The Big Screen
While many of us dream of a career writing music for films, a select few are actually doing it. Lawrence UlIman talks to Gary Chang, a resident Hollywood scorewriter.
Once Hollywood represented the ultimate dream of aspiring actors and actresses, today it represents the dream of aspiring musicians wanting to make it big in film scores. Gary Chang has already made it big...
QUALIFICATIONS IN BRIEF: COMPOSER, arranger, computer musician and performer, with extensive experience in film/video underscoring. Skills include: computer music programming on the Synclavier, Fairlight CMI, and MIDI synthesisers; engineering in a 24-track studio; and operation of various SMPTE synchronisation equipment.
With qualifications like these, it should come as no surprise that Los Angeles-based film composer Gary Chang is a very busy man. His film credits include the scores to The Breakfast Club (for which he received a gold disc), Electric Dreams, Miami Blues, Dead Bang, Firewalker and 52 Pick-Up. Presently, he is working on Michael Caine's new movie A Shock to the System. As an arranger, session synth programmer and performer, he has recorded with Ute Lemper, Art Garfunkel, Robbie Robertson, Al Jarreau, Eddie Money, Kansas, The Motels, Supertramp... The list goes on.
Chang has used his considerable expertise with music technology to open many doors. Technology has moulded his compositional style and made it possible for him to effectively communicate difficult musical ideas to other musicians. And, of course, it has made it possible for him to achieve something that remains a dream for most composers - a successful career in the fast-paced and unforgiving world of Hollywood film making.
He first became involved with music technology in 1972 as an undergraduate composition student at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Like many budding academic composers in the early '70s, Chang's initial exposure to computer music was working with what he terms "the archetype of computer music programs" - the minicomputer-based and totally non-real time "Music5" system.
After completing his degree at Carnegie-Mellon, Chang moved to California to do graduate work with composer Morton Subotnick at the California Institute of the Arts (better known as CalArts). After the conservative atmosphere of Carnegie-Mellon, CalArts' relaxed attitude proved to be ideal.
"There was very little structure at the time (1977). It was good for me though, because I just lived, ate, and slept what I was hoping would be my business eventually, which is trying to do everything and make music in a situation where I had complete control of everything, like my teachers did."
The juxtaposition of various musical elements and styles is an important element of Chang's music. His initial exposure to this eclectic approach was through the jazz of the early '70s. He soon realised, however, that this technique was not limited to jazz.
"As a composer in graduate school, I had this fascination with what Miles Davis, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock were doing", he recalls. "Although they probably have a completely different description of what it was, I always sensed it being a different way of making musical feel by simply juxtaposing identifiable, yet opposite, elements."
At CalArts, Chang was exposed to compositions by Charles Ives and Elliot Carter, both of whom often employ juxtaposed themes, styles, rhythms, and other musical elements within a more "classical" context.
"This became kind of a gestalt for one of my main musical styles. I've gone back to a contemporary chamber music approach that combines elements of jazz, rock, minimalism, and 20th-century avant garde."
CHANG NOW SPENDS MOST OF HIS TIME AS a composer, which is what he likes to do best. But this was not always the case.
"When I got out of school, I was a closet-case computer musician. I didn't know what to do with my chops, and I wasn't a great keyboard player, but I had an established aesthetic and a writing direction for what I wanted to do with the technology. But the technology didn't exist at any level outside of the university at that time."
Getting a job at Fairlight as a product specialist turned out to be a case of being in the right place at the right time, and one thing soon led to another.
"As the Fairlight evolved into a more viable instrument for the industry, more people became interested in using it. I eventually started moonlighting with the Fairlight at the Village Recorder. One of the projects that I did was The King of Comedy, a Warner film. That was produced by Robbie Robertson, and led to a friendship with Robbie that still exists."
Word soon spread, and Chang found himself greatly in demand as an arranger, session player and programmer.
"One of the first projects I did was an entirely electronic score for a feature film Purple Hearts in 1983. After that, I started working with Pat Williams, because he had a Fairlight. I guess I'd say that was probably the most popular time for me as a session musician. I did a lot of sessions, programming the Fairlight and other synths. I got to work with Al Jarreau, Barbara Streisand, Supertramp, Kansas, the Motels, Martha Davis, America, Eddie Money..."
