I recently sat down with TAXI’s Michael Laskow to be grilled on Songwriting and the Music Business. Here is my interview (reposted from Ustream).
Tag Archives | Interviews
Danny Elfman has been referred to as “Hollywood’s hottest film composer.” Working primarily with director Tim Burton, Elfman has scored the soundtrack to Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride, among others. He is perhaps most well known for composing the theme to The Simpsons. Continue Reading →
Alan Silvestri is an Academy Award nominated film score composer. He is best known for his numerous collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis, having scored Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future trilogy, Contact, Cast Away, Romancing the Stone, and The Polar Express. Aside from his collaborations with Zemeckis, Silvestri is known for his work in the films Predator and Predator 2.
I interviewed film composer Alan Silvestri for the LASS Musepaper in March 1991. It turned out to be one of the best for Alan’s wonderful ability to articulate his process in scoring films.
JB: Let’s talk about the physical process of scoring a film.
AS: This is an animation film and they very often have peculiar problems because of their very nature. They’re kind of like a Polaroid picture. The process starts and the image of the film slowly starts to appear over time. It takes a long time to start to see what that is. When I did Roger Rabbit, I think they were getting 12 feet of film a week. Unlike shooting a day of film and then watching dailies the next day. The animation is ever so slightly different because of its nature.
JB: So at what point do they bring you into the process?
AS: I’ve always felt that the film makers who a larger perspective, a larger view, don’t seem to hesitate getting a composer involved very early on. I know with Bob Zemeckis, he gets me involved before he even goes to shoot. I see a script I hear about. He tells me the story at dinner before he’s ready to go. I’m in constant touch with the project while he’s shooting, I’ll spend some time on the set, I’ll see the first assembly of the film, I’ll see every screening from there on. That’s really the most effective way, and I think because it’s about assisting the director in its most ideal sense. I think the job is to assist the director in achieving a vision of the film. And in order to be more effective at that, you can’t have too much communication or interaction with the filmmaker. I’ve been in every kind of situation. I’ve been in that kind of total immersion with Bob and I’ve been in situations where I’ll have one meeting with the director and then that’s it! And not even see the person on the scoring stage.
JB: And not talk to him?
AS: I even had a situation where the director didn’t even spot the film with me. I spotted it with the editor alone. It’s a tremendous opportunity lost because if you’re a director, you’re directing everything. The music is such an important and such a potentially tremendous tool for a filmmaker to achieve his overall impression of what it is he or she is trying to say. If they do not take advantage of it, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s a tool that’s left on the table somewhere. So they’re all those ranges. Ideally, it’s never too soon to get involved.
JB: When you get involved in a project like that, do you actually start coming up with themes?
AS: Not necessarily for me. For instance going to the set where there’s some activity, I think it helps to see anything that will begin to give you some images. I also think that you can be infected by the energy of the project, which is good. To start to feel the enthusiasm and to start to see the excitement and feel the excitement…that starts to evoke things. Even though you might not sit down at that point and start writing out a theme, you’ve been exposed. So it’s in there working and it’s what I find when I’m actually into the writing of the score. I may be sitting at the table for “x” number of hours a day, but I’m not working on that film until it’s over. Wherever I am, it’s active somehow. So that exposure, even though you might not go back and start writing the theme, I still know that I’m banking hours of input that will be there working on their own. So when it comes to be time to do something, it’s already had a kind of organic life that precedes what I’m about to do. So I’m not just starting to write something. It’s in there working. It’s gestating in a sense.
JB: You just piled up the images and reference points…
AS: That’s right. It’s an exposure. And if you’re exposed early, it has a maturity factor. So that when it comes time to say something, you haven’t just heard about the issue for the first time. You’ve been living with it, in some sense. You’ve gone through some stages of a creative cycle even though you haven’t actually sat down to write something. You’ve had thoughts about it and you’ve gotten over thoughts about it. So you’re not taking only your first impressions. First impressions are extremely important because you’re having some real ongoing contact which is valuable.
JB: When you read a script, initially that has to tell you about the setting and the time of the film in terms of what kinds of musical styles would be appropriate.
AS: Sometimes I’ve found myself in the position where I’ve read a script and been asked to have a music meeting to talk about music in a specific way that I feel is unwarranted for where we are. If you take a script, if not all scripts, and hand them to 10 different directors, you will be beyond amazed at the 10 different movies you’re going to see. And the score is the same thing. So I think there is a tremendous amount of latitude left in the script and intentionally left in the script. And that’s what a script it. It is a blueprint for making a film. It is not a finished building. It allows for a tremendous amount of creativity and input by the builder.
