Tag Archives: composer

From First Call Keyboardist to Composer: Randy Kerber’s Life in Film

While Randy Kerber may not be a household name, if you’ve watched any movies over the last four decades you’ve likely heard his work. As a studio keyboardist he’s worked on more than 800 motion pictures. His piano solos can be heard on Lincoln, La La Land, and in the opening and closing scenes of Forrest Gump. He’s worked as orchestrator on more than 50 films and most recently as composer for the film Cello.

Kerber first discovered the world of film music through Ted Nash who he met in Sequoia Junior High School band. Ted’s father, Dick Nash, was a first call trombonist in the studios. “I would go over to the Nash’s house and Dick would be talking about sessions with John Williams, Henry Mancini; it was really a great environment to learn about studio work and what’s behind the music for motion pictures.”

“Dick invited Ted and I to a session for the show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” recalls Kerber. “I sat behind Artie Kane; it was just amazing. He had his legs crossed and kind of faced us, almost sidesaddle on the bench, barely looking at the music. He would talk to me and play when he needed to play. It was this incredible multi-tasking thing.”

In high school Kerber played in jazz band and began writing music. He was selected to perform with the Monterey All-Star Jazz Band as a junior and senior. After graduating, Kerber joined the AFM in 1976. Dick Nash and all of the musicians he’d met at the studios were AFM members. “It was understood that this is what you do,” he says, adding that it wasn’t until much later that he realized all the benefits and protections he was afforded through the Federation.

Almost immediately, he and Ted got a weeklong gig playing with Lionel Hampton in Waikiki. Then they joined Don Ellis’s big band for a European tour. “I thought I’d really made it. It was my first time in Europe; we went to Switzerland and the South of France, where Miles Davis famously played,” says Kerber. “Then we came back and there was nothing, no work.”

Kerber had just begun attending college when he got a call to audition for a tour with Bette Midler. Only after he got the gig as second keyboardist, did he discover it also meant playing Hammond B-3 organ, Clavinet, as well as ARP Omni and Minimoog synthesizers.

“I’d never played an organ, and synthesizers I had no idea about. The drummer had to show me how to turn the organ on,” he says. A quick study and adept sight-reader, Kerber did well on the tour. When he returned home, he took a few synthesizer lessons and he started to get other calls.

“Carl Fortina, who was a big contractor in town at the time, called me for gigs at Paramount—Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley,” says Kerber. “If you could play piano, read well, improvise, play jazz, play rock, and knew how to work synthesizers, there was a much better chance of being hired.”

While his film and television work continued to grow, Kerber also got calls for album sessions. “My first big session was for Rickie Lee Jones for the Tom Waits song ‘Rainbow Sleeves,” says Kerber, who also played on Jones’ first album. “The people who knew me as a pop player or synthesizer player, didn’t necessarily know I was doing a lot of movie work too. I wore a lot of hats.”

Kerber also played on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” He was keyboardist and orchestrator for the film Rush and Eric Clapton’s Grammy Award-winning song, “Tears in Heaven.” Among other artists he’s worked with are: Paul Anka, Leonard Cohen, Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton, Rod Stewart, B.B. King, Bill Medley, Annie Lennox, Art Garfunkel, Anastacia, Celine Dion, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Elisa, Julio Inglesias, Barry Manilow, Ricky Martin, Bette Midler, Corey Hart, Eric Burdon, Kenny Rodgers, Donna Summer, George Benson, Diana Ross, Marta Sanchez, Frank Sinatra, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Dionne Warwick, and groups including Air Supply, America, Def Leppard, The Temptations, Manhattan Transfer, Lisa Stansfield, The Three Degrees, and A.R. Rhaman.

Thinking back to his first few film sessions, Kerber recalls being afraid of the violinists and feeling a bit like a deer in the headlights. “Everybody was so much older than me,” he says. “But when the red light went on I was very focused.” He recalls some of the early lessons he learned: “Always bring a pencil, don’t ask a lot of questions, get along with others, and treat the studio as the professional work environment that it is.”

“Relationships are very important in this business. Treasure the people you meet; it’s something you can potentially build on later,” he says. Among his mentors, Kerber names Composers James Horner and John Williams of Local 47 and 9-535 (Boston, MA).

“The ability to bring authenticity to different genres is the most important thing about being a studio musician; if I didn’t know the style or genre I would fake it,” he says. “What people don’t realize is that it’s a unique skillset to be able to read the music and bring a degree of performance to what you are reading. It’s like a good actor who can do a cold reading from a script and be in that character.”

Typically, musicians know very little about a project and don’t have an opportunity rehearse the music before they sit down for the session. Though, occasionally, the librarian posts the music to Dropbox a few days before. “You become adept at very quickly skimming a page. It’s like a golfer who can read the course and know by looking at it how the ball is going to fall,” he says.

At 27, Kerber was nominated for an Oscar with Local 47 members Quincy Jones and Jerry Hey for his work on The Color Purple. “It was the first time I conducted a huge 100-piece orchestra and Stephen Spielberg and Quincy Jones were in the booth. The music was by the famous trumpet player and arranger Jerry Hey who was a great mentor and friend. We started orchestrating and ended up writing. I wanted to conduct and when Jones asked if I could, Jerry said, ‘If Randy says he can, he can,’” recalls Kerber.

Among Kerber’s favorite projects was Forrest Gump. “I love the theme that Alan Silvestri [of Local 47] wrote for the piano—it’s very near and dear to me,” he says.

Though music plays a critical role in guiding the emotional flow of a film, it is traditionally left till the end. And the window of time composers have to complete their part of the film has shrunk in recent years.

