I'm Not an Expert - Only A Child
7 months. 22 tracks. Countless late nights of aggravation, Cabernet & profanity - revisions, rewrites, outbursts of anger and pinnacles of breakthrough. Pain, tears, sleeplessness and brokenness.
Thus was my environment as I scored Finding Home - a 2 hour film documenting the lives of 3 girls who were rescued from sexual exploitation in Cambodia. Most films dealing with the injustice of sex trafficking paint an accurately dark picture of the problem, but few are able to personalize it - and no films I've seen go as deep as Finding Home. From start to finish it's the best story I've ever seen on connecting sexual exploitation with a face. You can learn more about the film here. Interestingly, most music of mine (what little has been released) is 3-5 years old, and does not represent me accurately as a composer. So I've been scheming - planning - meditating on how to make my next release uniquely personal. And I can honestly say that, though I am a theoretical child when it comes to the mechanics of music, this score makes me feel something I've never felt before.
I'm not an expert in film composing, and I do not claim to have attained to anything with this score - it's only the beginning of my career as a sonic architect - but I did make some observations along the way that I want people working on films to process with me. Feel free to stream the score on Soundcloud (It's embedded below) as you read:
The Story Must Win
As a composer, my job is to support the story being told - not to create memorable music. I had to fight this tendency with each scene I scored...I wanted to write music which sounded good - music people would enjoy. But each time I scored a scene with those motives in mind, I had to do a rewrite (and I took it personally every single time). My director, Derek Hammeke, didn't care about my compression ratios, reverb diffusion or melodic complexity...he cared whether or not people felt what they were supposed to be feeling while watching that scene. Simple, right? No! Not at all! Scoring this film required watching the film hundreds of times, taking meticulous notes (especially taking note of my emotional condition that evening to see which scene I ought to be scoring) and working for hours on countless ideas - many of which will never see the light of day - just to get to the one idea which supported the dialogue and imagery as well as possible. I learned that if my music is detracting from the story, I fail. If the music is abraisive and draws unnecessary attention to itself, I fail. If my motive is to write a library tune rather than a score, I fail. The story has to win...otherwise I've only created noise.
I Write Best in Isolation
I am a strange mix of introvert and extrovert...and it drives my friends insane, but I can't get a film scored and live a "normal" healthy life simultaneously. Everyone has a different creative environment they've got to get locked into before the life starts flowing, and mine is in the dead middle of the night. My start time for this score was typically 9-10pm and I usually wrote till 3-4AM each morning...sometimes 7-8AM. However, once I was tapped in to that world (artists, you know what I mean), it was incredibly natural. I also recognized that as long as somebody else was present in the room, my ability to write deep music disappeared...not sure what that's all about. All in all, I think the real work was saying "no" to everything that had potential to get me distracted and "yes" to everything that got me closer to being present with the film. Once I was there, It was nearly impossible to rip me out of the zone.
Create a World - Not a Score
"It has to feel the way it looks the way it sounds," said Gillian Ferrabee. She's the creative director at Cirque du Soleil and does a brilliant job of articulating how to create an environment that's agreeing with itself. That's what I wanted to do with Finding Home's music from the beginning...to create an audible world for the film to exist in. Filmmakers do that with imagery, but I think sonic architecture is the ingredient which ties it all together. Mychael Danna did an insanely perfect job of this in his score for Life of Pi - and many of my woodwinds and exotic flutes were colored with the same treatment he used...mainly because the score he wrote invited me into a world! Have you ever come across incredible imagery on Vimeo but then you cringe at some point while watching because the music is off? Or the SFX and VO are poorly mixed? It's a half-hearted piece of art because the filmmaker only curated 1 of the 3 necessary elements. But when all 3 are firing...wow! Some people firing on all cylinders exceptionally well are Variable, Salomon Ligthelm, Dan Difelice and Eliot Rausch.
I watched the scenes over a period of a few months and decided the film was "green." I'm not sure why - maybe because grass is green, and grass is soft? Red isn't soft...green is soft...and so is blue. But I like green more. And I've also been in Cambodia where the rivers and lakes create a subtropical paradise (which happens to be green). I created a series of base-thoughts to always come back to - a series of pictoral anchors that I could lock the music to. Some of them went like this: "Rich Fog." "Textured Metals." "Warm Arpeggiation." "Synthetic Rivers" "Thin Places" "World War II Choirs." "Hypnotic." "Organic." "Palm Trees." "Sunsets." Those shouldn't mean much to you, but they mean a great deal to me because they epitomize the colours of the film. I made folders in Omnisphere for "Finding Home Light" and Finding Home Dark" so I could get quick references for moods - and then came the insane process of flagging and organizing samples for later use in other scenses. My wall was covered with notes for patches I found in Kontakt instruments like Sonic Couture Geosonics (I found one called Everglade Percussion - that's green!) and fell in love with 8DIO's Adagio Viola Ensemble (Sweet Sordino articulation is insanity!). I'll spare you the details, but I flagged as I went...after defining the world I wanted to create. Every piece of music needed a home to live in if the film was to have a personality.