JB: So it’s possible that if you got started too early on something, you could be all wrong by the time the movie’s finished.
AS: Absolutely. Things happen and there’s nothing like seeing the images, which you cannot really get from going to a set and watching them shoot a scene. It’s very difference seeing the film project than it is to see actors on a soundstage or out on location shooting a scene. There’s no indication of other elements that occur when things are put together. You might see one shot or two shots in what will ultimately be a long scene and really not get what the scene is about from those shots until you see the scene put together. So I think there’s no real reason to be too hasty about that. Of course, if you have this news flash, bolt of lightning reaction to something you see, there’s nothing wrong with going back and writing something down that you feel captures the essence of what you see, because you may be absolutely dead-on with that. So once again, there’s no rules.
JB: What is the process of turning an emotional feeling into music? What are the parameters of that? That’s kind of a mysterious place.
AS: It is. The closest I can get to speaking about how it feels and how it is for me is that in a sense, because of the nature of what my position in the film process is, I’m being asked to converse with the film on this emotional, psychological, physical level. And I’m asked to make my comments with notes. So here’s where the mystery begins. You will begin to have things to say. I’ll watch a scene, I’ll have something to say, right or wrong, about what I’m watching and I will then proceed to sit down and say it. And it’s interesting. I’m rarely at a loss for something to say in a conversation and I think that would be true for most people. The same thing applies to working with a piece of film and writing. I don’t experience what I’ve heard as writer’s block, the way that I’ve heard it spoken. I experience greater and lesser difficulty in expressing the thought or the feeling in conversation with the film, in terms of I haven’t found the notes yet that say it for me. If that’s what being called writer’s block, then I can understand that. But it’s not just about music. When people say they don’t have anything to say, I don’t get that. As I said, I know very few people who run out of things to say in a conversation. We have comments when we see something.
JB: But one side of the dialogue is already provided for you when you have a film. What some people get into is that they’re not stimulated by anything around them.
AS: That’s very dangerous, because it immediately indicates you don’t know what your mission is. You don’t know why you’re there, you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. Forget about having a conversation with someone. You don’t know why you’re in the room. I think that’s a real fundamental difficulty for people in our place in the film process. And it’s so simple, because there you are, you’ve just said it.
JB: You have to have access to a musical vocabulary that allows you to make those translations.
AS: That is the whole craft aspect, the experience aspect of being a composer/musician. However, as I think most of us have discerned in various experiences in our lives, we can hear something eloquently said with tremendous command of the language, with no heart, with no impact, with nothing of interest in it. Sheer technique. And then we can hear an incredibly powerful thought, more clumsily expressed, and be impressed and impacted by it. They have to be separated and of course the ultimate is have fine ideas and find means of expression. And then you have a Mozart, you know, where the two come together. And there are probably examples all throughout the musical history of this planet where you can find the weighting of the balance between fine thought and fine technique and how you may hear some person’s music. And the impression of an incredibly facile technician not really saying too much and then someone who does not have the gift of technique of so-and-so and yet, this composer speaks about something that has a weight and a depth to it.
JB: That is certainly true with you all the time with songs and songwriters. There are people who have a great command of the craft and you admire that without it’s speaking to you. And sometimes you don’t see the craft. You’re more responding to the emotion and the heart.
AS: When they come together, you have a Mozart and a Shakespeare in literature.
JB: And you had great technicians at the time that we don’t know about.
AS: They didn’t capture the power of the thought. So on every level, that applies to every aspect of film. It applies to the music, its applies to the filmmaker. There are filmmakers who are wonderful technicians, but they don’t somehow capture a certain depth. Then you’ll see a filmmaker with less technique maybe, who, with very simple means, can make a tremendously strong impression. So I think we’re always searching for the finest thought we can bring forth from ourselves as eloquently said as we are able. That’s really what we’re ideally doing every time out of the box.
JB: Do you think it’s possible for the technology to get in the way?
AS: I think anyone who blames the tool for bad work is looking in the wrong direction. Ultimately the only thing one can say is that the tool was so seductive that it sent this artist down the road to ruin. I don’t buy it, because the tool is the tool is the tool. And what could someone be saying that would be so weak as to allow the tool to become the master of the process.
