It’s been a couple of months since my last post. I needed to shut down the engines for a minute and recharge. Also, I’ve been practicing like a crazy person, but I’ll get into that in a moment.
In August of 2009, I packed up the few boxes of possessions (mainly books and recordings), a table, 2 chairs, and a dresser and placed them in a storage unit for a whopping $150 for the year. A few days later I threw a suitcase with some clothes, a used laptop computer, my guitar, and a couple of notebooks onto a flight to Spain. I would live there for just under a year.
I was on a mission to discover everything I possibly could about one composer in particular: Vicente Asencio. So, I spent a number of months studying his works for the guitar and amassing a collection of Spanish musicology books (all of which made up the contents of my suitcase on the return flight). These books not only created insight into who he was as a composer but also contextualized how his work fitted within the musical times in which he lived. The more I researched him, the more I realized I couldn’t just limit my investigation to solely his pieces. I began to study his contemporaries learning just how this very specific musical landscape had influenced all of them. As David Byrne explains in his book How Music Works, you have to have “a scene” and if you don’t have one, well, then you’d better build one. Asencio and his colleagues did just that in the 1950s and not much has changed sixty years later. We’re still building our own scenes….but that’s a story for another day.
So after living abroad, and with a memorable Spanish inflected Thanksgiving under my belt, I moved back to Baltimore. Upon my return, the next ten months of my life were divided between teaching the guitar, thinking about Asencio, writing about him and his contemporaries, practicing his music, taking my last couple of qualifying exams, and finishing my degree. So easy being a student – right?! Ahh, not so much. My wife summed this time up brilliantly when she named it “the grumpy year” and she’s being generous!
After the dust settled, I just couldn’t start the engine back up to push the project forward. Ironically, I felt incredibly guilty about it as I had done all of this work yet could not motivate myself to share it. My research sat in a box in our apartment, and then in a box in our house until finally, in late May of 2014, I became motivated by two deceptively simple sentences: 1. Zane, we’re having a baby. 2. Finish this album. We booked the studio and in October of that same year I went to Berlin, Germany and began recording. The project had finally begun.
This evening, nearly two years later, I’m getting back on a plane to finish the project. Little did I know (or as they say in the film Stranger than Fiction: “Little did he know…”) that it would take me 7 years to reach the finish line.
How do I feel? –Oh, I’m nervous. I find recording to be difficult, and for me it’s a multi-layered challenge, one where I try not to second guess myself, my preparation, my abilities or my musical ideas. I should mention that this is before they’ve even turned on the microphones.
All this is to say—wish me luck. It’s exciting to have the chance to finish this project, and if you’re curious to see how it’s going, I’ll be posting daily to my Instagram account: @zaneforshee and on my YouTube Channel. Stop by and say hello. In the interim, I’ll be thinking about this scene from the movie Almost Famous where Frances McDormand tells the lead guitarist from Stillwater: Be Bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.
Perhaps we could all use a little courage this week.
I wanted to try something a little different with this month and make it a double feature. I’m thinking about films at the moment, and how much I want to be watching them on my couch with a pile of snacks. This is part 1. The second feature on this bill is brought to you by the amazing Christian Biegai. He’ll be shedding light on how film music is created, played, and its contribution to the overall experience of the audience—Boom! Now, on with the post:
Ah, it’s that time of year…the end of the semester is visible. This means three things:
1. Students are ready to be done.
2. I will be woodshedding like a fiend to conquer some guitar projects.
3. I’m making my “must watch movie list.”
Let’s focus for a moment on #3 from the list: I. Love. Movies. As I’m nearing the end of the academic year, I’ve begun compiling my list of films I’m going to watch over the summer. Seriously, that’s my goal—movies (and junk food—food trucks lookout, I’m headed your way). I don’t have the chance to watch many from September-May. The summer serves as the time for me to catch up.
The summer is also responsible for providing the opportunity for me to meet one of my closest friends—Christian Biegai (he writes music…more on that in a moment–Christian is part 2 of this double feature).
We met in our 20’s (which was a while ago…) at a summer music festival we were both teaching at in Pennsylvania. Christian came down from NYC to teach saxophone and I was coming up from Baltimore to talk all things guitar. Wilkes-Barre, PA served as the meeting point for two freelance musicians to get work in the artistic desert known as summer and allowed us to find that ever-elusive commodity during the warm months—a paycheck.
