Hollywood in Our HillsJun 30, 2021 03:10PM ● By David O'Reilly
Maybe you watched this summer’s hit movie, Godzilla vs. Kong, or saw its trailer, or read a review. Did you find yourself wondering which monster you’d root for in battle? Godzilla’s got those stumpy legs, but an armored tail—and he breathes fire. Yeah, but look how Kong twists and turns. And those fists!
So, which guy is smarter? Which one’s quicker? More sympathetic? Heroic?
Now imagine yourself at an electronic keyboard. Your job is to turn each of these snarling beasts into...music.
That’s the imaginative leap Hollywood composers make every day as they score music for film and TV. With digital synthesizers and sound libraries that can mimic kettle drums, a cello, the coo of a mourning dove, or a whole symphony orchestra, they evoke the fury of war, the tenderness of a kiss, a stalker’s creepiness, the sadness of goodbye.
And on July 17, at Mansfield University’s Steadman Auditorium, the 2021 Endless Mountain Music Festival will celebrate the art of modern film scoring with the premiere performance of “The Emerging Hollywood Composers Concert.” Under the direction of Artistic Director Stephen Gunzenhauser, the festival orchestra will perform the works of eight young scoring composers who’ve lately made their marks on Hollywood.
Starting with the 1940s and continuing to the past decade, each composer was assigned one decade and invited to capture the spirit of its films and TV in an orchestral work of about seven minutes. It’s a unique concept, consistent with the maestro’s aim to fill the festival with variety and surprises.
“Keep in mind, the festival [it runs July 16 to August 1] is not designed to be a classical musical festival,” he explains from his home in Lancaster County. “It’s a festival of music.”Yes, there will be plenty of classical music, with works by composers like Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Mendelsohn—and some you may not know. Does the name Sergei Taneyev ring a bell? He was a student of Tchaikovsky’s, and Stephen thinks you’ll
like his Symphony No. 2. “It’s quite beautiful. I did the American premiere,” he says. “This is a piece that deserves to be heard.”
But if long hair music is not your style, take heart. The festival’s sixteen evenings will include an all-Celtic concert, a brass quintet under the stars at Cherry Springs State Park, a “Movie Night” featuring a tribute to big band jazz great Artie Shaw, an Argentine tango take on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a Dobro blues guitar concert at a church, a free afternoon pops concert at Wellsboro-Johnstown Airport, and of course the “Composers Concert.”
It promises to be one of the jewels of this year’s festival.
“The talent involved in doing music for the movies is remarkable,” Stephen marvels. “If Mozart or Beethoven were living today in America, they probably would have chosen to be movie composers. I’ve always felt that the music that accompanies movies is what makes them successful.”
To demonstrate that notion, he once showed the opening scenes of Woody Allen’s Manhattan at a concert without the original, soaring clarinet soundtrack from George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“Then we turned it around with live music,” he recalls with a fond chuckle. “The difference was remarkable.”
The idea for “The Emerging Composers Concert” began in 2019 with Stephen’s daughter, Marisa Gunzenhauser. She’s chief operating officer at Sparks & Shadows, the acclaimed Hollywood scoring studio of Emmy- and BAFTA-Award-winning composer Bear McCreary. He and his team have scored such TV series as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Battlestar Galactica, and Outlander, and such films as the 2019 Godzilla, King of the Monsters and this year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, Crip Camp.
“I was talking one day with Etienne Monsaingeon,” one of Bear’s in-house composers, Marisa explains in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
“We work together, and he was showing me a piano piece he was improvising. He’s very young, very positive, and he was saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, I wish I could play this with a symphony orchestra, but I don’t think that will ever happen.’
And I said to Etienne, ‘Let me think about this. My father’s a symphony conductor. I think I can figure this out.’
I knew I couldn’t pitch the idea of Etienne writing one small piece for this big festival,” she recalls. “So I just started connecting the dots. And I thought ‘Okay, I work with all these amazing young composers, and part of my job is to make them feel supported and nurtured.’ They mostly work behind the scenes and don’t always get recognition.” The sparks in the shadows, so to speak.
Marisa then seized on the idea of inviting perhaps a half-dozen young composers to each rescore their favorite movie, but quickly realized “that would get us into licensing. So, I sat down with Bear, and he started bouncing ideas around with me. We came up with the idea of each composer scoring a decade of film, and all of a sudden, there it was.”
She then ran the idea past her dad. “He’s got the coolest job in the world,” she says. “I always wanted to work with him.”
“As soon as she told me about it, I said, ‘That’s fantastic. Come to me with details,’” Stephen recalls. “And she did.” By then she’d invited eight composers and “got them all to agree and be enthusiastic about the project.” Five score films and TV for Sparks & Shadows, one is independent, and two compose for other studios.
