Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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Scoring the film "Preheated"

My daughter Sarah’s animated short “Preheated,” which she collaborated on with classmate Luke Snedecor, currently has over 1.7 million hits on YouTube, which means that my film score has now been heard over 1,699,000 times more frequently than all of my other original compositions combined.  That’s the power of getting behind the right project!

Composing my first score was a challenge, and it’s the existence of digital recording that made it even remotely possible.  How the old-timers Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann and the like were able to compose and record amazing scores for live orchestras, all within tight budgets and timelines, is mind-boggling.  I simply don’t understand how they did it.  The advent of soft synths and sequencers has opened up the world of scoring to countless composers who may not even know how to play an instrument, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, at least not for a newbie; the six minutes of music for “Preheated” took me about three months to compose and record.

Part of the challenge was getting up to speed on four new pieces of software: the new version of Cakewalk (now free!) by BandLab, Native Instrument’s Komplete 11, Passion Flute by Orange Tree Samples, and ProjectSam’s Swing More.  Sarah, Luke and I had all agreed that the score should incorporate jazzy and big-band elements, so the latter two pieces of software really came in handy, though I learned quickly that even really good software has its limitations.  I sometimes wanted more punch from the trumpets and I had to find workarounds to get the sounds I wanted, but Swing More provided me with a great pallet to choose from, and I was particularly happy with the Dixieland music for the film’s end credits.  Passion Flute was perfect for this project – very easy to use and it responded just the way I needed.

Another challenge was timing.  Sarah and Luke needed every minute of available time to complete the movie, so the final rendering of the film wouldn’t be available until just a few days prior to its debut on May 9th.  I clearly needed to start composing well in advance of this deadline, and this fact led to a lot of editing, as I’d complete a section of music only to find that timing had shifted or had been extended or condensed.  New music had to be created or deleted quickly when three or four seconds were added to or subtracted from the film late in the game. 

The one bit of software that didn’t cut it were the lead string instruments.  Soft synths manage to provide fairly realistic wind instruments sounds, but the expressiveness of viola and violin are really difficult to emulate on a computer, so my friend Uli Widmaier brought over his instruments, spent an hour recording his parts, and we inserted the real thing for a much better product.

Overall, scoring for film was a hell of a lot of fun, and I’m generally pleased with the final result.  I’m even more pleased with the way the film turned out and the wonderful response its garnered.  It’ll be neat to see where the careers of Luke and Sarah lead and whether this short film will one day be looked back on as the beginning of something special.

 Shortly after “Preheated” was made available online, I received an email from a high school music student asking me to describe the process of scoring “Preheated” for her class project.  In case you’re interested, some of my response follows:

I saw the original storyboards for “Preheated” as far back as last fall, and this led me to first compose the film’s climax, the moving theme in 3/4 when the father and boy work together to light the candle.  I incorporated the same theme for the end credits, but switched to a Dixieland band and changed the timing to 4/4 and modulated the key to give it a fun, bouncy lift.

From there I tackled the beginning motif, which then helped guide the rest of the score.  Luke and Sarah decided that the clarinet should more or less represent the boy, and the violin and viola more or less represent the father.  For the first 30 seconds or so, I established an easy-going introductory tune that includes a 7-note motif that’s used throughout the score:  G G# E D E D C#, first with violin in the opening segment, and then with clarinet as the boy comes into full view.

When the downtrodden father enters the frame, the viola begins with an entirely different theme: a weepy, melodramatic tune to represent melancholy, but the 7-note clarinet motif comes into play when the boy tries to get his father's attention, and once again at the end of the section, this time with piano.  None of the other melodies in the section appear again because this is the only section of the film that has a melancholy feel.

When the boy has an idea to make a big birthday celebration, the music picks up into a sort of flute/big-band Latin piece, but because the boy is constantly met with obstacles, the music has to break rhythm regularly.  These were the most difficult sections for me.  For instance, the curiosity at 0:32 conveyed with pizzicato strings, the curiosity at 1:35 expressed with bass and flute primarily, or the confusion conveyed at 2:30 with piano and bass.  These little transitional pieces of music were challenging.  The main sections were much easier.

The "spooky music" section at 1:57 was originally overdone, and I threw in the 7-note theme again – this time with flute – just to keep the audience grounded.  This isn't a horror film after all, and we wanted to keep things anchored in playfulness.

