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Krakow Film Music Festival 2016: How I experienced the masterclasses

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In May 2016, I was fortunate in being selected to attend the Krakow Film Music Festival (FMF) and to participate in its composer workshops. The seven days of seminars and masterclasses are generously funded by the festival, as the sponsors wish to support and encourage the next generation of aspiring artists.

The audiovisual forum was definitely the project that we are most proud of at the festival. Career-wise, these young composers can benefit a lot from these meetings, networking opportunities, and gain valuable knowledge.  Not only Poland but also all of Europe is lacking centres of education for functional music professionals. Robert Piaskowski, Festival Artistic Director.

How to get in: The annual Young Talent Award Competition

To earn a place on the workshop, each candidate must first participate in the annual Young Talent Award Competition. Entrants are tasked with re-scoring a scene from a film originally composed by one of the festival guests: This year’s challenge was a scene from the 2010 Harry Gregson-Williams soundtracked film, Shrek Forever After.

In addition to creating a mock-up and dubbing their own music into the scene, each participant must also deliver an accurate and fully notated orchestral score to satisfy judges that the piece can potentially be performed live. The impressive jury is chaired by Professor Daniel Carlin of the University of Southern California (USC), and consists of renowned composers and industry executives including Harry Gregson-Williams himself, Michael Todd (ASCAP), Doreen Ringer Ross (BMI), Robert Townson (Varese Sarabande), Jean-Michel Bernard (composer of The Science of Sleep) and FMF director, Robert Pieskowski. To make the process impartial, as well as less intimidating for composers, each participant submits the piece anonymously under an alias of their own choosing. Now in its fourth year, the competition has steadily grown to attract over 100 entrants, with the top 20 among them being invited to attend the workshops.

The action-packed week featured over 30 sessions in total which were all highly informative and enjoyable. In this article I am about to focus on just a few of the many highlights from the week.

Arriving at the European Krzysztof Penderecki Centre for Music

The European Krzysztof Penderecki Centre for Music. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
The  European Krzysztof Penderecki Centre for Music. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

On the first day of the workshops, we met at the ICE Krakow Congress Centre. This being my first time attending the FMF masterclasses, I quickly discovered that many participants already knew one another, as they had attended in previous years – indeed some had attended all four years.  After feeling like an outsider for all of about three minutes, I was quickly welcomed by the friendly group of fellow composers who had travelled from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore (via Scotland), and Spain.

A bus then took us on an approximately ninety-minute journey outside of Krakow to our first destination – the European Krzysztof Penderecki Centre for Music. This impressive facility is located in Lusławice, a provincial area of Poland which has been home to Penderecki for over twenty years. Having fallen in love with the setting, the composer considered it would be the perfect place to establish a centre in his name.

On arrival, we were given a tour of the vast facility, which includes a 650-capacity concert hall, conference rooms, a lecture hall, rehearsal spaces, a dining hall, and even accommodation facilities for performers, students and lecturers – a modern, musical and non-fictional equivalent of Hogwarts.

“Be nice, work hard, and get lucky”: Professor Daniel Carlin and Jean-Michel Bernard

Jean-Michel Bernard speaking about the importance of finding your own voice. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
Jean-Michel Bernard speaking about the importance of finding your own voice. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

Masterclass director, Professor Daniel Carlin, who takes time away from his work as head of the prestigious Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television (SMPTV) program at USC to host the FMF workshops, gave us the introductory talk. This included a brief overview of the history of film music, as well as insider stories from his extensive work as a music editor and conductor. Professor Carlin then went on to impart his secret to success: “Be nice, work hard, and get lucky” and, referring to himself, he encouraged us by stating that “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.

After dinner we were treated to a private and informal concert by composer and pianist, Jean-Michel Bernard, who played a selection of his arrangements of film music. The programme featured music by Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North, as well as by living composers including Ennio Morricone, John Williams and John Powell. Jean-Michel stressed the importance of finding one’s own creative voice as a composer. It was also enjoyable to see him play a selection of his own scores, including The Science of Sleep.  Hearing these alongside the work of his heroes allowed us to appreciate how he had amalgamated influences and certain harmonic and melodic nuances from a variety of composers to create his own musical vocabulary.

Orchestration with Stefan Behrisch

To begin the morning, we had a masterclass with Stefan Behrisch, during which he discussed the evolving role of an orchestrator.

Stefan played us examples of his work, and discussed his working methods. He also showed examples of orchestration he admires greatly, including an impressive piece for violin and cello by Ravel, the score for which we then analysed together.

