The shutdown of production was devastating to Los Angeles’ music community, just as it has been for every aspect of TV- and movie-making. But creative thinking is putting some studio musicians back to work.
John Acosta, president of Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians, projects that lost wages due to the cancellation of live performances (notably by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L.A. Opera, L.A. Master Chorale and others) and studio recording dates could range from $2 million to $4 million, “just for the month of March.” Scuttled scoring dates amounted to half of that total, with last-minute cancellations of music for Fox’s “Family Guy,” Netflix’s “Umbrella Academy” and Peacock’s upcoming “Brave New World,” among others, prompting the Warner Bros., Sony and Fox scoring stages to close their doors within days of the city’s mandate that all nonessential businesses do so.
“Everything ground to a total standstill,” says composer Fil Eisler, who was gearing up to score the four remaining episodes of Fox’s “Empire” with a union orchestra of 30-plus players. As Eisler noted recently on Facebook, “There are now hundreds of musicians, orchestrators, copyists, engineers and other people on our crews out of work with no relief coming in the foreseeable future. These are the people who have brought our scores to life.”
Eisler suggests that composers try to keep musicians working by recording them remotely — that is, in their homes or private studios — and combining all of these solo tracks into small-ensemble scores, as he is doing.
For the new NBC series “Council of Dads,” Eisler composed for a quartet, which can be recorded remotely. “We’re sending the parts to the players; they record it and send it back; my engineer and I edit it and make it sound right. I also adjust the writing a bit so that it’s less dependent on that sound of all of them playing together at the same time.”
It’s a technique that many composers have used as the technology has improved in recent years. Indeed, mixing individual tracks with other players as part of the final score is a technique used in pop music regularly, combining beats or instrumentation with a vocal track recorded separately.
Composer Laura Karpman had booked orchestra dates for two upcoming TV shows when the pandemic hit. Thinking ahead to her role as mentor in the USC film-scoring program, she came up with a similar scheme for the students’ imminent recording session, which was about to be canceled. “What if we started a virtual orchestra?” she asked violinist Lisa Liu and engineer Brad Haehnel, who are partnering with her in the project.
“The concertmaster plays the first take on the violin, and she passes it around to the rest of the violins. The principal second violin records, and so forth,” Karpman says. The plan is to record 22 strings, four woodwinds, a horn and a harp this way — each musician recording his or her part at home and relying on composer and mixer to assemble them into a single score cue.
Still, Karpman concedes, “Is this a substitute for people sitting together on a scoring stage and making music? It is not. What it is, is a solution for right now, and for next time when we hunker down.” Post-production has not ended everywhere, she adds: “Not only is TV moving forward, but we’re pressured to try and meet delivery dates.”
Karpman plans to call her virtual ensemble Unison, because “it’s not about being remote: It’s about being together but in a separate space. That, to me, is what is most inspiring about it. It’s a way to play together without being together.”
Luckily, the musicians union approves. “It’s a little silver lining,” says Local 47’s Acosta. “We can use the AFM agreement. With a little flexibility, it’s doable. We’re now in a place where we need to be as flexible and as creative as possible while our people are at home with no income. Anything that we can do to facilitate work, that’s what we should be doing.”
There is some question about whether this will work for a full symphony orchestra of 70 or more players — Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has been in touch with Karpman about the technological and practical challenges of expanding into the symphonic realm — but musicians contractor Peter Rotter, who lost “three or four film sessions [involving] upwards of 70 people” in the last two weeks, applauds the new initiative. “People are rising to the occasion and finding ways to manufacture work,” he says. “We are people who play together and work together.”
Adds Eisler, “We’re all very conscious of protecting our recording community. And we are paid to be a creative bunch, aren’t we? We should bloody well come up with something.”
“This is kind of a musical Dunkirk,” offers Rotter, referring to the famous World War II retreat and the subject of Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film. “We’ve got to rescue as many musicians as we can to keep them alive.”