Name: Morgan Z Whirledge aka Chrome Canyon
Occupation: Producer, composer
Nationality: American
Current release: The new Chrome Canyon album Director, "a record that could be the soundtrack to a surrealist film", is out via Stones Throw.

If you enjoyed this interview with Chrome Canyon and would like to find out more, visit the official Morgan Z Whirledge homepage. Keep up to speed with his work via Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.

What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? Should film music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should have it an intrinsic value outside of the movies?

I think film and music are pretty intrinsically linked.

What I love about music for film, is its “quiet” place (to be punny about it) in the entirety of the experience. Music can be THE most powerful emotional driver in a film, and sometimes you don’t even notice it. Other times it can be so present and in-your-face that the action on-screen becomes beholden to IT.

To me that is something like a magic trick - you know you’re being manipulated and the crazier it feels, the more wonderful it is.

Different composers could potentially approach the same scene with strikingly different music. Would you say there can be 'wrong' and 'right' musical decisions for some scenes? In which way can some film music be considered 'definitive'?

I have a hard time ever saying something is absolutely wrong or exactly right in terms of music fitting with a scene. That said, sometimes it’s really hard to not think there’s just nothing else that could possibly fit. I think that speaks to how much music makes an impact in terms of remembering a really powerful moment in a film. I think of the original Blade Runner (Vangelis), or The Day the Earth Stood Still (Herrmann), or The Good the Bad and the Ugly (Morricone), it’s just hard to imagine anything else being “right” for those films - you just can’t separate them from their amazing music.

That said, I think to be a good composer you do have to be someone attuned to understanding emotion and what sort of sound can lend itself to this or that emotion. When I first started taking piano lessons, part of my theory training at that point was to learn about major and minor.  That in the most basic and simple way taught me that certain things can sound happier (major) and other can sound sadder (minor).

That was the jumping off point for me when I was six years old, and since then the exploration of that idea, the complexity of how to push a listener to feel this or that (or to remain neutral) has always fascinated me, and I think that’s what makes me decent at setting music to picture.

Can you take me through your process of composing a soundtrack on the basis of a movie that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?

It usually starts by watching the film and trying to get an understanding of what the intentions are. Not only the intentions of the filmmaker, but also of the characters in the film itself.

I worked on an animated show called Infinity Train which had a huge range of emotions and intentions. There were parts which were terrifying that would end in a really sad emotional moment, and so there were themes that I ended up working on to fit those characters and moments - and then sort of manipulating them as their story grew.

After you understand the emotional tone, and the intentions behind the characters, I think the next most important thing is timing. I would sit and watch an episode, then do what we called “spotting” with the creators of the show where we talked through the timing of the music and what places were important to fill and which places were important to leave empty.

And of course, after you have your ideas down, there’s a LOT of revisions and refining - that’s an indispensable part of the process.

How do you see the relationship between image and sound in a movie? How directly are you working with the images in the writing process?

I usually work directly to picture. A lot of time editors will request some music to cut to - or they’ll use some temp music. But then they usually give me a cut which has no music as well as one that has that temp on it. And I’ll reference the temp a bit for timing and to get an idea of what they’re thinking before composing my own music.

But I’m usually watching picture the whole time, or at least constantly going back and forth - once I have a part down I’ll make sure it is timing out right to the scene, and then I’ll flesh out all the ideas and put more into the production after that.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

Well, a composition is something that is repeatable I guess - but even a composition that is written down or recorded had to start as an improvisation at some point, right? Improvisation is really important, and also with that, mistakes are hugely important - because they give you that unexpected turn in whatever you’re doing - the thing that even though you’re writing the music, can still inspire you or give you fresh ideas.

A lot of times when I’m stuck on something I’ll try to pick up a new instrument like a guitar or even a cello or something, and even though I’m terrible at playing them, I just mess around and usually it helps me think of a new phrase or a different chord progression. Something that I can use to inspire whatever comes next.

I envy musicians who can just endlessly improvise and are prolific at shredding (I’m definitely not one of those), but I still use improvisation to get ideas and help flesh out my compositions.

Soundtrack composer typically need to adapt their ideas to the film, the director and the audience. How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, being professional? How do you find a sense of freedom within these structures?

Overall I believe filmmaking (and a lot of art - music included) is a team effort. So really there’s not much benefit to being completely unwilling to adapt to other people’s ideas. I guess ultimately I’m pretty eager to please when it comes to working with people, so a lot of that process is pretty effortless for me - I really enjoy collaborating and getting to an outcome everyone is happy with.

I think “professionalism” is knowing how to be an authority about something (like if someone hires me to do the music to something, they’re interested in my ideas inherently and want to know my opinion) but also being able to adapt to a particular intention of the filmmaker or producer or whoever has any idea about what they want to get out of the music. I think it takes some experience, but also being able to graciously say no to projects that may be outside of the boundaries of your particular skillset or interest in terms of the music you make I think is also really important.

It gets tough when you find yourself in a project that turns out to be something that is really not what you want to be doing. I’ve been there, and believe me - it’s really hard. So I’ve learned to find out all I can before committing, and then really having an honest think about whether something is the right fit.

Over the decades, film music has developed a certain tradition and vocabulary of techniques and creative devices. How would you describe your relationship with this tradition and what roles does it play in your work? Are there compositional devices which you don't find appropriate or wouldn't use right now, because they're too closely associated with a particular era or because they feel like a cliché?

I guess my answer to this would be no - but also it depends. I think there are times when clichés or particular tropes are appropriate to draw on.

I would probably put myself in the camp of more “thematic” composers - so the stuff I write typically has more melody and harmony, and isn’t as ambient as some of the current stuff is. I don’t know if that means it’s dated or if it’s “retro” but it’s just my preference. I tend to gravitate towards scores that are that way as well when I think of stuff I really love to listen to.

That said, I think filmmaking has gotten a lot more “subtle” and sometimes scores can be seen as being too present or manipulative. I tend to think there’s a good balance, and so I try to sit in the middle - taking a back seat to whatever is on screen at times, but also putting moments in where the music really picks up and is the main “character” for a time.

I think some people might think of that as cliché - to have a big moment of music at the forefront of the scene - but I really enjoy composing for those moments.

The balance between visuals, fx and film music is delicate. What, from your point of view, determines whether or not it is a successful one?

I have the curse of being very fussy about my movie watching - and to be honest I usually don’t like much!! So it’s hard for me to say what exactly is the determining factor, because a lot of what I find bad a lot of people really enjoy.

I think though, for me it’s all about whether the story is a good one, and whether the music supports the emotion in the story. Things fall apart for me if they’re overly saccharine or don’t have a deeper understanding of the complexities of human emotion. And it’s sort of one of those things - you know it when you see it - if something is working it just feels effortless.  When you can feel the film trying to pull you this way or that way, if you’re not effortlessly there and the music is asking you to feel something you’re not - well it’s just not working.

I know there’s volumes written on the intricacies of technically why a film works or it doesn’t - but it is pretty miraculous when you watch something and the storytelling, editing, cinematography, acting - all those things are working, and the music just pushes it to that next level. Like I said before, it feels like magic!