“In the old days, the picture would have to be ‘locked,’ meaning no more changes could be done to the picture and you could start writing the music. Now, because it’s digital, a film is basically never locked, pushing the post-production process to the very end with a release date coming. Sometimes you get new revisions when you’ve already written to the last revisions. They’ll say, ‘We haven’t changed much.’ But they’ve snipped things out and all of the timings get thrown out the window.”

The timeframe for scoring the film can sometimes be as little as two weeks, he says. “For the most part, there isn’t enough time to get the music exactly the way you want it. If orchestrating needs to happen in a week, then the lead orchestrator has to pull in five or six people to help. It can be crazy!”

But, technology has also vastly simplified the work of orchestrators and composers. “There used to be a huge room in the back of the studios that stored the magnetic tapes where the music was recorded. Everything is recorded to Pro Tools now. And, as far as the music editor goes, streamers used to be directly scribed onto magnetic film, but now software does all the math for you,” he says.

For example, Kerber described his orchestration work with composer John Powell of Local 47 for the animated movie Ferdinand. “I got midi files and audio files, separated by strings, brass, and winds, of what he’d written. I did my work and delivered it electronically to the copyist. The first time I saw John was on the scoring stage,” he says.

“I love the orchestra and I love dotting all the I’s, crossing all the T’s, and making all the dynamics to bring some finesse to a composition. Because the composer is working very fast, the orchestrator adds the dynamics and articulations,” he says. “There is a psychology to how the music on the page looks to the musician. If there’s too much information it’s restricting; if there’s too little information they may not care. I feel like I bring a level of care that makes the musician interested in playing the music.”

While technology reigns in composing and orchestrating, on the recording stage it’s a different story, he says. “We still use microphones we used in the 1950s and 1960s—great vintage, classic mics. And we are still recording live orchestras and that’s fantastic! You cannot take away the magic of all those human beings with beating hearts playing in a room together. It’s unquantifiable. Instruments resonate. Sampled sounds don’t move through the air in the same way. When people walk onto a scoring stage for the first time and listen to a cue we play, the look on their faces makes my heart sing.”

Occasionally, projects come along where music is more central and there’s a longer timeframe for getting the music just right. La La Land was one of those projects. “It was a six-year passion project of Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz of Local 47. The music for La La Land was worked on throughout the film and I came in early-on to lay down the piano parts for scenes that Ryan [Gosling] would be miming to,” says Randy.

“That’s a wonderful luxury and I think it’s something that could be wonderful moving forward, if a project can bear it. Having a composer attached to a movie sooner, having him work on themes, talk to the director about where it’s going, that would be a wonderful thing,” he says.

Kerber has a real passion for film work. And though it can be challenging, it is always exciting. “There’s new music all the time—always a new take on something. I like to bring as much life to it as I possibly can. I get a lot of pleasure from that,” he says. “The thing I tell young people is: be passionate about what you want. The love of what you do will manifest events in your life. I certainly didn’t think about the money; I just wanted to play music.” Fortunately, the AFM makes it possible for musicians to earn a decent career working on films.

At this point in his career, Kerber says it’s all word of mouth and he doesn’t have to make phone calls to get session and orchestrating work. “My track record speaks for itself and they know my name,” he says. However, he is hoping to move into more composing projects. “With every year, I feel more of a need to express myself as a composer. I think I have a lot to bring to the table from 40 years working in the business and with different composers,” he says.

The 20-minute live action short dramatic film Cello was the first film project entirely composed by Kerber. The movie stars cellist Lynn Harrell of Local 47 as master cellist Ansel Evans, diagnosed with ALS and facing the reality of losing his ability to perform. Kerber recorded a full-length soundtrack based on music from the film. Currently, he’s composing songs with songwriter Glen Ballard of Local 47 for an upcoming eight-episode Netflix drama called The Eddy.

He is also wearing the hat of journalist and executive producer for the show Underscore that brings together his years of experience and connections in the film music industry. “My friend, director and writer Gabriel Scott had the idea for me to talk with other composers about their childhoods, how they got started in the business—sort of the arch of a composer’s career,” explains Kerber. “I have interviewed Alan Sylvestri, John Debney, John Powell, and Marco Beltrami. We have a sizzle reel and are in the process of editing right now. It will be an hour-long show, but we haven’t sold it yet,” he says.


Creating a Bridge to Improvisation

Krista Seddon of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY) is a pianist and composer whose modern arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ “Lullaby” was selected for Buffalo’s new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, which opened in November. The hospital launched a contest for a new rendition of the old masterpiece, which is heard each time a baby is born. Her arrangement has a distinctively jazzy feel. “My objective was to take something so pure and beautiful as the Brahms’ ‘Lullaby,’ and respecting it fully, bring it into the 21st century,” she says. “It was a challenge.”


Krista Seddon’s arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ “Lullaby” was selected as the official recording for the maternity floor at Buffalo’s new Oishei Children’s Hospital. She is a member of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY).

A classically trained pianist with degrees from The New England Conservatory and the University of North Texas, Seddon has had a long affiliation with the Buffalo Philharmonic that includes recordings and solo performances. The Director of Ensembles at the historic Trinity Episcopal Church of Buffalo, Seddon regularly conducts dual lecture performances at schools and universities. In addition, she often collaborates with Alan Broadbent and Robert Nowak, members of Local 802 (New York City), and previously, she transcribed works for the late jazz pianist Marian McPartland.

Next year, in honor of what would have been McPartland’s 100th birthday, Seddon plans a tribute lecture tour performing McPartland’s signature portraits of artists and discussing their 10-year collaboration. Seddon’s work with McPartland included transcribing the portaits.

“I’ve always believed in totality, a universality of music. It’s a good thing for musicians to be able to improvise—and there are different ways to go about it, not only through standards, but through composing. That is Marian’s influence on me,” she says.