Stefan advised that taking a simple approach to musical notation is often best.  For example, it can be easier to write performance directions in English, if that is the native language of the orchestra. Another valuable point mentioned is that even an experienced orchestrator will not know the intricacies of any individual instrument as well as the actual performer. Consequently, it can be better to let an instrumentalist, such as a violinist, draw on his or her expansive knowledge of the instrument to decide on the appropriate bowing for a piece, leaving the orchestrator simply to notate legato, rather than marking in everything which the player may then have to scribble out and correct on the score.

Recording session with Nick Wollage

Nick Wollage on the difficulties of recording sessions. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
Nick Wollage on the difficulties of recording sessions. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

The next part of the workshop – and the primary reason for our visit to Lusławice – was the recording session in the concert hall. Whilst the winner of the Young Talent Award, Joep Sporck, had his composition performed by a full orchestra at the Gala concert in the Tauron Arena, the two runners-up, Bartosch McCarthy and Kristjan Bergey, were given the opportunity of adapting their piece to be recorded by a smaller ensemble. In this case: string quintet and piano.

This session was jointly led by Dan Carlin and engineer Nick Wollage, who was visiting from London and fresh from recording John Powell and David Buckley’s score for the upcoming movie, Jason Bourne, at Abbey Road.

Whilst the Penderecki Centre has a dedicated recorded studio which has been used for masterclasses in previous years, it had apparently been rather cramped hitherto with such a large group. This year, the technical staff at the centre had instead kindly set up a temporary studio in one of the rehearsal rooms, together with a projector to show video so that we could hear the live performance along with the visuals.

Nick began the session by discussing two key points: his microphone choices from the range available at the centre, and his placement for capturing the ambiance of the hall whilst also allowing sufficient versatility for making the recording drier in the mix, if needed. He managed to strike a perfect balance between explaining his workings in a way that was comprehensible to both newcomers to recording and those with more technical experience, and he also gave a brief but informative overview of different kinds of microphone and how they can work best in a studio setting.

Nick informed us that, when undertaking his usual work at Abbey Road or Air Studios, he is spoilt for choice with a selection of vintage Neumann microphones. As the selection was considerably more limited on this occasion, Nick explained the sound characteristic of the microphones he selected from the Penderecki Centre’s inventory, and why he considered that made it most suitable for the task at hand.

Bartosch McCarthy recording his Young Talent Award Competition submission. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
Bartosch McCarthy recording his Young Talent Award Competition submission. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

The session began, and the two participants took to the stage to conduct their respective scores. The animated scene from Shrek had proven difficult to score, with content mood changes fluctuating pace in the edit. It was interesting to hear the different approaches taken by the composers, and the slightly varying moods created for different moments in the scene.

Helpfully, we were provided with a print-out of the scores. As the session progressed, Dan Carlin pointed out several minor issues with the scores that could have been amended to make it easier for the players, and ultimately to make the session run faster and more smoothly. Problems identified included the inconsistent spelling of accidentals, as well as leaving adequate time and count-in between tempo changes to allow the players to adjust to the click-track. Carlin also offered advice on conducting technique.

After several drop-ins to ensure we had captured enough material to compile a perfect edit of both compositions, the session drew to a successful close.

We young composers visiting Penderecki's garden. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
Us exploring Penderecki’s garden. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

As our brief visit to the Centre concluded, we had just enough time to visit Penderecki’s house and receive a tour of his expansive garden. It became immediately apparent why he had fallen in love with this area: its peace and tranquil beauty are certainly conducive to creativity.

At the bottom of the garden was a field of what I recall were oak trees which he had planted. Our tour guide informed us that, as Penderecki is superstitious, he had planted each tree with 30 eggshells.  Upon hearing this, several people attempted to count how many trees there were… and it was decided there were well over 100.  So, if you do the math, that is a lot of eggs!  Oh well, who am I to argue?  It certainly seemed to be working out well!

Tour of the AGH University of Science and Technology

The anechoic chamber of the AGH University of Science and Technology. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
The anechoic chamber of the AGH University of Science and Technology. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

The next day the masterclasses were based in Krakow, with a morning of masterclass sessions at the AGH University of Science and Technology.

We were first given a presentation on Ambisonic music, before hearing several examples of pieces played through their immersive surround-sound speaker set-up. We were also shown some of the equipment used to make Ambisonic field recordings, including a remarkable (and very expensive) 32-capsule surround-sound microphone, which the students bravely passed around for us to inspect.

We were then shown around the university facilities, which includes both an echo chamber and an anechoic chamber. It was my first time inside an anechoic chamber. The rumours I had heard about it being so quiet that you can hear the blood pumping through your body and your stomach digesting food, subsequently driving you insane after being in there for several minutes, were somewhat exaggerated – however, it is very strange to shout in there!

Mixing session with Nick Wollage

Nick Wollage explaining the many details of a mixing session. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
Nick Wollage explaining the many details of a mixing session. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

There followed another session with engineer Nick Wollage to edit and mix the scores recorded the previous day. The two composer finalists sat with Nick to edit their pieces and decided how to comp the different recordings to create a flawless take.

