The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences yesterday rescinded the Oscar nomination of “Alone Yet Not Alone” in the original song category, citing a discovery that composer Bruce Broughton had e-mailed members of the Academy’s music branch to make them aware of his submission.
When the 2013 Oscar nominees were announced on January 16, 2014, most of the limelight predictably shined on the headline categories like best picture, acting, and directing. But those in the music field tend to focus on two categories: original score and original song.
Among the nominees in the latter category was a song entitled “Alone Yet Not Alone”, from a film with the same title. The $7 million film, which had a limited theatrical release in September 2013 with wider release scheduled for June 2014, is based on a true story where two sisters are taken captive in Pennsylvania in 1755 during the French and Indian War. One of the sisters, Regina Leininger, and her fellow captives risk escape in pursuit of freedom.
Performed by evangelical minister Joni Eareckson Tada, “Alone Yet Not Alone” was written by industry veterans: composer Bruce Broughton and lyricist Dennis Spiegel, with arrangements and orchestrations by William Ross (who also composed the score to the film).
So while many were surprised by the song’s nomination — which bested many songs that appeared in films that were more widely known — the collective talents of the songwriters, and the merits of the song itself, were not in question.
Bruce Broughton is a 10-time Emmy-award winning composer, and was nominated for Academy Award for his film score to Silverado. He is a member of the board of directors of ASCAP, a past president of the Society of Composers & Lyricists, a lecturer at UCLA and USC, and a former governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — and it’s that last part of his biography that has him in the news today.
“No matter how well-intentioned the communication, using one’s position as a former governor and current executive committee member to personally promote one’s own Oscar submission creates the appearance of an unfair advantage,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, although no specific rule violation was cited.
Major media outlets and trade publications have reported on the developing story, as rescinding an Oscar nomination is an exceptionally rare action.
I had a chance to speak by phone with Bruce today about the song, the film, and his use of Sibelius in the composing process. Our interview follows. (Disclosure: Bruce and I have served together on the faculty of the NYU/ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop.)
“I was brought to the project by producer Ken Wales, who produced The Prodigal, the first film I ever scored,” Bruce said. “In that film, we also had a song, and the lyricist was Dennis Spiegel, the lyricist for ‘Alone Yet Not Alone’.
“There was a song the producers of Alone Yet Not Alone needed in their movie, and I got the script before they even started shooting the film. I saw that the song was a hymn that the sisters’ mother brought over from Germany called ‘Alone Yet Not Alone’. I got a copy of the song, which was a pretty stodgy Lutheran hymn [‘Allein, und doch nicht ganz alleine’], written in a typical, unmemorable 18th-century style.
“It would have been difficult to use that in a film like this,” Bruce explained. “Our job was to re-create the song. I had lots of conversations with the director [George Escobar] about it and what the song needed to do in relation to the story. These are all the things we try to get in the Motion Picture Academy on an Oscar-nominated song; you want to be sure that the song was written for the film. My song was written literally for the film.”
Bruce said that he constructed a song that was modeled after “Amazing Grace.” “It has the same phrasing; it’s also a pentatonic tune; it’s a strong melody in that it doesn’t need harmonic backing and can be harmonized any number of ways,” he said. “It’s not fancy, it doesn’t need strobe lights or famous people – it’s just something a mother can sing to her kid, with strong, evocative lyrics that are emotionally dramatic and religiously appropriate, given who the family was.
“The song appears three times in the film exactly like that,” Bruce continued. “Just someone singing the song to somebody else. The song is like another character in the film — it’s a strong element.”
The song then appears in the end credits in a fully produced version. “By this time,” Bruce said, “I wasn’t working on the film any longer. I had a scheduling problem and couldn’t do the score. So the score was done by William Ross, a terrific composer and arranger. Bill wrote the score and incorporated the song wherever it was appropriate.”
Bill then arranged the song for Joni Eareckson Tada. “I had nothing to do with the choice of Joni as the singer,” Bruce said, “but she’s an extraordinary person. She’s a quadriplegic, a writer, a speaker, a face-painter – meaning she can’t hold the brush with her hand, so she holds it with her teeth — and she’s a singer. And she sings great! She gave a really nice performance of the song with Bill’s lovely arrangement.”
During the film’s initial screening, Bruce said, “the director told me that the one common audience remark was ‘How can I find that song?’ The song really stuck with the viewer. This is what you want: if you have a song in a film, you want the song to be identified with the film and the characters, so that not only can you enjoy the song on its own, but it becomes a dramatic element. That was my first indication that the song might have a life outside of just being in this film.”
I haven’t seen the film, but I said to Bruce that it seemed like the song was embedded in the film. “‘Embedded’ is a good word,” he replied. “You see the mother singing the song to her children; you see the children sing the songs to themselves when they’re kidnapped; you hear it that way. There’s nothing playing in the background, no big string swell — it’s natural. Sometimes Bill would underscore the last few notes of the end of the song in a typical way we often do when films are scored.”
The film’s producers have a religious background, and they are expected to market the film primarily to Christian audiences. “It is a Christian film,” Bruce said, “in that it was produced by a company that does Christian films. But it’s not a real proselytizing film. It’s basically an historical drama. Our song is definitely fashioned as a hymn — but Dennis, the lyricist, is Jewish, and in fact, all of the imagery comes from the Old Testament! I was laughing about this with Dennis on the night of our nomination. I told him, ‘I just realized, you wrote an ecumenical hymn!’
