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To succeed at being a film composer in Hollywood, takes a long time, talent and hard work.  Always interesting to me is how young composers fight for their place in L.A., so I always look for the opportunity to talk with them. Recently I had the great pleasure to speak with Ryan Shore. Most film music fans probably know him as a relative of the famous Howard Shore, but Ryan, with great work and success, is building his career in Hollywood. His most famous work is undoubtedly "Prime" starring Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman.  But Ryan's achievements are also titles such as "Numb", "Confession", "Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer" and "Stan Helsing." I'm very pleased to invite you to read an exclusive interview with Ryan Shore.


Łukasz Waligórski: Let’s start from beginning. Why did you decide to be a composer?

Ryan Shore: I should start a little bit earlier than when I made that decision.  I first got into music when I was 11, playing the sax, and I later added the clarinet, flute and piano/keboards.  I played and studied music non-stop.  In high school, I went to many of the summer music programs -- Berklee College of Music, Eastman, Interlochen, and Jamey Aebersold -- studying harmony, theory, ear training, improvisation, arranging, orchestration, conducting, etc.  And I played in every ensemble I could -- big bands, small groups, concert bands, marching bands, dixieland bands, wedding bands, chamber groups, rock bands, rehearsal bands.   I really didn't do too much composing during that time.

After high school I enrolled at Berklee, and I continued to play all the instruments in every ensemble I could.  When I had to choose a major,  I felt there wouldn't be much need to actually major in performance.  If you can play, then you can be hired to play, and you wouldn't need a degree for that.  So I majored in film composing, where I could learn additional aspects of music, like composing and technology.  But I still thought of myself as primarily an instrumentalist.

While I was studying film scoring at Berklee, I was still playing the instruments all the time.  Some semesters I played in as many as 6 registered ensembles, in addition to tons of concerts, recitals, recording sessions, and gigs around Boston in wedding, latin, and society bands.  I was playing the instruments more than many performance majors.  I even played in other colleges' bands!  I played in Harvard's Hasty Pudding, M.I.T.'s jazz band, and New England Conservatory's jazz band.  I was playing non-stop, and absolutely loving it.  But, right around the time I graduated, I felt there were more things I wanted to say musically than I was able to say through my sax.  And that's when I decided to be a composer.

When and why did you decide to move to Los Angeles?

Right after graduating college, Howard Shore offered me a job in New York, so I moved to New York City and started working professionally in the business.  I began by doing copywork for him, and that developed into doing orchestrations and some music producing.  During that time I began scoring my own films.  I started with shorts at NYU, and that led to my first features.  I also worked quite a bit in the Broadway scene, working on Broadway shows, benefit concerts, and albums, which was all a great happenstance by being in NYC.  After working for Howard for about 4 years, my own scoring commitments became my full time work.  In total, I had lived and worked in New York City for about 7 or 8 years, and then decided to move to LA to continue scoring films here.  The main reason was to be available for more scoring opportunities that I couldn't do when I was in NYC.

I need to ask this question. You are relative of Howard Shore. You were orchestrator on "Dogma" and "Analyze this" which ware scored by him. There are also few other Howard Shore’s scores you were involved in. Was his support helpful in your career or maybe it is the opposite, because you are still somehow associated with him?

It was definitely helpful.  I learned a ton about film music by working with Howard.  After majoring in it in college, I felt like working for Howard for 4 years was like getting a masters degree in it.  It was incredible to see everything happening first hand on real projects that were released in theaters.  I never had to ask questions like, "do they do that in the real world?".  If he was doing it, then it was done like that.  And because he always had me doing integral jobs, such as orchestrating, producing and copywork, it put me right in the thick of things.  It was an incredible time for learning.

For example, when I graduated from Berklee, I never scored or worked on a feature film. I didn't know what it would mentally feel like to compose, orchestrate, copy, record, mix, and produce an hour or so of music.  And what did it feel like to do all that work in as short as 5 or 6 weeks?  I didn't have that experience when I was in school.  So, it was a great crash course into the professional world of film composing.  So for my professional development, it was extremely helpful.

Whether or not it helps or hurts now, being related to Howard, to be honest I really don't know. It's something I don't think about.  If other people think about it, that's okay.  If it helps people remember my name, that's great.  I'm very proud to be related to Howard, and I'm proud of him as a family member.  He's an immense musical talent.  In practicality, when you're scoring a film, it doesn't matter who you are related to or not.  You are still the one who has to put pencil to paper, or keyboard to computer, and write music.  So that's all I'm really thinking about -- how to write better music everyday.

It looks like you love jazz. You even have your own band. Could you tell me something about it? 

Jazz is my first true love in music.  By the nature of playing the saxophone, the majority of my playing experiences were in jazz ensembles.   All of my introductions to the concepts of music - harmony, melody, form, arranging, orchestration, rhythm, composition, etc. - were all through playing and studying jazz.  Of course I later branched out and learned about all kinds of different styles afterwards, but jazz was my foundation.  In many ways, it was a great place to start.  Especially from a harmonic standpoint.  You'd be hard pressed to find more harmony in a short amount of time than a be-bop tune, filled with harmonic extensions, at 240bpm.  There can be new harmonic vocabulary every beat or every fraction of a second.  It's a language I love and understand, so often times when I want to listen to music purely for the sake of enjoyment, I put on great jazz.