JB: I’ve heard a couple of writer/producers say that they had to get past the place that they were so seduced by the technology that they would spend all their time getting a drum sound. They said that they forgot they were writing a song and it really should have been the other way around.
AS: The whole computer consciousness, as I experience it, is really one that’s very playful. And I think that’s great. I think you need to play with the technology just for the sake of playing with it. You need to bang the hammer this way and that way. That’s all preparation for using this tool to its maximum. It can’t be centered around the tool. It’s not good enough to negate the tool as a means of focusing on what it is I’m trying to say. That’s excluding and non-creative. It has to do with starting at the beginning. “What am I doing?” That’s the question that has to be asked. Then the process will have an order to it. And you won’t go and be side-tracked. But then, there are times where you should just shurly be playing with the technology, if that’s where your interest is. You should spend some time getting a great drum sound. Maybe not while you’re telling yourself that you’re writing a song. Do that as another activity rather than trying to confuse the issue. And it’s confused when we’ve lost what we’re trying to do here.
JB: Have you found that there is any or less use of live orchestras?
AS: That’s a complicated question. I think there are relatively more ideal and less ideal conditions in film scoring. The more ideal has to do with having the financial means in the project to do what you feel is best for the film. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you do something on a grand scale, but it does mean that if that was what was best for the film, you would be able to. There are situations where the financial picture is very restricted and that becomes a less ideal condition to work in. However, at that point, the mission is still to achieve the maximum amount of effectiveness within the constraint. At that point often the electronic, synthesized devices can help deliver more bang for the buck. And at that point it becomes a consideration on a financial basis. So I think it’s always complicated.
I do not see electronic devices as having replaced an orchestra. I don’t experience that, I don’t see that and I don’t think it exists. I also don’t think that in any way it is devaluing the whole electronic, synthesized world. I think it’s unfair to equate the two and it’s wrong thinking to try to place synthesizers and live musicians at opposite ends of a stick. It’s two sticks and the electronic world has developed incredibly wonderful possibilities. One thing that it has done which is really amazing and wonderful is that it is giving people who are starting out a tremendous possibility to hear their music played and put together, and that’s something that I would have wished had been around when I was younger. For a relatively small investment, a songwriter and film composer can really write and hear his material in a way that’s never before been possible. Experience is ultimately what all of this is about.
JB: You don’t have to get together a big orchestra to hear whether it really work or not.
AS: You can certainly simulate almost any kind of orchestral music enough to derive some perspective and some real input as to what it is you’re doing. And I think that’s spectacular as a tool for the craft of writing.
JB: It’s certainly been a great training ground for writer/producers to start by doing their own demos and have all the time they need to do it.
AS: Without having a clock ticking over their head. So aside from all the wonderful coloristic contributions that it’s made to working in the field, what it’s done for the educational aspects of writing music is spectacular.
JB: Let’s talk about dealing with directors and that communication process. Have you ever found it difficult to translate what someone’s saying they want into understanding what they want as opposed to their limited ability to convey that?
AS: You have to always jump off the cliff at some point. That is never very easy. You may, over time, develop a tremendous level of confidence where you know that when you do jump off the cliff, you’d made a good jump. You may not have jumped into the same spot that was hoped for, but no one can say it was not a good jump. And that’s about as good as it gets. On the down side, no matter how specifically and accurately you talk about music, there always arrives the moment of truth and I think you have to really trust yourself as far as feeling you have gathered as much input as you possibly could. And then it has to be yours. If you chase someone’s concept without having made your own peace with it and found your own way into it, you’re making a horrible mistake for a lot of reasons. One is you will not be able to converse from some other point of view that is not your own. And the aftermath of that is that you cannot morally justify having done that and by being in a position where you cannot morally justify what you’ve written, what happens is that you lose all the power of the statement because it won’t inherently carry anything.
So you need to hear as much, you need to be as open as possible to understand the movie, you need to understand the scene as best you can. You need to be free to talk about it and ask questions. You need to be free to be confused and find out. Very often what you’ll find when you become a little more confident is that when you’re confused, most often it’s beaches it is confusing. And you don’t save yourself anything by walking out of the room being confused and thinking, oh well, I’ll this then in this scene and we’ll see. Because if you’re confused, you’re going to bring in something confused to something that’s confused already. Very often, a director is asking you to shed some light on a problem.