We then dubbed the music mixes in with the dialogue and SFX. A problem became immediately apparent that much of the low-end musical information can be lost in a SFX-heavy mix like this. In order to minimise this problem, Nick attempted to re-balance the music mix – but this presented further complications as, by boosting the volume of the cello and other low-frequency instruments, the natural perspective of the hall was distorted slightly. It was valuable to learn about this potential problem in the safe environment of the masterclass so that, as composers, we can apply this lesson to our future compositions.

Towards the end of the session, we observer composers hijacking the session slightly by quizzing Nick on a variety of topics relating to scoring and recording contemporary media projects, ranging from questions regarding stemming to dealing with directors. Nick was incredibly enthusiastic and highly generous with his responses. It is terrific that the masterclasses create this rare environment whereby a curious group of composers can benefit from the wisdom and experience of a professional like Nick, who proved more than happy to share his knowledge and expertise.

Richard Bellis and the importance of percolation

Richard Bellis about the many aspects of being a professional composer. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
Richard Bellis about the many aspects of being a professional composer. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

The following sessions, many of which were also open to the entire festival audience, were held at the Krzysztofory Palace in the centre of Krakow.

A highlight of these sessions was the presentation entitled “Film Composer: Artist, Artisan or Machine Operator?” by Emmy Award-winning composer, and member of the ASCAP Board of Directors, Richard Bellis.

I had seen a presentation of Richard’s in 2015 at Hollywood In Vienna, where he spent three stimulating hours covering a broad range of topics pertaining to the contemporary film scoring. On this occasion, though he was limited to just an hour, it was impressive to see how much knowledge could be imparted within a time constraint. Richard’s presentations are incredibly slick, with a lot of clever and helpful visual aids to help emphasise his points. In fact, having seen him last year, I noticed that the visual had been enhanced even further: I think he must hire the same team that helps Tim Cook and the Apple team prepare for their keynote presentations!

He also highlighted the creative importance of what can be perceived as procrastination: This is, in fact, an important stage in the process where one lets one’s ideas “percolate” in order for them to develop, allowing time for them to be formed fully in an original and personal way. He even featured a helpful slide showing the Polish translation of these words, as he was concerned this point had been lost in translation slightly when presenting previously to audiences in mainland Europe.

Richard also discussed the spiritual and metaphysical side of composition, and shared several of his rituals for tuning his “antennae” to receive and channel creative energy. Richard’s masterclasses are to be recommended highly.  For those unable to await such an opportunity, his book, The Emerging Film Composer, or his online masterclass series are excellent alternatives.

Harry Gregson-Williams about the potential development of a theme and scoring to picture

Harry Gregson-Williams explaining the process of writing to picture. (Photo Credit: Robert Sluszniak)
Harry Gregson-Williams explaining the process of writing to picture. (Photo Credit: Robert Sluszniak for KBF)

The main event of the week was when Harry Gregson-Williams took to the stage to discuss his work composing for animations.

The first segment of the masterclass focused on Harry’s work for the Shrek series. Beginning by performing the main theme on the piano, he then played a clip of the opening of this first scene to show how this was orchestrated and timed to fit around dialogue. He then moved on to illustrate how this theme was deployed in various variations throughout the film series, ranging from playful variations to mark a chariot ceremony to more tragic versions.

We were then shown Harry’s versatility by hearing him discuss his work for several other films. He played us an example of a scene from his recent collaboration with Ridley Scott on The Martian, and explained how his first attempt to write a Dark Side of The Moon-style rock piece for the crossing of Mars scene was rejected by Scott; he then showed the version that did ultimately work.

It is always reassuring to see the humanity of a composer of Harry’s stature in this way and to realise both that he doesn’t always nail things first time, and that he also has to perspire like the rest of us!

Finally, we were shown several scenes for Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, and were given an insight into the contrasting approach that Harry took for this score. He showed us how he had created electronic samples and used a sampler to place these ideas on a MIDI keyboard, thereby allowing him to jam and develop the score. He also isolated and played back various stems of the cues, providing his audience with a glimpse of the dense and detailed production of these electronic scores, and how in many ways the music is just as texturally sophisticated as a traditional symphonic orchestral score.

This presentation was immaculate. One could tell that Harry was once a teacher, as his method of communicating to an audience and the structure of his presentation was incredibly detailed yet easily digestible. I also found out that Harry had a tech team assisting with setting up the presentation and his gear to ensure it ran smoothly.  This in itself reveals the mindset of an A-list composer who is meticulous in the planning and execution of his professional engagements to ensure that they run without hitch.

