An Interview with Gary Chang by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/Nos.34/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Merging state-of-the art computer technology with electronic and acoustic music, composer musician Gary Chang is making a name for himself as a film composer worth watching. His music has enlivened such high-speed action films as DEAD BANG, FIREWALKER and 52 PICK-UP, and has just embellished three recent releases, DEATH WARRANT, starring Jean Claude Van Damme, MIAMI BLUES and the quirky Michael Caine psychological thriller. SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM. Interviewed recently for CinemaScore, Chang described his film music work and his own unique approach to scoring motion pictures.
How did you get started in electronic music and then film scoring?
I have a Master’s Degree in composition. I’ve been involved with computer music since 1971, and in my studies at Carnegie-Mellon University with my Master’s Degree, I studied with Morton Subotnick at CalArts, so I had aspirations of using electronic music with film for quite a long time. When I got out of school I worked as a session musician and had worked for a lot of different people including Patrick Williams and other film composers, and I also have over 40 record credits as a session musician. I got my first chance in film scoring through Giorgio Moroder. I met him in 1984 and worked with him on a couple movies – THE NEVER ENDING STORY and ELECTRIC DREAMS. He helped me get involved with Keith Forsey on THE BREAKFAST CLUB, which was my first “composed by” credit. Actually it’s an “additional music composed by” credit.
That would have been the underscore?
Yes. I have a tune on that record, too, and that went gold. That was the most deliberate action that happened that got me into this.
How did you approach your first score on THE BREAKFAST CLUB, which has all these very forefront rock numbers? How did you compete against or work with that in your underscore?
BREAKFAST CLUB was an entirely synthesized score with some additional instruments like guitar and drums. Generally speaking, it was done entirely electronically using a Fairlight II-X and a whole bunch of MIDI or pre-MIDI instruments at that time. We produced both the score and the songs at the same time, so we used fairly similar sounds in the production of the score. We also utilized themes from different songs, so there was a tie-in there that enabled the score to have its own kind of personality, because of the recurrence of different timbres.
I guess that since the score is using some of the melodic lines of the songs it makes it a little more cohesive rather than just a bunch of songs stuck in with no relation to one another.
That’s correct. And it also took out the “generic” aspect of the score by matching it and kind of melding it with the songs. If it were a more standard orchestration it would have been more generic sounding, I think.
What’s your opinion of the use of rock songs, either as a large part of, or as a complete score, which has become so prevalent these days.
I don’t see any reason why you can’t do that for certain pictures, because for certain films, that’s what it needs. But, on the other hand, for movies that have drama, I think it’s a definite weak hand to wield.
How would you describe your approach to DEAD BANG?
DEAD BANG was a Synclavier score with rhythm section enhancement. It’s a jazz-based score, as was my other Frankenheimer movie, 52 PICK-UP.
Is there a particular style or approach that you would use on violent action films like these?
I think I learned a lot from working with John Frankenheimer. There always seem to be places in his pictures where he allows the music to assume an important value. If you have a 90-minute picture and you have 85-minutes of music, the tendency would be for the music to become less and less important because you hear it so often. And, if you have music under dialog quite a lot, it’s always playing subservient roles. In action movies you need to have music under a lot of the film, so it’s often an elegant statement to open up the picture to allow the music to be something at an important time in the movie.
One of the things I liked about your FIREWALKER score was that, while a lot of the music is maintaining this sense of action and adventure, there’s still a very melodic quality to it. It doesn’t become discordant or atonal without having a fluid melody line.
Well, thank you. One of the aspects of my writing is, although I do have a sense towards abstraction, I do think that melodic writing does work best with film music. After a period of time, you realize that If you used sampled dishpans in the score, there’s a good likelihood that they’ll sound like sampled dishpans out on the stage, and everyone will go “what are dishpans doing in this scene?!”
That’s a real interesting aspect of electronic music, that you can use anything as sound. On the Van Damme movie, DEATH WARRANT (originally called DUSTED), I’m using a percussionist playing the sound of a 747 engine cowling, and in SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM we’ve got things like bowed wine-glasses, wine-glasses that are struck with yarn mallets and things like that. Inherently, though, with computer music, you can get too abstract with it, and it just sounds like sound effects. That’s not my direction. I would rather the music sound like music.
Yeah, I think an audience needs something a little more accessible in film music.
That’s right. If something doesn’t necessarily sound conventional, a melody always does allow a little bit more tying of the audience to the score.
What was your initial approach to scoring SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM?
With SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM, they were looking for kind of a quirky type of film score, so I suggested a string quartet with electronics, and they thought that was a great idea. The group that I used was the Turtle Island String Quartet, and I chose them because of their kind of quirky application of the Quartet. They’re a very un-standard sounding quartet.
The score centers itself around a tango that I wrote for the picture. You can imagine how strange this is! Michael Caine gets devious and starts sneaking around plotting some of these murders, what we hear is castanets and maracas and little string quartet pizzicatos! So I chose the Turtles because of a couple things. One was their application and their rhythmic sensibilities. I definitely wanted to use a string quartet, not just studio players, because I could capitalize on the interaction between the players. And secondly, Jan Egleson’s direction in the picture is very close – that is to say there are a lot of very close camera shots – so I thought the score should be intimate. By using the Quartet it creates basically a subjective type of score, where every time music is there it’s commenting, it’s almost another player in the entire picture.
The Turtle Island ground is based in Oakland while you’re here in Southern California. How did this arrangement work?
I created sketches for the string players and I sent up their parts, along with entire computer sketches of the cues including their parts, so that they had a pretty specific idea of how it’s supposed to sound. Then, when we got into the studio, they played against the existing computer parts and a click track. It was interesting because they pretty much understood how to portray each cue, so to speak, ahead of time. It was a little simpler that coming completely from out of the blue.
