.A. and London just gotten too crowded?

KC: I love both cities, they’re full of life and work if you’re persistent and patient. I think about how lucky I was to be in Los Angeles for 25 years. My high school big band teacher is to thank, Dr. John Kuzmich. He had sent a piece I composed for the high school big band to various colleges and ended up getting scholarship offers from North Texas State and USC. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to go to North Texas because that’s where the best of the best musicians were going at that time. He said I should go to Los Angeles because that’s where I’d be busier playing and working with musicians. He was right.  It’s unbelievable how much variety and talent there is in Los Angeles. I had and still am having the greatest experience crossing paths with so many remarkable people. LA, London, Paris, New York… If you want to be in one of these major cities, you will eventually find your way. Find your tribe, change your tribes, walk away with new tricks and new inspiration. Eat your Cup-O-Noodles and work hard, eventually you magnetize to the right places and likeminded people. I also think some of the greatest artists I’ve met don’t live in the major cities. It gives them more space, less overhead to create the art and not totally run yourself to the ground trying to stay afloat and still magnetize to other like minded people around the world. 

Moving to France - For me it was timing and luck to move here. We were working a lot more in Europe and it became a possibility. We moved somewhere quiet and beautiful.  I grew up in a small mountain town and always enjoyed being a bit isolated. It’s been good for me to change things up and keep moving. It’s made for a lot of different music now. 

AH: Thanks, Keefus. Godspeed and keep making good sounds. We’ll see you on the trail.








Composers Jeff and Mychael Danna have taken individual paths from a common point of origin. Mychael's early association with filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and Ang Lee won him serious art house credibility, and ultimately a Best Score Oscar for "The Life of Pi." Jeff has traveled the indie trail and created evocative soundscapes colored by his rock sensibilities. Both have an enduring fascination with those non-Western musical forms that are typically lumped together as "ethnic." Occasionally, and with striking results, their separate paths have merged on collaborative scoring projects such as the Netflix miniseries, "Alias Grace," which was the take-off point for our chat. 


AH:     I want to thank you guys for getting together to do this interview. I know that some of the pros read these, but I’m especially keen on reaching people just coming into the business who may be wondering how composers at your level ever got started, and the Dannas have one of the more interesting “origin stories” I know of. We’ll get to that by way of your current collaboration on the Netflix miniseries based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, “Alias Grace.” It was written and produced by Sarah Polley, and Mychael has a connection with her going back at least to The Sweet Hereafter. I’m curious, Mychael, about whether you and Sarah formed a creative kinship on that earlier picture, or whether Alias Grace came about via a more general ‘Canadian connection.”

MD: I’ve known Sarah since she was about 14 when I recorded her singing some songs for an animated film I scored in Canada. But I got to know her very well when about five years later we co-wrote songs for Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. She’s a brilliant person, funny and fearless, and it was apparent at an early age that she’d be putting her formidable talent to work in interesting and compelling ways. When she called me about this project I was very excited, not just to work with her again, but also because I admired the fiction of Margaret Atwood.

AH:     Alias Grace is a period drama—19th century Canada—but even so, you’ve scored it in a more ‘classic’ style than I associate with either you or Jeff, whether solo or as a team. Tell me about that choice. Did you feel like you were “stepping out of character?”

MD:    Both Jeff and I have spent our careers moving in all directions on the axes of time and place. I think a 21st-century Composer has to be comfortable with this. And that suits me, because my musical tastes have always been all over the map.

AH:     Yeah, in fact, that eclecticism was sort of your calling card in the beginning. Indian music in Exotica; Renaissance ballads in The Sweet Hereafter; Gamelan in Girl, Interrupted and The Ice Storm… It’s what drew me to your work.

MD:    With regard to gamelan, there was an ensemble formed by friends of mine at the University of Toronto, but I didn’t finally get to Bali until last year! I was able to study one-on-one in a small village. I brought some instruments back with me. It’s a music I particularly love and it’s an absolute joy to play. In the right place and in the right story, it can be a wonderful voice in a film score. But there are so many wonderful voices…

I think it’s critical that a contemporary film composer feel very comfortable with all these forms and have a truly global outlook, but then you must make them your own, and even more important, use that musical style to serve the story. Those last bits are hugely important. You’re not just aping the musical culture but interpreting it through the lens of drama because it says something about the story on the level of myth.  

