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The Spectrum
of Film Music
A conversation with composer Jeff Rona
 

"There is something about eighty people pouring their hearts  into their instruments, 
as they play well crafted music, that just elevates a scene. Nothing in technology has rivaled that yet."

» Jeff Rona

 
       
   

The Interview - 1999

 

 

 

General Info:

Born in Culver City, California

Began career as a synthesist.

 
 
Television Credits:

Mind Prey

Tom Clancy's mini-series Net Force

Profiler 

Homicide

Chicago Hope

 
 
Feature Film Credits:

The In Crowd (2000)

Chill Factor (1999)

Middle Eastern Ensemble Producer: The Prince of Egypt (1998)

White Squall (1996)

Additional music: 
The Fan (1996)

Additional Music: Assassins (1995)

 
 

 

 

More Interviews

Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco (2007)
James Dooley (2007)
Jesper Kyd (2007)
Garry Schyman (2007)
David Robidoux (2007)
Scott Glasgow (2007)

Tyler Bates (2007)
Jamie Christopherson (2007)
Mychael Danna (2007)

Howard Shore (2006)
Trevor Rabin  (2006)
Christopher Lennertz (2006)
Harry Gregson-Williams
John Debney
Greg Edmonson
Christopher Lennertz (2003)
Erik Lundborg
Ron Jones
Edward Shearmur
Christopher Lennertz (2002)
Thad Spencer
Don Davis (2001)
Hans Zimmer
Conrad Pope
Michael Giacchino
Don Davis (1999)
Jeff Rona (1999)

 

Other Special Features »

 

 

 


CC: What has been the reaction you have been getting regarding your latest score for Chill Factor?

JR: Well, the movie just came out and there is no soundtrack album for it so I don't think there is going to be a lot of response.  It is a pretty modest film.  It's an action movie filled with music.  The response we (co-composers John Powell and Hans Zimmer) have gotten from the people who made the film has been very gratifying. They are very pleased with what the score has done to make the film different.  The film has changed immensely
from the score.

CC: How is your book coming along?

JR: Slow.  Slow but sure.  For a number of years I've been writing a column for a prominent music magazine.  The articles I have written have, in essence, been a diary.  They describe whatever projects I have been working on at the time, the problems that have come up and what I came up with to either fix them or make them worse.  It has really been my own personal experiences in working in film and television.   

At first I thought, Oh.  How exciting!  We take a bunch of articles, staple them together, put them in a book, and sell it!  Actually, I have found myself rewriting it in huge chunks.  I don't want to belabor my mistakes that much.  What I do want to do is impart to the reader anything that I've learned along the way - through positive and negative experiences, both, but with hindsight.  The book is the art, technology, and business of the industry.  If I get it right, it will be a porthole into what a composer's life is like.

CC: Who is the book intended for?

JR: The book is geared towards those who are interested in becoming a composer themselves. But it isn't a geeky book on home recording.  There is discussion of the tools a modern film composer uses.  The book is a very contemporary approach to the process, not the product.  This book is as meaningful to someone doing orchestral scores as it is to somebody doing highly electronic scores. It describes the process that has become essential now.  That process involves quite a bit of technology.

CC:  : In your book, do you contrast scoring for television verses a feature film?

JR: Yes, I believe that point gets across.  There are descriptions of working on films and there are descriptions of working on TV.  There is certainly discussion of television in terms of its schedule as well as the process. Monday you do this.  Tuesday you do this.  Wednesday you do this.  Thursday you do this and Friday you start all over again! (laughs).

CC: Do you have title for the book yet?

JR: It is called “The Reel World”

CC: Do you have any idea when it will be released?

JR: Well, according to my publisher it is suppose to be released in 1999, but there isn’t a whole lot of 1999 left and there is a lot of book left.  I am convinced it will be done on the exact day that it is done!

CC: What do you think is contributing to the increasing growth of the interest in film score collecting and the studying of film scoring on the college level?

