Inside the Federmusik: The Suitcase

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Welcome back to the Podium! This blog entry is in honour of the world premiere of The Suitcase, a short drama/fantasy film directed by Philip Leung, at the 20th annual Reel Asian International Film Festival last month in Toronto. As we go Inside the Federmusik in this episode, I put a long-standing love of East Asian music into practice as the heart of the soundtrack for this beautiful story.

The Suitcase is about a young girl, Jier (portrayed by Lori Phun), who is smuggled into Canada from a small town in rural China inside a suitcase. While on her journey, her mother (Tabitha Tao) remains in contact by phone to help her imagine what is happening outside, which plays out as a series of animated sequences on the inside of the suitcase, as if the movie in her mind is projected on a screen.

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Jier (Lori Phun), filled with trepidation, embarks on her journey to Canada.

Connecting Flight

My connection to Philip indirectly stems from having scored John Lives Again in 2015. I chose to follow the careers of some of the JLA alums I had the pleasure of meeting at the cast and crew screening, one of whom was actor-comedian Gavin Crawford (This Hour Has 22 Minutes). I found out that Gavin was slated to host a comedy news quiz called Because News on CBC radio (Canada’s national broadcaster) starting in the fall of 2015, and decided to join the live studio audience for the taping of their first episode. They put on such a good show that I came back for more… and then kept on attending on an almost-weekly basis (I’m told that I’m known among the show’s staff as “The Superfan,” though I can’t imagine why… 😉 ).

Philip joined the Because News team as an associate producer in early 2016, bringing his experience from other shows on CBC, as well as that of a filmmaker; he’s the one behind the camera of the show’s hilarious web-extra videos. As I noticed that he and I had mutual contacts in the film and television industry beyond solely Gavin, I felt comfortable reaching out to him and connecting.

The Suitcase began its life as the winner of Reel Asian’s annual So You Think You Can Pitch competition in 2015. When I learned about the project the following spring, I was treated to a set of promotional videos, interviews with key creatives, rough animatics, and storyboards on the film’s website. It looked like such a beautiful project, and that Philip had assembled a solid team to put together a great film. However, one of the videos mentioned that the film was slated to screen at the Reel Asian International Film Festival, and I indeed noticed the Reel Asian logo on its preliminary poster (after all, one doesn’t usually announce a screening unless they have a finished film). I had every reason to believe that this suitcase had already closed…

…until I saw that he issued a casting call for additional actors over the summer. “Wait a minute,” I excitedly thought to myself. “That means it hasn’t been filmed yet!”

Without hesitation, I sent a message to the director, asking to have a conversation with him about his potential musical needs. Thanks to the available materials on the film’s website, I was already equipped with a good sense of the scope and depth of the story and the overall aesthetics of the project. I knew that he was on to something incredibly special.

Meanwhile, Philip took the initiative to listen to some of my music. He was taken by my use of melody (particularly my handling of the pentatonic variety, as in Forester’s Theme), my treatment of tone colour, and my willingness to use an instrumental palette that included elements from outside of a strictly Western ensemble.

How far outside?

One thing that many directors may not readily assume about me is that in my academic background as an ethnomusicologist, I deeply studied various musical traditions of East Asia, both traditional and contemporary, particularly those of Japan and China. On the practical side, I started experimenting with writing in those musical idioms over 15 years ago, and in the intervening years supplemented my interest with practical experience on Japanese taiko drums, the koto and shamisen, and the Chinese erhu.

As part of my studies (adventures?) in East Asian musicology, I participated in a Chinese ensemble, which served to consolidate and expand upon my knowledge of how to write idiomatically for these instruments. My interest in and experience with traditional Chinese music — and specifically the music from the region where the film just so happens to be set — came to the fore.

How is this applicable in film scoring?

One of the many functions that music can perform in film is to establish the setting. Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-winning score to The Grand Budapest Hotel and Bear McCreary’s Outlander soundtrack spring to mind as two recent exemplars of this idea, evoking the spirit of Eastern Europe and Jacobean Scotland, respectively, through the use of instrumentation, musical texture, and the crafting or quotation of melodies and rhythms that are appropriate to the chosen idiom and musical traditions. Often, composers will consult musicologists to enable them to make musical decisions that will serve the narrative in an informed and sensitive way; my research background allows me to perform that step for myself.

However, not every director desires the score to perform this function, for fear of it being too on-the-nose for the audience, too literal a representation of what is already on the screen, or otherwise risk venturing into the realm of cliché. I respect this viewpoint as being as valid as any other, and regard each position as ripe with the potential for great creative opportunities. Knowing this, I cautiously asked Philip how he felt about using Chinese instruments in the score.

His eyes positively lit up.

Calling on my reserve of knowledge on Jiangnan sizhu (“south-of-the-Yangtze-River silk-and-bamboo”) repertoire, Chinese opera, work songs, and even the bombast of Chinese 20th-century orchestral works and the lyricism of film score, I immediately began to compile a list of ideas as long as my arm for the sound of The Suitcase. Phil subsequently forwarded me a copy of the script and storyboards, the materials used in his winning pitch, and a few musical references — which sounded fairly close to whiat I was already considering! Being on the same artistic and aesthetic page as the director, even before the film was shot, was an incredibly rewarding feeling.

Filling the Suitcase with Music

As a musical-narrative starting point, I wanted to consider the score first from the perspective of Jier and what her internal soundtrack might be. I approached that decision based on what she might have heard in the home growing up. If the imaginative animated sequences are about how she perceives the world outside her suitcase, then it stood to reason that her mental movie must have a fitting soundtrack.

I decided to use a small Chinese ensemble as the core of my instrumentation, featuring erhu, dizi, guzheng, pipa, and xiaoruan. I hired Samuel Bisson, the cellist of the Odin Quartet, to come in and round out the group, and even featured him in a duet for cello and erhu later on in the film. I supported this live instrumentation with prerecorded piano, percussion, and orchestral strings.

In our preliminary meetings and correspondence about the score, I marvelled at how vividly Phil described the opening of the film: like an opera, with traditional-style Chinese music, complete with a thrilling conclusion as the curtain falls (or, rather, the suitcase closes), at the end of Act One. From this description, I knew exactly what he wanted, and I took the opportunity to write an original piece that fit within the sizhu idiom (more on that later).

I was formally announced as the composer for The Suitcase in late September, barely more than a month before delivery of the film was due. The press release written by the producer, Graham Folkema, held up two iconic scores of James Horner, Braveheart and Legends of the Fall, as ideal examples of film scoring. “Their triumphal yet eerie and emotional soundtracks still echo in my mind,” he wrote. “For The Suitcase we want to capture this magic.”

Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants!

What I inferred from Graham’s love of Horner scores (and, as I found out during my spotting session, Phil’s love of Miyazaki films) was that I had the green light to employ a set of recurring, recognizable melodies to emphasize the fantastic elements in this film, rather than furtively sneaking motifs into textures (so, no clever cryptograms this time).

Jier’s Theme

The first melody that I composed for The Suitcase was a playful, rustic work tune that would be featured during an animated sequence at the start of Jier’s journey. In this scene, her mother tells her (and she imagines) that her suitcase is travelling on the backs of pigs, taking her from their family farm to a giant cannon that will shoot her across the ocean. This tune effectively becomes Jier’s theme.

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The first part of the verse of Jier’s Theme. Click to listen.

The theme is constructed in essentially a verse-and-chorus structure. The melody is constructed primarily in a pentatonic (5-note) mode, though I use an auxiliary tone from the heptatonic (7-tone) scale in the chorus. Both of these scales are idiomatic of traditional-style Chinese music.

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The chorus of Jier’s Theme. Click to listen.

We hear a quotation of the first section of this theme again in the middle of the film, when the suitcase is being handled by baggage inspectors and sniffed at by guard dogs (which her mother assures her are friendly).

Her theme is also used as the basis of the end credits (and why not? It’s her story, after all), which I present in a rousing rendition for full orchestra plus Chinese ensemble, as if it were a theatrical curtain call.

Journey Theme

The second theme that I wrote was a lyrical melody that characterizes the journey itself: bittersweet and full of longing, with the promise of things to come. While the melody is not strictly constructed on the pentatonic row, its modal gestures remain reminiscent of a Chinese melody. The Journey Theme sheds some of the rigidity and angular motion of Jier’s Theme and is more exploratory and fluid in the character of its melodic arc.

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An excerpt of the Journey Theme. Click to listen.

We first hear this theme in a duet for erhu and piano when Jier bids farewell to her mother, shortly before the plane departs. The theme then repeats over the course of her journey in a variety of instrumental combinations. I mirror the transition in the narrative from East to West with a similar shift in instrumentation, eventually ending with a full statement of the theme on lush orchestral strings and piano, with just a hint of dizi filigree.

Home Theme

The first theme that we hear in the film was actually the last one that I wrote. While I was relatively quick to write the themes that represent Jier and her journey, the Home Theme, which serves as a musical anchor for the entire film (and is the first sonic impression that the film makes!) needed more time and reflection.

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My inspiration for the Home theme.

The film opens with the sound of a small, traditional Chinese ensemble supported by orchestral strings as we soar above rural China, over a village nestled in the hills outside Shanghai. As we dissolve inside the home where Jier lives with her mother, we hear this tune (now sans strings) quietly emanating from the radio, and so begins the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. That we treat the music in this way is intended to almost subliminally condition the audience to accept that this film and its narrative will dance between the worlds of real life and imagination.

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The opening of the Home Theme. Click to listen.

We could have chosen to license a piece of traditional folk music for the sake of having something semi-recognizable playing on the radio. Perhaps we could have placed a song from the vast repertoire of Chinese opera to represent the notion that Jier’s life is about to become a grand drama. However, the advantage of writing an original piece — especially for this purpose — was that it could be used elsewhere in the film as thematic material. Additionally, I was able to tailor the cue such that the end of the melody could weave seamlessly into the broader musical narrative and segue into the following segment.

As we progress through this scene, Jier’s mother assuages her fears by telling fanciful tales of this nigh-mythical land called Canada, much the same way that previous generations spun yarns of Gam Saan, the “Gold Mountain” of San Francisco (and later, British Columbia). Instead of gold, however, images of cartoon moose, squirrels, beavers, and “a building taller than the sky” dance in her head, set to a quotation of O, Canada (or, rather, 啊,加拿大), no less! Underneath this sequence, the melody from the radio ends and melds into a fuller, clearer dramatic underscore as the more fantastic elements of the story begin to take over with us catching a glimpse of Jier’s imagination.

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Jier’s imagination runs wild with what she believes awaits her on the other side of her journey (hula-dancing moose and all).

