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Music Blog

Interview: T. Griffin & Doreen Ringer Ross

by Austen Diamond
- Posted // 2012-01-24 - On top of exploring the unique atmosphere of composing a film score, the BMI Composer/Director Roundtable at Sundance is an excellent way to see how the collaborative spirit between music and film is different than that of making music purely as a recording artist.

BMI and the Sundance Film Festival will present the 14th annual Composer/Director Roundtable, entitled “Music & Film: The Creative Process,” beginning at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25 at the Sundance House presented by HP (638 Park Ave., Park City).

Musician/composer T. Griffin (pictured) and BMI Vice President, Film/TV Relations Doreen Ringer Ross answered some questions via e-mail about the roundtable and about the music-meets-filmmaking process.

Q&A with T. Griffin
City Weekly: You’ve attended the Sundance composers lab before. When  was that, and can you describe the experience and what you gained from it?

T. Griffin: I was at the Sundance lab in 2008. It was exhausting and exhilarating and one of the best creative experiences I've ever had. When I went, I had scored 10 films, but I had literally never met another film composer. And since I didn't have much formal musical training, and had never studied film scoring, I sort of assumed that everybody else who was doing it knew some big secret and that I was the only one who was making it up as he went along. Being at the composers lab with the other Fellows and with the advisors, who are film composers working at the absolute top of the field, I realized that the best of them are totally just making it up as they go along -- that's the nature of creativity and collaboration, and that's something to protect and to aspire to. I found that incredibly freeing. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Sundance Labs connect you with the cream of the crop of up-and-coming directors and producers.

CW: How did you make the foray into film scoring, versus just making songs as your own self and promoting yourself as a songwriter?

TG: I never intended to be a film composer. I had always been obsessed with writing songs and with creative recording and being in bands, but when I left college I was working as an actor. That's what I wanted to do as my "career." Music was the thing I did just for myself. At one point, after I moved to New York from Minneapolis, I was in a play and the director had heard my music and asked if I would do some for the play, so I did. The wife of one of the actors was a film editor. She ended up with a CD of the music I had made and started using it as temp music on a film she was editing. The next thing I knew, I was meeting with the director about scoring the film. I loved the whole process, from beginning to end. It's nine years later and I'm currently working on my 20th feature film.

CW: You scored California Solo. Talk about the creative process of making that music.

TG: California Solo is about a musician who is hiding from music, from his former life as a rock star and from memories and responsibilities that are too painful to face. He has substituted one kind of death wish for another -- instead of burning out fast, he just wants to fade away slowly, pain-free. He has a line that struck me when I first watched the film: "I'm just trying to live out my days." The film is about how the past he's hiding from comes to visit and peels away the layers of protection he's created. The director, Marshall Lewy, and I talked a lot about how the score music should reflect this tension between his old rock-and-roll life and the life of numbness he's trying to create. We wanted a sense that the past was hovering, always present. For me, the creative process always starts from questions like that, not from "what instruments should be featured" or "what's the melody" -- all of those musical things follow from really trying to connect with what the story is and what the filmmaker is trying to say. Once we felt simpatico on that, we wanted to decide on a phrase to use as a touchstone to describe the sound we were going for. We came up with something pretentious, but useful: "an echo of an echo of a thousand dressing rooms." At that point, it was a matter of me making music that represented that for me, and Marshall identifying the parts of it that he connected with, then me going back and focusing on those parts. Only after we had done a couple of rounds of back and forth like that did we start to actually score the film.

CW: How do those tunes differ from other film pieces you have done in the past?

TG: I always try to give myself a set of limitations when I start a project, something related to the theme of the film, to help me focus the musical language, and to make me rethink my natural tendencies. For California Solo, it was that I wanted to create all of the sounds in the score on the electric guitar, but I wanted it to be totally unrecognizable as guitar. This was connected to the idea of "an echo of an echo", and to the fact that the character, Lachlan, was a guitar player who hadn't picked up the instrument in a decade. I also wanted to reference Scottish folk music, which I love, because Lachlan is Scottish. Of course, I abandoned both of those things pretty fast, at least in their strict form, but they definitely informed the final product. So I guess this is my "not-quite-Scottish-noise-folk" score.

CW: What’s your favorite song from the movie and why?

TG: The music in California Solo bounces between very stark solo electric guitar and guitar that I sampled and overdubbed and processed and re-processed using weird old guitar pedals and even re-recording the guitar parts from boom-boxes so that you can feel that it's a guitar, but it doesn't sound like one any more. There's one piece of music that happens when Lachlan is at his very lowest point and he's ready to face his past. In that piece, which we called "Old Ghosts," I can't even recognize what's making the sounds anymore; it's almost as if the sound of the electric guitar had been boiled down to a paste. There's something that feels really emotional about that for me, that really represents where he is at that moment. That's the one where I thought we got closest to that idea of "an echo of an echo" and it meant what it was supposed to mean in the movie.

CW: As a musician, describe what you get out of the BMI roundtable.

TG: I've experienced the roundtable as a participant and as an audience member and I'm always blown away by the generosity and goodwill of all the composer/director pairs. It goes back to that realization that everybody's just making it up as they go along. I always hear something unexpected and fresh from the musicians and filmmakers, some new way of thinking about music in movies. It's an excellent place to steal ideas and get inspiration. Of course, it's also great when people pull out the horror stories. I'll be hoping for a little of that, too!

Q&A with Doreen Ringer Ross
City Weekly: The composers/ filmmakers roundtable is your brainchild, correct? How did it come about, as in what need were you meeting?

Doreen Ringer Ross: BMI has been a longtime sponsor of the Sundance Composers Lab. One of the primary things focused on in the lab is the creative collaboration of composers and directors. Our composer/director roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival is a natural extension this agenda. It’s also a way for us to support BMI composers who scored films that are in the festival.

CW: What can your average film and music fan get out of attending?

DRR: I think the process of creating original music for film is really fascinating, even to a layperson. It’s often an element of movie making that goes unnoticed while it completely impacts you emotionally.

CW: What is the biggest difference between the world of singer/songwriters and record labels to film and television music?

DRR: Singer/songwriters and recording artists express themselves as unique individuals. Creating film and television music is a collaborative process, where the composer’s job is to be of service to the filmmaker’s vision.

CW: Talk about the collaborative spirit of film and television musical composition?

DRR: Finding a common language is key to a successful composer/director relationship. Composers often say that they don’t want their filmmaker to talk to them in musical terms. They would much prefer to hear about emotional intent.

CW: Anything you’d like to mention that I’m not asking?

DRR: Nope….good questions…thanks!

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