An Interview with James Peterson by John Mansell © 2009
With so many of the established film music composers passing away in recent years collectors of film music must be thinking who do I listen to now? What scores for movies can I look forward to? Will we ever see the likes of Goldsmith, Bernstein, Waxman, Rozsa etc again?
Indeed has film music got a future in the 21st century? All relevant and fair questions, I as a collector of film music too have pondered about the future of music in films, but I am pleased to say that after listening to the work of composer James Peterson, I tend to sleep a little sounder in my bed. His score for THE RED CANVAS must be the soundtrack of the year, it is a powerhouse of rich thematic material that has substance, life and direction, this score is for me the one I would without hesitation recommend to anyone who loves the art of film scoring, it revitalises a medium that has in the past five or six years lost its sparkle and zest, with the exception of a handful of works. Peterson has in one score rekindled a flame of interest that I hope will continue to burn for many years to come.
Your latest score to be released onto CD is THE RED CANVAS, how did you become involved on this project, and can you tell us something about the movie?
I was hired by director Ken Chamitoff. I was college friends with him but had lost contact in recent years. He did a Google search for me and discovered my ‘Moving Images Suite’ on MySpace. He was impressed and emailed me and that’s how it all came together… totally out of the blue. THE RED CANVAS is a mixed martial arts film with an emphasis on family drama. The filmmakers are all avid martial artists and the technical advisors and performers are all world class athletes in mixed martial arts fighting.
Staying with THE RED CANVAS, from what I have heard of the score, it evokes the golden age of Hollywood, by this I mean it has certain similarities to the styles of Waxman, Newman and predominately Rozsa, is this something you set out to do, or did it just come about as the composing process progressed ?
I did not set out to write an old-fashioned score. The references to Rozsa most specifically are embodied in a theme I wrote in homage to Ben Hur. It seemed appropriate because these fighters are gladiators of sorts. Also I truly love Rozsa’s writing and wanted to honour him. I think my music is a synthesis of many different styles of music channelled through my individual voice. I love classical music and jazz. I am a fan of 20th Century orchestral composers like Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Harris, Copland, Amram, Barber, Hindemith, Grainger and many other as well as the film music giants. Though I really do love the Golden Age composers especially North, Herrmann, and Rozsa, I find that my favourite film music is actually from the 70s and 80s where I feel film music reached its zenith. Scores like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, STAR WARS (the first three), RAIDERS, POLTERGEIST, STAR TREK, THE OMEN, and BASIC INSTINCT all were formative works in my listening history. I identify with Williams and Goldsmith and the other greats because of their fluency with harmony, great thematic writing and sensitivity to motivic unity/integration in their scores. While writing this score my ambition was to create highly thematic music that could exist on its own outside of the movie while simultaneously serving the movie’s dramatic contours, something with which all of my favourite composers are masters.
What size orchestra did you utilise on THE RED CANVAS?
Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra: 84 Pieces. 60 Strings, 20 Brass, 4 Woodwinds. Percussion was realized with sample libraries overdubbed in my studio in Santa Monica.
Would you say that composers such as Rozsa have influenced you in your style of writing, or scoring projects?
My influences are from my favourite music, in no particular order:
• Jazz: Miles Davis, Chick Corea, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Clifford Brown
• Rock and Pop: Donald Fagen, Steely Dan, The Police, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Queen, Nik Kershaw, Earth Wind and Fire, Radiohead, Oingo Boingo, Depeche Mode, Take 6 and others.
• Classical/Orchestral: Bach, Handel, Debussy, Ravel, Ives, Stravinsky, Bartok, Harris, Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin, Hindemith, Amram, Corigliano, Adams, Berg, Barber. Grainger, Persichetti, and others.
• Vintage Film Composers: Goldsmith, Rozsa, North, Amram, Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein.
• Current Film Composers: John Williams, James Horner, Chris Young, Joel McNeely, Edward Shearmur, Theodor Shapiro, Bruce Broughton, Marco Beltrami, Elliot Goldenthal and Danny Elfman and others.
When you start work on a project, how early in the proceedings do you like to become involved. Do you find it easier to start at the script stage, or do you prefer to come into contact with the project at the rough cut stage?
I’d say the earlier the better. I had three weeks to write the score for THE RED CANVAS and it was a real push. I’m happy reading scripts but would like to see a late cut of the actual film so that my impressions and ideas are fresh the first time I see it. It is cool to have a bit of time to let your ideas brew. There’s so much of this that I think operates on unconscious levels. Stuff just sorts itself out in the background as you are writing and thinking about the work. Mental time “before” you sit down at the keyboard is critical. I usually have a pretty good idea about what I will write before I launch Sibelius and Logic.
I think I am correct when I say you starting scoring film in 1997, when you wrote music for a movie called BROKEN ANGEL, what was this film about and how did you become involved?
BROKEN ANGEL was my very first film project; it’s a story about abuse and homophobia. It’s a USC student short directed by James Cude. I went on to work with him on a syndicated television series called RON HAZELTON’S HOUSE CALLS for three years and completed 72 episodes of weekly scoring. Student films can sometimes pay off.
Had you always thought that you might work on scoring films?
