Berklee students analyze movie music to help give compositions new life
When the Oscars are handed out tonight, a group of students at Berklee College of Music will be paying special attention to one category: best original score.
Michael Oldham, Pablo Trujillo, and Alexandra Zwart are film scoring majors at the school and have been immersed in a project that has them analyzing their future profession more deeply than they ever imagined.
The trio are among a group of roughly 40 interns who have been working with Paramount Pictures over the last six months to catalog the studio’s film music. The interns have been combing over the scores from a huge variety of films, from “Forrest Gump’’ to “Psycho’’ to “The Godfather,’’ and mapping out the component parts for a digital database dubbed “Soundminer.’’
“Paramount had been wanting to create a music library of all their film music that would be available for sale to music supervisors, directors, music editors, TV commercial directors, whoever wanted to use it,’’ says film scoring professor Richard Davis, who is overseeing the intern program. Paramount’s “Soundminer’’ coordinator and Berklee alum Adam Ehrlich got the idea to enlist college kids to help, and Davis’s friend Dan Butler, a Paramount executive who oversees business affairs and legal matters pertaining to the studio’s music, reached out to Davis.
The students — all of whom hope to emulate respected film composition heroes like Danny Elfman, John Williams, and James Newton Howard — jumped at the chance. But they found the process of breaking down the music into searchable keywords more daunting than first imagined.
“I think we’re all music composers because we can’t exactly figure out how to say something or describe something or feel something, so we do that with music,’’ says Oldham, 21 and a Braidwood, Ill., native. “So having to describe the feelings of what the composer meant in all these pieces — sometimes it was pretty obvious, but sometimes it was more ambiguous. It was hard.’’
“It taught me a lot about having to analyze different styles,’’ says Zwart, 21, of Trumbull, Conn. “You’d be surprised how long it can take to pick out the little details.’’ She said it usually took her four or five passes through a score — including “Alfie’’ and “Dinner With Schmucks’’ — to break it down.
The process is somewhat akin to the Internet radio service Pandora’s Music Genome Project, where the students isolate a wide range of elements like style, instrumentation, time period, and mood, among many others.
A look over Zwart’s shoulder at the “Soundminer’’ spreadsheets shows everything from conversational descriptors like “eerie’’ to more technical musical terms like “diatonic.’’
The reward for this work — which they estimate takes about 30-35 hours — is the opportunity to write their own original score to a short animated film clip provided by Paramount from its archives. The final products can then be used for the students’ professional reels.
Trujillo, 28, of Malaga, Spain, completed his internship last semester in the first installment of the collaboration, and has a finished clip to show — a jaunty new score for the 1936 short “Cobweb Hotel,’’ which chronicles the exploits of an innkeeping spider. He enjoyed the give and take with the studio, which he says was surprisingly responsive. “I did four rounds,’’ he says of the back-and-forth process of notes and tweaks on his score for the nine-minute short. “I usually got feedback from them in one or two days.’’
Oldham, a big Pixar fan, can’t wait for his turn. “I’m really excited to have someone in a professional environment to tell me what works with no B.S.,’’ he says.
For its part, Paramount is happy with the progress so far, although representatives were unavailable to comment by phone on how long the internship program might last.
“We are excited to have the next generation of composers gain valuable experience by allowing them the opportunity to analyze and interpret the extensive music library we have here at Paramount,’’ said Randy Spendlove, Paramount’s president of Motion Picture Music, via e-mail. “They are doing an exceptional job helping us create this rich database.’’
Davis, who came to Berklee in 1995 after working in Hollywood as a composer and orchestrator for film and television on projects like “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’’ and “The Fall Guy,’’ is enjoying watching his students navigate the experience and expects the collaboration to continue for at least a couple more semesters, as there are dozens of films to be catalogued and more coming in all the time — including current Oscar nominee “The Fighter.’’
“They’re getting to hear all this incredible music that you normally don’t hear through the dialogue and the sound effects,’’ he says. “And on the second part of the project they’re getting notes back from industry professionals who are not their teachers, and they’re just telling them, ‘This is working, this is not working.’ It’s a real wake-up call for some of these kids.’’
Beyond the database creation and promo reels for the students, the project has had one added bonus that neither Berklee nor Paramount could have foreseen. “The first part makes you sit and listen to the music and analyze it deeply, which is a very good exercise as a composer. And in my case, it helped improve my vocabulary, too,’’ says Trujillo, a native Spanish speaker, with a laugh. “I have a wider range of adjectives now. And that’s the way the director tells you what they want. They describe the music, but they don’t say, ‘I want a minor third here or a seventh chord here.’ They just say emotions or adjectives or how the mood should be, and you have to translate it into music.’’
Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com