The guitar is often typecast in music for film/tv and other media, and called upon only when a particular sound is needed: your cowboy western needs that Ennio Morricone/Bruno Battisti D’Amario twang. Your Bond-esque spy thriller wants that Vic Flick surf-jazz feel. Your hard-boiled cop movie needs a rough, rebellious, raunchy Eric Clapton lead. While the guitar is really useful in slotting in and hitting these (and many more) on the head, I think it’s full potential is actually overlooked. (Read my full guest article at ComposerFocus.com!)
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Aspects of a Musical Theme
A theme or motif can be thought of as a (simple or complex) musical statement, hook, or sentence(s) with its focus on one or any combination of the following elements:
Singing in the Shower – Melody
Melody is on the one hand the most obvious place from which to approach a theme, but also probably the most mysterious in terms of its emotional impact… [read my full guest post at www.composerfocus.com]
Sick of the usual musical fare blasted at you incessantly since after Halloween, but still want some, shall we say, “Seasonally Appropriate” songs to get you in the spirit?
Allow me to assist. Here are some of my top picks of sometimes strange but always charming tunes fit for the Horror-days:
Christmas with the Snow – Marah (Last.fm)
This one has it all, but without the saccharine sentiment – snowball fights, merry gentlemen, snow angels, and a rockin’ beat and ridiculously catchy chorus that is a brilliant companion to snarfing heavily spiked eggnog with friends and family.
“3 generations in the kitchen, all at once” From Workman’s great album of Christmas originals, this one beautifully captures those cherished moments with the whole fan-damily when you aren’t at each others throats.
I Haven’t Got You (Anything for Christmas) - Bo Pepper (Youtube)
A holiday break-up/missing you song? Sure, why not! Features the line “when you’re stuffing the turkey, do you think of me?”. That alone should rocket indie Bo Pepper out of obscurity.
Robot Ponies – Laura Barrett (Youtube)
“Christmas eve, 2053. Underneath every little girls tree… Robot Ponies”. This off-kilter, Kalimba based vision of Christmas future is funny and charming, and at the same time a great little statement on consumerism.
I know, right? Fountains of Wayne! From the guys who brought you the Porky’s-esque MILF glorifying ballad “Stacy’s Mom” comes a lovely folkish song that feels just like curling up in front of the fire on a cold Winter’s night.
Not really a Christmas song, but it has the word ‘Holiday’ in it, and it rocks. Blast this at the office party and you’ll be sure to stir things up.
We tend to spend a lot of times in our own head, but rarely do we actively envision how we come across to other people. This is nowhere more obvious than in romantic relationships, where one person feels like they couldn’t be communicating more clearly, but the their Significantly Annoying Other just can’t get it. It turns out that there is actually quite a bit of art to effective communication, and it has a lot to do with understanding how to speak a common language.
It’s often said that while filmmakers are walking encyclopedias of production knowledge from everything pre- to post-, music is the one area where the fear of the unknown sets in. Leaving aside the rare genius/savant who can actually read music, if you handed your director a 12 stave score and began to blather on about the beauty of the contrapuntal voices and retrograde inversions, you would be met with anything from vacant stares, to frothy terror, to irritation and offense. What does this have to do with the film?
As I seem to say often on this blog, composers for the screen are in fact not composers at all. We are actually filmmakers, and our job is to help tell the story using sound and music. While discussing music (never mind that pithy cliche about dancing and architecture) can be fun and meaningful, it’s actually quite distracting if not downright dangerous and detrimental if you want to get on the same page. And that is the goal after all – you want to ensure that you know exactly what is being asked of you, exactly what function music is to perform at any given time. It’s win-win – you can get to the business of writing the music, and if you’ve done your homework and communicated effectively, you can deliver the right cue to the director the first time. They will be happy because they got a useful product that they wanted, on time and without stress and worry, and you won’t be stuck in re-write hell, slowly eroding the confidence that you worked so hard at building in your collaborator.
Here are some ideas for both composers and filmmakers to consider, that might aid better communication:
Conversations regarding the function of music should be in emotional, story telling terms. Avoid the use of technical musical terms, and instead talk about the feeling that the music should create, or how it should function to provide understanding or move the story forward.
If you have a specific piece of music, style, or composer in mind, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS provide examples. If it’s really specific, listen to the piece together and pinpoint exactly what it is that you like. Again, it’s better to speak about the feeling that the music conveys as opposed to why/how you think it’s happening – it’s just too easy to misinterpret things. The director might say “dark” and mean “in the low, register of the cellos, with sadness”. The composer might go and write a “dark” piece, but one that means “foreboding and for brass”, which was not what the director wanted at all, even though the composer did “exactly” as instructed. Musical genre terms are also tremendously flawed and indeterminate. If you say “heavy”, that could mean Led Zeppelin, or Slayer… or Stravinski.
Composers should be working to understand the story, directors should not need to work to understand the music. Read the script, study the film, ask questions, and really get into the head of your collaborator and find the heart of the story. Then, talk about how music can help tell it; everything does and should relate back to that fundamental thing – the story.
