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film scoring

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em?

When I heard that Justin Timberlake was slotted to be the composer and head music supervisor of the forthcoming film “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Film scoring has been moving away from the classically trained John Williams types for years now. Hans Zimmer, who has apparently set the current template for film scoring with his Wagneresque brass heavy “Inception” score, was a former pop musician, as was Danny Elfman to only name two of many. Of course, there is Trent Reznor’s critically acclaimed scores for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, not to mention composing the theme to the upcoming game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2Then there’s my favorite, Jonny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead, who scored 2007’s “Best Picture” There Will Be Blood, one of my favorite modern scores, and more recently, the Japanese film Norwegian Wood.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com

However, it’s hard to imagine Timberlake invoking Pendrecki and Coates like Greenwood did, or producing some brooding ambient soundscapes ala Reznor. As talented an individual as he is, I was pleasantly surprised to see he had writing credits on all of the tracks on his debut LP. It’s hard to imagine what direction he’ll go musically, and I suppose we’ll just have to wait to hear the final product (and hopefully not on pop radio).

Popular artists getting into film scoring used to make me nervous in a certain way. Let’s face it, the film composer market is overly saturated, especially when you take into account how few composers get a shot at scoring movies people will actually see. Ultimately, however, popular artists are not creating more competition for film scoring. All they are doing is slightly increasing the small number of composers who are asked to score popular films. Now, instead of one of maybe eight composers picked to score every big budget film, the group widens to 10 or 12.

This leads to bigger questions about the the integrity of the film score and so forth, but I’m sure someone more qualified has an opinion on that. As an aspiring composer though, it should make you reassess your approach to getting “discovered”.

A Q&A with Dunk Murphy of Sunken Foal

Back in 2008, I stumbled on an LP called Fallen Arches by an artist named Sunken Foal while searching through Planet Mu’s excellent catalog. I was immediately fascinated by the album’s organic instrumentation combined with glitchy percussion and decidedly progressive song structures that made for an outstanding and important LP. After a little investigation, I learned the man behind the project was Dunk Murphy, an accomplished Irish producer and musician, who also has released music as part of the groups Ambulance and Natural History Museum, among others. There were only two EPs (Fermented Condiments on Mu Records and Mother of God on Acroplane Recordings) from Sunken Foal since the debut, so it’s little wonder that I was highly anticipating his newest release, Friday Syndrome Volume 1, which is available as a free download at his website, www.counstersunk.org. Dunk was kind enough to answer a few questions from me via e-mail about his music, label, and artistic approach:

First of all, as a composer and producer myself, I love the way you went about producing the material on Friday Syndrome Volume 1. What was the catalyst behind the method, and did it result in any new or exciting revelations for you?

DM: Every tune is always different – I spent a little less effort at the time of inception with this collection of tunes – my stuff in the past has been far more “composed” working with lots of chord progressions and harmonies on guitars and pianos etc. – this time out I gave myself a few hours each Friday evening to compose some short rhythmic tracks and send them on to some friends as soon as they were done – the idea was to take advantage of that thirst for studio work I get every Friday evening when I know everyone else is getting ready to go out and socialise (knowing that I should to be getting ready too but at the same time getting all annoyed that I hadn’t worked hard enough that week) 

 

On your website, it seems that the recording itself is free for download, and what you’re actually selling is merchandise to promote the record. What made you take this approach?

DM: I tried my best in the past to make a living purely from music whether it be composing for film, performing or releasing music – it all seems to be in this huge state of flux as a business now and I’m starting to think that this state of flux will continue and no one ubiquitous medium for music distribution will be settled upon – so in the meantime I wasn’t really bothered investing in one of the new distribution methods as I wanted to get the music out ASAP – it seemed to me that there was a lot of negativity from one side from people complaining about the kids pirating music, and then a lot of negativity from another side where people are attacking established record companies for selling music through the same old methods – I was thinking it could be nice for the artist to come up with a slightly different way of collecting revenue for their works and accept that it is not “business as usual”

 

There also doesn’t appear to be a label involved. Is there any specific reason why you’re self releasing this recording, are there any added benefits, and do you foresee releasing music on labels ever again?

DM: Yeah, I’d love to release music on other labels again – my last album came out on planet-mu – I think that they prefer a different side to what I do so I thought releasing this myself might be a little challenge – I’m viewing countersunk as a label and there is music to come out from other artists through the site at a later date – I’m still not sure if we’ll venture into vinyl yet – it’s all still a bit new – by self releasing, perhaps the benefits are that you get to engage with the audience in a more immediate fashion

 

How important do you find a physical object à la a CD or LP these days, and do you see yourself releasing Friday Syndrome Volume 1 this way in the future?

DM: The physical object to me is really important: hence the generative prints that we have on sale to support the release – it occurred to me that with vinyl, 250 individual sleeves could not be printed with unique artwork without a huge amount of work so the idea of the 50cm x 70cm prints came and I decided to go with it – there are a couple more volumes to the “Friday Syndrome” project to come so there might be a ‘best of’ vinyl release if there is call for it

 

I think your work is extremely textured and diverse, therefore potentially lending itself to film music. Have you ever considered doing music for film, and if an advertiser approached you about using one of your songs in a large campaign, would do it?

