A few weeks ago I watched an interview that composer Germaine Franco did for the YouTube channel Orchestral Tools, and in the video she talks about getting into the business and the importance of producing a lot of work while working as a film composer. I was interested to learn more about film composing so I watched another video that Orchestral Tools did in which they interviewed Jeff Russo, who composed the score for the films Fargo and Star Trek and the TV show The Umbrella Academy (all of which I have yet to see).
In the interview, Russo talks about the importance of developing your own sound as a film composer. He said that composer John Powell called on aspiring film composers to stop listening to film scores so that they could produce their own work instead of copying someone else’s style. While Russo partly agreed with this, he also said that it really does help to have a broad knowledge of different film scores and other genres of music because you get a sense of what someone’s melodies are and that helps provide inspiration for you to develop your own melodies. Also, speaking from a common sense standpoint, we’re all going to copy each other’s work anyway in one way or another. It’s especially important to listen to other film scores because you learn from the people who have more experience in film scoring and have done it for longer than you. It’s just like anything else in life; if you want to be a good employee, you need a mentor who will show you how the job is done and encourage you with their own past experiences of failures and how they bounced back from those failures. For me, I seek encouragement from musicians who are actually in the music industry and have been for quite some time. Because they have gone through the many highs and lows of the music industry, they have so much rich experience I can learn from. The last thing I want to do is walk into a professional orchestra or any music setting and just wing it without knowing what to expect. Plus, seeking out advice from more experienced musicians has helped me become more gracious over time about my progress through life as a musician and has helped me challenge my long-time battle with arrogance and thinking I was cool without accepting criticism from others.
Russo further explains that it helps to listen to a wide range of music because while music theory is important, listening to more than just one genre of music helps you create a broader sound palette from which you can work off of, similar to painters get to experiment with all these different colors and shades of colors. You also can’t predetermine where your music background is going to specifically take you; Russo says in the interview that for the first twenty years of his music career, he wrote songs for the rock band he was a part of. In addition to writing songs, he also played piano, guitar, and drums, and while rehearsing with the band, he would bang out chords or experiment with new sounds and this experimenting led him to develop his own sound over time and think about the larger picture first (aka the overall melody) and then focus on the nitty-gritty details of the score.
Russo also says that when working on film scores for other people, it’s important to be yourself and that you don’t have to be a different composer for each score you write. It helps to be yourself because the whole point of film composing is to produce this music for someone else so that they can see what kind of groove you have in composing, or what kind of patterns you tend to lean towards when writing the music. When other people look at your work, they get an overall sense of your sound. The classical composers Gustav Mahler and Mozart, for instance, have different patterns from each other. Even though Mahler, like many Romantic composers, sought heavy influence from Mozart, his style is still distinct to him and the time period during which these composers wrote their music. Mahler’s music is often very cathartic and emotive; his Symphony No 5 “Adagietto” is a clear example. Unlike, let’s say, Mozart’s “Flute Quartet in D Major”, which is very sprightly and pointed, Mahler’s “Adagietto” is incredibly dramatic and will make you cry. It is a meditative piece, and even if Mahler’s pieces were the same tempo as Mozart’s there is just all this emotional complexity to Mahler’s pieces that are distinct to Mahler and other Romantic-era composers, even though they did seek influence from Mozart.
When asked about the importance of sound design to film scoring, Russo says that it really depends on the kind of work that the client wants you to do. The overall main thing to really focus on, according to Russo, is creating a sound, not just notes on a page, because some people really like just hearing the music but some want to feel the sound and not just hear it. So it’s important to think about the entire context of the score as it relates to the film so that you can develop the overall vision the client wants instead of just focusing on your own ideas about the music, because the whole point of scoring for movies is so that moviegoers and producers can feel that the score relates to the characters and setting and plot. When Russo scored the music for Star Trek, he used a very definitive range of sounds, and gave the brass section loud passages, and also incorporated strings, glockenspiel and percussion into the score. He thought about the overall picture, and while he didn’t intend to change Star Trek, he still wrote from his own perspective so that he still had his own unique sound or idea of how the score would sound. This really helped encourage me to develop my own sound as a musician and be very purposeful in how I want a piece to sound, but to also bring my own interpretation and expression to the piece. Robert Schumann, for instance, is a Romantic composer like Mahler, and suffered from severe depression. His Cello Concerto uses a wide variety of dynamics, many very sudden bursts of loud and then soft, and also doesn’t pause between movements. As someone who struggled with mental health issues, though not to the extent Schumann did, I really felt it was important to bring my own personal narrative to my performance of the piece. The constantly changing dynamics and overall flow of the piece in terms of tempo and feeling convey the tumultuous struggle that Schumann had with mental illness and life in general, and while I’m not advocating for his issues or saying they helped his music in any way, music is a very personal means of expression, so to play the piece without keeping in mind Schumann’s dark battles with his inner demons (as well as my own inner demon battles) wouldn’t do justice to the piece.
Russo also said that you may look back at your past work and think it’s terrible, but you only develop your own sound through creating more music scores. He often looks back at his old music and thinks it’s terrible, but then he understands that he only developed his own sound by allowing himself to experiment with different styles, even though from his own perspective they weren’t that good. As artists we can be super self-critical sometimes, and I think what’s really helped me surpass my ego and really go beyond what that inner critic is telling me is just creating more music and writing not just for myself, but for other people to enjoy and feel inspired by. You only really learn to grow through hard work, and it’s very much what radio host Ira Glass told people, that creative people have high expectations for their art and get upset when they think their art is mediocre, but the key to overcoming creative block or this feeling of inferiority is to produce as much work as we consume. Like, I can listen all day to Ariana Grande, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, Keane and many other musicians (and music groups), and I recommend you totally should listen to other artists too to help develop as a musician and get a sense of other musicians’ flows. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to do something with your own talent and just create something that only you can freely slap a patent label on. I still need to play my instrument every day, or else I’m going to wallow in this pity where I think, “Oh, Christina Aguilera is a better musician than me. I should just not bother” when I could be more productive and support other artists while producing my own personal projects. As Germaine Franco said, you have to do a lot of work even when you think your scores belong in the trash, because to someone else they may sound genius and it may be the thing that fits perfectly with the movie. This is especially crucial when you cannot find any paid media work, so it helps, as Franco points out, to produce your own personal library, so that when someone wants to see your work, you can show them.
Overall, I’m really glad I watched this video. If you’re interested in learning more about film composing, check it out below.