Finding your own Voice

Spring 2007


I attended a screening with many of you recently of the film Volver, featuring an intriguing score by Alberto Iglesias. Although compositionally he did an excellent job of moving the plot forward and enhancing the drama of the picture, I found myself relating to the music on an entirely separate level. It took me awhile to recognize that what I was reacting to was the individualism of Alberto’s musical voice. I wrote a few months back about how each composer or lyricist brings his or her regional influences into play, and that was certainly apparent in his work here, but I would like to look a little closer into how, by bringing our unique voice into the mix, we can enhance our profession at the same time.

With the advent of temp tracks, our craft took a step backward in my mind. Although these tracks serve a purpose, namely reaffirming that a movie is truly nothing without our music, it is doing a strong disservice to the film at the same time. I don’t know if Alberto had to contend with a temp track here, but my suspicion is that he didn’t.

Philip Glass spoke candidly about temp tracks at our SCL screening of Notes on a Scandal. Although he doesn’t deny their necessity, he is particularly troubled when a project that he is doing is temped with his own music. He remarked that he is always very frank with directors and producers in informing them that the score they are about to get is going to be inferior to the temp, as the music they are now enamored with, the temp as it were, embodies the last thirty years of his finest work and there is no way that they can expect him to deliver a comparable score in a finite period of time.

I’ve heard many a colleague remark that they can readily discern what scene in a movie has been temped with what pre-existing score. This certainly runs counter to establishing one’s own voice, but the composer is always faced with the dilemma of who to satisfy. We are all aware of “temp love,” and most of us will be faced with the confounding situation at some point in our careers—if not on a continuum—of deciding whether to satisfy our own vision of what the music should be or whether the safer path of least resistance should be to “ape” the pre-existing music. It’s unfortunate that in many cases the musical vision of the picture is dictated by those less than qualified to be making that determination, such as picture editors or in the case of television, editing houses and the person creating the graphics in the case of main title themes. So in the midst of all of these purported experts making musical decisions on our projects, how do we create our voice and help keep the integrity of our profession as a bi-product?

If we are collaborating with a film maker who we have worked with in the past, then it would be highly likely that we could get involved with the project early enough to set the tone. A variant of this is to simply compose the music ahead of time and the temp naturally evolves into the score. That is the solution that was employed by composers Gustavo Santaolalla on Brokeback Mountain and Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. That is the way that I did it in my first professional project, The Only Way Home. Recently, at our New York event at Columbia, director Steve Shainberg indicated that although it wasn’t done that way in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus the next time that he works with Carter Burwell he plans to employ this technique. Carter, for one, avoids listening to any temp track, except as a last resort, and by that time, he adds, his involvement with the project is most likely headed towards an unfortunate resolution anyway.

Writing the music ahead of the film has its shortcomings as well. I believe that the one quality that sets the film composer apart from other creators of music is our ability to inherently know how the use of the tools of our craft can change the tone of a scene by the minutest articulation. I remember a couple of years ago during a long underscore cue, my programmer inadvertently substituted an A-flat for an A-natural. The note change worked perfectly fine in the underlying harmony, but I remember telling him that the flatted note would imply that the character was thinking one thought at the moment when actually he was thinking just the opposite. Naturally we know how different a dominant chord can color a scene in opposition to a major seventh, but if our music is not being crafted by us for each moment in a film we simply have no control over this nuance. This is not to say that there aren’t some unexpected surprises than can occur by someone other than us dictating the placement of our music. When I spoke with Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, he said that he embraced this serendipitous interchange from time to time. Nevertheless, I think that at the very heart of our craft are the decisions we make as to when to play what music where.

A fellow composer scoffed at me when I told him that I had custom crafted every cue that I had ever composed except for instances– relegated to situation comedy shows– where certain sequences were tracked with my music from previous episodes. My process is very basic, and in most cases quite visceral: I look at a scene, emotionally react to it and then compose it. This can be a five-minute sequence or a five second cue. It still contains that spark of inspiration dictated by what I’ve just experienced.

This, I believe, is tied into finding our own voice. In his self-effacing fashion, Philip Glass said that he spent the first twenty-five years of his career finding his voice and has been trying to lose it ever since. I would submit that his unique approach to composition– his voice, if you will–along with his well-defined skills, instilled in part by the years of study with Nadia Boulanger, are all part of what make him one of the most sought after composers working today.

That is not to say in finding our own voice there are not the pitfalls of paying homage to what we’ve done before, most often when it has been received with a certain modicum of success. I remember the growing pains associated with the first episodes of Home Improvement. Roseanne was still running and it was difficult not to infringe on some of the Roseanne elements in the later series. I even incorporated a bass harmonica in the opening theme and first episodes until I thought better of it.

Self-plagiarism aside, I think that finding our own voice can be instrumental in a long-lived career. Perhaps one of the great voices that evolved over an amazing career was Henry Mancini. His use of melody and orchestration left a body of work that is totally original yet each project had that creative spark that was his genius. I know that all of us will eventually come across our own distinct style; it’s part of the growing process. Once we find it, here’s to successfully handling the balancing act of acknowledging what you may be handed and still finding your unique identity as you move forward in your career.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XXII, Number One, Spring 2007]