Interview with Michael Whalen

The composer talks about the role of music in television programs.

Michael Whalen, Composer

My name is Michael Whalen and I'm a television and film composer. I have done hundreds of projects for television, and film, and advertising, and multimedia. I'm a composer on the Ulysses S. Grantproject. And here we are in my studio in Needham, Massachusetts, and this is where I write all my music.

What is a Composer?
A composer is somebody who writes music. It can be in any one of a thousand different styles. I write music for television and for film projects, which means I'm given the film to score. I'm literally watching the film as I write the music. I started as a composer, working first in advertising 13 years ago in New York, and I've done thousands of different ads. It was a good training ground for when I started doing longer-form things, like the Grantproject and other things that I've done, to work in a variety of different kinds of styles. But I think the most important thing about being a composer, especially these days -- well, two things really. The first would be having an understanding of lots of different styles, but having them all kind of create a unique voice that is yours, so that's selecting sounds and melodies and harmonies that sort of relate back to you, even though you're writing lots of different styles.

And I think the other part of it is not getting too carried away with the technical part of it. I have a lot of equipment here in my studio and I think a lot of young people say this is great, you're working with a computer and whatever. But it's really a combination of sort of the knowledge of music and the technical part. And that has been one of the strong suits in my own career about sort of combining the two. There's a real marriage between the two. But really listening to a lot of different music is a great starting place. Do you like lots of different kinds of music? And actually listening to music that you don't necessarily like. What is sort of intrinsically good or bad, or what do you like about it, what do you not like about it? That was really the building blocks where I started. And that's what got me interested because I liked an awful lot more than I didn't like.

I became the composer on the Grant film because I had worked on other films for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and they called me and they had given me a couple of scenes to score. And I did some demos, and a demo is a demonstration of the work that you do. And they really liked it. And I met with Elizabeth Deane and Adriana [Bosch], the other producer, and Jon [Neuburger] and Bill [Lattanzi], the two editors, and I think a lot of what makes a creative situation click, sort of beyond the music -- I don't want to sort of take it for granted, but it's the relationship part. The -- do you trust that the person you're hiring as a composer is going to do what you want them to do? And do you trust that this person is going to be able to deliver, and be professional, and all those kinds of things? But for me, I want to work with people who are both going to give me very clear direction of what they want, but also give me a lot of latitude. And so I really felt very comfortable. It was -- you know, right off the bat. It was a very good experience.

The Process of Scoring 
The process of starting a score, whether it's the Grant piece or anything for television, it's sort of a multilevel process. The first thing for me is to see something like a picture. It can be a rough cut. A rough cut is a rough assembly of the different elements of the picture, and just try to get a sense of what it looks like. A lot of composers read scripts. I personally don't like reading scripts because in my mind, I'm going to see it differently than it actually looks, and I think it can be misleading. So for me, the beginning process is trying to see something visually that you get a sense of what it's going to be like. Then, you start writing. You start thinking about putting together some thematic ideas and some texture ideas, and you start bouncing it off of people very early. What do you think of this? What do you think of this? What do you think of this? And you really get a conversation going back and forth.

I think the next part of it is waiting. Waiting for them to get a place in their picture where it's pretty close to being done. I think you can spend a lot of time batting the ball back and forth. But until structurally, the picture is in a place where you can work with it and do some really sort of meaningful work structurally, there's really no point in getting into it. So once I get something like a finished picture, I'll sit down with it, and I'll do something called counts. Literally, what a count is, is that on the picture there's a time code number, and you decide with the producer and the editor where a cue, which is a piece where television starts and where it ends. And you write down where it starts. One hour, two minutes, 58 seconds, and two frames. And then it ends at some point later. I've written cues that are ten seconds long for a film. I've written cues that are 25 minutes. It just depends in terms of what the producer wants, what the director wants, if you're working on a dramatic piece. And they want input in terms of spotting, so it's again, a conversation in terms of who -- well, there is no science to doing it. It's really -- this is really the art part. For this film, they were very specific about where they wanted music and then I added some things, they took away some things. I added some more stuff. We kept that. And so by the end of the process, I think Grant has something over 100 cues, for four hours. And there's about two hours, more than two hours of music for the film, almost -- two and a half hours.

