Hollywood

I’m in California this week–ostensibly to knock out five more interviews for my book project–but what I really find myself focused on is something more personal. I’ve had several “adventures” in my life that on the surface seem relatively unrelated, but have ultimately been spiraling me towards where I am today, and my visit to Los Angeles has been unearthing old and forgotten memories of one of those adventures. I will admit that this particular episode is not one that I talk about or think about much these days, since it is so very different from where I am now and in some ways, represents a “failure” in my life, but this seems to be as good a time as any to revisit it and, hopefully others will find something valuable in it as well.

I am of the lucky generation that got to experience the film music renaissance of the late 70s and early 80s at a pretty early age (I got to see Star Wars on its opening weekend when I was seven years old), so after I discovered that composing was my true calling during my undergraduate days, it did not take long for me to decide the direction my career would take–I wanted to be a film composer. Not just a little bit–for most of my twenties, I was a voracious film music geek, and once I decided that that was where my destiny lay, that was it.

Somehow I was accepted into the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television advanced degree program at the University of Southern California, and while I was there I was absolutely in heaven. Imagine a class of almost 20 students from across the country–all just as geeked-out as I was–getting to meet and interact with giants like Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, Buddy Baker, and many others. In addition to the courses, there were scoring assignments for the coursework and extra scoring opportunities with the film majors who always needed music for their projects.

It was during this time in my life–through the year of studies at USC and the two years following–that I truly thought I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. Slowly over time, however, I discovered that the person I was turning out to be was not necessarily the type of person who could be content with that vocation; the instability of the freelance culture, the lack of control, and the growing realization that my career was going to always be dependent in one form or another on that of the filmmakers with whom I worked. As my composing skills improved and my confidence increased, the stronger my belief became that if I was going to succeed, I wanted to succeed on my own and with my own voice. Add to that the fact that I really missed teaching and my decision to move back to the Midwest to pursue my graduate studies in composition and conducting seems obvious and, in hindsight, the best choice I could have made.

Now, that narrative sounds nice and all, but there was a darker aspect to it that lingers to this day…

I quit.

I’m not sure I’ve ever admitted that in public before, but in my own mind one of the primary reasons why I don’t focus much on my time and experiences in film music is because instead of making a left or right turn down my career path (such as my decision to switch focus from education to composition), I stopped, turned around, and backed up. Leaving Los Angeles and changing career directions like that was the bitterest pill I’ve ever had to ingest, and for a good long time I was loathe to talk about it, much less encourage others to pursue the goal of being a film composer.

I bring this up not only because my circumstances are forcing me to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, but because of the relationship that the film community, the music community, and the general public has with film music. One only has to go to the local Barnes & Noble and leaf through the array of film directing “DIY” books to get a sense of how filmmakers view composers and music–there are usually variations of either “find music that already exists and that is cheap to get permission to use” or “track down a student composer at the local university and they’ll surely do it for free.” In the same way that so few composers are being taught how to score films, most filmmakers are rarely if ever taught how music can be used to augment their own films, thereby forcing them to use preexisting (and usually current) film scores for their scoring concepts in what has become a slow spiral of artistic inbreeding.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between the concert and film camps; detractors in the classical music community have existed since the early days of cinema and continue today to look down upon film as a lesser cousin. That being said, there have been a good number of concert composers who have ventured into the scoring booth as well as several film composers who have done well on the concert stage. I can safely say that there is a lot to be learned from the act of scoring films that any composer would find beneficial, and I have often compared introducing students to the skills of film scoring to a personal trainer introducing a client to a new set of exercises in the weight room–both will work muscles that are not yet developed. By incorporating basic scoring concepts into their studies–even something as simple as re-scoring a preexisting Hollywood film clip as an exercise (I prefer Hitchcock’s The Birds as a resource for scoring scenes), students will quickly discover how visual information drastically alters the way someone could interpret their music.

That being said, one only has to sit through a few audition interviews to discover that writing music for film and/or video games is the predominant reason why young musicians get interested in the idea of composing. The composition education community really should be aware of what is going on in the film–and yes, the video game–worlds, at least to be aware of the context in which many younger would-be creators are wanting to delve into music composition.

Would I score a film if I got the chance? You bet. I have quite a few friends who were classmates at USC who have done extremely well–Deborah Lurie (9, Dear John, Footloose), Ed Rogers (Warehouse 13, NYPD Blue), and Lee Sanders (This Amazing Race, Family Guy) are three that quickly come to mind–and I know of many others that are thriving in an exciting genre of music-making. But as my own history shows, while the idea of a young composer deciding to move to Hollywood or New York to begin a career in scoring films can be a viable one, it can also lay bare one’s own strengths and weaknesses and force an individual to weigh his or her dreams heavily against the challenges and benefits of such a journey.

4 thoughts on “Hollywood

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Thanks for your sincerity, Rob.

    You mentioned Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, which although is has no music per se, it actually was “sound scored” by Bernard Herrmann. And here we have someone who should be an example.

    I think that the figure of the uncompromising composer in Hollywood is missing. Herrmann always was himself, he did lots of film scores without losing his own voice.

    And let’s not forget that he did concert music too! His Symphony is gorgeous and should be played more often by American orchestras (or orchestras in the whole world for that matter!) The same for his Concerto Macabre, the Moby Dick cantata, For the Fallen, the Sinfonietta for strings!

    But it seems that me be very difficult to compose film music without compromise. At least in Hollywood!

    PS: I cannot resist to mention Takemitsu too, another genius that wrote for cinema.

    Reply
  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Very exciting piece, Rob.

    I had an ongoing argument with my neighbor Ed Pincus, whose “Guide to Filmmaking” was the bible of DIY work for many years. It took months of persuasion to get him to include anything about music in the second edition. I learned that filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers, can dislike and even be hostile to music. I recently ran up against a filmmaker who was looking for music, but only existing music — not just for budgetary reasons, but because she felt the music would improperly influence the audience.

    Many folks might have seen this, but it provides another take on film music:
    The Composer Meeting

    Dennis

    Reply
  3. Paul Muller

    YouTube is emerging as an important online music resource and many composers are putting up videos to have a presence there. I’ve done a few simple ones and it absolutely does tend to give the experience a focus that, ideally, is reflected in the music itself. More and more the art of film scoring is influencing the wider art of music making even as film makers pursue no-cost options.

    Reply
  4. chris s

    Well I encourage composers to go to the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, NYC where they have a great and fun exercise. Several scenes are taken without their original scored music. Then you are offered a choice of 4 music clips to assign to the scene. Someimtes it is obvious it doesn’t work or really contradicts the scene — sometimes though you find rather cool alternatives. Wonderful place but I wish they would bring in more film composers – I recall the only big name they had years ago was Phillip Glass for his film score Four Scenes from the Life of Mishima (not sure if I got the totle coprrect). Great film and the musical ideas Glass liked so much he developed a string quartet from it.

    Reply

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