“Jazz is the thing that encouraged me to compose,” Seddon says, “It doesn’t have to be large scale or follow strict rules. In jazz, we’re composing more to improvise.” In her own music portrait series, Seddon takes the audiences on a journey into the lives and work of the world’s major composers, exploring the connections between classical music and jazz.

Great jazz musicians—McPartland, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, and Duke Ellington—drew heavily on classical music, she says. “Historically, in classical and Baroque—they all improvised, especially in the Baroque era. Improvisation was required, if you were to be considered a musician of any kind.”

Ideally, Seddon says, jazz techniques to support classical players could be taught and incorporated into university music departments. “I use jazz extensively,” she says. “For example, taking a big classical composition and making it into a lead sheet with just melody and chords. Instead of 20 pages of complicated music, you can boil it down to its essence. It’s the difference between reciting and telling a story.”

The strict theoretical confines of classical music restrict improvisation. She says, “I like to decode that for people, especially for classical musicians because we have so much in our toolbox. It’s a natural progression—to grow out of the classical training and take it to other places.”

There are other benefits to learning improvisation skills. Seddon explains, “If during a classical performance, a musician gets off track somehow, instead of crashing and burning, with some improvisation techniques, there is space to find your way back. Jazz teaches us to get real with the music.”

“Classical musicians tell me, ‘I wish I could improvise. Would you teach me?’ Music of the day should be flexible, improvised over, and shared with people. It’s how I live my life. I hope to teach that and bring it to a wider  audience,” she says.

Seddon is in process of recording a CD of mainly original compositions.

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Opera Inspired by Little Rock Nine

Sixty years to the day after nine African-American teenagers integrated Little Rock High School protected by the 101st Airborne Division, the eight surviving former students, President Bill Clinton, and other dignitaries gathered at Central High School. After a day of commemorations and sharing memories, an announcement was made that the story of the Little Rock Nine is being turned into an opera by composer Tania León, a member of Local 802 (New York City), and librettist Thulani Davis.

León told The New York Times that hearing their stories was invaluable. “It’s important to see them,” she says. “To hear their syntax, to feel their personalities.” Born and raised in Cuba, since coming to New York City in 1967, León has become an important figure in American music.

Composer Wins Vatican Prize

Estonian composer Avro Pärt, 82, is one of the winners of the 2017 Ratzinger Prize awarded by the Ratzing Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation. First awarded in 2011, the prize is given to “people who have answered the challenge of fostering a deep dialogue among science, theology, and philosophy. Pope Benedict XVI served as Pope from 2005-2013.

Jon Damian

Professor Jon Damian Taps into the Universe for Inspiration

Jon Damian

Jon Damian’s workshops feature Rubbertellie murals in which he produces visual and sound art simultaneously.

At Berklee College of Music, professor and guitarist Jon Damian of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) says, “When I’m teaching, I’m composing. I have to be able to compose on the spot as an example. It’s important to be able to see it actually come alive in someone’s hands and face. Teaching and composing, writing, they work in tandem.”

In his renowned Creative Workshop Ensemble, he focuses on unconventional motifs and nonmusical forms—art and multimedia exercises—to heighten listening skills and teach students to draw on more than music for composing, from alphabets to zodiacs. He explains the better students become as improvisers, the less they tend to respond to musical events around them. “In the Creative Workshop, we’re inspired by anything in the universe.” With everyday language, for instance, he adds, “Go to the piano and play ‘popcorn, air, or mozzarella.’ No two people do the same thing. The language of words becomes a medium. To use it to stimulate a musical idea is cool.”

One of Damian’s earliest music memories is listening to his mother whistle. “It was like listening to an aria.” But it was his older sister Judy’s vast record collection that introduced him to everything from Count Basie and Tony Bennett to opera and classical recordings of Claude Debussy and Béla Bartok.   

His first music experience was vocal. He sang in a cappella groups in Brooklyn. “We were a nice, serious trio that used to sing on the street corners,” he says.

Watching Tony Mottola on The Tonight Show, Damian remembers, “His beautiful solo guitar, swing and rock—I watched and listened, and I said, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ And that’s what happened.”

Damian began teaching himself to play guitar and read music. One of his first gigs was a veterans hospital near Coney Island with his band, The Strangers. They played the Merry-Go-Round Room in Brooklyn, which had a rotating bar, and that’s when he joined the union. “I still have my cabaret card that says I am able to play in nightclubs.” Damian remembers going to the union office, which was in the same building as the Roseland Ballroom. “Duke would come and play. People would dance. During the day, union musicians would meet and talk, and there would be auditions happening right there.”

Damian’s all-embracing creative model is based on his early career as a visual artist. He worked on Madison Avenue back in 1965 until he was drafted into the army in 1966. His military occupational standing (MOS) was as an artist in the officer’s training unit.

As bleak a prospect as it was, being drafted proved to be a defining moment in Damian’s life. “Brooklyn was just as dangerous as the army. My friends were getting into drugs. For a kid in 1966, it was scary, but for me, it was exciting. Wherever I was stationed, I always studied at the clubs so it was like a paid education,” he says.

The army became a major part of Damian’s musical development. He says, “I was able to go to service clubs, which had instruments and libraries full of music books so I spent all my free time continuing my music training on my own.” He sharpened his reading proficiency to a professional level and auditioned for a larger ensemble.

After the army, Damian attended Berklee on the GI bill, where he studied theory and composition. He’s been a full professor there ever since, for 43 years.