DM: I’ve done loads of that shit!! – ads have paid the bills indeed in the past but they take a lot of work and you really have to be dedicated – not just in terms of composition but you have to think in a business minded way – films are even more work and you really have to be involved with the team at hand – the “Friday Syndrome” stuff started out of a period where I was finishing off a couple of art film sound pieces – One of them was called “Rialto Twirlers” by director Anne Marie Barry  – I was all ‘droney-textured’ out and I needed to write some beats … sort of as a method of self therapy : )

 

The “business minded” approach you speak of seems to be a difficult trait to take on for artists such as myself, especially in today’s fluctuating and seemingly oversaturated market. Do you have any advice for composers struggling to adapt this mindset who are looking to get their music in productions such as advertising or films?

DM: Shed any kind of pride or dignity that you might still be holding on to – be prepared to “believe” in things that you otherwise wouldn’t : ) whore yourself with all your might

 

Sunken Foal’s Friday Syndrome Volume 1 is now available for free download on countersunk. Share the link, and while you’re there, buy something and support the artist.

 

Why “MIDI” Isn’t a Bad Thing

Public understanding of the term “MIDI” hasn’t progressed as far as the technology has in the last few years, and that’s a blessing and a curse. I, for one, got heavily into composing when I realized how realistic-sounding some of these new programs were, and the illusion of having used real instruments is a very important element of my work. At the same time, though, I think a little further information on what exactly you’re hearing only makes the total package that much more spectacular. 

What most excited me about advances in MIDI technology was the ability to finally be able to get realistic sounds out of orchestral samples. Most modern libraries contain samples that are performed by some of today’s top musicians at some of the finest studios, stages, and halls in the world. The amount of recorded detail is remarkable, and the fact you can alter things like mic placement is truly astounding. Throw in some high quality reverb, and you have a set of sounds that, when used correctly, will make even the most seasoned aficionado think they’re listening to a real orchestra. While these sample libraries do come at a hefty price, the things they enable a composer to do are well worth the cost.

It doesn’t stop with orchestral samples, of course. You’d be hard pressed not to find a high quality sample library either built around or including a specific set of instruments that’s professionally recorded, and exhaustively performed to include every realism-adding detail. With this in mind, it continually pays as a composer to look outside the box, and find the smaller companies that are on the cutting edge.

So, the next time you hear “MIDI” hopefully your mind won’t go directly to Nintendo theme songs or ringtones. You’d be surprised how much music you hear, specifically on television, is MIDI derived, and the technology is only getting better. However, it is important to remember that these sounds are just tools. The art is found in knowing how to use them.

Here is a Stink Bug, common to Maryland, on my M-Audio Axiom 25

Here is a Stink Bug, common to Maryland, on my M-Audio Axiom 25

 

What I’ve Been Up To: Scoring “Playing It Straight”

Earlier this month, I composed a score to the short student film Playing It Straight, which was directed by Michael Kenney. The film itself deals with sexual identity and societal norms in a comedic and dramatic way, with a nod to the iconic ’80s films of John Hughes. In that respect, the music I had to compose for the film was extremely stylized, and ran the gamut of overtly sentimental, to excessively dramatic, to cartoonish, making for a lot of diversity in my compositions.

Below is the final cut of the film “Playing It Straight” (Run time is 21:53, but the film doesn’t actually start until 1:28). If you’d like to get in touch with Michael, let me know and I’ll forward you his information. Enjoy!

 

Here’s an orchestral piece I scored for the film that I particularly enjoy that didn’t end up making it in the final cut for one reason or another.

Opaque by ProgressNotes

Films I Scored: ‘Lars’


Poster for the award-winning short film LARSLars
, a short film I scored in 2010, was a unique situation for me in many ways. First of all, I got the gig through good ol’ fashioned networking, as the film’s writer and director Manuela Rossi was a colleague of the guy who directed a prior short film I scored (Boxing Will). It is also the only film I’ve ever scored where the music I provided was accepted exactly as is, with no rewrites or reworking needed. Even as someone new to the film scoring game, I knew this was a rare scenario. Lastly, it was the only film I’ve scored so far where I’ve confined the arrangements to one specific set of instruments, in this case that of a string quartet (with the exception of the solo piano theme and outro reprise).

I think I decided on the string quartet instrumentation because the film, to me, is extremely claustrophobic. The subject matter and locales seem very stifling and rigid. The versatility of the string quartet was great in that the instruments can provide such a wide range of timbres and dynamics, be it a quiet sense of helplessness, to a violently rhythmic ostinato, while adding a classic feel. A large musical inspiration for me was Schubert’s Winterreise, which I felt was congruent with the feel of the film,  and was also somewhat culturally relevant. Lars

Another great thing about Lars was that Manuela really stuck with the film, and got it in a lot of festivals, including the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in France. I’m sure everyone involved with the film appreciates her hard work, and wishes her luck in the future! She is currently back in Europe, working in the film industry, and has an excellent blog, too!

Last, but not least, you can view the film in its entirety here (English subtitles, 18:12 run time). Selections from my score can be heard here. Please let me know what you think!