I think that it doesn't really matter to me how much music there is in a film, as long as it's spotted well. There are terrific films, like one of the examples would be like Out of Africa. It's a two and a half hour film, but it has 22 minutes of music in it. But it's a really good 22 minutes. And there are other films, big action films, that are scored almost from the very beginning of the film, to the end, and you don't ever remember the music. It's not really anything that's moving you because there's so much of it, it kind of cancels itself out. So I try to really work very hard in terms of saying, what role will the music play in the process of telling the story? And the Grant story is so compelling in terms of -- there's so many ups and downs, and what a life the guy had.

And so the next part of the process would be, especially for this film, I did a lot of reading. I read the [Grant's] Memoirs myself, read Bruce Catton's book, Stillness at Appomattox, about his campaigns. There's a couple of other books that I used as reference, but theMemoirs were terrific. And it really helped me a lot because when I went back and talked to the producers, I could sort of talk to them one-to-one, and talk to them about a lot of things that actually isn't in the film. Even in four hours, you can't everything in, so you make choices. And so what I was trying to do in the music, was to try to bring some things in emotionally that they couldn't actually do with the visuals, and that worked out really well.

The Grant Score
Well, the Grant score is different than any other film I have scored for two big reasons. The first is time. I have worked on scores longer but I think the creative process with regard to this film has been very consistent, even though it's been over a long period of time. There's really been this sense of sort of the push/pull, which I happen to like. When you have this much music and you're dealing with a subject of this enormity, I think it's OK to spend a little more time with it. And so rarely in television now do you have a chance to say, 'let's sit back for a second, take a look at it again, let's look at it one more time, let's see if you have any other comments.' What I get is something called "notes." I send them a cue sheet with everything and they list and they say, 'OK, well, cue number one is fine, but cue number two, we want some changes, and here's some notes, and here's some comments,' and whatever. And you literally go through the whole film that way. It was really nice in this film to have a process of the notes where it wasn't all stressed out. There was a real sense that we could step back and be objective about it, and then go back and work on it again. That was a huge change.

And I think the other huge big part of this is that there are several major themes in this show musically. Usually when you write a show, even -- I just finished doing an eight hour show for National Geographic which had six hours of music in it. There's pretty much one or two themes in six hours. This is a show that has like five major themes, character themes, situational type themes, and it was really nice to be able to develop pieces of music like that and do themes and variations on them in a way that I found really musically satisfying because that way, it's not just like little television music that kind of darts in and out or whatever. You really have a sense where you kind of got into the meat of it, and that was terrific. That was really good.

Working with the Producer
Elizabeth Deane, who's the executive producer, was involved from the beginning. She was the one who originally called me and was interested in working with me on this. Elizabeth is a terrific filmmaker and person to work with because she gives you a lot of creative latitude. I think it's nice to work with somebody who says, 'we have this clear vision of what we want, now run with it.' That happens so rarely because people are either -- have no clue what they want and they say well, we'll know the music when we hear it, which is always very dangerous because there's so many different directions you can go in even in a period piece, even in a historical piece like Grant, that there's almost too many choices for me to make and say, 'OK, well how am I going to make you happy?' I think the other big thing that Elizabeth did was again, this issue of time. She gave me time to work on things, and that was crucial because I think a lot of producers are very much, 'Come on, come on, come on. Let's go, let's go, let's go, let's go.' And I think obviously we made a deadline and all that, but you weren't pressured into making creative decisions that you weren't totally comfortable about making, and that was wonderful.

Elizabeth's expectations were very high. I think for a show like this, it's a big show and I think you have to do your best work. And I think I wouldn't have gotten hired for it unless she thought I would be able to do it. I think for a lot of producers, the idea of sort of herding a composer around is not anything they're interested in doing, especially someone like Elizabeth. She wants somebody who is going to be sort of self-motivated to kind of walk through this process themselves and be guided at key moments. But this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the trust issue. I mean, I trust her to tell me what she wants and that I'm going to walk down this path and get to where she wants to go to, and she has to trust me to go there. And that's a big part of filmmaking.

