I am an Actor with Notes

SAMSUNGI’VE COME TO THINK of my composition process  on a film as being similar to an actor’s in some ways. Let me explain by talking a bit about my process for “The Performance”, the film I am scoring starring Nicholas Campbell and Nick Mancuso.

I first analysed the story by using the script (normally I’d use the rough cut, but didn’t have it at the time.)

I had a preliminary talk with the director about his goals, his ideas, his thoughts, his view of the story and the characters. Jotting down key words in my notebook (pictured here) and asking questions along the way.

My first goal was to decide where there would be music and where there wouldn’t. Because this bit of information is obviously the first step in identifying what role music could take.

And then comes the fun part: digging in to the story and the characters to discover the function of the score.

I read the script over and over, watched what scenes I had to view, jotting down thoughts in my notebook (see the picture? That’s my notebook). Words. Sentences. Whittling it down, looking for that POV, looking for the essence. The center.

On the surface, the main character is sad. Sure. Fine. But I refuse to just say “I’ll write sad music”. I want to do more than that.

I want to tell part of  this man’s story as we accompany him on this emotional journey. Something that is specific and unique to HIM. Something that tells the audience something about him. Something that only music can bring.

And that is when I become an actor in a way. I ask myself this simple question: “why is he sad.“ Understanding his thoughts. His point of view. Trying to think his thoughts. But also to psycho-analyse him. What’s his reasoning, but also what’s behind his actions. Digging deeper until something starts to emerge, words pop out, a POV clarifies. I reach that point where in a few words I can describe what my goal will be for the score and I think “of course”.

Because the right solution should always make you think “of course.”

With the understanding of the character and the function of the score I am then able to get to work and write with a clear target in mind.

I set to work writing my themes knowing exactly what to aim for. No throwing notes at the screen like spaghetti on a wall.

And there you have it, a view into my process and why I consider myself an actor with notes.

My Workspace

This is my workspace.

Although I use plenty of music technology, my room is set-up to have lots of space for good old-fashioned paper. It is as rich, bright and energetic as possible with my one small window. I used to like it darker but tastes change. I am no longer a fan of dark, gloomy studios for writing music. Now I think the next iteration of my writing space will have lots of windows if possible, as long as there is nothing outside to take my mind away from my writing. Tress, I’d like if it was only trees outside.

If usually sketch on the big board in the back to various degrees of completion then bring it over to the smaller board where I do mockups and fix-ups and whatnots. What I’d like to add next is a writing board on the desk that I can write more easily on. That’s next, will make writing the inevitable changes as I do my mockups more convenient. Right now I use the side of the desk. Works fine, but not as elegant.

Starting on new commission

Today I have started work on a new commission for the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra. The concert will be next month.

It is a short piece under 5 minutes to be accompanied by a slide show or short video created by a local painter. I have seen the paintings and they are abstract and colourful.

This is excellent, because I wanted to focus more on colour with this piece as a contrast to my other pieces for the VMO which have been driven by melody and rhythm.

The start of a new piece or score involves a few things for me.

Long showers where I imagine the orchestra and what I want to hear.

Lots of listening. I believe in standing on the shoulders of giants, and by this I do not mean that my aim is to imitate. No, this is quite against my nature. My goal is to take great ideas that excite me and build on them, extract a concept from them and do something completely different with it. The goal is find new ideas and constantly improve my technique.

Right now, my concept for this piece is to make colour and melody into one. What do I mean by that exactly? … Well, it’s hard to explain in a few words, and frankly, I am not really sure I’ll be able to make it work like I have in my head right now. It’s still vague. But it’s important to have a goal! So we shall see…

Tell a Story

Second post regarding the new VMO commission.

This piece is about 9 minutes long. I’ll tell you right away, this is the longest single movement concert piece I have ever written.

Up until now I have focused on other aspects of composition and did not feel ready for something this long.

Now I was ready for it.

I was discussing our perception of long pieces with a friend and professional musician. And we both admitted that, even though we love music on a very deep level, many long movements can really be… well, boring.

