Composing is hard enough when it’s just you and the ideas in your head—last weekend’s Provocation should serve as an example of that. The problem gets even tougher when the music we write has to function as one part of a larger storytelling machine.
True to the name of this column, I’m going to give you a real View from the Trenches this month… outlining some of the problems and pitfalls I’ve encountered over a few (OK, more than a few) years of doing the thing. And maybe together we’ll come up with some techniques that will get you past the toughest spots.
So, in no particular order:
The Blank Canvas.
The trick is to take tiny little steps at first, if that’s what it takes to get notes on screen (or on paper, if that’s how you work). Almost any little fingertip-hold on the cliff you’re about to scale will get your feet off the ground—and that’s all it usually takes to get you started.
A related problem sometimes occurs when I take an ear-break (composer code for “I can’t sit here for one more minute without throwing something through the screen”). The same problems, the same bad notes, the same controller information needing to be entered—it’s all going to be there when I get back. And it accumulates a sort of inertia while I’m gone. It’s always tougher to resume my place (mid-cliff, as it were) if I’ve stepped away before tending to something big that needs fixing.
Likewise, I create a potential problem for myself if I step away at the end of a phrase. This sounds weird, but I’ve had many experiences, some of them as recent as last week, where I create a single phrase or idea that I like a lot… I flesh it out as fully as I can imagine it… then take a break, thinking I’ll pick up right there later. And, later, I’m stuck. I don’t know where to take the damned thing. I attribute this in part to abandoning the chair at the crucial moment.
The takeaway here: be careful about interrupting your process, especially starting off a cue. Don’t get too far outside your own head. And stay on the cliff a little longer than you’re comfortable.
The Shiny New Thing.
We spend good money, and lots of it, on these new additions to our arsenal. It’s important to know their capabilities, strengths and limitations. But you have to be careful to set aside time for that when you’re not serving another imperative (i.e., scoring to picture). Simple as that.
To continue our “cliff” metaphor, this one is like finding a cool new set of handholds that may or may not lead you up. And up is where you have to go, before your strength runs out. Stay focused.
The Troublesome Collaborator.
Don’t get me wrong: If your score isn’t getting it done, you need to own that and make adjustments. Kill your favorite cue, if that’s what it takes (although maybe you’d do better to file it away for yourself, for later!). The bigger the project, the truer it is that the filmmakers will get the score they want. Maybe not from you, but they’ll get it from someone.
My only advice here is to remind yourself that this is all normal. Everyone goes through this at some point. Don’t let an annoyance become a self-fulfilling prophecy… the stress of worrying about falling off the cliff causes your palms to become sweaty, which causes you to slip… oops. Bottom line: content is not process. Problems with the former do not necessarily indicate problems with the latter. Just keep it in mind.
The Transition from Hell.
This cliff metaphor I started out with is making even me roll my eyes at this point, but I’m sticking with it. And here it’s so obvious: You’re on a path, and you see where it continues, about five feet over and three feet up—but you can’t figure out how to get there.
What to do? I’m no rock climber, but my guess is that there’s a whole batch of special techniques for handling exactly this kind of situation. Sometimes you’ll see those maniacs fling themselves across empty air, only to land exactly where they wanted. Controlled chaos. Other times they’ll do some crazy upside-down contortion, starting from an unlikely body position in order to end up properly. It all relates here as well, and we have the advantage that no rule is permanent (unlike on the cliff, where… you know… gravity).
So—first, check your premises at the transition. You can dump any and all of them, as long as it makes your ears happy. And sometimes dumping something you thought you needed is the kind of freeing move that will get you through. If Point B is where you’re determined to go, you can get there. I pretty much guarantee it. Even if you simply start playing different music. The brain has an incredible ability to connect things that at first don’t seem related. In a worst-case scenario, do what my mentor, Ron Jones, once recommended to me: write a drum solo.
The Impossible Mandate.
But sometimes we’re asked to reconcile multiple sets of ground rules. Or multiple stylistic demands. Or creativity collides with plagiarism (“…just copy the temp” being the words one typically hears in such a situation).
All these are examples of starting from a place on our rock wall where there simply isn’t a pathway to the top. Once again, you have to check your premises, or those of your creative partners. Start from somewhere different, if possible, or go find another rock to climb. Usually, if you’re tactful enough about it, you’ll find that the filmmakers already know that what they’re asking you to do is fatally flawed. And then, with that concession in hand, you can work together on coming up with a solution. If not… there are always more rocks to take on. No reason to fall just for the sake of falling.
The Immovable Deadline.
Sometimes the result is, at least to my ears, unpolished. I’ll give you that. But the occasional immovable deadline—of the variety that drives us to the coffeepot—acts as a confirmation. It proves the fundamental soundness of our creative process, our organizational structure, our team of personnel. It’s a crucible.
Getting through it is a confidence-builder. It’s a potent, concentrated form of the rush that keeps us all coming back to the studio in the first place.
By the way, I call this the “immovable” deadline, rather than the “inconvenient” or “arbitrary” or “sassy” deadline, because most deadlines can be begged into oblivion. Some can’t. You will find out which is which.
My advice: take it as a challenge. Call in your team, your colleagues, your composer-heroes, and crush that sucker mercilessly. And charge the client accordingly.
If there are any other pitfalls that come to mind—especially if you have some good techniques for getting past them—put ‘em in the COMMENTS, below. I would love to add some new chops to my own creative process, courtesy of SCOREcasters like you. So bring it.