I would like to thank Ed for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions, jm.
You are what I would call a multi-talented composer, performer and musician, when did you begin to take an interest in music, and was it something that ran in the family and as a child was there a lot of music played at home?
I appreciate the compliment. I believe most of my success is simply “hanging in there” and outlasting others! I have been at music for a long time. My mother was a psychologist, but also loved to play the violin. I did try the violin in 1st grade but was the only boy and gave up. My dad worked for the government, but he loved to play trombone. Therefore, I tried trumpet. That lasted for one lesson. Somehow, after that I found percussion. I did stay with the same teacher for seven years. That taught me persistence.
My family went to concerts a lot, especially the Chicago Symphony (Solti!) and Lyric Opera. Those were eye-opening experiences, for sure. We had a pretty good record collection, including a lot of musicals. Going to a big movie was a treat, and that is where I found movie scores. My high school in Evanston, had an extraordinary music department. One teacher, Don Owens, an amazing composer, and educator, started an electronic music department and an avant-guard ensemble (“Weird Group”) there. My definition of music broadened quite a bit. I also started my jazz experience at that time.
You studied music at Indiana University, whilst doing your studies did you focus upon one instrument or a specific area of music?
I received a Bachelor of Music in Percussion at IU. That school was off the charts in faculty at the time. Nearly every teacher was a famous musician. My training was focused on performance (typically classical/orchestral), and they did an interesting job of combining theory and history together. My percussion teacher, Richard Johnson, was African-American, and his story was compelling, as he wasn’t able to work in a symphony because of discrimination. He was a “Yoda” type of teacher. My exposure to classical music was seriously enhanced by his instruction. He put me in charge of the percussion section when the orchestra performed Berlioz’s Requiem.
It required 10 timpani. Learning about the composer’s understanding of orchestration was mind-boggling. I did also continue electronic music. The department had the first “Moog” synthesizer (the size of a wall!). We also did early computer music using punch cards and huge reel to reel tapes! It took a day to get anything. I never took composition in college, but I did compose. For both my junior and senior recitals I performed original pieces. The percussion department wasn’t crazy about it, and had a major faculty composer on my jury. One of the pieces was cut from 20 to 7 minutes! Eek. That was the first of many cuts and edits to my music!
After college, I moved to Seattle. I had access to a harpsichord and developed an intense understanding of counterpoint on it. I started a composer’s series, Opus 1 that ran for a number of years. It featured six composers a month. Eventually, we had major composers (I premiered music by Alan Hovhaness!) along with faculty composers, students, jazz musicians, and nearly anyone on a truly open program in a nice theatre. I eventually wrote a 90-minute piece for orchestra that was premiered there. I had no budget, so it was rough, and got panned in the press! I did learn a lot about orchestration, though.
Your music has been heard in movies such as THE BLIND SIDE, THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY and the TV series LUCIFER, were these movies that you composed cues specifically for, or was the music that was utilised within these productions written beforehand and the production used it?
I wish I had done the scores for those films. Most of the tracks that I have had in major films and TV were from previously composed music for music libraries. A lot of that music is “diabetic” like music from a radio as part of the soundscape. “The Blind Side” features a marching band track, that was also used in other films. I am actually teaching music licensing, which is all about this process. Licensing came to me via a Christmas recording from 1992, “Marimbells of Christmas”. It is a tremendous recording, featuring all percussion instruments. (marimba, vibes, bells, etc.) Through a publisher, I landed a very nice deal with “Surviving Christmas” for the trailer and the film. I was inspired, and as recording became easier with digital devices, I started to compose a lot of music. It was licensing that got me back in the composing around 2001. I get requests from libraries for specific styles and genres, and occasionally some of those tracks get placements, although a lot of the time they don’t get the initial placement.
It does increase my catalogue, which has many hundreds of pieces. I do custom work more and more, and that can be synced music for an existing scene. About a year ago, I created a “Carmina Burana” style track for a web-series that the action was synced to. I was able to recreate it electronically in about two hours. BTW: I am on my 7th year of writing “Adventures in Music Licensing” if anyone wants to read about how to get your music in TV and film.
AS THE EARTH TURNS, is one of your more recent scores, it’s the 1930’s silent movie which you have scored. How did you become involved on the project?
