Interview with Jurgen Beck
8Dio Artist Spotlight. Answers by Jurgen Beck / Questions by Troels Folmann November 2014.
Jurgen Beck is an esteemed film composer known, most notably, for his work on short films and documentaries. He also works in feature length film. Beck has worked with director Trey Ore on My Name is Paul, director Kyle Prohaska on Standing Firm and Love Covers All, among many others. Jurgen is, primarily, self-educated and has attended music school on full scholarship in Dallas, TX – moving overseas from his home in Germany. His composing career started to gel while in a pop band for which he produced, wrote the songs, the lyrics, did the arranging and recording.
At what age do you recall music delivering its message to you?
I think I was around 6 or 7 when I asked my mom if I could learn to play the recorder. Being able to produce melodies though with something other than my own voice was a marvelous experience. Also, it was my introduction to learning to play from music sheets. I was always fascinated with those little dots on the lines and being able to follow them, out of which melodies built. Let’s just say I was hooked.
Tell us a little bit about your early training and the instruments that assisted your nascent journey.
I am primarily self-taught, although the basic musical training I received came when learning to play the Flugelhorn, an alto instrument in the brass choir. From there I picked up the guitar, both acoustic and electric, the bass, piano and synths, as well as dabbling a little in learning to play the drums.
What I didn’t receive in education through traditional ways such as college or music conservatory, I was determined to make up by reading and studying just about any music book out there, whether it was on harmony, counterpoint, music theory, orchestration, music production techniques, and so on. You should see my library! This process continues to this day, as it seems that there is still so much to learn about music, it literally takes a lifetime.
In addition to studying on my own, which included listening to and analyzing film scores, I signed up for a number of courses I could study on my own. Some were instructor led, others where self-study courses.
Then there was the realization that taking some private lessons from working composers would be a good idea. You can read so many books on your own, but having someone who is able to guide you and pass on tricks of the trade is tremendously helpful. I was blessed to study with amazingly proliferate composers and orchestrators.
While growing up in Germany what styles of music and what specific artists had the most profound affects on you?
Growing up in Germany one cannot escape the Schlager music, which is a sort of forerunner to pop music. However, I gravitated more toward the big bands like Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Pink Floyd, Genesis, U2 and others. Add to that influences from Dire Straits, Stanley Clark, and other great artists and bands like Koinonia. I think the biggest part of it was the way their originality shaped their music.
In the early to mid 80’s is when synths really took off and became a central element in pop music. I took note of those artists that made creative use of them, as I loved working with synths in my own music. Artists such as Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, and the German group Kraftwerk all had an influence on many others, including what I create to this day.
You achieved and received a full music scholarship in Dallas in 1987. What are your thoughts as you reflect on that moment?
One word: Life Altering. OK, two words. It wasn’t so much receiving the scholarship, but more what went with it, including a move to the US, meeting a wonderful young lady who would a year later become my wife, getting exposed to a creative freedom that would have been difficult to achieve in good old Germany, and so much more. I only had a glimpse of what it would be like to study in the US. Add to that the fact that a growing career with my band in Germany came to an end, emotions were certainly mixed.
What was your focus of study while at music school in Texas? Did the curriculum set the stage for your subsequent pursuits?
Only somewhat. I think the biggest impact of the training there was the discipline in studying all aspects of music. When you are mostly self-educated, it is easy to set aside the difficult things and focus on what comes easy. Having to dig into music theory so you understand the essentials of what goes into music was a challenge at first, but became easier, as is the case with much of what we learn. The music program did not specifically focus on film music, but it provided a foundation, which was absolutely needed to succeed in what I am doing today.
Did you know where your musical direction might be headed at that point?
At that point I was hoping to continue to write my own popular music, perhaps start a band again, after having left behind one in Germany and missing the touring and fun on a concert stage. I also started to produce other artists, so that was certainly something I thought I would do for a long time. If someone would have told me then that I would end up in film music, I think I would have laughed at them, as I considered film music as the holy grail of elite musicians and composers. I had an affinity toward film music, but never thought my musical skills were good enough to become a composer.
Were your formative years influenced by classical music?