One key element of traditional Chinese music that I wished to represent in this cue is the texture created by the interaction of the instruments within the ensemble. In a piece such as this, all of the musicians play the same basic tune together, but each one interprets it in a way that is characteristic of their instrument, ornamenting the melody with idiomatic embellishments: trills on dizi, tremolo on pipa, glissandi on guzheng, portamento on erhu, and so on. I included a simulation of how these improvised embellishments might sound in my demos for the director and producer, so they would get a sense of how real players might present my melody.

Only one problem with that: if I wrote them in, then they aren’t truly improvised. In reality, the embellishments are natural and unplanned. Further, musicians who are skilled at this kind of repertoire will develop a sense for not merely how a melodic line should be appropriately interpreted, but also when other musicians in the ensemble will spontaneously decide to ornament.

How can we reconcile this concept of scripted spontaneity?

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Like this.

On the sheet music (particularly for the more ornament-heavy dizi and guzheng parts), I opted to include both the plain melody line for reference, as well as a version decorated with suggested ornamentation and marked with articulation. I asked my performers to do their best to play the embellishments that I had written, but also granted them the freedom to to amend the part or add their own, as they saw fit. I trusted in my musicians, and they delivered.

Once the journey is underway, we do not hear this theme again until Jier reaches her new home, where the melody is subtly stated on solo piano to bookend the narrative.

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Team Suitcase (L-R): Mateo Palmisano (engineer), Matthew Van Driel (producer), David Federman (erhu), Kate Tian (pipa & xiaoruan), Dora Wang (dizi), Cynthia Qin (guzheng).

I wish to extend my gratitude to the members of my music team: Dora Wang (dizi), Cynthia Qin (guzheng), Kate Tian (pipa & xiaoruan), Samuel Bisson (cello), Mateo Palmisano (engineer), and Matthew Van Driel (producer). I also owe the success of this score to Ron Korb for recommending such fantastically talented musicians to me, and to Gary Honess, owner of Kühl Muzik, for helping me arrange the recording session.

Finally, thank you, Phil and Graham, for letting this Superfan use his powers of superfandom for the good of your film.

The trailer for the film is below:

THE SUITCASE premiered at the Reel Asian International Film Festival in Toronto. In addition to the musical traditions of Japan and China, David also has a deep love for and great practical experience with Baroque, Renaissance, and Celtic repertoire. Hint, hint. 😉

Inside the Federmusik: Cruzar el umbral

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To mark the premiere of Sergio Hernández Elvira’s Cruzar el umbral (Crossing the Threshold) at the 61st annual Valladolid International Film Festival this week, it is my pleasure to bring you inside the Federmusik to learn more about the composition process for this short psychological thriller.

Cruzar is the story of Laura (portrayed by Gisela Arnao), who awakens one morning to find that her husband, David (Carlus Fàbrega), has left without saying a word, leaving her and her daughter, Sara (Irene Quero), on their own. Laura embarks on a journey of recuperation through visiting a psychologist (Luis Carlos Llinàs) and coming to terms with her own internal demons to eventually overcome the trauma of her husband’s disappearance.

Initial Stages

Sergio and I met in March of 2014, while I was a Master’s student at Berklee College of Music, Valencia campus, and he was a student at Escola Superior de Cinema i Audiovisuales de Catalunya (ESCAC). Even though we were both impressed with each other’s respective body of work, the timing was not right for a collaboration at the time. We resolved to remain in contact for when future opportunities to work together would arise.

A little more than a year later, Sergio contacted me about a thriller that he was developing, describing it as a “ghost story.” However, it was not until he was satisfied with his script, in October of 2015, that he was ready to formally approach me to be his composer. I indicated my interest in joining him, and he promised to follow up with an English-translated script so that I could begin generating ideas. However, through the process of finalizing pre-production, preparing for principal photography, and launching the film’s crowdfunding campaign, a script was never actually sent. That said, I am told that the changes between what was written and what was filmed would have mitigated its utility for my purposes.

I received the fine cut of the film in early February of 2016, and booked a spotting session with Sergio – a conversation in which the director and composer (and/or their respective designates) determine the placement of music – shortly thereafter. After watching the film a couple times on my own, we reviewed the film together and, via Skype, discussed his musical desires. He expressed some trepidation, for fear of not having an appropriate musical vocabulary to describe his intention. To his relief, I insisted that he speak to me in terms of emotion and reaction, for me to strive towards the goal of eliciting a certain response from the audience with my music.

In every film that I score, my objective is to enhance the viewing experience for the audience by evoking mood and accentuating the dramatic notes that have already been captured by the direction, acting, cinematography, and editing. What remains for me to state, then, is largely subtext, expressing the innermost thoughts of (admittedly, the director, but more poetically) the characters on screen. Essentially, my job is to hear things that are not there.

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Laura (Gisela Arnao) hears things that are not there… or are they?

By the time I receive the fine cut of the film, the editing process is almost complete: the director and editor have selected and trimmed their choice cuts – the best takes – to go into the film, with only minor adjustments left to be made. Sergio and I viewed this print of Cruzar with the understanding that no substantial changes would be made afterwards, so I would be free to begin scoring without fear of the playing field changing under me. As a composer, I intuit a substantial amount of information from the film itself, in addition to the narrative: the facial expression and body language of the actors, their gait when they move and how the camera moves with them, the cinematography and mise-en-scène, the editing, and so on.

The Sound of Cruzar

After a spotting session, I normally spend at least a few days to consider the direction that has been discussed and to plan my musical strategy. This involves considering themes and motifs, sonorities and textures, and building a compositional template, particularly if it makes sense to keep certain musical elements, like instrumentation, consistent from cue to cue throughout the score.

I had in mind to recruit a string quartet to provide a live recorded element to the soundtrack, which would be blended and mixed with prerecorded (virtual) instruments. I took the opportunity to reconnect with violinist Tanya Charles, my classmate from my years as an undergrad at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music, who is now a member of the Odin String Quartet. Together with violinist Alex Toškov, violist Laurence Schaufele, and cellist Samuel Bisson, they tackled my score with verve and aplomb, and it was a pleasure to have them under my baton.

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I direct the Odin String Quartet during the recording session for Cruzar at Kühl Muzik in Toronto.

In my discussions with Sergio, I related my understanding that inasmuch as Cruzar is a ghost story, it is more importantly a story about life, which therefore deserved to be told with a live element in my palette. For all of the advancements in MIDI and virtual instruments, nothing compares to live performance for instilling a sense of realism with which an audience can connect.

The sound of a string quartet in particular produces a certain intimacy that is not found in a larger string ensemble. Even when supported by a string orchestra, the ear is drawn to the texture of solo strings. My initial instinct for the score was to take more of a subtle, sad approach, which featured the string quartet more prominently. However, in response to my first round of cue demos, the director and his team felt that the tone of the story required more musical intensity and a fuller sound.

In addition to string quartet and string ensemble, I decided to round out the instrumentation with piano, synths, and some subtle percussion, notably a virtual instrument made from tuned lightshades (which sounds remarkably like a hang drum).

Musical Motifs

As you may recall from my writing about John Lives Again, I am a proponent of using recurring themes and motifs to give a sense of continuity and congruity to my scores. Through the process of discussions and demos with Sergio, it was agreed that grandiose, sweeping themes were not the appropriate solution for Cruzar, but rather a series of smaller motifs, as if I am dropping clues about the mystery contained within the plot alongside the director.

As you also may recall from my score to John Lives Again, I like using musical cryptograms to generate these themes and motifs. For this score, I used a combination of letters, solfège (do, re, mi, etc.), and leaps of logic to generate two of my motifs: one for Laura, our protagonist, and one for her missing husband, David.

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The “Laura” motif. Click to listen.

Laura’s motif is composed of just two notes, representing the syllables La-Ra: La is the note A in fixed-do solfège, and Ra I consider to be a flattened re (the note D), which then corresponds to the note D-flat. Laura’s motif is initially presented subtly and in the background, but grows to prominence towards the end of the film as the plot shifts and twists.

(Technically, in the score, I spelled the D-flat as its enharmonic equivalent, C-sharp, for the sake of legibility.)

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Version 1 of the “David” motif. Click to listen.

I wrote two versions of David’s motif (not that I have the slightest bias in this regard, or anything). The first one borrows from the cryptogram chart that I used for John Lives Again, in which the letter I corresponds to the note A, and V with F. Thus, in this version, DAVID is spelled using the notes D-A-F-A-D.

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Version 2 of the “David” motif. Click to listen.

The second one replaces the second A with an E. Musically, this connects the F to the final D in stepwise, scalar motion. In Spanish (and other languages), the pronunciation of the letter I resembles the long-E sound in the English language. As well, the emphasis is on the second syllable of David, so after hearing it consistently for a year in Spain (and again by Gisela Arnao repeatedly in this film), I haven’t been able to get the strong “ee” sound out of my head.

(…or did I just want an excuse to include a Da-Fed cryptogram? I’ll never tell. 😉 )

We hear both of these versions during the second score cue, in which Laura and Sara search fruitlessly for David. The first one appears when Sara reports that she cannot find her father in her room (which Sergio said imparted a childlike quality to this motif). We hear the more wave-like second version shortly thereafter as Laura continues her search through their apartment. The difference is subtle, but it is there.

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The Mystery motif. Click to listen.

The Mystery motif, which is heard in full at the end of the opening sequence and recurs through Laura’s and Sara’s search for David, is the closest thing to a theme that we have in this film. This motif is composed of a pair of six-note phrases, almost identical except for the last note. The arc meanders up and down, in an inquisitive fashion, as if searching high and low for answers. I furtively introduce this motif near the beginning of the film: when Laura wakes up, we hear the second through fifth notes played on the cello, then doubled an octave higher on the viola.

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Laura is left with a mystery, and the motif to go with it.

Interestingly, when I initially wrote the opening cue, my intention was for the full statement of the Mystery motif to be heard over a shot of Laura standing on the street outside her apartment building, leaving her (and the audience) with the mystery born of the inciting incident of our plot. Instead, when the film moved on to the final mix stage (in Barcelona), the timing of the opening credits had changed, and the cue was placed a few seconds earlier than intended. This shift causes the intensity of the scene to seemingly build sooner, with the full Mystery motif heard over a shot of David at the bottom of the stairs as Laura chases after him. This musical highlighting of the departing David still works from a narrative and dramatic standpoint, but it ultimately creates a different meaning for the viewing audience than what had been originally planned.

The Life and Anatomy of a Cue

With my notes from the spotting session and the director’s emotional roadmap in hand, I set to congeal my ideas for three of the five cues: the opening sequence, a false jump-scare moment, and the dramatic reveal at the climax of the film (cues 1, 3, and 4, respectively). Rather than write the score in strict chronological order, my plan was to compose the music for these three key scenes first, so as to have an adequate amount of material to show the director in a preliminary demo session. Receiving feedback early in the writing process on whether I have adequately captured the director’s intended tone is essential to a smooth and positive collaborative process.