I feel real sympatico with the Turtle Island group, aesthetically and in background. You don’t find that kind of sympatico that much in film music, because generally the composers write music and then they go to the sound stage and the contractor has contracted players and you get who you got, and usually they’re really quite good, but it’s not the same dialog.
Is the entire score built around that one theme or have you got other motifs interacting with each other?
There are other themes in the picture, but that’s probably the most dominant theme in the picture.
How have you interplayed the electronics with the string quartet in the score?
The electronics basically play the percussion aspect of the picture. Although the picture doesn’t really get that big there is occasional piano and other acoustic instruments – which are performed by a Synclavier. The matching of the acoustic and the electronic is really masked from the audience. When you’re watching the movie you’re not sitting there going “gosh, that’s a synthesizer!” Everything does sound acoustic.
Were there any ways that this particular film differed from some of your others, and did it offer any kind of challenges to you in that respect?
I’m a minimalist, fundamentally. SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM really doesn’t sound like any of the other scores I’ve done, but it draws on an aesthetic and a direction in music that has been with me a very long time, much longer than, lets say, the contemporary score of THE BREAKFAST CLUB. My interest in avant-garde music or contemporary chamber music, as it were, is a very strong one and it’s one I hope to continue.
Coming from a background primarily in electronic instruments, do you consider yourself classically-influenced or more modern-influenced, in terms of instrumentation and/or style?
I’d say I have kind of a three-point perspective. I have a classical background, but I also have a very strong jazz background; I got a national endowment grant in ‘77 when I got out of school, I was very much into Third Stream jazz, George Russell and that kind of writing. Also from studying with Subotnick at CalArts I’m very much into avant-garde music – that’s really not the right terminology for it, it’s like music by Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti. This Spring I have three pictures opening and they’re all very different. MIAMI BLUES is a kind of Chicago blues rock / rhythm-section based score. SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM is kind of a contemporary jazz string quartet score, and then DEATH WARRANT, the Jean Claude Van Damme picture, is like a standard big orchestra score.
How closely did you work with the director and/or producer in establishing the musical style or placement in the SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM?
Very closely. I used the computer to make pencil sketches for them, so they knew the direction I was going. As far as how the pieces play in the picture, probably it’s as much collaboration as any other picture – we spot the movie together but I come up with the specific application. Because I was going after something pretty quirky, I really wanted them to know what it was going to sound like pretty close before we actually did it.
What advantages do you think the computer technology is giving you as a film composer?
For me, this is the instrument that I always wanted to play, so I get to play on all my film scores, which I really enjoy. I’ve been waiting since 1971 for Instruments (with which) I could utilize this particular application, this type of gestalt to make music. And also, from the client point of view, since all media music is growing more and more towards group input, so to speak, it becomes a great tool and an editing device. I can say, “Well, what about this?” and instead of giving them a whole bunch of music terminology and hieroglyphics, I can just give them a specific taste of it, and they know what’s going on.
They can get a real idea of what it will sound like rather than just a piano rendition, and “pretend this is strings or this is trombone”…
How much music did you write for SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM?
I did approximately 45 minutes of score.
You’ve done a fair amount of action-type films, such as DEAD BANG, FIREWALKER, 52-PICKUP, but I believe this is you first out-and-out horror type film. Did that element of SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM offer you any challenges or advantages?
The interesting thing about the picture, for me, was just that, the director Jan Egleson, is a very left-of-center director, so it gave me a chance to be farther left of center. This movie is a very thin movie, as opposed to something like DEAD BANG, which is a very hard-hitting movie. SHOCK is less dynamic, and because of that it allowed me to deal with quiet music, which is another interesting aspect of music for me.
You mentioned that your latest film score, DEATH WARRANT, is a large orchestra score…
Yeah, but it isn’t! It’s really 30 pieces and the Synclavier.
I see. What kind of challenges did that offer?
The most difficult thing about that particular score is I had three and a half weeks to do it and it was 75-minutes of music! But in a way it’s easier to write for orchestra, because you can write melodies and the players will play the melodies. With electronics, you go to your sound library and you have to modify your writing somewhat just to insure the authenticity or the musicality of the performance. In other words, it’s quite a bit more work for me to actually perform and produce electronic music than it is to do acoustic music, if you get 50 players in a room; it’s going to sound like music, no matter what. When they tune up, it sounds like music! Electronics tends to not want to do that, so in order to have the dynamics and the kind of musicality and the detail of acoustic instruments I really have to labor over my computer realizations.
On films such as SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM or FIREWALKER where you’ve got a combination of electronics and acoustics, are the electronics recorded separately or overdubbed or do you record them together at the same time?
Generally speaking, they are recorded ahead of the acoustic overdubs. It’s much more difficult to blend electronic music to existing acoustical music than it is to do it the opposite way. In other words, it’s easier to change the miking of an instrument to match the ambience of existing electronic music. Electronic music just tends to sound the way it does. If you have this big “CLANG” that’s supposed to be gigantic, the ambience that’s its recorded in has to define how big it sounds. If you record a closed-miked clarinet and you try to add it to the CLANG, it just makes the acoustics sound tiny. So I record all the Synclavier tracks ahead of time, just so that we have that perspective.
Any final comments you’d care to make about this score or film music In general that I haven’t touched on yet?
As a film composer my aspiration is really to write music which integrates electronics and acoustic instruments. It’s interesting to see how much of a chameleon the Synclavier and electronic music can be now. It’s an exciting period of time for me. It’s interesting to be able to develop a gestalt that you can apply to a really wide variety of aesthetics and types of pictures.