John Piscitello is an American composer. John began his music career playing the string bass at the early age of eight. He went on to perform in many different genres, from classical music and jazz to alternative rock and new wave. In between earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Computer Science from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School, John played in Boston rock clubs and was the principal bassist for the New England Philharmonic. Following a distinguished career in product management for MOTU and Google, John went on to study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the EAMA composition program at the historic La Schola Cantorum in Paris
Many thanks to the composer for his time and also many thanks to Chandler Poling of WHITE BEAR PR,who made this interview possible.
What musical education did you receive?
It falls between formal and self-taught. Growing up I played string bass, but the only theory I learned early on was for the sake of improvising over jazz chords.
For college I attended MIT and majored in computer science, but was able to take four semesters of harmony and counterpoint. After that I was self-taught for a long time, mostly through playing in bands in Boston clubs.
Years later I sought out a composition teacher from San Francisco Conservatory of Music, studied privately with him and took classes at the conservatory. In 2010 I did a summer program in Paris with the European American Musical Alliance. Then I moved to LA and applied to the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at USC, which I finished last year.
Was writing music for film something that you had always thought you would do?
I didn’t get turned onto film music until someone played The Mission soundtrack for me in college. That created a spark, but I was busy surviving as a computer science major.
I was right out of school when the Internet started to explode, so like a lot of people I was excited by how the world was about to change. I went to business school, moved to Silicon Valley and got into the start-up scene. A few years passed without picking up an instrument. But not a day went by where I didn’t think about going back to study music and taking a shot at scoring films. I got around to it eventually.
You scored NO PLACE ON EARTH which is an amazing documentary, how did you become involved on this project?
I met the film’s director Janet Tobias in 2001 and we kept in touch. She’d tell me about her film and TV projects, and I’d tell her about my work in Silicon Valley. Along the way I quit the day job, started studying music full time, and scored a few films around San Francisco.
So the opportunity came about the way many of them do: a combination of relationships plus years of study and practice.
What size orchestra did you utilize for the project and how much time were you given to write the score and record it, how many sessions did you need to finish the recording?
Writing the score was straightforward. I received reels pretty early on, so I had 3 solid months to write.
Recording got interesting because of the documentary-sized budget. With orchestras the biggest cost drivers are people and time. A lot of planning was necessary to get the best sounding orchestra possible.
We decided to record in LA. From the USC film music program I knew the musicians, engineers, and studios. I’d learned what 10, 35, or 70 players can sound like, and how many minutes of finished music could be recorded per hour.
For No Place On Earth we recorded 70 minutes of music in a day. We did a 3-hour morning session with 35 players, a 3-hour afternoon session with 23 players, and an additional hour with 10.
When scoring a picture, at what stage in production do you like to become involved, do you prefer to get on board at the rough cut stage or maybe you prefer a script to look at?
I prefer to start as early as possible. In Silicon Valley I learned that creativity is the product of time and concentration. The more time you have to focus, the more you can invent and discover.
When you’re in a rush, there isn’t time to think, and you’re forced to rely on what you already know. There’s less time for the wider creative team to listen and weigh in and you have fewer iterations. So earlier is better to get a unique musical sound for a film.
Your score for NO PLACE ON EARTH is certainly a very emotive one and has so many themes within it, when working on the film did, you begin with smaller cues and then progress to larger sequences or maybe you started with the central theme and built the remainder of the score around this ?
No Place on Earth started with themes written away from picture. The movie is about Jewish families surviving in World War II, so at heart of the story is really about family. One theme emerged as best representing the family and that became our main theme.
I used just about every musical idea in that theme in other cues. The clearest example is first five notes of that piano melody. You hear them at the start of Coming Out, Meeting Sol, GypsumCaves, and others.
Then there is a counterpoint melody on the alto flute, and that counter line shows up in Living History, World Class Cavers. Waiting and Shooting, etc.
This happened over and over. The bass line, a little alteration between major and minor seconds in the melody, all these little musical ideas acted like seeds for the rest of the score.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music, or have there been times when this is not possible due to schedules etc?
On larger film scores for orchestra I prefer to work with an orchestrator. Jeff Tinsley orchestrated No Place On Earth.
I write detailed mockups with orchestration in mind. But when you start putting the actual score together, issues always crop up.
The No Place On Earth main theme has a pizzicato part for violas and cellos, but in orchestration it became clear that it required many left hand shifts for the cellos. The notes wouldn’t get to ring out well, so we split and dovetailed the part across the cellos and violas.
