Sounds counterintuitive, right? As composers, we’re supposed to tap into and heighten the emotional content of visual imagery. But both as an artist and as an interpreter of others’ direction and wishes, it’s vital that we identify and separate our own emotions from the mix when they’re a complicating factor, and instead use our powers of listening to hone in on what’s essential.
Sometimes–okay, often–there’s no clear path to follow. Some filmmakers are more adept than others at describing their goals for the score. It’s rare that I have a finished picture to write to; it’s much more often that an assemblage of footage–even stills at times. My hope is that this will evoke enough of the filmmaker’s vision to write convincingly to. Hopefully, I’m close enough to the mark that what I submit fits in terms of emotion–if not specifics–and even sparks a dialogue with the editor and/or director; in this best case, the edits begin to react to the music.
But reaching this point in the conversation is not always assured. My challenge at this point is to maintain a balance between the visceral reaction and flood of emotions the visuals conjure, versus the filmmaker’s intent and the score’s final role in the piece. What helps me the most at this stage are:
1. Listening, listening, listening. This applies not just to any reference tracks the filmmaker may have sent, but to everything they tell you about their vision for the project. Some people are capable of giving crystal-clear direction, while others can only describe vague feelings they have regarding the score. But emotional cues are included in everything we say, and it takes a special focus to catch these hints about a filmmaker’s intent, even then they have trouble describing it themselves. Hopefully, as musicians and composers, we already practice focused and intentional listening.
2. Refining, refining, refining. In the same vein, it’s sometimes tempting to “go big” and write complex, nuanced pieces from the get-go. (This is a particular problem when I write using virtual instruments; “Why shouldn’t I add a third string part?!?”) But I find it helpful to step back from a demo and assess whether or not it’s hitting the key emotional cues, and stripping away everything that fails to support this mission. There are times when I’m asked to write more lyrical, ambiguous and far-reaching pieces–and these are moments of pure joy for me. But remembering that the score is typically a background character, I often find myself removing the emotionally pleasing (but extraneous) nuances and shades that may distract from the core mission. It takes practice to step back form a piece of music you’ve written and assess it with clear eyes (ears!), but it’s a vital skill, both as a composer of highly focussed music and as an interpreter of others’ vision and direction.
3. Detaching, detaching, detaching. It’s natural that watching even rough footage generates an emotional response. After all, that’s why we’re composing in the first place, to detect (or elicit) a feeling that may be obvious, latent or even absent in images, and then writing music that heightens a particular emotional response. But it’s important to distinguish between the emotions you want the score to convey and your own emotional investment in a particular outcome. Even when you have a clear vision of the emotive potential of a score, it’s critical to step back and ask yourself whether you’re carrying out the direction, or you’re satisfying your own desire to write a compelling score. My training as a composer dictates that the score be a character in the project, sometimes a leading role but much more often a supporting player. I find it’s typically easier to add emotional depth and intensity than to remove it, so I err on the side of caution.
I hope these simple tips can serve as guideposts of a sort. There’s nothing particularly mysterious about them, just reminders of what should already be your Best Practices. I find that the further along this path I go and the more complex the tasks become, the more essential it is to loop back around to the simple basics of listening, refining, and detaching.