I studied ethnomusicology in university, alongside more conventional “classical” training, and that combination prepared me well for my vocation. I’m very comfortable working with musicians from all sorts of different places, and I love learning new musical “dialects.” It’s like taking a fantastic trip without leaving the studio. If you look at it from this angle, Alias Grace is really the same thing. The period and place just happen to be Canada in the 19th century. We wanted to conjure that period musically as well as the film captures it visually. But there had to be a twist. The squareness and stiffness of the style was part of story, but also a sense of gray area, of uncertainty and ambivalence, since the story is basically a question that may never be answered.  

AH:     Exactly…which sets up my next question. The story is a whodunit, or maybe a did-she-do-it, and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that, having watched all of it, I’m still not sure. Does having that kind of ambiguity surrounding the main character make it more difficult to plant the usual seeds and thematic clues? How do you avoid shading things one way or the other and still keep the score interesting?

MD:    Well that was exactly the riddle we had to try and solve. We knew we wanted the music’s outward form to reflect what was on the screen in terms of the language of the characters, their dress, and the overall visual design. But there’s an unanswered question that hangs over every moment of the piece and that was something the music had to keep hanging for the six hours of the drama. We had themes for Grace and the doctor, for example, that were tailored to their characters. But woven into every theme and every moment there’s a thread of uncertainty, which a small string group like the one budgeted for the film was able to conjure up beautifully!

JD:       It’s true…the biggest challenge in Alias Grace was how to handle Grace herself. It’s not even clear how she feels about the predicament she’s in. Sarah’s script does a great job in making her thoughts and motives inscrutable. Film scores often operate from point of view, and it becomes really tricky to embody that when a character is coming from so many different—and contradictory—places. We wanted the music to be beautiful, and genuinely feminine, and mysterious, but we couldn’t give hints, even about something as basic as her ‘goodness’ or ‘badness.’ It was a real puzzle. 

AH:     Young composers almost always have to work with micro-budgets, if they have a budget at all! But modest budgets aren’t limited to newcomers. Mychael, you mentioned doing this with a small string group. How small? And where was it recorded? This is a genuine “chamber score,” and those have always seemed to me the hardest to do well. Is it more daunting to compose when you know that each of your voices will be so exposed?

MD:    There were 12 strings and 3 woods. Recorded in the Village Recorder’s Moroccan room, a beautiful old space that makes a small group sound rich. The score is 100% acoustic. The easiest scores to write are the large orchestral scores. The hardest are the hybrid orchestra/ethnic instruments scores. This one’s somewhere in-between. You have to be very aware of voicing and balance, but with first-rate players as we had here, it’s a pure pleasure.

AH:     I hear three principal themes in the score. There’s an adagio with a lovely melody often heard on solo violin. I associate that one with Grace as she presents herself. Then a Celtic air that seems connected to the Mary Whitney character. Finally, a slow reel with a descending, “weaving” sequence for woods that ties into the quilt that Grace is knitting. I’ll take a wild stab and ask if the third theme is knitting the first two together…as in dropping a hint about the solution of the crime?

JD:      There are definitely cues that weave those three ideas together, although they were each conceived as stand-alones. As for whether that provides a clue, my NDA forbids me from saying!

AH:     Fair enough! We'll move on. You’ve both worked with your share of major filmmakers, but far and away the most iconic and notorious guy you’ve worked with as a team is Terry Gilliam. Two films: Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both of them as extraordinary as you’d expect. What’s his music sense like, and how does he express it? Is he ‘hands-off’ or ‘hands-on?’ And finally, what’s it like to be around him? You might expect chaos, but to make films that wild, I’m guessing a filmmaker actually has to be pretty methodical.