For years, Damian kept busy doing theater work, playing with Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, Boston Ballet Orchestra, and Boston Opera Company. “I’ve been fortunate to have such a wide spectrum of possibilities,” says Damian, who has worked with Phil Woods, Sam Rivers, Sheila Jordan, Johnny Cash, Howard McGhee, Leonard Bernstein, and Luciano Pavarotti (at the Boston Garden), to name a few. He’s also shared the stage with a number of his students, notably jazz luminary Bill Frisell of Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) with whom he recorded the CD, Dedications: Faces and Places.

In his book, the Guitarist’s Guide to Composing and Improvising, Damian shows musicians how to break out of pattern-based playing to enrich their understanding of composition and improvisation. In his latest book, Fresh Music: Explorations with the Creative Workshop Ensemble for Musicians, Artists, and Teachers, he chronicles the ideas in the workshop he’s been teaching since the 1970s. 

Damian’s interest in avant-garde music led him to explore other instrumental mediums. One of his innovations is the Rubbertellie, an electric guitar that stretches the boundaries of the traditional guitar. It’s tuned differently, held differently, on his lap or in the style of viola da gamba.

Now, midway to retirement as a part-time professor, he’s finding time to write books for his grandchildren and compose more music. Last year, when he was hospitalized for an extended period, he wrote a woodwind quartet for his caregivers called “Saints and Angels.” He explains, “It’s not too pretty or sad, but more of a soft Schoenberg, a natural roll that builds from chord symbols.” Damian says, “It creates the power of connections. It’s serious, but hopeful.”

paul williams

Paul Williams: The Man with the Rainbow Connection

paul williamsToday, singer, songwriter, and composer Paul Williams is a different man than he was at the height of his music career. Now President of ASCAP, Williams says that his two biggest passions are recovery and artists’ rights.

“March 15 I celebrated 26 years of continuous sobriety—the greatest gift I’ve ever been given,” he says. “At 49, I had misplaced a decade due to alcohol and cocaine addiction. I was a mess and I was dying. I asked for help and people came out of the woodwork—a choir of grateful hearts—recovering alcoholics and addicts. I began to connect with the world around me.”

Musician Buddy Arnald, founder of the Musicians Assistance Program (MAP), suggested the newly sober Williams spend a year in UCLA’s drug and alcohol counseling program. Afterward, Williams became a volunteer counselor at MAP’s offices that were located in AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), where Williams has been a member for 44 years.

“I felt really useful for the first time in years,” he says. “And isn’t it interesting that it was at Local 47 in Los Angeles that I found that feeling? Eventually, I fell in love with songwriting again. However, I think it’s remarkable that my career in music—the life and love of music that I had misplaced—I found again partly through the musicians union’s generosity.”

Q: How did the process of recovery change the way you thought about your career? How did it change you as a human being?

I became grateful. I began to see life as a gift. I began to feel connected to the world around me in ways I’d never really experienced before. Alcoholism is an isolating disease. We recover into a life of love and service. Those are important words to a recovering alcoholic. We get to keep the miracle by giving it away.

Writing became easier. I began to trust that the words and the music would come. I see the real magic in the process and I know the songs are a gift to me that I get to share. I think we have unseen allies. The muse has been very generous to me.

Q: What are some of the ways organizations like ASCAP or the AFM can help with the problem of musician substance abuse?

Organizations like ASCAP and AFM provide a community of peers. The ASCAP membership is strong. This community is a source of mentorship and learning, and one that I’m thankful for and proud to be part of. One of the things we provide at our EXPO every year is a safe harbor room for any attendee who needs the support.

Q: Why did you want to become president of ASCAP? Was there something you thought the organization should or could do differently when you took the helm?

I’ve been an ASCAP member since 1972. My friend Hal David—the great lyricist and former president of ASCAP—suggested that I run for the board in 2001. I was pretty uninformed for someone who made their living in music and counted on performance royalties to feed his family. The more I learned, the more impressed I became. I’ve come to love this remarkable organization.

Since its founding, ASCAP has been on the front lines fighting for the rights of its members. We are still the only PRO owned and run by creator members, and we’re proud to operate as a not-for-profit.

When I took over as president in 2009, I saw an opportunity to expand our message to include the first-person stories of our members. The songs and scores don’t write themselves. I wanted to put a face to the work. The antiquated music licensing system is having a severely negative impact on their ability to earn a fair wage for their craft. Everything starts with a song, and it’s important we tell this story to legislators and those in Washington, DC, who write the laws.

Q: Can you explain for AFM members how ASCAP and the AFM support each other’s missions? Why should performing songwriters belong to both?

The songs would be lifeless without the musicians’ art and craft. You bring our songs to life. Thank you. We really appreciate it. When music is performed there is a blanket licensing process that serves the music creator, the licensee, and the music lover. I was free to write a second song because ASCAP was collecting for my first.

AFM is dedicated to the interests of musicians, just as ASCAP is dedicated to the interests of publishers and songwriters. We both work to negotiate fair payments, protect the use of our members’ work, and advocate for policies that ensure a prosperous future for American music. Joining both organizations allows performing songwriters to enjoy the benefits of two of America’s most trusted advocates for music creators.

Q: Many AFM members have lost work in small venues due to the proprietors’ reluctance to pay SESAC, BMI, and ASCAP fees. Has ASCAP explored the idea of exempting or reducing fees for venues with small capacities?

We understand how essential music is to local businesses—it helps attract customers and drive revenue. But it’s also important that songwriters be compensated when their music is performed. In today’s marketplace, we depend on public performance royalties more than ever before to earn a living. ASCAP recently re-examined our fees, particularly for small venues, to ensure fairness and transparency across the system. The average cost of an ASCAP license for bars and restaurants amounts to a little over $2 a day. So for the equivalent of the cost of a cup of coffee, businesses can legally perform any of the millions of copyrighted works in the ASCAP repertory. Also, food service or drinking establishments under 3,750 gross square feet are exempt from licensing for radio or TV music uses.

paul-williams-speakingQ: As a leader in the music business, do you have any advice for young musicians?

