by Dan Goldwasser
Award-winning composer Alf Clausen has been working in television for almost fifteen years on such notable television shows as "Moonlighting", "Alf", and of course, "The Simpsons". His upcoming CD release "Go Simpsonic" is the second album of songs, score, and dialogue from "The Simpsons", and provided an excuse to chat with Alf at his home in Los Angeles.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born in Minnesota - but I didn't spend much time there. I spent my first 22 years of life in North Dakota, went to college there, and then I did a little stint at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, working on my Masters Degree. I didn't find what I wanted there, so I enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I went through their whole program, and taught part-time. When I graduated, I taught full-time for a year, and decided that if I wanted to make my living composing music, it wouldn't be in Boston. So I moved to Los Angeles directly from there.
What suggestions do you have for aspiring composers?
Well, first of all, you need to study, study, study - it's more important than anything - and compose, compose, compose anything you can. Re-score old television episodes. Find a script to a play, and write a series of underscore pieces for it. Take a couple of poems and write songs to the poems. Write in every idiom you can find, and don't get hung up with refining what you have done to the point that you don't further your writing abilities. I know a lot of young composers get hung up with writing a piece, having performers play it, overanalyzing it, and then rewriting it to make it better. That's all well and good, to the point of getting that one piece of music improved. But they get so hung up on reworking that piece until it's Beethoven's 9th that they never go in any other direction and they spend a lot of time in rewrites. It's limiting as far as extending one's self and going on to the next project, and making one's output grow for the educational experience of it. Study scores. Study things you hear in the theater and pick them apart and analyze why you liked a certain cue, or why you didn't.
If you want to work as a composer, and make a living as a composer, then film scores are an interesting way to make that living. While you are limited by the restrictions that are placed on you by the project, if you learn to work within those confines, you can have a really good time and get paid very well. There aren't many places in America where one can do that as a composer and be successful. It's all well and good to dream about "real music" - but try to make a living doing it - that's a whole different ballgame.
I think that the bulk of the really high-class work that utilizes acoustic scores is based in NY and LA. That's basically where all the big-budget features and television shows get made, and that just comes with the territory. I have friends who have now moved out of Los Angeles who are working successfully as composers in television and they're basically doing electronic scores out of their houses. I have a friend who works out of Washington State, and FedExs the tape down every week.. One of the guys I know actually spots the show with the producer over the phone with an ISDN line, and they send time code back and forth. So that when the producer in LA moves the tape, my friend's machine chases and locks with it - so he knows exactly what the producer's talking about.
What are your thoughts on how technology has advanced the process of writing music?
I think technology is great. The downside to it is that the art of composition has been put into a position of having to suffer because there are situations of dealing with electronics where the electronics dictate the art - and not vice-versa. Some of us have a joke about the guy who hits one finger on the keyboard, and the sequencer plays the whole arpeggio of notes. We dub them "sequencizer players". So there's a whole new compositional approach that has kind of arisen and has been driven by technology, and not the other way around. I look on that as a detriment to the art.
I have a couple of private students when I have time. The young composers have gotten into a position where they become enthralled with the sounds they can make on the contemporary keyboards (the samples are awesome), but they have become so enthralled with the making of sound that they have forgotten that there's compositional technique that goes along with it, and they have been fooled into thinking their work is better than it is. It's become very easy to produce sounds for sounds sake - but there's a whole different focus that has to go along with good composition. If these younger composers can figure out how to incorporate the sounds along with great compositional skills, they've got it made - because they are going to knock people's socks off if they can do that. But so many times, they settle for the sound and they let the compositional techniques go out the window. My point is that, with these marvelous tools now at the disposal of the young composer, it's real easy to get sucked into the technology part of it, and listen to the stuff that you're getting back in your speakers by holding a few keys, and letting the electronics create the effects. All of a sudden the focus of being able to create something effective compositionally becomes secondary - and that distresses me a lot. A lot of guys don't even know how to write a good melody, because they're so enthralled with the sound of the instrument. Because the focus comes from the songwriters "loop" perspective, and it's heaven for young composers to hold down a key, and have a 4-bar rhythm loop itself, and sound like "NYPD Blue" and give them the impression they're creating something monumental - but they're not - it's the machine that's doing it. A lot of the seriousness about studying composition and how to write melodies and arrangements and good harmonic accompaniments and effective rhythms to move an audience in a certain way has taken a backseat.