JR: I think that whether we realize it or not, film music has always had a parallel with pop music of the day.  Film music started off as a classical entity.  Composers such as Franz Waxman and his contemporaries were basically taking classical romantic music and using them as the template to create what became the original, golden era of film music.

Then, along the way, other things came in.  As jazz became more popular in the forties and fifties, you had guys like Elmer Bernstein, and David Raskin whipping out jazz scores.  You had Laura.  You had On the Waterfront.  Even Leonard Bernstein was using a lot of jazz in his scores.  So, what was on the radio was in the movie theatres. 

Then, in the sixties, you started to look at soundtracks that were starting to be more rock and roll.  Really, what we are seeing now is just a well-marketed version of the exact same phenomenon.  That is, the more we have film music that reflects pop music, the more we can get those listeners to come and see the movie. 

The fact is that, with a few exceptions like Star Wars and Titanic, the soundtracks are huge sellers aren’t selling because of the score, but because of the pop songs. Titanic had that huge hit song and the Celtic-flavored soundtrack just did something that people liked.  The Lion King had a fantastic score, but people bought it for the Elton John songs.  Well, they really bought it because their eight year old said, “I want the music from the Lion King.”  They didn’t want it for the score.  They wanted to hear those great songs.  Now, the great thing is that millions and millions of kids got exposed to a great score.  It was orchestral and culturally diverse, and interesting and that is a healthy thing- that there is a cross over in that respect, but it is unintentional.  The stakes get higher and higher each year to make sure that soundtracks are radio friendly, and that the movie poster can say "featuring the music from" and name lots of cool pop artists and bands.

CC:  With this in mind, what do you think the future of film music is?  What about the affect the internet has had the popularity of film music in the last five years?

MG: I think the Internet has created a venue for all of those people who have been segregated from the mainstream to come together and fan the flames or even get certain scores released.  I don’t know what else could have helped it as much as something as the Internet.  There are just so many great sites out there, so many outlets for you to go to learn about film music and the people composing it.  In the past, the only interview you would find anywhere would be a John Williams interview, but now you can find out about so many different composers.  The perfect example is that people are interviewing me and I'm just a nobody (laughs!).  

CC: Don’t you think film scores, themselves, have become more popular in the last few years?

JR: I'm really impressed with the growing number of internet sites and magazines devoted to film scores and their composers.  I think it is great.  It has always been and continues to be a neglected art form. Film score fans aside, the mainstream of the movie going public has little or no awareness of soundtracks other than the pop songs and "Star Wars" and "Titanic."  It is wonderful that the most diverse category of music today is film music.  The term "film music" has no intrinsic definition whatsoever.  You have deejays doing soundtracks.  You have classical opera composers.  You have avant-garde composers.  You have new age composers and world artists all working on music for films.  It is a totally and wonderfully abstract form.

When someone is a soundtrack fan, what is it, then, that they are actually a fan of?  I think what it is, is that they are a fan of music without rules or boundaries.  It's music that is not bound to lyrical content.  It is non-song oriented music. It doesn't really exist outside of the film world anymore.  That keeps it vibrant.  It is experimental, but at the same time
often very conservative.   In fact it always amazes me when score fans write about or review soundtracks and are disappointed in them.  What gets them disappointed?
Obviously, the music was not written to be listened to on CD, for the most part.  It's success ultimately lies with how successful it is within the context of the film. Typically the Academy Award goes to the score from the most enjoyable film. How many people really remembered the music from "The Full Monty"? But it was from a really great film, and so it won the Oscar that year.  The experience of listening to a score on its own is so vastly different when listened outside of the context for which is was created.

CC:  Don’t composers, then, find themselves stuck between pleasing the film’s director and wanting to produce something that will be “listenable” and sell well?

JR: No. Nobody thinks that way. At least in my experience. That kind of thinking will knock you on your *** every time, if you try to think beyond the language of the movie in conceiving and executing the language of the score.  When I write a score, the score begins and ends with what the director and I come up with together.  If the director gives the thumbs-up on a cue then I can move on.  If the director gives the thumbs down, then regardless of how much I might love what I just wrote, or how commercial sounding it might be, it is not the music for the movie.