The chance to step out of the shadows means a lot, they say. For her composition associated with the 1940s, Kara Talve, twenty-four, listened to works of the pioneer film scorer Erich Korngold, and the era’s jazz and big bands, which inspired the harmony and feeling of the piece. She calls it “Winter Rhapsody.”
“What I liked was the process of writing it,” says Kara, who scores for Bleeding Fingers studio in Santa Monica. “In my line of work, you’re sending work off to clients and a lot of the time it comes back; they don’t like it, or they want changes. But this was my concert piece, and I wanted it to be very good...I could write what I wanted, and that was very freeing.”
Stephen puts the premise in context: “When you see you see a name like John Williams,” who scored such film classics as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, ET, and the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, “you say ‘Gosh, he sure did a lot of writing.’ But that’s not necessarily how it works. The composer does the main structure, but then they have a studio of five to fifteen people who work for them and fill it out.
“These are composers in their own right,” he declares. “They’re living in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to do their own movies.”
By winter of 2020 the eight were hunched over their instruments and synthesizers, teasing out ideas. But their contributions didn’t end there. Each also created a twenty-minute “master class” video for EMMF demonstrating how he or she creates a film or TV score. Each is wildly different and thoroughly amazing, even if you don’t know a clef from a stave. You can view the classes, see the program, meet some of the artists, and buy tickets at the festival’s website, endlessmountain.net.
Etienne Monsaingeon—the Sparks & Shadows scorer whose worry that he might never perform his piece with a symphony orchestra inspired the “Composers Concert”—confesses he “didn’t sit down and watch movies from the [early] 2000s, because those were my teenage years, and I could draw from that.”
A concert pianist at heart, Etienne, thirty, “tried to create a nice, emotional piece representing who I was” in that decade. Over four days he composed “Once Upon a Time.” Piano is the lead instrument, and the piece is “not too complex harmonically, in the style of the 2000s...The catchy melody comes back over and over, but it’s played with different orchestration and harmony each time, so you get a different feel.”
Perrine Virgile landed 2010-2020 for her piece, a decade whose music leans towards a “very minimalist, repetitive style,” she says. “I love working in that genre.”
Perrine, thirty-one, who works with Hollywood composer Jeff Russo scoring the Netflix hit The Umbrella Academy, points to British composer Max Richter and the austere contemporary Icelandic composer-performer Olafur Arnalds among the inspirations for her piece, “Odyssey of the New World.” She also confesses to a “crazy dream” of someday touring like Arnalds and, also as he did, recording albums of her own compositions.
“Odyssey” has a theme “that loves full orchestra: more on the sad, love-theme kind of energy rather than action or horror...I tried to give something to everybody in the orchestra, but it focuses on piano and strings.” It would “play great,” she says, against a backdrop of scenes from Interstellar, La La Land, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Alas, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the 2020 Endless Mountain Music Festival and the premiere of the “Composers Concert:” the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions forced its cancellation.
“We had no choice,” recalls the festival’s longtime executive director, Cynthia Long. “I even had to furlough the staff.” At Marisa’s suggestion, she and Stephen inaugurated a brilliant series of recorded performances, viewable online, that found a national audience for both the musicians and EMMF with the help of Triode Media Group, a video production studio based in Lancaster. “They put together twenty-five hours of concerts by the performers who’d been cancelled,” says Stephen.
“We dedicated it to the first responders,” explains Cynthia, “and it opened with Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’” The virtual festival has attracted more than 38,000 paying views in forty countries.
“It’s going to take a couple of years to recoup” the losses from 2020, she predicts. But thanks to the private, government, and corporate sponsors who allowed EMMF to hold on to last year’s donations, and revenue from the virtual performances, the not-for-profit festival has survived to celebrate its fifteenth season.
Still, the premise of “The Emerging Hollywood Composers Concert” was always a live performance before an audience in a concert hall. It would have to wait until 2021 for its premiere.
The Corning Museum of Glass’s 750-seat auditorium, where this year’s concert had been scheduled, still won’t be open. And so, baton in hand, the maestro will be taking the podium at Mansfield University’s 550-seat Steadman Auditorium. For added fun, scenes from each composer’s film decade will play on a large screen.
What to expect? The composers explain.
“I don’t consider myself a musician or a composer. I consider myself a filmmaker,” says Jason Akers. “Music is how I contribute to the making of a film.” As the oldest of the contributing composers, Jason recently launched his own scoring firm after working nearly seven years at Sparks & Shadows on some of its most celebrated projects.
Jason “jumped” at the opportunity to score the 1980s. “I was an ’80s kid,” he explains, and recalls “responding so vividly” as a boy to the scores of Return of the Jedi and ET. The films of the decade also included Superman, Alien, Indiana Jones, Die Hard: “a ton of sci-fi and superheroes,” he says. He titled his piece “A Hero’s Journey.”
