An interview with Michael Hoenig by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol 18/ No 70; 1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven
As a composer and music producer Michael Hoenig has been scoring for film and television for approximately eighteen years. His music can be heard in the films KOYAANISQATSI (with Philip Glass), 9 1/2 WEEKS (with J. Nitzsche), THE WRAITH, THE GATE (with J. Peter Robinson), THE BLOB, CLASS OF 1999, and I, MADMAN. His television works include such shows as EERIE INDIANA, MAX HEADROOM, ABOVE SUSPICION, DARK SKIES, RAG AND BONE and the upcoming series STRANGE WORLD. Koenig’s musical talents also venture into solo projects and producing contemporary classical recordings for artists including Harold Budd, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Joan LaBarbera, Daniel Lentz, Don Preston, and Morton Subotnick.
Michael’s specialty is scoring futuristic or inventive techno dramas that take you to another world free of charge through your television set. Shows like MAX HEADROOM, DARK SKIES, and the upcoming STRANGE WORLD are cutting edge dramas that overstep the boundaries of television and dare to show its audience something different with a vision that’s not the usual fare from your TV Guide. Whether it be the twisted historical plots of DARK SKIES, the simulated computer image of MAX HEADROOM, or the need to solve another scientific crime in STRANGE WORLD, the electronic soundscapes of composer Michael Hoenig grace these images from a purely dramatic standpoint.
It’s a constant uphill struggle inside the television time crunch to produce a superior score when you’re up against the executive grid. Somehow Michael plugs himself into the speed of light and emerges unscathed with results and a successful sound that’s all his own. Our interview took place in downtown Los Angeles at Hoenig’s studio where he creates all his scores. This is where he works and sometimes even lives if the project demands it
How did you get involved in scoring for film?
I just finished mixing my second solo album for Warner Brothers when I met director Godfrey Reggio who was working on a film project called KOYAANISQATSI (1983). Over a conversation at dinner he elaborated that this was a film without words, just music and film. He already had hired composer Philip Glass, who I knew before this because of concerts I had organized in Germany. So Godfrey hired me as co-writer and music director on KOYAANISQATSI. It was a project where I had the privilege to develop musical dramatic content parallel to the editing of a movie that had no narrative. The whole dramatic flow had to be provided by the music. I came to movies through an entirely experimental process, which was the most exciting way that one could step into a completely new field.
Where did you lean how to score?
I learned how to score by simply doing it. One of my majors was drama, so I had an abstract dramatic approach on how to make things work and create for film. This was especially important in KOYAANISOATSI because it didn’t have any verbal narrative.
Do you realize your film scores solely in the electronic medium?
Yes. My latest main title for STRANGE WORLD (1999) was composed for a live cello with Joan Jeanrenaud of The Kronos Quartet. The producers were generous enough to actually accept all my ideas. I wanted something lyrical on the one hand and something exciting with patterns on the other hand. I realize everything I want to do in the electronic realm and sometimes I have live players try to improve upon it.
Does working in a studio envimnment give you more control over the score?
It gives you complete creative control, considering there are executives you have to please. Every project only gives you so much freedom. You certainly have more control when you’re performing in your own studio, which also adds the agony that you can change things or have to change things because people ask you for changes. I usually use up all the time available because I change things to improve them constantly.
Since you create the whole score alone, you bypass the need for an orchestrator.
I’m very lucky that I can actually work that way, but when you’re always alone you don’t really see the advantage. Those questions never pose themselves. Being the composer, engineer, oivhestrator, performer, and producer is less than 50% of what is required, the other 50% is fulfilling the psychological job of holding someone’s hand while they’re panicking when their project won’t come to a successful conclusion. A lot of what we do here has to do with hand holding and just giving people the perceived security or assurance that their project actually can be pulled off. Often people are desperate because in their or many other people’s eyes it doesn’t seem to work. Composers to a large degree have the psychological job of holding people’s hands and assuring them.
Speaking of the word “panic” (At this point Koenig sit backs in his chair and laughs), this must come up quite often with the relentless schedules of television scoring.
A perfect example of that was during the making of MAX HEADROOM (1987). The approach to scoring was totally non-thematic, so there were no re-occurring motifs. There were some sonic ambiances that sometimes came back, but it was basically an utterlynon-repetitivescore, everything was always new. In a span of seven days, that included spoiling and dubbing, I had to come up with basically forty minutes of music every week that was extremely polyphonic. It’s not just rambling along on a solo guitar or playing simple lines on monophonic instruments. It was a large electronic orchestral approach and it came down to how many ideas can you have per day and how can you perform something that is that complex?
