Composing some Thoughts on Film Music

Sundance Film Festival Composers Panel

Someone once said, “Trying to discuss music is like trying to dance about architecture.” Or maybe it was “Talking about music…,” or perhaps “Writing about music…”

As for who said it, there’s some debate about that. Lili Haydn, who composed the music to OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY, attributed the quote to Steve Martin during a panel this morning on “Music and Film: The Creative Process.”

In any case, the 21-person (!) panel did its best to discuss music without appearing to dance about architecture (which, come to think of it, exists). During the first hour—before I bolted for a panel at New Frontier—the discussion focused mainly on the interaction between composers and directors.

For starters, is it important that the two get along? Some said yes, others no. George S. Clinton, who kicked off the panel by stomping his foot to the tune of “We Will Rock You,” said it’s “preferable” but “not necessary as long as you have that mutual respect.”

Regardless, it can be a tense relationship due to time constraints. The film’s score is usually one of the last—if not the last—step in the making of a film, which often has limited funds at that stage. For instance, the two composers for WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, Marco D’Ambrosio and Ben Decter, were brought in just six weeks ago by director Ondi Timoner. (What’s more, the two men had never worked together before.)

“Composers are always dealing with directors who are in deep psychological distress,” said CHILDREN OF INVENTION composer T. Griffin, prompting laughter from the panel and audience.

As for how directors and composers collaborate, given their respective expertise, Clinton said it’s the composer’s—not the director’s—job to figure out what music suits a particular scene, “So I get the director to talk to me in dramatic terms.” Christopher Lennertz, the composer for ADAM, continued that thought: “We want to hear words like ‘lonely.’ We want to hear words like ‘overwhelming.’ It’s much more helpful than a word like ‘oboe.’”

The Sundance Institute has run a film music lab for 10 years now, hiring composers like Clinton as advisors. “You don’t have the restrictions of people standing over your shoulder, telling you what to do,” he said about the lab. SIDEWAYS composer Rolfe Kent, also an advisor, had a different take. “It’s hell,” he said, joking (I think). “I come away every time thinking, ‘Fuck, I’ve got all of these ideas and I’m out of a job.’”