Alf Clausen on Scoring The Simpsons

An Interview with Alf Clausen by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.66, 1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Alf ClausenWhat was the musical philosophy behind THE SIMPSONS when you began working on the series?
Matt Groening is a big supporter of acoustic music. He feels that using an acoustic orchestra to score the show smoothes out the animation, which can be occasionally rough due to the short amount of turnaround time. He also feels that an acoustic score gives the series more class and substance. I was given a directive when I started the series that THE SIMPSONS is not a cartoon, but a drama where the characters are drawn, and that the emotional content of the score should be focused in the direction of a drama.
That philosophy has served me well through the eight seasons I’ve been scoring the series.

How has that philosophy changed or adapted over the years to where it is today at Season Nine?
That philosophy has not changed at all. If anything has changed, I would say that we lean even more heavily on the drama aspect than ever before. The basic scoring philosophy remains the same.

What do you think the future may hold for THE SIMPSONS’ next nine seasons? (I’m optimistic!)
I love that kind of optimism! I would guess that more and more celebrities from all walks of life will be jumping at the chance to do guest voices on the series (not that we’ve ever had problems finding them). A United States President as a guest voice would be a treat, and maybe a first for an animated series. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the joy about an animated series is that the family doesn’t have to age, so the sky is the limit on story ideas from the writers. I look forward to finding out what the next wacky piece of business will be story-wise. On the music side, with any luck, the number of players in my orchestra will increase. Now, that would be a switch for television! We have had the luck of blazing a few trails musically, so it’s not out of the question.

How large an orchestra do you ~ normally use per episode?
The weekly SIMPSONS orchestra consists of approximately thirty five players.

Have there been any notable exceptions to that?
We add players from time to time when a special stylistic sound is called for, such as harmonica, accordion, additional guitars, etc… The “Cape Feare” episode called for a Bernard Herrmann style score, so I added extra French horns, trombones, tuba and percussion. We also add singers when we have vocals to record.

What about the schedule? Does dealing with an animated show make it tougher in terms of your scoring schedule (i.e., shots not done in time, etc)?
It’s really no different in terms of schedule. For the most part, I am scoring to a completed video each week, although there are cases when the episode contains animatics (pencil renderings of the color scenes) or temporary shots that will be replaced with retakes before the air date. In these instances, the overall timings usually remain the same, so they do not present a big problem for me with respect to last-minute scoring changes.

What have been some of the greatest challenges for you in composing for the show?
The greatest composing challenge (other than just keeping up with the schedule mentally and physically) has been to try to make some kind of musical sense out of the cues when I have only a few seconds to make a musical statement. We have a joke on the scoring stage that I can make you feel five ways in thirteen seconds. We say it in jest, but the reality of the situation is that I am required to do just that quite often. It is definitely a challenge.
Another interesting challenge is trying to make my original songs musical while at the same time just difficult enough so that the cast members will sing up to their capabilities without throwing me out of the room for writing such difficult stuff. The cast members are all great, and I think that they have probably discovered over the years that they can sing better than they ever thought they could. I’m proud of them. They rise to the occasion beautifully, and I often write them very challenging songs.

THE SIMPSONS may be the most eclectically-scored show on television. What kind of research is necessary to create such wildly divergent scores?
If there are references with which I am not familiar, one of the production assistants finds the pertinent CDs for me and puts together a videotape with clips from the references needed. I have about 20 minutes each week to study those CD and videotape selections to distill the needed elements from them. I then have to make very quick decisions about what the proper melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and orchestrational elements are in each cue to give the “viewers-on-the street” the feeling that they are listening to the score from, let’s say, WATERWORLD, even though we are not using the music from that film.
All of this must be done while there are about 30 more cues left to be composed, and the clock never stops ticking. Obviously, that’s another one of the challenges.

What about clip shows, like the recent ‘AII Singing All Dancing Extravaganza’? Does having to write bridge cues to link diverse musical element from previous shows make it difficult?
Challenging, yes, but not difficult. I am given a script in advance which outlines all of the new lyrics, the clips to be used, and other pertinent information. I have a very complete file of all of the scores from every episode in show order, so it is very easy for me to pull the scores for the songs featured in the clips, make notes about keys, tempo changes, which characters are singing, orchestration, etc. I then compose the bridge songs to segue directly to and from the clip songs, with matching keys, tempi, orchestration, etc… Linking all of the elements together becomes much like a giant crossword puzzle.

Over the years you’ve crafted a number of cleverly satirical variants on the show’s main title theme. How are these variations (DRAGNET version, ADDAMS FAMILY version, Aussie version, etc) determined and arrived at?
The producers, music editor and I collaborate on which episodes would be best suited to these types of variations. We always try to tailor the End Credit variation to the running story theme of the episode (i.e. The ADDAMS FAMILY homage was for a Halloween episode, etc.).

There are no recurring themes used during the episodes (i.e., no ‘Bart Theme’, no ‘Lisa Theme’, no ‘Homer Theme’, etc.).
The only recurring character themes are for Mr. Burns, Krusty the Clown, and Sideshow Bob. I have intentionally stayed away from composing individual character themes and have focused instead on giving each story its own theme and thematic development whenever possible. That approach helps to give each story its own special identification, more like individual mini-movies.

