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Bruins Who Score

By Hugh Hart

Published Mar 14, 2018 2:45 PM

UCLA's film composing students gain a solid grounding in varied musical styles while learning to score for the screen.


Classically trained violinist Stephanie Economou is part of a new generation of female film composers. Photos by Pamela Springsteen.

“The most important training for a film composer is to learn how to be a composer,” says David Lefkowitz, chair of the Composition and Theory program in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. “This sounds obvious, but a lot of schools teach the technical requirements that are useful for being a film composer’s assistant — how to use SMPTE codes, how to punch in on recordings and temp tracks and click tracks and tempo markings. But to the extent that these students go on to write music, it’s often very generic.”

Anything but generic, UCLA’s Composing for Visual Media Program, which awarded its first degree in 2008, provides exposure to a broad range of musical styles, as well as what Lefkowitz calls a “focus on fundamentals” — long a hallmark of UCLA’s curriculum. Perhaps the chance to master the fundamentals is what drew the likes of such stellar film composers as John Williams, Randy Newman and the late James Horner to study here.

“UCLA has its finger on the pulse of the movie business, but at the same time, you get exposed to concert music training of greater depth and breadth than you might at programs focused on media scoring,” says Jonathan Beard M.A. ’05, who in one recent week orchestrated for the TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; worked on a new opera, Cesare: Child of Night, inspired by the 1920 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; and scored an indie film reboot of a 17th-century Pilgrim’s Progress allegory called Heavenquest.

A PEDIGREED PAST
The UCLA program builds on a robust lineage of distinctive voices dating to 1936, when Austrian atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg fled the Nazis, joined the faculty and premiered his Fourth String Quartet, Op. 37 at Royce Hall.


Composer John Williams has won six Academy Awards and received another 45 nominations. Photo from lefterisphoto.com.

One of Schoenberg’s students was the late film composer David Raksin (Preminger’s Laura), who had orchestrated the score of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Raksin taught film composition for many years to students including the now-prolific modern opera composer Jake Heggie ’84, M.A. '05. Co-creator of the opera Dead Man Walking, Heggie cites Raksin’s emphasis on “timing, pacing and meaning in music” as an enduring takeaway.

In 1953, John Williams studied composition at UCLA before launching an astonishing career that has yielded Academy Awards for Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Empire of the Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List (1993). His stirring themes have garnered an additional 45 nominations for movies ranging from the Indiana Jones series to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

A decade later, Randy Newman pursued a bachelor’s degree in music at UCLA. After leaving school, he first earned acclaim for his quirky pop songs, then shifted focus to write soundtracks. His score for Ragtime (1981) earned him the first of 20 Academy Award nominations. A three-time Emmy winner, Newman also won Academy Awards for his songs “If I Didn’t Have You,” from Monsters, Inc. (2001), and “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 (2010).

The late James Horner M.A. ’76 studied with faculty member Paul Chihara in the 1970s before becoming one of Hollywood’s most melodic composers. Acclaimed for his lush orchestrations, featured in Field of Dreams, Avatar and A Beautiful Mind, Horner won double Oscars for scoring Titanic and co-writing that movie’s now-iconic power ballad “My Heart Will Go On.”

CROSS-POLLINATION
Following in the footsteps of Raksin, Williams, Newman and Horner is a new generation of UCLA-educated film composers that includes Heggie and cellist-arranger-composer Beard, who teaches Audio Technology for Musicians at UCLA between his show business assignments.


Cellist-arranger-composer Jonathan Beard teaches Audio Technology for Musicians between show business assignments.


Describing the “cross-pollination” he experienced as a graduate student under faculty composer Roger Bourland and Lefkowitz, Beard says, “My second year, I’d study avant-garde stuff like set theory in one class, and later the same day take a class with Charles Fox, one of the most celebrated film composers of all time, who wrote the song ‘Killing Me Softly.’ I developed two totally different, yet related, sets of tools, and now I have this deep well of instruction to draw from.”

Another advantage is UCLA’s world-class ethnomusicology department. Lefkowitz notes, “Students at UCLA can easily get exposure and training in things like Indonesian gamelan, Bulgarian folk singing, Latin American styles and Afro-Cuban jazz, as they see fit.”

He also points to the school’s proximity to a community of talented young media artists in the School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT). “One of the best film schools in the country is just a tenth of a mile across campus from us,” he says. “We have two or three mixers a year where composers get together with directors, producers, animators. The filmmakers show their reels, and the composers share their music.”