I find that over and over again when I’m sitting in a spotting session or assembly with a good director, who’s interested in his film, I find that very often they are looking for the music person’s impression of things because things will be a red flag for the composer that might not be to other people. An example is you’re in the middle of this very active chase scene. Instinctively things will come into your mind as you’re watching it. And all of a sudden for two seconds there’s a cutaway to a room somewhere. Now I’m not talking about an instance where stylistically you have something very active and then we cut to stillness. This is just this thing out of nowhere. And then you’re right back into this other material that you had just come from. Sometimes, even though this is a very course description, you’ll think, “what in the hell would I do there?” What would I do? This thing is going to need a lot of pastes. It’s going to have to be back in full force. I don’t get that. On many occasions that kind of thing has arisen. And I’ve said something about it and the next time I see the film, the cut is gone.
So that’s the greatest part of the collaborative side of the film. And that’s something that is developing. It’s taking time for filmmakers to realize that they do not have to be musicians, they do not have to be composers. They don’t have to have a musical vocabulary to be effective. What they need to do, as the composer needs to do, is to know what they’re doing in the room. They need to understand that first of all, the film needs to be expressing 98% of what it’s about to the composer. And if it’s not, there’s a problem. The other 2% is things where the director wants to weigh a scene a certain way because he or she has an image of the overall film that the composer won’t or shouldn’t have in excess of the director at least. Then there’s a real finesse possible to weigh scenes, to weigh moods to be creative with the composer. And the composer needs to hear about those intentions even though he’s seeing the image on the screen because, like the script is the blueprint for the film, the rough cut or the film with no sound and no loops and no music is an unfinished stage of what will ultimately be the final film. There’s still a lot of room for things to be shaded. More people are starting to be comfortable with that. Film music is, by many people, known for the power that it can contribute. The film director wants and needs that.
JB: What do you think it takes these days for someone to start out in film music? What kind of tools should they have?
AS: I would say ideally, you should never stop working on the techniques and crafts of your art, no matter what it is. So if one finds oneself settling for an existing level of proficiency, then that’s what that is. But certainly being concerned about what’s gone before is of no use and you can spend all the time you want on craft and still have nothing to say. Of course, having something to say, they can’t be separated. That’s where the music is, where they come together. So for someone starting out, I think there are a lot of things that are important. Constantly working on the craft from wherever one is. And that can be at a very elementary stage or a very advanced stage.
I think it’s important for anyone involved in film to be exposed to literature from the point of view of stories. What is a story? How do they work? How do they come together? How am I touched by a story? Because, for me, that’s work on the thought side and the emotional side. It’s work in the direction of having something to say and having one’s inner world expand so that there is more depth of things to say. That’s got to coincide with working on techniques so that one is able to say more and have greater facility for expressing it. In terms of getting into the film business, it’s one of those things where probably every case is completely different.
Certainly with the technology as it stands, anyone can go out and buy a video cassette and score that movie in their home and begin to get some feedback. Anyone can write the main title song to any movie and put it over the images or write the score or write a scene from any movie and see it with the film. They might not hear the dialogue and all, but they can see it with the images and you have to practice. Something will come from that, not everything, but it’s certainly a big help.
JB: It would probably be an interesting thing to have like they have music minus one to have film minus music.
AS: That’s what was happening at Sundance. There were specific scenes taken from movies that have not been scored or movies that had been scored but they had rough footage of it. And everyone would get one scene from one movie and they would writer the music for it. They would all be different, but I mean really different. And it wasn’t like one was great and four were not. You could see three great versions of a scene. And so different. Directors now have the possibility of experimenting with some degree with temp dubs which was more of a necessity. They needed something there because they had to show their picture to the studio far in advance of having it scored and they don’t want to sit through 110 minutes of film with no music in it because it can be deadly, especially if it’s an action film.
So what happens is as soon as they get close to an assembly, most film companies hire a music editor to come and start constructing a temp dub. Plus they have their blind prints where they have to show the film well in advance to its being completed and scored to exhibitors. So it’s important that there be music. That then gives the filmmakers the chance to see their film with music. And of course they can use the greatest music that’s ever been written for film or whatever else because it’s all out there on records and CDs and tapes and literally there are just cuts from things or transferred off. You’ll watch a scene in your movie with the main title of Star Wars with this enormous orchestra and you’ll get to see something about how your film’s playing. Now the stage from there is very often a composer is brought in and he watches that. It’s not a bad thing if the filmmakers are completely aware of the fact that this is now a tool for them.