As music creators, we understand it’s a personal decision to join any professional organization. That’s why we’re honored when songwriters and publishers decide to join ASCAP, and we work tirelessly to support them, their music, and their rights.

My advice to young musicians would be to educate themselves about their rights and join an organization that has proven itself to be on the side of music creators; whether that’s AFM, ASCAP, or any other organization that is out there fighting to protect the future of this profession.

Q: I remember talking to one songwriter about how, when a song he wrote for a well-known country singer went viral on YouTube, he received only pennies. How can performers’ rights organizations better adapt to this new dynamic?

The framework of federal laws that governs how ASCAP and BMI operate was largely put in place in the 1940s. It’s a system that was created for a very different time and a very different marketplace. Today, a lot of digital music companies are exploiting these outdated music licensing laws in order to pay songwriters less than what their music is truly worth—or less than it would be in a truly free and fair marketplace.

The remedy, of course, is modernizing the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees to better reflect the way people listen to music today. ASCAP’s consent decree, for example, hasn’t been updated since before the iPod hit stores.

When I started out, it was possible to earn a decent living as a songwriter. Now, it’s a much riskier time. In today’s highly competitive music marketplace, it’s downright absurd that American songwriters—small business owners, in the truest sense—are more heavily regulated by the federal government than the giant corporations that use and profit from the music we create. This needs to change so that we can keep America’s music industry alive and thriving.

That’s why ASCAP is fighting for updates to our federal music licensing laws.

Q: Do you think we are losing diversity in songwriting due to the fact that fewer songwriters can earn a fair living?

The irony is, music is used more today than ever, yet our music licensing system rewards the billion-dollar streaming companies at the expense of the actual creators. I do think it’s having a negative effect on those who are thinking about joining this profession.

From a practical standpoint, it’s very risky to enter the music business as a songwriter today simply because there is so much standing in the way of being able to earn a fair wage. It still takes more than one million streams on Pandora for a songwriter to earn $100! Even when your song is a hit, it’s still a very risky business.

And that’s a shame, because if the profession can’t attract talent, it affects everyone downstream—record labels, recording artists, streaming companies, and music lovers alike.

paul-williams-standingQ: How has your thinking about digital music changed as the industry has evolved?

The advent of digital music has brought with it some great changes to the way people consume music—people are able to discover new artists with ease and carry their music with them everywhere they go. Personally, I think that’s a wonderful thing.

But as music users move from physical downloads to streaming, the royalties don’t cover the gap in what songwriters used to make. In 2015, ASCAP processed about 570 billion performances of our members’ music, a 14% increase from 2014, and more than double the number of performances tracked in 2013. But revenues and distributions have remained relatively flat in comparison. That’s because the majority of the growth is happening on streaming platforms, which pay songwriters far less. And that’s why we continue to push for reform. We need our licensing laws to reflect today’s technologies.

Q: Looking back on your career, knowing what you know now about life and the
music industry, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?

Be authentic. Tell us your story. Let us know who you are. When you dare to share something from the center of your chest—your most private thoughts about loneliness or love—you may be happily surprised by the number of people who identify with your emotions and find comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

I get very Jiminy Cricket about our work. But I’m a realist too. Having witnessed this incredible technological revolution in music, I could have never predicted that there would be such great inequities for the lifeblood of the industry—the music creators themselves.

If I were just starting out today, I’d tell myself the usual—find what inspires you, hone your craft. But just as important, I’d tell myself to get up to speed on copyright law; join the movement to modernize our music licensing system because these laws won’t correct themselves. We, as music creators, must fight for change.

Q: What song are you most proud of? Which song has the most personal meaning to you?

One of the high points of my career was working with Jim Henson. Kenny Ascher and I wrote the songs for The Muppet Movie. “The Rainbow Connection” has had a life beyond our wildest expectations. It’s really a song about the power of belief.

Who said that every wish would be heard and answered if wished on the morning star? Somebody thought of that … And someone believed it. Look what it’s done so far.

Q: What projects are you currently
working on?

I’m working on a musical with Gustavo Santaolalla. We’re writing the songs for a theatrical adaptation of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s writing the music and then I am providing the lyrics. Incidentally, he’s brilliant. I’m so excited about this work.

Patrice Rushen: Keyboardist Inspired by Teaching

Patrice RushenPianist Patrice Rushen is the ultimate role model for young female musicians. Among her achievements, she was the first female music director for the Grammy Awards (2004-2006), first woman to serve as head composer/musical director of the Emmy Awards, as well as the first female music director of the NAACP Image Awards, PEople’s Choice Awards, and HBO’s Comic Relief.

She’s composed musical scores for Emmy-nominated television shows and movies, plus the feature films Men in Black, Waiting to Exhale, Without You I’m Nothing, and Hollywood Shuffle. She released a total of 14 solo albums that earned her multiple Grammy nominations. Her music is frequently sampled.

The Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member is considered one of the world’s top jazz pianists and continues to perform and compose, while also teaching at two of the country’s most prestigious music schools: Thornton School of Music at University of Southern California (USC) and Berklee College of Music. Education has always been a priority for Rushen who recognizes the vital role it played in her life. She says her teachers, including high school music teacher Reggie Andrews, shaped her future in a big way.

“I think I always wanted to become a musician, I just didn’t know the pathway,” says Rushen. She began playing piano at age five, but says when she picked up the flute in middle school, it was life changing. “Being in the middle of all the sound in the orchestra and band, you are conscious of your entrances and exits and the whole production, in the context of a team; that informed me in a different way.”