Very much so. Growing up in Germany, one is surrounded by classical music, whether it is Bach, Händel, or any of the other great German composers. Add to that my somewhat formal training learning to play the Flugelhorn in a church brass choir, and the exposure to classical music was complete. I still remember spending endless hours in church learning to play Bach’s music on the huge organ, much to the chagrin of the church neighbors, I’m sure.
How did you bridge the path to the more solitary life of film composing from playing in bands and touring?
While being up on stage and playing music live provided tremendous emotional gratification. As I got older I preferred the solitude of sitting in the studio and working on films. It is decidedly a different experience. I think at heart I have always been a musical tinkerer, someone who likes to refine arrangements and melodies. Prior to the advent of using computers to create and reproduce complete arrangements, one had to have at minimum a number of musicians to play the music with. Once computers gave me that additional option, I found myself preferring creating and producing the music without the stress of having to tour. Today, it is the creative effort that goes into film music that far outweighs at least for me the benefits of being up on stage performing the music.
Many of the short films and documentaries you have worked on take on quite serious subject matters; Not Forgotten, is about families in the Ukraine struggling with autistic children, Rescued is about caring for orphans and the unique and special hearts of adoptive parents. How do you approach and adapt to specific subject matters, musically?
I think it is primarily a matter of allowing life to leave impressions on you. Emotions are a big part and finding compassion deep within your soul essentially creates a fountain out of which creativity springs. Empathy is another ingredient. When I am tasked with writing music for these types of films, there is much thought and consideration that goes into studying the human condition expressed in the films. What do those individuals feel like having to deal with their set of circumstances? What musical tone expresses their emotional struggles? I often think that I am not really producing music, I create emotions. So, I look for the emotional attributes of what the music needs to convey.
Especially for documentaries, there is a message that often needs to be brought across. While we don’t want to push the emotional envelope, helping the audience connect with the people or subject matter presented in the film is of utmost importance. The music has therefore a tremendous place of importance in the film.
Again, allowing life to happen to you makes you sensitive to that of others. This, more than anything, will give you the emotional foundation to draw from when writing the music. This is true for the documentaries I get to work on, as well as the narrative films.
How do your projects, generally, come to you?
As with many things in life, connections we have with people are key. That’s how most of the projects have happened, even to the point where someone I previously worked with mentioned my name to a director or producer who is working on a new film. Of course, by now there is a body of work out there that hopefully convincingly tells someone who is interested to check in with me or my agent.
While I love to sit in the studio all day and write music, it is the relationships I keep that essentially end up playing some role in getting to work on projects. Before someone trusts their hard work into your care, they need to feel that you are worth their trust, that you are not only able to push their film to the next dimension and beyond, but that you are also easy to work with, understand what they need, and approach working with them as the privilege that it is. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have a voice in what needs to be created, quite the contrary. What it means though is acknowledging that they have a choice, and their choice was to work with you.
Getting established is the hard part. Once you have proven that you have what it takes to make them successful, word typically spreads. The biggest aspect though is how you present yourself. They are looking for the total package. If you are fun to work with and connect on a personal level, the work is still important, but it takes a secondary seat. Add to that the hard work that you stick into each and every project, regardless of size, and you have much greater chance of succeeding.
On the creative side it depends on what you are after. If you want to break into writing for production music libraries, figure out what it is that they are looking for and become the chameleon they need. In other words, learn to write and produce music in as many styles as you can stand. Produce great quality music and the libraries take note, including their customers.
If you want to break into film music, you must proove that you can handle it. If you don’t know where to start, put yourself out there, work with student filmmakers, participate in speed filmmaking competitions, or even just create a few knockout film examples with clips from films that are out there. There is so much you can do to show your creativity so that when someone looks at what you have done, it speaks volumes.
Additionally, look for a creative edge. This is of course just my personal opinion, but don’t be afraid to initially copy someone’s style, doing it in a way it injects you and your creative abilities. For one, you learn an incredible deal about what goes into the music you hear in films, or media projects. Secondly, it broadens your musical language, especially if you feel that you can’t seem to break out of your own creative box.