As I got to know Christian, I quickly observed what an incredible musician he was and indeed still is! Not only is he a brilliant performer, he’s one of the most openminded listeners I’ve encountered. He listens to EVERYTHING and we spent many a night in Wilkes-Barre, NYC, Baltimore, and Berlin (where he currently lives) listening and talking about music. In addition, he is the biggest David Bowie fan I have ever met. While his primary instrument is the saxophone, I soon learned about his passion for film music and composition. He opened my eyes to a new world—film scores. Christian showed me the impact that the score can have on a film and its audience. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship, between sight and sound, they need each other!
Shapppowwww! That’s all of us flash forwarding to now: Christian is a full-time composer, husband, and dad. He writes both film and concert music, and still shreds on the saxophone (Take a listen to his most recent tribute to David Bowie below).
To hear more of Christian’s music, you can visit his Soundcloud page. I’ve included a couple of my favorites below:
Pretty great, right?!?!? So, while I wanted to talk about some of my favorite film scores I’ve discovered (thanks to Christian), I felt it would be a heck of a lot more interesting to have Christian, an actual film composer, talk about scores that he feels are worth exploring. Oh, and you should say hi to him via:
Is it a bird, is it a plane? Welcome to the blog, Christian!
Guten Tag from the Berlin Headquarters! I am honoured to be chosen as the film music correspondent for your blog!
Although, I don’t think you have to be a film composer to evaluate film scores. Anyone who watches movies or T.V. series or any combination of moving pictures with music would be able to tell if they liked it or not. Of course this is a very subjective evaluation and so many times there is no right or wrong. For example. Let me give you my personal top 10 of great film scores!
CHRISTIAN BIEGAI’S TOP TEN FILM SCORES
Directed by Richard Donner, Music by John Williams
Let’s start with the most important film score of all! John Williams’ score of Superman was engraved into my brain at the tender age of 6. I had a tape of the score in my room and without even seeing the film, I totally knew what was going on in the film (at least my imagination was very clear about it). I was an avid reader of Superman Comics and the score to the film was the ultimate addition to the pictures. When I finally saw the movie for the first time many years later, I felt like I’d seen it already, due to the excessive amount of time I listened to the tape.
Directed by Uli Edel, Music by Jürgen Knieper and David Bowie
What did teachers at public schools in Germany do in the 80’s to prevent young teenagers on the border of adolescence from becoming drug addicts? They showed them a movie about teenagers in evil West Berlin, back then the capitol of heroin, going through the abyss of addiction, prostitution and God knows what. (I’ll never forget the shot, when it shows a needle first penetrating the skin). The problem with this plan however was, that the main music was by David Bowie. The results of watching this supposedly terrifying movie was that every kid wanted to break out, go to Berlin, be wild and listen to David Bowie (which I eventually put into reality, more about this later.) The movie “Christiane F” a.k.a. “Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo”, was as an educational movie a total failure, but became the soundtrack of so many German teenagers in the 80’s. For me this was the beginning of my life long addiction to David Bowie and his music. You can not say you lived if you haven’t heard his German Version of “Heroes.”
Director: Stanley Kubrick Music: Wendy Carlos, Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki
I think this might have been my first real contact with contemporary classical music, and what an impression it made on me – I was terrified for years to come! (Still am!) Kubrick uses original music, but mostly already existing music by contemporary composers like Bartok, Ligeti or Penderecki, and he uses it brilliantly just like in his other films. If you want to know more about it, this article is great fun.
Director E. Elias Merhige, Music by Dan Jones
I was in New York in 2000 and went to see a film that got my attention: “Shadow of the Vampire.” The premise sounded fun and I was intrigued by Willem Dafoe performing as Max Shrek, the actor who played the vampire in the original “Nosferatu.” I cannot describe the feeling when I saw the opening on a big screen, the music propelled it into another dimension. ‘Goosebumps’ would just describe one dimension of it. Seeing it now, the animation seems a little outdated, but the music still has an immense power. The orchestration is so brilliant, and if you need inspiration on how to prepare a musical climax, this is it.