One of my favorite episodes is the GREAT ESCAPE satire in ‘Kamp Krusty’. Do musical derivations like this cause any licensing g problems for you or the production company? Are you given a free reign to borrow at will and let the production company worry about licensing?
The licensing problems can become quite complex. Moments like these are often written in as part of the script, so the FOX music licensing department has months to deal with the negotiations. Other times, the decision to use a piece of music happens in the music spotting session, which gives the licensing department a major headache with only four-five days to obtain the clearance before the scoring session. A composer is never given free reign to borrow at will. The legal issues are much too complex.

Do you still enjoy scoring THE SIMPSONS? Do you see yourself remaining at the musical helm indefinitely, or would you like to break out into new, different musical endeavors?
I do still enjoy scoring THE SIMPSONS. My challenge is to keep it fresh and interesting musically. The series has burned through about four sets of writers in nine seasons, but I’m still here. The schedule is a killer, but the series is still fun. Composing all of the original songs for the series has kept the creative juices flowing for me. And, let’s face it; THE SIMPSONS is still funny after all these years!

So what has been personally most rewarding for you in scoring THE SIMPSONS?
It has been very rewarding to get such positive feedback from the public at large about the musical direction of the series and the CD. I have been fortunate to have scored four successful television series in 12 years. THE SIMPSONS, however, is the first series that has had such a worldwide mass acceptance on such an amazingly broad level. It truly has become an icon of American pop culture. To be part of the creative team on such a piece of television history is quite an honor.

How has the first MUSIC IN THE KEY OF SPRINGFIELD album been received?
The response has been tremendous. The CD has been enthusiastically received by Simpsons fans of all ages. Many parents are now having to deal with their children’s insistence that the CD be played in the car to and from school everyday. It’s been very rewarding to receive that kind of reaction.

What’s the philosophy behind the new CD? What audience(s) are you trying to reach?
The philosophy hasn’t changed for Volume 2. I’m including many of the Simpsons musical favorites that didn’t make it onto Volume 1. We’re trying to reach a broad cross-section of listeners, from the die-hard Simpsons fans to those who are not intimately familiar with the series.

What seasons were the excerpts taken from? What are some of the highlights of the second CD?
Seasons 2-9. The CD will include the entire collection of songs from the Shary Bobbins episode, ‘The Garbageman’, ‘Canyonero’, ‘We Put the Spring In Springfield’, ‘You’re Checkin’ In (A Musical Tribute to the Betty Ford Center)’, the Simpsons Spinoff Showcase songs and many others.

Will there be any more instrumental score segments from episodes in addition to end title variations?
There will be a few short selections of score music included, but the compilation is mostly songs and dialogue.

You recently scored a comedy feature titled HALF-BAKED. How did you get involved in that production?
I was recommended for the assignment by my friend Harry Garfield, the head of music at Universal. The producer and director are both devoted SIMPSONS fans, and thought the casting would be perfect for me to score their film. The project was a lot of fun; the crew was great to work with, and a 64- piece orchestra never hurts either. –

What was your approach to scoring this film? What style of music was employed?
The score was very much in the style I’ve become accustomed to working on with THE SIMPSONS. Many musical influences, including classical style composition, some jazz-tinged cues, a couple of hard rock pieces, basically everything but the kitchen sink. That’s one of the reasons it was so much fun. Never a chance to get bored, that’s for certain.

How did the experience of working on a feature (your first in 10 years, as far as I can tell) differ from the last near-decade of SIMPSONS scoring on television – in terms of scheduling, orchestra size, deadline, budget?
More than anything, it took quite a bit of adjusting on my part to get used to the slower pace of motion pictures. We are used to quick decisions and quick resolution of problems (including licensing) in television. Motion pictures move, oh, so much slower. It often took days and weeks to get a decision which might have been made in hours with television. That’s just the way motion pictures function. I think I should have vacationed in Maui for a week before starting HALF-BAKED to get my system used to the more laid-back schedule. Of course, once the composition of the score starts, it’s full steam ahead just like television. Scheduling and deadlines were basically the same as television. It was great to have a larger budget and subsequently a larger orchestra for the score (about 64 players). I really enjoyed that.

The majority of your work has been for comedy. What’s your philosophy about the role of music in comedy? Obviously on SIMPSONS you play it fairly straight without a lot of Mickey Mousing (with some notable exceptions). In your opinion, how does music best serve comedy?
A band leader friend of mine once told me “You can’t vaudeville vaudeville”. That turned out to be very wise advice. What he meant was that a comedic situation becomes much more absurd if it is accompanied by appropriately serious music which is true to that situation. That philosophy has served me well with the scoring of THE SIMPSONS. If a character finds himself in a particular situation, my musical philosophy has been to score the scene as if the situation is really happening to the character, no matter how absurd the situation might seem. This helps pull the audience in to the reality of the situation. Then, boom! The joke happens, and becomes all the funnier because the audience has been musically led to believe that the situation is for real. Then, D’oh.

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