SoundCloud posts, of course. (I don’t do Snap, or Instagram, or Twitter, or much else).
These are how I interact and get to know most of the composers I work with. All of them are long distance relationships. All of them are relatively impersonal. Most importantly, none of them leave a lot of room or opportunity for spontaneity. For mistakes.
Mistakes are great, I think. Mistakes send us to places we did not intentionally plan on going, and if one pays attention, accepts, and embraces the possibility of failure, mistakes can lead us to great things. They can lead to revelations and approaches we did not anticipate.
I was curious what it would be like to gather a few of the composers I’ve worked with over the years, composers whose work I admire and whose work has proven itself over time. The goal was to gather and get to know each other. To exchange ideas and approaches. To challenge each other (hopefully without ending in fist fights), and try to find a new way of doing things. To see whether serendipitous thoughts and comments might lead to something a bit more coherent, meaningful and interesting. To create new stimulations.
It took months of deliberation and planning, and lots of help from my awesome colleagues Elise and Chris, as well as several interns. Eventually, we settled on two houses in Joshua Tree, right at the edge of the park. They were both peaceful, beautiful, and relatively far from the distractions of the modern world.
Daniel flew in from Poland. Just to get this out of the way – I’m still pretty impressed by this fact – he’s a freaking nuclear scientist! Nuclear. Scientist. He’s also a sound designer like I’ve never met before. The things that we saw him do, on a relatively simple rig, were pretty mind blowing. Heiko came in from the Canary Islands. He’s from Germany originally. His son created his portable rig, which was basically in a shoe box, and it worked, both flawlessly and with might. Eric and Nick had a shorter trip: they came from Missouri. Their relative youth – at least compared to my own half a century – deceived us all, because they blew everyone away with the skill and wisdom of their work and productions. You could tell they’d known and worked with each other for a long time already because they operated as one. Tim is from London and Tommy from Vienna, and they both live in Los Angeles. They were the only ones I had met in person so far, which gave me some confidence, they are solid dudes.
Welcome to the desert
It took a few days for everyone to arrive. My wife and kids graciously endured a bunch of geeky strangers roaming around the house, crashing on couches and in the guest house. Eventually, we packed all the equipment in the rental fleet and were on our way. Three hours later, we were in the desert, with all the dust, sun, wind, rocks and Joshua Trees. Both houses were just beautiful, appreciating and blending in with the surroundings. Everything smelled cool and different. It was inspiring to be there, to say the least.
Everybody carved a bit of space for their workstations. The dining table became the main focal point for Daniel’s rig, and for Nick and Eric’s setup. Heiko found a bit of space in one of the bedrooms. Tommy liked the bathroom, which actually had the best view and a door that opened wide to let the fresh air in. I snatched an inspiring spot with a great view in the living room. Tim opted to work outside, so we set up one of the tables for him on the deck, overlooking the rocks and the pool. It was great until it got too cold or windy at night. Then he’d have to move next to me in the living room.
One cool thing that jumped at me from the very beginning is that we started working as a unit from the getgo. Everybody was mindful and ready to jump in and help, from providing groceries and helping with the setup to moving things around. I was worried at times while planning all this, that I may have invited a bunch of demanding divas, people that were good at what they do, but a pain to be around. One couldn’t really tell this from the emails and Facebook posts and Twitter hashtags. Thankfully this was not the case. This was one solid, creative group of composers.
What does this solid, creative group of composers, in this inspiring environment, after all the long journeys to get there do first thing once they settle? Well, sample farts, of course! I actually didn’t find out about this for a little while, I think they were not really sure how I’d react. They were having a blast. The most innocent – looking ones being the biggest perpetrators. But, man, they actually ended up sounding awesome. Lyrical, really. Ominous at times. Suspenseful.
