Film Scores, Inspiration, and Whatnot

I’ve had some conversations this week about inspiration, and finding yourself in unfamiliar artistic waters, and it reminded me of something I’d written earlier this year, but never got a chance to share. Infectious Magazine wanted me to write a guest piece about film scoring, and instead I gave them a shaggy dog story about how an unconventional piece of music changed my musical path. They didn’t really go for it, so I gave them another piece they liked better.

But I liked the first draft, too, and I thought it was a nice look at how opening yourself up to things outside of your regular artistic focus can have wonderful repercussions. So here goes…

Without a doubt, the single piece of music that has had the most tangible impact on my life is Moussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and there’s a bright line between me seeing that performed for the first time and all of my film composition work. Many years ago, while in college, I was playing drums in a progressive metal band, and our cellist was in her campus orchestra. They did Pictures at an Exhibition, which I’d never heard, and my seat was right up front, in front of the double basses. I watched them for most of the performance, and, even though I’d seen orchestral music performed before, this was the first time for me that an orchestra stopped being a unified wall of music-making, and I was able to recognize the disparate parts, and begin to recognize how much or little the different sections played, and how these many pieces fit together.
I don’t know that I’d ever written a song at that point, and I’d only ever played drums — maybe I was just starting to pick up the guitar — so the idea of creating melodies was not something that I’d ever really entertained. But after that night in San Marcos, Texas, I downloaded a modular software synth and started exercising a totally new set of muscles.
I was also a filmmaker. A few months later, I was directing a short film with a big surrealism element, and I happened to find a harpsichord abandoned in a dark hallway (different story for a different day). I thought surrealism and harpsichords would go together just like melting clocks and barren trees, so I wrote a four-minute piece for solo harpsichord to go with the movie, and bam! I was a film composer.
Over the years since, I wrote quite a bit of (mostly) electronic music, trying to learn more about different voices, different textures, and just overall composition. Some of that music was specifically for film projects of my own or for friends’ projects, and some of it I just wrote and it later found its way into films. So with film composition as a sort of sideline hobby, I started paying more attention. Requiem for a Dream and Amelie came out about the same time, and both totally changed how I thought about film music. A year or so later, maybe, Turner Classic Movies hosted a Young Film Composers Competition, giving burgeoning composers the opportunity to score classic silent films. I watched everything I could about that, and learned a lot about traditional approaches to scoring — things like character leitmotifs. As I got more tuned-in to that kind of thing, I started thinking of film music as a way of communicating information, in addition to enhancing onscreen emotion. There’s a great example of the score actually telling a joke in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, when a little kid of dubious parentage walks into a room. And Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock is legendary; in the moment in Vertigo when James Stewart is at his most emotionally fraught, and the music is swelling, suddenly there’s somebody just raking their fingers across a harp. You’ve never heard anybody do that to a harp, and even if you don’t consciously realize it, your brain registers that we’re in a new, terrifying place in this person’s psyche.
I don’t know that I’m qualified to give anybody advice on film scoring (or, anything, really), but my own path has involved 1) knowing and meeting people making films, 2) consciously trying to evolve and try new things as someone who writes music, and 3) learning how to play more instruments…or at least learning enough to screw around on more instruments.
Over this past summer, I was asked to score a complete feature film for the first time, and I think we took a pretty unique approach to the idea of a film score. The director asked if he thought I could do a “rock and roll score” — not songs, but essentially a traditional film score played with loud-ass guitars, distorted bass, and booming drums. After years of playing drums in rock and metal bands, playing guitar in a couple rock bands, writing and recording some 30+ songs with my band Sci-Fi Romance, and whatever on-the-job training I got from working in the world of short films…well, I was sure as hell going to find out if I could.
And if you think about it, Pictures at an Exhibition is really a film score, even though it was written before there was such a thing as film. Modeste Moussorgsky attended an art gallery showing of works by a friend who had recently died. Afterward, Moussorgsky wrote a piece of music for each painting on display, and connected them all with a Promenade theme, which evolves and changes as you move through the temporal experience of the show. It’s putting music to picture. And maybe nobody’s ever done it any better.