When you write your music, where do you work?
I work a piano, but I am not technically proficient at a piano - the piano is not my instrument. I was a French horn player and a bass player. It was an odd double. But I'm not proficient at the keyboard - I use it to check myself to make sure I'm not going off track. I use the old-fashioned method of using a score pad, a pencil, an eraser, and a straight edge. I have Digital Performer, Finale, and Mosaic. I now prepare most of my scores on Mosaic. But due to scheduling constraints of the show, I haven't spent much time with the others - my pencil skills are still faster than my computer notation skills!
Taste is a real interesting subject. Taste can be taught, it can be learned, and it's sometimes inherited. Dizzy Gillespie had this famous comment: "It's not what you put in that counts, it's what you leave out". That's served me and a lot of other composers well through he years of thinking "I've got a 35 piece orchestra sitting here in the studio - if I don't keep them busy, I'm not getting my money's worth" whereas it could be a matter of writing a solo alto flute part for one cue, and having 34 guys site there - but that's what's musically called for. I don't want to give the wrong impression - I'm not against technology. I love some parts of technology. I use the Auricle Time Processor to do all my timings, and I don't think I could do a show like "The Simpsons" without it. Because it is so fast and flexible, I've been using it on television for a long time, and the ability to create click tracks really quickly and tailor them to the needs of animation is really important. This program is supreme at doing it. When I was doing "Moonlighting", I was doing a lot of free-timing cues that were structured with streamers, punchers, and the clock. They would be conducted free time with no click track, and it's a beautiful way to make music. With animation, the requirements are a little bit different in that the program is cut very tightly. Our scripts are very long, and they throw an incredible amount of stuff into a 22-minute program.
When writing songs for "The Simpsons", do you work with a lyricist?
Yes - it's a real interesting situation for me. For most television shows, when a song is written, it is done so with an outside lyricist. In the case of "The Simpsons", it's always born out of the script - and the scriptwriters are the lyricists. And they're very good - a lot of them have never had experience writing lyrics before, and yet they spit out this stuff that is so astute and so wise and lyrically really really well done. I'm very proud of them, because they scratch their heads after we finish the song and say, "we just wrote a song, didn't we?" (chuckles) But they are such masterful craftsman as writers in the first place that it becomes a very natural thing.
I'm always handed script pages where the lyric is finished - and I write the song to that. On occasion a line might need to be changed to fit the song, and they're very cooperative and will change things until it's just right. It's a very collaborative effort.
What sort of timeline do you have for a song - from beginning to end?
All of the songs are prerecorded. Once I get the script pages, I will write the song and record a demo of the song in the studio with a small group - either a solo pianist or piano, bass, drums and guitar if it's a rhythm oriented piece - then studio singers record the vocals. We'll run off cassettes, and send them to the cast members to learn. They usually have about two days to learn the songs before they go into the cast voice records. We'll then replace the cast voices in place of the studio singers, and make a new mix with a click track and send it off to the animators. Nine months later, it comes back in finished form, and during my scoring session where I'm doing the underscore cues, I'll dump the rhythm section track, and replace it with the orchestra. Sometimes I have to do patches to the track, because the animators will edit the vocal tracks where I haven't left enough space for them to do a joke - they'll just cut a piece out and there will be a blank space in the middle of the song. So then I have to figure out a way to put something musical in the final orchestral track to fill up that space as if it was expected and part of the Broadway idiom. Other times the tracks might come back sped up 10% because they wanted more energy to the song. Sometimes they will come back and rather than being sped up or opened up, something will be cut out. They might have decided they didn't want a lyric. For instance, in "The Garbage Man Song", there was a section that featured Milhouse and Homer. For whatever reason, they decided they wanted to take that section out of the final version. So I had to restructure my orchestral track and write a new modulation because the piece they snipped out was structured key-wise to work from point A to point X and then they just cut it out. It was really interesting - they asked me where the best place would be to cut it, and then we had to go back and re-record four of the cast voices because now there had to be new modulation written which I couldn't write until the song came back. So I had to write new modulation and record four new cast voices, and none of the cast members were in town at the same time, and we had to record those vocals before the orchestral track was recorded. So I had to play the section with the modulation over the phone on the piano, and play each individual vocal part on the piano - and they played it back over to the stage so that the actor knew what to sing.
