Composing concert music is a conversation with the composer and the audience, like it or not. Your captive audience members can understand what you want to say or completely miss your idea and in some cases insert their own, which can be a little vexing.
But for some work outside of that medium—including film and especially advertising—the relationship is completely flipped. Instead, a composer is tasked with writing music the audience wants. The only problem being that it’s an audience that has trouble parsing what it wants in the first place.
In the work that I do for my music production company, Found Objects, we’re often tasked with bridging this gap. Most everyone we work with is very open about how hard it is for them to talk about music, so we all know we’re in a relationship based on both translation and trust. They trust we’ll translate their ideas into music and we try our hardest to get that right.
To do this, I’ve learned to take a step back, go along for the ride, and constantly keep an eye out for what really needs to happen.
My favorite anecdote to demonstrate the difficulty people have in explaining what they need from a composer is a project I did a year and a half ago. The producer and creatives from the advertising agency had settled on a track for a big online commercial. The track was an interesting orchestral piece that had mixed meter and an evolving chord progression that led to a triumphant climax. It was curious that they chose that track out of the 10 options we had sent them, but it was exciting that something so different was beating out the typical ad style. The team focused on how they liked the piece’s build and strong resolution and how well it paired with the arc of the emotion of the spot. All I did was make a few minor adjustments in preparation for their presentation to the clients, who are the decision makers for the product. Everyone was in a good place but the reaction from the client was awful. I could hear it in their voices when the advertising agency team called me afterwards. The producer needed to fix the problem ASAP.
I wasn’t in the meeting (we never are), so I’m not sure what the client had said exactly. But the producer had to take these comments and relay them to me, making their best effort at providing some guidance. They struggled with how to interpret these directions as they weren’t musicians and they could only speak in broad terms. The word I got was that it didn’t sound “finished.”
Here begins the translation: finished how? It could be a logistical thing like the mix sounded weak. Maybe some of the elements felt stiff and too computerized. Or it could be musical. That it doesn’t have enough material in it. It’s not developed enough.
Well, as it was written for full orchestra and we didn’t plan on contracting 20 string players, we relied on a lot on sampled instruments. So we brought in a violinist to add the nuances of a real string player to back up the sampled strings. We worked on the percussion to achieve a more ‘live’ sound in the mix.
We went through another round of revisions with the producer and creatives and we provided multiple options for the same piece. Exploring different openings and endings. One started with piano, another started with a simple solo violin line, another started with a moving flute line, etc. The work was progressing and I felt we were communicating effectively.
Nevertheless, we hit the wall once again. It’s not “finished” enough.
Ninety-five percent of the time we work remotely through conference calls and emails as many people are working on multiple projects and are either taxi-ing around the city or flying around the country. Found Objects on the other hand is very stationary because we have tons of gear packed into our studios. We can’t move this stuff. But let’s make this communication even stronger. Come in and let’s hash this out in person.
We all sat down in my studio and played back the track on high quality speakers with a big screen. This is what I had and this is road we had all traveled. One of the creatives turned to the producer anxiously and said something to the effect of, “It needs to sound more like this.” Hitting play on their laptop an indie rock instrumental with acoustic guitar, drums, and some piano came out of the tinny speakers.
What I wrote was a thousand miles away from this and there was no way I would be able to turn this into that.
Ok, ok, ok. We had provided 10 options 2 weeks ago, including some songs in that style. Why did we spend all of this time going the wrong way? Well, as we discovered while talking through our problem, they liked the arch of my piece but the sound of this other song they had found on Spotify sounded more ‘finished’ because it was cleaner and clearer, certainly it was because it didn’t have a 40 piece orchestra sound.
Sure enough, I put up one of the tracks we sent in the indie rock style and it worked perfectly for them. With some shaping and extending, we finished the job promptly with an indie instrumental song – instead of a full orchestra piece.
Looking back, this is certainly something to laugh at and it hasn’t happened since, but it clearly showed to honest failure of communication that can happen with music. There are so many options, so many things to like and dislike in any one piece of music, that it can be overwhelming to anyone.
It can happen whether you’re telling someone else’s story or your own.