JD:       Tideland and Doctor Parnassus are two of my favorite projects, without a doubt. Anytime you get to work with an artist who begins by throwing a lot of the tried and true rules out the window, you know that your own artistry’s going to be tested, and that most likely your range is going to be stretched. It’s also more fun, although more time consuming. And yeah, we’d heard some of the Notorious T.G. stories, but in the trenches, he’s a consummate craftsman, practical, and forever trying to get the very best out of his charges, sometimes in pretty unusual ways. In our case, this produced two unusual scores, so I’m happy to be pushed that way. 

AH:     We’re beginning to hear buzz about his Don Quixote opus, although it seems to have morphed into a kind of meta-Quixote rather than an adaptation of the book. Will you be working with him on that one, and if so, what can you tell us about it?

JD:       We’re not doing his next film, because it was a Spanish tax incentive deal, so he’s using a Spanish composer. That’s the way the budget cookie crumbles.

AH:     To go back to origins, you’re both Toronto natives. I remember Jeff telling me years ago about your involvement with the early Celtic Revival, and with Canadian public radio and…I think it was the legendary program Music From the Hearts of Space. Now, at that time, that kind of spacey, dreamy, non-linear music would have been pegged anywhere from high-end New Age to ambient or even World. How did you find your way into that, and do you guys consider that your musical baseline for film work?

JD:       This was way back—or at it now feels way back—in the mid-90’s. The world music thing was in full-swing. Mychael had already done one album for Hearts of Space, and he’d also worked with a crew of Toronto-based Indian musicians on Exotica. I’d just done a collaboration with Chinese musicians on a score. We wanted to explore this territory more deeply, so we put our heads together and hit upon the idea for a Celtic project that started from the roots but built to something larger, something more cinematic and mythical. The result was two albums, A Celtic Tale and A Celtic Romance.

AH:     Mychael, there’s just no way to talk about your origins and their links to Canada without talking about Atom Egoyan. His films were my introduction to your work, and the thing that drew me into the Danna fold. Tell me how that all started.

MD:    I had absolutely no interest in film music when I was young, and fell into it by association. While I was at the University of Toronto I was involved in theater, doing music and sound for various productions. It was in this world that I met Atom, who hadn’t made a film yet. When he moved into film, I moved with him and, honestly, we just applied our theater experience to our film work, which gave us both what was quite an original voice for film at the time. It’s really with him that I learned how to score. His deep psychological insight and analytical ability made me the composer I am today.

AH:     Jeff, I’ve always thought of you as the “rock ‘n’ roll” side of the Danna equation. And if I’m not mistaken, you did have a couple of bands. That segue from rock or “post-rock” to films is much more accepted now, with guys like David Wingo, Daniel Hart, even Mica Levi, but it was still pretty unusual then. How did that work? And as far as your orchestral chops, were they self-taught and learned on the fly or studied in school?

JD: Yeah, I played in bands all through my teens and was heading toward what I hoped would be a career as a recording artist. But I managed to injure both my hands (I was a guitar player!) and that took me out of contention for a while. I ‘fell into’ scoring a film with Mychael by way of that sort of accidental path that fate takes, and when it went well, I thought, “I’ll give that a shot.” In Canada in the late 80’s, you could do that. It would probably be a lot harder now. As far as adapting to the orchestral thing, it wasn’t totally foreign. We'd all had lessons growing up in the family house, and when it was clear I’d have to use that part of my brain, I picked up with private lessons, and went back to school for coursework. I’m still learning, every day. 

AH:     When the two of you work together, is there a clear division of labor…a sort of “who-does-what” that’s now routine for you? Or is it a grab bag? Do you ever work in the same space, and if not, how do you actually develop an idea? Alias Grace, for example, has a lot of thematic consistency. That doesn’t happen without a process…

JD:       It’s funny, a lot of the things in our process we never think about until somebody asks us. We start with general concept and talk about how the themes should be introduced. Once we’re in agreement on that, we’ll literally just say, “you take this one, I’ll take that one” and then come back together to make sure we’re on the same page and it sounds like a single voice. We don’t work in the same space, but we do use the same platform (Logic) and there’s a constant trading back and forth of files. If I’ve started something thematic for a particular character and Mychael has an idea for, say, a better second phrase, he may just pick it up and finish it, or vice-versa. It’s very organic with us, and so it doesn’t need to be too regimented. We’re brothers who actually do get along.

