Several months ago I visited the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria where I went to an exhibit of artists in the categories of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. The extreme details and craftsmanship were so inspiring! As I explored these masters I was struck at how precisely they could paint such typical French or european landscapes and yet interpret them so differently and so beautifully from one another.
For example, instead of trees and grass colored in green, brown and other earthen colors, some artists like Matisse, Signac, Van Rysselberghe and Lebasque chose to realize their landscapes in myriads of pinks, reds and blues for example. Some took liberties with lines and shapes but not straying so far as to lose the essence of the image. These approaches injected an untraditional and unexpected vibrancy for their time-something beyond fantastic.
My grasp of the visual world has admittedly always been tenuous, as my lifelong inclination has favored the confluent intricacies of audio and emotion. As, however, I seek to deepen my comprehension of the visual masters, I realized a simple parallel between visual art and the art of music made for media.
In the modern day use of media music, whether it be film, television, commercials, podcasts, radio, etc., there is clearly an abundance and hybrid of styles to choose from. For better or worse, there is also an abundance of the same ol’ same ol’ that is pervasive throughout. As has traditionally been the case, a sound/style becomes popular and then other directors, producers and clients want their composers to emulate it, often times to the point of saturation. We see this trend in almost all mediums of commercial story-telling.
Although the zeitgeist sound of the moment is hip and cool, unless you’re one of the first ones to use it, chances are that it will probably not give your story an advantage when it comes to helping it stand out from the fold. So, developing your own “Sonic Signature” can really be a vital piece of your project’s saliency.
Take movie and tv scores like Social Network, The Dark Knight, and Lost, for example. Not only did they work well with the story, but they had an original sound. The directors allowed the composers to pitch something new and sometimes even at the encouragement of the directors.
Let’s look at Lost. Composer, Michael Giacchino, used orchestral based instruments like trombones and cellos, to name two. Instead of scoring them in a traditional sense, he composed them to be played in a specific fashion often using extended techniques, extreme dynamics and dissonant chord clusters. Two cello parts written a half step apart while doing a glissando can create a harrowing and jolting effect. Similarly, trombones performing an aggressive crescendo with a dissonant chord are severely impactful. While there were motifs used throughout the history of the show, I would argue that most people came to recognize the show more based on the aforementioned “Sonic Signatures”. Simply put, the show had “a sound”, and that “sound” evolved through the seasons. It was even, arguably, a character of the show. It was definitely unlike any other at that time and a part of one of the most popular shows of the 2000s.
But that’s a tv show, and because of time and evolving story lines, television shows have the chance to create and build upon thematic and sonic content. So what if you have a project that’s much more short form- a movie, a commercial, or even a theme for a podcast? Well, here, too, exploration with your composer can lead to equally emphatic results.
Let’s harken back to the visual artists I mentioned earlier. Speaking in rudimentary terms- similar to how art is a composition of lines, shapes and shades- a score is a combination of notes, shapes and textures…both linearly and often in parallel (orchestration). So… what if, for example, you took a motif that you were originally thinking would be great for piano, but instead experimented with it being performed by another type of instrument, or even a layering of different instruments that then created a whole other vibe but one that still fit your story?
Let’s get crazy and say a marimba, doubled with a human voice and a banjo. Let’s get crazier and take that- reverse it, and then add some short delay and reverb. Sound fun? Here’s another: Maybe you want your project to have a funky vibe, so your composer creates a simple rhythm track that’s performed on a kitchen table and then peppered with some spicy beat-boxing. Twist it a bit with some EQ, layer under that a Moog bass line doubled by a baritone saxophone, and then pen a staccato muted trumpet line playing a simple off beat melody on the top. All of a sudden you’ve got a sonancy that’s fresh and vibey.
Although not as bold, here’s a real-life situation from a film I scored last year. I sampled the voices of the lead actress and the director separately. I then combined them to create a lush ambient pad that I layered with strings and other synths. The director loved it!
Back to the first two examples, these are just a couple of made up ideas from off the top of my head. Obviously, they are extreme for most situations, BUT the hope is that this out of the box type of thinking may inspire media makers to start exploring new approaches to scores for their chosen mediums- approaches that not only support their stories but take them to an even higher level of acceptance and appreciation from their respective audiences.
Like those artists who pushed boundaries on the flats of their canvases, I would encourage you to do the same when it comes to choosing music for your respective mediums. Most composers are just waiting for the right project to create something fresh or an opportunity to delve into their stockpile of original ideas. They would LOVE to have a conversation with you about how they can help create your story’s unique “Sonic Signature”.