An Interview with Oscar Navarro by John Mansell © 2013
Studying at the prestigious University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, obtaining a degree in Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV (he graduated receiving the “Harry Warren Endowed Scholarship” award as the best graduating student in his class), Oscar Navarro has fully entered the world of film and TV scoring. He has recorded in famous studios such as Capitol Records, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.
He received his film scoring training under the tutelage of renown composers like Joel McNeely (Peter Pan 2, The Guardian, American Dad), Pete Anthony (orchestrator of Ice Age, King Kong, Batman Begins) Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Super 8, Ratatouille), Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Wall-e, Finding Nemo), John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter) and Christopher Young (Hell Raiser, Ghost Rider, Spiderman 3) amongst others. For Mr. Young, Navarro worked for a full year as orchestrator and arranger of his music for concert suite.
Oscar Navarro has worked in several projects for animated, short and long feature films. Among many other projects, he has composed the music for short films such as: “Ayudame a Recordar” and “Indiana Jones in Search of the lost Idol” by award winning Spanish director Fran Casanova, “Channel No. 5” by Aaron Garcia, “History of a Murderer” by Hector Manteca, and “Bordando la Frontera”, by Rene Rhi, Mexican director living in Los Angeles. Last year Navarro composed the original soundtrack for the film “La Mula (The Mule)”, directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Michael Radford, and starred by Mario Casas and Maria Valverde.
He has also collaborated with Spanish composer Luis Ivars in soundtracks such as “El Dios de Madera” (The Wooden God) by Vicente Molina Foix, and “El capitan Trueno y El Santo Grial” (Captain Thunder and the Holy Grail), by Antonio Hernandez. With Christopher Young, his work as orchestrator included arranging the music from movies “Hell Raiser”, “Shipping News”, “The Grudge” and “Spiderman 3” for concert suites.
He has been invited to give master classes about film music in many music festivals and universities. In 2011 he was invited by Chapman University (Orange County, California) and by his alma mater, the University of Southern California, to give two lectures on his work for the movie “The Mule”. Likewise, he has given lectures in CIFICOM (Festival for Sci-Fi cinema of Madrid), and “25th Festival of Cinema Jove” (Valencia, Spain) amongst others. His education as conductor has allowed composer Navarro to participate as conductor in recoding sessions in cities such as Kiev, Macedonia, Spain and Los Angeles.
In the present Navarro is collaborating in projects both in Europe and the USA, and recently signed a contract with Veel Steen Music Publishing (Florida, USA).
LA MULA is, I understand, your first scoring assignment for a feature film. How did you become involved on this movie?
Three years ago, I returned from L.A., where I was studying the Graduate Certificate in “Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV” in the University of Southern California, I started sending emails and demo CDs to hundreds of film producers here in Spain just to show my work and also to offer my services to collaborate with them writing music for their films.
One day, I received a call from a producer from Gheko Films called Alejandra Frade who was interested in my music. She was looking for a composer for her new feature movie LA MULA which had in its cast two big important Spanish stars (Mario Casas and María Valverde) but the interesting part of all of that is that I never sent any demo music or email to this production company, they just found me on the internet looking for a young and fresh composer and liked my music. They found my web page (www.onavarro.com) and fell in love with what they heard amongst the demo pieces. After that, the producers asked to me to go to Madrid and watch the whole movie with them and, after that, they asked me to send a demo of what I felt watching the movie. So this is what I made; I sent them the piece that would eventually become “The Love theme” of their movie and I got the job.
What was the scoring schedule like on the movie – by this I mean how much time were you given to compose the score and did the director or producers give you specific instructions or did they let you have a free hand when it came to placing music etc?
The schedule wasn’t too bad; I had almost three months to write the music and record it with a live orchestra.
I was working from the beginning with the producers because there was a problem between the Spanish production company and the director (Michael Radford) of the movie in the last week of shooting, so all the post-production was being supervised by the Spanish producers (Alejandra Frade and Bruce St. Clair). They gave me a free hand to compose, but I always showed them mock-ups and they were giving me their feedback. It was a very close collaborative process.
What size orchestra did you utilize for the score?