As a side note, be willing to give back. Look for opportunities to help with worthy projects that are looking for original music but may not have the budget to pay what you may be worth. There is a measure of reward that goes beyond money. People take note when you do that.
What are the major distinctions (outside the obvious) of composing for feature length vs. short films?
In some ways writing for short films is much harder. The timeline is compressed all around. It takes a certain amount of time to get into a film, working out themes, and getting a general sense of where the music needs to go. In other words, you don’t have as much time telling the underlying story with the music, which puts a much greater focus on what you write.
Some composers may also be tempted to put less effort into a short film. They often don’t receive the attention or glory of a feature length film, so why should we approach it with the same hard work that we put into a feature? However, if we want to do a really good job, we have to put our best foot forward, precisely because they are shorter. It should feel like a short segment of a really great movie. That requires planning and thinking in the same fashion as with a full length film.
On the flip side, a feature length film provides enormous potential for playing with the musical signature, theme variations, motifs, and all the things that essentially provide a satisfying experience writing and producing that music. Short films typically have very short cues. Unless it is a longer short film (an oxymoron of sorts) you very seldom have a 4-6 minute cue that you can really play with, or several shorter cues that revisit a theme we can change up. I often find myself wishing we could just extend the film so I can really dig into developing a gorgeous cue that is cut short. I am not saying that writing music for a short film is frustrating, to the contrary. It is just different and you have to prepare yourself and adopt a different approach than with a full length film.
When presented with a script what do you look for, first, to get a feel for how to approach it?
Drawing parallels with other films is something I often do. I think every film has elements that we have seen before, fragments of the story that harken back to a film that has gone before. That is not to preclude a certain feel or musical signature of the film, but it helps putting your musical brain into gear and imagine what the music should sound like.
Scripts are a funny thing. There is so much left to your imagination. They are not like a book. It takes the vision of the director and the whole production team to interpret what’s in the script. Very little description is given in a script, so it is paramount to discuss the musical signature with the director.
Very early on the director will share what he thinks the film should feel like. So, the music very much goes with that vision. Of course, many times a director will draw on the creative expertise of the composer. If the director is approaching working with the composer in a smart way, he or she will allow creative freedom to the degree where the composer can truly flourish with the music.
Do you collaborate with the Director before you begin scoring or deliver themes to vet?
It all depends on the budget of the film and how much interaction the director desires. If the budget is sizable, we have the luxury of writing sketches and work out themes before major scoring begins. Some directors are very hands on and want to be involved in the scoring process, while others trust your abilities and tell you to do what you do best.
Then there are certain films that work creatively with the music. That requires collaboration even at the scripting stage. More often than not, collaboration with the director and the rest of the production team doesn’t start until we have at least some part of the film edits read for scoring.
I have also had situations where the director wanted music scored to which the editor then cut the film. So, the creative process and workflow really depends on the film, the preferences of the director, and a number of other factors.
When you score a period piece how do go about capturing the appropriate style and feel of the era?
Unless there is a creative reason to go completely out of genre and style, a period movie needs to at least on some level convey to the viewer that they are watching a story unfold in that period. That means that we rarely watch a period film with modern music, even down to the various musical elements or instruments that make up the music. While we are able to take creative license for an action-adventure film such as, Beyond the Mask, the task is to convey to the audience convincingly that the story truly plays in the time period we say it is.
All this means that special care and usually quite a bit more research goes into a period movie. We really don’t have any period audio recordings that document how the music sounded back then, so we can only go by what was documented on paper and figure out what that may have sounded like. For example, Beyond the Mask plays in 1776 on three continents, each having their own flavor of music. So, in a way, the locations become characters of their own and need to be represented in the music.
Subsequently, research has gone into the instruments of the period, as well as styles that we may have heard back then, which then were incorporated into the score. Of course, creative license was used and since this is an action-adventure genre film, you do to a large degree hear instruments that fall outside of the period. It is not a Jane Austen movie after all, so creativity can be pushed, hopefully to the degree that everyone stays within the film and enjoys what they are seeing and hearing.
You are currently working on Beyond the Mask, with Director, Chad Burns. What is the status of the film and have your scoring contributions wrapped?
