Can I get CDs of unreleased scores (such as No Country for Old Men, The Spanish Prisoner, The Jackal, etc)? And why are some scores never released commercially?
I don't have time to press promotional CD's. My agent, Vasi Vangelos, can provide demo copies of my film work for business or promotional purposes (for instance to filmmakers and journalists).
I'd like to make otherwise unavailable work available on this web site, so I've been posting demo samples of many of the unreleased scores in the section called projects. I cannot provide anything beyond what you find on the web site.
There are a number of reasons scores don't get released commercially. The primary one is that the release of a soundtrack that was recorded by a union orchestra requires the musicians to be paid "new use" fees (because this is a new use of music that was originally intended for film). For an orchestra these fees can be quite large, dwarfing any other expenses, and making it difficult to recoup an album's costs. These problems have caused many composers and producers to record their scores non-union, and in response to this "runaway" production the union (the AFM) has changed its calculation of new use fees so they are less onerous.
How did you get started scoring films?
I fell into this business more or less by accident. Skip Lievsay, who was sound editor for the film Blood Simple, knew my music from the New York club scene, and suggested I meet with the Coens about scoring the film. I saw a reel, recorded a few sketches, and after months of interviewing other composers they hired me. I basically expanded those original sketches and did my best to synchnronize them to the film by playing to a stopwatch. After it was released I got more calls, for instance from Tony Perkins who was directing Psycho III. I never intended to pursue this work, but I love film and I love music, so I'm really quite lucky to be doing this.
How can I get started scoring films?
My suggestion to people who want to start film scoring is to offer your services to student filmmakers at film schools. They're always looking for music, and that is where you'll find the next crop of feature directors.
May I use your music in my project?
I don't own these rights for most of my film compositions, so I can't grant them. Some, however, are controlled by my publishing company, Best Possible Music, and I can license their use. Please remember, though, that although I own the rights to these compositions I do not typically own the rights to the recordings. In most cases these master recordings are owned by the film companies that paid for them, and you would have to clear the rights to these masters with them.
For non-commercial uses (student film festivals and such) I usually grant a restricted license to the compositions for free. However, remember that if your student film ends up on cable TV or in any commercial venue you will have to make some other arrangement. My advice is to work with a composer rather than to use my pre-existing compositions. You'll get experience with this type of collaboration and you'll be giving a composer a gig.
The Coens' films are well known for integrating interesting and unusual music - where does your inspiration come from and how involved are the Coens in the musical process?
The Coens' involvement in the music varies from film to film. Sometimes they have very clear ideas about what they want (the extreme example being O Brother Where Art Thou? which is assembled from pre-existing songs and has no score per se), and sometimes they have no idea (Barton Fink or Fargo). I, of course, prefer the instances when they have no idea.
In trying to create a unique musical world for each film there is usually a combination of research, free association, and hybridization. For instance there's no particular reason why Fargo had to have a Scandinavian theme, but that was an association that came out of the landscape and the names of the characters. This resulted in some study of Scandinavian folk tunes and instrumental styles - the hardanger fiddle in particular. Then I hybridized a Norwegian folk melody called "The Lost Sheep" with the orchestrations of film noir to create a blend of fragility and bombast. Hopefully this process ultimately gives the film a distinctive musical voice.
What do you make of the phenomenal success of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack?
It suggests the superfluity of film composers.
Which of your film scores is your favorite?
In many ways, Blood Simple is my favorite thanks to the blissful ignorance I had of film scoring technique and tradition. I didn't know how to synchronize the music to the film, so I never bothered about working the music around dialogue or action. In the projects since I find I spend a great deal of time on these filmic issues, but this effort is frustrated when the films are recut after the music has been recorded and all those nuances lie in the wrong places. There's something special about the naivete of the first project, and I advise directors to hire first time composers as often as possible for that reason.
How do you pick the projects you work on? Are there any specific criteria?
The most important criterion is the opportunity to do something I haven't done before. Of course this is contrary to the tendency of the industry to type-cast its workers. After Raising Arizona Ethan Coen told me to expect calls to score "farm comedies." Much to my surprise people are making "farm comedies" and they did call me. On the other hand, when the Coens made Miller's Crossing and they wanted a lush orchestral score, they hired a person who had essentially no experience with the genre - me. That's what I call fun.
Are there any particular genres of film you'd like to work on?
One genre I'd love to address is science fiction. I think one reason B-genres, like sci-fi, have inspired so many great scores is that those films weren't expected to appeal to the middle-brow aesthetic which so dominates the box office, the executive suite and the Academy Awards, and thus had the gift of disregard. I think of Forbidden Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Planet of The Apes, Psycho, and I think the genre pictures of the mid-20th-Century represent the real Golden Age of film score, as opposed to the oft-referenced Golden Age of Korngold, Waxman and Steiner, during which films were beautifully over-scored in an idiom borrowed from the concert hall. Since Star Wars it appears the sci-fi score has suffered the terrible fate of attention. That particular film called for a serial-melodrama-score and John Williams did such a great job of providing it that no one seems to remember the adventurous work that existed before. I'd like to think there's still more work to be done in that direction.
When you take on a new project, do you start composing from the moment you read the script or do wait until you can view the film?
I usually read the script in order to decide whether to work on the film in the first place, but I don't usually write until there's a cut of the film.
What is temp music?
Often before a composer is even hired, the director and editor have cut pre-existing musical tracks into the film, and this is called "temp music" or "temp score". It's temporary and will eventually be replaced by music written specifically for the film, but in the meantime it allows the director to try out different approaches. gives the editor something to cut to, and acts as score when the film is screened at previews. Some composers feel it helps them to understand the director's musical direction, music being difficult for non-musicians to talk about clearly.