Have you ever had to deal with an incredibly short turnaround?
Well, I had never done an animated show before "The Simpsons" - I came from dramatic scoring background. For most episodes, we record on a Friday, and it's broadcast a week from Sunday. For "Moonlighting", which I did for four years, the schedule was quite different. Usually I had 4 days to write a score - one time I only had 16 hours to write the score for a one-hour drama for 35-piece orchestra. There were a couple of weeks where they made the satellite feed by half-an-hour. For "The Taming of the Shrew" episode, it was about 2/3 done when I started spotting it - so I had to create moods and record a whole bunch of stuff to fit into places where there weren't any scenes yet. It's a tall order to fill!
Do you plan to release an album of your work on "Moonlighting"
We never did get a score album out of that which really distressed me because there was a tremendous amount of really interesting music for that series which I think should have been released. Unfortunately, it would be very expensive to release it - I couldn't get anyone to put up the money. I thought about doing it myself, as a promo, but it's just that I don't have the hours to deal with it - the work I'm doing now is so intense!
You have such an immense body of work on films and television. When (or if?) "The Simpsons" ends, do you plan on going back to film scoring, or stay in television?
Well, "The Simpsons" keeps me very busy. It was one thing to be just the underscore guy when I started the job, but when I inherited the job of writing the original songs as well, that filled in the hiatus weeks that I would normally use to recharge. Technically I have the summer off, but "Go Simpsonic" is now set for a November 2 release. There's always a lot to do. As the producer, I'm not only responsible for assembling the tracks and picking what goes on it, but assembling the liner notes, credits, track lists, and all that stuff.
In picking the tracks, it was a big challenge for me to pick not only the song tracks, but also the dialogue tracks that translated well to the audio medium -taking the visual images away. A lot of stuff wouldn't work well on a CD because it's locked to the visual images. I think you're really going to like Volume 2 because there are a lot of your favorites that you might have forgotten about. On this CD we have all of the Sherry Bobbins songs, the Simpson's Family Variety Hour stuff, the Chief Wiggum PI theme, the Lovematic Grandpa Theme, "You're Checking In - A Tribute to the Betty Ford Center", Canyonero, and many more.
How do you go about parodying music? Do you use the original scores, or re-record the cues?
Much of it hinges around licensing issues. Once in a while we'll use an exact piece of music from a studio library (like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Great Escape), and it's all re-recorded with my orchestra. Some of it is licensing issues, and the producers wanting a specific piece of music to bring back the feeling of a specific scene in a movie. Other than that, they simply say, "we would like the music to be reminiscent" of a specific scene. So I have to sit down with clips of the score and try to analyze what makes the score to, say, Crimson Tide, the way it is melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, and orchestrationally. And then try to write my own score that is still reminiscent of the mood created by the score to Crimson Tide - and it's a big challenge! And I have to distill it very quickly because I have 30 other cues to write in four days at the same time. So I really have to be able to distill the essence of what that is and not to me as a composer, but to the general public who would listen to the score to Crimson Tide, and I need to make a value judgment as to what identifies that to them, and then be able to reconstruct the deconstruction and put it back into place with another form. It is a great experience to have to do this, and we laugh at times, because I'll get instruction in spotting like, "we want this score to be exactly like this scene from Frankenstein" or "we want this score to be exactly like the chariot race in Ben Hur". So we'll get clips of those things, only to discover there is no music in those scenes. So their remembrances fail them - so I've started joking, "I score the scenes the way they should have been scored". Sometimes they just tend to remember the fact that Ben Hur had this big movie score ambience, and not the specific scene.