It’s an important role for the orchestrator to iron out these kinds of details because you don’t want to have to discuss this on the scoring stage while on the clock.
Orchestrators also give you another point of collaboration. In Coming Out there’s a wonderful doubling of solo violin with the alto flute, which lasts for about a bar and then it’s violin alone. The doubling adds depth, and when it disappears that bit of contrast makes the final moment much more delicate.
Also do you conduct all your own scores, or do you prefer to oversee proceedings from the recording booth?
Conducting is an important skill that takes years of training to do well, so I like to work with an experienced conductor that the players have worked with before. We had an aggressive schedule, and if a conductor makes the musicians feel rushed, that can tighten the mood of the room and impact the performance. Tim Davies conducted No Place On Earth and the session went great.
The other advantage of being in the booth is the composer hears what is actually getting recorded. No Place On Earth had synth pre-lays all over the score, and we were mixing live. To get the balance just right I needed to be listening and working in real time with engineer Bobby Fernandez making constant adjustments.
I like to write at the piano, away from the computer. I can’t get over the idea that Debussy and Stravinsky wrote their large-scale works at the piano, so it must be all anyone really needs.
When I start a project I like to work out everything at the piano, then when it’s ready I go down the hall to the studio and start working to picture at the computer.
Did NO PLACE ON EARTH have any sort of temp track installed when you came to score it; if so was this of any help to you in the way of what type or style of music the director was looking for?
I had the opportunity to write some tracks while the film was still shooting, so the temp was a combination of my own mock-ups plus music from other films.
Temps are most useful when they’re good, but have clear defects. Often a temp cue will start out great, but a few moments later the mood somehow drifts. Or the temp score may work great scene by scene, but watching and listening end to end it might feel disjointed.
In those cases the temp gives you a clear sense of direction that everyone agrees upon. A good temp is like a big arrow saying “Go that way”, and it’s up to you to find the right spot.
Do you think it is more difficult scoring a short or an animated film as opposed to a documentary, what I mean by this is in a short or a cartoon you probably don’t have the time to develop the thematic material as fully, whereas in a documentary like NO PLACE ON EARTH or a feature you have a lot more time?
Short is tough, especially on themes. But sometimes thematic material isn’t needed. If you have an irreverent, fast-paced comedy, maybe all the music needs to do is make the jokes work.
There’s no hard and fast rule but I like having themes when the film wants pathos. A theme can connect the audience to a particular emotion at the core of a story, almost like a scent can remind you of a childhood memory.
Themes do seem to work better when you hear them more than once, and that’s hard in short films. But you can say a lot without melody. Tempo, dynamics, instruments, pitch – any of these can make the scene work.
Staying with documentaries, animated features etc, for you does the scoring process differ a great deal when scoring a short as opposed to a feature?
The process isn’t so different. The biggest difference is for a feature you must consider pacing over longer periods of time. One thing to consider is that the audience’s sense of memory is different over the course of 2 hours than it is over the course of 15 minutes. A theme repeated verbatim an hour later might be enormously satisfying, but after only 10 minutes that might not work at all.
What composers either film music or classical would you say have had an influence upon you or indeed inspired you?
From classical music I’d say Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. I discovered it playing the first movement on string bass at an orchestra festival in high school. I was kind of shocked at the opening melody for lower strings, which is fast and gives a lot for the string bass to do. It was my first exposure to a Romantic symphony and compared to the Classical era music I’d been playing it was extremely emotional.
What turned me onto film music was Morricone’s score for The Mission, which I discovered in college. That was a “wow” moment for me. In fact every time I put it on it’s still a “wow” moment.
Did you have any involvement in what music would be on the compact disc release of the score from NO PLACE ON EARTH?
I fortunately was able to select and sequence the tracks. Just about everything in the film is there, organized to be listenable as an album. I chose not to include a few cues that were either a bit short to stand on their own or otherwise too similar to other tracks.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
The first we often say is to add emotion to the story, but it’s not that simple. The last thing music should do is tell the audience what to feel.
On the other hand, if music communicates how someone on the screen feels, that tends to work. Do that well and the audience will feel something too. It might be the opposite of what the character feels, as in a comedy. If the music is good and the scene is good, the audience will respond.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am putting the finishing touches on a couple of tracks I wrote for The Short Game, which is opening September 20th in theatres. It’s about the best 7 and 8-year old golfers in the world as they compete at the kid’s golf championships in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The music is along the lines of indie and pop music, a big change from No Place On Earth but a lot of fun to work on.