“As the Earth Turns” is a 1938 silent sci-fi film that was never released (There is another “As the Earth Turns” from 1934, which is a talkie, and not related). This is a wild story of serendipity gone crazy. I have been teaching percussion for decades. One of my former student’s mom, contacted me in 2018 to take lessons, herself. She saw a track of mine on You-tube. I had created a Danny Elfman style track for licensing, and put it against a public domain Buster Keaton film,
(“College”-https://youtu.be/osBEEpcCVHU). The mom, Kim Lyford Bishop, asked me if I would like to score a film by her great uncle, Richard Lyford who was twenty-years old when he made it in 1938. It had never been released, as it was an “amateur” film. (Lyford went on to work for Disney, and eventually direct and Academy-Award winning documentary.) She had recently taken over the film-estate of the director. I agreed to do it. It took about a month. We found additional footage, and I edited it back into the film. My role was expanding quickly. It came out pretty well, and we had it mixed at Clatter & Din in Seattle a leading post-production studio. It came out even better. We started to enter the film into festivals. I became producer, and my life was dramatically changed. The film has been in 121 festivals and won 135 awards/nominations, including 34 for best score. I have been to several festivals (you get to go if you are a “producer”!). I organized a 7-day Oscar-qualifying run in LA last fall, did a media blitz, and entered the film into the Oscars (to get more eyes on it). I can say that Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Scorsese should have copies of the film. I can only hope they watch it! I negotiated a premiere on Turner Classic Movies, and the film is in distribution with Indie Rights. It is on Amazon and other platforms. From this experience, I have learned a lot about my film clients, and what they have to do to get their projects out.
I have also taken over the film-estate of the director, myself, and have created a documentary and am working on a screenplay for a biopic about the director. This all came from teaching a student. Astounding!
Would you say that it is less difficult scoring a silent movie, or maybe it is more involved as the music has to purvey so many emotions and is normally running constantly behind the images?
When you score a modern film with dialogue, you are constantly dodging the dialogue, Foley, sound-effects, etc. A lot of your score really becomes subliminal and atmospheric. It also means that thematic development is pretty limited. There maybe no time in a scene to develop themes, especially with heavy dialogue. Epic action films tend to allow more (“Star Wars’ etc.). In a sense, those sequences can be similar to silent films. For my film, the entire soundtrack is the dialogue, atmosphere, emotion, sound-effects (I only used instruments for that to make it more “musical”), etc. There is also wall-to-wall music. This is pretty challenging. The composer can’t really let too much silence creep in. Silence is a tremendous part of music (as I learned studying Cage, in High School!) In a silent film, there is no sound whatsoever, including nature or city sounds. Dead silence is deadly in film. The audience can get very concerned, something has happened to the film! With digital, you don’t even have the click of the film through the projector to create ambience.
For this film, I was able to develop themes from the beginning. Because the director is deceased (died in 1985), I really didn’t know what he liked, although about half way into scoring, I found out that Richard Lyford had experimented in adding dual turntables synchronized to a 16mm projector! No one had ever done this before. (It’s why Disney was interested in him). He was in his teens, too. I did become concerned about my direction. As it turned out, after interviews with Lyford’s son, Chris (I have done a number of them), my choices were actually pretty right on. Lyford loved Stravinsky, Dvorak, Beethoven etc. All he could do was add existing classical music to the films. He did add Foley (live) and even some dialogue to some other films, although none of this has survived.
Because my executive producer Kim, has been so wonderful to work with, I was given a free hand to compose. It was an intense but very enjoyable experience. It was more like composing a symphony, or maybe a cantata. There were 23 cues, from 30 to 5 minutes in length. Most of the music is classical with some jazz. All of it was meant to be appropriate for the era.
I love experimental music, but for this film, I really wanted to make it something the director would have chosen himself. Working with a director can be challenging, of course. You never really know if you are close to their vision. I’ve scored the same scene for film many times. I’ve been replaced as composer (pretty typical out there!). The music has to service the image, in the end. The director and producer always have the last say on it. This is a great reason to be your own producer! 🙂
You basically have two music careers one as a performer and the composing side of things, do these run separately or do you combine them and bring in elements of each into the film scoring part?