The power of procrastination
As Hans is known to mention, great creative work often initiates with a great deal of procrastination, but what very few realize is that this procrastination is actually contemplation in disguise. There were lots of starts and stops, ‘dude, check this out!’ exclamations, previews of links on YouTube. Daniel introduced us to Form, from Native Instruments. I had purchased it months before, but never dove in properly. After watching him perform absolute wizardry on sounds with it, we all ended up lost in it for hours. All this was dotted with yummy lunches (and dinners and breakfasts and snacks), lots of beer and some sweet Polish cherry liqueur Daniel brought in from Poland. It was dotted with the ‘Sunset Hour’ breaks of climbing on those beautiful rocks as far up as we could. We’d be looking at the desert, feeling the air and the wind, finding ourselves lost in our own thoughts, and thinking of family and loved ones. Also, of course, drinking more beer. We’d be enjoying Tim’s stories of an up-and-coming (and in my opinion, handsome) British composer buried in the gallows of the temptation of Hollywood, and Tommy’s stories of working on some pretty big Hollywood film projects, and the madness engulfing them. We’d enjoy Heiko’s reflections on the simple life on the Canary Islands, his life on tours, on balancing career and raising kids.
So, this procrastination stage was actually inspiring. We all ended up considering different ways of going about things, based on everybody sharing their thoughts on how they create and produce and design. I got to blab about the ultimate importance of telling a story with one’s composition in this world of trailers – cool, fresh sounds and textures and constructs only go so far if there is no thought and story behind it. The more we talked about this stuff, the more parallels we found to basic compositional tools and devices from classical music – the textures and sound palettes were (hopefully) fresh and new – but the approach was rather timeless. It was the distilling and development of ideas, the morphing and evolving of sounds while conducting the intensity. What stands behind the audio in trailers, we concluded, is the thought and story – the sounds and chords and structures and constructs are the manifestation of it.
Secret labs and puzzling drums
Most of the evenings we stayed at the house and cooked, BBQed, talked and worked late into the night. The last night, though, we went out, to Joshua Tree Saloon. Man, what a place. It was an open mic night, folks were playing on stage, some, one could tell, were probably here every Friday evening. Jokingly, we were trying to guess who had a meth lab in the backyard 🙂 At one point, these two dudes, a bass player and a guitarist, both of whom sang, were up on stage. It was just the two of them. They sounded ok, but something was obviously missing. Tommy gets up, without saying anything, at one point, walks up on the stage and joins them on drums. He blended like they had been playing together for decades, he just nailed it. It never occurred to me before to find out what his main instrument was, I assumed it was the keyboards, for some reason. After a few songs, he joined us back at the table like nothing happened. The guys from the stage ended up stopping by after their set, impressed and puzzled like the rest of us.
So, that was our little trip, in a nutshell. The value and preciousness of this stuff hits you only after the entire thing is over – the details, the vibe, the energy. The out-of-the-ordinary-ness of it. Which was inspiring. Most of the work coming in afterwards was noticeably on a higher level – all the talking and discussing and procrastinating bloomed into ideas. Being a composer, for the most part, is a solitary, isolated endeavor. There can be a lot of doubt and insecurity in the process – internal thoughts like ‘am I doing the right thing’ and ‘Is this as good or better from what’s out there?’ From my perspective – and I do think it’s shared by my compadres at our Joshua Tree compounds – coming together, opening up and exchanging thoughts and ideas elevated our comprehension and perception of the big picture (and the micro-picture, for that matter). It brought inspiration. Lots of it. It made me realize that living life gives us inspiration. Life, away from our computer screens, in all its challenges and imperfections, tensions and resolutions. Friendships.
An unexpected ending
During the dinner back at my place in Santa Monica the last evening, the guys from Europe, who were flying out the following day, off-handedly asked whether I can get them into Remote Control to check things out. I’ve been there a few times, but I couldn’t say I really knew anyone there well enough to pull that off. Then I remembered my good friend Adam Schiff, one of the main composers at Bleeding Fingers. Not expecting much, I put a word in with him, asking whether we could come and join for a bit the next morning. He made it happen, effortlessly. We got the whole shebang – a tour of the entire place, complete with Hans’ legendary room and the entire Bleeding Fingers building (thank you, Adam!). It made an impression, and it was a perfect, unexpected ending for our little journey.
We’re already thinking up where to go next ;).