Ernest Troost on Calm at Sunset and Carriers

An Interview with Ernest Troost by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.65/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

Ernest TroostSomewhere in the depths of Hollywood, in a remote recording studio, some very beautiful but strange sounds emerge. On the video screen you see a jeep travelling down a road towards a compound where everyone is dead. Some sort of biological disaster has happened. The harp player holds a super ball as she rubs it against the harp’s wooden body. Indescribable eerie echoes are heard. The orchestra plays as a dissonant feeling takes place. Composer Ernest Troost is conducting one of his scores to a CBS movie called: CARRIERS. Not too many composers come out at anonymity to earn an Emmy, unless the talent is there. Ernest won an Emmy in ‘96 for his score to THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, a Hallmark Hall of Fame production starring Patrick Stewart. He fallowed this up in ‘97 with his Emmy-nominated score to CALM AT SUNSET. After this, Ernest finished scoring MIRACLE IN THE WOODS and CARRIERS, both for CBS. From the strong symphonic approach of CANTERVILLE GHOST to the gentle melodies of CALM AT SUNSET, to the beautiful but strange ambiance of CARRIERS, Ernest Troost’s scores ring out.

Since you’ve won the Emmy for THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, have your offers to score films doubled in any way?
There have been more. I wouldn’t say they’ve doubled, but there’s been more. This has given me higher visibility and that’s been good.

What response have you gotten from your score to CALM AT SUNSET?
There have been more offers for work. A few directors called me who really loved it. In fact I had one who called me who said it sounded like a complete classical piece.

How long did it take you to compose the score? What size orchestra did you use?
Roughly 4 weeks. Because they were delayed a little bit in the editing, they had a very short schedule and I asked for some more time. They had a long enough time before it was going to be broadcast, so they extended the schedule for me. I used twenty-six pieces.

Old you use any keyboards here?
Yes, there was a synth piano. Also there was a lot of synthesized strings mixed in with the woodwinds and other instruments. There are quite a few cues here that are a seven piece ensemble. The synth would be the seventh person and it was all done live… We just recorded it like it was an orchestra, but there were only seven people.

How do you use keyboards with the other instruments?
I write the same way with this as I would write for an orchestra, I don’t change my approach. If I’m writing for a string section and I only have two real strings playing along, I might give them the outside line so that’s what you hear more than the synthesized lines. Even if it has a string sound, I might give the synthesizer more internal lines so those things tend to fill it out instead of obviously being synthesizer. I don’t like to sequence synthesizers, I’d rather have a player who can play very musically with a volume pedal so it sounds very musical while playing live.

Do you use keyboards yourself as an aid to see what your score might sound like?
Yes, I do now. I never used to, but I have in the last couple of years. I will do mock-ups of just about every cue as if I’m writing for the orchestra using the synthesizers I have. This is mostly to present things to the director or producer, whichever it may be. I always develop my themes on the piano and then I’ll move over to the synthesizers. I’ll actually score to picture with the synthesizers. Then basically a director can see the scene with the music as it’s going to sound. I’ll actually play all the parts, a synthesized clarinet, a synthesized flute, you know, the strings and everything. I’m basically doing an orchestral mock-up. This is all done on a sequencer. I’m not trying to make it sound like an orchestra because I’m going to use a real orchestra.

Do you record the keyboards with the orchestra?
Everything is done at once. That’s how I’ve done this score. Obviously some things you do differently, but with this score everyone was in the room at the same time when we recorded at Capitol. It was mixed live to three tracks.

Do you feel that the string melodies and soft orchestrated moods in CALM AT SUNSET is a definite contrast to the musical drama you created in THE CANTERVILLE GHOST?
Yes, definitely. It’s a totally different film. CALM AT SUNSET is a very subtle film and it’s very realistic. It’s a family drama. If the music were overly dramatic it would make it melodramatic. So the music had to really elevate the scenes or elevate the emotion without going too far. In CANTERVILLE GHOST mostly the opposite was true. When you’re dealing with a ghost and the supernatural you can pretty much pull out all the stops. To me film composers, in a lot of ways, are like actors. Nobody wants to act in the same movie over and over again. You want to be able to show different aspects of your craft and different aspects you can express. To me to do the same kind of movie over and over again would be boring. So this is a very different movie and the next movie I do, I hope, doesn’t require me to write the same exact kind of score as either of those other scores.

Do you think your score to CALM AT SUNSET fits the film title perfectly? Calm being the keyword.
I don’t necessarily think of the music as being calm, it’s more just a matter of supporting whatever the scene happens to be in the movie. Certainly when certain characters get killed in the movie, the music’s pretty dramatic. The overall music, I think, is very even-tempered. I talked with the director, Dan Petri, and he wanted be a Scottish theme for the young boy because it was supposed to take place in Nova Scotia, which has Scottish heritage. So we gave the main character a Scottish theme. It seemed to be a very appropriate approach for the movie and throughout all the material was derived from that Scottish theme. It all goes through various permutations, it’s used in counterpoint, it’s inverted, and there’s all kinds of development done. At the very end, where the father is reminiscing, the theme comes back in new permutations not heard previously. It’s not presented in its original way again until the boy and the father reconcile at the end of the movie.

In the cue ‘Kelly’s Rescue’ it sounds as if you were trying to make the music feel like you were on water.
Yes. In fact what happened was that Kelly gets knocked overboard in a fight. The main character has to dive overboard and rescue him. One of the things you deal with in television a lot is that if that was a feature, they might have had more action in the scene where he falls overboard and then the main character dives in after him. There might have been a lot of action here. In this particular version he falls overboard and the music is very dramatic and when the main character dives in and is swimming towards him he’s saying dialog, he’s yelling to him. I had to find a way to keep it dramatic, but get out of the way of the dialog. While in a feature sometimes, because you’re on a bigger screen or have more dialog in a big action scene, you can really let the music be more dramatic.

Tell me about your score to CARRIERS.
I recorded this in July of ‘97. It took me 3 weeks to write and 3 sessions at Capitol Records to record. We used 20 players including a keyboard player. I brought in some electronics I did on a DA-88 and the orchestra played on top of that.

Do you find it a refreshing change to score a sci-fi drama?
Yes, it was a lot of fun. It’s different from what I’ve been doing recently. I’d done more of this type of film at the beginning of my career on some features. I haven’t done any of this in awhile and it’s great to do a chase scene every once in a while.

What was your approach to scoring CARRIERS?
I used a lot of percussion, mallets, marimbas, vibes and things like that. Then I wrote a counterpoint line for strings over the top. That was developed throughout the score. There was a warm family type of theme that was more tonal and a military theme used for the main character, who was a military doctor in charge of infectious diseases. I knew I was going to have a lot of electronics along with chamber orchestra here. I also used a string counterpoint theme over the top of some percussion instruments as a tension motif that re-occurred throughout the movie.

There’s one cue played by rubbing a superball against a harp’s body. How do you write for something like this?
That particular cue was a kind of aleatoric music. I gave all the players different effects to do, and then I cued them at certain points when I wanted them to do that.

Is it difficult to combine the ambient, dissonant music here with the beautiful melodies you created for this score?
No. It’s basically what supports the scene. There was some concern that the main character was not coming across warm enough in some of the tender scenes. I made sure that the theme that supported her was really beautiful. That warmed up the scenes.

What are your recent and future projects?
I did a movie called MIRACLE IN THE WOODS for CBS starring Della Reese. Now I’m working on a Hallmark Hall of Fame production called FATE MAYBE starring Blythe Danner. After I finish this I’ll be doing an animated film.

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