Bringing together World Music options, classical music training, collaboration with TFT and his own experience as a music maker for movies, television and theater, composer Paul Chihara emerged circa 2006 as the prime mover behind UCLA’s Composing for Visual Media graduate program. It was also in 2006 that UCLA first offered a degree in Film Composition, with the first majors graduating in 2008.

LEARNING BY DOING
Besides teaching such students as Joseph Trapanese M.A. ’08 (Straight Outta Compton and the Tom Cruise thriller Oblivion), Chihara bolstered the faculty five years ago when composer Peter Golub came to teach a seminar. “Peter’s a perfect example of the sort of person we want here,” says Lefkowitz. “He’s made his living in Hollywood but knows just as much about sonata form and counterpoint and retrograde inversions of melody as he does about how to bring out the emotional subtext of a film.”

Golub, who scored the indie classic Frozen River and the recent PBS documentary series American Creed, also directs the Sundance Institute Film Music Program. At Sundance, he honed the learn-by-doing approach now practiced in his UCLA seminar. By having students rescore projects, he tries to simulate the working conditions they may find if they write for film or television: “I get rid of the existing music for a movie and give them marching orders, because when you compose for film, it’s not about ‘Do what you want.’ Unlike concert music, you’re working within guidelines from the director in terms of intention, atmosphere, mood and point of view.


Faculty member and Yale-trained composer Peter Golub also directs the Sundance Institute Film Music Program.

“In doing a few of these re-scores, students get much better, because everyone overwrites at the beginning. Then they start to realize you have to leave room for the movie. If the music’s too crowded or complicated, it calls attention to itself rather than being a seamless part of the film. Making students sensitive to how music affects the perception of a film — that’s a big thing to learn.”

Intent on exposing students to different sensibilities, Golub hosts master classes taught by film composer friends, including Jeff Beal (House of Cards), Anton Sanko (HBO series Big Love), Fil “iZLER” Eisler (Fox series Empire) and eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight, Michael Clayton).

SPACE, TEXTURE AND TONE
Some of Golub’s protégés belong to a promising new generation of female film composers, including Jennifer Dirkes M.A. ’14, Ph.D. ’17 (The Crown, Churchill) and Stephanie Economou M.A. ’14, a classically trained composer. For Economou, a tiny two-student class taught by Sally Chou M.A. ’13 served as a film composer boot camp of sorts. She recalls, “Sally gave us these very practical assignments rescoring scenes from comedies, action movies and animation in a very short time period.”

Meanwhile, Drew Schnurr’s M.A. ’11, Ph.D. ’13 Electronic Music and Sonic Arts course expands students’ frames of reference. “I learned about space and texture and tone of electronic music, along with the fundamentals of production,” Economou says. “I owe a lot of what I do today to the way Drew brought out that side of me as a composer.”


Stephanie Economou.

In her first year at UCLA, Economou gained invaluable practical experience in a silent film course offered for both School of Music and TFT students. Assuming the roles of directors and composers, the classmates jointly created new soundtracks for vintage movies. Economou, who re-scored the 1912 classic The Hypnotic Detective, says, “Because the film was silent, the score had to adapt seamlessly to the plot and establish characters and drama far more vividly than is necessary in modern cinema — a worthwhile exercise in musical storytelling.”

For her master’s thesis, Economou reached out to TFT students, including Sam Grinberg, who now works in the animation department for The Simpsons. Teaming with student directors on three original short films, she recorded music for each work on the TFT scoring stage. TFT screened two of the final films at TFT’s James Bridges Theater.

EASING INTO THE INDUSTRY
All that coursework paid off when Economou took a master class from Harry Gregson-Williams during Golub’s seminar. Gregson-Williams, the British-born composer responsible for Shrek and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, had students re-score a scene from the Ben Affleck thriller The Town. Impressed with the results, Gregson-Williams offered Economou a part-time job, then hired her full time after she graduated.

Since then, she has contributed additional music to Gregson-Williams's scores for the Oscar-nominated The Martian, Live By Night, and this year’s guitar-and-electronics-powered music for The Equalizer 2, directed by Antoine Fuqua. In November, Economou plans to help record a 60-piece orchestra performing the score for the Disney Nature film Penguin. “There’s nothing like being in the room with musicians,” she says, “because they’re the ones who breathe life into the music. We do our best approximations on the computer, but when we stand on the podium and hear all the musicians express their musicality — that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”