I haven’t been performing in the last few years because of my focus on composing. With the pandemic, this has actually worked out well for me. I do believe that all of the years of performing, especially jazz, world and improvised music, has taught me how to quickly create music. I am pretty good at improvising music (Early in my career I did a lot of work with an improv dance company) I work typically on keyboards, and then orchestrate it. It creates a pretty “organic” sound to it and is very “synced” to the action. Modern DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) have made the process a lot easier. I can work fast, and sync as I go. As a percussionist, I can perform complicated rhythmic music myself, when necessary. In one of the cues from the film, there is a 4:3 rhythm in the orchestra. That was satisfying that as complex as it is, it sounds quite natural. My mallet playing (vibes, marimba, xylophone) added a lot of “vintage” musical elements to the score, too.
Most composers do have a “specialty” and that is what usually becomes their sound or brand. For me, I seem to be good at creating a variety of styles, but I have always been drawn to classical music, especially baroque influences. I have performed Bach on mallet instruments for years and composed quite a bit of music in that genre as well. It influences me to this day, especially regarding counterpoint.
The soundtrack recording of AS THE EARTH TURNS has been released, did you have a hand in selecting the music for this release?
Being the producer on this film, I am totally in charge of everything related to it! I not only picked the music, but edited the tracks (combined cues), did the artwork, and created distribution. I am pretty satisfied with it. Because the film is 45 minutes long, I’ve included the entire soundtrack in it, with some order changes. I hope the soundtrack works as a piece unto itself. If it does, that would confirm that my thematic writing has worked.
When you first look at a potential project, how do you approach it, do you watch it over many times before deciding where music should go or maybe should not in some cases, or do you look at it just a couple of times before you begin to figure out where music should be placed?
I generally dig in pretty fast. Shorts are easier to watch more. If I am working with a director, it is ideal to have a “spotting session” and go through the film in detail. Usually the director has an idea of where the music should be. Sometimes, “temp tracks” are put in to give the composer a sense of what the director wants. This can be good and bad. There is a real chance of “tempitus”, where the director falls in love with the temp track! Music seems to “bind” with image very quickly. It can be difficult to create something that is not too close to the temp. As a composer, you want to bring out your own sound and concepts, too. A film composer does need to wear very thick mental armour, because the music can be easily rejected. You have to be careful not to spend too much time working on a scene, until you know it is on the right music for it. I have created very complicated music, only to have it rejected. I have a sign in my studio I got from Goodwill. “You can. End of story.” I live by it!
What percentage of the score for AS THE EARTH TURNS is performed by live instruments as opposed to syhnths and samples?
(If you haven’t seen the film, please don’t read this!).
I have had many people ask me what orchestra recorded the score. It has been humbling and reaffirming to my craft. I have to admit, though the only real instruments are percussion. Everything else is samples done in my DAW. I believe one of the tricks to making an electronic score work, is not to try to make everything sound real, as much as thinking in a “impressionistic” mode. You have to work with the sounds and have them come together as organically as possible. Having the music mixed professionally did also help quite a bit. In the end, recorded music is the same whether it is coming from real or virtual instruments. It is simply a wave form. The more you realize that, the easier it is. I will say that all of my performance and composition with strings, especially, helped orchestrate the music. For example, I know what an open string is on a violin and know that it can’t have vibrato. That can be vital in reproducing it electronically. I would love to record the score with a real orchestra in the future, of course. That requires re-orchestrating it for live players.
What would you say is the job of music in film?
Music tends to add emotion, atmosphere, and overall support the dialogue in film. Film can be 50% visual and 50% aural for the audience. Music can create a deep and everlasting memory for a film. Even if a piece was not created for a film, it can forever be attached to it, like “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from 2001 by Strauss. It can in fact, be the most lasting element of a film, after you watch it. “Koyaanisqatsi” was a film that combined music and cinematography equally starting from the same place (music by Phillip Glass). It’s experimental but demonstrates a pure marriage of visuals and music. I create my own videos where the visuals support the music, a la a “music video”. That can be deeply satisfying for a composer.
What composers or performers have inspired or influenced you?
My favourite question. Film composers: Herrmann, Williams, Mancini, Goldsmith, Barry, Ernest Gold (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”) Classical: Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein, Strauss (both), Cage and my personal favourite, Hector Berlioz! Jazz/World/Latin/Pop: Gershwin, Paul Winter, Buddy Rich, Gary Burton, Chuck Mangione, The Beatles, Elton John (just watched the movie!), Cal Tjader, and most of all my greatest respect for Frank Zappa ( who started out scoring films!). I have always had a very eclectic taste. Usually what I especially love are musicians that are truly skilled as performers and composers.