One Year Ago…

One year ago, I was taking a course on music composition for film and television, working towards the completion of a certificate specializing in that subject from Berklee Online.

One year ago, I was working a part-time administrative contract at a college in Toronto.

One year ago, on the morning of January 25, 2013, I had my interview for the Master in Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games program at Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain (via Skype).

I had practiced a number of pertinent talking points. I had rehearsed my patter. I had a set of notes for ready reference on my screen, as well as a slate of questions prepared for my interviewers to answer about the program. I was ready to take the next step in my professional and musical development.

It was one of the longest half-hours of my life.

I was interviewed by Laura Karpman, an Emmy award-winning composer for film, television, and video games, and then-director of the SFTV program at Berklee in Valencia. She wasted no time in cutting to a set of hard-hitting questions — that is, after we clarified my identity; the person who was scheduled to interview before me was apparently also named David, and he seemingly missed his interview. Oops.

I took the opportunity to articulate my passion for composition for media and more-than-lifelong love of music, particularly of the dramatic, narrative variety, all while enumerating the various resources that I could contribute to the Berklee environment, if they would have me among their number. I shared an array of anecdotes and addressed my experience with writing for film and game projects. On top of that, as I had completed more work in the intervening eight weeks since submitting my application, I sought permission to send additional samples.

This is where I claim victory and say that I nailed the interview, right?

I did my best, but I finished the interview with a “just missed” feeling — and they apparently felt the same way. Three weeks later, I received an e-mail informing me that my application would be held until the next round and reviewed again in light of the next batch of candidates. I was, understandably, rather disappointed, but I chose to regard it not as a “No,” but a “Not yet,” in hopes that they would not fill their cohort from solely their first round of applicants. I resolved to do my best over the following weeks to produce the best material I could for my portfolio, with an aim to submit more samples before they rendered their final decisions.

The rest, as they say, is history.

One moment of the interview still remains with me, even after a year. Laura asked me, “How do you feel about going to Spain?”

I answered, “It sounds like a grand adventure.”

It certainly has been, and I look forward to what has yet to come.

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End of Act One

Written in part during the holidays in Toronto, Canada.

Did the past four months actually happen?

When I found myself in my own bed for the first time since August, had I not merely awoken from a dream?

The final three weeks of the semester became a sleep-deprived blur, but it wasn’t the same this time as those still-memorable bouts of university-induced sleep deprivation from my undergrad years; I wasn’t asleep on my feet in quite the same way, but rather, by the time I was facing my parade of final assignments, I felt an overwhelming amount of nothing.

Make no mistake: the opportunities that have been granted to me at Berklee Valencia thus far have been tremendously rewarding, from working with professional musicians and instructors to having my work recorded by a 32-piece studio orchestra (more on that later). The truth is that through chronic sleep deprivation, I, much like the rest of my classmates, was exhausted not only beyond belief, but to the point of numbness. In the final throes of this dream that has been the first semester at Berklee Valencia, I felt too tired to think, too tired to feel, too tired to write another note.

I did anyway.

We all did.

Our instructors pushed us to our limits, and then made us work harder. With our resistance and resilience having been eroded, we suffered intense stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation (and generally feeling like this) as we battled deadline after deadline. We worked past the point of exhaustion and transcended a mere mortal measurement of stamina to become the iron men and women of musical skill that our chosen vocation demands — at least, in the context of this Master’s degree, anyway. Somehow, we managed to find the resources to muster that last ounce of strength when it was needed, long past the point of running on empty. Did we come out stronger for it? Honestly, only time will tell.

In two of our courses, Advanced Scoring and Video Game Scoring Techniques, we were given the choice of delivering our final projects in either the final week of the semester or, if we were exceptionally brave, the week before. Still recovering from the intense collection of assignments from the end of November and the beginning of December, I opted to deliver all of my courses’ final projects — four of them in total — in the final week of the semester. In retrospect, it is difficult to say whether doing so was perhaps the wisest course of action, but given the accumulated fatigue, I thought the better of volunteering to spend yet another consecutive weekend working to deadline, favouring instead to grant myself the gift of a weekend to take care of myself and convalesce (plus, I even managed to do the dishes!). I would like to think that such a respite, momentary enough as it was, served to give me the energy to make the final push to complete my courses. It did little enough to mitigate the overall accumulation of exhaustion, but I feel that things would have been worse without it.