Does your jazz experience help somehow in composing film music? I’m asking because for me jazz is the complete opposite film music. Scoring is based on synchronization and planning of every note - jazz is freedom, improvisation.

The jazz experience goes hand in hand with composing.  In fact, I've always looked at composing as a very close relative of improvising.  Composing is like improvising that you don't have to do in real time!  And you can even go back and correct for "mistakes"!  You're definitely correct that the synchronization of music to film is  of course a completely different skill set than that of playing live jazz.  But the creative inspiration and freedom is the same.

"Numb", "Kettle of Fish", "Coney Island Baby" – these are beautiful jazz scores of yours. I really loved that CD. Could you tell me something about your approach to these three movies? What was the purpose of using the jazz style, particular instruments and themes?

I approached all three of them completely differently.  "Coney Island Baby" I scored first.  I began by writing identifiable themes for each of the characters.  The film's main character, Billy, is a bit of a wayward son, who had been missing from this hometown for a while when he first enters the story.  He also has a great irreverence about him.  So musically I wrote a bit of an offbeat, mischievous, playful vibe for him.  He has a romantic relationship, so there is a theme for that as well, which is on the romantic, introspective, heartfelt, real side.  And there is also a theme for Billy's relationship with his dad, which is an older, easy early 70's rock sound.  Almost like the vibe of John Lennon "Imagine".  Everything in the score was specifically written out by me, so there wasn't any improvisation from the musicians.

"Kettle of Fish" was truly traditional jazz.  Matthew Modine portrays a jazz saxophonist, and I composed all the original jazz songs that he performed in the movie.  I was brought on before they filmed, so I didn't write anything to picture.  I wrote about 8 songs, and went in the studio with a quartet to record them.  Piano, bass, drums, and myself on saxophone.  It was really more of a recorded live set, rather than a produced album.  I wrote all the songs in about a week and the players hadn't even heard them before we went in the studio.  This type of writing really goes back to my days in college when I used to write jazz songs for my concerts.  I had an absolute ball on this film.  It isn't very common to be asked to essentially compose a straight ahead jazz album specifically for a movie, so it was most welcomed opportunity.  I loved it.

"Numb" is a very human, poignant, romantic comedy.  I guess the catch word these days would be to call it a "dramedy". I love writing this kind of a score as it called for me to write a melodically driven score.  I started by writing a main theme for Matthew Perry's character, and musical themes for each of his relationships - with his mom, his therapist, and his dad.  I had the true privilege of working with the great George Doering, who played all the guitars on the score.  He came to my studio, and we worked closely, one on one.  George's playing is incredible.  He's so musical and his playing is so emotive.  It's really the hallmark of the music.

Well, it looks like most well-known movie you scored, here in Poland is "Prime" staring Uma Turman and Meryl Streep. How did you get in to scoring this movie?

I got a call one day from my friend Susan Lazarus who was the post production supervisor.  Susan and I had worked together on "Lift".  She told me about "Prime" and asked me if I would be interested.  I absolutely love Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman's work, and I jumped at the opportunity.  I was living in LA at the time, and the film was being posted in NYC, so I came back to NYC to score it.

Ben Younger, the director, didn't believe in having a temp score, so I was able to start writing from a clean slate.  I wanted the score to have a classic sound to it, so I remember trying to channel The Beatles as best I could to get started.  It then took on little bit a jazzier feel from there.

When I signed on It was scheduled to be about a 5 week scoring schedule, but the release date was set for later in the year, so they were able to do some test screenings and take some time to make adjustments to the film, so I did my work over a period of about 5 months.   I actually wrote the score in about the first 4 weeks, and then was able to hear the music in the test screenings and make adjustments from there.  I really liked working in that way because it allowed me to live with the move for a longer period of time.

This was a particularly busy summer for me.  When I signed on to score the film in March, I had already signed on to score "Headspace".  I scored "Prime" first, and then scored "Headspace" while I was waiting for new picture edits on "Prime".  This was all leading up to my wedding in July in Aruba.  During that same time, I got the call for "Kettle of Fish", and then also got the call to write some on-camera music for "Fur".  There were a few weeks when I was quadrupled up on all four films!  I completed them all before the wedding, except for the recording sessions for "Headspace which I flew to directly from the wedding.

You have scored a few horror movies – "The Girl Next Door", "Shadows", "Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever". Are there any musical rules in this genre? Any particular instruments, styles or harmonies should be used?

There are certainly cliches that exist, but I don't usually approach films with that in mind.  When I'm scoring a movie, horror or any genre, I see it as a story unto itself, and not as a story within a genre per se. The specific techniques of writing music and specific devices of storytelling are the same across any genre.  I think about things such as the arc and pacing of the story, the plot and the subtext, and the journeys of the characters.  I find that when I can really tune into those things, then the film will tell me what to write, and what the musical approach should be.  It really comes from the film.