As the boy realizes his predicament, the tempo increases and the instrumentation gets slightly more complicated to increase the tension as he opens the refrigerator and scrounges for something to cool off his hands, once again using a variation of the 7-note them from before, and culminating in a diminished 7th chord run as he struggles to figure out where to put the melted butter.  The piano does a sort of "ah ha!" moment as he discovers that the recipe calls for melted butter, and then again as he sees the melted butter in the bowl.

The boy seems back on track!  I returned to the fun Latin big-band motif, but the boy immediately hits another barrier, ending the music abruptly, and I used an aggressive flute sound to depict frustration (and to add a dose of comedy).  Once again the boy needs to think for a moment, so I composed a quick flute and piano section, playing a sort of flat 2 diminished 7 interval that resolves to the one chord, a phrase that will be used again when the father walks in to see the mess.

Instead of going back to the same Latin big-band theme, I kept the same feel but changed the melody, altered the time signature to 6/4 and made the acoustic guitar the lead instrument.  I can't say why I decided on this except it kept things from getting too repetitive, and the 6/4 rhythm gave it a sort of unsettled feel, like the boy was going to really have to focus to overcome his obstacles.  Even when he hits barriers within this section, I kept the rhythm going to keep the music from having too much of a start/stop start/stop pattern.

As the boy proceeds, things become more hectic and loud, with a few modulations until the boy achieves his goal of making the cake, and then halts abruptly as the father comes back in the room.  The sheepish looking boy is supported by the same 7-note motif with clarinet.  The father's anger is conveyed with the same flat 2 diminished 7 motif discussed a few paragraphs ago.

So there you are!I hope I get another change to score for film one day, and with any luck, it will once again be for my daughter’s creation.Thanks Sarah and Luke for the opportunity

This Business of Music

In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, Mark Caro offers a terrific analysis of today’s music business that has artists and labels scrambling to tap into on-line sources of income.  Far too often, these sources offer a pittance, calling into question whether artists can continue to create albums and make a living.

That the big labels screwed up and screwed up big in the late 90s when they fought tooth and nail the reality of the Internet goes without saying (and it’s eerily similar to the ongoing battles between Time Warner and local network affiliates – will cable even exist ten years from now?), but it’s doubtful that anyone could have predicted that online streaming would become the primary way people listen to music. 

The very idea of owning one’s music is becoming anachronistic.  Sure, there continues to be a “vinyl revival,” with LP sales increasing almost 6-fold since 2007 (a trend that couldn’t make me happier), but on the whole album sales have reached historic lows, and digital albums aren’t exactly booming either, growing a measly 1.9% in the second quarter of 2013, and possibly declining this quarter.

Which leaves streaming: YouTube.  Pandora.  Spotify.  iHeartRadio.  Slacker.  SomaFM.  For now, these services aren’t providing musicians with the income that physical sales offer.  Rates vary, but according the article, one would need to listen to a song 200 times for an artist to earn $1 on Pandora vs. earning, say, a dollar with a few sales on iTunes.  The argument goes that once these streaming services grow, they’ll be able to pay more to artists (as Spotify has in Sweden), but that remains to be seen.

(for a positively fascinating breakdown of how one artist makes money, check out Zoe Keating's self-reported income as a musician)

More likely, to me, is that music is simply going to become disposable, worth nothing or close to nothing.  In David Byrne’s terrific book, How Music Works, the former Talking Head’s member remarks how music, in a way, has come full circle.  Over a hundred years ago, the only time people enjoyed music was while it was being played.  There was no “owning” music.  You heard it at a performance, and then it disappeared.  At the time, recorded music was something to be feared.  John Philips Sousa warned us against recorded music, saying that it would not only devalue live performance, but impede the yearning to master an instrument:

The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technique,…the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant…

Today, both of Sousa’s concerns appear to have been mollified.  Virtuosos are alive and well in every conceivable genre at every possible instrument.  And live performance is the one thing keeping musicians fed and audiences interested.  Performing used to be an artist’s cash cow, a necessary ingredient to spur physical sales.  Today, when access to musical recordings is ubiquitous, live performing is what’s keeping music fresh, immediate and inspiring, and audiences are willing to shell out serious cash to experience it.

In David Byrne's book, he devotes a chapter to revealing the budgets and income of two of his recent recordings.  It's enlightening, but ultimately not indicative of the average musician, since Byrne is still benefitting from the music business's past paradigm.  Things have shifted, and independent artists today aren't reeping the benefits of the 1970s business model. 

Perhaps one day the vinyl revival will really kick it into gear, and life will return to the glorious past yet again, whereby people gather in front of a turntable and take turns listening to the latest releases.  But in the meantime, an artist's bread and butter appears to be performing.  And perhaps that's the way it should have been all along.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved