Got a few spots open for private composition students over Skype. You can find out more on this page here.
Got a few spots open for private composition students over Skype. You can find out more on this page here.
As most of you know, I was orchestrator and conductor on “Elysium” which came out a few weeks ago. I had a great time conducting at Abbey Road and I’ll be sharing with you a few notes I made from my time on the podium.
ELYSIUM NOTE #1
The indication “Tr.1/2″ could be interpreted as either half-step/semitone trill or only half the section doing a trill and the other half ord.
It is clearer and more universal to write accidentals with the trill sign like so.
Or if many notes are performed using trills in succession, to use “S.T. Trill” (semitone in UK and half step in North America), or “trill s.t.” instead of 1/2.
Using “1/2″ which we read as “half” is really just for North America since we say “half step” and note “semitone”.
So if you are headed to Abbey Road, remember: semitone.
I will be in Los Angeles on the 23rd to take part in a panel on the making of the Elysium score. It’s called “Bringing the Elysium score to life: tips from the team.”
Tickets are on sale so if you are around and available, drop by!
I have heard this many times “you are so lucky to have your music played by live musicians. That is my dream.”
During the recording of the score for “Primary”, my friend Brian Campbell ( recording engineer) said he understood why composers use samples rather than live players: perfect intonation, no microphone bleed, no noises from chairs, clothes, breathing, papers or noisy instruments etc…I will tell you now, luck has nothing to do with it.
Using live musicians is a lot more work. And costs money. And takes more time.
Low budget productions don’t even consider live players these days. When I offered it for “Primary” the answer was “really? We would love to but there is no money.” I explained the costs and options and it became a possibility. The director was on board and we made it happen we what we had. Same exact scenario on “Comforting Skin.”
But it wasn’t luck.
The other argument against live musician is a tight post production schedule, which happens a lot. I had to deliver an entire feature film score in a month, which is not the shortest schedule ever, but pretty short when doing it on your own. It broke down like this.
The bottom line is: You want live musicians? I know I do. So do it. For me, having been writing for real musicians for so long, I can’t stand being limited by samples. I don’t want to write down to samples. There are many moments while recording “Primary” that it was clear why live was vastly superior to samples. While I was in the studio, listening to my expressive cello lines and tender clarinet tunes coming to life through great players, all the hard work was worth it. I did feel lucky then. Alain
PS: A side benefit of stubbornly using live musicians on my own scores is that it led directly to my gig orchestrating on “Elysium” and “Ender’s Game”.
The bottom line is: You want live musicians? I know I do. So do it.
For me, having been writing for real musicians for so long, I can’t stand being limited by samples. I don’t want to write down to samples. There are many moments while recording “Primary” that it was clear why live was vastly superior to samples.
While I was in the studio, listening to my expressive cello lines and tender clarinet tunes coming to life through great players, all the hard work was worth it. I did feel lucky then.
I am sure others have done this before, but it was the first time for me and it made me wonder why I had never thought of it.
It came out of necessity: I had three weeks to write about 45 minutes of score, with mockups, approved, orchestrated and parts ready for recording 10 musicians on the 25th. Since it is low budget and I’m on my own, that’s a lot of work and the writing had to go very fast with a high amount of clarity and control in order to get the best results possible.
One of the problems when writing is keeping track of the form. Even on a single piece of music (as opposed to multiple cues on a film) it’s easy to get so familiar with your material that you forget that your main tune has only been heard twice for example even though you have heard hundreds of times already. Soon you start diverging from it, complicating things until it becomes an randon-sounding, unmemorable mess.
On the other hand, because I was going so fast, I was cautious of over-using the melodic materials.
So in order to avoid either scenario, I kept track of my melodic ideas/sections on my working cue sheet using the typical letters of form: A, B, C, etc… which I combined with colour coding.
This was so SIMPLE and yet SO effective. It gave me this bird’s eye view of the score and an instant perspective that made sure I always knew where I was.
Here’s what it looked like…
CUE | THEMATIC
1M3 | A (suspense var.)
1M5 | A
1M7 | B – Andrea motive only, not whole tune
1M9 | C (epic tune mf)
1M11 | B – w/pno. ostinato
(these are just two columns of the spreadsheet cue list. I also colour coded the themes on the spreadsheet. Other columns included in, out, timecode position, notes, check-boxes for a variety of production stages.)
And so on…
Such a simple thing, but very effective and a big help.
Being a film composer requires some technical know-how that’s for sure, and don’t wait to learn this on the job with huge deadlines. Make sure you learn ahead of time.
I have just completed composition work on a local feature and this is what I am doing now as I prepare for the recording sessions and mix.
Right now I am hugely pressed for time and just thought I would take two minutes to post this. If you are not fast at any of these steps and don’t have a system in place to keep track of your work, don’t wait.
Now back to work.
I am sure you have heard someone say that in film scoring, silence can be more effective than music.
While this is true, it only represents part of the picture to consider.
It’s all about CONTRAST.
If you have a dramatic moment and there is a lot of score before and after, then silence can be very effective because it provides contrast. That silence would not be as effective if there was silence leading up to it and following it.
Pacing of a score has a lot to do with how one manipulates contrast.
Contrast relies on juxtaposition, or elements being next to each other, in case of music cues (or lack thereof) they must follow or precede one another.