That being said, there are certainly times in movies when cliche moments happen, and when that occurs I push myself to find something about it that isn't as common, so that the music won't be cliche.  There are times when a filmmaker does want something musically cliche -- maybe to pay homage to something or maybe even for comedic effect, and those can be really fun to do as well.

What was your approach to "Stan Helsing". This movie is a comedy, but what about your score?  I guess in these types of comedies, music has to be more serious. You have score a few comedies – what are the challenges of scoring this genre?

This was definitely one of those scores where horror cliches come into play.  For the majority of the score, I play the role of the comedic straight man, playing the moments seriously with the music, and allow the silliness of the situation to come through.  I wrote this score for full orchestra and choir, and there were some specific moments where I was able to infuse some contemporary sounds into the score as well, such as beats and samples.

Everyone says that the most important thing in comedy is timing... and it's for a good reason!  I love experimenting with a scene to see where I can find the right timings for the music.  It's amazing how even just a frame of timing here or there can be the difference of the moment working or not.

In 2008 you scored Macedonian movie "Shadows". How did you get into it? Were you actually in the Republic of Macedonia?

I was recommended to Milcho Manchevski through Susan Lazarus.  She recommended me to Alexis Wiscomb, the post production supervisor as they were looking for a composer.  I met with Milcho and we talked at length about the movie and his ideas for the music.  From our discussions he asked me to score it.

I did all of my composing in Los Angeles, so I didn't travel to Macedonia.  However, Milcho is from Macedonia, and we worked very closely together.  He introduced me to traditional Macedonian folk themes, which I wove into the fabric of score.  I never quoted those themes verbatim.  Instead, I experimented with slowing them down and placing them into different registers and building new compositions around them.  Learning about the culture and music of Macedonia was extremely rewarding creatively.

I guess every composer's dream is recording score with huge orchestra. You have done that a number of times – let’s just mention "Rex Steezie" and "Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer". You were also conducting these scores.  Does it help you to have more control over recording the music?

I've conducted everything I've written, so it's very comfortable for me to do and I like the immediacy of being with the musicians.  I've been conducting for almost as long as I've been in music, since the age of 11.   Even back in middle school and high school I was the student conductor, and in high school I was drum major in our marching band, so being in front of a large group of musicians is something I feel very comfortable doing.  I later studied conducting formally in college.  I like hearing things and balancing the orchestra from the podium.  I can keep the recording session moving along along very quickly and efficiently that way.

However, I can see benefits from both sides -- conducting, or being in the booth instead.  One of the benefits I can see of being in the booth is the ability to hear exactly what is being picked up in the mics, however it would come at the expense of having to convey my comments through the talkback to the conductor who would need to restate them to the orchestra, so I'm not sure if it would save time.  Maybe someday I'l give it a try and see how I like it.

I have an impression that film music in Hollywood is shrinking. I mean, there are less full orchestral scores than before. Composers seem to be forced to write music for smaller ensembles or simply use samples or electronics. Even legendary scoring stages are systematically closed. Have you experienced that in your work?

Yes that is happening, but I've found that when you collaborate with the right people who appreciate what a live performance can do for the music and for the film, those filmmakers find a way to do things the right way.  I have had the good fortune of working with a number of those filmmakers, and I've been able to record full orchestral scores with incredible musicians -- The Hollywood Symphony, The New York Philharmonic, The Skywalker Symphony Orchestra, The Czech Philharmonic, The Slovak Radio Symphony, and a number of others.  I'm very grateful for it.

To work efficiently with live musicians or full orchestras, when time is money, is a skill set all unto itself.   I do have some concerns that a number of composers today, particularly ones who are starting out, aren't able to develop those important skills because they are doing everything with samples.  Part of the lifeblood of the system is not only having musicians, engineers and studio support staff who are experienced to perform and record the scores, but also having composers who know how to write, orchestrate, and conduct properly for the live instruments.  All of these things go hand in hand for the future of high quality film music to be bright, and I do have some concerns that not enough composers are getting the opportunity to develop these skills.

Are you familiar with any polish Polish film music composers?

I am familiar with Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Zbigniew Preisner and Wojciech Kilar's scores.  All very talented composers.  My grandfather was originally from Poland.... does that in any way make me an honorary Polish composer?

What are your future plans? On which projects are your working now?

I just finished scoring "The Shrine" (from the creators of "Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer"), "Rising Stars" (which is in the vein of "High School Musical") and the horror genre bending film "Culebra", and I'm working on creating soundtrack releases of some more of my previous and upcoming scores.  I also want to write a Broadway musical, and that's something I've been giving more thought to lately.  Having started my career in NYC and working within the Broadway community, that's something I've always wanted to return to for something special.

Good luck then, and thanks for all your answers and your time!

Author: Łukasz Waligórski

For more information about Ryan Shore please visit his website: www.ryanshore.com


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