Monday, January 14, 2002

A Shot in the Dark: Writing Music for Film

Submitted by Amy Elizabeth Cassata

I dreamed of writing music for film since age twelve. I remember the moment I had this thought - I was watching the credits of an IMAX film, the kind with lush harmonies of symphonic instruments layered upon synthesized music moving along a steady beat. With eight years training in classical piano and having grown up amid eighties pop culture, the combination of the two seemed to merge in my mind as I listened to this particular soundtrack. In time, I have been able to produce this sound in my home studio. However, not until Matthew Marshall asked me to compose two fifteen-minute musical scores was my daydream put to the test. What I learned was that film scores brought a new set of complications, challenges, and frustrations to the composition process. Difficulties I had not experienced while working in isolation.

Play Fear

The first challenge in writing music for film was that it required playing someone else's emotion and experience other than my own. Matthew and I had many brainstorming sessions where we would watch the rough cut, piece by piece, and they would direct me as to which emotion should be conveyed where and when. I was given such ambiguous directions as play fear. I quickly learned that my interpretation of an emotion may not necessarily match the director's idea of, for example, what "fear" should sound like. Many times I went through a trial-and-error process, with several instrument changes, key changes, and layering and un-layering of sounds.

Once I had a sound in mind, the next challenge was to somehow create a "song" which was brief but powerful, simple, subtle, and that complemented the visual images. The biggest gripe from the director at this point was that the music was too complex, too long, or sounded too much like a song. It took a while for me to appreciate the power of simplicity and silence. I frustratingly scaled back. My personal inclination is the melodramatic style, in order to create music as rich as possible. I would liken the film process to learning to write an adage rather than a doctoral dissertation.

Another challenge, albeit more entertaining than the first two, was managing the other musicians, and giving them musical direction, especially in those moments when I was hitting notes randomly, hoping something appropriate would emerge. Collaborating with others was exhilarating, perhaps because it helped take the sole idea-making weight off my shoulders. In several instances, I was able to take an idea or phrase from someone else into a full-fledged song. It was like a mental telepathy began to emerge between musicians as the hours passed. Sometimes, when all the musicians were on the same page, we achieved "studio magic" and created the music you hear in the films. These moments also created fun, although not "film-relevant" material, but were creative nonetheless.

The music for The Death of Everything Good and True was recorded in one eleven-hour marathon session. We went into the studio blind, with a clean state, only myself having seen the rough cut. For Carapace, the process was more structured, as I wrote many of the themes before meeting with the musicians, who had been thoroughly forewarned and given a copy of the film in advance for brainstorming purposes. Another large difference between the two soundtracks was that the instruments in The Death were recorded on a single track, while many Carapace tracks were pre-sequenced, with parts recorded on separate tracks. I believe elements of both techniques are beneficial. The raw spontaneity of the single track sessions in The Death added a human quality to the music that is lost in a synchronized, edited setup. However, on the Carapace soundtrack, the music was written quicker as the musicians had more direction. To be fair, a few of the musicians benefited from the experience of having played for the previous film.

Would I write a third soundtrack? Probably. The process explores the possibilities of sounds that are created when individuals collaborate. Although personal expression is still present in general style, the content illustrates a new, collective expression. Working for film allows for the exploration of a wide range emotions present in human nature, many of which I had never interpreted musically. When Matthew asked me to write a commentary on the experience of writing the soundtrack to his two films, my first thought was, I am a musician. My best expression is not through words but by melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that, through their own language, convey experience. The music expresses sentiments I am unable to state in spoken language. I consider this essay an inadequate description of the experience of soundtrack recording. Only in hearing the song can one hear the energy of spontaneous give-and-take between musicians as a second layer of unspoken dialog, or the improvisation on a single theme as the visual images rise and fall in intensity. In other words, if you are really curious about the soundtracks, listen to the music.

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