our next installment of the new S&A
series Frame By Frame, featuring
guest posts and in-depth conversations with film and television professionals.
is a composer, singer, songwriter and musician who has scored several
independent features we’ve written about on this site, including Ava DuVernay’s "Middle of Nowhere" and "I Will Follow," Yoruba Richen’s "Promised
Land" and "The New Black," "Dear White People," "Soul Food Junkies," and the forthcoming August Wilson documentary "The
Ground on Which I Stand." She has also scored for theater, working on the
Broadway productions of "Gem of the Ocean" and "Bengal Tiger at
the Baghdad Zoo" and the Mark Taper Forum production of "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone," directed by Phylicia Rashad.
her first post for "Frame By Frame," she discusses her career and the basics of film scoring.
Beginnings in Music
I started writing music at a very
young age. I was three when I started to play the piano and took to it right
away. I used to sing and make up these little songs and melodies that left me
feeling so happy and it’s been that way ever since. Storytelling through music
is something I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated. I studied music composition
and piano in college and would write for various theater and dance productions.
I’d also sing with various artists worldwide discovering different styles of
music and genre. These experiences later translated into an interest in film
scoring. I’ve always appreciated how a good film score can really take a film
to a place sonically irresistible and memorable.
Getting a Project Started
When I first start working on a
film I have a spotting session with the director and we go over where the music
should be placed. I then like to sit with it on my own and feel how it’s
hitting me emotionally and feel how the story is unfolding. I like to get a cut
of the film with the temp music in and without (temp music is already put in by
the director and editor prior to the original score.) This way the film itself
reveals its own voice as well. The director already has ideas in place and the
temp music indicates the tone of what they are looking for… or not! Sometimes
the music is there solely as a point of departure, a point of reference. Other
times it’s in and it’s already working quite well! That’s the challenge, how
can I take that and make it something fresh and authentic. Temp music can be
the director’s "Svengali" for the composer. They’ve lived with this
music a long time and have become used to the way it resonates with them.
However, I find there’s always an opening for fresh creativity regardless of
this, and that’s what I look for.
On the Director/Composer Relationship
When I worked with director Ava
DuVernay on "I Will Follow," "Middle of Nowhere" and "Venus Vs.," these films had been cut to temp music
that more or less worked. Ava is very generous about hearing new ideas and new
approaches so I never felt like I had to replicate the temp. I never felt
constrained by this. The temp was more of a "menu" of textures and
instrumentation that I could draw from. I also worked with director Justin Simien on "Dear White People," and he too had specific ideas that
were already in place and temped in, but he was very open to what I could
create within that point of reference.
“The biggest thing that directors have to have in their relationship with a composer is trust; they have to know that you can translate what’s in their mind to a musical language that works…”
I think the biggest thing that
directors have to have in their relationship with a composer is trust; they
have to know that you can translate what’s in their mind to a musical language
that works for their film and for this reason, communication is extremely
important. I like to get a dialogue going right away. I’ll present sketches
early on to know if I’m heading in the right direction. Yes, it can be really
daunting and nail biting to do this but the worst thing you can is wait until
you think it’s right before you share your ideas; this is really hard if you’re
a perfectionist. Often you have the clock working against you and you have to
show some ideas "yesterday!" Let the muse take over, which for me is
always the best. I try and strike a balance between being aware of deadlines but
also being present enough to compose something effective and evocative.
Conversation about the film between
the director and composer is ongoing until the very final stages of post-production
and for new directors, I want to stress the importance of realizing that
collaboration is a process and takes time. The score can be one of the most
intimidating elements of filmmaking because it is one of the last things to
bring in and it is also one of the most intangible to express. It’s important
for the director to speak in terms of the emotional intent they are looking
for, there is no need to try and speak in musical terms that may or may not be
Scoring for Documentary
I recently worked with director Yoruba
Richen on her documentary "The New Black" and the music for this was quite
different in terms of approach. Music in documentaries is often laid in more
extensively to not only highlight emotional intention, but to move the story
forward. It often runs parallel to the dialogue. I had worked with Yoruba on
her documentary "Promised Land" and this time around with "The New Black," the music was also a
combination of soundtrack material from the artist Tonex, which was great because his own personal story was a part of
The score in a film is the spine of
the film. Its themes and presence hold the movie together in ways that are
vital to enhancing the story and without a good score the movie can be
disjointed and lack dimension. I am fortunate to have worked with some amazing
directors who know how to weave music masterfully in their cinematic stories.
In my next article, I will talk
more extensively about scoring on a budget as well as scoring around
pre-existing music and source cues. I’ll also share some of my collaboration
process in working with director Sam
Pollard for the American Masters Series "August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand", coming soon to PBS.