While film composer Hummie Mann was in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, he took some time to visit with Reichel Recommends about his work as an educator, his philosophy on film composition, and the state of the industry today.
I’ve always been a teacher. That’s just part of my DNA. Even when I was extremely young, by the time I was 12 or 13 years old I was giving guitar lessons. I really enjoy doing that – sharing things with people. When I used to live in Los Angeles, early on in my career, I taught UCLA’s extension film scoring program. There’s part of me that really enjoys sharing information and watching students develop and master skill sets.
A number of years ago I moved my family out of Los Angeles and up to Seattle for a variety of reasons. While I was up in Seattle, I discovered I was either by myself in my office or only having anything to do with people in LA. That was kind of silly, so I befriended a couple of people and decided to teach classes. That started a growth in my transition into education.
I taught two classes in a community college and started making my own curriculum for teaching film composition. Over the years the program went on its own. I started adding teachers to teach related subjects: how to use the various programs involved in film composition, how to score video games, etc.
A lot of us had to figure it out along the way because when I was in school there was no film scoring education. In fact, I hated the one course that I took in college in film composition. It was mostly sitting and doing film math, which now is mostly done by computers.
Eventually the program grew and grew up to the point that a few years ago I took a job at Columbia College, Chicago, to see what it would be like in full time academia. I enjoyed working with students and a lot of aspects of the job, but I found that my own program, which I’d left in the hands of one of my assistants, had a lot more flexibility. In a college, you have to work through a committee and all that stuff. I was actually able to do more in my own program than I was inside the hallowed halls of academia.
I also discovered that being in Chicago was too far from Los Angeles. My career was kind of on hold for a year. So I went back to Seattle, and my program converted into a full time program. It became the “music department” at a small film school in Seattle, and is now certified to give a master’s in film composition based on the curriculum that I had developed, along with all of the other technical classes.
One of the big features of my program, even from the beginning, was that students got to score student made films from other schools with a full orchestra. So while a lot of schools are doing things with electronics, my students actually had the opportunity of working with a full orchestra. To date, not including the master’s degree, that program has yielded close to 100 scores for student films.
My philosophy is that if we can educate filmmakers in the value of having an acoustic, orchestral score, then we have a much better shot of convincing directors that that is a good place to put their money. When they’re budgeting their films, they won’t budget $5,000 for a score because they’re planning on getting some guy with a box. They’ll know the value buying an orchestral score.
And that doesn’t mean it’s only orchestral. A lot of great scores have electronic or ethnic instruments. Even Hans Zimmer uses live musicians along with electronic elements. For me, that’s just increasing the power of the score.
But most composers with the possible exception of Vangelis and Trent Reznor are still using orchestras. Hans Zimmer always uses on orchestra, but he does have electronic elements. Jerry Goldsmith did the exact same thing.
The problem that’s really come around because of electronics isn’t as much the use of orchestras. The problem is that the technology is controlling the art form.
A really simple example would be that if you listen to any orchestral score until we got to the age of computers, the strings were the busiest people in the orchestra – the backbone. They’re the ones playing all the notes. When you work with electronic scores, even using patches that sound like violins, it’s very difficult to make that happen electronically.
What we’ve seen happen is that a lot of composers are writing at keyboards and then hiring an orchestra, but the strings are doing nothing but holding long notes because the composers couldn’t get their synthesizers to sound as good and versatile as a real violin.
With the electronic revolution, composers are writing for something that sounds like a violin, but they’re writing to the limitations of a sequencer, not to the limitations of the real life musician.
Years ago there was a composer I was orchestrating for, and I asked him why he never used solo trumpets. His response was, “I don’t have a good electronic sound of it.”
All of these electronics have enabled people without the craft and traditional background to compose. I’m not saying that everybody needs to know how to read music and that everybody needs to learn theory, but certainly if you’re writing for an orchestra those are pretty handy tools. I’m sure a lot of these guys barely know how to read music.
In a lot of cases, though, a cool thing has happened. People like Danny Elfman, for instance, learned the process as he was going along and is a great writer and talented guy. He brought a whole new background into the vocabulary of film. Just like Henry Mancini who had a lot to do with bringing jazz into film music, Danny Elfman might be one of the people you’d credit for bringing rock into film music, even in an orchestral setting. Do I care if Paul Simon can read music or understand theory? Not necessarily, but he’s an amazing musician. Some people are just blessed with incredible ears. But not everyone’s a Paul Simon or a Danny Elfman.
Film music is a much more accessible form of music than what you’d learn in a regular program for a masters in music composition. That’s the nicest way of putting it. A lot of masters in music composition are pushing the envelope into avant-garde and atonal music. There are backlashes for that. A lot of composers now are becoming much more tonal.
Film music is really the accessible, contemporary orchestral music for most people today. I remember when Howard Shore took his Lord of the Rings tour and was conducting with different orchestras. When he was in Seattle, they had to add extra nights because it was such a popular thing with people who were film music buffs.
The same thing goes on with the concertizing of video game scores. People want to hear this stuff. They’re not necessarily as interested in hearing Beethoven, and that doesn’t make him bad or good; it’s just a different thing. People are much more interested in contemporary orchestral music that is accessible.
If you’re writing for a wider audience, you can’t hit people over the head. Not to pick on this one kind of technique, but everybody’s heard the term “12 tone music” and the idea of using tone rows, but very few people have music of 12 tone composers in their record collection.
A lot of master’s degrees have to do with pushing the envelope in the direction of much more cerebral music. In fact, I recently met a professor of music from the University of Washington. When he was introduced to me as a composer, he said, “I write academic music.” That was his definition, not mine. He’s writing for intellectuals and people who are interested in pushing the envelope, but not necessarily in increasing their audience.
In film music, we have a very specific objective. We’re trying to create emotional results, and the goal of the music is to be emotion based to support what’s going on onscreen. And you can’t be limited by any one style or another. You might do a bluegrass, classical, or jazz score. And every now and then you might do a film that has an avant-garde, 20th century score. Altered States was a great example of that.
But to only learn that one style would be very different from what we do in a film composition program. We look at a much wider swab of musical styles and genres and study the theory to back it up. I had a traditional undergraduate composition degree, but in my entire career the number of times I’ve used 20th century techniques has been very small. That’s not most of the music I write. Look at John Williams who’s written hours and hours of greatly accessible, beautiful music. He’s probably the best known living American composer.
Bernard Hermann hated being called a “film composer.” He wanted to be called a composer who writes for film. I think there’s a very big distinction. In my mind, when I’m teaching film composition, I want my students to write good music that meets all the dramatic and technical requirements of the film. But if it’s just an ambient sound, which we know can be used to create a mood, it’s not good music.
Bernard Hermann and John Williams’ music stands up – not necessarily in the original form, because there are things you have to manipulate in order to capture timing requirements when you’re scoring a film, but certainly we can all walk around humming themes by Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams because they wrote great pieces of music.
That’s one of the things that we’ve lost in the last few years. A lot of directors seem to be scared of melody. Everybody points to John Williams and says he’s one of the greats, and he always writes with melody. There are times in a film when the texture is all that’s necessary, but usually it grows to a point where the melodic content needs to come in.
I’ve discussed this with a lot of my colleagues. When you work on a project, the director says, “I don’t want any melody.” It’s kind of like saying, “I don’t want to see the characters’ faces.” Ask directors to think of their favorite piece of music. Then ask, “What are you thinking of? The melody?” Of course. So why would you not want to have that character, that dimension, that you think makes great music in your film?