Interview with David Newman
David Newman has scored over 100 films, ranging from War of the Roses, Matilda, Bowfinger and Heathers, to the more recent Tarzan and Serenity. Newman's music has brought to life the critically acclaimed dramas Brokedown Palace, Hoffa and Frank Miller’s The Spirit; top-grossing comedies Galaxy Quest, The Nutty Professor, Throw Mama From the Train; and award-winning animated films Ice Age and The Brave Little Toaster. He holds an Academy Award® nomination for his score to the animated feature, Anastasia.
Allow me to start at the beginning. What is your earliest memories of music and what eventually led you to pursue this invisible art-form?
I started studying the violin when I was 7 years old. I grew up in the west side of Los Angeles and from 1st grade-12 grade I played in a symphony orchestra at public school that was an hour period a day. This is where I learned to read music. I can’t remember ever not being able to read. Obviously as I got older and more facile on the violin I played in other orchestras as well, some paid some not. It was a GREAT way to learn music. Playing in orchestras, the rehearsing, listening, etc.
How important do you think it is to play a real instrument? We are almost seeing a generation of "computer-composers" that don't necessarily spend time with acoustic instruments?
I believe it is really important. BUT….I do think the actual activity of composing isn’t necessarily tied to “training”. However, training helps you realize your full potential. It would be akin to being a novelist that doesn’t read or write in their language. There were huge amounts of ancient texts that existed for a long time in an oral tradition way before they were written down - Homer, etc. For me playing violin in an orchestra was fundamental to my growth as a musician. Not sure about my growth as a composer though. It’s a tricky question.
You obviously grew up in an incredibly musical house hold. What are some of your most memorable moments from the early years?
We had a very normal American childhood. There was of course emphasis on music but also academics and sports. My father, Alfred Newman, was working at home for most of our life, but worked late hours and rose late in the day so our lives were a bit out of sync. Mostly my Mom was responsible for our education. I did get to go to the 1968 Academy Awards where Alfred Newman won an oscar for music direction on the movie CAMELOT. But other than a few trivial incidents here and there it wasn’t all the important in our household.
Your father, Alfred Newman, composed music for over 200 motion pictures. It must have been quite an experience re-recording his Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare?
I enjoyed recording that, but truthfully, when I hear or attempt to perform Alfred Newman’s music, I hear that FOX orchestra of the 40’s and 50’s which is almost impossible to recreate. It was a truly unique institution for a unique time in our culture and the style of movies.
Why is it impossible to recreate the sound of the golden era?
The style of hyper rubato is so foreign to contemporary players, and is so time consuming to learn and perfect that it is virtually impossible to recreate. All a conductor can do is go phrase by phrase and sing the way the phrase should be performed. There just isn’t the rehearsal time to do that - and as I said it’s an unfamiliar language.
Two of the first movies you scored was a short film, Frankenweenie (1984) by Tim Burton - followed by Critters (1986) by Stephen Herek. The entire business of scoring movies must have been so different back then? It was right around the time of birth of MIDI.
I didn’t use MIDI until 1988 - HEATHERS - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097493/combined - That was a complete Midi Score - using an 8-track machine - Roland D-50 and some PC sequencer that I can’t remember. Then I used Vision, and …??? So long ago I can’t remember. After Heathers I always used midi in conjunction with orchestra.
Your profile as film composer is incredible wide and you have collaborated with a huge range of prominent directors. What advice would you give aspiring composers in terms of collaborating with directors? What is your role as a composer?
The only advice I would give is to really listen to what your director says. They cannot talk about music, so one should really talk their language which is theatre and literature - story structure, etc. Make them feel you are a film maker as well - that you think in terms of the movie as an organic whole and not just your own music.
But isn't there something to be said about giving the composers free-reign. It seems to me that many scores today sound almost identical? Spiccato Strings, Big Loud Horns, Percussion. DONE! What happened to the theme?
