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The Mix: Mark Snow

The secret behind composer Mark Snow's music for The X-Files is... a Synclavier. We go to Hollywood to investigate.

One of the most evocative musical themes in television history. That's how Hollywood media moguls Warner Bros. once described composer Mark Snow's memorable contribution to the innovative, conspiratorial phenomenon that is The X-Files.

Certainly there's no denying that this top-rating show's mark on televisual history is forever assured, and that for once, there's more than a modicum of truth in the marketing ploy opener.

But that was 1996, this is now. The fact that The X-Files has entered its seventh season as a top-rating show in the cut-throat, here today, gone tomorrow American broadcasting business is testament to its ongoing originality. And that Snow remains show creator Chris Carter's composer of choice is testament to Carter's perpetual faith in his euphonious compadre. Each artist clearly holds the other in highest regard.

For his part, Snow is on record as saying he plans to stand by Mulder and Scully for the long haul, both on the small and big screens: "I feel a loyalty to Chris Carter and The X-Files. It's gotten me to where I am now." Whilst admirable, these sentiments are, likewise, not entirely unfounded.

So, a broadcasting phenomenon, scored by a phenomenal composer? Maybe. Yet Mark Snow remains something of an enigma. Born into a musical Brooklyn-based family in 1946, Snow began his own musical studies on piano at the tender age of 10. He later progressed to composition at New York's High School of Music and Art; and, finally (between 1964 and '68) a four-year spell as an oboe student and percussionist at New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music.

Pre-and post-graduation, his career took several eclectic twists and turns: from classical performance to co-founding the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble with Michael Kamen (with whom Snow recorded and toured) to pop album producing and finally turning his not-inconsiderable musical talents to soundtracks and relocating to Los Angeles in 1974. Here Snow began what he casually terms: "A slow, very pleasant ascension in the business - nothing really remarkable, until The X-Files came along."

So how exactly does a jobbing composer land such a high-profile scoring gig? Well, in the dreamlands of Tinseltown a mix of talent, luck, and, in Mark Snow's case, risk can help.

After several years spent traditionally scoring by piano, music paper and pencil at hand, it transpires that Snow's accountant, of all people, was responsible for finally setting the music technology ball rolling - for Snow - big-style back in the mid-'80s, arguably a time of style over content. Miami Vice topped the TV ratings, and New England Digital Corp.'s second-mortgage-inducing, all-singing, all-dancing Synclavier 'übersynth'-cum-sampler/sequencer was king of electronica's hill.

For Snow, the attraction was strong, the product, seemingly unobtainable. "It was apparent that this was the way of the future - a self-contained electronic studio," he recalls.

"My accountant asked, 'What does the most current stuff cost?' I said, 'Well, there's this thing called the Synclavier, but that's a fortune!' And he said, 'Shut up, you're gonna get it - even if we have to borrow, beg, or steal!' Well, at the time, the Synclavier did cost a fortune - about $110,000, just for the bare bones of the thing! And that wasn't adding on the extra voices, the extra memory, the extra outputs and so forth, which brought it up to at least $200,000!"

Quite a few bucks lighter, and, no doubt, several sleepless nights later, Snow found himself in the driving seat of the (then) world's most advanced musical instrument.

Though understandably smitten with a ground-breaking technology that theoretically enabled completion of the scoring circle (from composition to finished recording), or at least a way of presenting a realistic electronic demonstration of a potential orchestral or acoustic score in a solo capacity, Snow's intentions remained true from the outset: "I really wanted to make it sound as musical, warm, and human as I possibly could, even though a lot of the stuff was musique concrete - just ambient sounds."

Yet, ironically, it was those very same 'ambient sounds' that would ultimately prove pleasing to Chris Carter's already well-attuned ears. "I was extremely fortunate," admits Snow. "A few years later, when I was really rocking on the thing, Chris came along and popped in when I doing some low-budget movie, all on the Synclavier. He was obviously impressed, and, luckily, I had my chops up for grabs at that moment in time." And the rest, as they say, is history...

By 1996 Snow had become something of an unlikely household name on the back of his expanded version of The X-Files' theme (a.k.a. 'Materia Primoris') hitting that coveted No.1 spot in several European countries. And where there's success, greater artistic freedom often follows. Carter effectively gave Snow carte blanche and Snow responded by widening the show's musical repertoire.

