Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Beating the Capital "C" Out of "c"omposer

Composition is usually a solitary art.  One sits in a room for hours with pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, spitting out ideas unfettered by creative interference.  This is what composers live for!

Film and Television, on the other hand, are highly collaborative arts.  As obvious as this should appear to someone who wants to earn their living from creating music for these, I can't count the number of times I have heard composers rally against the dying of the light with exclamations like, "But my music is perfect just the way it is!"   

Or they laugh because the ubiquitous neophyte director says something like, "The color of the music is too mauve, I want it more chartreuse."  

The composer retorts:  "What does the director know?  I've studied composition at {fill in name of haughty university}!"

Which is why when I was teaching, I created a lecture entitled, Beating the Capital "C' Out of "c" omposer.  A distillation follows:

The Art of Creative Compromise - Asking Questions

We agonize over our creativity, over every element to ensure that it's the best it can be - just to have someone say, "Ya know, it's close, but I just don't get it."  This can destroy one's soul.

Whenever my creativity is confronted by criticism, I have found that the best way to get to the solution of the problem is to ask questions, then, shut-up and listen.  A wise man once said, "He who asks the questions, is the one who leads."  Never is this more true then when discussing creative compromise.  

The challenge is to internalize your collaborator's answers and decode them  - especially when they don't speak your creative language.  This has to be done without letting emotions get involved.

The exercise might go like this:  Using my best efforts, I have created a piece that I know really works, but for whatever reason, is not hitting it for the director.

To get to a "yes," I'll often go back to the naked video and ask, "Tell me everything that you see in the scene - that you want to see in the scene."

Then I evaluate what I see, and compare that to what they want to see.

The difference between what they want, and what I see, is often the music.  From this I usually get a sense of what's missing in what I have already created and can adjust.

I'll also ask if there are elements that the director appreciates in what I have done.  Likewise, what they might not like.  Sometimes fixing the cue is as simple as changing a sound that reminds the director of something that, for them, carries negative baggage. 

Just be open!  Every situation has a different solution, but you won't find it without asking the right questions.

The Big Meeting - aka understanding "muscle" and the subjective nature of music.

I have a sense memory of sitting in a conference room, staring at 7-12 producers, the florescent lighting searing into my eyeballs.

I had just been played a scene from a sit-com that the producers wanted custom "post scored."

I attentively listened to all the completely diverse opinions.  No two people had the same idea.

Slowly, I started feeling like a caged animal with no way out.  On the inside I was like a hamster spinning on an ever rapidly accelerating wheel of death.  There was simply no creative way out of the maze without one of the producers being really disappointed.

On the outside, I was calm (I would like to think).  

After 45 minutes discussing a one and a half minute cue, I had finally heard all the opinions.  It was my turn to respond.  I don't know if what I said was right, but at least I didn't get fired that day.
"As we can all tell by the diversity of opinion, the music for this scene could go 100 different ways.  Everything I have heard can work and be funny.  All the ideas are good (that might have been a lie). 
But no matter what direction we take the music, I know from the start that no-one is going to get 100% of what they want." 
I then pointed to specific examples.  
"If I do what producer 3 wants, then I can guarantee producer 7 is going to hate it.  Likewise 2 and 9.  You've all heard each others opinions, so I hope nobody is surprised by what I might come back with."
I then remembered a quote from my old mentor, David Raksin:  "Always know who the muscle is and follow their lead."  David would have defined the muscle as the person who's really in charge.

So I probed the assembled - trying to be judicious:  
"I have heard everything you each have said, and I am going to try to incorporate as much of all your thoughts into the finished piece.  I also have my own ideas of what is right... 
But please tell, me, who is the final arbiter of the funny?"
All pointed to producer 5.
"Then as a start, I will walk down path 5 and see where it leads, understanding that the muse may even take me a different way.  Is everyone OK with that?"  
In the end, what was most important was making sure everyone's opinion was heard and reflected, even if not completely executed.  

Firing oneself.

Whenever a challenge is made to one of my "perfect compositions" (commas inverted), or for that matter to any of my creative endeavors, I try to use the challenge as an opportunity to make the creativity better.  In this way, the challenge isn't to the work itself, but to find the improvement in the work.

Sometimes, that's just not possible and the critics are just plane wrong - but that's the rare case.  Most of the time, my own blindness keeps me from seeing other options.  Most things can indeed be improved upon.  The problem most of us have is that we don't know how to address the creative note and make the work better?  We get stuck in our own heads that all change must be bad.

And then one day, it happened: I was the director in charge.  It was my film and I was the final decision maker on the music. 

I was overjoyed!  Finally, I wasn't going to have my music messed with!

The project was a comedy, and for this one scene, as the composer, I knew I wrote a great piece of music.  I agonized over every note, every cadence and pause.  Exhausted, knowing it was perfect, I went to bed, intent to review the entire film in the morning.

To my horror:  Watching the film the next day, I realized I had made a mistake.  The music itself was perfect for the scene - but the scene itself was funnier without any music.  

As the director, I made the call to drop the cue.  The composer was pissed as hell, but eventually he got over it.

The Well Timed Tantrum!

My wife, as many of you might know, is a brilliant composer and conductor.  In the latter, she transcends the art-form.

When she leads an orchestra, she is the calmest and most level headed artist I have ever known.  She navigates the three dimensional chessboard like a master.

That said, she always has this phrase, from her mentor, the great conductor Gerhard Markson, in the back of her mind. 
"It's always good to be collaborative and amenable.... But never underestimate the power of a well timed tantrum!"
For this, I refer you back to the picture at the top of the page.  Sometimes, you just got to blow a gasket to get taken seriously.

Happy writing everyone!

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