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Hearing Movies: The Soundtrack as an Essential
Ingredient of the Film Experience
Best known for his sci-fi musical enhancement of X-Files, Disturbing Behavior and now Harsh Realm, composer Mark Snow embraces a new challenge in harmonizing dramatically and emotionally with early '60's political and social themes for the movie Crazy In Alabama. Snow, who's been writing scores for movies and television for the past twenty four years, was confronted with the task in this latest film of negotiating a monumental musical universe that included Dixieland, big orchestral and ambient electronic sounds, and solo bluegrass fiddle.
Snow spoke to me in a phone conversation about the unusual musical evolution of Crazy In Alabama. "There was a scene in the middle of the movie, a beautiful montage scene, somewhat sad and very poignant," he said. "Actually Bob Dylan was talking to Antonio about giving him a song for this scene. Anyway, time got of the essence, so that didn't happen."
"So the first thing that I wrote for the movie was this piece which turned out to be the main music theme of the movie. Antonio liked it very much, and so that sort of broke the ice for us. Then we took it from there, but it was a very collaborative situation. And it worked out beautifully, with a lot of eclectic music."
Snow described the experience of switching creatively from X-Files to something quite a bit more grounded in the past. "Oh, it was like I needed a vacation in a way, and Crazy In Alabama was a sort of fantastic musical vacation," he told me. "I wanted to work on something that would be as far away from that as I could. And I did have a good feeling for this music, so it came along at a great time."
Because Crazy In Alabama is so richly steeped in social history, I asked Snow how he went about selecting music to connect with those issues. "It's a good question, and I think you have to be very discreet about the music with themes like that," he answered. "Because if it's too over the top, it takes away from any of the reality of the situation, you know, the good, the bad and the ugly. And in this case it was mostly the ugliness of the '60's civil rights scene."
"And that had to be handled with a sensitivity, and also dignity, but played down in a way," he continued. "You know, not to turn it into a cartoon, or some misrepresentation of it. But rather something simple and direct, where people could feel the reality of it without being turned off to it."
How does a composer like Snow go about generating a period feel through his music? "In this movie, there were a couple of moments that were somewhat dreamlike and very ambiant. And this electronic soundscape seemed to work out really well with that. But most of it was orchestral, and acoustic instruments that seemed to serve the piece well."
"It wasn't difficult thinking about the period," he told me. "It was more about what was the right music for the emotion and the scene, the interacting of the characters. The period wasn’t that far back. So there was nothing to indicate that it had to be a period sound."
The dual parallel themes of racial protest and the liberating impulses of an abused wife (Melanie Griffith) posed an unusual and stimulating challenge for Snow. "That's why there is an eclectic feeling to the music," Snow explained. "There's this solo violin mixed with Dixieland and jazz. And then when it needed to be more emotional, then it was. And it all seemed to work with a consistency, and a main sound that threads the story musically."
Snow, a retrospective of whose work was recently released on Sonic Images' The Snow Files, was reared in Brooklyn. He started out as an oboe player after being trained at Juilliard. He talked about his career turn into composing. "I really loved the idea of writing music rather than playing," he said. "And as a player in an orchestra, I learned all the facets of orchestral music, and I wanted to figure out how the composers did it. So I studied the scores and listened to all the recordings."
"Then I went to see the movie Planet Of The Apes, and it was very exciting because it was a Jerry Goldsmith score, and it was very modern and avant garde. So it was really inspiring to think, hey, they’re using that kind of music in movies and TV shows, let’s go for it."
Snow's passion for bringing drama to life with music sent him on a journey to Hollywood. "I didn't have any work, but after six months I got one little job which led to another, and so forth and so on," he recalled. "But the excitement of what I do is that moment of connection when you're working for a director, and everyone's very tense before they hear the music. They're wondering, is this guy going to do it?"
"You know, it's not like a script. Obviously a script is a lot less abstract than music. So that moment when they walk into your studio or to the scoring stage, and they hear that first note, hopefully they like it. And there’s nothing you can say to make them like it. They're just going to hear it and like it or not like it. And if you make that connection when they love it, that's a big thrill."
Part of generating that connection involves a special creative dialogue with collaborators. "You've heard the directions of the filmakers, and they might say, well we'd like this scene to be green or blue, and make it this or that. And I'll say, okay, I think I know what you mean. And I think the most successful people who do what I do, understand that kind of abstract language, and they can put it into music and make that connection."
"When Melanie Griffith came in and heard the theme with the orchestra on the scoring stage at SONY, she just stopped everything and started screaming at the orchestra, 'That's great! You people are wonderful.' And she came over to me and gave me a big hug and kiss. That doesn't happen every day, I'll tell you that."
"You know, Melanie and Antonio lived with this picture for so long," said Snow. "It's very personal, like their baby, and it has nothing to do with a paycheck for them whatsoever. And they entrust someone to do all these various crafts involved."
Snow also revealed a little of the down
side of his work. "I think the worst is being typecast," he said. "Like
oh, that's the X-Files guy. He'd be no good for our romantic
comedy. And working with people you don't see eye to eye with. You just
have to have a lot of inner strength to keep going."
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