Composer Michael Bacon: 'Downtown Express'
Issue: October 1, 2012

Composer Michael Bacon: 'Downtown Express'

NEW YORK — Composer Michael Bacon ( is the brother and bandmate of a famous actor with the same last name, yet he’s never lived in LA. Instead, Michael Bacon has built his career in New York City, operating several midtown studios over the past 25 years, and currently working from two floors of his co-op on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

His New York roots recently reconnected him with Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker David Grubin, who actually gave Bacon his start more than 20 years ago. This time, it was Grubin who getting taking a chance with his first feature as a director. Downtown Express is a dramatic narrative that takes place within the world of Russian immigrants living in New York City. Sasha, played by Philippe Quint, is a talented violinist and Julliard student who’s preparing for a critical recital — all under the watchful eye of his overbearing father. When he meets singer-songwriter Ramona (played by Nellie McKay), he joins her band and falls in love, but is faced with breaking from the path his father has planned for him.

Bacon says the film celebrates Grubin’s love for music and presented numerous challenges for him as a composer. Both Quint and McKay are accomplished musicians in their own right, but that wasn’t the case for some of the other actors, so Bacon’s role went beyond writing to actually performing on screen — his hands at least — to lend authenticity to the project.

“My goal was to make it seem believable,” notes the composer, who was on set for about half of the 30-day shoot. “I was responsible for all live recording, all the pre-recordings, and making sure the sound department had all the proper takes to playback live.”

His work is represented in nearly 50 minutes of music that’s featured in the film, none of which is used as underscore. Instead, it’s almost all tied to on-screen performances. Bacon recorded the soundtrack using MOTU’s Digital Performer. His studio is set in a co-op building. He lives on the seventh floor and his workspace takes up the entire first floor.

“The living room is a live room,” he explains. “I’ve got a studio, a vocal booth, and a nice size control room. I’m a Digital Performer guy — for a long as I can remember. I also teach film scoring, so I know some of the other platforms too.”

Bacon does much of his writing on the cello or oboe. “I do a lot of stuff with the cello,” he notes. “I think it’s the ideal film scoring instrument because it’s so diverse and there are so many different sounds you can get from it. On the other hand, I play all the folk instruments: banjo, guitar, mandolin, percussion, harmonica... My computerized studio is all keyboard based and my compositional day usually involved picking up instruments that are hanging on the wall. It’s a wonderful time for composers because the recording process is so much more simple. You need so much less gear and you really can do it all by yourself.”

And while he can do much of the work himself, he does often work with other musicians. “I would say — in terms of my style — I use more live players than most people do. I feel that’s an important part of making a score sound believable, rich and warm.”

For the on-screen performances in Downtown Express, Bacon’s own hands were shot to lend authenticity to the parts. “The actor playing the father couldn’t play the cello at all,” he recalls. “We would shoot his bow hand and face, and I would reach from behind and the fingers would be my hand. And with the pianist, she’s a wonderful actress but did not know how to play the piano. We got a concert pianist and replaced her hands.”

In addition to its use in the film, the original music is being assembled for a CD release, which Bacon hopes will get the Academy’s attention. Check out the Downtown Express Website and trailer online ( Michael Bacon is now represented by First Artists Management (