Film Scoring

I’ve been hired to provide music for a short nature film that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is putting together. The video is mostly plants, with some birds and animals and water, running through the seasons from summer to spring.

The first stage was negotiating a fee — I have no experience in film scoring whatsoever, so I had no idea how much time it would take or how else to decide on a fee. I ended up asking other musicians and researching a bit online, then deciding what seemed reasonable given my standard performance fees, the estimated time involved, the kind and length of the project, and the kind of organization the lab is. Whew.

Once the lab accepted my fees, I met with the person I’d been in contact with, David Brown, who did the camera work for the film. He showed me a draft of the film and introduced me to other folks working on it. A week or so later I got a copy of the film to work with.

One day I watched it, looking for the water scenes that would mark musical and seasonal transitions, and paying attention to the moods of each section. Another day I brainstormed ideas of tunes for each section, and started trying them out along with the video. A few more days of this, and I was ready to show the team what I’d come up with. I was excited because I thought the music I’d chosen worked well with the film, but since I’ve never done this before I was also a little nervous, uncertain what the lab folks would think.

This afternoon, I set up the dulcimer in David’s “Cave” (a small office full of audio-visual equipment), David got the film running, and he and Bob (one of the engineers) listened while I played the two options for the first section: “Praeludium I” (Bach) and “Winter East and Kensington” (an original). David immediately liked the original piece, which was gratifying, but Bob suggested the Praeludium would be easier to work with. They want to include natural sound, and it’s still up in the air whether the music will be simply lowered in volume during the natural sounds, or turned off altogether. I suggested that while the Praeludium has a nicely repetitive rhythmic pattern, it has more drastic modulations, whereas the original piece follows a repeating chord progression and only has one key change. We decided why not record both and then see which works better with the natural sound.

What a relief! They liked it. In fact, at one point David said he was having a hard time not jumping up and down, he was so excited. Very nice.

The rest of the session went similarly. I’d chosen “Hewlett” (O’Carolan) for the summer-to-fall section and my own “Third Street Market” for the final spring section (fun because David had first heard me playing at that market). For the fall-to-winter section, I had two options again: “Easter Thursday” or “Menuet” (Quantz). Both guys liked “Easter Thursday” for that section, and we decided to use “Menuet” for the credits. Carrie Crompton, whose version of “Menuet” I play, will be pleased; when I asked her permission to use the arrangement in this project, she mentioned she was a birder and a fan of the Cornell Lab.

Well — a good meeting! Made my day.