Yearly Archives: 2010

2010 was eventful. After spending the summer in Paris at the EAMA Composition program, my wife Aliona and I moved to Los Angeles. We bought and renovated a home and got ready for the birth of our son Aleksandr in September.
Everyone is doing great, but the new house and baby have kept us plenty busy. It’s a good busy, though.

Part of the work on the house included construction of a proper recording and mixing space. Let’s call it “Surfview Studios” (Ok, so you can’t actually view the surf from the studio, but hey, that’s the name of the street we live on, so why not?)

Anyway, the room is sound-proofed room with double walls, doors, and windows. Credit goes to Jay Kaufman, who designed the space to fit in the existing single-story home’s footprint, and we’ve come up with a great result so far. We’ve got a little bit of wiring and acoustical tuning work left to do on the room still, but we’re getting there. I’m up and running composing, making mockups, and doing digital productions plus some direct line recording.

Soon we’ll be able to record a full drum kit and small ensembles in the studio, and mix in surround. For now I’m continuing to expand the digital sample libraries and computing horsepower.

When the project is done I’ll try and get some photos up onto the site.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello

Contractor’s Routine has added scenes since its festival showing in April. Tom Sizemore has been added to the cast. The new cut is nearly finished, and I’ve scored a new trailer for the film My favorite line is the opening one: “It’s not enough to be a genius…to be a genius you have to practice.”

This trailer music is a very amped-up version of the music actually in the film. I use parallel minor and major chords in the first section, then move to common-tone chord modulations. The final chord of the trailer is a “major-minor” chord, meaning that it has both the major and minor third sounding simultaneously. For the trailer, I added lots of rhythm and lots of drama to try and tell the film’s story in under 2 minutes.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
I’ve done music for “The Slap” by Bay Area writer-director Jamie Campbell. A governor gets caught in a sex scandal. It involves a mistress, a hotel room, a hidden camera, and a slap. Think of it as Patton meets Desperate Housewives.The short manages several twists and surprises in its 9-minute running time. And we even had time for a couple of soundtrack cuts from Andy Allo, who provided music to get the governor and his mistress, ahem, into the mood. But seriously, she’s got great stuff, check her out.

Here’s a sample of music from The Slap, 3 back-to-back cues which open the film.

We start with “breaking news” scandal music, which ends with the actual slap sound effect used in the film.

Next we segue to a political event where the Governor is speechifying. For his political image, I give the Governor a stately chorale of strings and horns.

The third part is when the Governor starts scanning the audience for beautiful women. The music is  meant for a lovable rogue, using lots of small percussion to suggest the Governor’s mind is tingling as wheels are turning in his head.

Say hello if you make it to the Scary Cow screening (starts at 3pm, by the way. 2 hours of movies, then a dinner break, then 2 more hours of movies, then a party).

Til then, here are some Desperate Housewives slaps (am I crazy, or do they use the exact same sound effect for every one of these scenes???)

And here’s the Patton slap:

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello

I’ve been doing some work on a trailer, and it led to me doing some work on dialogue editing. This was basically getting the dozen or so lines from the movie that appear in the trailer to sound like they match each other. This can entail a lot of processing and editing. After playing with Izotope cleanup tools, I decided to see if I could clean up a recent recording.

At the EAMA 2010 program in Paris the chorale performed my Kyrie choral piece. We didn’t have a pro recording setup at the concert, so I came away with a recording from a $250 handheld digital recorder. The recording has hiss, low levels, audience noise, page turns, keys shaking, and the microphone gets battered a few times.

Removing background noises is the trickiest part, and is definitely a task for the patient, and experienced.  Still, it’s not hard to make a bad recording quite listenable (though it will never get to the level of a professional recording).

Here are the results.

A short phrase from the Kyrie – before cleanup.
The same short phrase from the Kyrie –

after cleanup.

You can hear that I made good progress on hiss and levels, but this section had a few background noises that I wasn’t able to fully mitigate.

Here’s the complete Kyrie. I’ll have to get this performed again and get a nice recording.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
I spent July at the European American Musical Alliance (EAMA) summer music program in Paris, France. The program is organized by professors whose musical lineage descends from 
Nadia Boulanger

, whom many believe was the most consequential music teacher of the 20th century. Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Eliot Carter, and Quincy Jones were among her students. Although Mme. Boulanger was French, many of her most famous students were American.

