Thank you so much for agreeing to do this, I hope the questions are ok and not too many, thank you best wishes John.
R.C. Thank you for asking me. It is my pleasure.
Q: Can I start by asking what was it that attracted you to writing music for film, and was this something that you had in mind to do as a career right from the start?
A: I have always loved the movies. My mother was a big fan and when I was younger, we would go see all sorts of things. She also would buy the soundtracks and there was music playing in the house all the time. She especially loved musicals and movies with big orchestral scores like Max Steiner’s “Gone with the Wind”. There was a theatre within walking distance from our house in The Heights in Little Rock, Arkansas – The Heights Theatre – and when I was old enough I would walk the two or three blocks on the weekend and use my allowance money to see all sorts of things. I was not consciously attracted to the music at that point but the whole experience. Only later did I realize that the music is what fascinated me the most.
Q: Are you from a family background that is musical at all and what are your earliest memories of any kind of music?
A: My family was not a particularly musical family. Nobody played an instrument or sang. My father played trombone in his school band, but he gave it up early. Mom majored in biology and minored in theatre and wrote and produced a one-woman show when she was in college. That is the extent of anything direct. But they loved music and played all sorts of recordings at home. Big bands (they loved to dance), soundtracks, even Mantovani … large ensemble sound was a mainstay in our home.
The memory in relation to orchestra that stands out in for me is when I was on a field trip with my class, maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and we went to hear what I remember as Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra which was visiting our town. I had no idea what live orchestra was about, and my friends and I were messing around, as boys do, in the balcony when suddenly the orchestra started up. It absolutely floored me. What was this?! Where had this been?! I was completely hooked and have been ever since. The sounds and pictures of that event are still very vivid in my memory. It was amazing.
Q: Your score for HOUSE OF THE GORGON is tremendous, for me it evokes the music from the 1960’s AIP and Hammer gothic horrors, how did you become involved on the project and what amount of time were you given to complete the score?
A: Thank you, that is nice to hear – I was trying to get that sound. I became involved through a very roundabout way. If you want the entire chain of connections I will be glad to elaborate but the short answer is that I was in Boston for the dedication and unveiling of a bronze bust of Edgar Allan Poe at the Boston Public Library that a sculptor friend of mine, Bryan Moore, had completed. I had provided music for his promotional campaign for the project and was included in the “entourage”.
During my stay in Boston I was introduced to producer Mark Redfield, who was the original producer on House of the Gorgon and was friends with producer / director Joshua Kennedy. When Josh was looking for composers Mark recommended me and I was contacted.
Q: Did the director of HOUSE OF THE GORGON have any requests about the style of music for the film?
A: I don’t recall anything that specific. I put together a demo of what I had in mind for a main theme – which is almost completely what is heard in the film’s title – and sent it to Josh. He loved it and we were “off to the races”.
Q: What musical education or training did you have?
A: I am classically trained and hold a Music Education degree. My parents were very worried that I would not be able to support myself as a musician and we made a deal that if I’d get an education degree and teach for two years after graduation then they would pay for college. I fulfilled my part of the bargain, as did they, and then I jumped the academic ship for more commercial pastures – although I would lecture here and there at colleges, universities, and high schools – as well as accept commissions for wind ensemble works most of which are still in print.
Q: What composers or artists do you think have influenced you or maybe the way that you write or approach a movie or a musical project?
A: Two big questions! Classically I’m more of a Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich fan (you get the idea). For movies my main influence is the music of Bernard Herrmann., of course the work of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith (along with a host of others) directly influenced me. While at college (which became a university while I attended) I was employed as a projectionist in the town’s local theatre. Jaws, Star Wars, The Omen, Zardoz, The Hindenburg, Towering Inferno, etc,. etc. all came out (as I recall) while I was in school there. These were great scores that helped me determine that I wanted to write for movies. But how? There were no resources in Arkansas to do such a thing.
For the second question – approaching a writing project was a nebulous proposition until I finally got a composition teacher who knew what he was doing. His name was James Perry and he wrote theory and ear training texts for the US Military School of Music. His brother was at my school and a teaching opportunity opened up and “Dutch”, as we called him, left the military to teach for two years which radically changed my musical life and thinking.
Approaching a movie project, however, was the result of poring over the writings of various movie composers on the subject. For a composer starting out I would recommend Richard Bellis’ excellent little book “The Emerging Film Composer” and Karlin and Wright’s massive tome “On the Track”.
Q: Do you conduct at all, or is this something that you at times assign to a conductor so you can monitor the recording of the music?
