Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My studio is on my property so provided I had groceries I could in theory just stay in my pajamas more or less indefinitely. I try to get out to the studio before 6am. There is something psychological about being well into my day before the sun rises. When deadlines are tight though it’s more like 4:30am. I’m not super-human or anything, I go to bed at 8 or 9 to compensate, but there is just something so incredibly rich about those early hours. The 3 hours from 5 to 8 are as valuable as the entire afternoon in terms of productivity. Everything is quiet and my mind is much more clear. If I don’t get started by 10am or 11 then the day is probably going to be lost entirely. It’s nearly impossible to get up and running at that point. Once I’m going I’m ok but that first step has to be taken early. Funny how we have to hack our own sabotage systems, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done! So once I have liftoff I more or less work continuously until a bit before dinner time but I’ll use daily errands or chores to break up my day and give my creative mind a break. That’s more or less how my days usually look. Some variant of that. I hate to have any work to do after dinner but occasionally it’s unavoidable of course. But I’m definitely miserable and slow moving at that point in the day if there’s still any work ahead of me.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a soundtrack or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I wrote music for the tv show “Bones” for 9 years. For the 200th episode they created an episode that was an homage to Hitchcock’s “To Catch A Thief”, a movie that had this beautiful, haunting score by Lyn Murray. And of course it was going to be the composer’s job to mimic that style. It was intimidating and exhilarating being faced with absorbing that aesthetic. It’s so different from what is the norm these days. So much more complex and detailed. It was really just a matter of absolutely listening to nothing else but those old scores. And constantly. Just relentlessly so that the gestures, the harmonies and all of it just kind of stuck in my head. Sort of like short circuiting my own ‘habits’ by sheer over-stimulation. It was a strategy I’d never tried before but it worked well and creating that score was a hell of a lot of fun.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
With tv writing I find that time is the engine that drives everything. Or lack of time more accurately. I so often find that my favorite work is the work I did when I had almost no time. The phrase “getting out of your own way” very much sums this phenomena up to me. I think the old adage “it’ll take as long as you have” goes for my own creative process as much as anything else. If I can tinker, if I have the time, I probably will. Constantly changing and tweaking and altering. But at a certain point you’re not making it any better, you’re just making it different. And possibly worse. So the clock can force you to let it go and move on before you have a chance to over-bake it and screw it up.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of film music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
One of my early and eye-opening lessons in film + tv work was that the composer comes very very late in the game to the sonic party. In practical reality he’s the last one there. He is an accompanist to the “instruments” already playing. The dialog, the sound fx are all already there (or at least in the script, that’s another conversation altogether, recognizing that you are seeing the unfinished picture and being sure to allow for elements that you have to be aware are coming later). Sometimes this can be used for beautiful results. Letting the score stay out of the way of the sound of rain, say, or some other sound design element that is important to the sonic landscape. I just finished an episode of a miniseries that opens with a car submerged in a river at night and the sound of the water and the frogs chirping, it was a beautiful sound and it vividly put the viewer right there in that space. So I left all kinds of space for that sonic landscape rather than stuffing it full of music.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
It’s a unique and challenging question. I suspect it’s true that our senses are separate from one another in much the same way that colors are. Clearly identifiable at their peaks with seemingly infinite gradient at their borders. Certainly for me I find that hearing and touch are entwined. Technology being what it is our studios can create any sound we can imagine. I have sample libraries of any piano I can ever imagine playing. 100 year old antiques, million dollar pieces of art. But I still find that the experience of playing my baby grand piano, an unremarkable Yamaha, eclipses any of those things. The feel of the strings vibrating through the keys. The percussive feedback of the hammer striking the string. It changes how I react to the instrument and increases the experience 10-fold. It’s like going from black and white to color. Like the sun suddenly comes out and you can really HEAR the piano. There’s all kinds of metaphors in there, I’ll leave you to sort them out. But needless to say, sound is, quite literally, vibration. So right there, you can’t separate the two.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Interestingly you have caught me at a moment in my career where I am feeling a bit restless. I have been writing tv music for 15 years and frankly loving every minute of it. But it is definitely a corner of the music world that has, by definition I suppose, very rigid parameters you must adhere to. The drama on the screen, the studios, the directors. My approach has really been utilitarian in a way. Serve the show, serve the story, serve the greater picture. I express myself at the edges of those limitations and I find a great, almost freedom, in that. The constraints free me from the agoraphobia of having to conjure something from abject nothingness. But I have recently embarked upon a project to write concert pieces and spend more of my time writing truly for myself and for my leisure and with the expectation of nothing other than describing myself or my world through music. It’s a terrifying shift I will admit but it’s also fairly invigorating. I have no intent to stop the tv + film, but I’m looking very much forward to the unhinged creative outlet as well.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of soundtracks still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what film music could be beyond its current form?
I feel like a soundtrack will take you back through the story again which is why it’s such a beloved component of consuming this category of media. You recognize musical moments that spark a memory of the story and the character and your identification with them. So in that sense I don’t know if soundtracks or collections will ever necessarily disappear. But then, famous last words. It’s truly unexplored territory out there right now. For all I know future generations will learn to look at a digital waveform and hear the music in their heads. It’s moving too quickly to really even get one’s footing long enough form an opinion about anything! I do know this though… well no, no I don’t really. I really have no idea. It’s exciting to see this industry reinvent itself.