This personal wisdom (if indeed it is either personal or wisdom) comes to me at sixty-three years of age. Many things are falling away at this age, but retrospect and derivative knowledge are the offsets. No young person, unless he or she is clairvoyant, can claim this perspective.
Evolution moves at a glacial pace. It moves like the growth of a tree, like the appearance of facial hair on a prepubescent male. It seems to move slower as our attention spans shorten. Often evolution is imperceptible due to this slow pace until it reaches critical mass. When it hits critical mass, mankind clusters in an effort to speed up evolution. Global warming will be solved, but the progress in alternative energy has, until recently, been glacial. All of a sudden it seems Iʼm not the only one with a ﬁve kilowatt solar array on his property.
In the big picture, evolution can be viewed as positive, but when broken into shorter periods its effects often seem negative. For example: smoking and obesity. Looking back we can see that acceptance of these lifestyles happened slowly… until recently, when that “cluster” of humanity decided to move these items to the top of the priority list and do something about them.
These are obvious, in-your-face examples. They affect large numbers of people from a health standpoint as well as a ﬁnancial perspective when you consider the cost of medical treatment for complications from both.
Our business, the business of creating music for ﬁlm, television, media (and whatever else might come along) is also evolving. By its very nature, our music is designed to be subliminal. It is consequently not in-your-face, and does not affect people as dramatically as cancer or diabetes. Any negative effects resulting from evolution will not easily be noticed. Nor will they motivate clusters of ﬁlmmakers, composers or even audiences to undo what has been done.
So, what am I saying? What is this “negative” evolutionary effect, and what is the cause? Should we do something about it, or will big-picture evolution eventually take care of it as is happening with smoking and obesity?
It was recently announced that China is contemplating sweeping changes to their higher education system. Apparently they have been teaching a very narrow curriculum, based almost entirely on existing knowledge. This dates back to the early days of communism and the belief that an education concentrated on a speciﬁc skill set, say engineering, would produce the worldʼs best in that particular ﬁeld. What has evolved as a result is a population with extremely good working skills, but without the ability to invent, imagine, probe or discover. It is now speculated that a more liberal education coupled with life experience is imperative to achieve these qualities.
When I ﬁrst became interested in Film Scoring (circa 1962) there was one book available on the subject: Underscore, by Frank Skinner. That was it. Only years later did Sounds and Scores by Henry Mancini hit the market. You could not take a college course on ﬁlm scoring. As a matter of fact, no one could actually tell you how to become a ﬁlm composer. So the “burning desire” was sated by merely writing music—for anything and everything.
The result of all that writing was a musical vocabulary that was both diverse and personal. It would be the equivalent of the musical vocabulary accrued by the instrumentalist who has played in bands and orchestras from an early age. The other equally important adjunctive skill was working with a plethora of varied personalities. Jazzers, Vegas people, concert promoters, road managers, Top 40 acts, all with different visions and expectations about their music.
We now have courses in Film Scoring at most major universities. Some even offer a Masters degree in the subject. I had a student begin studying privately with me when he was only 16 years old. This proliferation of possibilities for an education in ﬁlm and media music is the product of supply and demand. In the Sixties there were a handful of ﬁlm composers and that was enough. The process of making ﬁlms was slower (pre-digital, you know), so fewer ﬁlms were made and the tried and true professional composers could not only handle the workload but could prosper doing it.
Todayʼs ﬁlm composer community is extremely large. The size is reﬂected in all the college courses that have sprung up over the last 10 years. This makes competition keener, and consequently increases the need to start on this educational path as early as possible.
Compared to concert music, the amount of ﬁlm music available for study is miniscule. Less than a hundred yearʼs worth. And styles of ﬁlm music have changed so radically that, unless you are a history buff, you will likely be listening to examples from the last 5 or 10 years.
Think China! Think variety!
There have always been qualitative differences in ﬁlm music, even when there was only a handful of composers. There was good ﬁlm music and not-so-good ﬁlm music, but at least it emanated from the minds (some better equipped than others) of human beings. Human beings, each with a personalized musical vocabulary.
One of the undisputed technological accomplishments in recent times is what we often refer to as emulation. We write with an emulated orchestra—an emulated oboe or French Horn. This ability would be categorized as an “advance” in technology if it werenʼt for the fact that it is, as we speak, paving the way for—are you ready?— EMULATED FILM MUSIC.
“It sounds just like ﬁlm music!”