JB: They haven’t gotten married to this.
AS: Exactly. And sometimes they do and then that creates its own obvious problems. Once again, it comes back to the intelligence and focus of the people involved. It’s the same analogy as the musician who falls off the piano bench onto the floor in the middle of writing a song to start aligning some machine. It’s the same thing. If the film editor falls off the editing bench into the temp dub and forgets that it’s about keeping the focus, that this is a tool to indicate an aspect of the scene that you want to communicate to an audience and that that’s the point of view that has to be looked at for the composer. The smart ones know about that. I’ve sat during the temp dub with the director and the director realizes that he has now just made a compromise in his film by showing you the temp dub. The smart ones understand that. And the compromise is I have just removed this composer’s first impression of my film. And I have removed his unconditioned response to my movie. So what’s the upside? What do I get for it? Well, a smart one may show you the film first of all without any music and then show you his temp dub. Then he gets both.
JB: This gives you an idea of what kind of thing he wants.
AS: Exactly. But lets you see it first without the temp dub. The upside of the temp dub is that if it’s used as a tool for the filmmaker he now has maybe no musical training or vocabulary, but he has music to talk about. Now we’re both looking at a pillow. He says see, there’s some stripes in there that are real light. Is that mauve. I don’t like that. So you’re no longer talking about the technique. You’re talking about the impressions. So a director will look at a scene and say I like the pace of this music. I like the scope of this music. I hate this kind of chunky part that comes in here. I think it’s too disruptive. I like this flowing and that’s valuable.
When you arrive on the soundstage and you have a 100-piece orchestra out there, you’re going through about $35,000-$50,000 a day and any indication that you can get about anything in terms of the filmmaker’s wishes is valuable. And then within that, it doesn’t have to be an intrusion into one’s creativity. You are either involved in a collaborative art or you’re not. The moment you say yes to doing a film, you have just signed on to a ship of which you are not the captain. And that must never be forgotten. If you want to be the captain, then you stay in your room and write your music for yourself. You are there to collaborate and be part of the crew, albeit you’re asked to make this tremendously high-profile contribution. But you are not the last word. There is a captain of the ship ideally.
Of course, every film composer who’s been out there doing it for awhile has signed on to ships where once you get outside of land, the captain cuts his throat and jumps off the boat. There you all are adrift and no one knows where they want to go or why. Then it’s every man for himself and you have a picture that looks like the captain just jumped off the boat and killed himself. That’s pretty interesting how that works.
JB: The dub track is interesting because I know a couple of writers who got into the film because the song was on the temp track.
AS: All kinds of things like that happen. Certainly for anyone who’s beginning, the more they can be around and exposed, the better. You’re not going to get a chance scoring a film if you never leave your room. It doesn’t matter how much you write in there. The Sundance workshop, the BMI workshop, songwriter’s things where they can hear material and see what’s out there, what working and what’s not working. All exposure is worth something because people move through industries together.
JB: You score a college film for a young director who later turns out to be…
AS: Basil Poledouris and John Milius were in school together and that’s a relationship where a collaborative effort began and it goes on. Bob Zemeckis and I met at a turning point for both of us in our careers on Romancing the Stone and something was forged in that time for the both of us that has endured. Those kinds of relationships happen all around you. When you’re 20 years old and you do a student film and there’s some folks there working on this film…one’s a producer and one’s a writer, etc. And 10 or 15 years later, that one’s the president of Fox and this one here’s the head of one of the top agencies. That’s how it happens. All of those relationships that continue, you move as generations through the industry. That’s very important too.
JB: Did you do any kind of apprenticeship program with anybody?
AS: I’ve never orchestrated for anyone. I never wrote a note for a piece of film until a man handed me 12 cans and I had 9 days to write sixty minutes of music. I didn’t even know what a click track was the day I was handed the cans. I did not know what any of it was. It just turned through this flukey course of events that I was given a film to score, never having done it or even thought about doing it.
JB: Had they heard something you did?
AS: It’s one of the blessings and curses of the film industry, where an opening can be created. You can hear the argument that I’m so good and no one will listen to my music. That’s one of the curses because maybe you feel that level of intelligence en masse out there is not what you hope it would be to understand the contribution you have to make. However, there is an upside to what’s perceived to be a less than ideal level of intelligence which means that things will be allowed to happen that should not be allowed to happen like having a 20 year old guy who’s never written a note of music for a film be handing 12 cans and be asked to show in 9 days with a score. So that’s the upside of this thing.