This track is called "Powers" and I think it exudes images like "Rich Fog, Palm Trees and Textured Metals:"
Hire Musicians - and Pay Them
There are levels of depth you simply cannot reach with sample libraries. Listeners can tell when music has something broken laced in it - and the parts of the score with human interaction coming from them tend to be the ones people connect with most. It's the missed notes - the slides that don't quite make it. The piano hammers vibrating together. The humanity of guitar strings - the "off-ness" of a real person's voice and the slightly detuned intonation of a real string ensemble...these all work together to create imperfect music. Music which has life. I've tried, and I just can't be satisfied with songs that have nothing human in them. This process of tracking real musicians is not something which costs a fortune, either. I tell younger composers to pay their friends out of their own pockets (even if the score lacks a budget) to learn the dynamics of the recording process early on so they don't end up using too much creative recording time to get gear working properly when they actually get into a score recording session...because often times the musicians are going to feel tense themselves! It's bad having multiple people stressed in the same room. Our job as a composer is to set the musicians at ease - and then to give them vision for the exact scene and moment we need them being present for. To help them feel safe so the best in them can flow out. The musician does not need a full picture of the film - they just need enough to be invited into the world you've created and then let them go!
I worked with several friends on this score, each contributing different instrumentation, but the most notable was Elizabeth Navarra. She's a tremendous vocalist and a violinist - and she can improvise on both platforms (which a lot of classical musicans intentionally shy away from). I actually heard Liz singing one night at some event on University of Kentucky's campus and thought "I wonder if she'd be down to help with some film music..." 2 years later we're working on nearly every project together. One of the most critical parts of the human element of this score was Liz - and she will never know her full impact...we'd be working on scoring a scene and she'd start singing along with it and I'd say "Hey! Stop - wait, no...keep singing!" Or, "Hold On...let me track this!" Liz never needed to know how I was going to use each performance...only that she was contributing the right sort of content for the scene. Below is a track she came up with vocal elements and violin parts for called "Wait for Me."
You Don't Have to "Know" Music To Score a Film
Little known fact - I cannot read, write or understand sheet music, notation, theory or musical structure. I roll with melodies, tones, instruments - all improvised or constructed in a moment of great need (ie the director telling me I'm dragging my feet and it's time to get the scene scored). I played around on the piano and fell in love with a few simple chords which made me feel some sense of longing (the ones making their appearance in "Daughters") and rolled each of the melodies off of those chords. I think I changed keys every so often in the score, but I'm not exactly sure...someone much smarter than me can tell me what I did one day. Regardless, having musicians to help me was HUGE here. Curt (guitarist) and Liz were of infinite help to me, and I can proudly say I am now using flashcards to learn chords, notes and keys. Overall, as a film composer, you have to be able to be emotional...to be impacted by what you're watching and then to use sound to communicate what you're feeling. The next step is Theory 101...God help me. Here's Daughters - the backbone for the themes which emerged in Finding Home:
Don't Let Your Director Hear Anything Until It's Ready
Depending on who is directing your film (and editing it), you will find whether or not they pay close attention to musical detail. In my case with Derek, he's obsessed with film music - he's actually the friend who got me into film scoring. As my roommate in college, he'd always tell me to stop making sub-par techno beats in Fruity Loops and think about scoring films (I think he heard the melodies in my music and secretly wanted to hear them redeemed!) Long story short, Derek listens to film music for fun - really high quality film music! Imagine having Hans Zimmer, Steve Jablonsky, Thomas Newman or Two Steps from Hell as temp music to each scene you're working on! No matter what you write, it's NOT an Oscar winner...so how did I proceed? I'd say this as a recap for future reference:
1) Don't take it personal - recognize that they've been watching their film with someone else's music for months...so tell them to give your music some time to sink in, and typically they'll get over their relationship with the temp if they've got enough time. 2) NEVER NEVER NEVER send a rough cut of your music - even if they tell you to! Good Lord...no matter how many notes you make about what needs to be fixed, human beings (and most directors are humans) have the inability to hear what you hear as a composer. Tell them "no," (which is a complete sentence), finish the cue and then send it. Never send it early, unless you're ready for emotional humiliation! 3) Let yourself get pushed to the edge of insanity...and then a little further. Ridley Scott does this to Hans Zimmer a lot - and I'm sure the two have nearly lost their friendship multiple times over the work antics...but the director ought to never let the composer get too comfortable...a painful tension! Here's the director of Finding Home, Derek Hammeke, and myself. Notice we're smiling since the score is finished!
