1) JEFF, YOU HAVE BEEN AROUND LONG ENOUGH TO WITNESS AND EMBRACE SOME STUNNING ADVANCEMENTS IN TECHNOLOGY AS IT PERTAINS TO COMPOSING MUSIC. DESPITE ALL THE WONDERFUL GEAR, CAN TECHNOLOGY EVER OVERSHADOW WRITING GREAT THEMATIC MATERIAL?
I don’t go THAT far back! But yes, the technology has come an incredibly long way since I got started. “Overshadow” might be a tough word here. It’s not about how technology overshadow’s good thematic writing. It’s more about the idea that there is now a much more broad range of stylistic options made possible by the tools and modern production methods I now use. I get asked to do a lot of very different musical approaches. Some more traditional and some more contemporary. Like Jason Segal’s character in ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ says: “I don’t write music, I write ominous tones!” Some directors want memorable themes, others want ominous tones. Both are valid, and more importantly there are many, many possibilities between those options!
I’ve written very melodic works and I’ve written very modern ambient music. Both bring me a great deal of satisfaction, and both have their place creatively. Each is it’s own unique challenge, and both are absolutely valid ways to compose music for film, TV, or games. The tools we all use can be employed for most any style from very traditional to completely experimental – and everything in between. Every art form has it’s tools and technology. Look at what visual artists have at their fingertips now – everything from charcoal to 3D rendering systems. And ultimately it’s our job as composers to use the tools we have in ways that truly express the emotions and stories in front of us. Technology doesn’t do that for us, but it does provide some shortcuts toward the end goal.
the vast majority of composers use the same basic tools – DAW, synths, samples, notation, etc. So if the tools are generic, then what will differentiate me from you is simple what we do with them. Any other composer who might use my studio is likely to sound rather different. But there is the risk of using, or overusing, stock sounds and libraries that you begin to sound the same as others more and more. I certainly hear patches and samples I know very well.
So technology can’t replace good taste or the ability to create compelling musical ideas, but it does usher forth an amazing level of production quality and has made our workflows significantly more efficient. And for someone like me that doesn’t play keyboards very well, modern technology has been essential in my career. I embraced it from day one – regardless of the style of music I was being asked to write. But in my work as an electronic artist, these tools are the backbone for me. I’ve put in countless hours into learning my tools, sound designing, sampling, processing, experimenting, trying some outrageous things to see what happens all to find and develop my voice as a composer. Yo Yo Ma plays cello, Lang Lang plays piano, I play computers.
2) YOU OFTEN CITE STEVE REICH AND PHILIP GLASS AS INFLUENCES. HOW DO YOU EFFECTIVELY INCORPORATE MINIMALISM INTO FILM/MEDIA MUSIC?
It’s true that the music of artists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass (with whom I worked closely for a couple years) were very inspiring to me, as is the music of many other “minimalist” artists such as Brian Eno, Chas Smith, Terry Riley, Jon Hassell (who I also worked closely for a few years), Tangerine Dream, Bulgarian choir, African drummers, Balinese gamelan, and several more experimental artists, classical composers and some film composers. Minimalism shares a trait with pop music – you don’t use many musical elements, but each element has to COUNT. But it is also about creating musical environments that are compelling. And this approach doesn’t go into every score I do – but as I make my musical choices throughout a project, it’s more or less how my head works. But I don’t often go the for expected endless arpeggios. I just look for the simplest, most emotionally direct way to create an emotional moment.
Complicated is easy, simple is hard.
3) YOU HAVE WORKED WITH SOME OF THE BIGGEST NAMES IN THE BUSINESS. DO YOU EVER FEEL INTIMIDATED BY A PROJECT? WHAT’S THE SECRET OF CONSISTENTLY DELIVERING THE RIGHT STUFF?
My god yes, every time! A lot of great composers I know have that same feeling of “I hope I can fool them again!” Because generally, you really don’t have a clue about what you are going to do for a given project before you do it. Every project begins with that blank screen that needs to be filled. And there is nearly always some doubt at first. But that gives way to experimentation towards the first step. I think of it as finding the front door in order to go through. And that can happen on a number of ways. It might begin with sound design and sampling – building the virtual instruments I will write for. It might be a fragment of a melodic idea. It’s often getting away from my computer and just sitting at my piano – which is such a different experience.
