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September 2014
Issue: November 1, 2004

CUSTOM COMPOSITIONS

By: By Christine Bunish


Simpsons composer Alf Clausen not only underscores each season's 22 episodes, he also writes all the original songs.
"Even though production music has gotten so sophisticated and has proliferated, the downside is that everyone has access to the same libraries," notes Michael Ungar, co-owner/composer at SandBlast Productions (www.sandblastproductions.com/) , the in-house music wing of Manhattan's Broadway Sound, a division of Broadway Video. "You might identify a really swinging track with one thing, then hear it used by a competitor, but if you write original music it's something no one else will create. You've crafted a musical word painting for somebody."

IT SHOULD BE A RECORD!

In addition to their core work of providing sound mixing services for Broadway Sound's lengthy roster of broadcast clients, co-owners and composers Ungar, Ralph Kelsey and Loren Toolajian write music for broadcast promos, shows and show themes. They observe a number of trends in music for television today. "Television is really infused with popular music," especially tunes from past decades, reports Ungar. Broadcasters may also purchase the recording rights to a pop song and ask a music house to re-create it. "It's all about creating a nostalgic mood or feeling around a product," says Kelsey. "That's the power of music."

"Most clients come with some preconception of how they want the music to sound," Ungar notes. "They're not asking us, 'What do you think it should be?' On one level it's good that they know where they're coming from, but it may make it more difficult to present something further away from the client's original thought process."




Toolajian concurs. "It's exciting when clients say, 'We love your creative spontaneity, here's my spot, I trust you with it.' Out of exploration come new sounds. When you're allowed to use your musical instincts, musical magic happens!"

SandBlast has been in the enviable position of having its original work rival pop music offerings. Ungar and Toolajian, working with Mos Def and Minnesota Grooveman, created the theme for HBO's Def Poetry Jam, which features classical strings on top of Minnesota's grooves and an edgy mix by Ungar. "We get at least 25 emails a week asking where people can buy it," Ungar reports. "It should be a record!"

"It's remarkable how much staying power the theme has had," says Toolajian. "It speaks to the collaborative process. There's a great pulse and rhythm drive out of the hip-hop and funk world, and a real violinist and cellist out of the classical music tradition. They merge to create a unique musical idiom that's mixed in such a way that the strings are very grainy and raw. There's a nice melodic line, then the rhythm kicks in and takes off."


David Schwartz (inset) uses Digital Performer and a Yamaha 02R 96 console for his scoring work on the Fox comedy Arrested Development.
The company also gets Web hits asking if there's a recording of its theme for College Sports Television's image campaign for its women's sports programming. Ungar and Toolajian created a hard-edged version of "What Are Little Girls Made Of" with vocals by Elaine Caswell in a Joan Jett-inspired performance. "The producer wanted to do a contemporary version of this sweet little tune," Toolajian recalls. "He just said here's the tune, here's the montage of women's sports, go to it. When producers give you that kind of freedom, when they value what you bring to the game, they always get more in return."

Toolajian recently teamed with project producer Jeremy Lipkin on a new theme for Nickelodeon's U-Pick Live daily program block. "We needed to update the theme with more of a punk-sounding track but hang onto the six-note motif," Toolajian says. "We listened to different CDs with that sensibility, then got together in the studio with me on guitar and Jeremy on bass and started jamming. In the process of musical brainstorming we kept the main melody but turned it into a cool, driving track."

SandBlast has a MIDI room, which Toolajian frequents, equipped with Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3, multiple samplers, electronic drum kits and a Mackie 2804 board. Two additional rooms also function as audio post rooms for Broadway Sound. They feature Pro Tools|HD3 systems with ProControl surfaces and full-blown Waves bundles, Sonic Solutions and AMS Neve AudioFile DAWs, and 96-channel Logic II and Soundcraft DC2000 digital consoles.