"I slowly started getting into more melodic and harmonic stuff," he continues. "And, to my delight, nobody gave me any problems with that. They have a director, producer, or writer come and see every note of music for every show - it's a little strange, but it's how they work. It's wonderful; I've never had a situation like this, where I can do what I think or feel is right."

Scoring The X-Files – Fight The Future blockbuster in 1998 provided Snow with a welcome opportunity (and the necessary budget) to mix what he terms 'the cliché X-Files electronic sounds' with an 85-piece orchestra for the big screen - clearly a different animal to its long-running TV progenitor. Some might argue that working on the same project for years on end can be artistically damaging, yet Snow remains characteristically up-beat about the whole affair:

"Doing The X-Files, I'd say, is 85 to 95% a complete, positive thing. The only downside is people thinking, 'Well, that's all he does; that's all he knows how to do. He couldn't write a nice melody; he couldn't do an orchestration.'

"Then, every once in a while, I'll make a demo of something that has nothing to do with The X-Files, I'll put it out there, and people hear this stuff, and say, 'Well, no, wait a minute, this would be great!' Some people are, hopefully, open-minded enough to think, 'Let's give this guy a shot with something else.'"

One recent supporter was none other than Hollywood lead Antonio Banderas, comfortably seated in the director's chair on Crazy In Alabama. Pitched as a poignant-yet-stirring comedy/drama that intertwines two unique stories against the backdrop of Los Angeles and the Deep South, Snow, once again, musically rose to the occasion with flying colours.

As Snow imparts, with a hint of pride: "The first piece of fresh, original music that Banderas heard from me was for a very moving '60s civil rights montage scene where there's a whites-only swimming pool, with an African American protest taking place nearby. The 'Klan comes at night, and there's police and horses - a big melee.

There's this moment when this little black boy, who doesn't want anything to do with it all, takes off his clothes, gets into the pool and just floats; and the position of his body, floating in the pool, is like Jesus on the cross."

Any creative premiere can make for a nerve-wracking experience - even for a seasoned professional like Snow. The composer smiles at the memory. "The producers all wanted my first meeting with Banderas to be good, but no-one quite knew what to expect. So I put this piece up, and all the people there just loved it. But Banderas said 'Let's hear it again.' And he heard it about three times, until it sank in. Then he stood up, almost in tears, and gave me a hug. So, from then on, it was great - a wonderful experience."

Even on these orchestral assignments, music technology continues to play an integral role in Snow's working methods. "Recently, because of the advent of newer samplers - and I have a bunch of those - the mocking up of the orchestra thing is now pretty amazing," he declares. "On the Banderas movie, I had the score all ready for him, mocked up on the electronics, so he could comment on it."

Despite owning four Roland S760s, Snow's trusty Synclavier remains at the heart of his current project studio set-up, doubling up as master keyboard, sequencer, and main sound source. And though this ageing beast is somewhat dinosaur-like in present-day technological terms, evidently this makes no difference to Snow, a fervent champion through and through.

"A lot of the other devices sort of do have a sound," he grants. "Some people think the Synclavier has a sound too, but it only has the sound you want it to have. It stores any sounds you want - you recall them - it's just so quick and the digital recording part of it is so amazingly elegant and fast. The sequencer may not be as powerful as other things, but when you're doing the kind of music that I am - background scoring - then it's fine."

Coming full circle, the Snows have recently moved house, a move that entailed relocating Snowtunes, Mark's private, compact former backyard studio, inside the new house. No more hiking several feet down the back garden when inspiration strikes. That said, "it has its own private entrance, so my wife can still have some privacy with me working at home," Snow grins. He certainly has every right to smile. His new work space sounds (and looks) idyllic. What, then, can we expect from Mark Snow next?

"I'm asking myself that, too! Actually, at the moment there's nothing new on the horizon. It's suddenly hit me: I'm just gonna take Paul McCartney's advice and let it be. I guess I've been hustling, doing, and being ambitious for so long that it's starting to become a bore. I don't need to do it. I'll let it be, and see what happens from there."

Source: Jonathan Miller; The Mix [www.themix.net] & Intermusic [www.intermusic.com], June 2000.

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