An Interview with Mark McKenzie by John Mansell © 2011
McKenzie studied composition with renowned composers Pierre Boulez, Witold Lutoslawski, and Morten Lauridsen. During his formal training Mark was recognized with the prestigious ‘Hans J. Salter Composition Award’, ‘The Norman Cousins Award’, and ultimately was honored as the ‘USC Outstanding Doctoral Music Graduate’. McKenzie was quickly drawn by a love of films to compose and orchestrate movie music. After orchestrating about 70 films, Mark became close to the legendary Academy Award Winning composer Jerry Goldsmith orchestrating his final 7 films and helping him compose when time constraints became impossible.
Mark’s award winning original scores have a distinctive musical voice that is expressive and diverse. Directors speak of Mark’s incredibly stirring themes using words such as: “timeless,” “epic,” and “intensely human”. The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Variety, numerous film music magazines and websites often mention Mark’s gift for “ravishing melodies” describing his music as: “magical, majestic, soul-stirring, full of celebration, power, and deep emotion”. His seventeen original scores are available on compact disc through Intrada, Varese Sarabande, and Warner Bros’ Word Records and for digital download on iTunes and Amazon. Outside of film, Mark’s music has also been utilized on the Olympics, the Academy Awards, Disney World, California Adventures, Wimbledon, the Crystal Cathedral, and Disneyland Paris.
McKenzie has assisted other composers such as John Barry, Danny Elfman, Mark Isham, John Powell, Marc Shaiman, Alan Silvestri, and John Williams with his orchestrations. Those orchestrations are available on over 65 soundtracks including the Academy Award winning DANCES WITH WOLVES, Academy nominated MEN IN BLACK, GOODWILL HUNTING, and THE PATRIOT, and blockbusters such as SPIDERMAN I & II, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, BATMAN RETURNS, ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN, A FEW GOOD MEN, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and LILO AND STITCH.
Mark is a member of The Motion Picture Academy music branch, The Television Academy, The Society of Composers and Lyricists, and the BMI performing rights organization.
May we concentrate on your latest scoring assignment, THE GREAT MIRACLE. How did you become involved with this project?
First I must say up front that the English title of the movie for the theatrical release has changed and it will now be called THE GREATEST MIRACLE instead of THE GREAT MIRACLE. The Spanish version is still called EL GRAN MILAGRO. The music will still be available under the name THE GREAT MIRACLE on iTunes and Amazon.
As to how I came into the project, Doug Lefler director of THE LAST LEGION and DRAGONHEART: A NEW BEGINNING asked if I’d be interested in submitting my material as a candidate for replacing a score. His high school and college buddy Bruce Morris (Pocahontas, Hercules, and Finding Nemo), was directing EL GRAN MILAGRO (The Great(est) Miracle). When I saw the film, I fell in love with it and proposed that we attempt to create something that would take the movie to a much higher level emotionally. Fortunately director Bruce Morris, producers Pablo Barroso, Claudia Nemer Rodriguez and their partners were on board to invest in the musical forces necessary to accomplish that goal.
We all got especially excited about using the London boys choir ‘Libera’ which came to our attention in multiple ways. Pablo had their CD and I had recently met Libera’s music director Robert Prizeman at a concert in Southern California. We all felt Libera’s pure, angelic sound would add tremendous beauty to the movie. We ended up using their song ‘Far and Away’ as the Main title (check it out on You Tube). In addition, we used the Libera boys choir in three of the most important musical moments in the film: ‘The Benedictus’, ‘Offerings’ and ‘Ascension’. Robert Prizeman did a fantastic job conducting these boys even though they all had to trudge through the worst blizzard of the winter to get to the London recording studio. These boy sopranos and altos are just ordinary kids who love to goof around but when they open their mouths to sing…wow, hearts begin to soar!
What size orchestra did you utilize for the movie?
The largest group of musicians used was on ‘Offerings’ and ‘Ascension / Gloria Patri’ where we used a total of 129 musicians. For the overall score, we used an 80 piece orchestra, 32 voice mixed choir, 24 voice women’s choir, and then the 17 boys from Libera. Added to that were a large number of pre recorded tracks that included me playing piano, percussion, pipe organ, celesta, and all kinds of other bells and whistles from my studio. Engineer Brian Valentino recorded it and my long time engineer Armin Steiner brought his musicality to the 20th Century Fox Newman Scoring Stage where we mixed it. Marc Perlman, an extraordinary music editor, pulled all the various choir, orchestra, and synthesizer tracks together with painstaking editing.
THE GREAT(EST) MIRACLE is a 3D animated production. Are there many differences between scoring animated productions and live action movies?
There can be large differences if the animated film is for kids with short attention spans where the classic Carl Stalling cartoon style is appropriate. THE GREAT(EST) MIRACLE or EL GRAN MILAGRO tells the story of 3 individuals who are mystically drawn to a Cathedral. As a service progresses, their eyes begin to be opened to the unseen spiritual dimension. In the midst of this, each character finds love, hope, healing and redemption. This film can be viewed by children or adults on differing levels. To Bruce and my way of thinking, the film demanded dramatic and heartfelt recurring themes that weave the visual drama, deep emotions, and transcendent spiritual content all together with unity and wholeness. With THE GREATEST MIRACLE / EL GRAN MILAGRO, you forget that you are watching an animated film. Stunning 3D animated visuals (by Imagica), a powerful story, along with my music introduce you into a realm of pure love, mysticism, hope and the miraculous.