The fourth cue, “Páginas vacías” (Blank Pages), began its life as a testing exercise for the sound of a reversed piano tone. As a significant portion of the final third of this cue is told in flashback, I wanted to associate the tone of the reversed piano with recalling, unearthing, and coming to terms with a previously-suppressed memory (which I will not spoil here).

I wrote a simple but poignant three-note motif for this flashback sequence (which I will specifically not discuss because it contains a spoiler – in English, anyway). I recorded this motif on piano with the notes in reverse order, then reversed the audio recording of this retrograde motif, which resulted in the tones playing back in the proper order and sounding like they were building towards the note being struck. I lined up this reversed recording with another recording of the notes in proper order, giving the effect of the tone being played, then melding and swelling until it bursts into the next note in the sequence.

The test accomplished the effect that I was looking for. After completing the final third, I worked my way backwards to the top of the cue. It was ready to demo.

…and then the director decided to recut the scene to change the pacing and the emotional tenor of the sequence. Remember: I had my initial impressions based on the spotting session and the director’s ideas, but sometimes, the playing field changes after all.

I will continue to avoid giving spoilers, but I will say that the recut version tells a different story. Key pieces of information were removed or reordered. The sequence runs shorter. However (and luckily), the final third of the sequence was untouched, and feedback to that segment was essentially positive – “we like it, but give us more” – so the effort put into testing and implementing the reversed piano at the beginning of this exercise was not wasted.

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I pretty much looked like this when I was reviewing my notes from the director.

When Sergio and I spotted this scene for music, we were of two minds as to where to begin. The first option that we considered was to start the cue over a shot of Laura, alone in her apartment with her frustration and desperation (seen above). However, the director wanted to experiment with the final thrust of the film beginning about 20 seconds earlier, when Laura is meeting with her psychologist and Sara has tagged along.

In this preliminary sequence, Laura indicates that Sara (for the first time in the film) is shy, and might open up to him if she is given a candy. The doctor obliges and we closely follow his hand as it lifts the candy dish, passing it towards the two on the opposite couch. As Sara reaches out, Laura plucks a candy from the dish and puts it away, ostensibly saving it for later. This is the first moment in the film when we get an inkling that something might be unusual as far as Sara is concerned.

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I wish I could say that scoring this scene was like taking candy from a…

Initially, I felt that the visuals were strong enough to carry the scene on their own, and was concerned that including music over the tracking shot of the candy dish would alert the audience to the fact that something was out of the ordinary. After all, as our conventional reality is decidedly not awash in dramatic, non-diegetic underscore, one role of music in film is to communicate the notion of fantasy. The deliberate use of silence, then, is used as an element to convey reality, as it connects more closely with our own non-musical everyday life. With stark silence, in other words, the pretense of fantasy is dropped.

In the interest of keeping our options open, we agreed to lock down the main part of the cue first, with Sergio allowing me to come back later and try out some ideas for an opening that could be grafted onto the beginning of what I would have already written. By the time Sergio granted his approval for this cue, we both agreed that the shot of the doctor offering Sara the candy dish felt empty without music. Something had to go there, but it could be neither too subtle nor overt, neither could it be too childlike nor dark. No problem, right?

I tried many ideas, most of which were not even sent out for demo. In response to the few that I sent for feedback, Sergio suggested that I take the opportunity to set up something musically for a payoff later in the cue.

Of course! This entire climactic sequence itself, starting at the doctor’s office and ending with the dramatic reveal, follows the tripartite structure of hook, build, and payoff, functioning as a microcosm of the entire film. There was only one possible solution: the three-note motif that plays during the final third of the cue.

Specifically, I built the introduction to this cue by using the melody that grows out of the three-note motif, right at the end. When the melody is heard in its fully-realized form at the end, it serves as a callback to the moment shared over the candy dish, creating meaning for the viewing audience. In addition, as if my initial concern about flagging this moment as unusual was insufficient, Sergio specifically requested that I try ending the melody with a wrong note, to further telegraph to the audience that something was wrong.

Having taken several attempts to produce the finished version, I can report that hitting the “right” wrong note is harder than it seems.

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Team Cruzar (L-R): Gary Honess (engineer), Alex Toškov (violin), Laurence Schaufele (viola), David Federman (conductor), Samuel Bisson (cello), Tanya Charles (violin). Photo courtesy of Elyse Maxwell.

I extend my gratitude to Sergio for affording me the opportunity to score his graduating thesis film, to Berklee in Valencia and ESCAC for facilitating our meeting in the first place, to the Odin String Quartet and Gary Honess of Kühl Muzik for a fabulous recording (and putting up with my bad jokes in multiple languages), and to all of our Verkami backers for making this possible.

CRUZAR EL UMBRAL premiered at the 2016 Valladolid International Film Festival.

Inside the Federmusik: John Lives Again

John Lives Again

Welcome back to the Podium! In this episode of Inside the Federmusik, I will be recalling my experience of scoring my first feature film, John Lives Again, a romantic comedy written and directed by Anthony Furey.

(…and no, before you ask, this is not the sequel to John Dies at the End. Sheesh.)

I was introduced to Anthony through a mutual friend, and we corresponded in February of 2015, while I was still in Los Angeles. He in turn introduced me to the story of John, a coming-of-age film in stylistic homage to those fun Woody Allen/John Hughes films that you remember from the ’80s. John is a quirky, awkward everyman (portrayed by Randal Edwards) who, pushing 30, realizes that he needs to get his life together, outgrow his penchant for bedding a string of one-night stands by means of outlandish tricks and ploys, and wind up in a steady, committed relationship — possibly even in that order. John is a hopeless romantic… or maybe he’s just hopeless.

Anthony indicated that he had licensed a number of ’80s Canadian pop/rock tunes, and desired the score to be written in a similar vibe. Normally, based on my largely orchestral portfolio and classical training, one might readily assume that I am not fluent in the ancient art of rocking out. However, that clearly did not preclude me from consideration as the composer to help bring John to life.

I will disclose at this point that in addition to not regularly writing music inspired by the pop/rock repertoire of the 1980s (even though I’m as much a fan of it as the next person), comedy films, let alone romantic ones, are not usually my first choice of cinematic fare. Yet, in reading the script, I found Anthony’s narrative surprisingly engaging — even laughing in (what I assumed were) the correct places! — with the characters practically dancing off the page. I promised myself initially that I would read no more than five pages, and then found myself at the end before I knew it. As my friends and colleagues can perfectly attest, if a romantic comedy could make me laugh, then I knew that there was something special at play here. I was sold.

I approached this project as I would any other: not merely getting to know the characters and the world of the film, but also getting to know the director and understanding the creator’s perspective and outlook. Anthony and I took our first in-person meeting the day after I returned home to Toronto at the end of March, and we arranged a spotting session to determine the placement and style of musical cues a few days later. We agreed on the amount and kind of music required, determining a fair amount based on the narrative and dramatic needs, relative to the time and budget available. Even though Anthony and I had made our initial correspondence a month prior, it was only then, staring down the barrel of hard post-production deadlines, that we were ready to discuss the film in earnest. There wasn’t a moment to lose.

The Making of a Theme

The next day, I began the process of what we in the industry politely refer to as “messing around.” This includes performing any research that might be required, considering sonorities and musical textures, building my compositional template, working out themes and preliminary musical ideas — essentially, the film composer’s equivalent of looking at fabric swatches or shopping for ingredients. During our spotting session, Anthony had requested that I compose a theme for our protagonist that was “poppy, rocky, and fun,” but also adaptable enough to be presented appropriately in quieter, more introspective moments. Simplicity would be key.

There are, of course, many ways to generate a theme or motif. For John’s theme, I elected to create a musical cryptogram — that is, a matrix assigning letters of the alphabet to certain pitches — to spell out JOHN LIVES AGAIN. It seemed about as good a starting point as any. I decided that my row would represent the standard scale tones A through G, but also H (German for B natural, with the letter B representing B-flat), before repeating: I through P, Q through X, followed by Y and Z.

How does something like this work?

For JOHN, the letter J aligned with the note B-flat, O with G, H represented B natural on my initial row, and N aligned with F. Therefore, JOHN is spelled using the musical notes of B-flat, G, B natural, and F (see the musical example below).

Click to listen. The only thing comedic about this is that I thought it would work.

Click to listen. The only thing comedic about this is that I thought it would work.

The thing about musical cryptograms is that they stand alone pretty well, like BACH, DSCH, or even DFED — I’m quite partial to that last one — and if you can either fit it into an appropriate context or build one around it, then more power to you. I’m all for a good, clever musical joke when it works. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t.

As a melody, something about that didn’t sit quite right with me. To be specific, the particular interval between my H (B natural) and N (F), a tritone, did not seem appropriate for a “fun” romantic comedy theme. Perhaps it might work for a thriller or horror film, but not here. Sorry, John.

With a little minor tweaking to soften out the H to a B(-flat) (multilingual musical pun intended), it became a little more palatable for this context.

Click to listen. Ah, that's a little better.

Click to listen. Ah, that’s a little better.

Next, on to LIVES. On my matrix, the letter L aligned with D, I with A, and V with F. “Es” is German for E-flat (the “S” in the DSCH example I mentioned above), so I took that as a sign. Together, they spell a D-minor chord with an added flat-9. Groovy.

Click to listen.

Click to listen.

For AGAIN, A and G were already notes on the initial row. I aligns with A, which I opted to merge into one note, and N, as above in JOHN, was F.

Click to listen. This sounds like it could complement

Click to listen. This sounds like it could complement “JOHN.” What if we put them together?

I ended up with two four-note motifs, JOHN and AGAIN, with a cool-sounding chord in between. When “JOHN AGAIN” is played in succession, they form what would become John’s Theme:

Click to listen. Is it a theme yet?

Click to listen. Is it a theme yet?

You can even sing along with it, too! “John Lives A-gain! John Lives A-gain!” All that remained was to hope that the director liked it.

Most of the score cues in the film are based on one motif or the other, if not the whole eight-note theme. The thing that I like about simple motifs is that they are, as per the director’s request, eminently adaptable. To expand my options beyond simple statements of the vanilla JOHN and AGAIN motifs, I considered other melodic variants, and worked out what modifications would be necessary to have them playable in consonance with other harmonic modes. I consider this manner of adaptation to exist on a spectrum of tools ranging from a surgical scalpel (for minor adjustments) to a baseball bat (for more drastic reconstructions).

LIVES was more present in earlier drafts of cues, but it was relegated to a single yet prominent statement related to a character being rushed to hospital. It felt strangely appropriate.

