Where did you first find your love for music?
Where didn’t I? My mom was accepted into the Tabernacle Choir when she was eighteen. She was innately musical, even though Dad wasn’t necessarily. I grew up on the great classic film scores and opera. She loved Verdi and Puccini in particular Then my older siblings—I’m the youngest in the family—were listening to the Beatles and anything as deep as Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly, and as shallow as whatever pop was there. I was raised in this incredibly eclectic environment of loving everything—even country and western. Well, there was no rap in my childhood, but that would have been part of the mix too, I’m sure.
Why did you choose the saxophone as the instrument you played growing up?
That wasn’t my choice—I wanted to play drums or trumpet. My parents, however, said, “No. We need to have something that sounds more musical when you start.” I said, “Okay, how about trombone?” I thought it was cool how the slide goes in and out. They said, “No, we said we want you to play something that sounds somewhat musical when you start.” And I said, “Well, I’m out of ideas. What do you want me to play?” “How about a nice saxophone?”
So it was kind of forced on me initially, but as I started getting into saxophone lore and hearing what was being done I went, “Okay, maybe this is kind of cool.” Still, there was this frustrated trumpeter and drummer in me through all those years. I did find a lot of fulfillment in saxophone though and it didn’t take long.
What’s the difference for you between composing for the Church and composing other projects?
Rowdiness. For the Church, there necessarily must always be an element of reverence. Even when I score comedy for the Church, it’s not a silly comedy—it’s kind of a sophisticated comedy. With the sower piece I did way back when for the earlier New Testament seminary film, I had to be very careful because silly comedy just doesn’t work in a church setting, so it couldn’t be cartoon comedy and it couldn’t be slapstick. It had to be a very sophisticated kind of comedy and I guess I used as my touchstone the score from It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World—the strange angles and juxtapositions that sound funny, but aren’t silly.
As far as drum kit and edge guitar and my rowdy saxophone, I only use those on non-Church projects. It’s fun, because I’m a rock and roll kid from way back and a jazz aficionado, but I found that with my training and the broad background that I have, the more solemn, more reverent orchestral stuff comes really easily to me. So, that’s the difference. Rowdiness.
What was it like working on the recent Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration movie for the Church?
In the first place, I found a really good friend in Merrill Jenson. I had done big films for the Church before, and he had done big films for the Church before, but he was kind of the laureate grand-pappy of LDS film scoring. He very graciously didn’t resent the fact that whereas he had scored the first two Joseph Smith Memorial Building Theater films himself, now he had an upstart—well, I’d been in the business twenty years—he had someone younger than him and less recognized than him coming in to co-score with him.
He was very gracious about it and we ended up scoring equal amounts of music in the film, an equal number of themes. It was a completely co-equal situation as far as what we delivered to the film, and he didn’t treat me like an underling. He treated me like a peer. And, in fact, I was up to it and carried my weight. I’m a good composer.
The best thing that came out of it was that he’s now my golf buddy. So, a couple of times a year if we can help it, we get out and knock a ball and laugh at each other and have a blast on the links.
But as far as the experience of the film itself, it’s a five-hanky film. Merrill and I got to split up various cues. He scored the surgery. I scored the First Vision. We each got some really meaty scenes to score and I was as engrossed in the film scoring it as most people are watching it. And that’s kind of rare because I’m kind of a jaded old…you know, I’ve done over a hundred films, but it just had a special spirit about it. A little more tragic—no—a lot more tragic than your typical Church film.
Can you describe your creative process? Do you have a set routine?
I kind of do have a set routine, but it wouldn’t look that way to someone just watching. I think about the project and I think about all the literature that’s gone into that genre or approach before and discard the idea of copying any of it, but I do pay attention to the emotion, the colors and textures, things that have worked in the past, and then I try to do them one better in my mind.
To me, it’s very foreign to think of a composer hiring an orchestrator to finish their work unless they were doing a really dense and exact sketch score that they were just breaking into parts. I think about the colors (the choice of instruments), the textures (the density of the instruments, how many and what ranges and things), and the tessitura of the instruments (how high or low, how strained or relaxed they sound in their range), just as much as I think about which chords to use and how to shape the melody, and all those other more compositional factors. So for me, the orchestration and the composition is all part of the same process.
In my training there at the Y, I was completely cut loose from an instrument. I don’t need an instrument to compose. It’s in my head and I put it on the paper. That’s a great gift that I received because it allows me to just sit and conceive of things and then get them down. Nowadays, however, you always have to mock it up for the client using electronics, so I have become very good at electronics, but I don’t have to compose on the electronics.
I guess the short version is that I carve away all of the clichés that I don’t want to use while retaining what’s appropriate and right for the scene or the genre of the piece and then I try to just create something completely new that captures the essence of how I feel about the piece I’m scoring—what I think it means. It’s not like I write the melody first and then the chords. I guess the first thing I do is I pick an ensemble. Am I orchestral? Am I small ensemble? What am I doing with the ensemble? Because that has a lot to do with the budget. I’m not going to conceive of a full orchestral thing for somebody who has an itty bitty budget because I know we’re going to go electronic and although I simulate it well, there are certain things you can’t do. You can’t have fast-moving string lines and things like that on electronics. They sound goofy. So, it changes the way you approach things.