So to prepare for this 9 minute piece, I listened to tons of long pieces and had very deep thoughts :) as I paid attention to my own reactions as a listener.

What interested me? Where did my attention wander? Why? Did I have to work to be interested?When did I get bored and feel like turning it off?

I reached many conclusions and still many more to come. Here are a few:

  • Beautiful orchestral colours, the sheer beauty of sound.
  • Melodic continuity and clear form.
  • Variety, limited but obvious.
  • A definable arc.
  • Some surprises that still make sense

Yes, these are all obvious, but they are simple yet important concepts that are badly used in general. Too much of the same during a long piece and you get bored, too much variety and the music appears random and disconnected and the audience drops out.

The piece is a journey for the audience, and the melody (or central idea) is the character that leads them through it.

Just like a story! And ever more to the point, just like a film which, like music, are experience temporally.

This is something I have thought about for years, and now I see it makes complete sense and will write some posts on how concert music (especially long pieces) can benefit from an understanding of movie story-telling.

Now back to my piece!

Film vs. Commissions

The traditional way composers work with commissions has not felt right for me for a long time. You get your commission, hole up and months later the musicians get a piece they have never seen and may not like then have to perform it.

That doesn’t work for me and I’ll tell you why: you risk not having the spiritual involvement of the musician(s).

No singer in the world of pop music, country and even metal would perform music they don’t like and don’t believe in.

The process in pop music is different too. Songwriters write songs without being commissioned and submit them without knowing if it will be chosen.

Well, this is fine for a 3 minute song but I would never do that for a 15 minute orchestral piece!

The solution for me has been to approach commissioned work like I approach film scoring.

First I write a ton of ideas. From those I pick a few ideas I like and present them to the musician(s) to see what they connect with, what makes them excited, itching to play and wanting to hear more.

From there the writing of the piece is very much an isolated process, but I send progress reports, questions on technique and also ask for aesthetic opinions whenever I am in doubt.

This is what I did on my latest piece “Battling Boggarts” which was premiered Wednesday April 27th. I emailed ideas (always audio) to soloists Gene Ramsbottom and Tim Phillips and they chose their favourites.

After the performance, Tim told me he had never worked like that with a composer and he completely loved it. It was fun and gave him great insights into the process of composition as well!

I had also done the same thing for my previous piece, “Resisting Euphoria”, where I presented conductor Ken Hsieh with my various ideas. He loved so many of them and was getting excited that he is the one who suggested “write a suite!”

But I’ll be honest here, I don’t do it just for the players, it is for me as well. Knowing that a musician is liking the direction a piece is taking gives me confidence in the music, and that confidence allows my creativity to flow unrestrained.

Because for me, nothing kills creativity faster than wondering if it’s good and if people will like it.

And since my audience is the performer, getting them involved right away solved that issue for me and I’ll never go back to the old ways!

Silk Boy – Score Analysis: Introduction

The CD of “The Legend of Silk Boy” is out, the reviews are coming in slowly and very positive. As I approach other film projects I wish to bring Silk Boy to a close by doing a series of blog in the vein of my favourite Film Score Monthly articles: a theme analysis.

So in the next little while I will be going over the score theme by theme and track by track, explaining how they were written, what was the inspiration and approach taken, and how they fit into the film (without giving too much away.) There will be examples from the final engraved score, scans from sketches and whatever else would be fun to include.

This will work great with the CD release because it was released in chronological order and has only a few cues missing. So I’ll be referencing CD track numbers to those who have it!

Let the party begin!

Dealing with Doubt

When composing it is normal to have doubts about the quality of your ideas, but in the business of music on demand and tight schedules, you need an approach to deal with that and make the best decisions.

This is how I deal with it

1. I brainstorm.

I have a variety of ways of doing this: at the keys, the guitar, often just walking around the house or my studio or, if ideas are slow in coming, I do laundry or a few chin-ups, anything to clear my mind and get into “play mode”. When brainstorming I find it important to just have fun.

Figuring out under what circumstances I get my best ideas is something I spent quite a lot of time figuring out, and it was not time ill spent. I never get the blank page syndrome anymore.