It seems like there's a lot of music in each episode?
There's not that much - it's strategically placed, and makes it feel like you've listened to more music than you actually have. One of the joys about the CD is that people will comment to me after listening to one of the songs that they feel they've listened to a whole song. But if they go back and look at the time on the CD, they'll realize it's only a minute long! It's almost like a sound byte of a Broadway musical. It's so bizarre - you'll see people saying, "I wish they'd do a full musical on Streetcar - it was the best musical we've ever seen!" And I want to say, "You schmuck - it's only four minutes long!!" It's very bizarre what the human mind does.
Do you ever reuse cues?
theme - the series of gothic chords whenever he starts to plot an evil scheme. But there are no other main character themes. I do have a Krusty the Clown theme, the Cape Fear theme (Sideshow Bob). That reminds me - one of my favorite episodes was the Cape Fear one. To do a Bernard Herrmman-esque score was a lot of fun.
Would you ever take your work on the road and do a concert tour?
Oh sure - that would be a lot of fun! I have talked to the "powers-that-be about doing a Simpsons Night at the Hollywood Bowl, and gotten a lot of interest in it so far. I don't know where it will lead, but it would be a great experience!
How is it working with a theme that you didn't write? Do you find it easy to adapt the theme into your scores?
No, it's not easy to do at all. And the reason is that "The Simpsons" theme is an interesting piece of music in that it only has about three bars of melody, and the rest is orchestral effects to highlight what's going on on screen. When they asked me to do impressions of things using that piece, I only have three bars of melody to deal with, and then I have to figure out a way to adapt all the other stuff that's in it and create new material to create the right kind of ambience, and make sure the audience still thinks they're hearing "The Simpsons" theme.
When you worked on "The Critic", you had the opportunity for more film parodies. With the success of the Simpsons albums, would you foresee a "Critic" CD release?
That would be really interesting, but unfortunately the problem with "The Critic" is that it's no longer in production and it's only on reruns on Comedy Central. So aside from the re-use issue, there's the question of what the market would be, with the show off of network. I wrote quite a few interesting songs for those 24 episodes, and after Vol. 2 is launched, there are a few CD projects I'd like to pursue - and this is definitely one of them. It's all driven by commerce - it's not art. And unfortunately for a project to be taken on by a record company that's in business to make a profit, you have to show them that you think there will be enough money coming back to at least offset expenses. Since I only do Union sessions, the re-use fee rears its head. If "The Critic" were still on network television with more original episodes, there might have been more of a chance, but since it's in reruns, it's harder to make that argument.
Which was your favorite "Simpsons" episode to score?
Oh, that's tough! The accumulation of stuff we have is amazing. When we started recording music for the Simpsons, we kept consecutive take numbers. This past week at the "Treehouse of Horror X" scoring session we passed take 14,300. There's just so much stuff! I get asked what my favorite songs are, and I've more or less landed on "Senor Burns" and "We Do" ("The Stonecutter's Song"). The Emmy-winning song "We Put the Spring in Springfield" will be on Volume 2 as well.
What future projects do you have coming up? Is there any word on the feature film version of "The Simpsons"?
In my "spare time", I've been producing the music for a new FOX Australia Simpsons interactive theme park attraction film, based on the episode "Bart vs. Australia". In addition, I recently scored an episode of the hit CBS TV series "Now And Again". There is no word on a "Simpsons" movie at the moment.
"Go Simpsonic" will be released through Rhino Records on November 2. "The Simpsons" is now in its 11th Season, and show no signs of stopping! His official website can be reached at www.alfclausen.com