"I wanted to get back to being able to actually write music without having to relearn the technology every couple of years - I was looking for an instrument I could spend a long time at."
Even though things were going well for Chang as a session musician, he had never planned to make his living as a player and was not really happy in the role.
"I wanted to go back to what was comfortable for me - and frankly, walking around LA from studio to studio was very uncomfortable. I was used to fooling around with tape recorders in my parents' den, or sitting at CalArts in an electronic music studio. I'd rather be by myself behind closed doors, not watching the hundred dollar bills take wing and fly out the window."
In 1984, Chang worked for Giorgio Moroder and contributed music to several films including Electric Dreams and The Neverending Story. Then his film scoring career really took off.
"At that point, I met Keith Forsey, who was contracted to do the music for The Breakfast Club. Working with Keith on that project led to my first actual 'additional music by' credit."
At that time, Chang was still doing sessions, particularly with Robbie Robertson, but he did score a feature film called 3:15.
"The following year, I did 52 Pick Up and Firewalker. I slowly edged away from the session work, and took on more and more film work, until now I'm just doing features. This year I did Dead Bang for Warner Brothers and Miami Blues for Orion. As you can see, the bulk of my work has moved both towards and away from playing because, frankly, I can play my music a lot easier than I can play someone else's."
THE IDEA OF BEING ABLE TO COMPOSE and perform his own music with total control over every aspect has long been the driving force behind Chang's love-hate relationship with music technology. His efforts to find a music composition workstation (which you simply turn on and start making fully-produced music) led him to build up a large MIDI system. He has now pretty much abandoned this approach in favour of his current love, the NED Synclavier.
"When basic MIDI stuff came out, it really excited me, but at the same time it really depressed me. The stuff that I could afford was seriously limited - I think it's wonderful that things are affordable. But at the same time, it seems like it's created a whole bunch of non-essential information for us. In order to amass a system that's large and versatile enough to create complete music projects, you end up creating this interface nightmare of unpublished information, inter-manufacturer hidden secrets known only by consultants - whatever you want to call it."
The idea of a convenient yet versatile system is a dream of many electronic composers, and Chang is no exception.
"You should be able to go to a system and actually say, 'this is what I'm going to make music with', and not have to bring a ton of extra things to it. Certain companies have tried to create such a system, let's say like the Yamaha QX1/TX816 system. That is an alleged complete system with the addition of a DX7. Obviously, it's not really a complete system, or else everyone would just stop right there, and that would be the end of it. When I was working with the Fairlight, notes became an issue because there were only eight notes it could play. I mean, how do you orchestrate when you realise you only have two notes left to work with? So I moved away from instruments like the Fairlight and the Synclavier at that time."
Instead Chang soon amassed a huge and complex MIDI system. But, as many composers have discovered, the weight of what is supposed to be creative technology can become a limitation in itself.
"My MIDI system is basically a rack with four Roland MKS80 Super Jupiters, a Yamaha TX816, a Roland MKS20, and a pair of Roland MKS70s. I have a PR7 Beetle that's controlling the TX816, and an MEP4 MIDI Event Processor. It's all being controlled from a laptop Toshiba T3100 PC with a Roland MPU401. For sequencing, I run Roland's MESA and I also use the Bacchus software for editing and organising the FM instruments.
"The straw that broke the camel's back arrived when I started getting more work writing for films. When I did 52 Pick Up, there was an hour and 15 minutes of music including source cues, and it was many different kinds of music. So file maintenance became really difficult. After every single cue I had to save each bank of each instrument, and then put it some place where I could easily get back to it. And not only that, the turnaround time between cues became progressively slower and slower. I'd have to figure out where the sounds were in the first place. So I had this basic problem, and then things started to get really difficult. I was doing a film project and I'd get a record project in the middle of it. How do I put anything on the shelf? How do I remember what I'm doing?"
In the end, Chang decided that the Synclavier wasn't such a bad option after all. He's owned one for almost two years now, and obviously loves it.
"My Synclav has 16 Meg of RAM and 32 voices. It has MIDI and SMPTE interfaces", he explains. "It's created an older feeling for me, a more familiar feeling that represents what this medium is all about. The idea for me was to get back to music, get back to being able to actually write the notes without having to think about technology or re-learn it every couple of years. Or to transfer all of my information, whether it be in my head or on disk, to another medium altogether. I was looking for an instrument I could spend a really long time at.