JB: Like chaos theory.
AS: Exactly. The door is being shut because of this level of ignorance and on the other hand, I negate the fact that that may be the same force that will open the door. So there I was with this job and I remember I drove out to Simi Valley to buy the Knudsen book because I heard I needed that. I went down to Pickwick Books in Hollywood and I bought Earl Hagen’s book called Scoring For Films and I read the book in one night and listened to the records and listened to the examples as to how he put these techniques together. And the next day, literally, I was writing music for this film. So there it was. The technique is pretty doable in terms of the mechanics. Not musical techniques, but the mechanics of film are things that you can learn. You can learn what click tracks are, what time code is. The contribution the Grant Brothers have made with the oracle is beyond anything I can think of…what that has allowed in terms of facilitating the organization of music as it applies to music and the obligations of time.
JB: Is that the time code machine?
AS: No it doesn’t actually code it. What it does is allow you to take a piece of film and organize the music so that things will be where you want them to be when you want them to be there. So everything from generating click tracks which can be used as guide tracks to play to, to generating streamers which provide picture cues so that you can hook up to those. But it’s incredible the way they put it together and facilitated that whole nightmarish aspect. That is pure mechanics and it allows one to spend all one’s time on the writing of the music compared to how it used to be. There was a lot of fear for the music editor and composer. These guys have really made a great contribution.
If you’re a painter and you make a choice as to the medium you’re going to work in, after you’ve decided the subject, that wipes out tremendous numbers of possibilities. Same thing in music. The moment you begin, every time you make a choice, you cancel a tremendous number of other possibilities. So then, the creative process as I experience it becomes this kind of following along and I think when people get bogged down in trying to do too much too quickly and I’ve actually tried to short-circuit my process, what’s come to be my process.
When I see a scene and I’m actually going to begin to write, I work on incredibly sketchy pass. The mission, the goal, the aim of that particular stage of the process is to get a very, very overall view of the music. I find that if I try intentionally to be more specific than this threshold that I’ve come to discover for myself, it cuts the energy off and I’m stopped and then I have nothing, because then I’m not doing the task at hand. The task at hand is to develop the overall view. Once that’s there, then a tremendous number of possibilities have just been removed, a tremendous number of sandtraps have just been removed from the course. They’re not there anymore, I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Now I have this here and now within that what I’ve experienced is that it’s almost as thought a different part of my brain is called upon to do these different aspects of this.
It’s more difficult for me, always, to derive that first very vague version of the music. The first thing I work on is a four-line sketch. Sometimes I may only write one line, it’s just very vague. But that’s always the most taxing. That’s what I feel is the essential creative part of my job. Once that’s done, I feel that I can unplug that part of my brain and then I plug in another part that starts to elaborate and chisel and highlight and bring this into some kind of relief and make it happen. It is far less painful, for lack of a better word, than this original. And it stands to reason, in a sense that, the first process is something coming from nothing. There’s blank paper — there’s nothing there. I have to come forth. Once you come forth with something, it is no longer something from nothing. There is something there.
The very fact that it’s there now has all of its own life. It’s got things that it can do, it has things it can’t do. I mean if I’ve established key relationships, those are there, they will be adhered to. I don’t have to worry about all the other keys now — they’re gone. It’s just from here to here to here — whatever it is, harmonies, a melody — that becomes the law and it’s not every other melody that could be written I have to be taxing my brain with. That choice has been made. It’s done. Not that you won’t refine it and do things, but something exists now, so it’s a whole different energy to work on something that exists, I guess is what I’m saying, as it is to work on something that doesn’t exist.