Many other composers - myself included - feel the downside of temp music outweighs the upside. If temp music is playing when I first see a film with a director, it deprives us of the one moment when we can imagine a score we've never heard before. Instead of free associating, we're faced with a concrete reality, and the discussion tends to become concrete as a result. Is that tempo working? I like that percussion. I don't like that harp.
As a director lives with a temp score they begin to feel it belongs to their film - although it often comes from some other film. They end up wanting their score to sound like the temp, and have difficulty opening their minds to a score that doesn't. This is know as "temp love". It's quite common and in addition to reducing the likelihood of composers ever doing anything novel, it has resulted in a number of lawsuits as composers are pushed to copy the temp.
My personal approach is to ask directors not to use temp score if they can avoid it. I try to get them skeches of what I'm writing as soon as possible so they can live with that instead of temp. And if they can't live without temp score, I ask them not to play it for me - at least not until I've begun writing my own music. Then if they feel I'm really missing something, they can show me what they like in their temp. This approach doesn't prevent "temp love," however.
What is the most difficult part of writing music for film?
Without question the most difficult part of writing film music is the challenge of satisfying all the people involved - myself, the director, producers, executives, and the unknowable audience. This is the part I get paid for - not the music.
What is the easiest part?
How much time does it take to write a film score?
It's really a question of how much time I'm given. Six weeks from start to recording might be typical, but it varies from two weeks to three months. I've only once gotten to the recording session with the feeling that the score was truly finished - that I wouldn't have changed anything if I'd had more time. That was with Miller's Crossing, for which I had three months to write.
Do you choose the songs in the film? What does a music supervisor do?
I offer opinions on the songs, but I don't typically choose them. There are many criteria that have little to do with the film, and which I prefer to ignore: Is the artist signed to a label associated with the film company? Do they have an unreleased song that can be released in tandem with the film? How much does the song cost? Will the song contribute to the commercial success of a soundtrack album?
I've written and recorded songs for many films (Psycho III, Raising Arizona, Doc Hollywood, Rob Roy, The Big Lebowski for example) and I really enjoy it, but when the goal is to make money from a soundtrack album I usually step aside because the commercial criteria drain all the fun from it.
Proposing and licensing songs for films are jobs for the Music Supervisor. Despite the title "supervisor" this person typically has little or nothing to do with the score to the film. I usually have no dealings with the music supervisor on a film.
How do you choose the musicians that play on your scores? What does a contractor do?
The musicians union expects a contractor to book the musicians. Contractors know the ins and outs of the union rules and take on the time-consuming job of coordinating the musicians' schedules.
I will often request particular players, especially soloists or first chair players (for instance, first violin or first horn), but I depend on contractors to help me fill out the orchestra and to find players with unusual skills or instruments - for instance, glass harmonica or taiko drums.
What kind of musical training do you have?
Pretty sparse. I had piano lessons when I was a kid, like most people. And hated them, like most people. And quit, like most people. Then in high school, a friend of mine named Steve Kraemer showed me how to improvise blues on piano. He was multi-instrumentally-talented, but couldn't play all the instruments at the same time, so he needed someone to accompany him. Looking back I realize that the main thing I enjoyed about music was making things up. Performing written music, even my own, is not very interesting to me.
From high school on I was always playing piano - as avocation - as therapy. In college I studied electronic and computer music because I thought that my technical and mathematical chops would be another way into music. I graduated from college in the late 70's and my friends and I decided we should be a band. It was the punk rock era - everybody was encouraged to get on stage and although all of us were planning to go to professional schools - myself in architecture - this seemed like a last chance for some youthful folly before starting our adult lives. So we came to New York and started playing. My friends eventually outgrew it. One went to medical school. Another became a writer and is now going to law school. Most of them outgrew this dalliance with music. I never quite did.
What is the best advice you can give to someone just starting to write music for film?
Find your own voice. Once you start working in this field people will always be pushing your work one way or another, and the best chance you have to find your own voice is when you are starting out.
How do you compose?
Everyone does it differently. I often sit at the piano and let my fingers walk by themselves. When I hear something I like I repeat it - figure out what I like about it - and develop it. Other times I set myself a task - finding new harmonies or polyrhythms or modes. I keep a small inexpensive recorder by the piano so that I can record the results quickly, before I'm interrupted or forget what I'm doing. When the little recorder is not around I write on paper, but I'm very slow at that. Ultimately I transcribe the notes I've recorded, develop them further, and put them on paper.
Do you ever work with interns, assistants, orchestrators or other composers, and how can I get such a job?
I have a part-time assistant, Dean Parker, who mostly helps with technical matters around the studio, and while I often do my own orchestrations I also work regularly with Sonny Kompanek, from whom I've learned a great deal. Basically, though, I try to work alone as much as I can. You may of course send me your resume but please understand that you probably won't get a response.
Will you listen to my music or lyrics?
I don't have as much time as I'd like for listening. When I do, I try to attack the backlog of music I've bought over the years but never heard.
As a general rule it is not all right to send music to a songwriter or composer unless they have asked. This saves us from being sued later by people who claim we've stolen their ideas.
For better or worse, this is one reason there are so many layers of "middle-people" like agents, producers, and guilds. They register the passing of ideas and create a paper trail so that later disagreements can be adjudicated. I know this sounds like a ridiculous headache and one must wonder how anything heartfelt or imaginative can result from it. Believe me, it's a challenge.
If you have a song or lyrics that you think are perfect for a film, please contact a producer or music supervisor - not me. I am not allowed to listen to any unsolicited material.
Can I get sheet music?
Can I get your autograph?
I want an audience for my work but I am a very private person myself. I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of autographs (or signed scores, or signed photos, etc.). I appreciate appreciation of my work. I don't appreciate appreciation of me personally.