AH:     Give us a rundown of the projects coming up that you’re most excited about. I know, Mychael, you mentioned another film with a 'classic' approach…

MD:    The Man Who Invented Christmas and The Breadwinner were follow-ups to Alias Grace. They’re both excellent films and both were really enjoyable to work on. The Man Who Invented Christmas

AH:     Now doing pre-orders on iTunes, by the way. I’m hoping it’s rentable by the 25th!

MD:    Yep. It’s the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. It’s really a film about writers block (maybe the first one!) and the pressure on a creative person to create while the real world around them is hammering them with stress. It required a period approach in some ways similar to Alias Grace but with a character who was almost her direct opposite. The Breadwinner was a film that Jeff and I had to do a great deal of research for, as it’s a story that takes place in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. We originally planned to go there to record but the situation deteriorated to the point where we weren’t able to travel there safely. So we ended up recording many players remotely, including a girls choir based in Kabul. That was a very moving experience. The brave educators and students of the Afghan National Institute of Music we’re truly inspiring. We take for granted the access to music education we all have in the West, but in Afghanistan, educating girls—for that matter, arts education, period--are still contentious and indeed dangerous topics. I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to work with musicians and students who risk their well-being, even their lives, just to study music.

AH:     I can’t wrap this without a shout-out to your intrepid composer assistants, Nick Skalba (for Mychael) and John Fee (for Jeff), both former students of mine who started their careers under the Columbia College internship program.

MD:    Nick is the best assistant I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some good ones.

JD:     John’s tenure speaks for itself. He’s been with me for a proverbial dog’s age.

AH:     They're both solid as Midwestern granite. Any parting words of advice for the newbies?

MD:    Don't be Mychael Danna. Don't be Jeff Danna. Be yourself. Embrace what makes you unique, whether it's your background, interests, locale, or the weird things you're embarrassed about loving! Those are the things that make your musical voice sound like 'you,' and that's what we—or anyone who loves film music--want to hear.

JD:       Amen. And Happy Holidays to everyone.

AH:     As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one.”










THE FIDDLER FROM EMPORIA: A Talk With Composer Daniel Hart

Wandering through the house...whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy. —Virginia Woolf, A HAUNTED HOUSE

After seeing David Lowery’s A Ghost Story and while still under the spell of its score, I was eager to speak with composer Daniel Hart (who also scored Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), about how he finds the right path for music in these deeply personal and transcendently beautiful films. I reached him while on tour in Europe with his band, Dark Rooms.

AH: First of all, Daniel, thanks for taking the time in the midst of the tour. How’s the band being received over there so far? My guess is that Europe doesn’t need any translation for the kind of music you make.

DH: That’s a very kind assumption to make, Andy. Since the trailer for A Ghost Story was released, we’ve seen a huge leap in exposure everywhere the film has come out. To that end, we had an amazing time in London a couple weeks ago. We’ve never played London before and there were over 200 folks in a packed room, singing along with our songs. We weren’t expecting that, but so many people came up to us after the show explaining that they had discovered us through A Ghost Story. Our show in Rotterdam last night felt similar, in that I actually did a Q&A at a movie theater in town after a screening of the film, before our show. And then a lot of folks who were at the theater came over to the concert afterwards. Conversely, in Italy, the film hasn’t been released yet, and most places we played, no one knew who we were. Some folks were still very appreciative, but other places, we were background music at best. That is, of course, the way of touring at this level we’re at - some shows are real victories in every way. Other shows, the victory is in still putting on the best show you can, while learning something from a lesson in humility.

AH: I should mention, for those who haven't seen the film, that Dark Rooms supplied A Ghost Story with its own “Unchained Melody,” the song “I Get Overwhelmed.” It’s embodied in the story because Casey Affleck’s character is a songwriter, and it has a central role. Tell me about how it came to be. Was the song scripted or was it a happy accident?