They have indeed, well for the majority. Scoring the film wrapped in April (2014), followed by the final mix in L.A. Production on the film is complete at this point and it is currently making its way through the release stages with an expected theatrical release in Spring of 2015. The trailer house is working on the official trailer, which I will be scoring as well in the next few weeks.
Are you involved with post-production on the films you work on?
Yes, very much, but primarily in the music department either as a composer, or as an executive music producer for films that hired composers I collaborate with. Post-production is an extremely exciting phase of a film, as this is the first time that glimpses of the final product emerge. On the larger films there is naturally a crossover between the music and sound design departments. One reason, of course, is the fact that the sound design and score of a film need to co-exist in the same audible space. So, much collaboration does go and should go into synchronizing with the post-audio folks.
Then there is the final mixing stage. When possible, I like to be involved, not necessarily to make sure that my music somehow survives in the mixing process, but more to continue to lend creative input into that all-important aspect of finalizing how the film sounds like.
Tell us about other projects you have in the queue.
Right now I am preparing for a feature length documentary titled, Targeted, a TV series that has just been announced titled, Rose From The Dead, another TV series called, Sacred Eternal, and a few other projects that I can’t quite announce yet. It will make the coming year very interesting.
Share with us your experiences working with 8DIO products and how they have influenced your compositions.
I view virtual instruments the same way you would physical ones such as a violin, a piano, or another other instrument you need to take the time to learn. Each library is different and the biggest challenge incorporating a new one into your workflow is figuring out what it does well and what to stay away from. This may be a totally personal take on 8DIO products, but to me and my brain they allow me to shorten that adaptation timeline, which in a high-paced production environment is key.
When virtual instrument libraries first appeared on the horizon, the limitations of making your compositions sound as real as possible were very much determined by the capabilities of a specific library. This very much influenced by what you used them for, even to the point of what we composed. For example, fast string runs are still a challenge. We have made huge improvements with the latest crop of libraries, but they are still something that I may stay away from if I know that I don’t have access to live musicians. So, I score differently, not forcing them into a finished cue, just because I want to have a string run in it. If the libraries I have access to don’t deliver a realistic performance, I’ll score the music differently.
I feel that 8DIO has put a tremendous effort into creating virtual instrument libraries that push the realism envelope significantly. Again, this may be my personal take, but to me and the music I am asked to write and produce, they are invaluable tools in creating music that gets as close to the real thing as possible.
Then there is the line of 8DIO products that are so easy to incorporate with specific genres. I am talking about the Hybrid Tools and ambient lines, which are a tremendous creative tool. I naturally gravitate toward a mix of traditional orchestral sounds with a distinct mix of electronic or ambient elements, which is one of the reasons why 8DIO instruments appear in every score in some way. They just foster that creative flow I enjoy.
What projects of yours have 8DIO products appeared in?
Literally all of them! 8DIO has such a wide range of quality virtual instruments that no matter the genre I compose in, every score contains instruments from 8DIO. Primary ones that find most use are the Adagio bundle, Adagietto for a lot of the sketching and even final production, the Hybrid Tools, Claire solo instruments, and depending on the film score and the 8W library.
Equally useful are all the other ones, like the choirs, solo voices, solo instruments, and all the percussion libraries. I guess you could say I’m an 8DIO fan boy! Seriously though, with a few exceptions, if there is an 8DIO library missing it is either because I haven’t had to use those specific instruments yet, or I simply haven’t had the time to add a library to my template.
As far as specific projects that feature them in significant ways, the upcoming feature film, Beyond the Mask makes heavy use of 8W, Adagio, Adagietto, the Claire solo instruments, the gorgeous pianos, and the complete line of percussion libraries.
Atmospheric/Orchestral scores for projects such as, Love Covers All, Not Forgotten, Standing Firm and a number of the short films either make use of the string libraries or any of the more ambient instrument collections such as Hybrid Tools and Rhythmic Aura.
Again, for every project I look to 8DIO for unique sounds, realism, and of course the quality I need on the project. As a working composer I can’t afford not to. 8DIO products simply deliver.