Bruce Broughton

1) BRUCE, YOU RECENTLY COLLABORATED WITH Seth MacFarlane ON A VERY UNIQUE PROJECT. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT AND CAN YOU PLEASE COMMENT ON YOUR CONTRIBUTION TO THE PROJECT?

I don’t think the project was all that unique for Seth, but it certainly was for me. Seth recently recorded three solo albums, each with a different arranger, and asked me to do one of them. Each album had 15 songs on it, which means that Seth prepared and recorded 45 songs, all within a few days. He asked me to work on the album after having asked me to do an arrangement for him a couple of years before for a song he wanted to perform (Luck Be a Lady) at the Hollywood Bowl with John Williams and the LA Philharmonic. I consider myself a composer, not an arranger, and before doing the Hollywood Bowl job I had never really done much arranging at all, much less for a singer. In fact, other than a song I arranged for Tony Orlando many, many years ago for a CBS promo campaign, I think this was a first for me. So, it was very exciting and a lot of fun.

 

2) YOU HAVE BEEN WRITING FOR FILM/TV SINCE 1973 AND YOUR VOLUME AND QUALITY OF WORK IS QUITE STAGGERING. BESIDES THE DOMINANCE OF THECHNOLOGY IN SCORING, WHAT HAS CHANGED STYLISTICALLY OVER THE YEARS?

I think that everything began to change in audio/visual media once things became digitized. I remember when emulators and synthesizers first started to appear in scores in the ‘70s. Emulators were generally used for low budget scores as an inexpensive way of imitating orchestras, while synthesizers were always considered a new sound group, like woodwinds or brass. This all began happening when the medium was still non-digital. But musical styles really made an abrupt change once synthesizers, sequencers and computers became more popularly accessible (and affordable), which meant that composers with little classical training could now become valid composers, and technology itself – in this case, one that could easily create and spew repetitious short ostinatos and loops – could be a major force in the creation of scores for the newly modified medium. The advantage of loops is that they’re fairly easy to edit, which is a positive consideration when working with digital visuals which are also quick and easy to edit.

Although there were certainly economic and marketing considerations and some other factors that came into play, with digital technology every other aspect of what used to be called “film” became quickly changeable; it didn’t just involve music. It affected directing, cinematography, editing, and most elements of audio/visual story telling. Musically, if your style had been to create long lines and complex rhythmic ideas and sophisticated harmonies that relied on specific progressions over time, these elements were a lot harder to cut when an editorial change in the picture suddenly occurred. It’s simpler to work with loops, non- melodies and simple harmonies, drones or sound design. So, the art of composing became heavily influenced by the craft of technology, which eventually led to a new sort of art. Ease in editing also meant the ability to keep revising, which meant fewer “locked pictures,” a circumstance that quickly led to the composer having to work, edit and redo literally up to the last minute. As a result, the rise of technology and the amount of work that resulted almost mandated composer teams, i.e., “collaborators,” a creative concept that was anathema when I first began composing.

Technology also permitted the filmmaker to view the work in progress, something that was seen by the filmmakers as a sort of benign creative collaboration between them and the composer, but which ended up creating more work for the composer who had to construct one or more basic template-scores known as “mockups.” If the music couldn’t be made into a synth demo, it was harder to prove the score would work. I have often thought that if I had had to demo the score to Silverado, it would not have been that score that became the score to Silverado, simply because I could not have mocked it up adequately.

When I began composing scores, I previewed my themes for whoever was creatively in charge on the piano and I later wrote the cues from memory recalling the various scenes with the help of timing notes, a method which was essentially emotionally creative. Today I call the scene up as a digital file and am able to look at every frame while I write. I can choose to compose via software in synch with the picture, or do it the old-fashioned way, with a pencil, referring occasionally to the picture after having made my own timing notes, usually by way of sequenced “markers.” This process is far more technical and intellectual. Formerly, when recording in television, producers rarely came to the scoring stage for series work. In motion pictures the director hardly ever heard anything other than the basic elements of the score until the score was recorded by an orchestra. Surprise, which was usually pleasant, was the standard, and the scoring stage in those days held a lot of surprises, as well as a fair amount of anxiety. Today, there are very few surprises. One of the least sought after surprises for the composer is that in which the filmmaker prefers the mockup to the recorded track.

