Interview: Bruce Broughton (Part 2)

In part 1 of this interview, Bruce Broughton discussed the scores for Young Sherlock Holmes and Lost in Space; in this second part, he talks to Paul Simpson about the changes in scoring that he’s seen during his career, and the differences and benefits between movie and television work and writing for the concert hall…



HarlequinYou’ve done a lot of writing outside the movies: which do you prefer? Working with the strictures of working to picture, or the freedom of composition?

I like them both – and I’m not trying to avoid the question, they’re just very different. Where concert music gets the big edge, nobody’s telling you what to write. Nobody’s telling you, “Shouldn’t that note go up instead of down?” Or “I don’t like the oboes”. Or “take the trumpets out.” You don’t get any of that stuff in concert music. If somebody commissions you to write a piece, whether they like it or whether they don’t, they’ll play it. It has a chance for another life. And people will applaud.

In the movies, nobody applauds. The best thing the director is going to say is, “Great that works, let’s move on.” Nobody stands up in the theatre – or rarely – and applauds the score. (I heard a story, however, that it happened at a showing of Silverado once.) In general it’s a very different kind of thing.

I like the specificity of film, in that you’re trying to tell this story. Where are those notes? What are the instruments going to be that will play that emotion so that a person who’s completely non-musical – which is usually your director – can understand what the story point is?

That’s a very big change. In concert music, you don’t have a picture telling you what the music is about; in film music, all music is just accompaniment. It doesn’t matter whether it’s loud or soft, you can hear it or you can’t; it’s just there to accompany the film. In concert music, it’s the whole banana. If the music doesn’t work it’s not the film’s fault, it’s the music’s fault. Matters of form, of colour, of development – they’re all very different.

Once I could come to terms with the idea that I was basically just a composer who worked in film, who worked in concert music, who sometimes does educational music, sometimes did symphonic music – right now, I’m an arranger, I’m working on an album – one could do all these things, and have enough technique to cover all those demands and understand them, I felt pretty well-endowed. I felt like that was a pretty good thing to be able to do that.

I like both commercial and concert music. People say, “Why do you go back to television? It’s not movies.” Television’s different than movies and it has certain things that I like about it, because it’s very quick and a very small screen; you’ve got to get the story out, people have got to hit it immediately. In a movie, you can sit and work with it, because you’re in a big room and a lot of people are there, and you get a completely different feel. Concert music is like that too.

Television has changed with HBO, Netflix, Amazon creating miniseries…

TV music is now much more movie-like, whereas movie-music is not what it once was. All of it, both TV and for movies, has become more generic and more infused by library music.

How much has that changed things? Texas Rising has just come out over here… Was that very different working in terms of the requirements of the music?

Texas-RisingI don’t know that Texas Rising is a very good example because on Texas Rising, John Debney and I split the score, and we were given the instructions that they wanted themes in the score like the big Westerns of yesteryear. Elmer Bernstein was a constant model. Silverado was a model. We had a heck of a time trying to come up with a main theme. Between the two of us we must have come up with a dozen themes and it was crazy – we’d put in these themes and finally we found something. The style was a throwback style.

Film music changed a lot when film became a digital medium. It had to change. If you take someone like John Williams, known for his long lines and the very romantic things that he does when he’s doing that style, that’s really impractical in a digital medium. If you need to make a cut, if you’re on the dubbing stage and the score has already been meticulously laid out and everything is perfect, and then the director looks at the editor and says, “You’ve got to take 20 seconds out of the scene”, it’s done within seconds. He does it on his laptop, bam bam bam and those 20 seconds are gone. What do you do with the music? Take 20 seconds out of a long, linear, beautifully constructed score? That’s hard. Not impossible, but it’s hard. And it has to be done quickly because everybody’s sitting there with their computers and their ProTools rigs.

If you have a score that is basically a bunch of harmonic pads and a bunch of synthesizer modules running over and over again, and the keys don’t change a lot – you’re in A minor, or D minor, the two very favourite keys of certain movie composers – it’s really easy to take out 20 seconds. You won’t even notice it because there was nothing there to start with musically. Just take it out. It makes a lot of sense.