The score for Grant for me, is pretty sparse and it's pretty folky, guitary, there's a lot of hammer dulcimer, a lot of American indigenous sounds, melodica, which to the untrained ear will sound like a harmonica, pump organ, all kinds of sounds like that. This is not stuff that I normally deal with. So in that way, for me, it was a lot of fun to get into a whole new sort of musical palette. But what Elizabeth wanted me to do was to kind of fuse it with a more sort of modern or postmodern kind of sensibility. So there's a lot of electric guitar, even though you won't know it as electric guitar, there's a lot of pretty edgy sound design type sounds in the score, even though you'll be like, 'what's that?' And there's some more orchestrated things with horns and whatever.

But in a presidential story, it doesn't happen as often as you would think. I think there is sort of a desire, at least I came to this about halfway through, and I think Elizabeth and Adriana, the other producer, were pretty consistent about this and it just kind of took me some time, about keeping Grant pretty close to the ground, pretty folky, he's like a normal guy, normal in these sort of extraordinary circumstances, and the music has to portray that somehow. And that's a big deal. So we were picking sounds that were going to help do that, and that was different for me.

Feature vs. Documentary Music
The difference between feature music and documentary music is function. One is about telling the story and heightening the drama, which would be feature music, and the other is about heightening the story and enhancing the drama, and that's documentary music, but it's done in a totally different way. Documentary is about the narrative voice. Sometimes the narrative voice is the narration, sometimes it's the person talking onscreen, sometimes it's just the images that you're seeing, stills, archive photos, archive footage, but very rarely it's the music. Usually the music is taking a backseat to the narrative, and it's giving it a second or third dimension that wasn't there before.

In a feature film in a lot of cases, the music can take much more of that sort of narrative role in terms of sort of emotionally sort of pulling people through a story. And it can be more featured, you don't have narration sort of booming down on you all the time, and so there is literally more space sonically in a feature film for music. In a documentary, you're kind of fitting into the narration and the other voices, sound effects, production sound. In a feature film, you're scoring around dialogue obviously and you're telling the story, but the music can have a much more sort of narrative impact on the film.

Grant is different a little bit because it is not a particularly overwritten documentary. Elizabeth and Adriana I think went to great pains to try to open things up in terms of telling the story and telling it visually, and it gave me a lot of space. And so Grant I think is in a very sort of interesting position as a documentary. It is a documentary but it is made in a style which afforded me a lot of space. And there was a lot of scenes where they said, 'take the lead. Do your thing.' Some of the battle scenes, the funeral scene at the very end of the film, the whole end section where the music really gets up on its feet and the narrative voice and the music really have sort of a one-to-one relationship. That never happens in a documentary, never because I think there's always this sense that the music is always sort of playing in the background. And, 'what's that pretty noise in the background? Oh, that's Michael's music,' whatever. And this film is different in that way and that was nice, that was a nice change.

The Dinner Party Music
The White House dinner scene. What we ended going with was a piece by [19th century composer Frédéric] Chopin. And it is a source piece, meaning I didn't write it, Chopin did. And what happens in a historical documentary, what's nice to do is to have a source piece because you tend to have so much score that you don't have a sense of the time and the place, and having -- they might have listened to Chopin. I'm going to guess they probably did. It's the right time period. But it also gives you more of a feel, gives you more of a sense of a reality. Scoring a scene like a dinner party, or a play, or that kind of thing, it tends to put a little bit too much sort of emotional distance on a scene. And having a piece of source music like this makes you sort of more inside the scene.

So picking a piece of music like this, first thing is that is it can't be too big. So there's this whole piano piece, this particular recording was done by a friend of mine, my friend Steve who is an excellent pianist. But I think it's the emotional feeling. It has to -- picking source is difficult. I think in a lot of feature films, you hear a lot of songs and you hear a lot of two characters in a bar talking and there's music coming out. I don't think people realize how much time people spend sweating over making those decisions, like what kind of piece is it? How fast does it go? The tempo of the piece is crucially important. So I think picking the source is as hard or in some cases, harder than writing it from scratch. And -- but I think it's important in a film like this to break up the music and not have it all be the same in terms of having it be Michael's score or whatever.

