By Jon Burlingame
Film-scoring programs and workshops have become commonplace around the nation, but there is still only one place where emerging composers and young filmmakers join together to explore the possibilities of music and movies: The Sundance Composers Lab, which was held again this summer at Utah's Sundance Institute.
Shown on the last day of the Composers Lab are: Emilio Kauderer, Composers Lab Fellow; Peter Golub, Director, Sundance Composers Lab; Kysia Bostic, Composers Lab Fellow; Doreen Ringer Ross, Vice President, Film/TV Relations, BMI; Nick Laird-Clowes, Composers Lab Fellow; David May, Agent, Advisor; Ralph Carney and Ceiri Torjussen, Composers Lab Fellows; Cara Mia Harris; Sundance Lab coordinator; Penka Kouneva, Composers Lab Fellow; Scott Johnson, Sundance Technical Director; and Lily Romero, Sundance Composers Lab assistant
BMI, a founder of the lab in its original incarnation in the late 1980s, has continued to serve as a major sponsor of the project since its revival in 1998. It is involved in both the selection of the composer "fellows" who participate and with the its day-to-day operation, in which the composers score scenes from films being made by the directors in Sundance's Feature Film program.
Composer Christopher Young leads a session with the lab fellows
This year's fellows were: Kysia Bostick, best-known for her music for the theater including the Kennedy Center's "Harlem" and George Wolfe's "The Colored Museum"; Ralph Carney, who has scored animated shorts and often performed as an instrumentalist with Tom Waits; Emilio Kauderer, an Argentinian composer whose "Paquito's Christmas" was performed at the Washington Opera; Penka Kouneva, a Bulgarian-born concert composer whose "Shadows" has won awards at festivals worldwide; Nick Laird-Clowes, a British rocker whose Dream Academy music has been featured in films including Diane Keaton's "Heaven"; and Ceiri Torjussen, an award-winning Welsh composer who has scored a number of British documentaries and orchestrated several American films.
Fellow Kysia Bostic and composer George Clinton in the edit room
The intense, two-week program -- held this year from July 24 to August 6 -- is divided into two halves, according to lab director Peter Golub. During the first week, the composer fellows are assigned specific scenes from an existing film to "re-score," with the film's original composer on hand to advise and comment. This year's movie was "Wild Things," and composer George S. Clinton (best-known for his spy-movie parody music for the "Austin Powers" films) was present.
Shown at the lab kickoff are Sundance staff and advisors Kenneth Brecher, Executive Director, Sundance; BMI's Doreen Ringer Ross; Wes Craven, Director; John Ottman, Composer/Director/Editor; Peter Golub, Director, Composers Lab, Sundance; and Michelle Satter, Director of the Feature Film Program, Sundance
Clinton, and fellow composer Christopher Young ("Wonder Boys," "The Hurricane," "Bandits"), conferred with the fellows and offered advice on musical matters as well as the practical side of being a composer for hire in the movie and TV business.
During the second week, the composers met with eight filmmakers and collaborated with them on scoring two- to three-minute scenes from their films, all works in progress. Three more BMI composers joined the group to offer suggestions and input into the scoring process. They were Stewart Copeland (the ex-Police drummer whose movie work includes "Wall Street" and "Rumblefish"), Michael Kamen ("Band of Brothers," "X-Men," "Mr. Holland's Opus") and Rolfe Kent ("Nurse Betty," "Election").
The composer fellows worked on multiple film scenes, and the filmmakers got to work with different composers, according to Golub. Each composer created his or her cues on a fully equipped MIDI workstation, enabling them to create a vast array of musical sounds appropriate for each sequence.
At week's end, all of the fully scored scenes were screened for the entire group and critiqued by the professionals. Music editor Adam Smalley, music supervisor Dawn Soler, agent David May, and BMI vice president for film/TV relations Doreen Ringer Ross were also on hand to provide assistance and advice.
Earlier during the summer, the filmmakers were treated to an additional music-related seminar. Director Wes Craven ("Music from the Heart," the "Scream" films) and composer-editor-director John Ottman ("The Usual Suspects," "Apt Pupil") took part in a round-table discussion with the fellows from the Filmmaker lab, along with a screening of clips from their films.
Says Ringer Ross: "BMI has always been committed to promoting and developing better communication between filmmakers and composers. This lab provides a unique forum for that process. It's also very exciting to nurture the abilities of so many talented, original voices."
Adds Golub: "For the fellows, the lab is extremely valuable. It's very hard for struggling composers to meet filmmakers and to actually roll up their sleeves and work with them. It's an environment that encourages them to stretch out and try things that they haven't tried before, and not be afraid of failing. We encourage experimentation."
As for the filmmakers, Golub says, "they get to sit back and lay with music, see how it can affect a scene. We give them the tools with which to communicate with a composer. They come to realize that music doesn't have to be a forbidding thing, that they don't need any special language."
The composer fellows are unanimous in their praise of the lab. "They all tell me it's a life-changing experience," says Golub. "One of the most extraordinary things I've done in my life," reports Laird-Clowes. "Very, very insightful," adds Bostick. "It was beyond what I expected, interfacing with the composers and also with young filmmakers."
Kouneva called it "one of the most truly transforming experiences I have ever had. The amount of sharing, mentoring and nurturing was really tremendous. The mentors were so generous in the way they answered all of the questions that were raised: long, detailed answers, not just giving the facts but trying to create an understanding of how to approach things."
Advisers for past labs have included Danny Elfman, Terence Blanchard, Ed Shearmur, Carter Burwell, Richard Gibbs, Thomas Newman, Basil Poledouris, Mychael Danna, Graeme Revell and Shirley Walker.
Past fellows have, in many cases, gone on to score major feature films. They include Cristian Amigo, Tyler Bates, Jonathon Bepler, Kristopher Carter, Karen Martin-Messner, Kenya Tillery, Brent Michael Davids, Camara Kambon, Rebeca Mauleon, Stan Ridgeway, Carlos Rodriguez, Michael Wolff, Ryan Beveridge, Stephen Thomas Cavit, Eva King, Sean Murray, Zoe Poledouris and Otis Taylor.