A Conversation with Composer Mark Orton

Posted in News on December 4, 2023

Film director Alexander Payne has made a name for himself through a series of satirical films portraying American society. These include celebrated titles like 1999’s Election, 2002’s About Schmidt and 2004’s Sideways, among many others. For his Academy Award-nominated 2013 film, Nebraska, Payne recruited BMI composer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Mark Orton to score its poignant portrayal of an American family grappling with a patriarch’s eccentricity.

An alumnus of the Peabody Conservatory and the Hartt School of Music and a recipient of the Sundance Composer Fellowship, Orton had been scoring films since the early 2000’s. He also played in the chamber-music collective Tin Hat, who offered a boundary-pushing blend of jazz, southern blues, bluegrass, neoclassical, folk and avant-garde music. For Nebraska, Orton’s deft handling of the music, mingling guitars, dobro, violin, accordion, and other antique instruments to evoke the film’s melancholy themes, involved reconvening with members of Tin Hat, and the resulting film soundtrack won the composer wide acclaim. For Payne’s most recent film, The Holdovers, the director reconnected with Orton to create the period-specific music for this latest project, and the outcome was no less impressive.

BMI caught up with Orton to discuss how this project came to fruition, his creative process and much more. Here’s what he had to say.

After composing his 2014 film Nebraska, you reunited with director Alexander Payne on his latest film The Holdovers. Can you tell us how the project started?

I was brought on fairly early in the process and began working, at first, away from picture. Alexander spent roughly a week here in Portland, OR, during which I wrote what amounted to a suite of instrumental songs that were tied to the time-period of the film (1970). We had spent some of our time talking about the music from that era in a general sense, and what of it resonated with him for the film. This ended up being a kind of compass for me throughout the process – even on the cues that were less song-oriented (more traditional score).

Tell us about where you recorded, and about the mixing process of this score?

I recorded much of the score in my own studio and used a fair amount of live instrumentation even during the demoing process (rather than mocking things up with digital/sampled/midi instruments). I prefer working this way when I can, even if it is less efficient in a way, because it keeps the director from having to make as large a ‘leap of faith’ between the sound of the demos and what will be the final cues. Obviously, I can’t do that on everything (I’m not going to mock-up an orchestral cue or something with a brass band with live instruments), but I knew that we’d have a smaller instrumentation and would be leaning on an organic and a sort of hand-made aesthetic for this score, so this felt like the right way to work.

We moved over to a bigger studio for the final recording sessions which were split into a band day, a strings day, and an ‘extras’ day (winds/percussion/oddities). Richard Ford (music editor and co-producer on the score) and I then brought it back to my place to play with it all for a couple days and add a few additional tracks. (The only exception was the boys’ choir that I recorded in Salt Lake City.)

We had to record everything so it would work in mono, as we needed to deliver the mixes in mono for the film. Alexander really wanted all aspects of the film’s production (including sound) to feel like it was made in 1970, not just set then, and the sound on films from that era was mono (Take that, Dolby Atmos!). At the same time, I also needed to record everything in stereo for the soundtrack album. I didn’t want to half-ass it by just trying to mono-sum a stereo source, so it ended up being a forest of microphones during the sessions, followed by a lot of decision making when it came to the mix.

I mixed it here in my studio. I’m an engineer and mix nearly all my own projects. I run my mixes analog through a custom Manley console and use a lot of outboard gear (eq’s, compressors, hardware reverbs, etc.) alongside a bunch of plug-ins. This workflow (along with the vintage outboard) definitely fit right in with the aesthetic of the film.

You play a host of different instruments (guitar, keyboard, and a number of percussive instruments).  Which is your preferred instrument to write with?

I don’t do a ton of writing ‘on instruments.’ I much prefer to write music in my head. I don’t like getting tied into what licks are in my fingers or the idiosyncrasies of specific instruments at the writing stage, and I was brought up writing this way. My dad was a conductor and composer and encouraged me in this direction, and my composition teacher (and mentor to this day) Daniel Deutsch encouraged the same from me. That said, I’ll sometimes work from a guitar riff or piano chord in developing cues and will sort of sing over the top of it (at least on my more lyrical cues), but I really love the process of dreaming up the music without playing an instrument.  I keep a little portable recorder with me at all times and will often pull over on a bike ride or pause to record during a walk – it acts as my sketch pad, though I use a kind of sung short-hand that would be both baffling and incredibly embarrassing if anyone besides me were to try to decipher it.

You studied music at the Peabody Conservatory and the Hartt School of Music, collaborated with iconoclasts like Tom Waits and Willie Nelson and worked on a wide array of different projects informed by different genres – what would you describe as your musical comfort zone where you feel the most creative?