Another thing that changed was the prevalence of temp tracks. In the ‘70s, temp tracks were used primarily for main titles and for montages: the music for the main title was selected as a preview of what was in store dramatically. The montage music was often an aid for the editor to find a tempo to his scene’s structure. Rarely did one have the time to actually temp an entire picture. But with digital technology, music could now be placed, removed or edited anywhere. And quickly. To my mind, individual style, like a falling soufflé, began to collapse to the middle; more scores began sounding like other scores and inspiration gave way to imitation, extreme caution and blandness.

In addition to composing styles, recording techniques have changed, especially in the use of acoustic instruments. Orchestras, when they’re used, are now often recorded in pieces which are combined and/or augmented by electronic instruments. And the orchestrations themselves are often a result of manipulating samplers and synths, finished off by a creative mix session. More and more, composing begins with the samples, not with a sketch or even a musical idea. When I started work after college, I began working at CBS Television, and the shows we produced always had an 18-piece orchestra. It didn’t matter which instruments you used, but you couldn’t go over 18. (I watched a score of Bernard Herrmann’s in which he used 6 bass clarinets, 6 bassoons and 6 contrabasses. “The highest note is middle C,” he said.) After I left CBS, I found that each studio had its own budget for orchestras, so I learned to become orchestrally creative and in time became a good orchestrator.

Part of the reason for the change in recording, aside from the basic technology which permits it, is the control that’s offered when the complete soundtrack is mixed. What used to be called “sound effects” is more and more “sound design,” and it’s an element that not only is not particularly friendly to music, but is similar to and competitive with certain types of music.

There are also a lot of younger directors who only know music from their iPods, meaning pop music. They certainly don’t know film music. The use of music in film generally gets ignored in cinema schools, and many of the younger directors really don’t understand the effect it can have. It sometimes feels as though there’s a resentment to have music at all in a film, even when it’s pretty obvious the film needs it. A cynically thoughtful composer friend said to me recently that he thought The Problem was that film makers needed music but didn’t want it, the idea being that you value the things that you want over things that you need. He may be right.
As far as a more definitive answer to the question, however, I think that there are many other reasons for stylistic change, including the basic reason that people tire of the same thing and look for something new. This is why we don’t all sound like Palestrina. I try to be aware of stylistic changes and not get too stuck in what I deem to be “real” music, which is usually a subjective emotional evaluation, one that comes from my past. One reason I like to teach is to see what young people are writing. Whatever they might miss because of their youth and inexperience, they often come up with some very interesting ideas and techniques, and sometimes a really good piece shows up. I occasionally think of the opera composer Verdi changing his style in his 80s after Wagner upset the musical apple cart. It happens. One of the positive aspects of writing for movies is that you not only get to write, but you often have to write in unfamiliar styles and idioms, and sometimes you’re forced to use unfamiliar technology. If you can’t do that, you’re out of a job. One of the negative aspects of writing for the movies, however, is that you can get tagged for doing one or other style because of the success of some film you did and not get the opportunity to do something else.

 

3) WHAT WOULD BE THE DEFINITIVE BRUCE BROUGHTON SCORE AND WHY? AFTER COMPOSING SO MANY SCORES, DO YOU HAVE A SCORE THAT IS DEAREST TO YOU?

This is an impossible question for me to answer objectively. Most people think of Silverado or Young Sherlock Holmes as the “definitive score” (see my comment above about getting “tagged”). Maybe. Maybe it’s actually Baby’s Day Out or Miracle on 34th Street, or some of the TV things I did many years before like in Buck Rogers or Dallas or even in Tiny Toons. All of that music was a response to a specific movie and turned out the way it did because that was the way I saw the job. I don’t know that I have any scores that are “dear” to me, but there are several I like. But they might not be the ones that you or some other person would like. My wife’s favorite score of mine is Carried Away, but I’ve heard other people name Infinity or Warm Springs. Go figure.

