How film music conductors differ from other conductors

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It all started with "Bonanza."

As a child, Mike Nowak was fascinated by the intricacies of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans' iconic theme for the hugely popular Western. He didn't know it at the time, but his obsession with the Ponderosa Ranch music provided an education that would serve him well years later.

Nowak is now one of the most sought-after conductors in the film music world, regularly working with A-list composers like James Newton Howard ("King Kong") and John Williams ("Catch Me if You Can"). Thanks to his versatility, he is equally comfortable on projects from Ridley Scott's crime epic "American Gangster" to last year's blockbuster buddy comedy "The Hangover."

That looks good on a resume, but ask Nowak to discuss the keys to his success and he quickly defers to the composers who keep him on his toes.

"The conductor is like the director of a play," he says. "He takes suggestions and gives directions; but for the most part, he lets the great talents perform without interfering."

Nowak's reluctance to take credit is typical of the temperament of successful film music conductors. Far removed from the bravado of leading a concert symphony, a film conductor's process is often painstaking, time-consuming and unheralded.

"I get calls all the time from classical conductors who would like to work in Hollywood," says veteran conductor Pete Anthony ("The Last Airbender," "Salt"). "But there needs to be a paradigm shift. A conductor on the concert stage is the star; that's not what I do. My opinion of what the music should be is irrelevant. I'm only doing my job right if I'm helping the composer get exactly what he wants."

Conductors often gain experience working in film and TV as orchestral musicians or orchestrators, where they assist the conductor during recording sessions and make slight timing adjustments to compositions. For Nowak, who became the San Luis Obispo Symphony's music director in 1984, his extensive knowledge of conducting led to a big break while playing in the viola section for the score to the 2000 Harrison Ford starrer "What Lies Beneath."

"Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' was being used in the background, and (composer) Alan Silvestri wasn't feeling particularly comfortable conducting that part of the score," Nowak says. "Somebody mentioned to Alan, 'Oh, Mike's a conductor and he probably knows this music,' which I did, and that was my first conducting opportunity."

Big breaks aside, conductors normally work under union contract and receive scale wages in which payment is primarily affected by a film's budget. A conductor could receive $500 for a three-hour session, though the number often varies based on the size of the film and the conductor's contract.

If a composer does not already have a regular conductor, he relies on the recommendation of a music contractor, who hires a conductor who will gel with the composer's musical ideas and personality.

The composer and conductor will typically meet to discuss the details of the score, including "some of the balance issues, if instruments need to be softer or louder in some places, and the tempos if the score is in free-time (conducting without the use of an audio cue called a 'click track' which helps players synchronize the music to a moving image or video)," says Peter Rotter, a partner at DeCrescent and Rotter Music Contracting. Rotter points to the music of "The Kite Runner," which was composed by Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias and required a conductor with classical training.

Rotter brought in Nowak, one of the few composers who works in free-time, to discuss the different time signatures and emotional sway of the score with Iglesias. "The conductor and composer must work as a team to identify what is important to the score," Rotter says.

Along with understanding what the composer wants the score to achieve, film conductors must assist orchestral musicians who have likely never seen the music they are about to play. This requires an encyclopedic knowledge of individual instruments and a readiness to engage any problems the players might have.

"The players are all fantastic sight readers with a ton of experience, but some of the charts have to be debugged, or there may be internal balance issues, or wrong notes, or parts of the orchestration that are too long, or the melody might be off," Anthony says.

The time that a conductor spends on each film can vary from one day to a little more than a week, depending on the amount of music needed for a project. A conductor must also deal with fluctuations in the size of his orchestra: some parts of a score can require 80-105 musicians, while others only need 15-40 players.



But an effective conductor is also something of a group therapist, carefully reading the energy in the room.

"In the past, conductors would tap their baton on the podium and be serious," says Aaron Zigman, who recently composed and conducted the music for "Sex and the City 2." "People don't like that. An orchestra will read your energy, and you want them to feel like you're a part of them. It's not about the ego; it's about shaping the music, staying relaxed and having fun."

It is also about adapting to the challenges of a new era.

During the past two decades, conductors have had to adjust to shorter postproduction schedules due to tighter budgets. Anthony says conductors are expected to produce 12-15 minutes of music within a single three-hour session, with more orchestrators working on each picture so that the same amount of work gets done in a shorter time.

"When I started out, I would work on three or four films a year as a single orchestrator," Anthony says. "Now I work on 18-25 pictures a year, but I'm routinely one of seven or eight guys."

While a small budget won't necessarily threaten a conductor's job, it can lead to fewer players in an orchestra. "And it's the conductor's job to make sure things are still efficient," Anthony says.

Conductors have also seen a steady increase in the use of technologically advanced programs like Pro Tools, which allows composers to transpose any instrument onto a synthesizer, even if the sounds being created can't necessarily be replicated by flesh-and-blood musicians. Nowak says the only time he's clashed with composers was when he felt the technology was getting in the way. On "The Matrix" movies, for instance, he says that the Pro Tools-enhanced string parts were so difficult to perform that the players were thoroughly drained after recording sessions.

"A composer can hit a button to speed up an instrument, but (the orchestra) could never play it that fast themselves," he says. "It's frustrating when someone doesn't understand the limits of the instruments or the players."

Many composers, including Williams and Christopher Lennertz ("Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Adam") choose to conduct their own work because "the music is coming from the composer's body, which allows the orchestra to catch on and move more quickly if he is conducting," Zigman says. At the same time, advanced composing technology has made film conductors more relevant than ever.

Anthony says he "definitely sees a trend" toward composers hiring conductors as film scores become increasingly reliant on synthesizers and prerecorded effects.

For his score upcoming thriller "Predators," composer John Debney brought in Anthony to conduct while he kept an eye on the film's many synth effects in the recording booth.

"If a score is involving a lot of prelaid tracks, sometimes it's better for me to be in the booth so I can say, 'A little more of this, a little less of that,' " says Debney ("Iron Man 2"). "That way, I can hear the disparate elements and get what I want out of the product."

But even with more composers opting to bring in someone else, Rotter says that the group of working film conductors is relegated to eight to 10 regulars. Anthony also cautions anyone against thinking a career as a film conductor is going to make him wealthy.

"It's very rare for someone to make a living just as a film music conductor; almost all of us have to do different things," he says. "There are people trying to get in and do more of it, but they're just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work necessary to get a film score recorded. The players show up for three hours, but a few people have spent three days getting everything ready."
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