Sunday, November 15, 2009

Larry Timm and Movie Music

Yesterday my KNIFVES movie networking group had Larry Timm come give an all-day seminar on music in movies. Dr. Timm is a professor at Cal State Fullerton in California and teaches this subject, as well as writes about it. His book "The Soul of Cinema" is the standard music appreciation textbook around the country, including at USC's film school. He also plays the oboe, and has done so for various television, movie and music video scores - something that would impress one of my nieces, who also plays the oboe.

It was a whole day chock full of information interwoven with interesting stories of the world of music within the world of cinema. Larry gave us a day's worth of highights from his semester-long course. I knew sound was complex in movies. Larry gave us details on what "complex" means. He also showed some great clips of conductors taking music written for movies and then getting their orchestras to play the scores in time with the movies themselves, and explained to us the details of how that works. One tape was from the early 1980s, of Ray Bradbury and a young James Horner (who has composed all kinds of movie music, including the award-winning "Titanic" score) as they listened to the playback of the orchestra's work that day on the music for "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Very cool, to see that.

Larry's talk got my mind in a whirlwind. With the suspense drama script that I've written, I have certain music in mind - one song in particular that would be "source" music in two places (a new term for me, that means music being played as part of the movie itself, on the radio for example). But how does that music then get intertwined into the movie throughout? I pondered that as we watched "Titanic" clips and Larry explained how the love theme and the lead female character's theme got intertwined at various points.

The talk also got me remembering my one foray into soundtracks, way back in the early 1980s, in London. I was spending my junior year on a study-abroad program, at Westfield College - a part of the University of London, up near Hampstead Heath - and a group of us got chosen to spend a week at University College London (sort of like the main campus) to make a short film. All the other students were British, but for some reason they had let the American tag along. My friends were all actors, so they all wanted to play in the film - a short drama of no particular import, but a useful exercise for the weeklong class. I didn't want to be on camera, so I offered to do the background sounds, and took off to record restaurant noises and a bus driving away. I had so much fun, even in the midst of a workers' strike that had halted the London underground - the Tube - making travel around London nearly impossible. (Buses still ran but were so crowded that they wouldn't stop for new passengers. I had to borrow a bike for the week.)

And then, after all my work, our instructor forgot to put in the bus exhaust sound, and it ended up coming in after the designated line (so that it just sounded weird) and even though I knew no one else really noticed, it was like nails on a chalkboard for me. I can still see my instructor's face, looking slightly chagrined as I gestured at him and he realized his error and then tried, belatedly, to correct it.

But back to yesterday's seminar... At one break, several of us got into a discussion of what we hear in our heads, and how some of the writer types hear both music and words when they write while the rest of us - me included - hear only the voices of our characters. Though I do listen to music when I write. I always try to find something instrumental that I can have in the background while I' m creating. With the exorcist play, I used a lot of Hildegard de Bingen music. With the baseball novel, I tried out some 1940s music, but there were too many lyrics, so I went with emotional instrumental (a movie score by James Horner, actually) as well as some Robbie Robertson (to help evoke the Native American component of the novel and besides, I love his music) and some Billy McLaughlin (who is truly gifted). So, a mixture.

We ended the day with Larry taking out his oboe and playing a few notes. So beautiful. I love the oboe. I thought, my niece who plays the oboe should be here for this part.

And then some of us ended up going to dinner at The White House, a Greek restaurant in Post Falls, Idaho, which is a little weird because I just wrote two days ago about growing up in the White House (my home in Poway, not the one in DC). This particular White House in Post Falls is a great restaurant, authentic food, perfect hummus, and garlic on everything. Here it is, the next day, and somehow I can still smell the garlic. Delicious.

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