But at some point something I’ve done will jump out at me and say ‘try this.’ That may not be what I end up with, but once I feel the door starts to open I try to explore that possibility as deeply as possible. As I’ve done more and more projects in my career I find I can get to a new starting point with a little more confidence and presence of mind. One might call it ‘instinct’ or ‘gut.’ It’s not always there, but in my mind good film writing is not about intellectual or analytical thinking. It’s about following the story and the vision of the director.
4) YOU HAVE RECENTLY EXPANDED INTO LIBRARY MUSIC/PUBLISHING, WITH A HIGH END COMPANY. SOME MAY FEEL THAT THE FIELD IS OVER SATURATED, THEREFORE, WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THAT INDUSTRY?
I had never heard of library music until some years ago when a friend and colleague of mine asked me to write a few tracks for his own library. I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but he guided me through the basics. Those tracks were, over time, shockingly successful. That experience lead to me meeting some top people in the music library world who tapped me to do more. Over the next few years I wrote or produced for a handful of catalogs around the world. But in 2009 I was given the opportunity to launch Liquid Cinema – my own catalog distributed through one of the top production music distributors here in the US. We put out six albums of high end trailer music with full orchestra, voices, drummers, the whole works. Within a year we became really successful. I attribute our success to being hyper aware of what licensed music was and wasn’t. I was fortunate to have a friend who is a top trailer editor who explained her mindset to me. A big help. The rest was just doing what I knew how to do – produce very high quality recordings of music that was clearly emotional and with the right energy.
It’s only been seven years, but the field has exploded. So many companies are trying to make a mark in the music licensing word. And many really miss the mark musically. But we’ve built a brand name for ourselves as we’ve grown substantially. And it remains an ongoing learning experience for me – what works and what doesn’t. But we’ve gotten pretty good at it and I’m very proud of the music we’ve realeased over the years.
5) LONGEVITY IS THE NAME OF THE GAME BUT HOW DOES ONE BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR ASPIRING COMPOSERS?
If you are truly serious about being a composer, you need a few key things. The first, and in many ways the most vital is OPEN-MINDEDNESS. Film music is not a style or genre. And while there are definitely musical elements that generally do and don’t work in a score, a composer needs to be wide open to what is really in front of them. You can’t feel obligated to follow the typical rules and conventions from other fields of music, or even what you were taught in school.
Another key ingredient is PERSISTANCE. A career does not come in one easy jump. It takes time and the ability to absorb a huge amount of rejection. If you can’t handle that, you may be in a bit of trouble. A composer needs what Liam Neeson famously refers to as “a particular set of skills” musically, technically, logistically and even emotionally. A composer is not hired to simply WRITE music, but is expected to PRODUCE and deliver a score from beginning to end. All the planning and execution are under the composer’s wing. You need to know the tools, or be prepared to collaborate with the people that do – musicians, engineers, orchestrators, programmers, whatever it takes. And in the beginning you are usually a one man (or woman) shop. You wear ALL the hats. Make sure you know what you are doing. Death is not an excuse when you are under contract on on deadline!
With all that in place, what an aspiring composer needs more than anything is a no-excuses amazing DEMO. Good “cinematic” music (not pop, EDM, classical, chamber, jazz, or any outside genre) that is well produced and ready to enjoy with no explanation. Put it on Soundcloud, Youtube, social media or wherever you can. Then let people know you are out there. Send notes to directors and producers and give them the links to your music. The director of the Matt Damon film ‘Elysium’ found his composer on YouTube! Go to film festivals and meet directors. It’s not easy, but there are ways. But the key here is that when they click PLAY, they are blown away with the creativity, uniqueness, and production quality of your work.
Finally, there is a real benefit to finding a composer with whom to assist or even just intern. Being a working composer is about so much more than just the notes. There’s a lot of savvy and politics involved that don’t seem to get covered in film scoring classes. Composers need to understand deadlines, schedules, budgets, workflow, and all types of unreasonable demands that are just a part of the gig. Getting a chance to shadow a working composer can be incredibly insightful and help give you a better sense of the real world of professional making music. I spent years programming for a slew of other composers. That was my film school. It taught me the ropes, and lead to bits of ghost writing and eventually my first solo jobs. And it’s been going and going since then.
I hope these thoughts are helpful. No two composers seem to have gotten started in the same way. Some were successful in other fields. Some had connections that helped them get a start. Regardless, you’ll never be able to sustain a career on luck. It’s far more than just a career – it’s a challenging but incredibly exciting life path.