We used 2 different sizes; one big orchestra (80 musicians) for the larger cues, and a string orchestra just for the small parts (50 strings). Then we recorded a few solo instruments in the studio such as Spanish guitar, Clarinet and a Female Voice.
The producers asked me to write an orchestral score for the movie, so I was thinking in terms of a large to medium sized orchestra from the very first note.
Was there a temp track in place on the movie when you first viewed it and do you find temp tracks helpful or maybe a little distracting?
There wasn’t a temp track in the movie. They just showed me the movie without music; just the sound of ambiences and dialogues.
I think temp tracks can be helpful when the director doesn’t know how to explain, with musical words, what they want the composer to relay with the music. I think we have to use it just as a tool. The problem is when directors fall in love with temp tracks. If this happens and you have to follow the temp music, your music will start to be less original. Who wants a non original score for their movies? I think nobody, but this does happen a lot nowadays and both composers and directors have to be very careful with that if we don’t use it only as a tool.
Did you carry out all of the orchestrations on the score or did you have an orchestrator working with you and do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
I love orchestration; I think this is one of the most important parts in the process of writing a sound track. A good orchestration can make a bad melody sounds really good and the opposite, a bad orchestration can make a good melody sounds really bad.
I orchestrated a lot of music in this movie (I would say 60%), then I was working with an orchestrator to help me with some cues. I think this is necessary nowadays because the process of writing a sound track is faster day by day and there is no time to orchestrate your music (I would love to have this time).
I am very obsessive with the orchestration of my music. This is why I think one needs to find an orchestrator who thinks as you do, feels like you and watches the music like you. He has to be your right hand. This is really important for me because when I am composing I listen to the music in my brain almost orchestrated and I need someone who imagines this music exactly how I hear it in my mind and then put it on paper. Probably this happens because I come from the concert music world and we do everything in this world.
How much music did you compose for the movie and what size orchestra did you use for the score?
I wrote around 70 minutes of music. Large orchestral cues, medium string orchestra cues, chamber music cues, solo instrument cues… I wrote for an 80 piece orchestra but there were cues just for strings (50 strings) or a few chamber music cues (clarinet, guitar, solo guitar, flamenco box and tuba…). I think there are all kinds of music ensembles in this soundtrack and this is very positive for me because there is variety in the music. Of course this doesn’t happen in all the movies because the music that you write depends of the movie. LA MULA has humor, drama, happiness, suspense, etc… So I think the music has to transmit all of that and I needed to create different ensembles to create the sound of those parts.
You have worked with a number of well known composers of film music, Christopher Young for example, what did you collaborate with him on?
Yes, I was working for Christopher Young for one year doing some orchestration work. He has tons of scores that are really interesting but a lot of them are not ready to be performed in a concert hall. This is what I was doing for one year; I was creating concert suites for him; creating connections between cues and re-orchestrating some parts. It was very enriching and very interesting job.
What composers, either classical or film music composers, would you say have had an influence upon you and your approach to scoring film and also composing concert music?
Well, there are a lot of composers that I like, some of them from the classical world and some of them from the film world.
On the classical side, I love Leonard Bernstein Rimsky-Korsakov, Vaughan Williams, Ravel and Debussy… I would say that impressionism was my favorite period. You have great pieces with a great use of the harmony, very colorful use of the orchestra and really interesting ideas inside the music. I love the use of the rhythm of Leonard Bernstein and how he uses the melodies. I like very much Ravel’s orchestration and Korsakov’s use of melody and also the orchestration.
On the other side, I love listening to film music and especially composers like Miklós Rózsa, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, James Horner or Hans Zimmer. If I would have to choose one of them, I would choose John Williams .I think he is one of the best composers in the history of film music. You can learn everything analyzing his scores, how to create a good melody, development of the music, orchestration, harmony… You have the best composition book in all his scores!!
Being your first full feature film, was it a little daunting working on LA MULA, and what would you say are the main differences to working on shorts etc and then working on a feature film?
Working on LA MULA has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life. I have enjoyed every note I wrote. I have learnt a lot during the process and I have worked with a really professional team around me. I think I had everything to create a good score and the process was very enriching.