What has been your most enjoyable project to date and why?
As far as rewarding for having done it and feeling proudest of it, it’s a long time ago, but The Mountain of the Lord—it’s not that my career has declined after that, but for the point I was at in my career. That was my first really big film. And I worked my brains out and I feel like I really hit a home run on it. So that’s a standout. But the process was kind of grueling.
Where do you find inspiration for your musical compositions?
It would have to be from my own experience. The music is all about emotion. So, my own emotional past is important to what I write. Every composer has a voice. We don’t—at least most of us don’t—try to sound similar in every piece. We try to sound different and sound versatile but there’s still our voice. It just creeps into everything you do. And that comes, I think, out of our experience and emotions.
In film, it’s easy, because in film you have visuals to which you’re adding a collaborative feature. I can’t go off and write a rock and roll anthem for a tender little love scene. It just doesn’t work. The scene narrows the parameters considerably down. Stravinsky mentioned the abyss of freedom in connection with twentieth-century music and the advent of atonality and how all of a sudden you could do anything and therefore what would you do? There were no parameters.
Well, film takes that right away. It’s quite the opposite. It does get frustrating sometimes when non-musical people are telling the composer what to do, humming things that aren’t even in pitch. But there are those who just hand you a film and say, “Do what you feel.” Then it gets really joyful. But it’s still dictated by the film.
Then when you get to album projects and my own music, that just grows out of my own experiences and emotions. There has to be a motivation for each piece written. I’ve written two for girls—one of which was my wife, the other was before my wife. I’ve written a lullaby for my kids. I’ve written a ballad for children who died too young. Just things that move me in the news or in my own life experience, that sort of thing for my own music. But I’ve written surprisingly little just for me through the years. It’s usually for a client.
How do you see the gospel affecting your work as a composer and musician?
Really deeply. What I just mentioned—the whole emotional grounding that I have and experience that gives rise to these themes and melodies and approaches—is deeply rooted in the gospel. I can’t remember when I haven’t believed deeply in the plan of salvation. Dad always did and he was so credible to me as a kid that I thought, “Well, of course it must be true.” And then I started to realize that, yeah, even at a young age I did have a deep, deep witness of the truth of the plan of salvation, what is now called the plan of happiness.
As I’ve grown and matured in the gospel and different doctrines and ordinances have become part of my experience, it shapes everything I do. There are projects I won’t touch. There are genres I won’t get into because they’re just, by nature, not the right feeling.
It’s like breathing. I can’t separate that from my music. I can’t separate it from anything else that I do, either.
What are you currently working on?
I’m doing a couple of pieces for the Church, but they’re not for general consumption. Every two or three years, I do a big Church project with little ones interspersed. I’ll do industrials and albums and things like that, but right now I just haven’t been a marketer.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
Okay, first I’m going to tell you what everybody told me: “Don’t.”
I disagree. It has been an adventurous ride. There have been really bad times financially, but there have been really fat times financially, too. On the whole, it’s been a good living. Not a great living. Not a rich living. But it’s been a good, solid living. It’s comes in big waves. You get the peak and the crest and then you get the trough. The timing is in question. You never know which is going to be which. So, as long as you and your spouse can have patience with that kind of lifestyle, and then as long as you are really willing to dedicate yourself and try to be the very best at what you do.
There are a lot of people who enter this field and haven’t paid their dues to get their skills together. It’s not necessarily that you need degrees to do this, but I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition plus a ton of experience in jazz, and years and years—well over a decade—as a prime recording artist. So I have all my producer skills down, I have all my performer skills down, I’ve honed my composition skills down in a vast array of genres. And so, if people are going to enter this field and they only like to listen to one type of music whatever kind of rock and roll or fusion or whatever it might be, what they’re doing is limiting the work they can get and they’re limiting their career and it’s going to be frustrating. I was blessed to have such an eclectic background because I can approach any style and already know what it sounds like.
It takes a lot of time to prepare, and if you’re not willing to put in that time and prepare, then you need to be prepared for a very narrow career and narrow careers equate to less money, usually, unless you’re really hungry and you can make some hits in your career.
If somebody wants to get into the business and make a go of it, they need to be a player. They need to be up to studio quality as a player on some instrument or vocals because that gives them producer skills they need to create good music. They need to be eclectic. They need to have a broad range of styles. They need to be very skilled at the compositional art, and that can be self-study or institutional study like I did, but one way or another, you’d better get the chops down.
That’s my advice. Really get your foundation down. Part of that foundation, honestly, is marketing. The ability to get along with people, the ability to meet deadlines, the ability to work under pressure, the ability to never suffer writer’s block. In all my creative life, I’ve had times when it was harder than others, but I never just sat there and said, “Oh my heck, I have writer’s block.” That’s a fallacy. It just means you were headed in the wrong direction. So, you back up and start over. I’ve thrown out far more themes than were ever recorded.
The way you get around writer’s block is to stop trying to compose something that is inappropriate for the end result. ❧