Composers Lab celebrates 10th year

Risk is part of curriculum at Sundance program

At the Sundance Film Institute Composers Lab, risk-taking — even without a safety net — is encouraged. The program, celebrating its 10th year, exists as a haven for novice composers to experiment and cultivate their own styles without concern for commercial or critical success.

“We create a lab-workshop setting where the composers can try anything,” says composer Peter Golub (“The Great Debaters,” “Frozen River”), who acts as director of the Sundance Film Music Program and re-creator of the Composers Lab (a previous version of the lab existed 1986-89).

He explains experimenting in the marketplace can be dangerous, whereas experimenting at the institute is advantageous: “If it doesn’t work out, you might learn more than if it had.”

The 2½-week program is held each summer at the Sundance Institute, tucked away in the mountains of Park City, Utah. Chosen from a pool of around 250 applicants, six composers, or fellows, are first given one week to create short cues set to scenes of already-finished movies. The fellows, often accomplished composers who may or may not have experience scoring films, work under the guidance of seasoned composers and music pros (advisers) who volunteer as mentors.

Past advisers include Terence Blanchard, James Newton Howard and Thomas Newman. This year’s creative advisers included Tyler Bates (“Grindhouse,” “300”), Alex Wurman (“Talladega Nights,” “March of the Penguins”), Ed Shearmur (“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Charlie’s Angels”) and frequent Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell.

The filmmakers and composers work together to create a product — something Golub says rarely happens at film and composing schools.

“They just don’t seem to teach music much in film school,” he says “but it has a huge impact. Whatever music you put there is going to change how an audience sees a film.”

Because music is often the last element added in post, Golub says, it’s important to give novice directors and composers the time to collaborate outside the pressures of the business.

“The institute gives that trench experience of ‘how do you talk to each other?'” says Doreen Ringer Ross, VP of TV and film relations for BMI and an adviser at the institute since its inception. “Composers learn how to understand and help develop what that filmmaker has in mind.”

“As a composer, your music is the first thing for you,” says composer Rolfe Kent (“Sideways,” “Wedding Crashers”) and an adviser at the institute for the past four years. “In a movie, your music is often the second or third thing. It’s important for composers to learn that.”

Craig Richey (“Friends With Money”), a 2006 fellow, got his degree in classical piano studies from Juilliard and had limited instruction when tackling his first several projects. “Composing music is often a very lonely enterprise,” he says. “It was a relief to see that other composers solved problems the same way I did. I got an incredible amount of feeling that I belonged to a community.”

Above all, the institute strives to find and strengthen distinct voices. George S. Clinton (“Austin Powers” movies) has been an adviser for 10 years and is on the institute’s selection panel. “We don’t want the next Danny Elfman or John Williams,” he says, “we want somebody who already has a unique approach to what they do.”

“That’s where great art comes from,” adds Ringer Ross. “You can always play it safe and always be pretty good, but when you put yourself out on a limb, you can fall on your face — or you can be great.”

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