In our regular column Know the Score, writer and composer Aaron Gilmartin steps out of the scoring stage and explores, in detail, some important aspect of movie music. After all, film is as much about what you hear as what you can see.
While at home lately I’ve been curious how film composers—in LA and beyond—are personally coping and moving forward professionally during the pandemic. My aim is to offer a partial chronicle of how the creative community is channeling their energy in the time of COVID.
The picture that emerges reflects how differently each of us responds. Every one of the composers is locked down inside their home, but the choices each has made creates a varied pattern coming into focus. We’re learning different lessons, different approaches. Many of us are studying some skill or other—everything from sight-reading Bach to MIDI programming to orchestration. You get the sense that, as a whole, the group is staying focused and improving.
Two of our sample size have been working steadily right through the last 11 months. But overall, many rhythms of work and home life have had to adjust to support the music creation while being restrained by the pandemic and its effects.
Last Spring, Alexis Marsh of Alexis & Sam (TNT’s Animal Kingdom) was on a strict schedule, waking up early to work and study before her young child Erol would wake. Marsh and her partner were home together all the time, and would squabble about who was doing more of the home-schooling work. Putting a value on each of their time was not helping. They decided that it would be better to hire a childcare assistant. Now they have help from 9am-12pm each weekday to help run Erol’s homeschooling.
Marsh says that normally they wouldn’t be able to find money for this, but once they rearranged some things to make it possible, they saw how it made it possible to focus on music work. They’ve been learning to better communicate, she says. The “personal coaching” of therapy has also helped. Marsh and her partner, musician Dan Dorff Jr., have also joined a wine club and now enjoy a glass together at the end of the day. Overall they’ve been successful getting “more joy” into the process, she says.
This past autumn, Marsh and Samuel Jones—her composing partner—finished a film score and did a union recording session at Igloo Studio in LA with very few hiccups, with Jones in the studio and Marsh working remotely.
Dorff is primarily a live musician, so the loss of live work this past year has been tough. But the couple loves being able to have more time at home working remotely. And it seems everyone in the business knows a kid may be there in the background. The reality requires a new working rhythm, they say.
During quarantine, Billy Sullivan (Brothers in Arms, The Truth About Marriage) has been sharpening his skills and updating his studio. While scoring a feature length film, he’s also been focused—more than usual—on keeping his music visible to potential employers, even writing an article for Music Publishers that ended up as a cover piece.
As it is for many people in LA, everything seems to have changed drastically for Sullivan, but his writing stays consistent and he has found more time for family, he says. It’s a new normal, and Billy is making the best of it.
Most of his projects that were in production have been put on hold, but Sullivan has been continuing to write and record music. In some cases, he’s found satisfaction in charitable writing for fundraisers for the homeless. “This is a hard time for many of us,” he says, “But this allows all of us to pull back and ask ourselves: ‘What are we really doing for a living? What do I really want to do?’” He adds: “Unfortunately, sometimes a pandemic like this weeds out the people who are really lifers and who are not.”
In Abiram Brizuela’s case, he’s been working more than ever. When we spoke in September he was finishing up a feature soundtrack using a new workflow, where the music was recorded remotely. Before, his workflow would usually mean going to the studio to interact with musicians. Now they’re now recording at home. This is odd for everyone involved, he says, but good that it’s possible.
Instead of taking cues from each other or a live conductor guiding the performance through fluctuating speeds, Brizuela makes conducting videos and sends the video with speed fluctuations already built-in. He then rehearses with each musician individually before recording.
He usually works face-to-face but is now recording with people as far away as Columbia, Sweden and Venezuela. Working remotely, each musician records when they can, with their performances are assembled later—a necessity of the pandemic.
In the summer Abiram started working as Director of the Artist Community at the Sundance Institute. He says that being a part of a community of artists, you’re more aware of the resources available when struggling. It’s inspiring to see how people are coming together to help each other out. “Hopefully this coming together to support each other is part of our artistic identity,” he says.
John Dylan Keith (Bob’s Burgers) thinks he’s an anomalous case. He’s been working steadily right through the pandemic on an established animated show and even started working on a new one. The animated shows have an easier time working remotely and continuing production. As he was already working from home, Keith found it pretty easy to continue with his normal workflow.
In fact, the whole production was able to re-locate home in a few days. Inside 48 hours, every single person on the Bob’s Burgers production team relocated to home, in the middle of production. It went off without a hitch, he says. And one again, the pandemic necessitated the new workflow.
“I have to take my hat off to the whole group. It’s the kind of team work that this business is able to make happen,” says Keith. He admits he feels a bit restrained at times, as having to work with a child at home is hard. But in the final analysis, the new process has been a net gain.
Trevor Exter seemed to sum up what many of us experience when I asked how the creative process has changed. “I’ve gotten a lot deeper creatively with my idle time,” he says. “ Instead of driving around I spend more time focused.”
“The paid work has been up and down. I’m not really able to build momentum. A few little projects. Relationships from before are ongoing but new ones are hard to find for a newcomer to LA,” says Exeter.
He has found time to compose a cello suite and work a lot on drum programming. And he’s just released an instrumental album. While he’s enjoying the time for creative development work, Trevor says he can’t wait to get back out there and work with people face-to-face.
For Alexis & Sam, some work has slowed while new projects have filled their calendar. The show they’ve scored for the last five seasons, Animal Kingdom, went back into production in early December. In September, they started on a feature film. For Alexis & Sam, everything in studio has been the same but everything outside of a studio is different. For instance they won’t be able to attend the mix for the feature film. “The mix used to be such a nice cap to the experience, where we’d hear the score in the very highest fidelity,” says Jones. None of that is possible now.
Jones remarks that with what seems to be a glut of original streaming content that will launch in the near future, they’re hoping some new shows comes their way. If there’s still time on the calendar, they have loose plans to start recording new music with their indie band project, Dyan, in March, after the Animal Kingdom season wraps up.
I’ve heard anecdotally that the resources that are available to support the wider artistic community are being stretched thin. It’s been difficult for many to stay in the business, with the decrease in available work due to the pandemic. But one thing is clear: if our small sample size is any indication of the larger community, we’ll have an even more educated and dedicated cohort of composers when we emerge into the new moment.
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For more Aaron Gilmartin, visit his website.