Michael’s close relationship with his collaborators is key to his compositional process. “I’ve had lots of experience, but I really don’t know what I’m doing until I’m sitting with clients listening to what I’ve written,” he admitted. “I’ve learned everything I know about this business by watching reactions when people hear my mock-ups for the first time.” He likes to start the scoring process early, and prefers to keep temp scores out of the cut as much as possible. “My understanding of what the score should be is mostly developed by conversations with the producer, director and editor.”
He continued, “I like feedback that doesn’t try and talk in technical musical terms. The best directors just look at your music with the film and tell you how they feel. I’m very confident that I know how to meet the needs of any project.”
Although he eschews temp tracks, Michael has deep admiration for the legendary film composers and their music. I asked him for some of his favorites. “I’m such a sucker for beautiful, emotional music. John Williams’s score to The Accidental Tourist comes to mind. Jerry Goldsmith’s title sequence for Basic Instinct is a textbook for tertiary harmonic movement. Of course, Ennio Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso; how can one guy do that and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…!”
Michael’s versatility extends beyond his work as a film composer. For several years he has taught film scoring as Distinguished Lecturer at New York City’s Lehman College, and this year began teaching students at Mannes College of Music. He’s also a cellist, and plays acoustic and electric guitars in The Bacon Brothers band. “Having the job of film composer, rock guy and teacher makes for a very busy and challenging existence,” he acknowledged.
I was curious if he saw any connection among the different musical genres he works in. “With the exception of when I wrote some string charts for one of The Bacon Brothers CDs, I don’t see much connection between ‘legit’ compositional and performance techniques and rock/folk,” Michael said. “One of my dreams, though, is to collaborate with an established orchestra and explore the possibilities.”
Michael loves getting to the point in his compositional process where he can work in Sibelius. He said, “I do all my mock-ups in Digital Performer. I don’t go to Sibelius until I’m in real orchestration mode. Up to that point it’s 95% improvisation. It’s always such a pleasure to move into the Sibelius world, because it feels like I’m using a pencil instead of slamming MIDI tracks around.”
Michael doesn’t use any other music software. “I go from DP to Sibelius via a standard MIDI file and that’s it,” he explained. He frequently uses Sibelius’s playback and video features, but hasn’t delved into some of the advanced Playback Configuration or ReWire settings. “I always have video running with the score,” he told me. “Where I’d really like to get is where the separation between the DP mock-ups and the score mock-ups is one and the same. I’ve heard one can get there, but I’m not there yet.”
I asked him if there were features he’d like to see incorporated into Sibelius. “I’m afraid most of the shortcomings are on my side, not in the software. It works great for me. I really don’t use Sibelius as a compositional tool,” Michael said, using it instead for the orchestration and music prep phases of his projects. “I’d like to get there.”
Transitioning to Sibelius 7 was not a problem for him. “I was working in Sibelius 6 and then didn’t have any orchestra projects for a spell. I went to 7 without a lot of embedded 6 technique.”
Getting into the details of the score and parts informs Michael’s writing, and has a practical aspect, besides. “I always try to look at the individual parts and see if I’d like to play them,” he explained. “I tell my students to make their parts so that nobody asks a question during the recording session.”
Finally, I asked Michael which of his upcoming projects we can expect to hear about soon. “I’m starting on a project called Making Space for Amici Films about five internationally-known female architects,” he said.
He’s also deep into work on a cello concerto, his first concert work as a professional composer. “I’ve only written one piece of art music before, and that was my senior composition when I was studying at Lehman College,” Michael explained. “Being a cellist, I’ve been trying to pull together a cello concerto, and the challenges are great. Being a film composer you use all your technique and musical skills everyday, but the form is always set by the project you’re composing for: i.e., ‘two minutes of tension, then resolve to serenity.’ When you’re writing an art piece, that structure’s not there. Sonata form, ritornello, theme and variation, or none of the above? Is the piece challenging enough, too challenging, not exciting, too short, too long?”
“All the answers lie with yourself alone,” Michael concluded. “It’s a daunting place to put one’s music.”