DH: At the beginning of 2016, David was directing Pete’s Dragon for Disney, and I was in Dallas working on the second Dark Rooms album. We had tried to get me on as the composer when David started Pete’s Dragon in 2014, but Disney felt like I wasn’t ready yet (based on some audition pieces I had turned in). So they hired Howard Shore to score it, and I went off and worked on other things. When it didn’t end up working out with Howard as the composer, David once again asked Disney to consider me. So I flew out to LA in January of last year on a couple day’s notice and began another round of auditions. Consequently I had to drop everything else I was working on, including the Dark Rooms album, because Pete’s Dragon was all-consuming. When I was hired as the composer for the film a few weeks later, I shared “I Get Overwhelmed” with David, for no other reason than that I thought he would like the song, and it was one of the few songs we had finished for the new album before I had left for LA. A few days later, he asked me if he could include the song in A Ghost Story, for which he was still writing the script at the time. I said “of course,” not really knowing the context, not knowing what kind of role it would play in the film, or even that one of the main characters would be a touring musician/songwriter. When I eventually started working on music for the film, I used the song as the springboard for the rest of the score, because it felt so married to the story. I was surprised by how well the song fit, given that it wasn’t written for the film. That’s the genius of David Lowery for you, I suppose.

AH: One more question about the song, because it’s so important. I called in my teenaged son, who’s a big fan of Pet Sounds, and had him put the headphones on just like Rooney Mara does. I said, “You think nobody makes music like Brian Wilson anymore?” I also hear glimmers of Sigur Ros and even 10cc on the album. Do any of those resonate?

DH: I would consider any comparison to Pet Sounds the highest form of praise I could receive as a musician, so I thank you for that. I think lyrically I’m always striving for the kind of vulnerability and honesty I hear on that album, I didn’t have it in mind specifically when I was writing this song, but I think it’s always in the back of my mind. Melodically I was thinking mostly of Sylvan Esso, because I really admire Amelia’s ability to walk that line between playfulness and seriousness in her phrasing and her delivery. Production-wise, I’ve been influenced most in the past five years by Arca, Jai Paul, and Caribou. I think “I Get Overwhelmed” is another of my attempts to take what I’ve learned from everything I love about the music they make and translate it through the synapses of my own brain. 

AH: There seems to be a hopeful trend of composers functioning as genuine collaborators—in ways that touch on story points, character, sound design—as opposed to hired guns who come into the picture almost as an afterthought. I’m thinking also of folks like David Wingo and Mica Levi. Is your relationship with David such that he “invites you in” and you feel a part of the whole experience of making the film?

DH: This has been my experience with David since we worked on his short film Pioneer in 2010. I get to be a part of the process early on, and I feel an intimate connection to the films he’s making. I’ve been the hired gun who comes in right at the end of the process on other films over the past few years. And sometimes that works out well, sometimes it doesn’t. If I can find something in the film that really resonates with me, then I think I can do good work, even if it’s last-minute work. David and I share an aesthetic for storytelling which means that basically everything about his films resonate with me, and so when I’m watching them for the first time, musical ideas immediately start showing up in my head (instrumentation, tempos, melodies...). And I feel like I understand what David is communicating with his films, which makes it that much easier to help communicate that same message musically. Incidentally, David Wingo and I went to high school together, and “Under The Skin” is one of my favorite film scores of the last 20 years. I think about it a lot.

AH: Before we get into some nuts and bolts things, is there a way you can summarize David’s general direction to you about the role music should play in A Ghost Story? For example, did he want the music to be coming from a particular point of view or perspective? And how did he want it to make the audience feel?