Great Album Reviews: Pictures at an Exhibition (Moussorgsky/Ravel)

Album: Pictures at an Exhibition
Artist: Modeste Moussorgsky (composer), Maurice Ravel (arrangement)
Genre: Classical
Year: 1874/1922

Though originally written as a piano suite in 1874, way before anything like what we think of as an album existed, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this an album.  If you wanted to, you could even call it a concept album.  But whatever you call it, the fact remains that Modeste Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition changed my life.

There are two stories here — mine, and the music’s.

Here’s my story: In 2000, I was in college and playing in a kind of progressive metal band with my friend Robyn, a cellist who went to what was at the time Southwest Texas State University, where she was in the school orchestra.  They had a recital one night, so I went down to be supportive, with no expectations at all.  I sat in front of the cellos and double basses to watch a tiny orchestra, and they began playing Maurice Ravel’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition.

A few things happened to me during that performance. First, it made me want to write music. I already enjoyed classical music, and I’d produced a CD of piano music by the incomparable Ryan Dawe, but not being a trained musician, classical music always felt too dense for me to really understand in any way that transcended simple, ignorant enjoyment.

But as I watched the double basses playing Moussorgsky/Ravel in San Marcos, Texas, and I paid attention to just to their parts at first, the construction of the thing started to make sense to me.  I found myself suddenly conscious of how these different components breathed through the piece — BIG HORNS, no horns, soft strings, quiet horns, BIG EVERYTHING, just a trumpet, soft counterpoint on the basses, BELLS! — and how the introduction, re-introduction, and evolution of the “Promenade” theme linked everything together into what felt like a narrative.

Second, I *felt* something.  I’d wrapped myself in the melancholy of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and the frustrated rage of Mozart’s Requiem Mass before, but this was the first time I’d been taken on a deep, really shattering emotional journey by a piece of classical music.

I went home. I put a bunch of synths and stuff on my computer, and I started writing electronic music, ultimately calling the project Mission 13.  I was, you understand, exclusively a drummer up until this point.  No exaggeration, I don’t go to San Marcos that night, there is no Sci-Fi Romance today.

And here is the music’s story: Modeste Moussorgsky was a composer and pianist in 19th century Russia under the czars, and friends with the artist Viktor Hartmann.  Hartmann died suddenly in 1873, and after his death there was an exhibition put together of many of his paintings.  You see where this is going now.

Moussorgsky was shaken by Hartmann’s death. But inspired by that gallery showing of his lost friend’s work, he began a tribute, a composition that mimicked walking through the exhibition.  It begins with the Promenade, walking in. You spend time in front of different paintings, each its own small composition, and you walk between them, each time hearkening back to the Promenade, until finally you reach the last painting, and the last movement of the work, The Great Gate of Kiev.  All the while, the emotion builds so that ultimately there is a tremendous explosion of joy at the beauty before you, mixed with the sadness of the loss you’ve endured to get here. Here’s how it ends:

Listen: the work is so enthralling, that when Svatoslav Richter played it in Sofia, Bulgaria, to an audience of 1500 sick, coughing, sneezing people during a 1958 flu epidemic, there are passages so intense that the audience literally stops coughing.

A few years after I saw that first Pictures at an Exhibition performance, I took Robyn, my cellist friend and former bandmate, to Houston and we watched the Houston Symphony perform it. That entire Southwest Texas orchestra could’ve fit in just the horns section.  I cannot describe how loud, how immersive, how shattering it was. When the lights came up, neither of us could move.  Robyn finally said “I feel like I’m on drugs.”  I kinda did, too.  I felt exhilarated, and broken.

And I can offer no higher praise to the experience of a work of art.