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Score reading in Studio City – Getting ‘under the hood’

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Friday morning session with Ron Jones.

The cabaret room of Vitello’s in Studio City (the same suburb where Mack Sennett built his film lot in 1927; where The Brady Bunch lived in the early 1970s) is not the sort of place you’d expect to find composer activity on a Friday morning. But once a month, of a Friday, 50+ LA composers meet there as members of the Academy of Scoring Arts.

The morning comprises not only breakfast but Adventures In Listening, an hour’s critiquing of each other’s anonymously-submitted demo-CDs, followed by The Ravel Study Group – an hour-long, bar-by-bar, stave-by-stave study of orchestral scores. The last hour is always a guest.  On the mornings I’ve been there, the guests have included Mike Lang with his trio, Tyler Bates who co-wrote the theme for Californication, Jonathan Wilson (maker of guitarviols), Emmy-winner Richard Bellis (who won for his theme to Stephen King’s It) and Eddie Karam (who worked with John Williams on the orchestration of Harry Potter films after reconstructing the lost scores of Busby Berkeley musicals for Williams and the Boston Pops at a week’s notice).

The Academy of Scoring Arts is a growing operation. There are chapters in Seattle, Toronto, Portland (OR), San Diego, New York City and, soon, Chicago. And the LA-based Academy has also begun hosting ‘happy hours’ for film, music and media professionals and offers conductor masterclasses and copyright seminars. I went along to a Friday morning session after hearing that this group was aiming to maintain Hollywood’s high standards in musicianship, something I’ve been interested to find out more about since I arrived in LA a year ago.

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Dara Taylor studies Star Wars on her tablet.

Some of the critiquing in the first hour is quite vigorous. ‘If you know the producer reads Emily Dickinson, sure’, says convenor Ron Jones of one particularly gentle passage of music. ‘But most producers are AAARRGGGHHH. They drink too much coffee. They meet you in Starbucks. Their eyes are like [he mimes something prised open by toothpicks.]’  ‘Be careful of too much,’ he later exhorts. ‘Whatever plays, changes the equation….If you’ve been using a lot of timpani, maybe change it to Gran Cassa…’

But the musicians comprising the Academy of Scoring Arts are not aspirants. They’re working composers and sound engineers – credited and uncredited film, TV and video game composers,  underscorers, jingle writers, the folk who write the music for trailers (yes, there are such people), staff composers, orchestrators, the people who sometimes have to make several pages of sketches sound terrific overnight ‘in time for a 10 o’clock downbeat’. In fact, the morning is mostly about orchestrating: how to use the orchestra in the most telling fashion in terms of the story to the highest level of musical excellence to the greatest satisfaction of the players – to deadline! At the moment they’re studying Star Wars. They get through about 12 bars per session.

‘This is why you need to study counterpoint’ says convenor Ron Jones, pointing to a passage in Williams’ score and explaining why a composer needs to give every player a line. ‘You don’t just stack stuff’. Jones, who writes the music for the 75-piece orchestra that plays under the cartoon series, The Family Guy, set up the Academy back in 2011 because even composers in LA feel they need to keep honing their skills. ‘Everyone in this town is great,’ he says, ‘so if you’re going to make a dent, you have to be sharper….plus you want to connect with people. If you tried to ring everyone in this room to have lunch, you’d kill yourself.’ Del Engen, vice president of the organisation, says another aim is to start getting directors and producers thinking more about the music in their films, and that’s the reason for a monthly industry networking ‘happy hour’ recently launched at Busby’s on Wilshire Boulevard.

I asked Mark Smythe (a New Zealand-born composer and former Melbourne resident) why he takes part. He’s recently signed on to write the music for Chris Sun’s ‘Aussie Horror’ Charlie’s Farm. Isn’t he busy enough as it is? ‘Because I would not be so arrogant as to think I had nothing more to learn,’ he says. He also says he loves the quotes. And Jones is full of them: ‘Don’t forget listener reaction is also a “score”.’ Or, ‘Doubling doesn’t make it bigger…. when you double everything all the time, you cancel things. You cause problems. But when you see it’s just a clarinet with the strings, all of a sudden it opens up. That’s Mozartean. Mozart was on a whole other plateau.’

Dara Taylor arrived in Los Angeles from Brooklyn, NY about five months ago and has come to every meeting since. Why? ‘We all know who the “great” composers are.’ she says. ‘But with that knowledge we can either quietly stew in jealousy or get under the hood and find real, applicable reasons WHY they’re great. I personally love being able to look at how John Williams approached a certain flute motif and then find a way to incorporate that technique in my own work. It expands my orchestration palette beyond what I learned in school.’

The thing that strikes me about the Academy of Scoring Arts is they’re studying the repertoire greats. ‘I’m studying Ockeghem because I read that Stravinsky was studying it when he wrote his late masterpieces,’ says Jones. ‘My brother,’ says Don Williams, percussionist brother of the composer of Star Wars, ‘rang me up the other night. He says, “I’m looking at the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th”. He’s always going back to the originals.’

The score study part of the morning is called the Ravel Study Group after the first score they studied: Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. I’ve come too late to participate in the two and a half years they spent on The Rite of Spring (whose composer lived almost directly south across the Hollywood Hills from here). Next up, they’re thinking of Respighi’s Pines of Rome. But if it took the group two and a half years to get through Rite of Spring and they’re only at bar 182 of Star Wars after several months, Pines of Rome might be a ways off. Of course, it doesn’t matter. The gems they pick out of a morning’s 3-minute demos or 12 bars of orchestral score intensify each participant’s own awareness of musical texture.

As I walk out onto Tujunga Avenue’s restaurant strip busy with lunchtime customers, I muse on the fact that in this capital of media entertainment there are so many composers concerning themselves with orchestral writing (and that includes emulating the nuances of human performance if they’ve only got enough budget for a Midi). I’ll probably never watch a trailer or ad or cartoon again without listening more intently to the use of orchestra as well. Of course, Beethoven didn’t have modern media, but Stravinsky’s favourite TV show was Daktari. He’d possibly be happy that his influence was spreading so far.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2014

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Studio City, where the academy meets.