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f misunderstanding and miscommunication mar relations between musicians and filmmakers, an even stronger disdain often exists between those who compose for the concert hall and those who compose for the silver screen. Doctoral composition student Sarah Graef, who has lived in both worlds, compares the breach to the stereotypical antagonism between poets and screenwriters: while poets see screenwriters as hacks, screenwriters see poets as wan artistes.

Elmer Bernstein

The animosity may come down, in part, to paycheck envy. Film composing can be a lucrative field. Not counting royalties, the high end of up-front payment for a film score can fall between $500,000 and $1 million.
But money is not an unmitigated blessing. Many of the banes associated with the scoring profession can be traced directly back to lucre. Precisely because so much money is riding on a project, a host of money-interests control the end product.
Graduate Marco Beltrami ’93, who got his first break in 1996 with Wes Craven’s Scream, says the film industry isn’t an inventive medium, it’s big business, primarily concerned with return on investment. “Lately I’ve found directors are very receptive to creative stuff, but so much emphasis is placed on test screenings, you end up writing for a group. As soon as you do that, you’re facing the lowest common de-nominator,” he says.
Bernstein, current president of the Film Music Society and one of a handful of composers honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard, takes an even dimmer view.
“Film music is not held in high regard today,” laments the Oscar-winning composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). “Like many things, the business is money-driven, not art-driven. In the past, the function of music was to serve the film. The concerns now have shifted to, ‘will this music sell outside the film?’
“At the moment, film scores are mostly song-driven – by pop songs. People are greedy. Everybody hopes some song will jump out and make them a lot of money.”
It’s an all-but-inevitable state of affairs, says Bondelevitch. “So long as you have companies like Universal, MCA or Sony, which are releasing both movies and CDs, there will always be an emphasis on placing songs in movies to have a saleable CD.”
Another thorny issue, also attributable to the bottom line, is the popularity of synthesizers. Some composers revel in the possibilities of electronic music, but others – typically an older generation of film composers – are deeply suspicious of the motives behind their prevalence. These “orchestras-in-a-box” eliminate the need for live artists and conveniently keep royalties in a few hands.
Love them or hate them, though, synths are here to stay, and skill in composing for and playing them is a necessity. Most of the music jobs in television are synth jobs. With the exception of a few shows like “The Simpsons,” known for a first-class sound-track played by live musicians, the majority of TV music is electronic. Most television programs are throwaways, Kalnins explains, so why pay 90 guys when five will do?

Elmer Bernstein

Even when the final score will be played by a 90-piece orchestra, directors and producers expect to hear a synthesized version first. The days when composers could sit down at the piano, narrating their way through the missing parts, are gone.
A private studio, once an asset and selling point, is now a necessity, too. Composers are expected to have the resources and ability to do a synth mock-up. A baseline studio, Sanders estimates, can easily run between $15,000 and $20,000. Kalnins, who’s further along in his career, says he has $150,000 tied up in electronic gear.
Ignoring this aspect of the business can cost a composer employment. “I was sitting around with my buddies from the program the other day,” Sanders says, “and we realized that those people that were good with synthesizers are still around. Those who weren’t, aren’t.”
And anyone who thinks composing is a low-stress profession hasn’t considered how test marketing and budget overruns affect work schedules, which can be, in Burt’s words, “criminal, injurious to health.”
While a concert composer may spend a year writing one 15-minute orchestral piece, a film composer typically has two weeks to come up with 60 minutes of fully orchestrated cues. And that’s if everything moves along as scheduled.
Fat chance. “You’re working on an eight-week project, and suddenly you have three. There’s almost inevitably never enough time,” Raksin says.
In television, says Sanders, writing two minutes of music a day is the industry average. A show may have 22 minutes of music, including the “ins” and “outs” bookending commercials. Do the math, and you can see why ghost writing is common.

espite the seemingly bottomless demand for music, film scoring is a saturated field, with more composers than there are jobs. About 450 features are released each year in the United States, and USC’s scoring program alone now has more than 300 graduates. Add in a few dozen more from other programs, add in the concert composers who would like to try their hands, add in established pop and rock recording artists like Phil Collins and Danny Elfman, plus all the garage-band guys and gals (including some who are willing, in exchange for a shot at being noticed, to work for free), and you begin to see what a competitive business film scoring really is.
Bondelevitch illustrates. Toward the end of production, the 1997 comedy Burn, Hollywood, Burn ran out of money. The filmmakers took out ads in the trades to announce a search for composers. Despite an explicit statement that the job was unpaid, more than 9,000 tapes came flooding in.
“The pool available to filmmakers is vast,” says Bernstein, “largely as a result of programs like USC’s. There are a lot of composers now who won’t be very expensive to employ.”
Still, breaking into the business involves the typical paradox: You need to have scored to get a job scoring. “Get one person to trust you, and that’s a clincher. The rest snowballs,” says Kalnins. “The tricky part is getting that first.”

