Condensing Your Work, When Less Is More

I’m not going to debate complexity here. Some music is brilliant on a single instrument, and some with a full band or orchestra. But one issue I encounter repeatedly with composers and songwriters, something I challenge myself to adhere to, is the idea that the best music of a pop nature tells its story in the smallest increment of time allowable.

My definition of pop is very wide. Simply, popular. It can be just vocals, or a band, or electronic or orchestral. My point here does not apply to more formal structures of music or improv jams, or a score where the action dictates what is needed, but with the common structure of songwriting the majority of us attempt.

When someone asks me to listen to a song demo, most of the time it is just too long. This is especially a shame when there are some interesting elements to the piece, but it simply takes forever to get to the point with long introductions or builds, or leans on the stronger hooks or melodies to a degree that undermines their very effectiveness.

My rule is nothing should be repeated more than twice without a variation or a growth that leads to something else. We as writers fall in love with our hooks, assume everyone else will, and the temptation is always to offer it too many times. It’s like how a magic trick is never as entertaining on extra viewings. The secret is, as the adage goes, to leave them wanting more. A catchy chorus that excites twice will fatigue or bore four times, so condense your ideas. Don’t dilute, pad or stretch them out. Maximize the novelty and intensity and your work will be remembered. 

In keeping with this theme, I will end this post before my point becomes diluted. Brevity is the soul of wit, and can be of music as well.

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First Post: My Philosophy on Film Composing

This is my first blog entry. I will look back on it with feelings of great awkwardness. But these things are unavoidable.

Here I’ll opine about my own work, make observations about music I admire, and comment on trends in the industry, the art and craft of music for film, TV and games.

So let me begin with what seems like a simple question: What is the role of a film composer?  Perhaps more accurately, what do I perceive as my role as a film composer? Because for every composer you ask the answer will be different, at least in the nuance. The best way for me to answer would be in a series of statements. Believe me it will be less wordy this way. I apologize if some of these points are obvious. Sometimes obvious notions need revisiting.

A film composer is entirely at the service of the film:

You may hear some elaborate production music tracks on my site, anthonyleonemusic.com, but this is not scoring. It’s to show my range of abilities and have a little fun. It’s also useful for licensing for trailers, ads and so forth. But film requires a scene by scene, emotion by emotion map that’s appropriate to its tone and scope. Some powerful scenes need no music. Others just a single note. My point is often less is more. And simpler can be more effective. When a viewer is taking in so much stimuli; story, performance, photography, sound, music, what I contribute must take all this into account and not fill up the bandwidth. By comparison it’s like a musical jam. There might be a moment or two in the spotlight but if I hog it, I become a distraction and whole thing breaks down. Suspension of disbelief is a delicate thing to maintain and there must be cooperation between all the elements of a film to achieve this convincing balance.

Let me emphasize my point about scope. Nothing makes a small film look sillier than a huge Hollywood style soundtrack. The music needs to sit comfortably with the look of the film. There needs to be a consistency, a feeling that music and picture come from the same source of creativity, inhabit the same space(not in the diegetic sense). If it doesn’t it actually makes what would seem like a creative choice, the look of the film, more like a failed attempt to look bigger. Think of the minimal trance-like score Shane Carruth created for his film “Upstream Color.” A perfect fit. An 80 piece orchestra or its simulation would have upset the balance of sound and image.

The filmmaker is the boss:

Assuming the director likes my style(s) and wants me to contribute, my opinions are secondary. What might sound like a masterpiece to a composer just might not serve the scene, and the scene is what matters. People don’t go to movies to hear the music. Well, composers might a little, but we’re a small demographic.

I believe in making my case, if I feel strongly about a certain approach. Respectfully of course, and occasionally I’ve succeeded, but if the word is “no” I move on. Filmmakers know the entire work and the place any music will have in it, the macro view. I may have read the script, seen the rough cut, but I don’t know the ultimate vision that’s in the filmmaker’s head. And really who likes a backseat driver?

Music has many uses:

The lazy take on film scoring is that it mirrors the action emotionally. But silence can be just as powerful in some situations. Then there’s the age old choice between suspense and surprise. Telegraphing intent, misdirection, inner character qualities, motifs and more. Sometimes lines may blur between music and sound design, particularly in the sci-fi and horror genres. Music can certainly add emotional content to a scene in need of a boost. And speed up or slow down the pace. A good composer is aware of all of these possible applications of the craft and communicates this with the director.

A film composer needs to have a strong understanding of film:

The art and the craft, the latter especially on the post side. We need to understand all the tools being used to tell the story and how our contribution will enhance the overall result. From the script ideally, the acting, costumes, production design, cinematography, effects, editing, sound design, and the director assembling or “conducting” each element into a working whole. We need a strong awareness of the subtleties at work in order to create the most fitting score for the project. A classic example is Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” with it’s persistent theme of spirals showing up in everything from the sets to Kim Novak’s hairstyles to Bernard Herrmann’s incredible score in the form of runs up and down scales and cycling of themes. The more the composer sees the consistent ideas at work the better he or she can craft a fitting contribution to the filmmaker’s vision. And the more one understands the work that others do, the techniques, terminology, schedules and so forth, the more effective a member of the team one can be.

Deadlines are deadlines:

The best score is the score that actually gets into the film. Unfortunately time is often short and the job is to do as good a job one can while covering the material, meeting the schedule, and anticipating revisions. More time is always ideal. Directors please note, involve your composer as early as possible. You will hear a difference. Complexity and subtlety both take time. So does originality. You do not have to wait until post production to approach a composer. Animators know this, and increasingly live action directors. A classic example is John Williams on “Close Encounters,” where the music is basically a character, the universal language between species and the riddle of the story. More recently “Guardians of the Galaxy” had Tyler Bates creating thematic pieces that were played on set to inspire the actors. I don’t know of any composer that wouldn’t relish such an opportunity. But ultimately no matter how short a time frame we must deliver the best work possible. That’s the job and a good composer understands this clearly.

I’ll close my first blog on that point, and will continue to post when I have news or something to share.

I must give due credit to two authors who have shaped my way of thinking on this topic: Richard Bellis and Sonny Kompanek. Excellent mentors for composers and a good resource for filmmakers wishing to understand our process better. Links below:

http://www.richardbellis.com/

http://www.amazon.com/Sonny-Kompanek/e/B001KHZYSU