Born in Mexico, composer Arturo Rodriguez is one of the latest composers and conductors that are associated with music for concert hall performance who have crossed over successfully into scoring motion pictures.
1. What musical education did you receive?
I received a classical music education and I got to composition through the long route. I started in music studying piano and flute and, even though I loved listening to orchestral music from a very early age, the though of becoming a composer never really crossed my mind. It was something a loved but it seemed like magic to me. Like something unattainable. But somehow, in a very natural way, I was always writing music. When I was studying to be a pianist I was writing short piano piece on my spare time. When I was studying flute and piano I would write flute solo pieces, or flute and piano pieces. When I was at the university in Texas (TCU) I was a piano major but I was also playing flute in the university’s orchestra. That’s when I really got the chance to be right in the middle of the action and I would study and analyze the orchestrations of whatever repertoire we were playing at the time and really started to get a sense of orchestral colors, combination of colors, balance, etc. That’s also around the time when I got interested in orchestral conducting, so I started taking lessons privately. I never studied composition formally but I really think that being in that environment in the middle of the orchestra, and being able to study the orchestral repertoire through my conducting lessons, that taught me the basis for the type of music and orchestrations that I would write in the future and somehow it worked out, when I was still in college that I got to write my first works by commission. One commission led to the next and I started to get more and more involved with film music, which I always loved but for some reason I never thought I could dedicate my life to it or that I could make a living from writing orchestral music. I’ve been freelancing as a composer/orchestrator/conductor since 2003.
I grew up, as many of my colleagues did, going to the movies and listening to the wonderful orchestral scores of the 70’s and 80’s. I always had an inclination for writing music, but I particularly love ‘painting’ for the large orchestra. I guess a lot has to do with the type of music I got to hear in movie theatres when I was a child. Film music is relatively a new art, but I don’t like to catalogue apart from the rest of the orchestral writing history. We now have the luxury of being able to hear a Suite from Harry Potter or Star Wars in the concert hall, which is wonderful, but it doesn’t need to be anything different from being able to hear a Suite from a Tchaikovsky ballet or a Suite or concert version from an Opera. Good music is good music, and good film music is just that, good music, and deserves to be performed in concert halls.
As for the music I write for the concert hall it usually tends to be very ‘visual’ or programmatic or film music like in terms of orchestral colour and/or structure. It has a lot to do with the type of music to which I love to listen, so it’s not hard to me to write in that style when I get to chance to be involved with a film project. Once thing that fascinates me a lot about film music is the magic that happens with that connection between the visual and the aural. There is something very powerful about that. Setting music to moving pictures is certainly a passion for me and I do hope to be doing more and more of that in the near future.
3. You conduct concerts of your music but when you work in film do you also conduct your music or did you have a conductor on THE MAIDS ROOM so that you could monitor the recording sessions from the recording booth?
I do love conducting! So, when it’s been a few weeks of hard work composing, orchestrating, etc., for me the conducting part is the prize at the end of a long, hard work session. On the other hand, I usually write for live players and for the room in which I am to record, so I don’t need to be in the booth monitoring making sure everything’s working with pre-records, electronic elements, etc.
And also, for the type of music I write, if things are well balance in the orchestration and I have a good and reliable team in the booth, then if it sounds in the room it should work in the booth, and I’m usually more helpful in front of the orchestra. If something is not written with balance or colour then I can make small adjustments faster if I’m in front of the group.
4. Orchestration is in my opinion an important part of music composition, do you orchestrate all of your own music?
When writing orchestral music, orchestration is not only an important part. It IS part of the composition process. I can’t separate one from the other so, yes, I orchestrate all of my music.
I don’t know if it’s because of the musical training I got or because of the music I love to listen to, but when I hear music is in orchestral colours. It’s very hard for me to think music for a solo instrument or for chamber groups. Sometimes I sketch out things for the piano, but I always see those as sketches that need to be painted with orchestral colours. When I’ve been involved in film projects I usually just skip the sketching part and go directly to the conductor’s score on the Sibelius software and compose/orchestrate simultaneously. I’ve found that this is usually best when I’m doing orchestral music, because I’m not working out a sketch that needs to be orchestrated, but I’m writing something that is orchestral from its very conception. Also, the whole ritual of a group of people getting together to make some music is very special to me and I’ve always felt a lot of respect and gratitude for the musicians that make the music come to life, so for all the music I’ve written for the concert hall or for film, I’ve always done not only the orchestrations myself, but all the music preparation, printing, binding, etc. I truly believe that if the musician is going to offer me that gift of music, bringing my music to life, then the least I can do is to prepare that part for him/her. Besides, is now so easy now with all the technology available. The first 50 minutes of symphonic music I wrote back in 1998-1999, I still had to do by hand. All, score and parts. So I don’t take all this wonderful new technology for granted and at the same time I realize that it allows me to do a little bit more myself in the same amount of time I would have invested in writing it by hand.