Yes - there is a homogeneity in film scoring. This has ALWAYS been a part of the process. Something in a film is successful and the powers that be want to repeat it over and over. They take music that was in a successful film and reuse it to temp score the movie they are working on. Then they hire a composer, have him or her listen to the temp score and try to “ape” it. Just the nature of the business. Of course, we as composers would like free reign, or at least whatever free reign you can have scoring a movie. But alas, it’s not really part of the process
One of your many specialties relates to scoring comedy. What are some of the primary lessons for scoring comedy vs scoring other types of movies?
I don’t look at scoring a comedy as making the “music” funny. I want to allow the film to be “funny”. So a lot of comedic scoring is “less is more”. Don’t overplay your hand. And look for the character, romance, humanity in the movie and play to that more than the comedy.
You have a wide and extensive experience with conducting orchestra. What is different about conducting traditional symphonic works vs film music?
Other than film music has a different style, than say, Romantic Music or Viennese Classical music, it’s the same. As a matter of fact, that is the problem with most performances of film music. It’s not taken with the same work ethic as concert music. It really drives me CRAZY! The style is different but the aspiration is essentially the same. A great performance of the piece. That is the ONLY aspect a conductor should be concerned with. You have to LOVE film music to perform it as you would love, say Britten or Mahler. Otherwise don’t perform it.
I think a part of this relates to many younger composers not having experience with the orchestra. For example - virtually all orchestral libraries today don't allow you to do repeated notes in legato - meaning that almost everything is having constant note-changes cause people write to the samples - not to the orchestra. Isn't integral you know how a real orchestra works - if you write for them?
You make a good point about sample libraries. As good as they are, there is so much subtlety to orchestral playing and orchestration that really can’t be recreated by sample libraries (even the best ones can’t do it all). So you tend to compose what sounds good on your DAW but it doesn’t necessarily sound good live or even recorded. It’s very tricky. In a live venue sometimes phrases need to be “beefed up” or doubled to be heard. And dynamics, of course need to be adjusted. Also, with film music, you are very often doing it for the first time LIVE. This is not so with the Orchestral Canon.
Where do you see the current state of business for film music? We hear a lot about temps restricting the composers freedom. Focus groups and too many hands in the pots?
Music for film is in a down swing - at least in terms of it hegomony. The contemporary style of film making is so polarized in terms of genre that film music, in it’s ability to universalize thematically or motivicly isn’t as important as it once was. Film music presently is kind of a “pointer”. “Oh, this is a super hero movie but dark” or “this is a quirky super hero movie” or “this is a completely off the wall indie movie”, etc. But these things are cyclical. The only aspect that mitigates that presumption is the technology is so revolutionary. Anyone can score a film, regardless of their training. This is a leap in technology, not just the gear but the creative technology.
Right. I think one of the dangers with technology (and its ironic to state this as a developer). But we have created so many tools, so many colors, textures and brushes - that people are roaming free, but without a backbone in the composition. It tends to become more "sound" then "music" and that trend seems prevailing in most modern scores. You mention its cyclical. What do you think is coming next?
I think you are correct in this as well. But the music would NOT get into movies if it didn’t “work”. No matter what we believe as composers, music for film has to “work” or it won’t get in the film. Somehow contemporary films need music that has a large “sound” component and not so much a “music” component. Of course, this is all in degrees and specific to each project.
Share with us a bit about your creative process, your inspirations and how they have changed over the years along with your experience(s).
I find the technology very inspiring. I LOVE the DAW and the sample libraries - especially the “off book” libraries. Like many that 8Dio has created.
Tell us about your current projects and what has you excited?
I am doing a lot more conducting. You can see on my Web site. davidlouisnewman.com - Also, I am working on an opera that I am VERY excited about. I am using lots of film music techniques that I think will be interesting.
What is your go-to rig (right now) for writing and creating?
Logic X, and Sibelius 7.5
Tell us about your experience with 8DIO products and how you discovered them?
I LOVE your stuff. It’s part of all my compositions. All the orchestral libraries AND the other stuff.