I think that probably was more the result of the digital revolution than anything. It’s unfortunately very easy to do – you don’t need to have a musical education to play an A minor chord. I saw a score that shall be nameless. This one was a series of triads, with the violins playing [the three notes]. It went for 12 bars, 16 bars, 20 bars, then one note of the triad was changed – the A minor chord became an F chord. That went for 5 or 6 bars then the whole thing went back to A minor. Then the whole thing went to B flat, then A minor. That was the entire part, and the entire harmonic basis of the cue.

Ok, so musically, it’s pap. Maybe some people can make music out of it, but that wasn’t the intent. The intent here was to get the action going and the excitement and all the other kind of stuff, so it made a lot of sense. If they decided to edit that section, you’d take out one of the chords – now you’ve got 2 chords instead of 3 – or take out 6 bars of the A minor… It makes a lot of sense. It’s not something that I like to do, but anybody who has a limited background in theory can figure that one out. You can do it with GarageBand.

hollywoodinviennaIn Silverado, which is a much more traditional kind of a score, in the End Credits there are a couple of edits. If you listen to the recorded version – the Themes from Silverado, which is the concert version – that was the original End Credit. In the movie it’s a little different, it’s been cut. It happens.

The music is an accompaniment – it’s not the most important thing. It’s only an adjunct to the story.

And there’s likely to only be one person who’ll notice that!

Frankly if you’re listening to the music that hard, the movie’s not doing its work. The thing is also, if the music sticks out, then it’s drawing attention away from the story and you don’t want that to happen.

When people say the best score is the kind you can’t hear, that’s not necessarily right, but if you only hear the score and you’re not paying attention to the movie, then the music is probably overwhelming the picture.

There are times though when the director needs the composer to rescue a scene and tell the story in the music…

When the original Star Wars was made, the studio wrote it off. They gave George everything, the rights to the merchandising, to the characters – who cares? This film isn’t going to be anything. John came in and all of a sudden they put all this music to it, and this wonderful title and the sound effects, and hey, here’s a movie! But sometimes you can’t always tell.

ise1037Booklet.inddWhat’s the score or piece that’s challenged you most – not your favourite but the one as a musician that has challenged you?

Probably Young Sherlock Holmes, because it had so many techniques in it and it was difficult trying to get them all together in a way that made sense dramatically. It was really hard, just trying to figure out the notation, as I said earlier.

I was convinced going into that score that I had a disaster. I remember being picked up from the airport by the producer and we were laughing and saying, “Oh it’ll be a lot of fun”, and inside I’m thinking “I’m dead. This is the end of my career.” I remember playing the first piece and turning to the music editor and saying, “I think this is going to be ok.” It sounded great but I had worked so hard on it that I literally couldn’t see it. I’d heard it only on the piano and it sounded like Chopsticks to me, until we got it with the orchestra. I think that was probably the hardest one musically.

There have been several of them that have just been really a joy to work on – Silverado was very exciting. People were showing up at the sessions. Young Sherlock Holmes was very exciting. Miracle on 34th Street was exciting. Baby’s Day Out was exciting. A lot of them, you just feel good. Last Rites – we all got on just great. There were a couple which were not so much fun, where my so-called “vision” and the director’s “vision” were not in the same room. Those all got worked out. I’ve never had a score dumped, so that’s an indication that things worked out ok in the end. Came close but…

If you were describing a Bruce Broughton score, what would you say? I can often tell one of your tracks when it comes up on shuffle, a lot from the orchestration. Are there things you know work and therefore use a lot?

Not that I’m conscious of. At one point, this was a distressing question because when I was still doing Quincy and shows like that, even my kids would say, “Dad I can always tell when it’s one of your scores.” It wasn’t like they were really listening. My friends would say the same. I couldn’t tell you what that was.