DH: We don’t talk much about how he wants the audience to feel. I don’t remember talking about it on this film. Maybe he can correct me if I’m forgetting? I think if we hadn’t been working together for as long as we have now, some of these things you’re asking about would have needed discussion, and I would have had questions related to perspective, or I would have made incorrect assumptions, and then we would have chatted about it. He gave me a few pieces of music to listen to at the beginning of the process (some Arvo Pärt choral music, a Broken Social Scene song, “Alejandro’s Song” from Sicario), but the main thing we discussed as a reference was John Carpenter scores from the 70s/80s, like ‘Escape from New York’. I did write some music in that style at the beginning of the process, but we decided early on that it was too scary for what was actually happening onscreen, so most of it was left behind.

AH: John Carpenter...wow. That would've been another direction! Were you left pretty much alone to compose, or did you all, say, rent a cabin for a few weeks, load in the gear, and work through it together?

DH: I wrote and recorded 70% of the score for A Ghost Story at my home studio in Dallas in December of 2016 (I moved to LA in February of 2017). We were completely left to our own devices when making this film, and the whole process consisted of me sending music to David and him giving me feedback on it. Once all the music was approved, I spent a day at Redwood studio in Denton tracking a small string section and a couple of singers on a few pieces. I had the Danish soprano Katinka Vindelev sing the solo on “Viventes Enim,” for which she recorded herself in Copenhagen. I should also note that the brilliant John Congleton contributed music on several tracks in the score, all of which he made in his own home studio, using modular synthesizers. It shows up most notably in the piece “Sciunt Se Esse Mortui,” where his voice is the most prominent thing happening. But then he created several other sounds which were used in the film, living somewhere between score and sound design.

AH: The credits list one violin (I’m assuming that’s you), two violas, three cellos, a guitar, synth, and vocalists. You got a lot from that ensemble. Were these mostly players you’d worked with on other projects, and mostly local? You’ve toured with a lot of great bands, including St. Vincent, so I’m figuring you can call in some seasoned players.

DH: The string section were all folks I’ve used on various projects over the years, folks I love working with, based in/around Dallas. Several of the string players who recorded parts for A Ghost Story also recorded the strings for “I Get Overwhelmed” and the rest of the Dark Rooms album. I did record a lot of violin, viola and cello for the score at home, but there are some things that can only be achieved through having multiple players playing together in a nice room. The vocalists - Katinka in Copenhagen, and then Kenton and Catherine in Dallas - were all part of the choral music I wrote for Season One of Fox’s The Exorcist last year. The piece “Viventes Enim,” on which they all sing, is very much inspired by a piece I had to write for The Exorcist.

AH: A Ghost Story opens in a wondrous way. Intimate and cosmic at once. We won’t know until much later why the goose pimples are there, but they are, and much of that's due to the score. The strings sound as if they were recorded in an abbey, and have the quality of Renaissance instruments - like the viol da gamba or the viola d’amore. The voicings are a little exotic. Then there’s what I’ll just call a chordal statement, four bars, that serves essentially as the score’s main theme. It’s deeply haunting. Tell me how you came up with this, and how it satisfied the director’s brief.

DH: The first score the audience hears in the film comes from “I Get Overwhelmed.” I took various elements from the song - the strings, the guitar, the synths - and ran them through PaulStretch, a freeware program designed to slow audio way, way down. I made these long, languid soundscapes with it (one of its primary uses) and brought them into the score at various places. They begin and end the film, a choice I made both for continuity, and to reflect the circular nature of time present in A Ghost Story. After that, the harmonic string harmonies you’ve referenced come in. I wrote the piece in this way, starting with the soundscape from “I Get Overwhelmed,” and then asking myself, “Where do I go next?” I made use of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique to develop this next theme. Beyond that, I don’t know where the theme came from, except from the film itself. Usually the picture tells me most everything I need to know about what kind of music I need to write. This piece, “Little Notes,” is essentially unchanged from my first draft of it, which almost never happens. So whatever it was that David and I were looking for the music to do in this scene, we found it without much trouble.

AH: You mention the circular nature of time in the story. There seems to be something else, too. Are you and the director saying something about time and what it really means to die? Does it go that deep?