5. How did you become involved on THE MAID’S ROOM?
It was very interesting. Both director and producer were searching for a composer and were running out of time. They saw my name in the Indie-wire magazine because I had been a Sundance Composer Fellow that year. They listened to my music on my website and then they gave me a call. I had two phone conferences, one with the director and one with the producer and then they sent me the film for me to watch before I decided if I wanted to commit myself to the project.
6. What size orchestra did you utilize for the score to THE MAID’S ROOM and how much time were you given to score the picture?
The instrumentation for The Maid’s Room is: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (second clarinet doubles bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (second bassoon doubles contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, 1 bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (including bass drum, snare drum, triangle, piatti, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tom-toms, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba), harp, piano(celesta), strings.
That’s for the bigger cues. Most of the score is written for piano solo with strings, which accompanies the main character Drina most of the time, and another recurring orchestral colour is also flutter tongue flutes with vibraphone and tremolo strings. I had two weeks to write around 60 minutes of music.
7. Was the director of the movie heavily involved with the music side of things for the picture, by this I mean dd he have specific ideas for you to follow or maybe he wanted a certain style or sound for the score?
Michael had it very clear from the beginning that he wanted a ‘classic movie sound’ for his movie. We talked about Bernard Herrmann’s music and also we discussed what he had already in his movie as a temporary music track. I find it helpful to have temporary tracks because they could be a good starting point for a discussion with the director for the concept of a particular scene and they also make apparent what could or could not work for the scene. But this works only when you have a director like Michael, who knows the temporary track is only a starting point. He was also very encouraging and was the first one to suggest me to depart from the temporary track as much as I wanted in certain scenes. Also, even though time was limited, I spent as much time as I could at the beginning of the process creating a short suite so I could show Michael a theme from the main character or how I could approach some of the suspenseful cues. I knew that if I could get the essence of the whole score for Michael to approve that we most likely will have a smooth ride for the remaining of the writing process. After Michael approved of the general concept then it was my task to write as fast as I could so that Michael still had the chance to listen and approve or make small modifications if needed.
8. How many times did you watch the film before you began to start writing the score and at what stage of the films production did you become involved?
I saw the movie once right before I said ‘yes’ to the project. I then wrote the suite and travelled to NYC to have a spotting session with director, producer and music supervisor. I watched the film for a second time with them. Then I went back to my studio and watched it one more time and then started to compose in chronological cue order.
9. THE MAIDS ROOM is out on compact disc on KRONOS records, were you involved in the sequencing or compiling of the cues for the CD release?
Yes. I produced the music part of the CD myself. I was very happy with the final score for this film, but I also ended up with a lot of short cues that serve as transition music in the film but would no work well structurally in an album. I am a fan of soundtracks that make you re-live the movie by listening to them from beginning to end, so I tried to keep the structure of the film in the order of the tracks on the CD, but I also made longer cues out of short ones that don’t necessarily follow the chronological order of the film but are still true to the narrative essence of the story.
10. What composers from the classical world and also from the film music arena would you say have inspired you or influenced you?
My main heroes who inspire me to this day are John Williams and Mahler whose music I continue to study on a regular basis.
11. When working on THE MAID’S ROOM did you establish a central theme firstly and then build the remainder of the score around this or did you tackle smaller cues first and then move onto larger sections of the score?
As I mentioned before, I created a short suite first. It was important that the main concept of the music was clear from the very beginning and approved by the director. Time was short but I really thought I should invest as much time creating a theme or a sound first before I started to write any cues. But also in general for every project I do, my music is thematic and melodic at its core, and I try to spend as much time as I can creating that musical foundation on which I could construct a musical structure that hopefully won’t collapse.
12. Do you come from a family background that is musical at all?
No, but my younger sister and I are both musicians, so I’ve always thought that if my parents or grandparents had had the opportunity of explore something artistic, at least one of them would have been a musician.