2. Pick your favourite.

I do this right away and I don’t wait for the next day. I make a few choices and if I have doubts about the best one to choose as I play through them, I will do a rough sequence and then sit back and listen.

If I still have doubts I will stop for a bit, do something completely unrelated to clear my head and get some distance from it, then I come back in 10 minutes or so and sit back and listen.

Even with tight deadlines, taking a short break is important, it makes everything else go much, much faster and smoother.

And let’s face it, if you have doubts about the quality of your idea, it will nag at you as you work.

Furthermore, I am sure this has happened to you; you think your idea is great, you write the whole thing in a heat of passion only to find that it is quite lame when you listen again the next day. Time completely wasted.

Having experienced that a few times, even when I think I am sure I have doubts!

So even when you think you are sure, taking a few minutes or a day to get distance and the come back to your idea with a fresh ear is an important part of the process.

Today I am writing a little 45 second ditty for my next project (more on that soon) and I had to take a break, get some distance from two ideas that I have to choose from – so I wrote this post!



Film composition requires fluency

What is fluency?

You have to be in touch with your muse, of course, know how to call her at will, and have the musical knowledge, skill and experience to do something with it.

Like Brahms said:

“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind”

But an important and seldom discussed aspect of fluency is the ability to self-edit on the spot.

Here is a great read on this very subject.

I enjoy reading about copy writing because there are many parallels between copy writing and composing for film.

I have gained many insights reading about copy writing that I have applied to composition, and also to my writing of words, which I also enjoy doing.

And of course, fluency requires that you put your nose to the grindstone, as the saying goes, which is where I should be right this minute instead of writing this post!

So off I go.

Animation Feature – week 3

Well, this is taking a while, isn’t it? I never imagined for a second that the last song would be hard to write at all.

But it is.

The first thing was finding a style of music that both me and the director were happy with, something that has a big finale feel to it. A nice big happy party.

I remember this video on Jerry Goldsmith where he talks about spending a week just listening to Native Indian music as he got ready to score a film. Just immersing himself in the sounds and colours before he started writing.

So that is what I am doing now. Not Indian music of course, but rock, rockabilly and funk.

There are a lot of ideas written down right now and piling up fast, but for this song I have to go with the great idea. The great, simple idea.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Frederic Chopin

I am looking for that idea that makes me go “aha”,the idea that fits the many criteria required, and I didn’t get that yet, not quite. I feel myself getting closer, though.

And the funny thing is, that once the song is done, it will feel so easy and natural.

I also need to get started on the underscore soon!

Animated Feature – end of week 1

Monday I started work on the pre-production music for the animated feature I am scoring. I wrote the first song on Monday, the ballad, which I thought I would have a hard time with. So I approached it with intense effort, brainstormed, and after a day of hard toil I had the whole song written.

And then, an hour before the family was set to return, something hit me and I re-wrote the song completely in about 20 minutes, and I knew that was the one!

I recorded it and sent it off on Tuesday and it got approved. The director, the producer, his team, everyone loved the music, my wife cried while listening to it, what a great start! (This being the first piece of music for the film, it was important to make a good first impression!)

Then it was time for the second song which I thought would be a breeze. I had the idea for the chorus already, you see. It had come to me on Monday during lunch and thankfully I had some manuscript paper (never leave the studio without it!) so I wrote it down right away.

On Tuesday I still remembered the tune perfectly, which indicated to me that it was memorable. So when I sat down to work on it on Wednesday, I thought, I already have the chorus and it’s a killer! I’ll just start with a verse, do the chorus, modulate twice, it’ll be a breeze.

I even woke up and was playing through it in my head while taking a shower and it sounded great! But I sat down at the piano and it started all sounding too… country.

That wasn’t going to fit. How depressing.

But as soon as I detached myself from the idea (and that took a while) I realized what parts worked and what parts needed fixing up, and within a few minutes I had a version that rocked.

Now, the problem I am having is the form. I have goals for the form and it has to work dramatically within the context of this ending.

Sure, this second song is giving me problems, but that’s fine, I embrace them! Bring ‘em on.

Because, after all, you can’t have solutions without problems.