Rushen says the all-black Los Angeles public school that she attended was ahead of its time. “The high school experiences opened the door for me to see what was possible. We were playing high school orchestra and jazz repertoire, but we were also playing jazz as America’s classical music. That sort of opened up the vocabulary for other forms of contemporary music.”

Students at the high school didn’t just learn about music in a classroom. Field trips included visits to local jazz clubs. “On a Friday night we’d sit in the back,” she says. “Everything sounded really good and the exploration was profound. I heard some of the most amazing jazz musicians in their environment—Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, and [Local 802 (New York City) member] Herbie Hancock’s sextet.”

Patrice RushenSome of the musicians were even coerced to come out to the school,” she recalls. “This was before jazz was institutionalized, particularly at the high school level. We had a lot of information firsthand. Bandleader Gerald Wilson, who lived in Los Angeles, would send us stuff to play; it was way over our heads, but the idea was for us to see the possibilities. That music pushed us.”

“The idea of being able to play music—all different kinds of music—and watch people react to it was supported by the entire school. It was an incentive to keep your grades up,” she says.

Aside from the music, Rushen’s high school gave her the fundamentals to succeed. “There was very clear consciousness towards a positive identity and the faculty supported that in the way they gave us information. They kept us busy all the time and everything was connected. If you were lucky enough to find your passion, you could learn a lot.”

“Preparation was a big deal,” she continues. “There’s luck, but luck is being prepared for the opportunity. That’s what Reggie used to tell us.”

Rushen’s first such opportunity came in her senior year when her combo won a chance to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Her talents were noted by Fantasy Records, which offered the 17-year-old a recording contract on the Prestige label.

“I wasn’t really interested in a record deal; it wasn’t even on my radar at all,” says Rushen who was getting ready to enter college. “I was going to school, but I did need money.”

Rushen immediately joined the AFM. “I was very happy to join the union; it was like a milestone,” she says. “You have protection by belonging to a larger organization. It supports what we do with rules and regulations.”

Rushen’s very first album with Prestige, Prelusion, had her playing with established artists like Kenneth Nash, Joe Henderson, Hadley Caliman, Hubert Laws of Local 802, George Bohanon and Oscar Brashear of Local 47, plus contemporaries Ndugu Chancler of Local 47 and Tony Dumas.

“I began playing with a lot of different people, especially when the record came out. I would play with a lot of studio musicians who would play the clubs when they weren’t working,” she says. That’s where she met and befriended people like Local 47 members Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason, and Abe Laboriel.

Patrice RushenThough there were offers for her to tour, she was firmly focused on college. Film composing was her goal, but her parents insisted  she major in music education. “At the time, USC had no jazz, and certainly no contemporary or popular music major,” she explains. She says the broad curriculum of the music education program served her well later on.

“A music director has to be able to see the big picture and understand the components that will make it happen. You need to know the goal of the presentation and then break it down into what it is going to take to make it happen—casting the correct people and empowering them through your direction.”

“It helps if you are able to work well under pressure and don’t sweat the small stuff,” she adds. “Respect is a given. When people feel like you care about them, they care about you, and want to help you. You also need awareness of a lot of different styles and the resources to pull the essence out of those styles.”

Rushen’s first big job was composing for Robert Townsend’s first movie, Hollywood Shuffle. “He didn’t know who any of the composers were. He went around to different agencies and my name was at the bottom of the list, in pencil,” she laughs. “He knew me because of my records. He said, ‘I want her,’ and the agents were probably horrified!”

“From that movie, I got five HBO comedy specials [as music director],” she says, adding that the role of music director served as a showcase for the skillset she had developed. Word got out, and that led to more work.

While being a woman never kept her from pursuing her ambitions, she’s sure there were jobs along the way that she didn’t get because of gender bias. Then, there were a few people who made the leap that she was a man. “I’ve had some surprised looks because my name doesn’t necessarily give it away,” says Rushen. “There’s the female thing, and then there’s the African American thing that sometimes comes as a surprise.”

Among other challenges, she points to the balancing act that women often struggle with. She advises young women to go for it. “Be strong in your resolve to be as good as you possibly can be. Then, don’t be afraid to let your priorities shift as your life changes and allow yourself the possibility of a family life. Understand that now, more than ever, a career in music involves lots of different layers and different related skills. If you build on that set of skills, you will always find something to do that’s musical. You don’t have to sacrifice any of it.”

As her own career has evolved, she has taken on more teaching roles, but she doesn’t see it as a huge shift from performing. “I don’t really see those things as mutually exclusive,” she says. “When you perform, you are teaching. There is always somebody out in the crowd whose approach could be modified or changed on the basis of a performance they hear.”

Patrice Rushen“I think teaching is important,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have had great teachers. They were all really open to the communication of music and using the piano as a kind of media, teaching great technique to give you the ability to play anything.”

Rushen is currently chair of Popular Music at Thornton, plus Ambassador for Artistry in Education at Berklee. “All of my different experiences have impacted my methodology and I can call on that as a teacher,” she says. “I’m teaching a music style that I lived—popular music—that’s informed by a certain tradition. It’s exciting for me to find a pedagogy that teaches and celebrates that.”

For Rushen, teaching is as much inspiration as it is instruction. “When you teach you are learning at the same time. I think artists are perpetual students, you know? You are always soaking it up. The inspiration and understanding of what it takes to make art takes you out of yourself. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to communicate on that level.”

Rushen is also involved with youth programs, including USC and Berklee outreach programs, a jazz mentorship program in Los Angeles area high schools, and work with the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra in the Bay Area. “This is an amazing organization that takes at-risk youth and puts them in an environment where they can thrive as musicians,” she says.