DH: I can’t speak for David, but if I'm saying any of those things through my music, it's mostly by chance, and I’m always learning as I go. When I started with the soundscape from “I Get Overwhelmed,” I didn’t know I was also going to end with it. But I got to the last piece of music in the film and, while I was composing it, the idea popped into my head. If I try to think in terms this big - making a comment on time, life, or death - I will fail. I have tried in the past, and I have failed every time. Instead, I just try to be as honest as I can in representing musically what I see happening onscreen. If I focus on the story, then hopefully whatever themes are being touched upon in that story will come out, and the score will help them do so.

AH: I intend to steal that last sentence for my next book! Anyhow, as you develop this idea, moving toward its climax, a very cool thing happens. There’s an ascending run up from the third of the C-major chord (E) going almost chromatically through nine tones to the octave, with each pitch harmonized by a different, and unexpected, chord. Some of them are “chromatic mediants” or other mix chords, but I have to say, I haven’t heard anything quite like it in a film score.

DH: I started playing violin when I was three. My parents are both professional (now retired) musicians. My first violin teacher was the most encouraging teacher I can possibly imagine having. Growing up, I played in youth orchestras with some of the best young classical musicians in Dallas. At university, I played in a band with a music professor who had us covering Bob Wills, The Beach Boys, Oingo Boingo, jazz standards, Irish reels, and playing originals. I’ve lead a very privileged life, with enough free time and money to watch films I love over and over again, giving me a chance to pick apart their scores. I’ve basically been given more tools and opportunities to learn about, perform, analyze, and compose music than just about anyone else I know. I’m forever grateful for this. Like the other music in this film, “Little Notes” is just me taking all of those influences and experiences, and then picking which tool from this lifetime toolbox to use for this specific scene. I didn’t think too much about the chord structure as I was writing this piece. I just followed the melody where it was going, and then went back and filled in other parts that felt right with that melody.

AH: The cue that I’ve labeled “I don’t think they’re coming,” which occurs at about 01:08:04 and continues through C’s dive, uses a mode with a major third and a flat sixth and seventh that feels almost like Middle Eastern maqam. It’s very powerful. Was this a conscious choice? And if so, what motivated it?

DH: This piece is called “Thesaurus Tuus,” with text taken from the Virginia Woolf short story “A Haunted House,” which is referenced throughout the film. If I remember correctly, I was following the melody here, as well, when I wrote the piece. The melody came into my head while I was watching the scene. When I finished the first iteration of it, I remember listening back and thinking, “Oh, that feels much more ‘Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows’ than I had intended.” But I followed through on the idea anyway, and filled in the instrumentation with half a dozen synthesizers and lyrics in Latin to balance out those aspects of the composition. I’ve never studied maqams, but I did spend time in India, studying the sarangi. If there’s anything non-Western happening in my music, it’s often a bastardization of something I learned or heard in Indian classical music and/or Bollywood films.

AH: Before we turn for a minute to the score for Saints, I want to ask you about a snippet I read in your bio, because I’m fascinated by how really early influences—even in infancy—can shape a composer’s voice and his musical predilections. You were born in Emporia, Kansas—as heartland as a boy can be. Your parents were church musicians, and I assume you were often there with them at services. I can’t help but hear the influence of the hymnal in both Ghost and Saints, and even of old Shaker songs. Is this an influence you consciously try to work with, or is it just in your blood?

DH: I spent a lot of time at church as a kid. I sang in my mom’s choir, I played the violin at an occasional service...there’s no getting away from the influence of that music on me. We were Episcopal, so whatever hymns are in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, they’re in my brain for life, I think. There is a lot of stuff I loved as a kid that seems silly (Color Me Badd), poorly made (The Black Cauldron), or even offensive (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Smurfs) to me now. But I find that the hymns I was really into as a kid are the same ones whose melodic and chordal structure still resonate with me today. David Hurd’s setting of “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted,” for instance. I can hear that showing up in my own compositions. The version of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” set to ‘Picardy’...I still hum that melody to myself from time to time. I consciously tapped into that part of my musical education when I was writing music for The Exorcist last year, because that’s the kind of music The Exorcist needed. When those influences show up in my music, it’s not intentional, but it's not surprising either! 