How do you feel about having deadlines?
I try to be entirely humorous about it, because if I take it seriously I would often be on the brink of killing myself. The deadline is always looked upon with some anxiety, but of course life goes on after every episode until the next episode happens. Constantly being under pressure, I’m lucky enough to have the help of keyboardist Brad Ellis. You will definitely see this name again. Never allow yourself to get into despair about this because then you won’t be able to sleep in those few hours you have left. It’s just a fact of life, you just have to accept it and make the best out of it. My problem is always “How do I get the most music out of seven days?”
MAX HEADROOM was way ahead of its time. Did anyone realize this?
Everybody who worked on this was extremely excited about the opportunityThe show was killed by a scheduling mistake. It went from a very successful spot to where some executive said, “This thing is successful so let’s put it opposite DYNASTY. The network killed MAX HEADROOM by putting it into a time slot that the audience wouldn’t watch, like on Friday night. Everybody knew that we were onto something that hadn’t been tried before. It was hairsplitting because the show had at least three times the amount of edits than any other show on the air in those days. The special effects were incredible for television at the time and the irony in the writing was unprecedented, so it was great fun.
When you translate film into music, do you interpret it from an intellectual standpoint or purely from an emotional response to what you see on the screen?
Almost always first from a purely dramatic standpoint. This means how do you want the story to be told, who are the characters, what kind of support does the project need, what part of the story telling needs the most help, and then comes the content. So it’s first always purely formal and then emotional content comes second. It’s a combination of both. Some people are into writing the main title first so they have something they can hold onto through the entire score. That approach would be the exact opposite of what I’m doing. First I solve the dramatic riddle and then fill it with emotional values.
What do you think about your reputation for scoring experimental or on the edge television shows?
You never know while you’re doing something that you’re on some kind of edge, being experimental, or whatever. This never occurs while I’m doing anything, it just happens to be the fact when you look back on the project. I’m always driven to try something that I haven’t heard before. Probably that’s how I get these projects.
You scored the series DARK SKIES (1996), which was a twist on the Roswell incident This show took historical events and interlaced them with the secret existence of an alien race in our society The visuals were gre at and the plots were original. What happened to this series?
Again the show was in an 8PM time slot that was too early for an audience that watches a Saturday evening show like this. The show should’ve been scheduled for a later time slot like 10PM. The other problem was that it is very difficult to make a show live on historical incidences instead of driving it through characters. The characters in DARK SKIES were actually secondary to the historical instances those people were thrown into. Audiences are more perceptive to character driven shows rather than something that has a semi-documentary approach.They want identifiable characters they can follow, not snippets of history. That was an inherent dramatic problem of the show, which didn’t interfere at all with the great opportunity it gave the music.
Was the music here some of your best examples of mixing electronics with sampled orchestral sounds?
It made use of both because a lot of it was happening in the late fifties or early sixties. Electronics were a great link to that past and the orchestra was a driving element, while the electronics played an atmospheric role. I only remember it as a great time of writing. The wonderful thing is that everybody on the show appreciated it. There were no arguments or nasty games on the side, everybody loved the writing, so it was great. In the entire nineteen episodes I scored I did one change in one cue.
What happened to Anne Rice’s television pilot RAG AND BONE (1998)?
It was a project that was a collaboration between one of the producers of DARK SKIES, Jim Parriott, and Anne Rice. It was a pilot for CBS and was shot as a two-hour show. Dean Cain was the main character who was supposed to be in the series, but it never made it to become an episodic show. So now there is a two-hour pilot which is a Movie of the Week. I have no idea what happened to it. This had excellent writing, good efforts on everybody’s part, but it was just something that didn’t go through tile executive grid that were facing on an everyday basis. The executive grid, that’s a good one!
What’s going on with you latest achievement STRANGE WORLD?
Certain episodes were shot and fully produced. Someone must have made a decision around Christmas time that they wanted to have four or five shows in a row to test market it, or have those shows as a teaser for the series. Between December and March they broadcast only three episodes because somebody at ABC didn’t like it. There was zero support for it. The trailers gave off a completely wrong vibe. It was just something that was not supported enough, perhaps too bizarre or just not straight enough for the time slot they had put it in. I hear that it’s getting great receptions in other markets in Europe and Asia. The problem with the show is only in the U.S. at the moment. The U.S. being the market that drives any further episodes, it will air in the summer here and then we shall see.