The EAMA program is devoted to her teachings, which means an emphasis on keyboard harmony. If you’re interested, try Googling “Boulanger cadences” – you can find PDF files of musical cadences to be played at the piano in all keys. Once you master these, you’re ready to write music that freely modulates across major and minor keys. And you’ll see their patterns all over the classical repertoire.
This summer’s program had the forty-or-so composing students write choral pieces, of which three were selected for performance by the chorale. I was fortunate to be selected for a Kyrie Eleison I wrote, and the piece was performed on July 29th at La Schola Cantorum.
Getting a choral piece ready with about 20 minutes of rehearsal time is eye-opening (to say the least). I learned two things are important. One, make it easy for the singers to find their pitches. And two, mark your music with plenty of dynamic, tempo, and articulation markings to get the exact musical effects you want. Do those two things, and you’ll be good to go.
The EAMA program also focuses on counterpoint, through its director Philip Lasser, a composer and professor at Juilliard. He proposes rather stringent rules for counterpoint exercises, and presents an analysis method based upon counterpoint (rather than harmony). This leads to discoveries of very deep structures at work within certain masterpieces, such as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which is as much a treatise on music as it is music. 
He also runs an EAMA Lecture Series in New York City during the fall – if you’re into art music, it’s worth a look at the schedule. Here is one talk embedded below, check out the first 4 minutes or so concerning Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the controversies of equal temperament, and why all of this is important to the music you and I listen to every day:
Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
I recently scored a short film and attended the screening of eight films. Four were good, four weren’t. The films had similar production values and budgets. I wondered – what did the bad films lack? Why did I have an overwhelming urge to step out of the theater and check email on my Droid?

One of my favorite films had a character with anger management problems. He wanted to quit his prescription drugs for the problem. That character’s soliloquy to this therapist about it hooked me. The director made me feel sorry for this lead character.

So the theory is: good films always get the audience to feel pity for the lead character. Funny, smart, and likable are not enough. There must be full-on, what-a-sad-case pity.

Try it on any two similar movies. The better one always establishes its characters as more pathetic. Take these 2 recent movies’ Rotten Tomatoes ratings and US box office:

Date Night: 68% fresh, $123M.
Knight and Day 55% fresh, $49M.

I’ve seen both, and much preferred Date Night.

Date Night establishes from the opening shot that Steve Carell and Tina Fey are a terminally exhausted couple. The kids regularly wake them at 5am. Their date nights are boring, their careers are depressing, their friends are divorcing out of boredom, and they’re too tired for sex. They have chemistry, but the poor pathetic souls, they need sleep.

Knight and Day, on the other hand, treats Cruise and Diaz like movie stars. He’s a secret agent, she’s fixes vintage cars. They bump into each other, Cruise smiles enigmatically, and she’s dazzled. There’s a Maguffin, and the chase begins. No matter how well the film is executed, they are still beautiful people with awesome careers. No reason to pity the, so the audience doesn’t relate. And it lends the film a certain dated quality – there is something condescending and artificial about the story.

Contrast that to Jerry McGuire’s humiliation. Or heck, Ethan Hawke’s team getting wiped out in MI:1.

So, when making your film, look for pity in the script. If you don’t have any, add some. Poof! According to the theory, your movie will now be good.

(Here’s a great example – the tragic yet hysterical backstory of Happy Gilmore).

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
There is some interesting music happening in New York City in the coming weeks. From the New York Times:

“Besides being a path-breaking modern composer, Xenakis, who died in 2001, was a music theorist and an accomplished architect. Like many of his works, “Persephassa” has a spatial element. He intended the percussionists to be placed far from one another in a hexagonal formation with the audience in the middle. The 30-minute piece has never been performed on a lake, the producers say.”

It’s safe to say most musical pieces have never been performed on a lake. (Except for Green Day performing the Simpsons theme on Springfield lake, see below).

This idea of using spatial elements has been percolating around in modern music. A friend from San Francisco Conservatory, Jon Kulpa, composed a piece “On Expanding Resonances” for 9 string quintets surrounding the audience, put on a performance in San Francisco with the 60-piece Surround Sound String Orchestra this past May. I”m hoping he gets a recording online at some point.