"Subterranean Dream"
This piece of music doesn't work. Stylistically, it has this sort of dub bass line, and it's got this sort of hip-hoppy kind of track. It's actually a track from a record that I did last year. And you'll see when you see it up against the picture, the time period is all wrong, it's probably too big for what's going on. There needs to be sort of a delicacy about what's going on. There needs to be a sense of sort of the grandeur. Here are these two people transplanted from the farm, Julia and Ulysses Grant. I mean, they went through the hardest times possible and here they are in the White House, and they're having their dinner parties, and isn't this wonderful? And what in the world is this hip-hop track doing behind this? So I think this piece is probably not the right choice.

"Building a Nest"
And this piece is a piece that I wrote for another score a few years ago, and I think as a piece of source in this scene, I think it works pretty well. I have two problems with it. Number one is it's a little repetitive, which isn't bad but it doesn't go anywhere. I think you want a piece like this to kind of start at a place and take you somewhere. This piece doesn't really do that. The other thing is that when the violin comes in, it makes it feel a little too folky. It's a little too Americana and not enough white tie, and you're in the -- and that's why the -- I think the Chopin piece, even though it's simpler and there's less instruments, and it's less orchestrated, is more appropriate because I think it's got a little bit more of that sort of classical grandeur and we're all buttoned up, and we're all looking good, and Grant's out of his general uniform and he's all ready for dinner. And that's what the music emotionally has to do in the scene. And this is a pretty good choice but it's not -- I don't think the best choice.

Becoming a Composer
There is no one track for doing it. I am friends with many, many different composers and we all got to the places that we are in different ways. I went to the Berklee College of Music here in Boston and I went to the University of Maryland, and I was terrible at school. But I know lots and lots of people who are very successful who were great at school. They went to Juilliard and they got their Ph.D. And there's no one track for doing it. I think to be a successful television and film composer, you need an odd combination of the musical skills, the technical skills, the business part, the ability to communicate your ideas verbally. What are you going to do? I am going to write a score that's dynamic, and beautiful, and rousing, and get that to a place where the producer and director say, 'yeah, we want to hire this person.' That's hard to do and it's a difficult set of skills.

I would say if you are somebody who's interested in entering the field, the first thing I would do is watch film. Do you like it? Do you like how films are being put together? What do you think you could do as a film scoring person? When I was a kid, I used to watch films over and over and over. Thank God for videotape. And I would roll back scenes and I would just noodle, play piano to it, whatever. I think that's really valuable because I think a lot of composers talk about cinematic language. Do you understand what cinematic language is about? It's not just like, write the biggest piece of music you can. And it's really tracking action wisely now the actor is going to pick up the object and put it in his other hand, and now a dramatic moment is going to happen. And musically, how do you follow that contour? That's an odd thing to do.

I think the other big thing that you need to be able to do early on is we talked about the importance of understanding different styles. You need to do that. You need to understand different styles and how different styles work. So when Elizabeth Deane on the Grant project says, 'we want something more folky,' I understand what she means. What do you mean folky? Well, you know, folky. I don't listen to a lot of folk music in my spare time but I know what she means and I can put it in terms of my own style and make it work as part of my score. That's so important.

The other thing that I would do if I was a young film scoring person is to really have an understanding of more than one instrument, one of which has to be keyboards. So much of what happens with scoring is all sort of keyboard-centric. But if you have an understanding of guitar, saxophone, violin, so valuable. I started as a percussionist and I sort of moved over to the piano in high school. But having another instrument that you are really comfortable on is incredibly important. I think what happens is a lot of people get out of school, they play one instrument, and they're like, I want to become a writer. Well good, but the way things are done these days, especially with computers, and synthesizers, and MIDI, and all that, if you don't have a keyboard part, you're behind. But if you have a keyboard and something else, you're so much farther ahead. So that would be -- I didn't know that. I kind of stumbled into it. But now that I'm a little farther down the road, I would say that if I was planning my life again, I would say, yeah, percussion, keyboard, guitar, keyboard, really valuable. Good skills.

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