Elmer Bernstein

Even the odds for someone who, like Burt, has scored seven features aren’t so great. “I was up for four [movies] last year,” he says, “and they all fell through.”
All of which is not to say there’s no hope or no work at all. The bread-and-butter jobs lie in television programming, in commercials and, in-creasingly, in Web sites and video games.
Flexibility and adaptability are key. Kalnins works, in order of preference, as a composer, synthestrator and music editor. “Depending on who’s calling and what service they need tendered, I’ll switch hats,” he says. “I do whatever anybody asks me to do.
“Some of my classmates wanted to be the next John Williams – turning down TV and synthesizer work. They’re not here any more. You have to take whatever opportunity you’re given and bite into it with all your teeth.”
Of course, there are the made opportunities. Bondelevitch talks about a self-selling ability. “Unfortunately,” he says, “most composers don’t know how to play the room.”
Others have the skill in over-abundance. There are persistent rumors that certain Oscar nominees – who shall remain nameless – can’t read or write music. Known not so affectionately as “hummers,” they allegedly make the roughest of sketches and then turn the work over to a crew. “Some guys are so dependent on orchestrators,” Raksin says, “that there’s a question of who does the composing.”
Not that pride of authorship has much place in this business. For composers who seek to be the alpha and omega of their creations, the realities of the film industry can be painful. Because film music is subordinate to another medium, composers don’t always have a chance to complete a gesture or see a musical idea through to its conclusion. A pre-existing “temp track” (temporary music placed in a film for test screenings) can be limiting too, if the director or producer wants it changed only enough to avoid a law suit.
“You have to check your ego at the door,” says the USC scoring program’s Brian King, who came to film composing at the age of 39.
“As composers, we’re used to writing what’s in our hearts, in our heads. But here, the film is the form.”

hen again, the restrictions of the business can be liberating. “I find [they] make it easier for me to write,” Sanders says. “Stravinsky said that he could not compose until he had a problem to solve. In film, there’s no tyranny of the blank page. Having some parameters I think guides the [creative] process – as does having a time restriction. You’re not waiting for the haze of inspiration.”

Elmer Bernstein

Whatever the complaints, film composing affords a number of undeniable and potentially addictive joys. The potential audience numbers are nothing to sneeze at. A new piece of concert music might, if you’re lucky, play three of four times a year before a very small audience of die-hards. But a new piece of music in a popular film could play every few seconds across the world, reaching millions.
There’s almost immediate feedback, too. “The period of time from an idea being in your brain and coming back at you in sound waves on a stage is very short,” says Sanders. “Here in [L.A.], a couple of days after you write it, it’s being played by some of the best players on planet Earth.”
Even Beltrami, who harbors more ambivalence about his profession than some, talks about his work on the TV series “Land’s End” with apparent pleasure. “I got to do something different each show,” he says. “There was nothing stock about it – completely different orchestration, styles, themes each time. I could never settle in and just rattle off another show. It was a ton of work, but most gratifying too.”
Perhaps the most potent, though least definable, reward of scoring is how music coupled with imagery can get under one’s skin.
Like many who gravitate toward the field, Burt remembers an early, boyhood love of films and film music: Picture a hillside in Sausalito, Calif. It is summer, a Sunday in the 1940s. A gang of kids flush with the memories of a Saturday matinée are re-enacting favorite scenes, slithering through the grass, sneaking up on each other. Several young voices – Burt’s among them – are making music to go with the play. The hills hum with the sound.
Twenty years later, he experienced a similar euphoria with his first film. It was a horror picture, The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964), that “all the well-heeled [composers] at Princeton” had turned down.
“It was terrible – scoring five murders, a rape and a chase,” he says, laughing; but as a scholarship student and young father, he couldn’t afford to pass it up.
When the movie was finally released, Burt didn’t tell anyone. He went to see it alone in a drive-in. It was depressing at first, because his music had been changed or faded out here and there. But then a scene came on – a decapitated head rising in a dumbwaiter, cut to the breakfast table.
“It was a terrible, terrible scene, but the music was just in beautiful sync with it. I mean it breathed with the film and I couldn’t hold back a laugh.”
His reaction drew worried looks from the people in a neighboring car. Deeply embarrassed, he moved to a different spot. But he was hooked.
“If you have that experience, bringing film and music together into one sigh – well, it’s remarkable.”

Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) is one of very few directors who scores his own pictures.
"In film, there's no tyranny of the blank page. Having some parameters guides the creative PROCESS as does having a time restriction. You're not waiting for the haze of inspiration."
All the Stop-clocks in the scoring department at Disney Studios used to read in footage, not seconds. With the relatively recent introduction of the SMPTE time code (devised by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers), they now read in hours-minutes-seconds-frames.
To “sweeten” is industry jargon for adding one or two live players to a synthesized score.
Ingmar Bergman, who used very little music in his movies, is also known as the “Phantom of the Orchestra.”

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