Here is a taste of Persephassa on a lake (stereo only, sadly):


And here is the Simpsons Theme on a lake:

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
How to score a sex scene? I’ve been researching this today, mostly because I need to score one, and this is one place in a film where the sensitive film composer doesn’t want to screw things up. ;-)(a) License some pop song. In this Sarah Michelle Gellar / Selma Blair kiss scene in Cruel Intentions, the problem is that the music doesn’t really reflect the emotions of either character. This can happen when the music is intended to drive soundtrack sales as much as it is to tell the story:

(b) Go noir. Jerry Goldsmith did this to the hilt in Basic Instinct, but you better make sure the movie’s got some murder happening somewhere to go along with the chromatic harmonies (this embed is just a music clip):

(c) Avoid anything resembling Wild Things. It’s a great score by George Clinton (who composed the Austin Powers theme), but it’s been unfortunately imitated by one too many cheesy soft-core films. The sexy tenor sax and Stevie Ray Vaughn-style electric guitar bends have worn down after 12 years. Only use this style if your film is strictly NC-17 or higher:

(d) Go romantic. In the Mood for Love uses a minor-key waltz with violin. This is about a man and a woman who discover their partners are having an affair. As their friendship develops, the relationship moves into unfamiliar territory.  Shigeru Umebayashi’s Gypsy melody unfolds over a mechanical pizzicato rhythm (those pizz strings don’t sound great, and are probably the result of an unduly tight production budget that couldn’t afford a live ensemble recording session). The violin plays in a low range, giving melancholy and longing. As the melody unfolds, there are more dramatic leaps and portamentos. The Gypsy style lends the film an association with endless wandering and travel, well-suited to the couple whose static lives are becoming unrooted:

(e) Go understated. Vibrato electric piano and a very natural snare drum sets the atmosphere in Out of Sight’s big sex scene. The scene is frequently cited by filmmakers I’ve met, as the editing, dialogue, acting, lighting – everything is in full virtuoso mode. Notably, the music ain’t much to listen to on its own. But it’s intimate and quiet, just like everything else in the scene. It’s also very subtle in places – notice how the drum beat drops out as Jennifer Lopez’s character is making the decision in her mind to go bed with george Clooney. Once the scene cuts to the actors embracing, an organish keyboard patch enters that just barely doesn’t hold up to my ears anymore – the music is from 1998, the same year as Wild Things – but if you did it today with a newer keyboard you could get the same effect with a warmer, richer-sounding patch.

So, the perfect sex scene music? Everyone has their favorite, and I’m partial to Secretary. In this opening scene, we see Maggie Gyllenhall doing her work while chained to a bar. She staples papers with her chin, and turns sideways to fit through doorways. The office has an Asian accents in the decor. Angelo Badalamenti, who scored films for David Lynch, knows how to do weird. The opening scene’s music emphasizes percussion, latin guitar, electric bass, and lots of reverb. A little exotic, a little secretive, and a little bit of wry humor. Embedding is disabled, so click over for yourself.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
I’ve written about David Byrne before. This is a talk he did at TED. the talk starts out showing the club Tootsie’s where the Talking Heads played, and how the sound of the room drove their particular sound (especially the fact you could hear the words).And other halls – like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA – he didn’t feel as satisfied with the sound. As if it was not a match. He goes deep on this theme on this talk, worth seeing the whole thing:

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Cathedrals with their long reverb tails support choral music that does not modulate; a smaller room with less reverb supported Bach’s modulation without creating dissonances.

The title is slightly deceiving; Byrne’s point goes beyond architecture, but really to all technology – the turntable created hip hop, the iPod today creating the highly-compressed and elaborate details in pop music.

One can add other examples – the keyboard enabled the ease of modulating across closely-related keys, which Bach defined into the basis of Western harmony for 300 years. Pianos got a whole lot bigger, so Shubert sonatas sound a whole lot more bigger than Mozart sonatas. Valves in brass instruments enabled far more adventurous harmonies and more powerful sounds in the orchestra.

Not to mention 5.1 sound in theater systems, which created a whole genre of Extremely Bassy and Boomy movie trailer music that exploits the LFE speakers to the hilt.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello

Contractor’s Routine had its screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. I went with director Yuri Tsapayev, editor Luke Rocheleau, and gaffer Andrew Ganzon. We saw movies, met other filmmakers, and ate plenty of buffalo wings. (which by the way really are better in Buffalo – crispy, without being dry. Best place to get them as far as I could tell is Anchor Bar on Main).

Jared Mobarak is a film review blogger – it seems like he reviews everything. His reviews are well-written. He’s been blogging the BNFF films the past couple of years. He’s got a post wrapping up the festival – and making a good case for the value of smaller film festivals which aren’t dominated by major releases. Dig into his reviews as well, especially Christina

, which won for Best Film.

He also posted a very positive review (10/10!) of Contractor’s Routine. I’ve been a little concerned that the film’s narrative would prove elusive in its current form, but his review simply got it. If you’re reading this and the film has made it to a San Francisco screening, I recommend reading his review before you go see it.

One last wrap up – the team filmed some audience reactions to the film, they’re on the Contractor’s Routine Facebook page.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello