ASCAP Composers Celebrate Workshop's 25th At Fox Studios

Courtesy of ASCAP
ASCAP workshop participants conducted in the Newman Scoring Stage.

“We give them the A-list composer experience for a month" workshop mentor Richard Bellis says of participants of the four-week intensive program, whose alums include major Hollywood composers.

ASCAP welcomed alumni of its Television & Film Scoring Workshop to Fox’s historic Newman Scoring Stage on July 26 for a celebration of the workshop’s 25th anniversary. Among the guests were 2013 Emmy nominees Robert Duncan (Last Resort) and Trevor Morris (The Borgias), Emmy winner Jim Dooley (Pushing Daisies) and Didier Lean Rachou (Deadliest Catch, Gold Rush), an honoree for most-performed dramatic underscores at ASCAP’s Film & Television Music Awards in June.

The annual Television & Film Scoring Workshop, started by the late composer Fred Karlin, has graduated top composers in Hollywood and internationally. “At the five-year mark they typically are getting a real, well-recognized feature,” says Jen Harmon, workshop co-producer with Mike Todd. “The 10-year mark is really when we’re seeing the Emmy nominations, the Cesar nominations.”

Alumni include Joe Bishara (The Conjuring), Cliff Martinez (Only God Forgives), Tony Morales (Hatfields & McCoys), Atli Orvarsson (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), and Joachim Horsley (Rapture-Palooza). 

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The four-week intensive, which concluded Thursday, goes beyond the music -- the 12 participants learn Hollywood composing logistics as well as scoring and conducting. Sessions with lawyers, contractors and studio musicians cover copyright and how orchestra recordings work, and each year features guest lectures and studio tours from famed composers. This year’s workshop visited Hans Zimmer’s studio, with talks from Heitor Pereira (Despicable Me) and Ramin Djawadi (Pacific Rim), and heard from Duncan, Rachou and Stephen Endelman (Made in Jersey).

“We give them the A-list composer experience for a month,” workshop mentor Richard Bellis says. “And then, of course, they go through withdrawals.”

But Bellis warns that musicianship alone no longer guarantees Hollywood composing success, as the industry is inundated with aspiring composers. Sophisticated libraries of samples also pose a threat. That’s why the workshop focuses on the personal touches of composing -- working with directors, coordinating live orchestras, and scoring around dialog and sound effects.

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“We look at the growth of the number of people who are your competition, the number being turned out every year. How are you going to separate yourself from the herd?” Bellis says. “Creating music that sounds like film music is different than being a film composer.”

The participants’ music came to life in the Newman Scoring Stage hours before the 25th anniversary celebration. Norman Kim, a workshop participant and orchestrator for Dexter, stood at the podium before a 60-piece orchestra of Hollywood’s finest studio musicians. “I have a comment: at [bar] 81, can we get a little bit quieter on the orchestra and more attack on the solo?” he asked.

At the boards, veteran mixer and recordist Armin Steiner piped up: “Have no fear. That solo works absolutely beautifully.”

The orchestra launched into Kim’s piece -- an energetic three-minute score to a clip from Rango. Kim and two other participants, selected randomly, scored the Rango scene over the workshop’s first three weeks, advised by orchestrators and studio musicians. The other groups of three scored clips from Star Trek, How To Train Your Dragon, and Albert Nobbs (the film’s original composer, Brian Byrne, is an alum).

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Joe Twist gave the Rango chase scene a mariachi theme. The Australian composer found conducting the orchestra terrifying -- “These are the guys playing on all those recordings I know backwards and that I love,” he says -- but also exhilarating. “When I was a boy, I dreamed of standing in front of an orchestra for a film score in America. And this is my first time,” he says. “It’s just the light bulb moment of, 'Oh my god, this is a dream come true happening to me now.'”

Twist, now based in New York, is one of 10 participants born outside of the U.S. “We have an Austrian, an Australian, a Peruvian, a Colombian, two Spaniards, an Irish woman,” Harmon says. The workshop’s internationality is increasing, and Bellis speculates the worldwide growth of the film business is responsible for the global diversity of each year’s 300 applicants.

The workshop continues to benefit ASCAP for years through its alumni -- over 50 percent of ASCAP’s revenue comes from musical performances associated with audio-visual works, says ASCAP vp film & television Shawn LeMone. “Our film and television composers have always been a very important constituency of our membership,” LeMone says. “[The workshop] is the film and TV department's pinnacle endeavor in pursuing ASCAP's mission to support the future success of our members.”

And alumni praise the workshop for the practical, Hollywood-based experience it provides and the professional connections it creates. “What the workshop did for me was make the world more accessible and bring me inside, as opposed to looking through the glass from outside,” says Morris, a 1999 graduate who flew from Canada to L.A. to attend each week of the workshop. “It allows you to see what’s possible, and it plants that in your head as something you’re working toward—to get back there, to get back to that podium.”

“The ultimate moment is getting on that podium, in front of the best players in the world,” he adds.

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