So a couple of months ago I was waiting on the C train listening to an old man play what sounded to me like Bach on his electric piano. Despite his lowly stage and modest pay, he was playing beautifully and so I looked around to see if any of the other awaiting subway riders were noticing his performance. To my delight I looked up and saw one young woman listening with rapt attention. After dropping a couple of dollars in his keyboard case, I boarded the train and ended up standing right next to that woman. So I did what few New Yorkers ever do, and I struck up a conversation with a stranger on the train. I asked her if she was a musician, and she said no but that music was a big part of her life and that she was actually involved in film (acting, writing, directing, producing, etc…). We chatted about a short film she was producing and eventually I told her that if she ever needed anyone to score her films, that she should call me. I gave her my card, bid her adieu, and got off at my stop, satisfied with the exchange, but not exactly expecting anything to come from it.
Well, I must have made a good impression (either that or she couldn’t resist the low, low price I promised her), because a few weeks later, she called me about scoring the short film that she was producing. Sidenote: kids, it turns out you should definitely talk to strangers, because they’ll end up hiring you to score their films. So for her privacy and my own entertainment I’m going use a completely made up name and call this producer Lilliandra (I estimate there’s an 85 percent chance Lilliandra is going to read this blog, so I hope you enjoy your made up name, Lilliandra). Lilliandra was working alongside the writer/director/star of the film— let’s call her Nira— to put the finishing touches on the work. The film is a comedy with a surprising dramatic turn set at a low-key house party in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Both Nira and Lilliandra admitted that there are some editing issues, and some suspect acting on the part of one of Nira’s costars, yet overall I found the film charming, funny, and heartfelt, and Nira shines as a magnetic personality onscreen (off-screen as well in fact). I was happy to be a part of the project, and after some direction from Nira and Lilliandra, I began writing and recording the music for the film. After a week of hard work I had something I was excited to show them, so we set up a meeting at Nira’s Greenpoint apartment.
Yet after showing them my work, I could already see the unfortunate truth on their faces: the music was not right. In a nutshell, the music stepped on the humorous parts and over-dramatized the dramatic parts. Despite the fact that Nira and Lilliandra let me know this very delicately, I’m ashamed to admit that internally I felt very defensive. I thought “didn’t they know how much work I had done… and this music is really good…and I’m giving them a low, low price so they should be happy with what I gave them… etc.” Yet all of this was simply the ego-trip of a rookie film composer faced for the first time with some real life critique of his work. If I am going to continue in this business (which I certainly hope to), I need to grow thicker skin and be perpetually open to direction, critique, and even outright rejection. Lilliandra and Nira were right after all— I had stepped on the jokes, and over-dramatized the drama.
Ultimately, however, I was guilty of something more egregious than simply writing bad music. I had essentially used this film as a forum to show off my abilities as a composer, rather than simply trying to help tell the story. The music was in fact “good” in the sense that it was well crafted and sounded nice, but it was the wrong music for this film. Nira and Lilliandra were going for something more nuanced than what I had presented. My music was outshining the film at the expense of the story.
Likely most of us at one point or other have been guilty of bolstering ourselves at the expense of the larger community or project that we are a part of. In the least we’ve all seen it in the losing basketball team with a selfish “all-star” taking all the shots (I’m looking at you 2015 Kobe Bryant), or the band with lazy songwriting that simply serves as a forum for the lead guitarist to shred painfully long solos (I’m looking at you jam-band scene). Yet the best and longest lasting actors, musicians, athletes or workers in any field are not those who do everything to make themselves look better, but those who realize that they are a part of a bigger picture and simply play their part very well (I’m looking at and applauding you Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Rodman, Steven Drozd, and everyone of their ilk).
Last night I met again with Lilliandra and Nira. I had made many adjustments according to the direction they gave me, and as a result the film’s story and personality was much more clear than it had been in the previous incarnation. We had a pleasant and productive session of simply fine-tuning the musical elements, rather than having to completely re-work them. The night was fun and fruitful because we were all on the same page, telling the same story, and each playing our part.