Six months later my friend Ben Foskett was in Prague at Smecky Music Studios, preparing the music for the next score by Dan Jones for “Black Plague” (the movie was called “Annazepta” back then). He asked me if I wanted to join them. My answer? “Aeeehhh . . . yes Ben. I’ll be there tomorrow!” The next day. I was in the recording room, with an orchestra, Dan Jones, Christopher Austin and Ben Foskett, recording a brilliant score and hanging out with people who had already blown my mind six months before, and even more watching them in the recording studio.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, Music by Jonny Greenwood
I was on a long distance flight and started looking through the films. Oh yeah! This was one looks great. Music by Jonny Greenwood? Hell yeah. I started it and stopped after five minutes. It was clear to me that this would totally suck to watch on a little screen on an airplane with bad headphones and bad food being served. I had to watch this in a cinema with a giant music system and a huge screen (and no food!) I stopped watching, and three weeks later I was in a fairly empty cinema at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and was mesmerized by the brilliance of the score and the film. Among other things, the music at the beginning symbolizes to me the evil that oil has created in humanity, and the egotistic behavior stemming from it, which made so many people suffer. It is such an abyss of darkness. Is that too much? Well, the movie certainly is heavy, and the music accompanies it so well, and adds a whole different dimension to the story. I was able to listen to a live performance to it last December by the Stargaze ensemble here in Berlin. And seeing the details like the independent bow changes of the violins and hearing the overall complexity of the orchestration live made me love the music even more!
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, Music by John Brion and Aimee Mann
Oops. Another film by P.T. Anderson. Another Marvel! The score is divided between songwriter Aimee Mann and the orchestral score by John Brion. I love the juxtaposition of these two genres in the film and how much the music dominates the drama. One of my favorite scenes is the track “Showtime” where there is a ten minute Bolero-like musical theme that accompanies a film collage of the alternating stories. It is just brilliant!
Director: Wes Anderson, Music by Mark Mothersbough
Well, here is another Anderson, who is also quite talented in making films. The Life Aquatic has also a great juxtaposition of film music and rock music. This time the film was scored by Mark Mothersbough and a Portuguese guitarist named Seu Jorge. Seu Jorge is part of the Team Zissou and is constantly in the background playing songs by David Bowie but singing them in Portuguese during the entire movie. (Did I mention that I am heavily influenced by David Bowie?)
7.) “Birth” (2004)
Director: Jonathan Glazer, Music by Alexandre Desplat
Berlin Film Festival 2010. Alexandre Desplat was to give a talk about his music and of course I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity! One scene was fascinating to me: the opening scene of the film “Birth”. We just see a man going on a run through Central Park. If you mute the music, the scene doesn’t say very much, does it? That is exactly what Alexandre Desplat thought and he had no idea how to score it. Jonathan Glazer gave him the idea in this scene to describe the entire film in music and therefore give it something like a musical overture, in which he introduces the characters. What an amazing idea! The result is mesmerizing!
8.) “Vertigo” (1958)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Music: Bernard Hermann
I saw this film as a kid many times, but 1996 on my first visit to New York, I was fortunate to see the restored version at the Ziegler Theatre. It changed my life! I really don’t know where to start or to end talking about it, so I suggest, you just watch it and pay attention to the magnificent score. If you want to dive more into the subject and be a super nerd (like me), there is an entire book about the music and the connection to the film: David Cooper. Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook
Director: Lars von Trier, Music by Björk
Like the epic (director’s cut) version of “Lawrence of Arabia”, the film starts in total darkness with an overture on a pitch black screen. A wonderful brass section starts in complete darkness, a reference to the blindness of the protagonist. I love how Björk picked sounds from the surroundings and made them into music. Very “Musique Concrete.” Obviously Lars von Trier won’t make a comedy, and I’ll spare you the details of the plot (the entire cinema was sobbing at the end credits,) but the score stands out as a very unique way of integrating this strong music into a stunning film.
Director: Spike Jones, Music by Carter Burwell.
I can’t have a top ten and not have a score in it by Carter Burwell. He is mostly known for working with the Cohen Brothers, but this particular score is so beautiful and works so well with the story (which is totally crazy! Like really, totally cuckoo,) that I have to put it into my top ten! One of my favorite tracks of the film: Puppet Love.
So there you go! My top ten! I have to admit, I am not able to put any of these film scores in a ranking order. I could easily add 90 film scores to this list and still not be able to put them in any order. I think they all have their own qualities and deserve to be recognized in their own ways. I don’t really differentiate between original scores and pre-composed music or songs. To my mind it doesn’t really matter that much, because in the end it’s the result that counts. I hope you get some inspiration from this list and it keeps your ears sharp the next time you go and see a movie!