Creative Force vs Music Machine
Creative Force vs Music Machine
Written by David Green
Green Mountain Music
I recently had an intriguing email discussion with a composer who is a couple of years behind me in his music career. Does this make me the expert? Hardly, but – I have been through some of his current challenges and thought I could offer some insight as someone who has gone before. And it got me to thinking – as a part of the production juggernaut that is video and film production, us composers can sometimes get lost in the creative shuffle of it all. Without breaking the confidentiality of our discussion, one of his core questions was, “At what point do we as composers lose our creative force and simply turn into Music Machines?”
Unfortunately, my short answer was that we are Music Machines. Machines that dangle somewhere off of one of the limbs of the writhing mass that is film production. Instructions come down our branch and we send music back up for approval. Sometimes this is a simple one stop process. Other times this is a complicated, potentially ego bruising, battle of wills. Hence the title of this article. Back when I decided to embark on a career in music, before I had even finished the enrolment process for production school, I firmly decided on one thing: to treat the art of writing music as a business. I knew that if I didn’t use this approach, I would be unsuccessful before I had even started. And thus, I made the decision then and there, somewhere between 41st and 57th on Oak Street in Vancouver after my entrance interview. I wanted to be a Music Machine. I wanted to use my unique skills as an artist to satisfy all the strange requests of directors and producers that I outlined in my previous piece, Decoding What A Director Is Telling You.
So, what’s the argument you ask? Where’s the hook? The punch? The reason you are reading this? Ahhh, if you knew but even a small handful of musicians you would already know the problem that exists here. Musicians, composers, lyricists, even mixers and producers, like all creative types, want their voice to be heard. Isn’t that the point of extracting the art out of ourselves and onto our particular canvas in the first place? Otherwise, what’s the point? Well, the problem in being a composer for hire is that in a huge number of cases you are given instructions on what to write based on music that has already been recorded. And thus, the creative force within us disappears and the Music Machine in us takes over. Now, the anti-sellout zealots among us will be all up in arms about essentially ripping off another songwriter’s work for our own profit. “We need to fight for our creative voice to be heard!”, they say. The director is delusional and needs to use this type of music here! But, to them I pose the question: If, as a hired composer, we do not do this recreationist, reinterpretationist type of composing, how do WE make a living?
My logic and self soothing remedy to this problem lies in one simple fact: That as a composer, even if for hire, even if instructed to recreate existing music, even if told to time it the same as some famous action scene, we still cannot create said piece without putting our unique artistic stamp on it. Think of it this way, you know all those cliched images of an art class where all the students are asked to paint the same bowl of fruit or naked model? Well, you aren’t getting 12 exact copies of that bowl of fruit or wrinkly old model. And it’s the same with composing. We can’t copy the samples we are given exactly – that’s copyright infringement, so we put forth our interpretation of it (within the constraints of the director of course). All composers have little flourishes, accents, keys, cadences and so on that they like. And further, if you are also the producer and mixer of your own tracks as I am, you have your own production techniques that you favour which further help to colour the “machine” written music with your personal style. And THAT is how the Music Machine can meld harmoniously with the creative force within us.
So, if you find your self lucky enough to be asked to write music for money, consider yourself just that – lucky enough to be paid to do what comes to you as naturally and as enjoyably as breathing, eating, and sleeping. Because really, how many amongst us can say that about a job? And if your name ends in Zimmer, Elfman, or Williams you’re not allowed to answer that.
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