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Commencing a Score



“I'm the first somewhat objective audience, and I lean heavily on that asset.”
--  Dave Grusin


In Dave Grusin's judgment, “scores succeed because they are functionally helping the movie.” That natural feeling for the mixing of music and drama come into play heavily at the initial stages of the scoring process. “My own experience is that my first impressions of what a film needs generally hold up,” he emphasizes.

“In a way the composer is the film's very first audience. He sees it as a nearly finished product, and he's usually the first person to do so who is not also intimately involved in the making of the film. He finds, “the best situation for me is to see the cut of the film the first time without other people around.”  In this way, without the input of those who have been creatively involved with the film, the composer may see it with a detachment akin to that of cinema-goers.

If lucky, he would get an early peek at the rough cut so that he could consider the thematic material of the film.  “What usually happens is that I get to see it early on in the editing stage, before they actually give it up and turn it over.”  When the product is fairly close to its ultimate timing, it will be presented to the composer, and he would have an average of four to six weeks to actually do the writing.  (However, with each passing year, the pressure on scorers has been increasingly racheted up, meaning that less and less time is left for this process.)

That “thinking time” in between the propitious early viewing and the movie finally being handed to him could vary from a number of weeks to a number of months. depending on how long the editing process takes.

Ideally, Dave Grusin's preference would be to enrich the thinking time with images.  “What I like to do, way before' they're ready, is just get whatever they have in whatever rough form and get it on a cassette so I can start looking at it in terms of placement, where we're going to play.  The lengths of those times® will all change, but maybe the concept won't be so foreign by the time I get a finished cut.”

Dave Grusin charts his journey  through a score as beginning with the desire to get the commission for a particular film, and says a success is inevitably followed by a period of panic.  “You go home and you hope you come up with something that will work, not only for the picture, but will work for you as a musician.” With characteristic wit, he adds, “when something happens at home alone, and I like it, then I get very nervous because I know somebody else has already written it!”

He finds the practice of composing an esoteric one, and claims that he doesn't understand the mental procedures which give birth to a melody, or where it comes from.  In any case, he notes that, “the problems are always the same, but the solutions can be as varied as you can make them, and that's the interesting thing about doing this kind of work.”

But essentially, it is a matter of instincts and impulses.  While the addition of music to a particular scene may be fully obvious or a specific wish of the director, in many cases, it is the composer's knowledge and understanding of how music can serve the needs of a film which inspire a cue.

This sixth sense, born of experience and innate gift will often produce solutions for a director's problems before he knows he has them.

That's where the matter of insight comes in.  As Dave Grusin explains, “if even the director says “I don't want any music here,” sometimes I feel we might as well try something, even if we abandon it later.”  For this reason, sometimes `speculation cues' may be written, which as often as not, end up being incorporated later into the score.

But the decision about where to place music in a motion picture is generally a communal one, involving producer, director, scorer and sometimes, as many others who may force an opinion, and involves protracted discussion amongst these principals.  

Referring to such conferences about cues, the composer elucidates, “you talk about them in terms of your own response.”  This means grasping the director's concept of his film, and having the wherewithal to support it.  “You know what he's looking for, and you try to accomplish it in some musical way,” he adds.  

But a director's ideas might not just revolve around artistic enhancement, but ways that the score might rescue a film - and this doesn't necessarily mean placing distracting music over a bad scene.  Dave Grusin notes, “frequently, there's awkward cutting and you need to do something to take attention away from something that isn't technically working quite right with the film.”  A director may even make a specific appeal. “Often they say, 'look, this didn't quite come out the way I wanted it to, but I need people to feel this. Can music help enhance that?' And that's one of the jobs of music.”



Go to
Psychology of Film Music



Photo Credit:

1 - Ron Slenzak
2 - Gary Gross
3 - Chuck Stewart