First, apologies for being away for so long. I was working on a score for a feature that only seemed to get larger and more complex the closer we got to the deadline. Unfortunately in situations like that, the blog is one of the first things to go (along with free time, sleeping and going to the gym). More on that particular job soon.
Meanwhile, here are a couple of composer interviews that were broadcast this past week. The first is a two-hour retrospective of John Williams’ long and storied career from Classic FM. Williams talks about his creative process and about composing some of the most iconic film music of our time. He is his usual generous and gracious self, and he’s candid and open about his life and his work, from composing for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to playing piano on To Kill a Mockingbird and many other classic scores. Definitely worth a listen.
The other interview is with someone a bit less well-known. NPR’s Weekend Edition Sundaytalked with ad composer Keith Kenniff this past weekend about his work on spots for Apple, Prudential and Toyota. It’s a revealing look into the world of ad music, and Kenniff’s work demonstrates how to use live recordings of acoustic instruments to get a wonderfully contemporary sound.
I’m finishing up a job which was temped with an Explosions in the Sky song. My instructions were simple: create a score with the same vibe—mellow electric guitar escalating gradually to a euphoric climax. Explosions in the Sky are not terribly hard to mimic since their songs often follow a fairly specific formula, but the process got me thinking about the most efficient ways to make use of reference tracks. Basically it comes down to this: the more methodical you are with studying your reference tracks the easier it is to create a final cue that’s original and yet captures exactly what the client wants.
When I first started composing for media, my approach was a bit random. I’d create a playlist of appropriate reference tracks, listen to it for a while, and then try to duplicate what I’d heard without violating any copyright rules. Sometimes this worked well, but other times I felt like I was fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch. By taking a more measured approach, you can work more quickly and nail the cue more easily.
I’m amazed I hadn’t heard of this radio show yet, but I discovered it this past weekend on our local Seattle Classical station. The Score is produced by All Classical Media in Portland, Oregon, and hosted by Edmund Stone. The weekly shows take on various topics, such as treasure hunters, the founding of America and Shakespeare at the movies. It also occasionally focuses on a particular composer or features interviews with current composers like Alexandre Desplat and Ramin Djawadi.
The program is unique in my experience as it centers its attention on the music. It often showcases unavailable, out-of-print or difficult-to-find scores. For example, in the most recent show featuring music from the various Titanic movies and television series, Stone broadcast music from Howard Blake’s 1979 score to S.O.S. Titanic, which until now has never been heard on its own.
The show’s website, thescore.org, has archives of the show going back to March, 2011. Check it out and make use of this wonderful resource.
The January, 2011 issue of Film Score Monthly is out, and in their 2011 in Review article they list a number of notable CD releases from last year that are worth a look. Some are limited editions, so don’t hesitate if you’re interested:
Jerry Goldsmith: Intrada seems to make more Jerry Goldsmith scores available each year, and 2011 was no exception. Last year saw 2-CD releases of The Explorers, First Knight, The Great Train Robbery, Gremlins, Masada, and The Sand Pebbles. Tora! Tora! Tora! also got a more complete reissue. The new DVD company Twilight Time also issues several Goldsmith-penned films with isolated scores, including Stagecoach, Fate Is the Hunter and The Flim-Flam Man.
Elmer Bernstein: The CD label Kritzerland celebrated its 100th release with an edition of Elmer Berstein’s classic Summer and Smoke, for which he received his third Oscar nomination. The label also issued Drango, Men In War, and the Anthony Perkins double bill Fear Strikes Out and The Tin Star. These are all limited-edition releases, so act fast.
In researching the best scores of 2011, I’ve been doing a lot of rooting around on the internet. One of the sites I’ve spent a lot of time on recently is Filmtracks.com.
Filmtracks, produced by Christian Clemmensen, is a rather gargantuan and impressive undertaking for a single person. Clemmensen has allegedly written over 1.3 million words of soundtrack commentary in the site’s 16 years of operation. Filmtracks generally reviews more recent movies, especially top box-office draws. It does cover some older scores, but per their guidelines, rarely anything before 1975.
Clemmensen is clearly a lover of great film music, and is well-versed in it’s language and traditions. He can be harsh at times, but personally I appreciate a more stringent reviewing style as long as the reviewer has done their homework and uses consistent standards. As close as I can tell, Clemmensen does just that. He’s tough, but fair, and definitely does his research. He reviews the scores both in relationship to the film and standing on its own (a valid approach, since in my mind great film music must work both ways). In some cases, such as the Lord of the Rings scores, he even reviews the various editions of score CDs available—helpful if you’re looking for the best version of the soundtrack to buy.
All in all, I greatly appreciate the work that Filmtracks does, and I often consult the site before or after seeing a film to find out if their experience matches my own. I usually learn something in the process.
Here’s the score for one of the most famous atonal pieces of all time with a cool, follow-along animation. For those not familiar with the piece it’s difficult listening, but I’ve always found it very beautiful in a weird way. And it’s a great primer in aleatoric music and unconventional scoring techniques.
It may seem like melody writing is a gift, something you either have or your don’t, but it’s really not. There are guidelines you can follow that will help you in your quest for catchier themes. Here are just a few.
Make it singable
This is by far the most important principle. The reason great melodies are so memorable is because we can sing them. Great melodies are simple, and simple is singable. (Note that I said simple, not plain or dull. A great melody has to be interesting, but if it’s too complex people won’t be able to sing it and thus it won’t be as memorable.)