Comma Music co-principal Larry Pecorella is also one of the studio's five composers.
COMPOSING FOR TELEVISION
One of the last bastions of original composing and scoring is television programming. David Schwartz of David Schwartz Music (www.davidschwartzmusic.com/) in Pacific Palisades, CA, has a reputation for doing unusual, stand-out TV. His first major TV credit was the entire run of the eccentric Northern Exposure. "I got the job by writing the theme song, and we hired a great moose, which made it sound even better," he recalls.

Recently Schwartz has been involved with two series that are polar opposites: the Emmy Award-winning Fox comedy Arrested Development and HBO's dark vintage Western Deadwood.

"Arrested Development is typical of a new kind of single-camera comedy that has no laugh track and wants music a lot of the time," he points out. "In an average episode I'll do source music for scenes, the underscore and a couple of songs. The challenge is to make it sound like it has a center, that it's all Arrested Development music."


Graceful compositions

Schwartz wasn't surprised when the comedy's producers asked, "Can we do a song here? How about Brazilian? With a Brazilian singer? Overnight?" He got Brazilian lyricist/vocalist Katia Moraes to come in for a 10pm recording session at which she sang the first set of lyrics. "The first lyrics were very beautiful, but it needed to be more immediate and fun. Her second version was just right." The song, "A Magica Do Mar," and 28 others are featured in the special soundtrack section of the Arrested Development DVD released last month.

Schwartz is in the rare position of having the music he delivers for Arrested Development accepted as final. "There is no preview, though cues can be edited and moved at the dub," he says. Schwartz likes to attend the dub, schedule permitting, if that's the director's and producer's wish.

"It makes me tougher on myself since there's no filtering process, and I have to deliver what's right. But it's also a chance to take more risks: I can write solo trumpet and know we don't have to preview it as a MIDI demo, therefore giving it a better chance of acceptance with the directors and producers."


Blurring the line between music and sound design: Heavy Melody's (L-R) Dave Fraser, Neil Goldberg and Chris Peterson.
When Schwartz wrote the Emmy-nominated :90 main theme for Deadwood, the producers told him they didn't want music in the classic Western tradition or in the big-screen Elmer Bernstein-Ennio Moricone mold. "When the characters in Deadwood went west they were entering a new world that was exciting, dangerous, dirty, with a dark underside," he notes. "It was all dirt, grime and despair, yet there was hope for mankind."

For this piece, he developed a melody featuring such instruments as fiddle, wood flute, bowed dulcimer and guitaron. Toward the end of the piece, when the initial theme peaks, the Deadwood producers asked for the dark side to surface. So he created a stark change employing the Armenian duduk and Indian harmonium. The result was a composition that Schwartz was told "brings Western music into the 21st century."

Schwartz works in his own versatile studio designed by Vincent van Haaff of the Waterland Group. The studio is outfitted with a Yamaha Disklavier grand piano, Pro Tools|HD3, Yamaha 02R 96 consoles and a good selection of tube and analog mics and pre amps. MOTU's Digital Performer 4.5 software is his primary composing tool. Schwartz believes in live music and uses players on every production but laments that "the days of getting an orchestra in a studio are mostly over. It rarely happens for TV anymore." Still, he sees a trend toward more music per episode for TV series. "More shows are going in the direction of Arrested Development than not. Look at reality shows - they're almost all music."


Jeff Grace scored the indie film The Roost.
SCORING THE EMOTION FIRST
Fans of The Simpsons look forward to the show's annual Halloween celebration. The first Treehouse of Horror, back in '89, was composer Alf Clausen's audition for the series. At press time he was working on his 15th Halloween episode.

Clausen (www.alfclausen.com/) was no stranger to television when he landed this long-running The Simpsons gig. He was an arranger and later musical director on the Donnie & Marie variety show in the '70s, musical director on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived variety show and, simultaneously, composer for the four-year runs of Moonlighting and Alf - "no relation," he quips about the latter.