"Computers haven't replaced the player, they've replaced the paper. I can get players to come up and play something completely abstract - but it's not obtuse any more, it's simply music."
"The beautiful thing about the Synclavier is that the sequences include SMPTE offsets, tempo changes, whatever. Now, if I have to stop doing a record project to work on a film, I just swap disks and load the sequence - everything is on one disk. I'm using my own sounds entirely now, and so my music has a very individual kind of sound to it."
CHANG HAS FOUND THAT ELECTRONIC musicians wear a lot of hats, and therefore must structure their time effectively.
"What I found in doing scores is that I make very particular formal changes in my duties at any given point in time. When I'm composing, I have one patch on the patchbay and I'm facing towards the Synclavier keyboard. The mixer - a Soundcraft 200B - is configured in a particular way. I don't even look at the multitrack. Everything sits in a particular way and I write. When I'm done writing, I archive it onto disk. That's my writing environment.
"When I go to record, I become a recording engineer. I put the Synclavier in SMPTE sync. I put two-inch tape on the tape machine, and I'm a recording engineer. I don't look back at the Synclav anymore. I just write down where all the instruments are and I'm at the board. In other words, I've tried to become less integrated, because it allows me to become more musical."
Another component in Chang's setup is a Sony MCI 24-track tape machine.
"I always thought it was necessary to get away from the tape recorder. The reason I have it is because it's my industry interface. It's what allows me to do industry work at home. When I do a feature film, I can just take the two-inch tape downtown with me if I don't mix here. And that's a heck of a lot more convenient to carry than all my synths."
Unlike many electronic-based composers, Chang usually doesn't start with a simple rhythmic groove as the foundation for a score.
"The best film music is really sensitive to the picture. So the first part is analysis. I'm more structure-based, kind of like a minimalist composer. What I tend to do is break the cue down into smaller segments, and then weigh the segments as to where everything should be, density-wise. In other words, if there is dialogue, you can't have much density. So I tend to look at the density first and then try to write the melodic elements. I see how to solve the puzzle, so to speak, from that aspect. And then I simply live with the basic structure for a while and write a piece of music for that structure."
If the project doesn't call for an all-electronic score, Chang uses live players to create dynamics and excitement, and he uses technology to communicate -complex musical ideas to them that would be very difficult to convey using a written score.
"Live players create energy", he explains, "so if I need more dynamics in a piece I'll use live players to create it. But when things get really small, the Synclavier is creating that. What the live players do is stop anyone from being pissed off at 'yet another electronic score'. It sounds like an ensemble - it sounds exciting, more magical. Computers haven't replaced the player - they've replaced the paper. Now I'm able to make particular edits and I can get players to come up and actually play something that could be completely abstract. Now they can hear it, and in very particular ways. Suddenly, it's not obtuse any more. It's simply music."
When working with live performers, Chang creates a private rehearsal tape for them.
"I just make a tape with a finished vocal on it, and hand it to the player and have him absorb exactly what it is. He would also get a chart with all the eccentricities written on it. But the idea ultimately is to make it convincing."
But with all the power and control available from the Synclavier, why bother with live players at all? As ever Chang has his answer ready.
"It's like the difference between hand-written calligraphy and a word processor. People don't want to hear computer music. They just kind of automatically turn their ears off and say 'give me the human being'. It does work in pop music, though. You can have all-computerised music because there's a vocal on top of it. So there's something to focus the music. I guess what I'm saving is that computers create the best accompaniment, because they have no personality and they never take up any of the foreground. So, I use live players when things are to be featured, because it sounds natural. It's a very natural feeling for the audience to be immediately drawn to the human rather than the track. That's why I'm always integrating."
Perhaps the real secret of Chang's success lies in his attitude towards technology as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
"I just want to get back to the music", he protests. "I want to get back to traditional sensibilities. I want to get back to what I feel - or what I felt when I was younger and excited about music. And it's not just that. It's a matter of coming to terms with my career. I compete with composers who don't know technology, but do know music. Technology isn't really important at all. All it has done is make more expeditious certain types of expression that were previously considered 'adventurous'. And you know, I'll tell you honest to God, the only thing that really counts is the music."
Interview by Lawrence Ullman
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