Temp tracks are great as a reference – but again, there is a reason that the word ‘temp’ is used – they are not intended to be permanent. In my opinion, having a composer re-create the temp track is like using Robert Deniro’s stand-in instead of the man himself. We should be striving for works of quality and integrity, and when you request a facsimile, you are cheating yourself of an incredible value – the value a composer adds to a film which is a unique, signature element. The temp track, as it relates to the spotting session and conversations with the composer, should again be used to start conversations about the feeling/emotion/function that the music creates.
Criticism is fine, but communication is a two-way street, and nothing is worse than being left stranded. Telling your composer something like “It’s not right. I don’t know why, but it’s just wrong and I hate it. I’ll know the right thing when I hear it” does no one any good. You’ll both end up frustrated. Be honest, be real, but be constructive. I often hear people say “Oh, but I don’t know anything about music”. BULL. Creative people (like filmmakers) know what they like, and they know what works. They may not know the mechanism, but that’s not your worry. Again, the magic solution for this is EXAMPLES. Don’t try and explain it, just show us, and try to be as specific as you can. Composers need to be specific too – the problem might be as simple as an instrument being too loud, or wrong – they hate oboes, oh, you didn’t know? Make sure you are on the same page before throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Oh, and to this point – NEVER, EVER, EVER DISCARD A PREVIOUS VERSION. EVER!!! I can count many times when things the client swore they LOATHED were in retrospect quite liked and requested restored to their former glory.
There is a great deal of trust that is demanded of a filmmaker when he allows a composer to contribute music. The responsbility, in turn, of the composer is to honor that trust by knowing the film, it’s characters, it’s text and subtext, it’s arcs and lines, through and through. Finally, there is a shared responsibility of both parties to engage in GREAT communication, which ultimately leads to brilliant win-win collaborations that everyone can be proud of.
Suddenly, we hear voices from the opposite end of the abandoned factory and we freeze – we stare at each other for a few tense moments, trying to decide if our ears are playing tricks on us, and then break into a run through the broken glass, industrial debris, and pigeon crap towards our base camp where our equipment and several thousand dollars worth of microphones is stashed. We arrive, huffing through our dust masks, to find the room empty, no sign that anyone has entered through the ragged opening of the boarded up window. All our stuff is still safe – we breathe a sigh of relief and go back to work.
Just another typical day at the office.
Hours earlier, on a cold and rainy Sunday morning, we arrived at our destination – an abandoned factory in the West end of Toronto we had dubbed The Audio Asylum for its foreboding presence. The 3 person crack team was made up of sound designer/composer Drasko Vucevic, filmmaker extraordinaire Jason Leaver (on hand to document the process), and of course your faithful narrator. Our goal was to enter the building with an arsenal of field recording gear, and capture as many wild sounds as the Asylum would offer up without getting killed or arrested in the process. The factory itself is situated in the middle of a residential area, with quiet family homes right next door, so entering without drawing too much attention was problematic. There were only two ways in – climbing up a canvas hose someone had (possibly) secured to a pillar past the 2nd floor window, or through a hole someone had smashed into a boarded up window about 8 feet above ground. Sensibly, we took option two, and after clearing the opening with a hammer, we managed to climb through and ferry in our equipment.
The reverb in these empty chambers was impressive, as was the amount of possibly poisonous debris that was strewn about – we quickly donned masks and began exploring the darkened halls, ruined elevator shafts, and spooky stairwells. Once we confirmed that the area was clear and we wouldn’t be attacked by ‘hostiles’, we began setting up the recording equipment and capturing sounds.
The Ear of the Beholder
The world around you really changes when you look at it from a different focus. If your desire is to record interesting sounds, it’s remarkable how rich in possibilities otherwise mundane objects become. We had no want of fascinating materials in the Asylum – rusted radiators, crumbling walls, steel doors, steel pipes, disfigured fan housings, decaying wood flooring, iron railing, broken glass and debris all became our instruments, which we played primarily by artfully smashing them. Like any professional studio, the sound you get is only as good as the sound of the room, and these graffiti’d halls were sonic gold – rich, cathedral reverbs and tight room echoes. After a few hours of banging and crashing, it was time for a moment of quiet zen-like reflection, and I played a Bansuri I had brought which gave our grim environment a serene air. Strange radio frequency-like sounds spun off the walls as I then turned my Cracklebox loose for a short improvisation. Finally, we moved into the furthest room which had massive 3 story ceilings, where we found a flock of pigeons was roosting in the rafters. They made a wonderful sound as the fluttered around in that closed space, and got quite agitated when I ‘spoke’ to them with my flute, cooing and chattering excitedly. When I broke off, the 5 of them were making a sound that was eerily similar to a chorus of women speaking in tongues. It was a haunting moment, and a perfect end to a surreal day.
Field recording is a woolly beast compared to the act of composing in the familiar and comfortable surroundings of your studio. It can be cold, wet, dirty, complicated by unknown variables, fraught with mishaps and equipment failure, and even downright nasty, gross, and dangerous. It’s also tremendously fun, exciting, surprising, and requires you to think very creatively on your feet – which also may be used from time to time for running away from drug addled squatters or the police.
I really wish I could post some of the amazing sounds we captured that day, but it will have to wait. These sounds will comprise a very exciting and unusual boutique sound library which we hope to release in the very near future.