 

4) BESIDES YOUR FILM/TV WORK YOU ALSO COMPOSE CONCERT/CHAMBER WORKS. DOES THAT KIND OF WORK OFFER YOU MORE CREATIVE FLEXIBILITY?

At the risk of sounding rude or snotty, I have always thought that film music had a somewhat lower creative ceiling than concert music. Film music is accompaniment, created for a specific purpose and limited by the constraints of what it is accompanying. Its duration and the majority of its content are completely proscribed by the conditions of the film. It does not necessarily rely on musical originality, but it does rely a lot upon association, and for that reason, it’s generally not a part of the avant-garde. It’s hard to hear any piece of film music without recalling the movie that it was composed for.

I don’t at all consider any of this a bad thing, only as some of the conditions of the work; but it’s a lot different when I hear or compose a concert piece. For one thing, a concert piece can be performed many different ways and can sound very different and evoke contrasting responses with each performance. You can learn something new about a piece based upon a different performance. Film music not so much. When you record a piece of film music, that recording is the definitive performance and you’re lucky if it ever gets played again. Some pieces of concert music never have a definitive performance or recording. They’re constantly being rethought and restudied. The standard of success is different, as well. With a film, you hope to hear the director say, “That works. Next!” With a concert piece, you hope someone will actually applaud.

And of course, with film music you deal primarily with a bunch of short pieces. It’s sort of like musical tapas. Some concert pieces take quite a while to say all that they have to say.

To write a great film score is hard. But I think that writing a great concert piece is more difficult because you don’t have another medium helping you out, leading the way, pointing here and there to solutions or options. Stravinsky and Schoenberg compared the process of composing to being on the edge of a great abyss of choice. Once the piece is finished, the abyss is closed and it’s then simply between the listener and the music. There’s no net in concert music.

 

5) YOUR SCORE FOR ‘SILVERADO’ HAS BEEN HAILED AS AN ALL TIME CLASSIC AND THE MOVIE ITSELF IS WIDELY CONSIDERED AS THE ‘STAR WARS’ OF WESTERNS. YOU ALSO SCORED ‘TOMBSTONE’, ANOTHER SEMINAL WESTERN. HOW DID YOU APPROACH THOSE 2 SCORES?

Silverado was made in the mold of the classic western, intended to be a western for people who had never seen a western. The good guys were really good; the bad guys were really bad.�The story, though fairly complicated, is also fairly straightforward, and the real glue to it all is family and friendship. The four good guys meet each other by accident, say goodbye and then come together again through circumstances, which themselves involve histories of families as well as former friendships. I always think of the score to Silverado as being very positive and, for me, the high point of the music is in the end titles when the main theme is used as a chorale after the final line, “We’ll be back!” It’s simply joyful, an emotion one doesn’t find a lot of in many movies.

Tombstone was entirely different. There were no good guys. Even the supposed good guys were bad guys. The hero, Wyatt Earp, a revenge seeker and brute in his dispensing of justice, two-times his wife as he’s dealing cards in the local saloon. The moral compass in the town of Tombstone is wobbly and weak. The bad guys are really, really bad and the emotions in the film are often coarse and raw (as well as very entertaining). Silverado is almost classical in its restraint; Tombstone is routinely over the top emotionally. Where the score to one film is often giddy in its heroic virtue, the other is often melodramatic in its vicious intensity.
Curiously, both films focus primarily on male friendship. The four heroes in Silverado, along with “the little boy” (Mal says, “They took ‘the little boy’ with’m.”), are all guys and the women are minor players, with the possible exception of Stella, the bar hostess. Although there’s a love interest in Tombstone, the greater relationship is really between Wyatt Earp and his drunken, gun slinging pal, Doc Holliday. So, both scores are laden with musical testosterone: big stories, big men, big emotions, big music; one very positive, the other very dark. I felt lucky to be able to do two such disparate westerns. Did I mention I’m from the west?