CC: What about the soundtrack CDs that are released?

JR: Score soundtracks are highly edited in order to make them as record-friendly as possible.  Without that editing they would be tedious, boring, and generally unlistenable. This is true for virtually any soundtrack.  I, well everyone, edits their scores to take out those long stretches of tension or vamping.  Some music has a structure, a pace or form that only makes sense to picture.  To go back and rethink the music with a digital editor and rebuild the score to become a soundtrack album (which can be a lot of fun by the way)  is the first time you get to think about the music as music.

CC: When “veterans” of film score composition, the Goldsmith’s, the Williams’, the Bernstein’s, pass the torch on, do you think that the great orchestral score might be squeezed out as synths and computer technology play a larger and larger role in film scoring?

JR: No. Not really.  The way people make movies, of course, has changed, but the scores, themselves, still remain pretty diverse.  For example, you look at Don Davis who is quite successful at writing these rather symphonic scores.  I wouldn't call them conservative though.  They are actually rather interesting, but they are very orchestral scores.  If John Williams was twenty years old but had all of his current musical ability, but didn't know how to do a demo of his score using a computer, he could never get work.  Unfortunately, that will squeeze out certain people who were trained with more of a traditional composing technique.  At the same time, if you don't have stylistic diversity, your chances of getting work become less and less. You must have an awareness of very contemporary music.  If you can only think in very traditional, older styles of film music, you'll have a very hard time in film scoring.  I know people who are having a very hard time because they aren't working with contemporary technology and they aren't taking it seriously.  To be able to have a sonic palette, rhythmic palette, and even a stylistic palette that incorporates contemporary and traditional elements is vital.

CC: So you don’t see technology having a diminishing effect on the orchestral score.

JR: I don't think so, as long as there are Don Davis and Joel McNeelys coming into the fold.  The popularity of symphonic film music will rise and fall, as it has throughout the past.  No one has come up with anything that does what an orchestra does emotionally.  An orchestra can still make a crappy movie look much better, whereas an electric guitar just doesn't t do it the same way. There is something about eighty people pouring their hearts into their instruments, as they play well crafted music, that just elevates a scene.  Nothing in technology has rivaled that yet. Whenever the producer of a film wants maximum impact they always get an orchestra.  

CC: Do you think the pool of film score composers is growing at a faster pace as technology advances?

JR:  Maybe.  There are so many places teaching film scoring and the awareness of film music. As a result there is a bigger pool of people who fancy themselves film composers.  Some are going through programs at universities and others are jumping ship from their pop music careers.  People are coming from all of these other fields.  Many of today's most successful film composers come from pop music.  Michael Kamen, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Stewart Copland, Craig Armstrong came from the pop-world and decided to try their hand at film writing.  And look how well they've done.  Far fewer are coming from a purely classical background. The home studio technology does allow more composers to have a shot, because someone can fire up their computer in their bedroom and churn something out that sort of sounds like a symphony. Whereas, ten to fifteen years ago you could produce a piano demo of something where, if you have imagination, you'd think that would sound pretty good with an orchestra.

CC: There seems to be a great difference in the amount of contemporary technology some of the veterans of film scoring rely upon, like a James Horner or Williams, compared to those who have come out of the pop world.

JR:  James Horner uses very little.  He will have a person play keyboards live with the orchestra.  John Williams does the same thing.  He will have someone use a vocal pad to add some color and tension.  Jerry Goldsmith has done that for a long time.  He used to do very evocative, electronic music.  One of the very first soundtracks that brought me to an awareness of film music was Jerry Goldsmith's score to a film called Logan's Run. Although there is some orchestra, it is mostly done on the synthesizers of the time.  So he was using high-tech, for back then.

CC: Just one last question; How would you describe good film music?

JR:  Good film music is evocative.  It isn’t accurate.  

CC:  Jeff, thank you so much for your time and candid responses.  

JR:  My pleasure.
 

 
       

White Squall by Jeff Rona Available at Amazon.com   
 

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