As my work on the film progressed, I found that for scenes that were primarily driven by John’s thoughts on Vanessa (portrayed by Erin Agostino), the object of his affection, I gravitated towards using the AGAIN motif, whether by itself or riffing on it. On further consideration, John’s relationship with Vanessa has a certain again quality to it: John is floored by a pretty girl again, he botches a date again, he tries to win her over again, and so on. In retrospect, I find it strangely appropriate that things worked out this way, with Vanessa, the intended other half of John, being represented musically by the AGAIN motif, the “other half” of JOHN, and the two motifs fitting together to become a full theme. (Everyone together now: Awwwww!)

The Sound and the Furey

Anthony and I considered that the licensed tunes represented not only John’s external musical preferences, but also his internal soundtrack: for example, his gaze fixes on a pretty girl and we hear an excerpt of a new wave ballad. Yet, a strict emulation of those songs would have been musically redundant. What I brought to the table was ’80s rock through a film scoring lens, incorporating certain elements of jazz and following a dramatic, narrative arc to enhance the emotional content of the scene. Anthony and I maintained a healthy dialogue over the course of my cue demos, bouncing ideas off one another. In terms of instrumentation, we decided to use a live rock band setup (guitars, bass, drums, and synth/keys) that would remain consistent throughout the soundtrack.

Through the writing period, Anthony expressed a preference for the cue demos that were written in more of a straightforward rock style over the ones that attempted to be softer, more dramatic, or simply more film score-esque. Approaching this score and this genre of music with the perspective of “They’re only notes, they’re only instruments,” it seems as though my orchestration — or, in this case, rockestration — chops came in handy.

A 33-Hour Clock

After a two-week whirlwind of writing and rewriting, Anthony approved the final cue, and it was onward to recording. Early on, I contracted my friend, Andrew Ross Geladaris, to record lead guitar and bass for me. I then sought to recruit additional personnel to round out the team. One of the best things about my experience at Berklee in Valencia was the connections that I made to both emerging and established professionals all over the world. I contacted Pablo Schuller, one of my instructors and the Senior Engineer at Berklee in Valencia, who was fortunately available to be the mix engineer for the score. I reached out to Tom McGeoch, a Los Angeles-based Berklee grad whom I also knew from my time in Valencia, to be my drummer. Tom connected me with Jake Valentine at Village Studios to be our recording engineer, who in turn introduced me to Billy Centenaro (who also served as our assistant engineer) and David Dudley Corwin for rhythm guitar and additional bass, respectively.

Drummer Tom McGeoch rocks the kit at Village Studios during our recording session.

Drummer Tom McGeoch rocks the kit at Village Studios during our recording session. Photo courtesy of Billy Centenaro.

Owing to the limited time available, I rushed from a day of tracking Andrew on guitar and bass north of Toronto back to my midtown home studio in time to remotely produce Tom’s drum recording session in Los Angeles, which was scheduled from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., Pacific Time (or, in my neighbourhood, 1:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.). We adjourned until the next evening (albeit not as late) to track Billy and David, giving me time to edit the first day’s recorded material and have it ready for to Pablo to mix in Valencia, Spain, by the time he woke up. So it went for the next few days: I received most of my recorded material while I napped, edited it while Pablo was either sleeping or working at Berklee, and he set aside his evenings (my afternoons) for mixing my score. I envisioned us chasing each other around the clock as we tumbled through time. Perhaps that was the sleep deprivation talking.

Engineer Jake Valentine (left) helms the tracking session for guitarist Billy Centenaro, while I produce remotely via Skype.

Engineer Jake Valentine (left) helms the tracking session for guitarist Billy Centenaro at Village Studios, while I produce remotely via Skype. Photo courtesy of Tom McGeoch.

For those of you who are keeping score, there is a 6-hour time difference between Toronto and Valencia, and 3 more hours between Toronto and Los Angeles. As the coordination between my team members who were recording in LA and mixing in Spain yielded an absolute value of 9 additional hours, I considered that I was operating on a 33-hour clock. It worked out pretty well, all things considered.

It’s the Final Mixdown!

After indulging in my first full night’s sleep in nearly a week, I delivered Pablo’s final mixes to REDLAB Digital, our post-production facility, where I met and worked with JR Fountain, our re-recording engineer (also known as a “dubbing mixer”). I was invited to stay for the mixing days and, alongside Anthony and our post-production supervisor, Michael Liotta, supervise the placement of and final volume tweaks to my music.

The first cue that we tested in the dubbing theatre was the one that I had written for the ending credits. As the drums and guitars roared from the speakers in the mixing theatre in the opening moments of the cue, Anthony turned to me and summarily offered a fistbump and his congratulations. Delivering my first feature film score on my last day of being 30 was a pretty nice birthday present, if I do say so myself.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Anthony for offering me the opportunity to collaborate on our first feature. I’m definitely looking forward to the next one. Scoring John Lives Again sincerely felt like my final test to mark my re-entry into the Toronto film community, and, more importantly, the true cumulation of the training and experience that I received through my time both at Berklee in Valencia and in Bear McCreary’s studio.

After three mixing days (of which I attended two), I joined Anthony and other key creatives on the project in the mixing theatre at REDLAB to watch the final playback (or “the dub”) of the film, in which we locked down the audio. Handshakes and fix notes were shared around the room.

My final fix note from the director: “My wife has a bone to pick with you because I can’t stop singing your theme.”

I guess he liked it. 😉

JOHN LIVES AGAIN is currently exploring the film festival circuit and seeking avenues for distribution.

L.A. Confidential

Hooray for doowylloH!

Meanwhile, back in Toronto…

“Hey, wait a minute!” I hear you exclaim. “Weren’t you in Los Angeles for several months?”

Yes, indeed, dear readers, and welcome back to the Podium!

“Hey, wait a minute!” I hear you exclaim again. “It’s been a year since you last posted!”

Would you believe that I’ve been meaning to work on this for half a year already? I can’t believe it, myself. It’s even harder to believe that a year has passed since my last entry, at the end of my work-study period in LA. Perhaps I will make a New Year’s resolution to blog more regularly in 2016. We’ll see how well that goes.

Where were we?

My journey to Los Angeles begins with my return home from Spain, which was the third in our series of episodes of me being awake for essentially two days straight.

“Hey, wait a minute! What about your adventures in Spain after graduating? Barcelona? The International Film Music Festival in Córdoba? Madrid and Toledo?”

Those would make great subjects for a “Memories of Spain” series of posts, so stay tuned for that. My life quickly became a whirlwind after graduation (as it is wont to do), and the next thing I knew, I was in LA. The next thing I knew after that, I was back in Toronto. As I was saying…

If August and September of 2013 were about firsts, then August of 2014 was about lasts. One last dip in the Mediterranean. One last paella with my classmates. One last cerveza with my compañeros (okay, maybe one more last cerveza. Okay, maybe one more… no, really, guys. One last cerveza. I mean it this time). One last walk around my neighbourhood. One last trip to Ciutat Vella for memories and souvenirs. One last look at the Palau.

The City of Arts and Sciences, as seen from the Micalet atop the Valencia Cathedral. I think I can almost see my apartment from here!

Remember my “I need more time” phenomenon? I could have definitely used one more day to finish packing. The closer I came to my departure, the more “lasts” suddenly appeared. I kept on finding things to do and places to see that I simply had not had time to enjoy during my ten months as a student. Despite my best efforts, however, I can’t say that I accomplished everything on my Valencian bucket list. I guess that means that I’ll have to go back one day. 😉

After having already sent a fair amount of gear and personal effects back home following graduation, I discovered that I still had more than 100 lbs. of stuff with me to bring home. After finding out the hard way — on my final day in Valencia, naturally — that said collection of clothing, souvenirs, and other objects would not completely fit in my suitcases, I had to perform one last visit (read: mad dash) to Carrefour to pick up a new one. Furiously packing as the minutes to my departure ticked ever faster, I crammed the last molecule that I was taking home with me into my two bulging suitcases, distended computer bag, and bloated violin case. I bid farewell to my apartment’s concierge, who helped me flag down a passing taxi and load my gear, and we sped through the streets of Valencia one last time to Estación Joaquín Sorolla to catch the train to Barcelona. Drenched with sweat from the heat of the Valencian summer sun and the exertion of porting so much luggage, I settled into my seat on the train, apologizing to my seatmate (in my very Canadian way) for doubtlessly inflicting an unpleasant travel experience on her.

I then realized that my travel plans did not account for this marination, and that my next shower was due to be on the wrong end of two flights. Fortunately, I was able to have a room arranged at an airport hotel in Barcelona to remedy this unpleasantness. Unfortunately, however, this necessitated a slow and arduous schlep through multiple train stations to eventually catch a shuttle bus to the hotel. If I ever meet the person who decided to replace the moving sidewalks in a particular train station with flooring textured with raised bosses…

After freshening up and changing out my clothing that was saturated with what felt like a week’s worth of sweat, I took the opportunity to repack some of my luggage, which had become rather compressed from the preceding hours of travel. I noted that just like in mixing music, a little compression makes everything better (and also like in mixing, too much compression creates distortion, which is what I had going on with my suitcases!). I may have caught half an hour’s rest before boarding my next shuttle bus to the airport. Through check-in and security, ample time for breakfast and boarding quickly became “last call” to hop the shuttle bus from the terminal to the plane. From there, it was a short hop to Zurich (during which I may have caught another half-hour nap), where the officer at Passport Control spent a good couple minutes trying to make heads or tails out of the collection of European stamps that I had accumulated in my passport over the past year before allowing me through to make my connection. The flight back home to Toronto was uneventful, just the way I like it, but I don’t remember sleeping much, if at all. By the time I finally reunited with my bed, I reckoned that it had been at least 40 hours since waking up in my apartment in Valencia.

Thoroughly exhausted from my return home from Spain, I didn’t even want to think about travelling again. However, less than a week later, I was jetting off once more, this time to spend the better part of a week in Boston with a number of my colleagues for a seminar at Berklee’s main campus in advance of starting our respective internships. One weekend back at home later to repack, and I was off to Los Angeles!

“Wait! That’s it? Boston for a week and no travel blog about it?!”

Good point. No time like the present…

Back to Boston

I must say that there is a certain peculiar symmetry to my Berklee Valencia experience being essentially bookended by trips to Boston. The Graduate Internship Orientation week was filled with a program that blended professional development seminars with Boston tourism. We also were given a tour of Berklee’s new 160 Massachusetts Avenue building, with their suite of top-notch recording facilities, some of which resembling our setup in Valencia, that are all able to be simultaneously connected over the Berklee network. Touring their three scoring stages, mastering suite, and dubbing stage made us all feel like children in a proverbial candy store. I absolutely marvel at the technology and training that is available for students today. Boston Campus, your Shames Family Scoring Stage may be larger than the Ann Kreis, but ours is in Spain (point: Valencia Campus 😉 ). I was grateful to be able to stay at a relative’s house in Newton (on the outskirts of Boston), I met up with some classmates and colleagues on my scant time off (which definitely seems to be a pattern, doesn’t it?), and I started my last day in Boston by getting stung in the face by a wasp.

