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Terry Plumeri: Singing Strings

By Published: March 31, 2008
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Film Scores

AAJ: You have scored fifty five films; style and subject wise, of amazing diversity. What dictates which projects you will work on?

TP: Being hired does, but you can also become known for a certain style or genre which you might be more inclined towards. There was a time when I got into a niche of crime stories and action films, so I did a good bit of that. But I've done Disney channel films and things of that sort, which I really enjoyed working on. Sometimes kids' films are more fun to do in the sense that you walk away at the end of the day, more lighthearted than you do when you are writing crash and burn. Crash and burn is a 24-hour a day tension that exists in your body. There always comes a time when that tension can really wear on you and can seriously take its toll, especially after you have been living it for weeks.

AAJ: Do you have a set way in which you approach working on a score or does it vary from film to film?

TP: It varies a little, but I do have a basic way of going about it. No matter what the genre, I initially try to view the film as much as possible. Sometimes I even watch the entire film in the fast forward mode, several times. Due to the limited amount of time there usually is to compose a film score, this gives you fairly quickly, an in-depth view of the story. Usually, upon repeated viewings of the visual journey, music will begin to play in my head without actually sitting to compose. Sometimes what plays in my head is clichÈ'—©d, sometimes it's original, but at the least, it's at this point I know that I am beginning to live in the story and that I am ready to sit down and begin the long and complex journey of giving the film it's vibrational and psychological underpinning. Beyond this, it is usually long hours of being alone, trying desperately to force out your very best while the clock is ticking...way too fast.

But then there comes the day when the inner torture is over and you stand in front of the orchestra, give the downbeat and suddenly, there in the external world, is all your inner thoughts and dreams of the past weeks. And for that moment and the moments to follow, you are deep in the privileged world of musical magic.

AAJ: It would seem that a scene would be far shorter that a non-song piece. Do you get in the mindset of thinking to compose in a sort of clipped fashion or do you just rely on editing a longer piece to match up certain aspects of a composition to fit a scene?

TP: I always write specifically for each scene and it is mathematically timed. The mathematics is done with absolute precision, to the tenth of a second. I rarely edit music to fit to a scene.

AAJ: A lot of the more recent film scores do not seem to hold up on their own when not accompanied by the cinematic images. Do you think about this when composing for film and what you will do?

TP: I always do...and it makes your job tougher and more complex. I am old school like that. I come from Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann and Alex North. They all wrote music which stood on its own and simultaneously worked well with the picture.

That was a great time for film music in the sense that it was common for the music to be used as an additional character in the film. Nowadays, quite often the music is used as a carpet to walk, talk and display violence over.

One of the beautiful elements of Alfred Hitchcock's filmmaking was that he periodically gave the music its own moment, treating it as if it were a character in the film. Which is a great thing psychologically, because music has much more of an in-depth mystery and activates the imagination much greater than any visual ever will.

AAJ: You did the film score for One False Move (1991), for which received an Independent Spirit Awards nomination for best score. How closely did you work with the director?

TP: Some directors come around more, some come around less. Carl Franklin was a director who came around a good bit. It was our first time working together and he wanted to see what was going on with the music in his film. When film music is done well, it is very powerful and has an ability to seriously alter the psychological underpinning of a film. So a director is wise to keep an eye on what is coloring the psychology of his film. As the composer, you are essentially in that position of displaying what you are using, and agreeing or disagreeing on whatever it is you are choosing to use as accompaniment to the visual. I have been very lucky in general, in that I have had very few disagreements about what I have chosen to use in the films I have been hired to write music for.

Terry PlumeriAAJ: In general, do you prefer your score work to be almost a collaboration with the director?

TP: It works both ways because some of the best scores I have ever written were for directors who had no sense whatsoever what the music was about. So they basically left me alone. There is a lot more freedom to that style of working. I do very well with freedom.

On the other hand I have worked with directors who are more involved, like my work with Lou Diamond Phillips. Lou is great to work with in the sense that he's got ideas that will take you beyond where you are yourself. Even though he doesn't write music for orchestra, he has very nice ideas about what the music can be, but at the same time he is not overbearing about his wants. The great thing about working with Lou is his ability to suggest doorways into other rooms without clamping down on you.

In working with Lou I have written music which I would not have written ordinarily, which came out quite good, because he stretched the boundaries with his in-depth understanding of the film itself, and what his desires were in terms of the sonic environment.

One thing you have to remember is, when you're doing a film score and you work with a director, the director has already been there for six or nine months, or maybe a year or sometimes two years. So, you can't come in and think that you know everything about the film, even though you may be more experienced than the director. I have written the music to fifty-five movies and I may work with a director who has done two movies. So obviously, I have much more extensive experience in putting sound to visuals than a director who has done two films. But at the same time, I have to be very understanding and empathetic to this individual who has spent much more time with the story than I have. The balance of both sides can sometimes bring about a greater score than I would have written by myself.

AAJ: Do you find with your score work there are certain combinations of instrumentation you prefer to use or avoid?

TP:It depends completely upon the project. A good example is [Francis Ford] Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984) . It is set in the 1920s. So how could you actually write music for that film without having a sense of what the music of the day was, the dance styles, the instruments which were common, the type of orchestration used in the bands, the style of the beat and so on? An awareness of those elements and many, many more is absolutely necessary in being accurate to what the sound environment was of the period.

The same thing is true if you are accompanying a film shot in Afghanistan. If you don't make any kind of implication or addition of ethnic instruments that are organic to that specific place on earth, then you have not created an accurate sound environment to accompany the visual. If you end up with a score that is like Little House On The Prairie, which is kind of [Aaron] Coplandesque in a sense, or The Red Pony, which Copland wrote himself. If you have that type of music with an Afghanistan visual, then your soundscape is going to come across as inaccurate or not convincing, as opposed to a score which incorporates ethnic instruments which are indigenous to the area.

The ultimate criteria is, do you accept it or do you doubt it? And when you accept you may not even think about it at all. You don't go "oh they did this or that." As the viewer, you just accept it. When you accept that you are in Kabul, Bombay, Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles or New York without thinking, then it works. But when you say to yourself, "What's that?" It's like your bullshit meter suddenly goes into the red and you question it. You are immediately pulled out of the fantasy, and the beauty of your escape into a foreign land has been ruined because the moviemaker's technique is faulty. You've had that experience happen before I'm sure, probably more times than you would like.

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