But Clausen, who had also done feature film work, was a newcomer to animation. "When I met with [series createor] Matt Groening, he told me not to look at The Simpsons as a cartoon," Clausen recalls. "The concept was to score the show as a drama whose characters are drawn. Matt said, 'I always want you to score the emotion first and the action second.' That made me comfortable with them and them with me."


SandBlast helped give Def Poetry Jam's theme a classical, funk and hip-hop sound.
Clausen not only underscores each season's 22 episodes, he writes all the original songs, the quirky changes to Danny Elfman's signature theme - there are 12 different sax solos for Lisa alone - and the constantly-changing musical styles for the opening title's couch gag. Of his 25 Emmy nominations, 18 have been for his Simpsons music and he chalked up two wins for the series.

"The Simpsons lets me do what I do virtually unencumbered," he notes. "They give talent relatively free rein to do their work. It's an inspirational work environment." Underscores are done during post production when episodes are almost complete with dialogue and temporary sound effects in place. Songs are created in pre-pro, as early as seven months in advance, recorded by the cast voices and sent to the animators.

Clausen says his work "never falls into a predictable groove. I have to be at the top of my game every episode." Last season he wrote four songs in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber for The President Wore Pearls, an Evita take-off that found Lisa running for student body president. He always enjoys composing Sideshow Bob episodes because "they ask me to score them in the grand film score traditions of Bernard Herrmann, and I get to make more of a musical arc with the story."

The unpredictable nature of his work has also included recording Bono and U2,and, just recently, recording pieces of Miles Davis's "Birth of the Cool" album of 1948 as source music for Bart and Milhouse.

Clausen has used Sibelius notational software for the last three years. "For a long time I was a pencil, paper and eraser guy at the piano," he reports. He learned to use MOTU's Mosaic program, but when updates were no longer available he migrated to Sibelius. "If I orchestrate my own scores I use Sibelius. I compose a four-line sketch to keep me honest, orchestrate the sketch with Sibelius and fax my completed orchestral score to the music preparation department for copying," he explains. "If I'm short on time I write a nine-line sketch with pencil and paper and fax it to the orchestrator. I try to be as detailed as possible to keep control of the orchestral content."

Clausen enjoys the rarity of having a 35-piece orchestra at his disposal. "There aren't many shows with orchestras today," he says. "Matt [Groening] says acoustic music smoothes out the animation and gives it a touch of class it wouldn't otherwise have."

PUNCTUAL SOUNDS

With offices in Chicago and Santa Monica, Comma Music & Sound Design's five composers - Larry Pecorella, Bryan Rheude, Dave Hutten, Justin Hori and Pete Schmidt - specialize in spot music for advertisers like Orbit Gum, Dodge and Morgan Stanley.

"From rock to orchestral to jazz, we're all over the map," says Chicago-based Pecorella who, with Rheude, is a company principal and creative director. "Often we all take separate stabs at a project so the client gets five different choices. And we'll sit in on each other's projects and mix and match, adding to the other guy's tracks."

Comma Music (www.commamusic.com/) boasts four Pro Tools|HD writing rooms in Chicago and a shared live room; Santa Monica also has a Pro Tools|HD-based control room and studio. Pecorella and Rheude use Logic II for composing while their colleagues opt for Pro Tools; all use Propeller Head's Reason sequencing software, "a cool and contemporary program for drums and rhythm," Pecorella says.

He and his fellow composers have witnessed a number of trends in the last few years. "Commercials use a lot more published songs by artists. The barriers have broken down," he notes. "Artists who didn't want to sell out now see spot music as free advertising for themselves or their band. This is new competition for us."

He also finds that editors have "a bigger say in music than they used to," with their access to substantial collections of stock music. "They often do the initial music search to have music to cut to," Pecorella explains. "The client may fall in love with how that music works with the picture so by the time they come to you, you don't have the opportunity to put your creative two cents in."