Ouch!

Yep. Oh, and my flight home was interrupted by poor weather conditions over YTZ, so we returned to Boston overnight. I’m going to stop myself there from documenting an unpleasant experience that does not merit sharing (aside from what I mentioned in my Twitter feed at the time).

So, let’s try this again. One weekend back at home later to repack (and catch a quick cold, because it’s always something), and I was off to Los Angeles!

California, Here I Come!

Obligatory photo of DS9-- I mean, LAX.

Obligatory photo of DS9– I mean, LAX.

My roommate for this LA chapter was one of my classmates from the Master’s program. Starry-eyed, we began our adventure together doing all of the regular kinds of things that I imagine one routinely does when one moves to a new city (which, incidentally, also does a good job of getting the starry-eyedness out of the way): apartment-hunting, arranging vehicles, figuring out utilities, renting furniture (that’s a thing in California, apparently), and so on. As our respective placements had their start date right around the corner, we managed to accomplish all of these things in very little time, in true Berklee fashion. I will skip all of the boring details and summarize by stating that if I learned a lot about myself by living on my own in Spain, then I learned even more about myself through the process of living with someone else in LA. I think we both did.

On with the show!

I was incredibly excited to have my first gig after graduation be an internship in Los Angeles, let alone arranging for it to be in the studio of a composer whose work I have respected since almost the beginning of his career. My primary focus for the balance of my time in Los Angeles was my work in the studio of Bear McCreary, helping out the team on the fall’s slate of shows, including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Outlander, The Walking Dead, Constantine, and more. It gave me a certain pride to see billboards for these shows around town, knowing that I was helping out with all of these productions, at least in some small way. As well, it was a tremendous opportunity to have my experience as a composer and my education as a Master’s student not only brought to life, but scaled up. As we were trained to be one-person production houses at Berklee, it was incredibly instructional to watch the creative and production process happen up close (and, again, to participate in my small way). One can read about composers and their teams and processes in textbooks, or even hear anecdotes to that effect in interviews, but nothing compares to an opportunity to experience it for real. I will say that what we had at Berklee in Valencia, especially with the pace of assignments and the detailed attention paid to the processes of recording and post-production, represented a good small-scale representation of how it works in the industry, for real. I am satisfied to say that my Master’s degree, combined with the experience I had at Sparks & Shadows, has already stood me in good stead with respect to my own film scoring projects out in the real world. More on that in a future blog post.

Wait, that’s it?

Pretty much. Because I respect the Non-Disclosure Agreement that I signed as a condition of my internship, that’s pretty much all that I can reveal. I mean, I could have written more blog posts about a day in the life of a Sparks & Shadows intern, but they would have looked something like this:

October ██, 2014

This morning, I had to deliver ████████████████ for █████████ and ███████████ to ███████████ so that he could, in turn, bring them to the recording session at ██████████. Afterwards, I needed to pick up a hard drive from the engineer in ████████████ and deliver it to █████████████ in █████████. After effectively circumnavigating northern LA, I returned to ███████, where I ████████████ and prepared ███████████ for archival purposes. I was then asked to put my ██████████████ skills to good use, and helped out ████████ with testing something for ██████████. Also, the team had to deal with aliens from another dimension. All in all, a successful day.

That’s the truth. Much of my work was classified and confidential. It’s tough being a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent sometimes. 😉

All Work and No Play?

Even though my work schedule was intense, I did occasionally find opportunities to try to enjoy my time in Los Angeles. I had a little more time to myself (and to spend with my friends) than I did in Valencia, I managed to keep up my social dancing at least once a week, I made it out to a few film industry networking events, and, on the rare occasion when work afforded me a few consecutive days off, I made the occasional road trip. I even tried my hand at boogie-boarding with my roommate and another of our Berklee classmates (pictures of which will wind up on Composers Doing Normal Shit someday in the distant future. Just you wait). Most of all — and perhaps this was the biggest change from my Valencia-self — my time in LA afforded me the opportunity to try to be a person, not just a stressed-out Master’s student. Weird, I know.

That’s not to say that being stressed all the time doesn’t have its advantages or career implications. (Ossia: That was “Master’s student,” not “monster student!”)

In addition to taking in some of the sights of Los Angeles itself (Santa Monica Pier, Little Tokyo, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the TCL Chinese Theatre, a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, etc.), as well as spending time with a number of my Master’s colleagues, I took advantage of the fact that I happen to have family all over the world and duly paid visits to my cousins in both San Diego and San Francisco. As well, I was able to spend time with my Angeleno family members, which included getting to celebrate my first real American Thanksgiving in Beverly Hills, 90210, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.

…as you do. 😉

I spent a good amount of time trying to connect with the soul of Los Angeles, and I’m not entirely convinced that I ever did so successfully; perhaps I simply didn’t spend enough time there, after all. The diversity found amongst the conglomeration of federated municipalities in and around LA was incredible, but perhaps as a consequence, I never managed to home in on exactly what the real charm and character of LA was (palm trees notwithstanding). Make no mistake: the allure of LA to me is its position as a global leader in the entertainment industry — if it’s not the place to be, it certainly is a place to be — and I dutifully answered its call for my first taste of the “real world.”

However, more than anything else, LA felt essentially like just a city. Indeed, to me, the overwhelming impression was that this big city was characterized best as, in every sense, “a big city” (and coming from the largest city in Canada, I think that’s saying something). The traffic was as overwhelming as the legends had foretold — compared to Ontario drivers, LA drivers are better at merging, but even worse at obstacle avoidance — and I reckoned that I lived a half-hour from anywhere I usually needed to go, except if it took an hour (if not more). Navigating the city was, at times, exhausting. In spite of it all, however, I did find a few places that I enjoyed visiting a few times (even if it always took too long to get there). Over the course of my time in LA, with my focus primarily being to live and work, I ended up taking far fewer pictures* and being much less of a tourist than when I lived in Valencia.

*While my commute from the Valley afforded me some gorgeous views, taking pictures while driving remains a very, very bad idea.

In fact, the best opportunity that I had to be a tourist came when a friend of mine from Ontario visited me. Sometimes, it takes something like that to force you to slow down and simply enjoy the view.

…and y’know, it’s not so bad from up here.

Home for the Holidays

I had planned from the start to spend time back home in Toronto over the holidays. As my roommate and I signed our lease for six (later, seven) months, I was able to pack up about half of my belongings (giving myself the opportunity to decidedly not have to schlep 100 lbs. of stuff with me), vowing to return to my warm, sunny base of operations after tiring of the Canadian winter. Within my first week back, I was struck by how small my hometown felt next to LA, and how slow the speed limits were. This particular instance of culture shock aside, my homecoming allowed me to reconnect with family and friends, some of whom I had not seen since before my departure for Spain. As well, it afforded me the opportunity to reintroduce myself to the Toronto film community, now as a composer with a shiny, new set of credentials, recent work experience in the heart of the industry, and a decidedly stronger portfolio.

Not being terribly interested in remaining idle for too long, I kicked off the new year by writing a new version of a cue that I had composed for the Dramatic Electronic Composition course at Berklee in Valencia, inspired by an unscored chase scene from The Bourne Identity. Combining orchestral strings and darbuka with heaps of electronics, this cue was meant to be my interpretation of what would serve in a film such as Bourne. Here is the scene, scored with my music:

Here is the music by itself:

 

Escape from the Cold

IMAG0839

There was something very appealing about returning to this.

After nearly two months of enjoying my time back in Toronto (without ice storms this time!), I felt the warmer climate beckon. Since my apartment in the Valley was still waiting for me, I answered the call, leaving on the coldest day of the coldest winter on record, happily trading in -25°C for 25°C. Wasting no time to have some fun in the sun, I met up with a friend from Toronto who was in the area on business. The two of us having attended a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert a few nights prior, all we could do as we gazed out over the Pacific from Santa Monica Pier was chuckle as we thought of our friends and family who were freezing back home. Before I had left for LA, he had asked me if I would join him on a little road trip upon my return — again, for business. Where to?

VEGAS, BABY!

We stayed at a hotel on the Strip, and enjoyed prowling around the streets under the neon-tinted sky. To his surprise, there were surprisingly few people wandering around that late at night. I didn’t mind; I got more than my fill of the madding crowds the next day. I would go into more detail, but you know what they say about what happens in Vegas. 😉

I opted to remain in Vegas for another night in order to visit a couple of my Berklee classmates. How readily they welcomed me remains a testament to the familial bonds that we forged in the crucible of our tech labs in Valencia (it was mutual, of course, when our classmates came to visit us in LA). I am happy to report that they are doing well and have recovered handily from the rigours of our program.

Upon my return to LA from my Vegas sojourn, I was greeted with the news that my roommate had extended our apartment rental by a month, which meant that I had more than 10 days to pack up and prepare to move back home. Soon after, I received word that my roommate’s stay in the US had been extended, and I ended up helping him move into his new place in Pasadena. With the benefit of free time, I took the opportunity to arrange meetings with some of my industry connections, to see friends, and to cross off some important sights from my tourism list, such as the Getty Villa, the California ScienCenter, and nearby Ventura County.

You could say that I Endeavoured to visit the ScienCenter. Thank you, I’m here all week.

I also took the opportunity to spend time some time, of course, tending to my music. Among other pieces that I worked on during this time, I reorchestrated a few compositions from a few years ago, taking advantage of not only my improved orchestration skills but, more to the point, my better sample libraries as well. One such reimagined piece was Forester’s Theme, a concert version of the protagonist’s theme from what I have described as a “someday” game project, The Legend of Forester:

 

As my departure from LA drew nearer, I successfully lined up a scoring gig back home in Toronto, which echoed more than one professional’s advice to me for my next career steps. After packing up practically everything and preparing to vacate my apartment, I could think of no better way of ending my trip to LA than by joining a few of my classmates on a trip to Disneyland!

It was, after all, all started by a little mouse.

All things being equal, I am glad for the experience, and I look forward to an eventual return to the City of Angels.

What’s Next?

I wasted no time in forgetting how to be lazy as soon as I returned to Toronto, and of course, there are many stories to tell from those experiences over the past several months. In future blog posts, you can look forward to me posting about my various scoring projects from 2015, including my first feature film (John Lives Again), an indie video game at this year’s TOJam (Cow Bros: The Final Throwdown), and a short film this fall (In Utero). As well, I plan to share my experiences as a participant in the 2015 NYU/ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop, held in June this past year. On top of that, I found myself involved in a number of orchestration and transcription projects for concerts held all over the world.

