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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. Jack

    whoa… hold on a second. what films are you talking about? how can you just assume that all films and film makers follow the hollywood code? how can you just assume that everyone wants to watch that or watches that or accepts it as ‘good’ and ‘worthwhile’? what if i don’t want music in my movie? what if i don’t want to hear those stupid songs or strings? what if i don’t want some corporate moron telling me ‘what the audience wants?’ i don’t agree.

    1. Trevor

      I feel like you’re disagreeing with everything I wrote by assuming that I mean ‘in all cases’. But I actually said “but for *some* work outside of that medium” up front.

      The premise of this article, before mostly being a single story about one of my experiences, is that in film and commercials you often write to what the audience wants – audience being client-side. That client can be a film director/producer or commercial producer/creative.

      But honestly in my experience even saying “often” is too weak. It’s really 99% of the time. In all of the advertising and film work that I’ve either done myself or have worked on for other composers, the composer is at the will of the director. Even when they say (on only one occasion), “I want you to do what you think is right here”, the composer was asked to re-write music until he got what the director was looking for.

      I wouldn’t call that a Hollywood model, I’d call it – getting hired to write music for someone else’s work.

      And, “what if i don’t want some corporate moron telling me ‘what the audience wants?”- you don’t get money. As awful as that might sound, you can use that money to subsidize artistic projects that compel you.

  2. Jack

    there is just as much a chance that you will find commercial music in a concert music setting as in a film/advertising setting. whether you make commercial music in whatever setting is up to you.

    ‘what the audience wants’ depends. not all audiences are the same. in fact some audiences want you to do anything but something generic and commercial. in fact they expect you to thought-provoke, ask questions, give them a new experience, show them something they didn’t know was possible, etc. they may be smaller but they exist.

    basically, no one is forcing you to do anything. some people like commercial music. other people don’t. you decide what you want to do, and no medium forces you into anything.

    i also wouldn’t agree that concert music is hands down ‘a conversation with the audience, like it or not.’ in certain cases yes, but it depends. i certainly wouldn’t want to prescribe a fixed purpose for everyone. sometimes we don’t know or hopefully there are also new ‘purposes’ that we don’t know of yet. maybe in some cases it’s more like an object that we just look at or a phenomenon that we observe. that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us emotionally, but it’s not necessarily a ‘conversation.’ if it is, it’s certainly a one-sided one. whatever the case, I wouldn’t agree that all composers are vexed when the audience inserts their own meaning into a performance, or interprets it incorrectly. if anything, for some composers, that’s exactly what they want. they may not want a fixed interpretation to their work. the point may be to take away your own meaning.

  3. Jack

    (sorry, but it takes me a while to get my ideas across…)

    there are commercial movies just as much as there is commercial concert music. there are artistic movies just as much as there is artistic concert music. trying to draw some distinction between the two mediums as if in film we are ‘required’ to do something doesn’t hold. in commercial movies what do you expect, but just as there are commercial movies, so there are artistic movies. not all movies want commercial music or even have music. what it comes down to at the end of the day is, what do you want to do?

    as for the job of gauging how to manipulate your audience the most for maximum sales, i don’t not only not care for that but hate that idea. i use adblock, don’t watch tv or internet tv, and go to supermarkets like aldi where they don’t play music.

    really what you’re describing is an american capitalist perspective which we have grown so used to and take for granted. but you know this is not the way things have to work. we choose to make them this way. if you want to do that, it’s a choice.


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