 

Character

I’m not going to pretend that there are not a gazillion other music composers and producers out there, and a lot of them might be more formally educated than myself. Many of them might have more state of the art gear, and even more might have a greater amount of accolades than I have. However, I’m also not going to pretend like that necessarily holds much weight in the grand scheme of things. It’s all about what your ears tell you. As much as I’d like to, I can’t define certain signature artistic elements that show up in my work, so instead I prefer to accept them as flourishes of “character”.

Character is a completely subjective concept that means vastly different things to different people. As far as music goes, I look at it as what an artist brings to something that not everyone else can, does, or wants to. Now, musically this could be something as extreme as John Cage’s “4:33″, to a fantastic reinvention of a song we’re all familiar with. It all depends on the artist, and their character is a main way in which we distinguish one from the other.

Character is something we inherently have, but sometimes needs to be provoked or awakened by experiences and events. However, it is the intangible things that shape us artistically, that seem to come from within, that give us all a truly unique voice. If you’re lucky enough to have found yours, let the world hear it. If not, keep searching.

Free Royalty Free Music: How Serious Are You About Your Project?

Get Royalty Free Music from ProgressNotes

According to Google, over 120,000 people search for “free royalty free music” A MONTH. I know, I know, everyone wants something for free, and when forced to decide between what’s free and what isn’t, they’ll normally choose the free one in many cases. While that’s perfectly understandable at times, I, however, do not understand the allure of free royalty free music for use in productions. As discussed in a prior blog entry, the value that music brings to your production, large or small, should not be overlooked or squandered. Music is unfortunately often pushed off until the end of a production when the budget is all but exhausted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be selective in what you choose. Take a step back and reexamine the situation.

To get the most out of music, your first consideration should be quality. You’re going to want the best music and the best production you can get within your means. Compare the free royalty free music you download to material found on AudioJungle, RevoStock, or other sites. Don’t be afraid to use your ears to determine what sounds better. Which songs are louder, fuller, more produced? Which pieces have more character or authenticity? Another consideration should be whether or not you’re OK with hundreds of thousands of other productions potentially using the exact same song you are, likely the case with most free royalty free music. Lastly, you need to determine if you can even use free royalty free music, as what I’ve found can only be used for personal or educational non-commercial productions.

So, that’s why I ask, “how serious are you about your project?” Music plays varying roles in different productions, and not everyone has the budget to hire a composer, so it’s important to consider your options to find what is best for you without cutting corners or accepting mediocrity. The response you get from your audience thanks to a great score or piece of royalty free music might be worth the relatively small amount you spent on it.

Where I Live, Why It Matters, and Why It Doesn’t

I noticed that on my website I don’t have any information about my physical location. I remember I tried to squeeze that in on an “about” page on my last website, but location plays such a small part in what I do that it wasn’t that important to me to proudly proclaim where I call home (even though, at the time, I was somewhat close to L.A.).

Be that as it may, my studio is in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington, DC. Silver Spring is home to the Discovery Channel, many great Ethiopian restaurants, and an AFI Theatre for starters, and has been a pretty cool place since I’ve been here the past year.

However, thanks to modern technology, location hasn’t played a sizable role in my audio work thus far. I never met physically with the producers of many films I scored prior to actually scoring them, and phone calls and e-mails sufficed as far as communication went. Over great distances I have been able to successfully collaborate with many people on many great projects. This isn’t to say that physical interaction isn’t important. In fact, it’s preferable when possible. However, it’s not necessarily imperative in many situations I tend to find myself in.

The major component here is trust. When working with someone over a long distance, you have to be confident they are holding up their end of the bargain. This is one reason why composers who want to score big Hollywood films are expected to be there. The studio wants to keep tabs on you, and understandably so. On smaller scale or independent productions, this usually isn’t an issue.  With so many people out there eager to succeed, its important to take every opportunity available to you in earnest, wherever they may be, and make the producer glad they took the chance on you.

My point is, don’t always look at distance as a negative. The person perfect for your production might not always be the closest. I embrace the opportunity to work with people all over the world, but if you happen to be in the DC area, that’ll work, too!

Why “Background Music” Isn’t a Bad Thing

As an artist, I never want to think that what I do can simply be relegated to the background, but with music, that is often its place. Music provides atmosphere, and often serves to enhance visual mediums like film or presentations. Music keeps you company on your commute to work, and even while you’re at your desk, but often its role is secondary to driving, walking, or working. This concept is commonplace. I’m sure Vivaldi wasn’t composing “The Four Seasons” for doctor’s offices, or Sade for hotel lobbies, but that’s where you’ll find their music playing more often than not.

The fact that this “background music” stands on its own is generally moot. Instead of asking where John Williams would be without Star Wars, ask where Star Wars would be without John Williams. To varying degrees, the music and visual aspect are mutually beneficial. Sometimes one wouldn’t be what it is without the other. The right visual can bring out emotional content in the music that even the composer may not have felt, much as the right music can turn the accompanying visual into something incredibly memorable and poignant. So, please consider some of my music for the background of your production. I have full confidence you’ll be happy you did.