I’m also considering a renovation of the Podium for the new year. Stay tuned for news and updates.

All in all, this has been an exciting year, and I am very much looking forward to what 2016 holds.

Until next time!

Inside the Federmusik: “Pero nunca podrá ser”

Welcome back to the podium! As my semester in Los Angeles comes to a close, and with it my internship at Sparks & Shadows, I am reminded of where I was at this time last year. So, I wanted to try something different.

In this edition of my notes from the podium, we’ll be taking a look inside one of my cues. “Pero nunca podrá ser” (“But it can never be”) was written and recorded one year ago, in December of 2013, as the final assignment for the Dramatic Scoring course at Berklee in Valencia. I previously detailed some of my experiences with the composition and recording of this cue in End of Act One and Settling in, but for those of you just tuning in now, the assignment was to rescore either the introductory scene from Silencio en la nieve (“Frozen Silence”) or a climactic scene from an episode of the Spanish television series Gran Hotel (“Grand Hotel”), both of which were originally scored by Lucio Godoy, our program director at Berklee in Valencia. Seeking the opportunity to include orchestral fireworks in my portfolio with a cue that I could really sink my teeth into, I chose the latter. As the Gran-dest assignment of the semester, we were privileged to record with members of the Budapest Art Orchestra, conducted by Peter Pejtsik, with whom Lucio has worked in the past to great effect. Getting to work with one of the most in-demand session recording orchestras in all of Europe was a tremendous opportunity, and indeed a feather in the cap of the Master’s program.

Before we go any further, however, I invite you to take a look at the behind-the-scenes recording footage of this cue:

The Setup
This scene was described to me as “the kiss of the year,” and a moment that the audience had been anticipating all season. I was advised that as Gran Hotel was scored in a very straightforward, on-the-nose manner, I should be prepared to go all-out and over the top. As we saw with The Frog Chase, this is a challenge that I embrace with gusto (and the occasional slide whistle). I decided to heed Lucio’s advice and score this scene in a very classic, give-them-what-they-want style. The musical gloves were off.

In this scene, Alicia, the wealthy daughter of the eponymous hotel’s owner, chases after Julio, a waiter who has just left the hotel’s employ. Under the pretense of returning the beret he left behind, she goes to see him one last time before he is ostensibly out of her life forever.

The Process
If there’s one thing I know about classic romantic scenes, it is the importance of melody. I placed myself in Lucio’s shoes and decided that if the series had been mine to score, I would have signified the importance of their relationship — a subplot that plays out through the entirety of the show — by assigning it its own recognizable theme. I began my process by designing what would hypothetically be the Alicia and Julio Theme, sketching it out by hand (and digitized here for your convenience — click the image to hear it):

The sketch of Alicia and Julio's Theme.

The sketch of Alicia and Julio’s Theme.

You may notice that the theme is generally built in an ascending structure over the first three melodic gestures (mm. 1-6), each phrase reaching higher in spite of all the ups and downs — which, come to think of it, sounds like a pretty good analogy for their relationship overall. You also may notice that the melody ends without a proper resolution; it’s almost as if the theme is posing a question — “Can we be together?” for example — and awaits the response at the very end. That the ending is deliberately harmonically open in this way grants me a certain flexibility in how to resolve it, which would hypothetically depend on what the answer would be.

Once I was satisfied that I had a plausible love theme, the next step in my compositional process was to translate my sketched notes into a form that would ultimately be more useful. As every project essentially has different requirements, each one demands a different process. For this cue, I produced a vocal mockup for the piece to serve as a baseline sketch that I would musically paint over later. Exactly as that term suggests, I sang into my computer’s microphone as I watched the scene, and then imported the resulting audio clips into my digital audio workstation. (No, it is not available for public consumption.)

Okay, so now we’ve got our love theme for Julio and Alicia (and now it’s in my DAW). The next step was working out the harmonization and arrangement.

Luckily, the melody that I wrote has certain tonal and harmonic implications by itself, with the leaps between notes in the phrase outlining certain chords for me already. As I sketched it, the melody implies a major modality, which is generally associated with positive emotions, and for the gran finale, I harmonized it appropriately with a goodly amount of major chords, as you can hear in the cue (you can also hear that the melody in the final version is more embellished; you’ll see that later on in this post). I conceived of it structurally in terms of a melody, a countermelody, and harmony, as you can see here (click the image to hear it):

Alicia and Julio’s Theme, harmonized.

…or, at least, that’s more or less how it would have ended, si podrá ser, but that’s not this particular cue — pero nunca, after all. 😉

Let’s keep that lovey-sounding major-chordal harmonic language as a baseline (don’t worry, I’ll fix the ending later). All that positivity is well and good for when the kiss of the year happens, but since the first half of the scene is fraught with angst, anxiety, and longing, I didn’t feel that would be entirely suitable. When we first hear the theme in this cue, Julio is visibly despondent, and Alicia is trying to come to terms with her feelings (or the fact that she even has feelings). This suggested to me that I might consider slightly less of a straightforward harmonic approach. If there’s one thing that all of my years of music theory has taught me, it’s how to adapt melodies and harmonies for various circumstances.

I observed that the pacing, movement, and overall feel of the segment in which Alicia meets Julio was slightly more ponderous than the fluidity found in the moment of their kiss, and I wanted to express the coldness, awkwardness, and distance between the two characters that I was picking up when I watched the scene. As well, I challenged myself to state the entire theme by the time Alicia gives her answer to the question that my theme poses.

I was reluctant to alter the core of the melody substantially — it still needed to be recognizable to the audience without them requiring a music theory degree — but at the same time, I wanted it to feel different. I started by adjusting the tempo of my music to roughly match the pace of the visuals (but not to the point that it would constitute mickeymousing). However, I found that keeping the rhythm as originally written made the theme run too long. So, I changed the time signature from 4/4 to 3/4 time, and simplified some of the melodic motion, removing a neighbour tone here and stripping out repeated notes there (click on the image to listen).

The altered version of the Alicia & Julio Theme.

The altered version of Alicia & Julio’s Theme.

More importantly, however, I wanted to properly convey the insecurities of our characters, and I aimed to accomplish this in two ways: first, by reharmonizing portions of the melody, and second, by altering the texture of the accompaniment. For the beginning of this part of the cue, I wanted to make the theme sound more brooding. In addition to transposing it to another key (from C to F), I moved the harmonic centre to the relative minor (D minor), representing the disconnect between the two characters — the notes are there, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I accentuated the sense of unease through the use of dissonance, whether through gnawing oscillations pulsing in and out of the harmonic fabric or more deliberate, slow-moving crunches inspired by music of the Romantic era. As the frost between them melts, the harmonic centre moves back closer in line to what I had originally intended (click to listen).

The altered version of Alicia & Julio's Theme, harmonized.

The altered version of Alicia & Julio’s Theme, harmonized.

In terms of the orchestration, I knew that I would be remiss if I did not pull out the orchestral big guns for the moment of the kiss (just following orders, folks), but since the first half expresses more uncertainty and is significantly less passionate, I decided that a more simple, subdued arrangement would feel more appropriate. That said, however, because the mood changes on a moment-to-moment basis, this section of the cue is composed of a series of carefully-sculpted moments that are designed to comprise, rather than distract from, an overall emotional gesture.

A solitary clarinet carries the theme as Alicia appears, with the strings (without bass) providing chordal support. However, since the melody is quite lugubrious and legato at the best of times — even more so at a slower tempo! — I wanted to use the strings’ ability to serve as the engine of the orchestra to maintain a sense of motion. Playing straight chords (as in the above example) would not accomplish the desired effect. Instead, the violins and violas play an oscillating motif that wavers in and out of consonace with the melody, while the celli keep time:

We add the rest of the orchestra as Julio and Alicia share a moment over his beret, with the melody rising in the violins, flutes, and oboes. As the melody is handed off to these instruments, the clarinets and bassoon pick up the rhythmic duties with their own version of the accompanying triplets:

Alicia & Julio Theme Pt 1b orchestratedAs their eyes meet, the orchestra breathes a sigh of relief as he utters, “Pide me lo y me quedaré” — “Tell me so, and I will stay” — but winds up to deliver an emotional sucker-punch — in musical terms, a deceptive cadence — for Alicia’s response: “Sabes que no puedo” — “You know that I can’t.”

Sabes que no puedo

If you look close enough, you can see Julio’s heart breaking.

Definitely no happy ending for this theme here.

I bring back this idea of using triplets to provide rhythmic support during Alicia and Julio’s big moment. As the music swells and the upper half of the orchestra (flute, oboe, trumpet, and violins) carry the melody, the clarinets and violas — the middle voices of their respective families — play the accompanying triplet motif, essentially in unison, but in the manner in which they did so before: violas oscillating, clarinets straight (but with a little rhythmic variation, like a fluttering heart skipping a beat).

Alicia & Julio Theme Pt 2a orchestratedNow that I think about it, if I were hypothetically scoring this series, I may well have used that triplet figure as a recognizable motif in and of itself. One thing that was half-deliberate, half-serendipitous was the timing of the three kisses with the three (well, two-and-a-half) thrusts of the melody. With the opening of the melody synchronized to the moment of the first kiss, I set the tempo such that the first half of the theme could be stated by the time she grabs his collar. The rest fell into place, just by the way I happened to have phrased the theme.

Alicia grabbing Julio’s collar to break their embrace is answered musically by a change in orchestral texture: a solo oboe, doubled with embellishments on harp, takes over the melody, the horns quiet down from their full-spate countermelody to a supporting line, the low strings and trumpet drop out completely, and the rest of the orchestra fades out. In this moment, things are essentially suspended in mid-air as she catches her breath, their eyes meet, and Alicia responds with…

"What part of 'Sabes que no puedo' did you not understand?!"

“What part of ‘Sabes que no puedo‘ did you not understand?!”

…well, huh. That was unexpected.

I guess there’s no happy ending to the theme this time, either. Nunca podrá ser.

That’s all for this edition of Inside the Federmusik! Are there other aspects of this cue that you’d like me to discuss? Are there other cues that you would like to know more about? Tell me in the comments!

Until next time!

The long-awaited London update

The view from the podium… at AIR Studios!

They say you never forget your first time.

In addition to representing a very practical part of our Master’s thesis, the recording at AIR Studios was, according to Lucio, intended to be something of a gift from Berklee to us. As you may recall, I had been looking for a collaboration that would be suitable for this very special recording session. However, at the end of April, Lucio explained that we should feel beholden neither to rescoring an existing piece of film nor finding an original collaboration to fit our specific requirements (an orchestral cue with a duration totaling no more than 3 minutes) after all. Ultimately, he gave us the option of essentially having total freedom on this project, even going so far as to allow us to write our own script — the reverse of our very first scoring assignment (which I detailed way back in this post). I was granted permission to work with a montage of clips selected from the work of Hayao Miyazaki, setting the resulting sequence of flying scenes from several movies to original orchestral music. That the material is a tribute to Miyazaki ties it in with my written dissertation on the music of Princess Mononoke. Everybody wins.

