Wailing brass, thunderous percussion, and eerie sound effects burst through the speakers while an audience of 50—Juilliard students and a few visitors—sat in complete silence as they aurally digested this unique sound world. Shifting from moments of extreme energy to others of frightening tension, this five-minute improvisation turned out to just be something film composer Mark Snow had been working on for fun. “I figured since most of you are jazz students this would be something that you would be able to relate to,” Snow told the group.
Snow (B.M. ’68, oboe) was speaking at a forum on December 3 sponsored by both Jazz Studies (through its Friday Jazz Forum series) and the Alumni Relations Office (as an offshoot of its Lunch With an Alum series). Both series give students the chance to sit down for a couple hours with some of the most amazing individuals in the performing arts and ask them about just about anything. You might assume that someone like Snow, who has won 34 ASCAP awards, wouldn’t be interested in spending what little free time he has at his alma mater, but he was thrilled to be back at Juilliard, telling The Journal beforehand, “This is great! I love this stuff.”
After his piece was finished, Snow took questions from the audience. One student asked how Snow created the piece, “especially for all of those layers and interaction between the instruments and sounds to be completely improvised.”
“It really all just came together pretty organically,” Snow answered, noting that he does all of his composing at the computer. “The days of scoring something with a pencil and paper are gone, unless it’s a traditional orchestral score,” he said, adding that “about 80 percent of big Hollywood scores today are a combination of orchestra and sampled instruments.”
He then played another track, a cue from the 1990s hit TV show The X-Files that was a beautiful combination of strings and voice, prompting a question about synthesized sounds versus the natural sound of real instruments: “With that first piece we listened to, you did a lot of things that absolutely couldn’t be done with real instruments.”
“I was glad I didn’t have to write [that piece] out,” Snow replied. “If you look at the music of Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez, some of those rhythms look like they’re impossible to play. With this piece, a lot of it’s out of time, and there are a lot of unusual rhythms. That was part of the fun of being able to just play it instead of worrying about whether or not it’s playable.”
Back on the topic of composing by computer, Snow observed that when working on TV music, scoring at the computer is really the only option due to the time constraints. With film, he said, “it’s really a whole team working on the project. Plus, they have weeks to orchestrate, copy the parts, and record.” With TV, by contrast, a composer would be lucky to get more than three or four days to finish 50 minutes of music.
Even before he started scoring for The X-Files (which he did from 1993 to 2002), however, Snow embraced technology. He still uses a synthesizer from the 1970s called a Synclavier, which he used to create the X-Files theme. “I was thinking, and happened to put my elbow on the keyboard which had some type of delay effect on it,” Snow recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow! What was that?’” He also observed, however, that composing music for films is rarely that easy, although, he added, “When a show is mediocre, that’s when it’s the hardest. When it’s good, it’s hard to screw it up.”
When asked how someone who is interested in film scoring gets into the field, Snow replied, “For each successful composer, there’s a different story.” One piece of the puzzle, of course, is the would-be composer’s demo. “It’s important to have contrast,” Snow says. “It’s really about: fast, slow, soft, loud. For example, with the pieces I played for you, the difference between the two is like night and day! I’m not saying that’s a good demo, but if there’s a lot of contrast from piece to piece, that’s really good. It’s great if you can do seriously great contemporary stuff, but also more traditional stuff.”
For music students, who work hard to perfect their orchestration skills and knowledge of each instrument, it was refreshing to hear Mark Snow talk about the technological side of music composition. Learning and perfecting traditional compositional skills is important, but Snow was proof that, especially in today’s world, embracing a little technology now and then can’t hurt.