I started arranging at the ripe old age of 13. I was NOT a prodigy. I merely had an interest and, more importantly, a father who had been a dance band leader in the 30ʼs and was now a junior high school music teacher. MY junior high school music teacher.
Hereʼs the thing about the (almost lost) art of arranging: unless youʼre a student, there is NO emulation. Emulation would be anathema to arranging. As an arranger you take an existing song and try your damnedest to put it into a musical genre or setting in which it has never existed previously. This requires imagination. The same imagination that those whom we “emulate” have. Technology and the internet have given us the ability to quickly and thoroughly analyze music. We can slow things down and grab every note and glissando in an effort to see what those “anointed” among us have done. This is the equivalent of Chinaʼs higher education based on existing knowledge.
For the gear junkies, or technogeeks, this is the best thing that could happen. It is the very justiﬁcation we need to buy that new library of sounds or those incredible reverbs. The better the sound, the more it sounds just like MUSIC! Whoo hoo!
Every year, for the past twelve years, I listen to the demos submitted by the top ﬁfty or sixty applicants to the ASCAP Television and Film Scoring Workshop. I know what I hear. There are a few very original works every year, but the majority are, to a greater or lesser degree, derivative.
This is NO FAULT OF THE EMERGING COMPOSERS WHO SUBMIT!
“Then whose fault is it?” you ask.
“Evolution,” I reply. And, subsequently, is it a “fault” at all? Maybe itʼs just the new reality. Entertainment is changing; attention spans are changing. Hell, wars are changing. Governments are changing.
As a matter of fact, Iʼm not sure that there is anything to be done or that there is anything wrong… except that Iʼm betting you would like to ﬁgure out, in a “cattle call” world of media composers, how to get work. How to be noticed in the “herd.”
I used to open my classes with the following question: “How much money do you expect to make, annually, as a ﬁlm and television composer?”
Hereʼs the new question that starts off my class: “How many of you have: Stormdrum; East/West Gold or Platinum Orchestra; Vienna Symphonic Library Orchestra or Strings; Ivory; Hollywood Strings?”
“If you all have the same sample libraries, (and Iʼm thinking to myself, “…and are emulating Giacchino, Zimmer, Newton-Howard, Newman and Horner”), what separates you from everyone else?”
Now, once youʼre hired, you most likely will be asked to recreate the temp score while circumventing copyright infringement, but, at least in your demos, you have the freedom to be creative and, OMG, maybe even give the ﬁlmmaker an idea that doesnʼt already exist in at least one other ﬁlm.
When it boils down to merely a price war, no one wins. As I am known to ask, “How many $5,000.00 projects do you have to get every year to support yourself, your family and your gear while living in LA?”
By now you’re probably ready to go read something else unless I get to the point, and so I shall.
The computer is your tool box. You should set aside a period of time—between the viewing of the ﬁlm, scene or project and the time when you open your tool box—when the ONLY thing you do is something that can be done with your eyes closed.
The thing you possess, which no one else possesses, is your musical history of listening and playing. Your likes and dislikes; your musical tastes. These individual aspects of your work may not be perceived by the ﬁlmmaker as important, but they are the very factor that sets you apart from the herd.
Once you have the job, itʼs never about the music. Itʼs always about the ﬁlm. How you diagnose the dramatic impact of the ﬁlmmakerʼs vision is whatʼs important—NOT that you use Altiverb or sound just like “Whomever.” The determination of what is important to this particular ﬁlm or scene is not inside any library or sequencing software. I feel that the most damaging phrase in contemporary jargon is “Thatʼs cool.” Often, my response is “Very cool. Inappropriate, but very cool.”
Put your mind between the project and the computer.
© Music By Richard Bellis
Born in Pasadena, California, Richard Bellis began his show business career as a child actor. He worked in movies and television until the age of 12, then turned all his attentions toward music and left acting behind. Within months of graduating from high school, he became musical director for the touring version of the popular rock-and-roll showcase Shindig!. This was followed by a stint with Johnny Mathis and ten years of arranging and conducting for several Las Vegas headliners. In 1976, Bellis left the road and began scoring films on a full-time basis. He won an Emmy for the score of Stephen King‘s It and Emmy nominations for HBO’s Doublecrossed and ABC’s Double, Double, Toil and Trouble. In addition to his film scoring career, Bellis is past president of the Society of Composers and Lyricists; served on the faculty of the University of Southern California for 17 years, where he lectured in the Scoring for Television and Motion Pictures program; and acts as host/mentor for ASCAP’s annual Film Scoring Workshop.