I grew up in a small town in New Mexico. When you grow up in a small town, pop culture will make its way later than when it first comes out on the coasts or in big citites. We had a movie theater, which I went to as much as I could (back then a movie was only $5!). And my family had a routine for many years where my brother and I would walk to the movie store up the street every Friday and pick out a movie for us all to watch. We even rented a Nintendo from that video store every so often and my bro and I’d play duck hunt for 3 days straight. But we didn’t have more than 7 TV stations, two of them being in Spanish (what’s cable?!) so I didn’t grow up watching MTV or Saturday Night Live regularly. I probably missed quite a lot of popular culture from the 80’s and 90’s. Ok, let’s be honest, other kids growing up in small towns could have learned more about pop culture than me, but considering that my parents didn’t get a normal sized TV until I was about 10, we spent a lot of time watching things on a black and white TV that was about 5 x 5 inches.
I did listen to a lot of music though, regularly borrowing CD’s from the library and listened to a whole lot of classical music scores. Some of my favorite composers were Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Brahms, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Beethoven and Holst. I listened to a lot of piano and orchestral scores.
From a young age, I played piano and violin, performing regularly in ensembles, orchestras, solo competitions and composed some award-winning piano pieces. Like every kid, I contemplated my career choices in life and they ran the gamut from archaeologist, doctor, zoologist, firefighter (I can thank the movie Backdraft for this one), astronaut, environmental lawyer (this one actually wove through my first year of college), and of course, film composer. All of my ideas seemed somewhat practical, well, maybe not an astronaut. But hey, a kid growing up in a town where 80 percent of the residents work at a National Science Laboratory might not be without some weird inspiration by osmosis. So I thought to myself, I’ll go into music, and if it doesn’t work out, my backup plan will be to become an environmental attorney.
There was a really specific movie and score that compelled me to want to become a film composer. And it may have been accentuated by the fact that the film took place in San Francisco, which again, living in a small town in the middle of New Mexico, and only getting to see California occasionally was a film that satisfied two of my fascinations; The West Coast, and music.
Sneakers, directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, and Sidney Poitier. It’s a story about a misfit group of computer and tech geniuses that each have their own checkered pasts with law enforcement. Because they have a very specific skill sets, AND they are not really able to have regular jobs, they create a business where they’re hired to break into banks to show how banks can improve their security. Martin Bishop, played by Robert Redford has his criminal past used against him, and as a result, they get embroiled in a risky scheme involving secret government agencies (or they think that’s what they are) and some other unsavory characters working for the mob.
The music was written by the late James Horner who wrote a beautifully evocative and unique score that perfectly set the backdrop for the tense thriller. There is a trumpet motive played by Brandford Marsalis that weaves in and out through the entire score. The trumpet is never bombastic or blaring, it’s quite literally like the sound of a female solo, which marries well with rest of the orchestra. In fact, one of the main layers is a female choir that never sings audible words but instead acts as another timbral layer. It’s at times emotional, percussive, tense and emotive of underlying trajectories that are understated but quite dynamic. One of the things that I think is so effective about the score is that the intricate rhythmic and aural layers are minimalist and create a very haunting feeling while at the same time conveying a sense of adventure, wonder and interest. In typical minimalist music, there is a slow burn when it comes to the harmonic trajectory, but in Horner’s score, some of the best aspects of minimalism (an ostinato and repetitive rhythmic layers) are combined with incredibly cinematic sequences where the tension builds continuously, created by only a few elements.
It has some of the most memorable tunes I’ve ever heard, and clearly they stuck with me over the years because I can probably hum most of them. The moment that sticks in my brain the most clearly as being the moment where I thought, hey this would be a fun profession, was a scene where Robert Redford is dropped off (rather forcefully) out of the car of a couple of these unsavory characters after he was driven somewhere in the back of a trunk. They’ve been out driving all night and its early morning in San Francisco. The car drop-off takes place at the top of one the cities many steep streets, and with the bay and the Golden Gate bridge in the background, its quite a beautiful shot supported beautifully with the music without trying to be too dramatic, or maudlin, but just existing for what it is. I thought to my young self, I want to do this kind of stuff.
At a young age, I knew that concert music writing wasn’t going to be what did it for me.Despite the fact that I listened to more classical and concert music, than I did film scores, mainly again, because of that whole small town phenomena.There were just more classical scores at the library than film scores.But nonetheless, this score made a big enough impact on me that the idea was planted in my brain to follow this career pursuit.Now, was it the most practical?Well, that’s for probably another blog post.It’s always important to start your dream somewhere.