During the school year, Rushen’s focus is mostly on her students. Summer allows her to travel and take on other projects. This summer she’ll play some gigs as Patrice Rushen & Friends with Local 47 members Eric Marienthal (sax), Paul Jackson, Jr. (guitar), Reggie Hamilton (bass), and Ndugu Chancler (drums).

“We have some dates sprinkled throughout the summer, which is kind of cool because it allows everybody to do their own thing,” she says.

james horner

Composer James Horner Dies in Plane Crash

james hornerLocal 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member James Horner, the composer of countless breathtaking scores, from Titanic and Braveheart, Field of Dreams and Avatar, to Jumanji and An American Tail, and so many others, passed away on Monday, June 22 in a plane crash near Santa Barbara, California. The two-time Academy Award winner was just 61. Horner’s dossier as a film composer is as extraordinary, and he will not be forgotten by those who worked closely with him, or by the innumerable people he touched with his music. Horner will inexorably live on in his music and the classic films that he was invaluable to. With three new scores to be released this year, the world has thankfully not yet seen the last of James Horner. In the Shakespearean fashion, Horner will of course live on through his truly exceptional art; undoubtably, “[his] heart will go on.”

john williams im cover

John Williams: Back Again to a Galaxy

John WilliamsThe scene opens on a black screen. From the depths of inaudibility, a single eerie string chord rises to underpin the image of a windswept desert landscape.

Instantly, we know where we are: a desert planet much like the homeworld of Luke Skywalker. And, equally importantly, we know who wrote that unmistakable chord: John Williams, the legendary composer of the soundtracks for all six (soon to be seven) installments of the Star Wars saga.

It’s probably fair to say that a significant portion of the American public was waiting impatiently for the debut of this first of two trailers advertising the Christmas release of The Force Awakens, the latest Star Wars chapter. It’s an equally fair bet that Williams’ music played a big role in that anticipation. Every bit as important as the characters and scenes they portray, Williams’ soundtracks have tended to take on a life of their own in every film he has scored in a career spanning more than six decades, and incorporating a filmography fast approaching the century mark.

With the film’s premiere still months away, recording sessions for The Force Awakens are just getting started, with the initial sessions slated for the first week of June. Williams tackled earlier recordings for both trailers, with the second trailer being released several weeks ago to add to the mounting excitement around Star Wars VII. Williams says sessions will continue through August, possibly into September. “Then it’s back and forth with editing,” he says. The music will be recorded over several months while working in tandem with the film’s editorial and special effects teams on the West Coast. “At the moment I’m working on composing the music, which I started at the beginning of the year. I’ve been through most of the film reels, working on a daily basis.”

Old School Approach

John Williams, a life member of Locals 9-535 (Boston, MA) and 47 (Los Angeles), is the winner of five Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, and 22 Grammys, and has composed many of the most popular and recognizable film scores in cinematic history. He meticulously crafts themes that virtually become living, breathing characters in their own right. But it may come as a surprise that the man who writes music for space pirates and evil galactic empires prefers a fairly old-fashioned method of composition. “I work very much in what some would consider old school,” he says, “in front of the keyboard with pencil and paper. The piano is my favorite tool. Over the decades there has been so much amazing technological change in the music business, but I’ve been so busy that I never really retooled.”

Williams explains that it used to be standard practice for a film composer to write music that was then passed off to assistants to flesh out for full orchestra. By contrast, he typically composes fully orchestrated sketches, eight to 10 lines indicating winds, brass, strings, and percussion. “The music library then transfers these directly to a computerized score from which instrumental parts are made,” he says. “We can reprint parts, edit as needed, change the bowings, etc.” He admits the irony is not lost on him that his work quickly becomes state of the art despite its more traditional beginnings.

Somewhat surprisingly, Williams prefers not to read scripts before he tackles writing his first ideas on a score. “I’ve always preferred to write only to footage,” he says. A little like a set designer, he writes music according to a story’s mood and setting, and the feeling that a particular scene might be trying to convey. The process starts with a “spotting” session, deciding in meetings with the director which scenes will feature music and which will not. For four decades, Williams has enjoyed a fruitful (to say the least) collaboration with director Steven Spielberg, and—for most of the previous Star Wars films—George Lucas as director and/or screenwriter. For The Force Awakens, Star Wars newcomer J.J. Abrams is in the director’s chair.

“J.J. Abrams has been a joy,” says Williams, expressing his delight with the working relationship so far. “He’s a very genial, warm person. We had a few preliminary meetings and I played themes on the piano to which he responded very positively. By and large he has allowed me to do my thing, and our minds have been together on our approach to the scoring.”

Once Abrams has the music in hand, the film will be edited. “Neither of us will see the final version with the special effects until much later,” Williams continues. “Any music changes that need to be done are made later in the editing process, which sometimes involves some rerecording.” Every shot requires thousands of adjustments. “It’s a two-hour-plus journey of complex details that all interrelate, with music being only one of them,” he adds. Tempo, dynamics, instrumental effects—all need to be married to what is happening in the screen images. Williams feels that when the desired effect is achieved, all those long hours of work should be unseen and unnoticed. “The final product, the finished film, has to feel seamless and natural, as with everything we do. Time is just one of the necessary ingredients in the process.”