JB: That really is the right brain – left brain process. In talking about songwriting, there are several parallels to that: is that there are people who are starters and there are people who are great finishers writing songs. Some people say, “I had this great idea, but what I do with it after this …” Other people who are more left brain oriented will see that as a problem to solve and will get excited trying to figure out how to make this work. There’s also the process, referred to as a “stream of consciousness” process to start with, that when you’re writing lyrics, it’s much easier to just sit down and write whatever comes to your head, write pages of stuff and get the idea down so that you’ve developed an idea and all the things that you can think of, before you start getting hung up in “does this rhyme?,” “is this meter right?” and do it line by line. Some people can do it that way — going line by line and building it that way, but it’s a different kind of process. Most people, I find, have better luck doing the process that you’re talking about where you get to your initial emotional “hit” where you’re being stimulated in some way where you can get that out in a real simple way and then go back, and then your critical facility takes over later and says, “well, this should maybe be changed a little here … ”
AS: It was so vivid to me — and this is not that long ago. I was working on a project where we were getting squeezed pretty bad for time and it was because of that that I thought I would try to short circuit what had come to be my process and I thought that just to save time I’ll go right to something that’s more detailed than normally and I spent one of the most horrid days writing than I had experienced in ten years. And I fell for it. That’s what was interesting. I was like a crazed person, you know, negative and couldn’t write and “I have no ideas” and kvetching and all, and it was not until the end of the day that I realized what I had done that I had confused the issue. I had forgotten the process and kind of didn’t have any respect for it. I thought that I could somehow willfully change it, but those pieces don’t go together. Before that experience, I would not have been able to articulate what we’ve both articulated in our own way today, but this was a first-hand experience of it. Of course, the idea to do it that way was abandoned and I got up the next morning and it came out all at once. The whole cue came out all at once, so it’s pretty remarkable. It’s difficult, probably, to communicate that and if you’re attempting that, I think it’s an incredibly worthwhile effort because even short of experience, I think people who have not come upon a kind of meshing with the creative process will certainly have come upon the effects of not being in step with it and the frustration. That will all be very recognizable.
JB: That’s what translates into writer’s blocks. That’s what behind some of that, that there is a process that is natural for you and you’ve ignored it, no matter what it is. There might be people who have a process just the opposite of yours but that’s natural for them and it works.
AS: And that’s what we need to find — how my organism derives and develops material. I think that’s very worthwhile because nothing can grow in that confused environment. It’s almost like the initial concepts are moving so quickly that they can’t exist in this heavier air of development. And so, if you have two different atmospheres, living environments, that both of these energies have to function in and you can’t expect one to exist in the wrong environment and so the job is to kind of do some gardening here.
JB: I always hate someone to come and say, “You know, I don’t think I’m doing this right,” as though there really is a right way to do it, “because I know somebody else who does it differently and I just can’t so maybe I’m just not happenin’.” And to destroy their confidence because they don’t operate the way somebody they admire operates and they think it has to be done that way.
AS: I had a piano teacher who used to call that “insipient leprosy.” And here’s where the story came from: I walked into his place and I had been doing some counterpoint exercises and of course, I didn’t do any of them this week. And I went in to see this guy and I had this meaningful pitch, because I’d really come to something, which is exactly what you’ve explained. I just don’t know if I really should be writing and I don’t know if I can really do this. There seem to be people [who do it better]…. and he listened very attentively while I poured my heart out to him about the difficulties of writing and he sat way back in his recliner, with his cigar, and said, “Yep! Insipient leprosy!” I was in the middle of this confession and he said that … and he explained, “Well, ya know, that’s kind of how it starts, and then you’re going to find like in a couple days your arm’s gonna drop off, your right arm. And then in a couple days, your left arm will drop off and then it will happen with your left leg and your right leg, and then that’s it.” I remember just being kind of riveted by the guy, it’s hard to communicate the emotional aspect of it, but if I had to look back on it, the adolescent attitude is not acceptable and it’s not what any of us wish for ourselves. The excuse-making process has got to be seen for what it is, by us personally, for something else to appear. This was an instance of pure shock value, the way this old timer shocked me into sitting there in my filth, in a sense, and having to take a look at it for what it was. When anyone can do that for us and assist us, I think that’s really what living is all about. We need to get some kind of view of our captivity and creativity, although it may rhyme with captivity, is really on the opposite end of the spectrum … almost not even in the same world. It’s a different world. That’s why we want to be more free and clear to let things happen.
Thom Bell is the beloved record producer behind much of the “Philadelphia soul” subgenre of music in the 1970s. While working for Atlantic Records, he produced artists such as Dionne Warwick, James Ingram, Johnny Mathis, Billy Paul and Elton John, and even teamed up, briefly, with the Stylistics. Continue Reading →
Diane Warren is one of the most successful and prolific songwriters to ever work in the music industry. She was the first songwriter in the history of Billboard to have seven hits, all by different artists, on the singles chart at the same time.
This interview was conducted by John Braheny for the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase Musepaper in April, 1987. Continue Reading →