As with almost all of our orchestral projects to date, we were each responsible for our own composition, orchestration, notation and music preparation, Pro Tools session preparation, and conducting. Because this piece outweighed anything the we had done this year in terms of duration, instrumental density, and significance to our studies here at Berklee (to say nothing of the calibre of the musicians and recording studio before us), this project demanded more time, care, and attention to detail in every regard, from taking extra care in preparing a good-quality mockup (in case it was needed for demonstration or reference purposes) to translating my MIDI performances into a legible format. Fortunately for us, we were granted one full week of our intersession break to work solidly on our projects, allowing us the time for switching hats between composer, orchestrator, and copyist (and in so doing, seeing me carry on on such bizarre conversations with myself as, “Was this ‘1-2-off’ or ‘1-2-3-off’?”).

"Looks like 1-2-3-off to me."

“Looks like ‘1-2-3-off’ to me.” Photo: Alex Palmer.

As I may have mentioned in the context of our first Budapest recording in December, if our professors’ call for perfection (emphasis theirs) was to be heeded at any time, it was now. The process of ensuring that everything was perfect (or as perfect as possible, barring minor adjustments) before leaving Valencia culminated in two consecutive all-night sessions of writing, orchestrating, and preparing my score and parts before boarding the flight to London. Even now, all this time later, I still have moments in which I catch myself wondering if I really was aware of what I was doing, what with being effectively on autopilot while vacillating between overwhelming excitement and sheer panic, but I have to trust that I knew what I was doing at the time. I would like to think that I have the perspective to realize that for as much pressure as there was in this situation, I can only imagine how things must be in the “real world” (but I also imagine that we might have more than 18 minutes to record a 2½-minute cue in the aforementioned “real world”). I also now have a deeper appreciation for why media composers may elect to assemble teams of assistants.

Sunday

After putting the finishing touches on my score and parts as the sun rose, I packed my bags and caught a cab to the airport, where I met my instructors and about a dozen of my excited classmates (some of whom were practically bouncing off the walls) who had opted to allow Berklee to handle the arrangements for travel and accommodations. We enjoyed a relatively uneventful flight to London, during which time we kept each other entertained by showing off our scores and mockups (and in some cases, making final edits). Yes, we were our own in-flight entertainment. I was fighting off intense waves of fatigue in the latter portion of our flight and was just about to enjoy a short nap when my seatmate asked me to give him a demonstration of Sibelius. As I am demonstrably capable of using Sibelius in my sleep (if this year has been any indication), I was happy to oblige, and it perked me up for our descent into London’s Stansted Airport.

We claimed our baggage and boarded our waiting coach for the journey to our hotel in Hampstead, located northwest of downtown London and practically steps away from AIR Studios. As many of us still needed to print our scores and parts (myself included), we had scoured the Internet for a suitable print shop that kept appropriate operating hours in order for us to take care of our printing well in advance of our recording. After having lunch and resting up, a group of us ventured downtown to the King’s Cross-St Pancras area, flash drives in hand, to search for said printer. On our way to the Tube, we spotted a print shop close to our hotel that looked promising, but had already closed for the day. We resolved to consider it as a backup in case we could not have our print orders fulfilled that night. After our transit downtown, we arrived at what was supposedly the correct address, and were disappointed to discover that what we had perceived from their website as a FedEx Kinko’s-style print shop turned out to be an Internet cafe, with perhaps two staff members monitoring as many print/copy machines, and a day’s worth of work ahead of them at 9 o’clock at night. Good thing we found ourselves a backup location to visit the next day.

Monday

The next day was, however, incredibly busy. This journey to London was not really designed as a pleasure cruise — in truth, it was a bit of a whirlwind — and those of us who let the school handle our travel arrangements were only in London for the duration of the planned events. With an early start (that was surprisingly easier than early starts in Spain), we headed to our first workshop at Goldcrest Studios.

The front door of Goldcrest Studios.

Here, at Goldcrest Studios’ post-production facility, we had a seminar with sound designer and dubbing engineer Adrian Rhodes about what goes on during the dubbing phase of a film, in which the finished music tracks are mixed with dialogue and sound effects, and what we as film composers are usually expected to deliver in order to make the dubbing engineer’s life easier.

Engineer Adrian Rhodes at the Studio 4 dubbing stage console.

Later in the morning, we wended our way through the streets of London towards the British Music House, home of BASCA and PRS for Music.

Seen en route: a place for people who know nothing.

Our destination: a place for people who know a lot of things.

We met with representatives from both PRS for Music and ASCAP, who explained the role and importance of performing rights organizations for artists and composers.

In the afternoon, we set to take care of our printing. I returned to the print shop near my hotel and placed my order for my scores and parts. Halfway through my order, however, I noticed that something was amiss: certain symbols were misprinting as ☒, or were otherwise not printing at all. Minor panic. I was sure that my score and part files were perfect before my arrival in London (but since my score and parts were generated while sleep deprived, all bets were off). We checked the files, and, sure enough, they were as perfect as I remembered them being — at least, no missing or broken symbols. With the error not having been on my part (in spite of the lack of sleep, ha!), we tried to run the print job from another computer, and it worked perfectly. Crisis averted. It’s a shame that we had to start the entire process again, but all we lost was time (and a few trees).

The Palace of Westminster, as seen from across the River Thames.

After the day of workshops and printing, a group of us headed down to South Bank for an evening of relaxing and taking in a few of the sights. As we had not yet been given our recording schedule, many of us were unsure of just how free we would be the night before our first day in the studio, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. With my scores and parts printed, all I had left to do was finish taping the parts and my personal copy of the score — oh, and practicing. As we sipped our drinks on a balcony high above the Thames, an e-mail came in from Lucio with our schedule for the recording sessions. Holding my breath, bracing for having been assigned the first slot of the next morning… I was anticlimactically scheduled for just past noon on Wednesday. It’s not that I couldn’t have stepped up to the challenge of recording the very next day — remember how I was among the first to record on the Ann Kreis Scoring Stage this year? — but I could at least relax and have a good night’s sleep without the pressure of a session ahead of me.

Tuesday

Good morning, AIR Studios!

Just take a moment and let that image sink in.

That’s what we all did when we arrived. Formerly Lyndhurst Road Congregational Church, the venue was converted into one of the best recording complexes in the world in the early ’90s and has since been used extensively for recording countless film, television, video game, stage, and music productions. If anything could inspire a feeling of standing on the shoulders of giants for us, it was getting to record in the same space as so many composers whose work we admire: Danny Elfman, John Powell, Christophe Beck, Mychael Danna, Trevor Morris, Alberto Iglesias, Murray Gold, James Newton Howard, James Horner, Dario Marianelli, Javier Navarette, Hans Zimmer…

Speaking of Hans, he just so happened to be recording there at the same time. In fact, our booking displaced him from Lyndhurst Hall (the main recording space) to a smaller room for two days. Over the course of our time at AIR, many of us seized the opportunity to speak with him or snap photos. Some were even bold enough to interrupt his lunch. I, however, was not so lucky; my chance to have face time with him was preempted by being ushered back into the control room before my recording on Wednesday. Phooey.

Many of us took the opportunity to play tourist and take as many pictures and videos as possible. I certainly did my share of that as I walked around and admired the majesty of the room, but I also had a practical purpose in taking the time to get a feel for the room. Mentally comparing its dimensions to those of other stages, I wanted to get a sense of what the delay might be like between the podium and the players at the extremities of the hall (and back again, for the sound). With this rough analysis in mind, I knew how I would need to adjust my conducting technique to compensate accordingly for the latency. Tempting as it was, out of respect and reverence for both the space and my fellow composers, I decided to refrain from mounting the podium until the following day. The photos that I took could never do the space justice, but here are a few anyway.

AIR Studios Collage 1

We were then invited to take our seats upstairs in the choir loft (where we saw the sheet music for a certain famous film composer’s latest score still on the music stands), and Lucio opened the proceedings by introducing us to the orchestra and explaining the scope of our Master’s thesis recording project.

What followed was four recording sets, two in the morning, two in the afternoon, of some of the finest work my classmates had done all year. The room sounded amazing, the orchestra was top-notch, and the compositions themselves were brilliant — many of the pieces even sounded extremely convincing as film cues! More than that, however, after our year together, we could hear each other’s compositional voices shining through. Just about everyone looked like they knew what they were doing on the podium, as well — and considering that most of my classmates had no experience with conducting prior to coming to Berklee, that’s saying something. I guess this really is the last shot in the montage, in which everyone looks perfectly badass. Words absolutely fail to describe the magic that we created in AIR Studios, but we all took an enormous sense of pride in one another. More than the dissertation that we still had to write, we considered that this was our Master’s thesis, and our 18 minutes on the podium was our defense.

I spent the evening making final preparations to my score and parts and practicing my conducting against the click while managing my unwieldy, A3-sized score. For the first time all year, I got a decent amount of sleep before a recording session that I was conducting. Such an odd feeling.

Wednesday

Years ago, when I was starting out as a young film composer, my creative partner at the time gleefully envisioned me one day getting to record my film scores on one of the leading scoring stages in London. This trip to London, with the opportunity to record in Lyndhurst Hall at AIR Studios, represented much more for me than merely fulfilling part of my Master’s degree requirements. I’m very proud to say that this was nothing short of a long-standing wish come true.

I was due up in the second half of the morning session, so I spent the first portion up in the gallery, listening to the work of my classmates, but as you might imagine, I was not — could not be — as present as I was the day before, in favour of mentally preparing for my upcoming performance. The orchestra sounded just as good as the previous day, which was encouraging. As the last piece of the first session finished, I sprang into action, joining my sessionmates in distributing our parts throughout the orchestra (yes, on top of everything else, I had to be my own librarian). This took up essentially the entire break. I was up second in my session, so I barely even had time to use the washroom. One of my classmates attempted to intercept me en route to the facilities (I really had to go!), and then led me outside afterwards to show me the reason for accosting me — that is, who was out in the front lot: the big HZ himself.

So, yes, I saw Hans Zimmer.

Maybe next time, I’ll get to talk to him.

Ushered back inside the control room without being able to even introduce myself (thanks, guys…), I listened to the end of the recording before mine, took a deep breath, and strode out into the live room with my baton in my hand and the score under my arm. Exchanging a high-five with the previous student, I mounted the podium and placed the score on the stand. I greeted the orchestra and thanked them for their hard work so far, and again in advance for the hard work I knew that they would put in to my piece. I even let the orchestra in on just what this recording session meant to me, and the concertmaster afforded me a quiet salute with his bow in acknowledgement.