It starts with a “building, rhythmic fanfare: the introduction of the hero...then the middle section gets small as the hero looks for something in a dark cavern.” At the “revelatory moment” the music gives way to “awe and glory,” then to strings at the hero’s near death, followed by an “epic battle in which the hero is triumphant,” ending with a “fanfare sendoff.”
While most of the composers had expected to attend the 2020 concert, the uncertainties of COVID-19 restrictions on air travel this spring compelled many to make other plans. Etienne won’t be traveling east to perform the piano piece that launched the concert, although Kara plans to attend.
Stephen holds out the possibility of an “encore presentation [of the concert] next summer, so that they can experience their piece.”
Joanna Pane chose the ’70s because “it’s just a pivotal era in film and music, and there are so many movies from that era I love: The Godfather, Amarcord, Taxi Driver. These films convey alienation and isolation in really profound ways.”
She named her piece “Against the Odds,” and for its melodic theme relied on the feel of the 1977 Italian film, A Special Day, set in Fascist Italy. “I was trying to convey the angst and isolation we feel as a society despite all the interconnectedness of the modern world.” Ultimately, though, her piece affirms, she says, “the enduring nature of the human spirit in the face of struggle.”
Jesse Hartov’s many projects with Bear include the score for Crip Camp: this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary on the disability rights movement that he calls “very satisfying” to have worked on. His piece, “A Dream of the Sixties,” draws on the “epic, romantic, and vibrant” films of that decade. “There were so many great scores of that era,” says Jesse, twenty-six. “So, I tried to narrow it down to a few areas that really inspired me and weave a sort of dream sequence through several settings. There are elements of David Lean epics, fast-paced westerns, New York jazz scenes, and perhaps a musical.”
“It was a ton of fun to write,” he says, “and I hope everyone enjoys all of these pieces.”
If the concert is well received, the maestro envisions more commissioned pieces by other young composers in the years ahead and hopes to make master class demonstrations a permanent feature of the festival’s online offering.
And where might he find the next generation of young American composers? Why not in the Endless Mountains of New York and Pennsylvania that lend their name to this music festival?
To that end, EMMF and the Science & Discovery Center in Corning this year launched a “junior composer” teaching program for school children—another of Marisa’s ideas—in Corning and Wellsboro.
“The idea was to just introduce them to the software” that modern composers use, explains Bruce McLaren, “and show them how to do musical composition.” He’s an educator at SDC who led a three-day winter workshop along with Samara Gromer, a music teacher in the Elmira public schools. Each child had access to a laptop loaded with Melody Assistant, a sophisticated but user-friendly software that “uses traditional treble and bass staffs,” Bruce explains. “Once you’ve selected some instruments you start adding quarter notes, half notes, tempos, then you play it back and listen to what you wrote.”
The Corning pilot workshop attracted six students between fourth and seventh grade; a Wellsboro workshop attracted two. “It worked out as well as we hoped,” says Bruce. “We’d really like to keep it going next year.” Stephen and Cynthia say the same.
Perhaps because the ’90s were his very first decade, such films as Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Mask made a deep impression on Omer Ben Zvi growing up in Israel. Born in Boston in 1990, “I’m still very nostalgic for those films,” he says. “They were very adventurous.”
He’s a composer at Sparks & Shadows whose scoring includes the TV shows Outlander, The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the video game God of War. He’d like some day to score a “big Disney animated musical.”
The films of the ’90s “hop from emotion to emotion,” so for his piece “I wanted to create something that’s always moving around, traveling around,” says Omer. “I called it ‘Wanderlust.’ It has a singular melody that jumps from style to style because there’s so much to pick from.”
Sam Ewing, thirty, another Sparks & Shadows composer, landed the ’50s for his decade—“a good one” for the movies, he says. He cites the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock, and specifically the “percussive” score for Psycho by composer Bernard Herrmann. “I love that score,” he says. “It’s a sneak-peek into my brain.” He’s currently at work with Bear on the “zombie apocalypse horror” TV series, The Walking Dead.
A “huge sci-fi fan,” Sam also cites “the explosion of monster movies” in the ’50s, and such great B movies as The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The opening of his piece, “Age of the Boom,” “explodes the ’50s open. It just grabs the viewer,” but “overall it’s about heartbreak and tragedy and romance gone wrong.”
Writing for “The Emerging Hollywood Composers Concert” was a “great opportunity,” says Sam. “With all these amazing players” in the EMMF orchestra, “I wanted to make sure everybody has something fun to play. So, everyone gets a turn at the melody: brass, winds, strings. I want the audience to experience the whole orchestra at its maximum.”