MiracleOn34th94_600aSeveral years ago I was at EPCOT, in Florida, and installing a new show. It was a rainy day so I was staying inside, trying to get out of the rain. There were some fountains outside in the courtyard that had a water ballet synchronized to music – a lot of music that Disney owns. All of a sudden I heard this piece and I thought, “Someone’s ripping me off.” I heard my entire style, it was like flashing on your life two seconds before you die. Everything was there – the orchestrations, the harmonies, the melodies. I got so angry that somebody had ripped me off… then I listened to it and I thought, “No, wait, I know this tune.” It was one of mine!

Other than that moment, I couldn’t tell you. When I listen to music in the car, generally I put it on my iPod and I hit shuffle. I’ve got everything on there – not a lot of film music, but a lot of music by all sorts of people. If something comes up and I can identify it as mine right away I get disappointed. Very often what happens, something comes up and I can’t identify it, or I’ll say, “That’s an interesting idea, why wouldn’t I have thought of that?” in somebody else’s style. That gets your mind going.

I would say the hallmarks of my scores are they’re lyrical, they’re colourful, sometimes I’m told they’re full of heart, which means they’re emotional. I think those are the qualities. They’re usually well put together because I’m picky in the way my notes get chosen and get arranged.

Some of my friends, like Al Silvestri, also have distinctive styles. I like what Al does, I think he does a great job in movies and he’s got a really great lyrical sense. But no way that sounds like me. It’s weird – I know exactly what he’s doing there but that’s not a combination I would have come up with. And of course he wouldn’t do what I’m doing. Now if I had to do something like him, or he had to do something like me, we would probably figure it out.

I’ve noticed to an extent with the Marvel scores, they’re getting very similar.

I think you can say that in general with movie scoring. There’s a lot more generic music now, whatever the style is, than there was in the 1980s when there was a lot of personality. You could listen to a score and not know who wrote it, but it had to be Jerry Goldsmith, because only one guy writes like this. Even if it doesn’t sound like a Goldsmith score, you just figure because nobody else writes like this, it has to be Jerry, that’s got to be John, that’s got to be Leonard Rosenman. Now you listen to it, and it’s just a score – with some exceptions.

One of my favourite exceptions of recent scores is How to Train Your Dragon, by John Powell. I listen to that – it’s a really good score, really musical and very inventive and very dramatic and charming and all this stuff you want a score to be.

maf7097Booklet.inddDo you write to piano, on the computer…?

Right behind me is my piano, [to its immediate left] is my computer with the score I’m working on at the moment. I do them every which way. Texas Rising was done on the computer in that I opened up Sibelius and put on a score template and wrote directly into the score. I didn’t have time to do it any other way. I used to do that in Dallas and Quincy – I’d write directly onto the score.

I have done scores which are entirely synthesised. This arranging I’m doing with Seth Macfarlane, I’m doing the sketches at the piano, and I figure out my voicings as best I can and then enter it on Sibelius so the copyist can get it. Once it’s on Sibelius in score form I start moving things around because now I can see it. Frankly I’m much more visual than I am aural. Once I see it, I’ll change the voices.

Sometimes I just sit here and write. I remember when I was doing Tombstone, I was flying over to London to record it and there were a couple of the source pieces I hadn’t done, so I sat on the plane and just wrote them out.

If I see a score I can usually tell if it’s well-written or not. As I tell my students, if you have more than 30 or 35 players, whatever you write will “sound like something!”

If you’re going to be really specific you can tell on a person’s score where the problems are, if they didn’t voice it correctly, or this line isn’t being supported by this line. You can’t always tell with recordings, particularly the way things are recorded now, where they record sections separately. You can get away with everything.

My brother is a composer and a trombone player and he told me a long time ago – “generally if you look at a page and it looks right, it probably is.” But there are a lot of pages you look at and they just don’t look right. If you look at a page of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky, it looks right because it is right. I like to see composers’ manuscripts. A friend recently gave me the facsimile edition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It’s a huge book but every page is a page of Beethoven with his notation. You see all the scratching out, all the changes, all the reiterations. Everybody does that! But when it finally gets down on the page in the final version, it’s right.

Many of Bruce Broughton’s soundtracks can be purchased from Intrada; for more details of his concert work, please visit his own website

Many thanks to Roger Fegelson for his help in arranging this interview.

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