13. At what age would you say that you began to notice music and can you remember the first piece of music or song that caught your attention?
I didn’t start studying music formally until I was 9 years old, but I would sit in front of the radio from a very early age whenever classical music was on. Or later I would look up the classical music station myself. When I was very young, maybe 3 or 4 years old, we didn’t have a record player, but I would spin with my hands anything that was circular in shape and I would sing the music I thought could come out of them.
14. What is your opinion on the increased use of samples and synthetics being used in film music?
I think they are great tools. I don’t use much of it myself. I also think that at the end of the day is people and their creativity who make things happen. In my particular case, I’ve found that the world of the symphony orchestra is my passion and that the best I can do is to continue to grow on that field and that hopefully one day will need that kind of music and style for their project.
15. In your opinion how does contemporary film music compare with the film music from the 1940,s through to the 1960,s?
I think that film music should serve the film for which it is written. Film offers the wonderful opportunity that music could be in whatever style the filmmakers wish to choose. Modern film music is different from film music from the 40’s but films, their filmmakers and their audiences are also different. It’s a very young art-form, but the fact that is changing I believe it just means it’s alive. I think that now more than every, because all of the technology that has developed and because of all the different styles of film and filmmakers that exist, the creative possibilities are endless, and that’s just a wonderful environment for the art-form and its exponents.
16. Was there a temp track installed on THE MAID ROOM when you first viewed it, if so was this something that you found helpful or maybe distracting?
Yes, there was a temporary track, which I heard once. It was a great way for Michael, the director and I to start discussing the music. One really good thing is that Michael was extremely aware of the temporary tracks that were not working as well and the reasons why he thought they weren’t working, which was a great starting point for me.
17. When you are making a recording do you have any preferences when it comes to studios or engineers?
Yes, for many years I’ve collaborated with sound engineer Fredrik Sarhagen and colleague H. Scott Salinas. I’ve worked as an orchestrator and conductor for some of Scott’s projects, and in turn, when it has been my time to compose and conduct my own music, he has been a great person to have in the booth as a score producer. Most recently I’ve been collaborating with composer Norman Kim whenever I’ve needed a music programmer and mixer. I do believe that one has to build little by little a team that works and that also inspires you to want to excel at each project. It’s hard to find people with whom you can collaborate, but once you find them is a great thing that should not be taken for granted. One thing that’s very clear for me is that, at least from my point of view, the main difference between being a composer for concert music and being a composer who also could provide music for films, is that film is always a collaborative art-form, and it’s one of the main reasons why I enjoy so much working for film projects.
18. You were born in Mexico, does the film industry in your country get support from the government with funding etc and is the industry there thriving or struggling?
It would be unfair for me to answer that question. I was born and raised in México but then I got a piano scholarship to go to the United States and I’ve been in that country ever since. All of my family and some of my best friends are still in México but it’s in the United States where I’ve grown as a professional musician, so I have little or nothing to say about the film industry in my country.
19. What would you identify as the main differences between writing for the concert hall and writing for film?
As I said before, to me the main difference is that film projects are collaborative. Your music is at the service of someone else’s vision and your job as a composer is to support that vision, and there is also a music production team that helps you deliver the final product. To me that collaborative aspect of film is what attracts me and make me want to be a part of that world.
20 What are you currently involved with musically?
I just finished the reconstruction of Mexican composer Gonzalo Curiel’s 2nd Piano Concerto. It was a great and challenging project. Gonzalo Curiel is a Mexican composer who lived from 1904 thru 1958. He is mostly known for the popular tunes he wrote in the 40’s, like “Vereda Tropical”, but he also has over 100 film credits and was a great concert music composer. His family proposed this project to me. Curiel has 3 piano concertos but the second piano concerto had been lost for years and hadn’t been performed since its premiere in 1951. All that survived was the string parts, the piano solo part and a recording from the premiere performance. I had the honour and the challenge of taking down by ear what didn’t exist on paper and re-create the conductor’s score for a revival concert in San Luis Potosí, México in August 2014.
As an orchestrator I’m working with composer H. Scott Salinas on his score for the Darren Aronofsky produce film Zipper.
I love conducting and love classic films, and in an attempt to create new opportunities for my career I often try to bring those two and my composition skills together. Right now I’m writing music for the 1920 version of “The Mark of Zorro” with Douglas Fairbanks for live performance.
Many thanks to Arturo for his time and also his co-operation with this interview.