STRANGE WORLD is an original modern day television series exploring scientific anomalies or the investigation of criminal abuses of science.
It’s basically about genetic experiments that affect our food chain. Medical experiments that manifest themselves in the medications we take and drugs that are administered to millions. While I was working on the show, driving to a dub, I was listening to a show on public radio where a scientist who was involved in genetic engineering described the sophistication of genetic engineering they do today with fruits, tomatoes, you name it. He compared the sophistication of what was going on to performing bypass surgery with a garden shovel. What we think is super sophisticated today is still in a very unsophisticated technological state. The fact that nobody questions any of those things that are going on and how things can go wrong if they’re not questioned, was basically the basis for the episodes of STRANGE WORLD. It’s super interesting subject mailer that has an incredible potential to explore. I only hope that ABC is courageous enough to broadcast the stuff.
Can you explain what musical direction you’re taking STRANGE WORLD in?
I’m taking a much more lyrical approach than DARK SKIES. The scores are almost romantic, in fact in the beginning the producers rejected most of the electronic ideas that I brought in. It turned into much more of a lyrical romantic approach with the necessary dramatic pushes that a show like this needs. It is as orchestral and it has less electronic elements than DARK SKIES. However, it’s always the exception that proves the rule. Specific moments in STRANGE WORLD do have sounds that were extremely disorienting, electronic events sprinkled through the score creating contrasts that were necessary to support the story.
Do you think the material of the shows you score is too original or thought-provoking for television?
Yes! Often that is the case when you address an American mainstream audience. With the proliferation of channels there should be a proliferation of subject mailers and content somehow. The idea that everybody produces for the lowest common denominator would be truly scary. I’m always looking for shows that are thought provoking, more original, or something that depends less on proven formulas. Let’s face it, 95% of the stuff that crosses the television screen is pure formula. I’m lucky enough I don’t have to do those shows.
All of these cutting edge shows you scorn seem like they belong on the big screen in long form and not on television.
I can do nothing but agree, but never forget that the American audience is only part of the audience and today we all produce for the entire world. These shows get shown everywhere in Europe, Asia, and South America. That’s also why this quote “profession” unquote of composing music for film or television has become so popular, it’s automatically a world market. But a show that’s being commissioned by an American network has to first please American audiences. There are many things that are hits worldwide, but are not happening here. Very quickly they become abbreviated and they quickly fade even though they work for other audiences. Truncate and fade. It’s tragedy in a way that all the television networks, with a few exceptions today, try to please all of the people. If people would be more daring in addressing niche audiences, a lot more of this material could be done. By committing yourself to a certain format in the beginning to a relatively small audience, you have in fact succeeded in a very old recipe, which is simply to build an audience. This is what people used to do in the music industry, you built a talent so it becomes successf ul.Today the television industry is exactly the same as the music industry, if you’re not successful within four weeks you’re gone. Nobody is actually building audiences anymore, with very few exceptions, X-FILES being notably the biggest exception.
How do you feel about your scoring career?
I’ve never really pursued a career in Hollywood. In retrospect, I started doing movies, but right now I’m doing television again when it used to be a mix. First it was movies, then it was a mix, and finally now it’s television. Maybe I didn’t play a certain game or I wasn’t career oriented enough in traditional ways, but I always did what seemed to be a challenge at the time and never thought about writing for movies to be a career because I had a career before I started writing for films.
Do you have an ambition to score orchestrally for theatrical films?
I would probably score THE BLOB (1988), if it was done today, with an orchestra. But, I don’t find an orchestra to be a challenge or anything. It’s not the musicians I write for, it’s the subject matter and the musical content that’s interesting, how it’s executed is totally secondary to me. After electronics have been all the rage for awhile. Now orchestras are all the rage and everybody is so excited about writing for orchestras. I’m excited about going to the symphony and hearing something that was written for orchestras. I’m not really interested in hearing orchestras that do something for film. As a subject matter, I’m not particularly interested.
What is your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is how do I manage to keep on doing what I’m doing and do something else at the same time like writing for theater, a purely orchestral project, a record project or a live tour again? The biggest challenge is how can I still think in ways outside the dramatic approach of Hollywood. I absolutely admire Elliot Goldenthal for being able to work in film and do some other serious projects. My way of keeping sanity is to produce other people. I work in a world of contemporary music today mostly as a producer, but that’s where my heart is also.
What are your future plans?
I’m going to take a break. I have no idea because I never plan anything three months ahead of time. I do what comes up. If I could plan, I would plan to take a deep breath that takes longer than two months.