In Part 2 of film composer Kathryn Bostic’s article
for the Frame By Frame series, she discusses her work on the upcoming PBS
American Masters documentary about August Wilson, "The Ground on Which I
Stand", and best practices for composing.
Find Part 1 of the article here.
On August Wilson and the musical impact of his work:
August Wilson has
had such a strong impact on me on so many levels that it’s hard to find the
words to describe. An iconic playwright of course, and he was fearless in
honoring his expression and dedication in telling stories from the African
American perspective. When I think about him it invokes a feeling of majesty,
truth, grit and spiritual backbone. I wanted the score [for "The Ground on
Which I Stand"] to reflect this.
You can hear his
gift of poetry in all of his writing – extremely musical. I’d be in rehearsals
and hear the cadence and dynamics the actors were using as they spoke his text,
it was so visceral and vibrant. This heightened my instincts of what to
compose. I was able to take that awareness and apply it to the score of this
thematic development in film scoring:
A theme or motif can go a
long way in providing the score with a cohesive musical point of reference that
helps identify character and storyline. Themes can recur with variations to
unify the story, whether the theme is melodic, rhythmic or ambient, atonal etc.
It’s important however to strike a balance between using a thematic motif and
creating something completely different that serves the film better.
It’s a question of
relevance – does this usage of the theme work for this scene or would something
completely different be even better? I’m also a huge fan of silence in film
scoring! There can be so much potential for the emotional intent to carry
without having music inform what that intent should be. Each film is different
in terms of approach, but the goal is to create music for emotional content in ways
that are innovative and nuanced. As an example I really like Mychael Danna’s
score in "Capote" and Carter Burwell’s scores in the Coen brothers’
films, as well as his work with Spike Jonze.
When I worked with Sam
Pollard on the upcoming August Wilson documentary, he asked me to create themes
that he would then cut the film to. Sam was very careful not to have a lot of
score in the movie as August Wilson’s words are so rich in musicality and
emotional weight. I wrote themes that for me honor the majesty and earthiness
of his artistry. This was a great opportunity for the music to come first
without any reference to a temp score. I really enjoyed this process of
creating the music first and working it into the rough cuts until picture lock.
On personal musical tastes and how they influence collaboration with a
I have very diverse
and eclectic tastes when it comes to the music that I listen to, so when I talk
with a director I feel I have an advantage because I have such a deep
appreciation for a wide range of music. I listen to what the director is
hearing in terms of genre and context and go from there. It’s really about
continuous communication because the organic nature of writing music depends on
this. There has to be fluidity in the creative process, and so I always go in
with open ears and eyes. Inevitably for me it comes down to a gut check – is
this cue working for the scene? More than does it sound right, does it feel
with a small budget and limited resources:
Many composers have a
home studio with ample recording equipment and will be able to produce high
quality live recordings. Being self-sufficient in this regard helps offset
costs. Obviously for large recordings this won’t work but being able to do as
much in your own studio is very cost effective. As a composer on these types of
films you have to prioritize where to get the most bang for your buck because
that budget has to go a long way and cover a range of details from score prep,
engineering, editing, mixing, live players, etc.
For me the most important
thing is the sound of the music, the quality and the way it’s being utilized. While
mindful of budget, I do not ever want to compromise on the caliber of the music
and what’s needed to have a great score. Most
small budget films don’t have the money to hire live players but live players
add so much to the flavor and expression of a score. I try to incorporate live
music whenever I can.
There are some great
sample libraries available for orchestral, ethnic sounds and more. Many films
have had successful scores with just samples but I do like to have a session
with live players mixed in with these.
and building your contacts of great musicians is a must for a composer. A
composer’s great score is even more effective when there’s a synergy with the
players and engineers who are there to support your vision as you would for
them. The Sundance Film Composers lab co-sponsored by BMI is a fantastic resource,
albeit a competitive one, as is the film scoring workshop hosted by ASCAP. I
also think that contacting your high school and college alumni organizations can
be a great resource as there could be potential clients who are filmmakers,
producers, or screenwriters. Sometimes these organizations host mixers or
panels to help network their alums. Film festivals are another great resource
For directors looking for
a composer, reach out to the composers you may want to work with. Many have
websites and you can hear their music and find out how to contact them. Also
ask your fellow directors for referrals. Some composers have not yet written
for film and this may or may not be a deal breaker but it is obviously good for
a director to know their background. Building a community of friends and
associates who happen to be extraordinarily talented is really important.
Kathryn Bostic is an
award-winning composer, vocalist and pianist. Find her work at