Steal From Yourself
I was able to re-use themes from a past film for this score. In 2008, I was hired to write music for a film called "Baht" sponsored by the same organization behind Finding Home: Rapha House. In Baht, the main theme toward the end was for a girl named Siram - a girl who was still grappling with whether or not she wanted to return to a life of prostitution. When I saw a new character in Finding Home who embodied the same struggle, I re-used the theme. Part of it was the Rapha House connection, but part of it was spiritual...the same problem in the same nation - the two girls shared a soul-tie. Below are the themes, written 5 years apart. The first (Siram) was written in 2008, and the sccond (Open Arms) is the resurrection of the theme. I was actually able to use the cello from the 2008 LA string sessions in Open Arms...lots of fun!
Hire a Mastering Firm
Mastering used to be the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device (the master). In the digital age, we don’t tend to have a “master” laying around anywhere since we do everything in WAV or AIFF format. The new school of mastering is more about proper loudness, master compression and sonic clarity, warmth or space - pulling the proper personality out of the track. I did an average job of mastering on the Finding Home score (using the UAD AU SSL G Channel Bus Compressor, Sonnox Oxford Inflator, Izotope Ozone 5 (for multiband compression and frequency widening) and the Slate Digital G-FX limiter (it works well since the user can turn off the pre-limiting compression which colors the mix).
My main regret is the bad treatment of strings the G-channel spits out…no matter how you adjust the attack and release, the strings always seem to be crushed! I hear the API 527s and 2500 are better for the style of music I was writing, but I didn’t have time to learn the dynamics of the unit. Had I the opportunity to do it again, I’d hire a firm just to remove that responsibility off my back and also to get it the right loudness (something I failed in here) and also the right personality. Just because I can do something “okay,” does not mean it’s my gifting! Leave mastering to the masters…that’s where I’m at!
Chipotle Is Critical
I ate Chipotle Mexican Grill roughly 130 times while I wrote this score - which is where the deep ethnic vibes come from (based in rice, beans and chicken...and tequila and also chicken. And guacamole. And sour cream and cheese and mild salsa. And corn. A big thank you to my assistant for keeping me alive by running to Chipotle a few times a day for me - and Chipotle, you're welcome...I am the reason you are in business.
Meritage & Malbec
I discovered a few notable red blends while scoring this project. Col Solare, 2007, Chateau Talbot, 2005, Rust En Vrede, 2010 and Chappelette 2009. Smooth, red and full-bodied. 2-3 hours of decanting is reccomended along with the proper glassware. I took note that when I drank too much wine, my music sounded incredible. Derek did not often agree with me, and I was often asked to change the music the next day.
Write Like Yourself
While this sounds overly simplistic, I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to push ourselves into new seasons of risk and aggravation. The film scoring industry, for many years, has been based in themes and melodies - and most have been recorded purely orchestrally. But the industry is changing - computers, samplers and software have leveled the playing field much in the same way that the 7D and 5D did with the advent of the DSLR for filmmakers. In the composing realm, we've got a lot of young guys with a lot of powerful tools and lot of free time on their hands...what does that add up to? A lot of NOISE. Part of what makes a composition good is that the composer has imprinted their being into the music - their unique identity. That imprint is supposed to be released when the music listened to. You can tell when you're looking at a piece of art that says nothing to you - and you can tell when the music you're hearing was written from a place of truth...or a place of rushed, electronic apathy.
Artists, we've got to get away from comparison - especially the new wave of it available through social media...it's deadly poison. When we sit down to write (those few moments when nobody else is listening) what comes out? Whatever that is, that's what the world needs to hear...because there is only one of you. If we're all attempting to become Hans 2.0, the cinematic world will become a one-sided place - a place with incredible drum hits, but a lopsided one at that. Let's commit to collaborating, learning, pushing one another and never settling for average. The sky is the limit with these new tools - let's be a gift to filmmakers all over the world...
Get the score on BandCamp here