“Dennis smiled and he said, ‘Well, actually, I was writing a hymn that I wanted to be able to respond to.’ And so he’s writing to accommodate a style, in order to accommodate the meaningful elements of the dramatic story into something that can be understood by as many people as possible. I’d love to have people be able to sing this song whether they are Baptist, Jewish, or Muslim, or whatever, because it has a really nice message. But both the words and the music were ultimately written for a very specific purpose — as a result of the story and of the song’s use in the story.”
As it is sung in the film, “Alone Yet Not Alone” is only verses. When it came time to record the orchestrated version for the end credits, there was a little problem. “Bill Ross gave me a call,” Bruce told me. “He said, you know, your song needs a bridge! So Dennis and I added a bridge, and that’s the version that went into the end credits.”
I asked Bruce about his use of Sibelius. “I wrote the song entirely in Sibelius,” he said, “but essentially I’m still a pencil writer. “I’ll sit at the piano or I’ll sit at a desk and I’ll write things out in pencil. As soon as I have enough music — it might be a page or two — I’ll immediately put it into Sibelius. I do that even though I still have a lot of changes to make, because I’ll get a sense of flow. Sometimes I’ll take it from Sibelius and I’ll throw it into Digital Performer to be able to manipulate it a little bit better.
“When I’m working, I may think, for example, ‘Oh, I need to add two bars, or I need to change this voicing,’ and I’ll do that while I’m in Sibelius. I can’t say that I have any one system all the time — I work at the piano, I work at my sequencers — I’m always going back and forth.
“I like the way Sibelius looks very much,” Bruce said. “If I’m doing a concert work, like an orchestral piece or a quintet, it’s nice to be able to do my own score and parts, because I’m very picky about how they look. I encounter very few problems using Sibelius — I have a couple of grumpy issues — but I use it really well and I find it really quick. I’ve used it for years; I think I started with Sibelius 2, and I’m now using Sibelius 7.”
Bruce teaches a lot, and he said that his students “usually use either Finale or Sibelius, but most of them use Sibelius. I can look at the font and know — it looks great.”
I was surprised that Bruce makes his own scores and parts. “Even on my handwritten scores, they look good, but I’m always studying how people do their scores to see if there’s not a better way of incorporating something. You want the music to look good so that people will come to it in a friendly way.”
When it came to the topic of the Oscar nomination, Bruce explained, “I’m a member of the Music Branch executive committee. Now, the way it works, is, when you’re a governor — of whatever branch it is, whether it’s writer, cinematographer, etc. — you have a three-year term, which you can do three times, so you can serve nine years. After those nine years, whoever you are, you have to get off the board and you can’t run for anything for a year.
“I’ve done that twice,” Bruce continued, “so I’ve been a governor for a total of 18 years. My last term ended in 2012. In the time since that I’ve been on the executive committee, I think I’ve been to one meeting, so I’ve had very little contact with the Academy until this nomination happened.”
I asked Bruce if sending an e-mail to colleagues asking them to consider one’s music was a violation of any Academy rule. “It’s not a violation of any rule, period,” Bruce replied. “I’ve checked the rules. What the problem for the Academy was, I believe, was that they got such an enormous pushback in the press, trying to understand why it was that this song came out of nowhere.
“I was accused of having an having an inside track, with people saying I knew how to play the Academy, things like that,” Bruce continued. “Well, I’m thinking, if I had such an inside track, why did it take me 30 years to get nominated a second time?”
Bruce said that “when it comes right down to what I did, it was so benign compared to what’s going on with the big studio productions. The amount of money spent on promoting these songs, you can’t imagine! A songwriter colleague of mine called me this morning from New York. He was describing these lavish viewings of the film to get his vote. People actually calling him saying, ‘You’re gonna vote for my song, right?’
“I never did that, “Bruce explained.” I wrote out e-mails to about 70 [of the 240 voting members of the Music Branch of the Academy] asking them to look at my song. I didn’t ask them to vote for it; I did no promotion other than just ‘please don’t overlook my song’, because I’m not known as a songwriter, I’m known more as a scorer.”
In the e-mail, Bruce specifically wrote:
I’m sending this note only because it is extremely unlikely that this small, independent, faith-based film will be seen by any Music Branch member; it’s the only way I can think of to have anyone be aware of the song.
This is merely a request ‘For Your Consideration,’ a hope that the song will get noticed and be remembered among the many worthy songs from more highly visible films.
As Bruce has thought about this, he said, “I know that I didn’t do anything wrong. The thing that’s hurtful is that the allegations are of the sullying variety and I feel that my integrity has definitely been under attack. I’m not happy about it and I think it’s fairly disgusting. But as people have sent me notes about what they’ve seen and what they’ve observed, I can easily live with what I’ve done.”
Bruce said that “when the song first came out, nobody knew what it was. Soon, though, people started finding the song. Yesterday, before I found out [the news of the rescinded nomination], I learned that it’s starting to climb the Billboard charts.
“Something will come out of this,” Bruce said as we concluded our interview. “It’s not all bad. We have a really good song, and it’s gotten enough into people’s minds and hearts that it has an opportunity to grow on its own. I’m not walking away from the song and I’m certainly not walking away from writing.”
Correction – January 31, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the director with whom Bruce Broughton worked during pre-production. Although Ray Bengston is a co-director of the film, it is actually George Escobar, the other co-director, who is referred to in the article.