But original scores, custom-tailored to a spot's specific needs, stand out like no others. Pecorella tapped his extensive experience writing, performing and producing live music for spots when he conducted the Czech National Philharmonic in his score for the :60 Hunchback spot for Cheez-Its from production company Pytka. Part of Leo Burnett/Chicago's "Get Your Own Box" campaign for the snack crackers, the humorous spot "looks and sounds like a movie" as it follows the Hunchback of Notre Dame through the streets of Paris and into the bell tower where he reveals his deformity: a concealed Cheez-Its box.

"You couldn't score that with a few toys and live instrumentalists," Pecorella notes. "There's a joy you get conducting an orchestra in their concert hall. You can't get that sitting in front of the computer." He worked with the same orchestra on the score for Uncle Nino, an indie film starring Joe Montegna slated for release in February.

While the Internet has globalized music scoring, opening up the market for even greater competition, it has also paved the way to new business opportunities and the ability to work with artists around the world. "We've found more work coming from outside Chicago," Pecorella reports, citing Detroit, Kansas City and LA. "We've made a conscious effort to go after it and have no problem working with creatives at a distance. Film is still film, and you have to give it emotion with music; it's just how you're delivering the product that's different."

OLYMPIAN SOUND DESIGN

Just over a year old, NYC's Heavy Melody Music & Sound Design (www.heavymelodymusic.com/) is comprised of composers/ sound designers Neil Goldberg and Dave Fraser, graduates of the Berklee College of Music, and studio producer Chris Peterson.

"We're really into diversification with our outlets, including film, longformat TV shows, spots and videogames," says Fraser. "We've evolved our business so we can produce tracks cost effectively for a diversified client base." The company offers two fully digital multitrack suites with a shared iso booth. Gear includes Mackie D8B consoles; Genelec monitors; PRS, Gibson, Fender, Brian Moore and Bourgeois guitars; Akai, Clavia, Ilio, Kurzweil, Korg, Native Instruments, Novation, Roland and Yamaha synths; AKG and Shure mics; Mac G5s running Digital Performer, Peak, UA and Waves; and custom P4 PCs running TASCAM's GigaStudio sampling software.

Heavy Melody excels at intertwining music and sound design. "We blur the line between music and sound design so both go to a place neither defines," says Peterson. In a new national spot for AT&T, Goldberg composed a track using instruments in a sound design role. For example, he recorded guitars, reversed them and cut them up in interesting rhythmic manipulations.

Some projects are more music-focused, however, and one used library elements to great effect. New York City's :60 pitch spot for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which was shown in kiosks at the Athens Olympic Village and will air nationally this fall, starts with evocative strings accompanying archival photos of immigrants at Ellis Island, then builds to an inspiring orchestral score as the contemporary world city makes its bid to host the upcoming games.

"DDB producer Scott Kemper wanted the melody to start simply and pull at the heart string,s then develop into a full-blown fanfare, a real anthem-like piece of music," says Peterson. Goldberg composed the score with live trumpet, flugelhorn and violin playing the main melody and GigaStudio's "orchestra in a box" filling out the track. "The beauty of GigaStudio and the Vienna Symphony Library is the power, quality and realism of the meticulously-recorded orchestral instruments," Goldberg explains. "I layer that with other libraries, and it's as close to the real thing as it gets."

Fraser points to the increased use of "instantly-identifiable pop songs" on commercials and in videogames, which also license music from record labels. But "you'd be hard pressed to find a Top 40 track to score" the eGenesis Massively Multiplayer Online game A Tale in the Desert II, which takes place in ancient Egypt, Peterson says.

Fraser and Goldberg team on music and sound design for the game, which is ongoing as its developers implement new features. "The purpose of the game is cooperation as you advance through architecture, art and armed conflict," Peterson explains. "Dave and Neil use indigenous instruments to give gamers the feeling of being immersed in the environment." The fact that the game continues to evolve "gives it an organic quality that's very attractive," he adds.