I love also working in short movies; this is what I have been doing until now and I will continue doing it. Listening to young directors (like me as a young composer) and trying to tell a story with music is a very grateful experience. Short movies are really interesting to learn from and make good friends that probably in the future will be big directors! Who knows?
Of course the responsibility is different working in a short movie. You don’t have the pressure of the time like in a feature movie; you don’t have to think about getting a good team around you (because you work alone usually) and the process is easier but really exciting.
You worked with Luis Ivers on two movies I think. What did you do on these projects?
Yes, I worked with him in two movies orchestrating the music and conducting the scoring sessions of “Thunder Captain” in Macedonia with a big orchestra.
As you know, I love orchestration and I am very fast at orchestrating. Luis Ivars and I are very good friends and I used to collaborate with him every time he needed me for orchestration work or conducting the orchestra in the scoring sessions. For me it is very important to know all the parts of the process of writing the music of a movie. I love writing the music but also orchestrating it. I enjoy immensely conducting the orchestra in the scoring sessions (I used to do it also in concert music a lot) and I like working with computers (this is not my best , but I think it is a very important part of the process).
You utilized a female vocalist on LA MULA. The sound is very similar to that of Dulce Pontes, who is the vocalist and did you write this particular passage of music specifically with her voice in mind?
This is an interesting question. There is a sequence in the movie where the producers suggested me to write a very typical Spanish kind of composition, it is the “Saeta”. Saeta is very popular in the south of Spain and this kind of music used to be sung alone and with a lot of passion and heartbreaking voice. We use this in Spain to sing to the saints when they are in the streets in “Semana Santa” (once a year, we spend a week showing the saints and marching with them in the streets with processional music). This is when women or men used to sing a “Saeta” trying to express their deep feelings of sadness and pain, etc…
The vocalist is Victoria Cava, a good friend of my girlfriend and now a very good friend of mine. She is specialized in “flamenco”, which is a very popular folkloric music from the south of Spain. I was looking for a voice like Victoria’s, very penetrating, torn and with a lot of emotion. I invited her to come and visit me to talk and listen to a section of the cue I was working on and then I told her to sing like to a Lost One, with a lot of passion and pain. I didn’t have to say anything else… I just played her orchestral background music and she started to improvise. In a couple minutes she did the version that I fell in love with and we decided to use it in the movie.
How do you arrive at your musical solutions? Do you use piano, keyboards or PC or write straight to manuscript?
I used to write using the piano and a pencil and paper to take notes of the general musical ideas. Then I turn on the computer and start working with this idea in front of the movie. I don’t know if this is old style or new style but this is how I used to write. I need to write the music with a pencil, touch the paper, and of course watch the music inside. Then the computer helps me to create a good mock-up for the director.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
In general, for me, the purpose of music in films is to transmit what the image cannot do itself. Music is something unique that can make you feel happy, sad, and anxious … music can touch and play with your feelings and this is really important in a movie when you want to tell a story. The silence is part of the music and we have to know it …then you have to know when the music has to be heard, and when the silence has to be. I think a good soundtrack can solve a lot of problems or increase the drama in some parts; there are lots of things that music does but sometimes nobody knows it. This is the most important thing; be part of the movie and help the story to say something and transmit but always being in the subconscious mind. Music is a very important thing between lots of important things in a story.
You write for film and also for the concert hall. Would you say any of these two mediums are easier to accomplish. With film music you have timings and harsh deadlines etc, so would it be fair to say that writing for the concert hall is a little less restricting for the composer?
Yes, when you write a concert music piece, like I used to do, you used to be completely free. No timings, nothing about a picture, etc… You have to follow only your heart and your mind. I think is very difficult also writing a concert piece because you have to tell everything with music (you don’t have the help of a picture or an actor) and try to keep the audience following all you want to say.
Of course, on the other side, you can write whatever you feel, whatever you need or whatever you want to tell to the public. There are no restrictions and this is very comfortable for a composer.
I set myself deadlines when I am writing a concert piece because if I do not do this, I could stay writing and thinking for years like a lot of classical composers did.
Nowadays, if you want to “survive” writing music, you need to work with commissions and you need to set a deadline to keep working in different projects. This is how I do it and I am still alive!!
Many thanks to the composer for his time and patience…