I think the first time I thought about scoring films was in high school when I turned to my buddy while in a movie during the main titles and said “I think I could do this” to which my buddy said “yeah right”.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Los Angeles and grew up about an hour south in a suburb called Irvine in Orange County.
You have written numerous concert works and worked for ballet companies etc, how different is it working on film as opposed to working on a concert piece, or ballet, is scoring pictures more disciplined and maybe at times constricting?
I think the biggest difference between film music and concert work is the time pressure. Film always needs it yesterday and the budget and stress levels are much higher. In both you have clients you are working to please and the differences there are as many as there are personalities in the world. Sometimes you click and sometimes you don’t. It’s always more fun to work for clients who like you and appreciate what you do.
What musical education did you receive?
Bachelor of Arts in Music UCLA.
When working on a score, how do you work out your musical ideas, do you use a synth/computer? Or do you stay with the more conventional piano and manuscript process?
After I have had some time to think about what I am going to write I like to sit down at the piano or synth and work on my musical ideas then I turn to the sequencer to flesh things out a bit. Then I move to the score page. I use Logic Pro for Sequencing and Sibelius for score prep.
In 2006, you provided additional music for SCREED which you actually directed and produced, what was this project, and who provided the main score if you wrote additional cues?
SCREED is a short film that I wrote and directed. Robby Elfman, my orchestrator on RED CANVAS, provided the score. I wrote some additional cues for it.
You worked on a number of commercials. Around 80 I think, in such a short space of time what do you try to achieve when providing music for an ad?
Advertising music is very specific. The creative directors know what they are looking for generally and provide samples of the styles that work for them. On a 30 second spot pacing is tricky because it can feel rushed. Each spot is unique and most often you’ll write and re-write until you get it. It is rare to get it right the first time. There are always tweaks.
You also conduct, do you find it better to conduct when scoring a movie, or maybe do you think it is better to be able to be in the recording booth keeping an eye on things, also do you carry out your own orchestrations?
I do conduct but only when recording in the US. Because of the language barrier, when working in Prague I like to work with Adam Klemens because he is an excellent conductor and native speaker of Czech. The orchestra also knows him and trusts him. Whether I am on the podium or in the control room I always have Robby Elfman as a score reader in the booth making sure everything is coming down properly.
I do orchestrate but I also work with Robby Elfman as my orchestrator. It’s just the two of us. I don’t use a huge team of people. Though I am able to orchestrate myself, time often doesn’t allow it. I also like to have a second set of ears and trust Robby’s judgement implicitly. I deliver very detailed scores to him. He checks for proper voice-leading, chord voicing, blend and balance etc. I believe we have a terrific synergy working together. He is transparent as an orchestrator and doesn’t colour my work by imposing his ideas or changing the nature of the work. If he adds/deletes anything there is always discussion. When Robby finishes his round of orchestration and delivers his scores to me I am the final word as to what is in the delivered score and execute the final touches.
When working on a movie, how many times do you view a film before you start to spot it or get specific ideas about where music should be placed and what type of score is required?
In my experience so far. The director shows me the film once. Then we spot it. I go away and do a number of cues. Then show and tell. Hopefully that goes well. Then Fix stuff and move on to the next set of cues until everything on the list is checked off.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on getting my next film; “seriously”. This week I just did a cool arrangement for a drum and bugle corps called ‘The San Francisco Renegades’ who have an amazing brass and percussion ensemble. Very eager to hear it as it was scored for 74 brass and 35 percussionists. The Loudest Show on Earth!
Your score for THE RED CANVAS is released by Movie Score Media, did you have any input into the content of the CD?
Yes. I requested that “Moving Images Suite” be included as a bonus. Mikael Carlsson chose the order of the pieces and did a fantastic job on the sequence of the album. I really had no comments or corrections. I am very satisfied with how it all turned out.
What do think of the state of film music at this moment in time?
Well one of the things that I find a little sad is that melody and theme seems to have fallen out of favour a bit in film scores these days. I really like strong melodies and I think sometimes that is perceived as being old fashioned.
What do you think is the purpose of music in film?
To cover up the sound of the film projector. It has very important dramatic effect on images. Watch a horror film without its score and see how scary it is. Not very. Some films work without music but it is quite rare. The trend in many of today’s mainstream films is that music is just another element of sound design to add to the bed of sound effects. I think film music can be much more than this.
Were any of your family musical at all?
My mother taught herself how to play the piano and encouraged my brother, sister, and me to take music lessons at an early age. My brother and I played in the school bands and orchestras and my sister was a part of the colour guard in the marching band. There was always music around growing up. I am the only professional musician in my extended family.
As a composer do you have a preference to working on certain types or genres of film, or are you happy working on any type of film?
I am happy working on any type or genre of films. I really like horror, action and sci-fi because they tend to have the kind of scores I would like to write. I think the most difficult thing to do is romantic comedy. I haven’t done one yet but it seems the most difficult to me.
What is the biggest orchestra that you have worked with and what was this on?
The Red Canvas Orchestra of 84 members was my biggest film orchestra, The Renegades 74 Brass and 35 percussion is now the largest ensemble I’ve ever written for.
My thanks to James Peterson for his time and his patience on this interview.