A: I am trained as a conductor and have conducted almost everything from orchestra, symphonic wind ensemble, concert band, circus bands, to pit orchestras. One opportunity I have not had is conducting an orchestra to score for film. I have conducted for recordings however, and love doing it. I have tried to get comfortable with film conducting techniques by using “streamers and punches” – which are methods for syncing specific events in a film score with the on-screen action – in my desktop scoring. When recording virtual cues, I place each instrument in the orchestra by sound and I do this by pretending I’m on the podium and pointing to where I know each instrument should be. Recording is certainly a separate discipline from scoring the music and I have had to, reluctantly, learn a bit of it just to survive and be able to navigate new digital waters. When reviewing recorded cues, I conduct them as I listen. I then adjust timings – fast, slow, etc. – to make things flow more musically – as a real ensemble would do.
Q: Likewise, do you orchestrate and arrange all of your music for film?
A: Yes. I would love to have a team of orchestrators and copyists but like Bernard Herrmann and others my scores are well thought out orchestration-wise as I compose them. When I started out there were no computers and I did everything by hand. I still have my writing callus on my right middle finger. I would not only do scores in pencil but copy them in ink – and all the parts. Reams and reams of paper. When computer music printing came in, I gladly left behind years and years of hand cramps and exhaustion. I still use pencil and paper, however, for sketching but rely on a music notation program, “Finale”, for print work.
Q: THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK is such a theme laden work, its dark and rich in its overall sound, and filled with an unsettling atmosphere. I thought it sounding Herrmann-esque in places, especially the strings and the use of organ, how much music did you write for the project and what conventional or symphonic instrumentation did you use on the work?
A: There was quite a bit of music in the movie. Maybe 30 to 45 minutes in all? I do make a distinction between “writing” and “recording”. Many times, I will make a pencil sketch – really just a “skeleton” guide – of how a cue will work and then I record it. There’s no real “writing” as in formal scoring and orchestration, involved. If I were to use musicians other than myself, I would absolutely write them clean parts – in pencil or maybe ink depending on time, money, and depending on what happens to the paper music afterward. The option now to produce PDFs of the score and parts bypasses the need for paper (and the hand copying thank God) in many cases and players will read from their tablets.
For House of the Gorgon I attempted to score for large orchestra and several small ensembles within that orchestra as well as selected soloists. Strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, voices, and organ – all accessible on the desktop and, if handled well, can sound remarkably close to the real thing. Of course, it is nothing like a live ensemble but again, time and money in commercial ventures limits things.
I happen to take the view that limits are freeing. There is always a way to do something within the constraints you are presented with.
Q: How many times do you like to see a potential scoring assignment before you decide 1) if you are going to become involved, 2) what style of music you think the film needs and 3) Where the music is best placed to serve the picture? Maybe use HAUNTER OF THE DARK as an example.
A: Recently I have learned to ask the questions – “Who is directing?” and “Have they ever worked with a composer before?” In the past these questions weren’t even considered as I just wanted to work, and I’d take anything to get it. It was a good way to learn and I came up against all sorts of situations which taught me huge amounts of things. I work for a flat fee – nothing about counting measures or logging time spent – because the client is paying for my expertise and not my time, as I see it. Money is the most uncomfortable part of the discussion for me. I want to see the film and begin making music, not be worrying about money. Once the money talk is out of the way and we have an agreement, and everybody knows what their job is and what to expect – then we can get down to the real business of making the project.
If possible, I like to see as near a finished cut of the film when they send it to me. Dialog and sound effects included if possible. Then I can watch the entire thing as an audience member and get a feel for the whole experience. I’ll then just “walk it around” for a few days not committing much, if anything, to paper. I let my mind work on it on its own and soon something emerges that’s an idea or the beginning of an idea.
As far as placing the music in the picture that is an exchange between myself and the director. In House of the Gorgon Josh sent me a near-final cut with timecode running at the bottom of the screen. As I watched the movie, I would see places where I thought music would work and I would note the timecode where I thought each cue would start and where it would end. As you may know this is called “spotting” a film. Since Josh was in Texas and I’m outside of Chicago this was done separately. Ideally we would have been in the same room. Once I completed this phase I sent the spotting sheet to Josh who would approve the spotting or make changes. When that was settled, I would begin scoring.
(NOTE: Haunter of the Dark is a radio play. However, music spotting happens in much the same way as a film but cues off of dialog and events instead of timecode.)
Q: Do you have a set routine when scoring a picture, by this do you firstly establish a core theme and build the remainder of the score around this, or do you work on the score before establishing any central theme?