AH: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is, for me, the Badlands of the early 21st century, and that’s high praise from my end, because Terrence Malick has been my cinematic guiding light since 1974. I’ve read that David Lowery is a fan, too. Are you? And if so, has it had any influence on your approach to scoring?

DH: I never actually finished watching Badlands, and it’s been years since I’ve seen any of it at all. I would be stretching to call it an influence, or to call myself a fan. I should finish watching it, though. I love the way it looks. Maybe that’s what 2018 is for.

AH: In general, the Saints score feels looser, more improvisational, and more impressionistic. Its depiction of the land and the people is almost real enough to touch. You feel the wind on your face. At times, I was reminded of the work of the great contemporary composer, John Luther Adams. Do you know his work? Was it any kind of inspiration?

DH: I like everything I’ve heard by Adams, but I haven’t listened to enough of his music to call it an inspiration. Saints was my first feature film, so I was really figuring it out as I went, and learning something new every single day I worked on that score. I never studied film composition in any formal sense, and so I really had no idea what I was doing. There’s a certain freedom in that ignorance, I think, because the only thing I could go on was my intuition, and I had to trust that the film would tell what kind of music it needed (which it did).

AH: There’s a cue early on, about 7:26, that follows Skerritt (Keith Carradine) saying, “I lost my boy...” and connects to Bob’s (Casey’s) letter to Ruth (Rooney) from prison. The foundation of the cue is a syncopated rhythm clapped out on the knees. It scrambled my brain trying to figure out the meter. I finally put it in 6/4 but it could be many things. This doesn’t sound like Texas so much as the Delta, or maybe even Appalachia. You come back to this clapping motif a number of times, and I also hear it on the new Dark Rooms album. Tell us the story of it.

DH: The idea of incorporating clapping/knee slapping/body percussion into the Saints score came from Pioneer, the short film we did before Saints. At the time, I was living and recording in an old house that had been divided up into four apartments. So we had neighbors on 3 out of 4 sides, and the walls were very thin. On Pioneer, I knew I need something percussive, but I couldn’t make very much noise, and I was broke at the time and didn’t have access to many drums anyway. So I used the cheapest, quietest percussion available to me: myself. It worked so well on Pioneer that I thought I would try it out on Saints. I hadn’t planned on it being such a big part of the score, but when I turned in the first piece with handclaps in it, I got very enthusiastic responses from David and the producers. So I started looking for other places i could incorporate it into the score. I think most of the clapping rhythms I used in Saints, and have used in subsequent films, are breakbeats. They’re breakbeats a la James Brown or The Meters, sent through my brain and then out the other side. I don’t know why, but that’s what happens when I start clapping.

AH: Man. Necessity...and poverty...are the mothers of invention, aren't they? When you can't afford that new Spitfire library, just get a couple of spoons out of the silverware drawer! Last up, some obligatory business. You have an agent now--a good one, Brad Rainey at WME, who works with Amos Newman. You’re in some good company there. Now you’ve already scored one studio picture, Pete’s Dragon, so you’re not coming into Hollywood as a total ingénue, but are you ready for what’s next? Bigger films, bigger budgets, a lot more pressure? How are you going to keep your head?

DH: Bradley and Amos are the best. I’m incredibly grateful for them, so happy to be working with them. I have no idea if I’m ready for what’s next, mostly because I have no idea what’s next until it shows up. But I’m always ready to try, always ready to learn.

AH: Finally, without violating any confidentiality agreements, what are the projects coming up that you’re most excited about?

DH: Right now I’m scoring David Lowery’s next film, Old Man and The Gun. And I’m working on a film that Casey Affleck wrote, directed, and stars in, called Light Of My Life. I’m scoring the new Showtime show SMILF, which starts airing this month. I’m very excited about all three of those projects. I feel incredibly lucky to be working on all of them.

AH: Thank you, Daniel. Your music has moved me and I know I’m not alone. Godspeed. 


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). 


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. :)


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. 


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. 


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:


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.


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.