When last we left off, I had little more than two weeks left in the semester, and was almost on the other side of a four-week crunch. Two recordings remained, along with two other projects. After posting my last entry, I plunged headlong into a daily grind of classes, coursework, and projects, all while subsisting on not much sleep during the week. Before I knew it, ten days had passed without even updating my Twitter feed.

Just to keep things interesting (and to prevent us from sleeping in, heh), part of my busy schedule included a seminar on the music business by Maggie Rodford, a music supervisor and producer from Air-Edel. As always, it was very educational to hear the insights from someone at the heart of the industry, and equally rewarding to make the acquaintance of one of Lucio’s personal contacts. I look forward to my next opportunity to speak with her.

My final film cue of the semester was a rescore of a romantic scene from an episode of Gran Hotel, a Spanish television series with original music by Lucio. To mark the culmination of our scoring experiences this semester, this recording was organized as a remote scoring session, performed by 32 members of the Budapest Art Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Peter Pejtsik. If our professors had been (rightfully) impressing on us to have our Pro Tools sessions, scores, and parts prepared to perfection all semester, it really counted now; more than representing the quality that we could provide as individuals to our staff and instructors, we were doing so collectively to an external agency on behalf of Berklee.

I was perhaps too overwhelmed with fatigue and stress at the time to fully appreciate it at the time, but it was an exciting experience to be producing my own session that was being played by a professional ensemble. We spent the first few takes scrutinizing the live playback, with my comments relayed directly to the session via Skype chat. It was only then, after all of the notes and expression were rehearsed and in place, that I was able to sit back and actually listen to my music. By the last take, I was able to let the music wash over me as I thought to myself, “My work here is done.”

(I still would have rather conducted, but that’s the way it was.)

As much as it was a pleasure to have written the cue and had it recorded by Peter and the BAO, it was an absolute relief to have finished that assignment. I look forward to editing and mixing the cue (and, of course, sharing it with you) once Berklee’s facilities open again for the second semester.

I could not afford to let myself enjoy the sense of relief for too long, as I had to quickly gear up again to spend the next few days finishing the slate of final assignments in the rest of my courses: an orchestral MIDI sequence for Computer/Synth Apps for Film, a 10-minute presentation on the use of music in Wing Commander for Video Game Scoring Techniques (which I delivered partly in the style of a mission briefing from the game) and a tone poem for string quartet and harp for Dramatic Orchestration. Ultimately, I was able to finish each one, albeit at the expense of sleep.

My last day in Valencia for the semester was rainy, much like my first; I felt that there was a bit of an odd sense of symmetry to that. In the morning, I was back on the stage of the Aula Magistral in the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía to conduct my final composition of the semester, running on a mere 90 minutes’ worth of sleep (remember that “at the expense of sleep” part? Yeah, that’s showbiz/being a grad student). From what I recall, the session went quite well, all things considered. With giving the final cutoff on the final take and meeting the applause of the musicians, instructors, and my fellow students, I was as sincerely overjoyed at having completed my first semester at grad school as I was sincerely overtired.

My day was just getting started.

After two sessions of producing for other students, I was back on the podium one last time to conduct the final session of the semester, recording the work of another student who was already winging his way home (don’t worry, I caught my second third fourth wind!). That evening, as my reward for having survived the semester, I treated myself to an evening at Los Miserables, conveniently playing next door at the Palau. This, incidentally, marked the third language in which I have seen Les Misérables (the second being Japanese, having seen it at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo in August of 2007).

After Los Mis, I returned to the lab one last time to finish mixing the percussion piece that I recorded at the end of November, which you can listen to here:

While we’re at it, here is the tone poem for string quartet and harp, which I edited and mixed over the holidays:

Having completed my work in the lab, I wished my classmates a happy holiday and returned to my room to spend the next few hours packing before heading out to the airport at about 5 a.m. for an early flight to Paris. By the time I finally passed out on the plane, I had been awake (notwithstanding the 90-minute nap) for nearly 2 days straight.

Some 30 hours after I landed in Toronto, we were hit by the ice storm that ravaged the city. My home was without power for 3 days.

While there are a number of things that I ended up missing from my Canadian life, wintertime power outages are not among them.

After 2½ weeks at home, I returned to Valencia to ease back into the Spanish lifestyle and prepare for the second semester. My vacation is now drawing to a close, and orientation activities for the second semester are soon to commence. The curtain will rise on Act Two with a new slate of classes, challenges, and projects, and I hope that you will continue to join me on my adventures. I will try to update more regularly this semester (but as always, no guarantees).

¡Hasta luego!