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Film & Video Magazine: Interview with Mark Snow

Film & Video Magazine
Interview with Mark Snow
Ed Eberle

I began formal piano lessons at 13, with an instructor in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I was pretty good and became even more interested in music. But I wanted to play an instrument that was more portable than a piano, the tuba or a drum kit. For some reason, I chose the oboe and stuck with it through the New York High School of Music & Arts, and later through four years at Julliard. At Julliard, I became fascinated by composers. I studied scores and listened to music constantly — but still figured the future would lead me to an oboe seat in a traditional orchestra. The music scene in New York was on fire at the time. My friend and fellow composer Michael Kamen and I started a band called The New York Rock ‘n’ Roll Ensemble. We played a combination of classical music and rock, and we managed to become kind of popular for a while.

The band experience exposed me to the commercial side of music. After Julliard, I knew about classical music, recording techniques and then added this commercial rock side. I figured the place where those interests might come together would be Hollywood. When I started, television music was not thought of as a very high calling. But still to get into the business, you had to be a bit eclectic. Music schools didn’t teach film or TV scoring. You had to come from a different musical place before you landed in a spot in the industry.

John Williams for instance, was a great jazz pianist, and Lalo Schifrin was also a great jazz player. My background was based on classics, rock and in the avant-garde scene. I headed west, where, through my wife’s sister, actress Tyne Daly, I met with Aaron Spelling Productions and started writing music for The Rookies TV show. From there I moved on to other shows, MOWs and miniseries.

Before long, innovative electronic music-making technologies like the Synclavier and other devices offered a whole new pallet for composers to work with. Versatile electronic tools seemed custom made for a new generation of composers who were anxious to explore inventive ways of scoring music for pictures.

Suddenly, we could combine all sorts of sounds and music in combinations that no one had ever heard. The idea of the professional home studio also began to take root around this same time (1985-86). Although I was a traditional composer, I knew that electronics would break the game wide open. Along with the creative comfort zone the home studio offered, I felt the potential would be unlimited.

Some composers have a technical genius with orchestras; others work better electronically. I’m very confident in the way I work and I like to think I bring a bit of both to the table. When I’m working on a score, the first moment I put my finger down on the keyboard, I’m beginning an abstract process that somehow leads me to another sound and another note.

Today’s music composition is very much about mixing live and electronic tracks. Incorporating just one live track or instrument makes a profound difference in an electronic score. That sound is exemplified by the theme for the X-Files, a score that combines a distinctive sound design, along with live and electronic instrumentation, to create a musical texture that helps define the show. I love the sound of live instruments, but the weave is something that really excites me.

How you compose music for film and television depends very much on your verbal skills and descriptive feedback from producers and directors. Some producers describe their musical idea as “fast but slow,” the director might say he wants to hear music that’s “blue with a hint of green.” Now, no one really knows what those terms mean. That’s a big part of my job; interpreting the search for a project’s musical voice. That’s fun, and when you get it right, everyone generally agrees “that’s it!” — no matter how unusual or colorful their different descriptions.

I think it’s a very interesting time to write music. Even now, after 25 years in the business, my choices in musical directions are greater than ever. At this point I can draw on all my influences and hopefully create music with a traditionally rooted sense of imagination, an eclectic personality, an honest simplicity and maybe, even a signature people can identify. I wrote four different scores for The X-Files theme before the familiar whistle opening. If I could find another set of opening notes like that, I’d be a happy composer for another 25 years.

Source: Ed Eberle; Knowledge Industry Publications [www.filmandvideomagazine.com/Htm/2000/9_00/departments/visions.htm], 2000

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