2004, The Year of the Musician

Spring 2004


It was 9:00 a.m. I was stranding on the conductor’s podium at Stage M on the Paramount Studios lot in late November. Although I had previously composed music for a few scattered projects, this was really my entrée into the world of film scoring. I was nervous; who wouldn’t be with twenty-five of the greatest musicians in the world sitting out there preparing to play my music. Carl Fortina, contractor and legendary musician in his own right, had assembled the finest orchestra that one could have imagined that day for Howard Pearl and me. As I waited for the picture to be racked up on the mag machine and projected on a twenty- foot high screen I could hear the oboist playing fragments of the opening cue; even that sounded good. Then my preparatory clicks flashed out as quick bleeps of light at around a metronome marking of 120 beats per minute, known in the Knudsen lingo as a 12-0 frame click. Eight quick flashes later and I was on my way, reveling in a fantasy world that continues to this day.

That was the black and white of it. But what was even more moving and emotionally stimulating was the incredible sound that emanated from this wonderful orchestra. One or two players, such as Brain O’Connor and Gary Herbig, were just starting their illustrious careers, but far more of the chairs were filled by seasoned veterans, some of whom had worked with the likes of Bernard Herman and Alex North. The brass section was filled with the same personalities that had graced my favorite scores by Earle Hagen, Lee Holdridge, Bruce Broughton and Charlie Fox. Pete Jolly was on piano with several other legendary jazz greats such as Ted Nash sitting just beyond my baton.

This is truly what music continues to be about for me. We are fortunate as composers to be sitting in the center of the universe for world-class performers and the amazing thing is that we have total access to these talents to enhance, embellish and add life and breath into our creative outpourings.

Regrettably, our business has taken a dangerous turn since my career first started, particularly in the world of television music. It is a twist that does not bode favorably for the well being of our profession. As the orchestras began to shrink, so did the scoring budgets as well as our respectability within the film community. Unfortunately, with the disappearance of the live orchestra on our scores, our value as a community was diminished. In the worst case, the perception is that anyone can basically do our job, trained or not, and it has come to the point that that a company that we considered to be one our closest partners advertises that their technology can supply music without the cost of an expensive composer.

The purpose of this article should in no way be construed to be an anti-technology treatise, but rather should be regarded as a realistic over-view, taking into account the evaporation of an integral component of our scores, without which our craft is being denigrated, and for good cause. Let’s take the case of one musician and look at the time, preparation and education that goes into making oneself accomplished enough to compete in this arena. The hours of practice and dedication over years to bring him or her to a place good enough to be called a studio musician is nothing less than staggering.

My guitar playing is adequate, but there is no way to describe how the talents of a Laurence Juber or Tim May enhance my final product. I’ll be the first to say that without the great Los Angeles musicians, my career wouldn’t have made it past my first job. Armin Steiner, engineer extraordinaire, says that the key to the emotion in music is a group of instruments that are physically moving air. As convincing as some of the synth orchestral sounds may be, they simply don’t move air. My piano playing is fine, but give me a break, or rather give me Jim Cox or Mike Lang. The rockability, sensitivity and over-all interpretation of these two, or an artist such as Ralph Grierson can simply not be summed up in words, and the over-all impact that these sorts of talents could provide to your work can not be over emphasized.

So as with everything else, it in many ways it comes down to the bottom line and the margin of profit. I can’t tell you what to do with your own budget except to tell you how I approached mine over the years. As cavalier as this may sound, I have rarely thought about the money as I was progressing through my career. My concerns have been foremost about my music and making sure that every score was as good as it could be. In virtually every case, I personally made the decision to put as much as possible toward the end product, and as those in the decision-making positions saw the pride I took in assuring the best sound possible, they were more inclined to hire me again and again.

Before the advent of package deals, the orchestral numbers were already decided and until fairly recently a situation comedy could justify a twenty to twenty-five piece orchestra, and dramatic shows even more. Thanks to certain producers and heads of music who have respect for the creative input and richness that an orchestra can bring, there are noticeable exceptions to the low-ball packages that have become far too prevalent in our industry.

We only have to look as far as the top composers within our community who are scoring films that employ huge orchestras to see the value they bring to the screen. There is no justification for the erosion of the live orchestra within the television and cable community except budget. The only way to turn this tide is for all of us to do what we can to stress the value of live players to our scores. My hat goes off to young composers such as Michael Giacchino, for continuing the fine tradition of scoring set into place many years ago. These scores, incorporating the fine talents of our local musicians will unquestionably stand the test of time and be fine representations of our craft for years to come.

The musicians union has recently put into place competitive rate schedules for areas such as game music and pilots that can work hand in hand in facilitating the use of live musicians. Nevertheless, as reasonable as these rates are, they won’t be low enough for some producers and that is why it is crucial for us as a community to do what we can to be advocates of employing these fabulous talents in our scores.

So let 2004 be the year of the musician; get to know as many of them as possible. I am going to personally make an outreach to Musicians Local 47 and RMA members to join us in our special friend category. It has long been a dream of mine to have an orchestra associated with our group to perform your works and further elevate the visibility and value of film music. Perhaps this isn’t too lofty an aspiration for sometime in the future. If we fail to take advantage of their unique talents, Los Angeles will no longer draw the best players in the world, as the motivation to locate here will no longer be driven by our great profession. My career certainly has been better for them and historically our craft owes them a sincere debt of gratitude.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XIX, Number One, Spring 2004]