West One Music Group about composing for production music libraries

West One Music's Chris Brown discussing composing for production music libraries (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
West One Music’s Chris Brown discussing composing for production music libraries (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

With the industry expanding and new revenues streams to capitalise on, we received an informative presentation on library music from West One Music’s Chris Brown.

Chris discussed the varying genres of music covered by West One libraries, and provided a guide as to how their deals with composers vary for different kinds of production.  For example, West One frequently record their albums with a full orchestra at Abbey Road, which involves them investing a large amount of money upfront. In these instances, West One will often “buy out” and take full ownership of the master recordings. This way, the featured composer(s) do not then go into debt to West One by incurring the cost themselves in the style of a record label ‘advance’, and will instead potentially begin earning publishing royalties as soon as the music is released.

Chris was also able to offer advice to masterclass participants on how to submit music to libraries effectively. His three key pieces of advice were:

  1.        Research the library and determine whether or not it is an appropriate match for your music;
  2.        don’t send an eclectic mix of tracks;
  3.        quality is better than quantity.

Whilst it is possible for composers to send their demos via traditional submission methods outlined on library websites, Chris advised that it might be more effective to try and develop contacts and relationships that would allow one’s demo to be passed on and received via a recommendation from someone with whom they already have a relationship with and trust.

How To Work With The Director – Cliff Martinez and Nicolas Refn

Cliff Martinez and Nicolas Refn discussing the collaboration between composers and directors. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus)
Cliff Martinez and Nicolas Refn discussing the collaboration between composers and directors. (Photo Credit: Michal Ramus for KBF)

Another unique workshop provided a particular insight into the relationship between the composer and the director. To explore this area, we were lucky to have collaborators Cliff Martinez and Nicolas Refn, who have enjoyed great success working together on films such as Drive and Only God Forgives.

Though unable to join us in person, Nicolas participated via Skype. The pair discussed their collaboration, and how they had begun working together (Nicolas admitting that “Cliff was the only composer I knew”) as well as providing insights into their process and how they communicate with one another.

Refn seems like a great director to work for as – in addition to not using temp score during his editing process – he also stated that, whilst he often does not appreciate fully Cliff’s cues upon first listen, he gives himself time to adjust and then usually comes to realise that the composer has taken the right approach.

This seems a contrast to many contemporary directors, whom I have heard get struck with “temp love”, and who panic the first time they hear a cue stray too far from what they have come to expect from this temporary soundtrack of existing music.

Refn also provided another insight into the politics of the film industry, revealing that the producers working on Drive felt insecure about the retro, 80’s-influenced musical choices for the needle drop soundtrack, and that there had been suggestions that it might be more possible to meet a larger demographic by using Kayne West or classic rock. It is reassuring to learn that the pair managed to avoid many of these contentious political issues and that they are not forced to compromise their artistic intentions.

Closing words about the other masterclassed as well as networking opportunities provided

In this article I have only had chance to cover a small fraction of my incredible experience at the masterclasses. There were many more masterclasses and panels that were insightful and informative. Several of these however were with groups of composers. For example, on paper, a seminar entitled “Electronics in Film Music” featuring three experts in this field – Joseph Trapanese, Cliff Martinez and Dave Porter – sounds like a dream. And whilst it is great to see these guys discussing their work, and does result in them giving valuable nuggets of actionable advice, the one-hour time constraint of the session limits it so that nowhere nearly as much knowledge can be gained as the more intimate sessions with just one composer. But then this might be an invalid criticism because, as I mentioned previously, these sessions were open to the entire festival audience and therefore it might have been better that they were not confined solely to composers.

In addition to the workshops and masterclasses, the festival provides participants with a hugely valuable networking opportunity, as workshop participants are given complimentary tickets to all of the festival concerts and are also invited to the after-parties and other networking events. We are trusted to suppress our inner fangirls or fanboys and have the opportunity to rub shoulders and converse with some of the best working composers in the industry, as well as industry executives. The festival creates a warm environment where these people, who in Hollywood would be almost impossible to reach, are very approachable and are open to having a chat and are very willing to offer advice.

All in all, I had a terrific week during which I learnt a tremendous amount, was inspired and energised by a stunning range of concerts, and made lots of new friends. I am already excited to attend again in 2017, which will be the 10th anniversary of the festival.

To end this article, I would like to thank festival directors, Robert Piaskoski and Izabela Helbin, for making this masterclass possible, and to Professor Carlin and all of the generous mentors. Also a special thank you to Kasia Śmigielska for all of her hard work behind the scenes organising the masterclasses and making sure that the entire week ran smoothly!

Below you can watch the official video report about this year’s FMF masterclasses. More info about the Krakow Film Music Festival you can find on fmf.fm as well as on Facebook. More of Michal Ramus’ and Robert Słuszniak‘s brilliant photography you can find on their websites. 

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Composer and producer, based in Cardiff, UK.

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