The soundtrack has been released as a download only, this is somewhat unusual, why is this and will it gets a release as a compact disc in the normal way in the future?
The music business has changed very dramatically. Many are trying to figure out how to keep their music viable financially with the widespread sharing, piracy and the plummeting sales of CDs. I’m thrilled and grateful to see some leaders in the European Union taking leadership with world wide intellectual protection on the internet. Till that happens, it’s no surprise that composers and record companies are looking for new ways to make good use of technology to maximize exposure and return on investment. With this score, I spoke to the producers about streamlining the soundtrack cutting out physical production costs. We’ll see if this was a good decision or not. There is no CD release planned but at some point that could change if the score receives awards or if interest and visibility of the score remains strong.
This score has been available a long time before the release of the film. Is there a particular reason for this?
The film was intended to be released on Easter weekend in April of 2011 but at the last minute, it was delayed. The Soundtrack was already up and going so we decided to let it go. Of all the scores I’ve worked on, this is the one that is most personally rewarding to me. I think it has some of my best work. I’m hopeful it will find it’s way into the lives of people who are open to beautiful, uplifting, emotionally engaging, symphonic music.
Your score for THE GREAT MIRACLE is an inspiring and deeply spiritual work, I found the music to be very comforting recently at a time that was difficult for me and my family, it is filled with so many moving musical motifs and passages, it washes over you and creates a feeling that is tranquil and also fulfilling. Inspiration for the score must come from the images or the movie itself, but I think your music in THE GREAT MIRACLE goes deeper than that. Did you draw on your own personal experiences, beliefs and inner feelings to create and shape the music?
My condolences on the loss of your son. In my own life I experienced an unexpected loss while composing the music to ‘Go in Peace’. I decided to dedicate the score to Thomas Patrick McKenzie, my close cousin who I’m sure has gone on to the greatest peace imaginable. Yes, I am a believer in the importance and power of faith, prayer, and in God’s unconditional and divine love for each of us. Gustav Mahler said: “Music must always contain a yearning for what is beyond the things of this world.” That “yearning” or calling out to the divine is one thing that intrigues me about music. Who knows where music comes from exactly? In a moment it suddenly appears; a thought, a feeling, fingers move, a pencil writes notes, musicians perform it with love and excellence and then something beyond description gets created. Love, beauty, life, and the spiritual realm seem quite closely connected in the greatest music. Beethoven achieves this in ‘Missa Solemnis’ and again in the 9th Symphony. Mahler achieves it in the 2nd and 8th symphony. Stravinsky in the ‘Symphony of Psalms’ and Faure in the ‘Requiem’ and Lauridsen in ‘Lux Aeterna’. I keep striving for it.
How many times did you look at the movie before you began to get fixed ideas about what music, how much music would be required, and where the music would be best placed to support the movie? How did you work out your musical ideas, piano, synthesizer, PC or straight to manuscript?
I sat with director Bruce Morris in my living room and we went scene by scene discussing the exact entry and exit points for the music, why each was important and what the purpose of the music was. It took us an entire day to do that. After that I jumped right into composing starting at the very beginning of the film. With this score I often would hear themes in my head while out on walks and then would flesh them out on my piano. I shaped them and reshaped them like a potter creating the perfect pot. Beethoven’s sketches show that he erased and changed his music continuously to the point to creating holes in the paper from the repeated erasures. I am not comparing myself to Beethoven in any way, but as a learner from the masters, I incorporate something very similar.
I do create complete symphonic renditions in my recording studio to audition for the director and producer. I’m grateful for Bruce Morris’ masterful direction and his encouragement. My scores are all created with my trusty pencils and my copyist Gregg Nestor copies the parts with great care. On the recording stage, we all worked hard to record expressive, memorable performances as quickly as possible.
Did you conduct the music?
Like many composers, I studied conducting and do conduct but I know the difference from a composer conductor and a real conductor who lives, eats and breaths conducting orchestras every single day. I notate the smallest expression, articulation, and dynamic details, and then give it to a great conductor. The two of us collaborate and I generally give my feedback directly to the orchestra. With this score, I was very fortunate to get the “Great Falls Symphony” conductor Gordon Johnson. Gordon studied with most if not all of the great conductors of our century and also has conducted over the past 20 years all the greatest soloists of our generation such as Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell and many others. He is an incredibly expressive and accomplished conductor who brought a tremendous sense of musicality, sensitivity, beauty and expression to all of the recordings and he did so in record time. I hope I can collaborate with him again.
Would adapting the score for concert performance be something that you would consider at all?
Absolutely, I think this would be great fun to perform live with a choir and orchestra in a concert setting; maybe in Spain or here in Los Angeles? I will be submitting it for a Grammy and Academy consideration. If anyone is a member or knows members, I’d be honored to have them take a listen to excerpts at www.markmckenzie.org.
When is the film due to be released?
The plan is for a limited release it in theaters in Mexico, South America, The United States and parts of Europe in October of 2011. This film is a special “spiritual” and “art” film that will need to be treated very carefully so that date could possibly change. I’m sure the details will be found before too long at imdb.com and at www.doscorazonesfilms.com.