For composers, technology giveth and technology taketh away

Not so long ago, film composers worked in the time-honored fashion of putting little dots on score paper with a pencil — and if they were pressed for time, they would write fewer notes and leave the more detailed work to their orchestrators, who were inevitably faster, even if they spent more than a few sleepless nights in the process.

Between 1933, when Max Steiner composed 72 minutes of music for “King Kong” in three weeks, and 2005, when James Newton Howard composed 165 minutes in less than six weeks for the new “Kong,” technology has changed nearly everything about how the film composer does his job, as Daily Variety discovered in interviews with the composers of several of Oscar season’s most talked-about scores.

“In the days of Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, composers had a stopwatch and a piano,” says Alfred’s son, Thomas Newman (“Cinderella Man,” “Jarhead”). “The way in which we were trained (classically) may have less consequence than it did in the past. It’s all democratized, and that levels the playing field in many ways.

“The informal approach that technology allows resonates differently from an aesthetic point of view, in terms of what you can get and how you need to get there,” Newman adds. “There can be many different solutions (to a musical problem).”

John Debney (“Dreamer”) worries that the technology — everything from Apple’s Garage Band to notation software — has become so sophisticated “that a young budding composer may not be willing to take the time to really learn how to write music. He may forego the study of counterpoint and harmony. This would be a tragedy,” he says.

Keeping up with the Joneses

“I actually write best when I’m sitting at the piano with pencil and paper, because I can look at it visually and conceive it that way,” says Debney. “The other side of that coin is, sitting at the synthesizer you’re really doing it more organically, building it as you go.

“I stopped the pencil-and-paper routine around 1997 or ’98 because it was too slow for me to keep erasing and changing bars, as opposed to just playing it in and learning how to perform it on the synthesizer,” he adds. “Once I learned how to create it in the computer, as it were, I could make changes a lot more quickly.”

Michael Giacchino (“The Family Stone”) believes he can be more creative away from synths and sequencers. “You’re more free to experiment with things that you might otherwise gloss over if you were just throwing it into a computer to hear it back,” he says. “I do my best to not even listen to what it sounds like on the computer.”

But the more instant gratification that comes with digital composition hasn’t quite kept pace with the leaps in digital picture editing. “There is now the possibility of this constant, profound change of picture, even over a weekend,” says Mychael Danna (“Capote”). “Not just to the surface rhythms, but also to the deeper structural realms of a film — both places that composers need to understand intimately and react to.

“It happens faster and more frequently than it used to, and later in the process,” Danna adds. “You have to react to it, but still (write) a score that has an arc that carries from the beginning to the end of the picture, with an inner logic as well as a moment-by-moment logic.”

Digital editing “allows the director to cut over and over, until the last moment,” says Alexandre Desplat (“Syriana,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”). “And the last moment is not your last moment. Your last moment is the recording date.” Desplat recalled doing a movie in which the director was still cutting the film on the last day of the scoring sessions.

“I hear stories of scores being done in two weeks by guys who use synthesizers, and they don’t sound very good,” adds Desplat. “And then you hear that John Williams has three months and it sounds great. Guess what?”

But what synthesizers taketh away, they also giveth, allowing for a broader musical palette. “The great thing about technology is that it has opened up the world of music to people,” says John Powell (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”). “There is so much music around the globe that we now have instant access to. Everyone’s exposure to music is huge, and their opinions are going to be very specific.

“The bad side of it is that you can have a movie that’s been ‘temped’ with a lot of very different things that are sometimes very hard to reconcile across a cohesive score. You might have a piece of Bjork (leading) into a piece by John Williams into the most obscure style of drumming from Maui. Today’s composer is required to be flexible enough to do (many) styles.”

‘Demo is king’

With rare exceptions, nowadays composers are also expected to “demo” every cue in advance using the samplers and sequencers in their studios. “Now composers are able to demonstrate their music, to give the director a good idea what it’s going to sound like,” Debney reports. “I’d rather strike out three or four times in my studio and get it right than be on a scoring stage with 98 musicians and the director not liking what he’s hearing.”

Giacchino was relieved that, on “The Family Stone,” he could work out themes and demonstrate them for director Thomas Bezucha on the piano. “He was great at visualizing in his head what the music was going to sound like and never got stuck on the sound of the mockup.” Giacchino dislikes having to “sell” synth mockups “that sound awful because it’s a computer playing fake instruments.”

Mockups are being done “to the nth degree,” adds Powell. “People are getting to the point now where the demo is king. Everything needs to sound perfect. Would Elmer Bernstein have written music as great as he did if he’d had to do it all on technology rather than having the freedom of a piece of paper and the word ‘rallentando’?”

If Powell’s pronouncement bemoans the compromises in creativity that technology bodes, the other side of the coin involves convenience. For example, collaboration is now possible over long distances via the Internet, making it a small world after all.

“Being a French composer who lives in Paris,” notes Desplat, “I can now work with directors in England, Germany, Spain or the States without being there. You can send your demos on MP3 files through the Internet, and in the next five minutes it’s anywhere in the world. I did two or three movies this year with a camera and iSight.”

On both “Upside of Anger” and “Hostage,” he spent some time in L.A. but otherwise communicated with filmmakers via Internet video hookup from his studio in Paris. “I wish Georges Delerue would have had that,” Desplat says. “He was flying back and forth and playing piano over the phone to Francois Truffaut.”

A blender of sounds

In the last five years, argues Newman, “the technology has gotten so much more human, in terms of the manner in which we process sounds. You can granulate them, mix them up, take little bits of them, and truly enter into worlds that you never could have imagined, and certainly that you never could have written down with a pencil.”

On “Jarhead,” Newman manipulated flute sounds using various programs. “My theory is that color and timbre ends up being compositional, depending on the manner in which you define composition. But I can get far more specific (with the technology) than when I’m waving my arms in front of an orchestra.”

How the technology is applied depends on whom you work with, Giacchino says. “There are guys that make me feel like I’m working in 1940, and there are guys that want to be working in the year 2020 — everything faster. When used properly, the technology can be very handy. When used as a tool, it’s great.

“I think Mozart, with all his impatience in writing, would have loved it. It would have allowed him to write twice as much. He would have loved a Mac. If he’d had a laptop, he would have been unstoppable.”

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