I’ve always preferred having multiple outlets for my writing. It connects to my multi-instrumentalist leanings, and to my eclectic musical tastes. Playing a bunch of different instruments keeps me from getting ‘stale’ on any one instrument. Likewise, I think writing for a film - vs a score for modern dance or a concert commission for string quartet, vs. music for a podcast provides the kind of variety that keeps me interested and excited to create. This is why I’ve tried to maintain a wide-ranging output.

I grew up listening to a really broad range of music and that continues to this day. My dad got me into Bach and Bieber alongside Ives and Stravinsky while my older brother was turning me onto the proggiest of the the prog-rockers (Yes, Gentle Giant, ELP, U.K. etc.). At the same time, my composition teacher was exposing me to heavy contemporary composers like Elliot Carter and Ligeti while also getting me into Monk, Mingus and Ornette (alongside soul, gospel, and world music from all over the place).

With film-scoring, I have had lots of work that involved a performative aspect for me. This came about due to my early gigs in film and the sound folks associated with me. Much of my early work came from licensing – I had an instrumental composer collective – called “Tin Hat Trio” (later “Tin Hat”) whose music was used in film and narrative radio shows (like This American Life). The other two members of my trio were friends I’d known since junior high, and they shared my eclectic musical tastes. Our group was Violin, Accordion/Piano, and Guitar to begin with, with our only mission statement being the idea that we would stick to an acoustic instrumentation and use extended techniques (and preparations) to expand the sound of the group (rather than electronics).

My association with Tin Hat meant my early projects were closer to the sound of that ensemble – often, it’s what had drawn filmmakers to me to begin with. Over time I’ve been able to stretch away from that sound and write orchestral music and synth-based scores, but I still work from the smaller chamber instrumentation (with lots of antique and odd instrumentation) much of the time, and that relates directly to the sound of the trio.

I feel like I’ve side-stepped your question somewhat…. but all of this is to say, I think I’d have to admit to having a number of ‘musical comfort zones’ and would say rather that my ‘discomfort zone’ would be having to limit my output to one specific genre. I love working with orchestra, but love creating a piece for boys’ choir or recording some solo gut-strung fretless banjo just as much. I write (and perform) music for silent films, score podcasts, and have a number of music for music’s sake projects running. Each comes with its unique challenges and rewards, and it’s honestly always been ‘all of the above’ for me.

You did a BMI roundtable for the film Nebraska back in 2014! We’re thrilled to have you as a part of the BMI family. Any BMI stories to share?

I was originally with a different PRO but made the switch over to BMI after doing a film-composing residency at The Sundance Institute back in 2010. I had met the founders of the program while there - Doreen Ringer Ross (formerly with BMI) and composer Peter Golub. Peter himself is with BMI - as were the mentors I worked with at Sundance (including Tyler Bates, Blake Neely, and George Clinton). They were the folks I got early advice from in terms of my move from the concert/recording world over to film music.

As far as BMI related stories, I continued my association with Sundance over the years, and my group Tin Hat played one of the BMI “Snowball” concerts at the festival where we opened for Lou Reed. Lou was not in great health and was travelling with a kind of portable dialysis machine which he was using during our set. The machine ended up taking down the power to much of the building in the middle of our playing - this included the PA system and all the stage lights. We ended up doing what amounted to a chamber music concert for about 15 minutes in the dark before the power was sorted out, with our clarinetist quoting “take a walk on the wild side” in improvisations…

What advice would you share with aspiring music creators looking to emulate your success?

A few things come to mind, though they have as much to do with staying happy in a film-composing career as emulating anything I’m doing personally. I always tell aspiring composers that they need to come to the realization early that their job is to realize the director’s vision for the film. It’s not a place for you to realize your own musical agenda. That’s not to say that you have to give up your musical-morals, nor is it to say that you can’t fight for a music direction that you feel would benefit the film/narrative. The best collaborators will allow for a degree of creative freedom of course and will allow you to take risks – but that said, it’s not your solo album.

It’s also a job where it helps to have a reasonably thick skin. I encourage my collaborators to not pull any punches when they’re reviewing my music. I’d much rather know what was and wasn’t working, even if their feedback is a little brutal. You can often glean a lot of information from the critiques of a cue that isn’t working, and that ‘intel’ can inform your process going forward. (i.e. they don’t like accordion!)

On the practical side, I always mention that this is a tech-heavy profession and that knowing your tech can be the difference between you getting or not getting a gig – especially early on if you’re demoing for filmmakers. Investing in decent sample libraries is important as well – it’s hard to get around that. The reality is that even consummate pros can be thrown by bad sounding demos.


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