A: Every project is different. That said I’ll walk the picture around for a few days and will usually get a sense of what sort of ensemble to use. I prefer large orchestra but sometimes, like in Saturnalia which is a Josh Kennedy project that I am working on right now I am imagining something like a Henry Mancini score – big band with added strings and French horns. I am also working on Josh’s Mantopus which has been shot on actual 16mm film and needs to sound like a film from the 60s or 70s – so I am using a small orchestra to try to get the right sound. Now on hiatus, Cowgirls Versus Pterodactyls called for an epic American western score – something along the lines of Big Country or Silverado. There is a sort of “hush-hush”project which will reunite the House of the Gorgon cast, along with other Hammer Film Studio actors, that will require a lush full orchestra score. I’ve done a main theme and some small work on it and it should be a lot of fun.
Q: You write music for the H.P. Lovecraft historical society, how did you become involved on these projects and how different is it writing for a podcast as opposed to writing for film?
A: The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society is a separate group from the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. I have done music for the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Dark Adventure Radio Theatre, which are recorded radio plays. They are a blast to do. For the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, hosted by Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey, I have provided some original music and some tracks from other productions. In both cases these are highly professional, yet relaxed, people who absolutely know what they are doing, and it is a pleasure working for them.
I became involved with the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS) when their composer was indisposed and recommended me as a substitute on a project. This led to being used off and on in the podcast as well. Both organizations share people and talents back and forth even though, now, Chris Lackey lives in Yorkshire (UK) and Chad lives in California while Sean Branney and Andrew Leman (who founded and run the HPLHS) reside in LA. I reside in a small town outside of Chicago – so the internet has been invaluable in getting these productions done.
Q: How do you work out your musical ideas, at the keyboard, or straight to manuscript or by the more hi tech and contemporary fashion of computer?
A: Singing in the shower, out on a walk, these are when the best ideas for me happen. I will jot them down whenever they occur to me because for me retaining the ideas has always been a challenge. Then usually to computer and pencil sketches. I use separate programs for recording and writing which are very separate disciplines. No one program “does it all” where music is concerned but they keep trying to make them.
Q: What do you think of the current trend for composers to utilise a drone like sound in their scores, rather than writing thematic music to support a scene?
A: I love drones when they are used well. Drones of all sorts and sounds have been utilized in music for thousands of years. Drones as they stand today owe everything to those traditional music and musicians, the Aussie Aborigines, the Scottish, the Irish – anybody using a sustained or repeated sound under an improvised or free melody/sonic idea.
I have always loved playing over a drone or a monochord because there is such freedom in where you can go. Drones seem to convey a tribal aspect to things, similar to the rhythms of a drum circle, and it’s easy and fun to get into.
Drone or theme or combination? I suppose it depends on what is going on onscreen.
Q: In recent years we have seen the demise of the Main Title theme or an actual opening theme for movies, do you think that this is just a passing trend or maybe something that is more permanent?
A: I am not an adept cultural predictor. I have no idea where the movie-going experience is headed. I do like title themes and main themes, intros, and even the lights going down and the curtain going up. Presentation matters and too often our local movie theatres don’t care enough to present a film in this way. I think we lose something when they ignore presentation. After all, it’s called a “show” – where one shows something – so let’s do it well. As far as a central main theme, or basic sonic idea, it really is (as I think Henry Mancini said) the composer’s secret weapon. Projecting material from a main theme can serve all aspects of the picture and create an integral whole over the span of the film that helps attain a more coherent structure. Form in film music is a nebulous thing and themes, or central sonic ideas, can aid in creating a tighter, more integral, work. A theme can be played faster or slower, backwards, upside down (where the intervals are mirrored), or backwards and upside down. Many times, these “projections” will yield material that can be used. The rhythms of lyrics or related poetry, used in the film or not, can contribute to the rhythms of music used. I suppose I would say I’m an advocate of the use of a main theme.
Q: Do you think that a great score can maybe help make a not so good move a little better?
A: There’s a related expression “we can fix it in the mix” – which is never a good idea. If a director or producer wants the music to be a magic bandage that will somehow fix any problems the film has, I regret that it most likely is not possible. I have seen films where they have tried to fix it with the music – usually by adding more music – and it never works. I think, many times, that there is too much music in film in any case. Things are so noisy in many films – in an effort, I suppose, to prod younger viewers into thinking “something’s going on”. It is a sensory overload I can do without. Of course, it has its place but has been used injudiciously lately. A big part of music and sound are the silences.
It’s a collaborative effort. No one element can save or sink a project.
Q: The practise of the temp track is something that seems to have become more popular with film makers, have you encountered this and is it something that you think is helpful or maybe distracting for a composer?
A: I have a love/hate relationship with temp tracks. They are fantastic for conveying what the director thinks he wants and what the music spotting is – all in one go. Sometimes, however, directors get so married to their temp tracks that they end up using them even after having a composer (and his team) create an original score. Again – film is collaborative. Let us see what everybody we have chosen (an art in itself) brings to this project and maybe, just maybe, something wonderful will happen.