Music as Character

john-william-recordingFilm music’s traditional role has been to set a mood, but remain subservient to the screen action. In many cases, this role also included the subtle underpinning of a particular character to reinforce personality traits—or quirks. In the case of the Star Wars films, Williams has aimed to raise the music to the level of a story character in its own right. As with his approach to composing, the technique used to achieve this goal looks back to an earlier time: that of 19th century opera composer Richard Wagner and his concept of the leitmotif, a recurring theme throughout the opera that becomes associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

Wagner’s four Ring operas, not unlike the Star Wars saga, are massive in scope and reach, with literally dozens of characters that need to be remembered and differentiated. Each character (and sometimes a nonliving story element) is given its own particular identifying theme, the leitmotif. In four operas lasting up to six hours each, Wagner utilized more than 90 of these themes to tie together story and characters. Thus it is with the galaxy-spanning Star Wars films, where from the outset Williams linked Darth Vader inexorably to a dark, unstoppable march, while Princess Leia’s regal beauty is given voice by solo flute and horn. Even the Force, the unseen mystical power binding together the Star Wars galaxy, is given its own special snippet of music. Over the course of the next five films, most of the regular Star Wars characters come to be immediately identified by the particular themes that Williams has created for them.

Williams says he plans to continue the use of leitmotifs in the new film. “While the majority of the music is also new, there are necessary references to early story lines, which helps create association with the previous films,” he explains. “So the music will look back in spots to the earlier films, but there are also new themes that will be applied in a similar way.”

So it would seem that even though film composition has changed radically in the last half-century, there are some techniques that will always find a use. This blending of old and new is something of a recurring theme with Williams, and that includes where he sees film music heading in succeeding generations. In the ’40s and ’50s, serious composers routinely wrote film music. While this isn’t the case so much these days, he sees the next generation of composers returning to it. “Philip Glass, for example, has been quite involved in writing film music, and this has helped get other composers more interested in the possibilities in writing for film,” he points out. “In the future, I think serious composers will become even more interested. Changes in technology also help change aesthetic approaches. More connections between the audio and visual world also open up possibilities that young composers find increasingly intriguing.”

First Class Musicians

John-williams-composerA living, breathing score takes talented musicians to bring it to life. After six previous film soundtracks being recorded in the UK with the London Symphony Orchestra, The Force Awakens marks the first Star Wars soundtrack to be recorded on American shores, utilizing musicians from AFM Local 47. “With this new film, the schedule has evolved to the point that I’ll need to be working with the orchestra continuously for several months, and that’s obviously easier for me to do here in Los Angeles, than it would be in London.”

“We are thrilled that this is the first Star Wars soundtrack to be recorded in the US,” says Sandy DeCrescent, who has contracted Local 47 musicians for Williams’ film scores for many decades. “So much music before this was disappearing overseas, and John has been a moving force in bringing the work back to American musicians.”

Williams says he feels very privileged to be working with the freelance orchestra in Los Angeles, an ensemble he knows well. “This group is made up of a pool of freelancers in Southern California. I’ve worked with them for decades now on a variety of films, and I am friends with most of them. They consistently come together to form a fabulous orchestra, and I’m always happy and proud to be reunited with them for these projects.”

Trumpet player Jon Lewis is a member of the freelance orchestra, and he says the experience is off to an incredible start with the recording of the two trailers. “The first trailer was the first time any of this music was recorded in LA,” says Lewis. “We had the pleasure of running the original Star Wars main titles for a ‘warm-up,’ as John called it. What a thrill that was, and it was such an amazing sound to hear coming out of the Sony scoring stage that day—as near perfection as I’ve ever heard.”

Stephen Erdody, Williams’ principal cellist for the last 16 years, agrees, adding that the working process with Wiliams is always efficient and rewarding. “John is an outstanding musician, an amazing orchestrator, and he has the best ears in the business,” Erdody enthuses. “The two trailer sessions were each three hours long, and all of us take great pride in our speed of recording and our ability to adjust and make changes to improve the final product as quickly as possible.”

“The pressure to get things right is always there in any recording session, and I think the Los Angeles musicians meet that challenge better than anywhere else in the world,” explains Lewis. Aside from small changes or balancing adjustments, each and every take is as presentable as the next.”

“When that red light goes on, it’s 100% focus and attention to producing an amazing performance,” adds horn player Andrew Bain.

For flutist Heather Clark, the experience of working with Williams has an added element of pressure. “The amazing flutist Louise DiTullio has played principal flute for John Williams the past 40 years, and it’s an honor and a great responsibility to fill such big shoes on a huge movie playing for a legendary composer who continues to raise the bar on film music. It will be the experience of a lifetime.”

All four musicians agree that the thrill of being part of an American cultural icon far outweighs any pressures and stresses of recording sessions. Says Erdody, “A few days after I graduated from Juilliard in 1977, I saw Star Wars and it changed the way I watched and listened to movies from that day forward. That score had an enormous impact on me, and I can’t believe some 38 years later I will be a part of the next installment.”

“I’m still so in love with this business, and to be the first American orchestra to play for a Star Wars movie is beyond exciting for all of us,” says Lewis. “I think the entire movie industry underwent a major shift due to the grand score that John Williams composed for the original movie. The trend of movie music shifted back to full orchestras, and for several decades since, the role of music in film has been far more important than ever before.”

As Williams loves his LA musicians, he has similar high praise for orchestra musicians elsewhere across the US. Over the past two decades since his 13 years at the helm of the Boston Pops, he says he has conducted as many American orchestras as he could possibly manage with his schedule. In particular, Williams feels a responsibility to be involved in benefits for AFM musicians’ pension funds and also for educational outreach programs. “We have so many orchestras in this country that are truly world class,” he says. “All of them are fabulous. It makes me realize that, although our country is geographically larger than most, we really do have more amazing orchestras than any other place.” He believes this speaks to the success of American music education. “We can all take great pride as a nation in the number of fabulously high-level arts institutions in this country, and we don’t praise them nearly enough,” he says.

“There are obviously great orchestras and schools all around the world, but we can be so very proud of what American schools produce here every single year. We don’t celebrate this enough, and we absolutely need to be more vocal about it.”