I was thinking of this because I have reached an important point in the film I am scoring, and leading up to it the music has had elements of “moto perpetuo” – you know; a constant rhythmic idea as events are put into motion.
I had planned to use this melodic and rhythmic material during this scene but it didn’t play well. I spent the afternoon and part of the evening on it yesterday and had to stop. It wasn’t working. I hate days like that.
After some time laying in bed thinking about it this morning, it occurred to me that for many story reasons I won’t discuss, contrast was necessary. Contrast of instrumentation, tempo and that ostinato element being dropped. I came down to work and it’s working great.
And there you, the word of the days is: contrast.
I am currently scoring a dialogue-heavy film and I am earning my stripes, I’ll tell you that!
As preparation and continued inspiration I have been watching films with lots of dialogue.
I started off with “American Beauty”. I’ll do a post on that one at some point since I wrote down every single cue and timing/duration to get a sense of the ratio of non-scored scenes to scored scenes to scenes with source music (the source music is very well used in this film.)
With “American Beauty” I noticed a few things. The music material is all related (Dorian and Mixolydian) but doesn’t repeat much, so no theme really stands out to the casual listener, just this fantastic mood. Very loooong notes abound during dialogue with short piano interjections. It works amazingly well, so it was a great lesson for me that long notes can be great.
“Mermaids” is a film I really enjoy, with a perfectly cast Cher and Winona Ryder. Very sparse score, much less music than in “American Beauty”. Music is kept for transitions and the more dramatic scenes towards the end of the film. This one was a great lesson in score pacing and letting scenes work on their own. Lots of source music here that is part of the story and mood of the film. Of course this is a dramatic comedy and much less moody than “American Beauty” and the following film I watched; “Presumed Innocent.”
“Presumed Innocent” scored by John Williams. This one has a main music pattern that represents Harrison Ford’s obsession and is repeated constantly. I saw this a week ago and I still remember it. The main theme has a few sections which are used exclusively throughout the film. The film has a lot of moody, introspective shots that seemed to be designed to have music. Only a few scenes in the film, including the final revelation, do not use that main theme – which makes complete sense in terms of the storytelling. This one was a great study in using limited material with a strong sense of story structure… and also writing a memorable score. (And Raul Julia was an impressive presence in that film!) Also, I don’t remember there being any source music in this one.
Yesterday I watched “Primal Fear”. This score by James Newton Howard was all over the place. The first cue of the film (which is not the first piece of music heard) I thought would be the theme but I didn’t hear it again through the film. And I must admit I did not understand some of the musical choices for the underscore, but the choices for the source music made complete sense and worked great (Mozart’s “Requiem”). The lesson here was this: we can over-think our scores and in the end perhaps it’s more about mood than a great over-riding concept and musical arc. Because this film was well received and put Edward Norton on the map! And personally I enjoyed the film and the music’s lack of homogeneity and central musical theme didn’t not bother me when I watched it way back when. Of course, watching the film now it feels quite dated in story-telling, acting, visual style and music, but that’s another story…
“I’ve only just recently started reading your blog and website, and have been hooked since. It is such a valuable resource to a young aspiring composer/orchestrator like myself.
I am very interested by your studio setup, as it is very much built around pen and paper, and just had a question or two that I was hoping you could answer. What are those great big boards over both pianos, where you put your sheets? Are they home made, or can one buy something similar? Also, do you use the keyboard hooked up to the computer to the same extent as the real piano?
I’m just wondering because I have a piano, but want to invest in a keyboard to input into Sibelius quicker, and help with composing. Do you think a small 2 – 4 octave keyboard would suffice for this?
I would be extremely grateful if you had a spare moment to lend me some advice.
Hi Niall, thanks for writing and for accepting that I answer on the blog instead of privately.
The boards I built myself and they are both very simple. I am not a handy man in any way, which I’ll blame on being brought up by a single mother.
For the board on the piano I simply bought a board and got it cut the dimensions I wanted, and then added a rounded wooden piece to hold the paper which was hammered in using finishing nails. Simple. And the board just rests on the piano and the wall and it works great.
What you don’t see in this picture is that where the cello is I have now added a drafting table.
The board on the workstation desk is the same idea, but it is not meant to write on, just to read, so it is propped up on a metal mesh book holder. I put a little Ikea halogen lamp underneath the lower shelf to light up with a warm light. Over the piano I am using a natural light fluorescent and I like that a lot.
The other question is if I use the MIDI controller keyboard as much as the main piano? The answer is yes, but I find I have a different mindset when I sit at one or the other. The MIDI controller is hooked up to a sequencer of course, so I will make use of samples more, whereas at the piano I will use my inner ear more and that often leads to better music. And when working on the drafting table of course it’s even more internal. I do freely jump from one to the other during the course of composition to make use of the different mindsets and the advantages to all three writing ‘stations’.
Get an 88 key keyboard. No doubt. I lived for years using a smaller keyboard for sequencing and I think now what an idiot I was to not have invested into an 88 key controller earlier. I first had the M-Audio 88es and enjoyed it very much (until it died) and it is not expensive, so no reason to suffer needlessly.
Hope that helps.
If anyone else has any questions don’t hesitate to ask.
Here are some random thoughts as I score my current feature.
I just scored an important dialogue scene that takes place over the phone at the start of the film where the inciting event takes place. Here are some things I was conscious of while writing.