In the booth was the inestimable Jake Jackson as my session engineer (arguably one of the best in the business), assisted by the delightful Fiona Cruickshank. My team of producers was composed of Lucio Godoy, Alfons Conde, and Vanessa Garde. Needless to say, I was in good hands.

Mission Control: Jake Jackson (left) helms the session with Alfons (centre) and Lucio (right) looking rather pensive.

In every aspect of this piece, from the composition process to the recording session, I wanted to recapture the spark that I first felt in September, back when I was on the podium for “The Note.” In every project that we had done in the second semester, I was either in the control room or working exclusively with MIDI. Even the recording with the string section of the Budapest Art Orchestra in March didn’t feel the same. For this project, I got to write something that I could be truly proud of, something that was truly my own, and in addition to functioning as accompaniment to the video, it could be one piece that would serve as a musical summary or bookmark for my Master’s experience here at Berklee. Plus, I now have something that I can use as my own theme song. Heh.

The moment had arrived.

“Eight free to bar 1…”

With the slightest quiver in my baton hand, I counted off the lead-in beats, and with a swoop of my hands, my piece sprang to life. I was initially overwhelmed by the enormity of the reverberations in the room combined with what I was hearing through my headphones, but it surely takes more than that to throw me off. The first take made for a good rehearsal; most things were already in place, thanks to the superb reading skill of the musicians. As the final notes dissipated into the rafters, the production team and I took turns trading suggestions and recommendations for improvement. Another take was followed by more suggestions and a couple of questions from the orchestra. Finally, we reached the third take, which was almost a perfect run. I had decided in advance that by take three, I would step away from my score and conduct by heart.

So, how was the session?

AIRStudiosCollage2

A few stills from the recording videos. Clockwise, from upper left: cueing a harp entry, cueing the piano, emphatically cueing the orchestra (or casting a spell!), and winding up for the big finish. Images courtesy of Jacob Boyd and Xueran Chen.

It was better than a good meal.

One thing that my colleagues noticed about the session was just how natural I looked on the podium — how at home I seemed, how I looked like I belonged. Classmates reported that they were overcome with goosebumps and tears of joy during my recording. The musicians as well seemed to enjoy playing the cue; one of them even called it “exhilarating.” Even Lucio remarked that he thought that I, myself, was flying on the podium, along with the characters in the video.

Most of all, they noticed just how happy I looked. To be fair, I wrote happy-sounding music and was trying to convey the emotion to the orchestra in order to achieve the intended effects, as I always do. All the same, it’s true that I was honestly and sincerely enjoying myself. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was one of the most satisfying moments — if not the most satisfying moment — of my life (so far). Without hyperbole, I can say that I had been practically waiting my whole life for something like this. Here’s proof:

The more things change...

The more things change…

Join me on the podium for the recording session video that I put together:

…and here is the recording by itself:

That part around 1:40 (2:15 in the video) still gives me goosebumps. (Always did, too. Don’t believe me? Go back and watch!)

I am unspeakably grateful to Berklee and all those who made this experience possible. Click here to view the full list of personnel on this recording.

I loved being at AIR Studios — I didn’t want to leave! — so I lingered on site for as long as I could, until it was time for me to return to my hotel to change for our victory dinner, which was conveniently held just down the road from AIR. I happily joined my classmates and instructors, all of us swelling with pride, in an evening of celebration to mark the end of a successful two days of recordings.

I went to bed incredibly satisfied, already looking forward to my next time on that podium.

Mission complete. Photo: Alex Palmer.

Thursday

The Spitfire Spitfire.

There was not too much rest for the wicked, though, as our final full day in London was marked with a packed program of workshops, seminars, and other events. With our heads still swimming from the excitement of the previous two days, we found Thursday, to be honest, something of a blur. After a too-early wakeup, our first stop was Spitfire Audio, a well-respected sample library development company. We met with composer and developer Christian Henson, who enthusiastically indulged us with tales of his experiences, showed us his studio and some of his latest work, and gave us a special demonstration of his Euphone (which is now available as a sample library from Spitfire Audio).

Does this look like Shrek to you?

Next, we were whisked off to Air-Edel Studios, a company responsible primarily for music production and supervision for film, television, and video games, managed by Maggie Rodford, who visited us in Valencia in the first semester. After having lunch in their live recording room (gasp!), we had the pleasure of meeting Academy Award-winning composer Dario Marianelli (Atonement, Anna Karenina), who shared his advice and his stories with us (including about his interest in biology). Above all, he told us, “If you do your work conscientiously and put yourself into everything you do, it’ll be okay.” Getting to meet him was of particular interest for me because one of the scenes that I rescored in the Berklee Online film music composition course that I took last year was from his Atonement.

Meeting Academy Award-winning composer Dario Marianelli.

After lunch, the staff at Air-Edel conducted a series of workshops for us, which included sessions on music editing and temp scores, mixing in surround sound, and contracts and entertainment law.

In the evening, we were invited to a special Berklee event at a pub downtown, at which staff and students mingled with alumni who are based in the London area. As usual, the Valencian contingent vastly outnumbered everybody else (to the point where it seemed like it was mostly a pub night just for us). As the party wound down (complete with it taking us an inordinate amount of time to get from the door to actually on our way, as was our custom), I parted company from my Berklee Valencia classmates to join someone I knew from one of my Berklee Online courses for dinner, diverging from the group to ride the Tube northwest to Edgware. It was lovely to meet her in person, and it is a testament to the global community that Berklee is fostering through its various educational platforms and outlets.

Friday

There’s always time to make one more memory.

You know what they say about all good things. Coupled with the fact that the start of our third semester was on the other side of the weekend, there was a palpable bittersweet twinge to our departure. In the little time between checkout and the scheduled departure of our airport coach to Gatwick, the group of us who stayed at the hotel in Hampstead decided to nip off to AIR to take a few last photos; I knew that I would regret it if we did not take this one last opportunity. We were greeted by the open arms (and massive beard) of Glen, their security/concierge who was among the team of staff who took such good care of us during our recording days. We were happily welcomed back to AIR, and he gladly obliged us in taking a few photos.

We bid a final farewell to Glen, his beard, and AIR Studios, and boarded our coach for a too-long (read: 2½ hours) ride to Gatwick as rainclouds rolled in overhead. Our departure from London felt as somber as the skies above, and strangely, our return to Valencia felt somehow like a warm homecoming to me.

Really, who could argue with being greeted like this?

After our return to Valencia, we set to work editing, mixing, and mastering our recordings. For my part, I must say that even on the raw recording, the room sounded breathtakingly beautiful, and relatively little acoustic makeup was required in post-production. Now we know one reason why so many top-level productions choose AIR as a recording venue.

So ended our trip to London, our second semester, and a major portion of our Culminating Experience project. With barely a break, we prepared ourselves for our third and final semester of the Master’s program, a seven-week sprint to the finish. In this time, many of us took one final elective while working on our London mixes, our dissertations, and any other projects that necessitated (or encouraged) the use of Berklee’s facilities one last time before graduating.

This trip to London was a transformative experience for me. I had accomplished one last successful recording session of my Berklee Valencia career, I had fulfilled a lifelong dream, and, interestingly enough, it removed all doubt from my mind as to the quality of the material that I had produced in the second semester. Through the winter and into the spring, I had expected to feel better about the work that I was producing. Indeed, given my particular feelings about the quality of my second-semester output on the eve of my London trip, one might assume that the recording at AIR would surely eclipse everything written prior, to the extent that I would want to bury those pieces and never allow them to be released. To my own surprise, however, I found that my success in London made the work that I had done in the preceding few months appreciate in value (to me, at least). It was not until after I returned from London in triumph that I was able to experience my compositions anew, this time listening from a position and perspective of strength, accomplishment, and enjoyment. Most of all, it gave me the hope that maybe, just maybe, I could have a shot at doing this media composition thing professionally.

Until next time!

I need more time

Written on the train to Córdoba.

I need more time.

I felt that sentiment quite often over this past year, though perhaps I didn’t admit it or articulate it half as much as I thought it.

I always felt that I needed more time. Just “one more.”

One more minute to catch the bus.

One more hour to prep a session.

One more day to finish a mix.

One more week on an assignment.

One more month of vacation.

One more year with my classmates.

My friends.

It’s been slowly hitting me – it really hit me the morning after graduation. Much like a hangover, it passes with time, but it still hits me from time to time. When it does, I feel it deeply.

I feel what I’ll be missing – what I have been missing – since I took that walk across that stage. We’ve been losing them one by one, or a few at a time. They are gone but not forgotten. We know that they’re just an e-mail or a Facebook message away, but they’re still not here. Those who remain behind have taken to calling each other “the survivors.” I, too, am soon to join my friends in their not-here-ness, and then the true test begins.

I’m going to write a variation on a theme by my schoolmate and fellow Torontonian, Jelena Ćirić, for just a moment. The questions that we have each asked ourselves and each other over the past twelve months have ranged from “What do I pack?” to “What is my reason for being here?” to “How do I live without Berklee?” and “What will I miss most about my time here?” – or, for my fellow SFTV majors, “How many hours will pass before I start missing the labs?”

It’s much more than the facilities, or the tech – I’ll miss the Palau and the labs, for sure – but it’s the community that we built in the span of one intense year – a mere ten months, in earnest. The camaraderie, the friendship, the love – the family. Brian was right: it’s a year, but it’s only a year. The flame we kindled together was, as Alfons would say, short but intense (and, as I would say, kind of like me 😉 ). We promise each other that we will stay in touch, but it won’t be the same.

It can’t be.

There will never be a substitute for sitting at our favourite tables in the cantina, or working feverishly in the labs – our trenches – alongside our fellow creative minds, or having “just one” drink at Las Artes and wondering why it was suddenly 4. There will never be a substitute for seeing everyone’s faces – whether smiling or stressed – every day, or always having a willing ear to hear your latest track, or knowing that the person beside you is going through the same thing as you, or happening by our favourite hangout spots and inevitably meeting at least two or three others there from school. To say that what we had here was special would be an understatement.

At the same time as I tell one classmate, “See you in August,” I give a more ponderous farewell to another, not knowing when we’ll meet again. We tell each other to look us up if we’re ever in any given city – Los Angeles, New York, London, or wherever else – and I cross my fingers that my network, my Berklee family, will be able to receive me when I call.

…but I still miss them. I still feel the loss. What I may have missed through the duration of my undergrad studies I more than made up for in the intensity of this program.

I know that they will always be with me.

…but I still wish that I could have one more — just “one more” — year with them.