Alf ClausenBy Doug Adams
"The Simpsons' Secret Weapon"
Alf composed music for Alf. He was the Musical Director of The Donny and Marie Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Variety Show. He composed scores to Wizards and Warriors, Lime Street and Fame. Then, of course, there was his renowned work on Moonlighting and now The Simpsons. So, why don't we hear more about Alf Clausen? His score-a-week television requirements certainly give him more exposure than many film composers, at least in a musical sense. His style and versatility prove him much more adroit a musician than many in his profession. Why, then, isn't he getting the coverage he deserves? Well, as Alf himself will readily admit, the stigma of "television music" is still with us. Yet, as many are busy heaping their ebullient praise on the latest pretender to the throne of "the greatest film score ever," Alf is busy providing intelligent television scores that both invite and challenge the audience while uprooting our preconceived notions about what television music really is.
Alf Clausen grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota. Despite his musical inclinations (he played piano, was a French hornist in his school band, and sang in his school choir) he enrolled at North Dakota State University majoring in mechanical engineering. One fortuitous summer, he traveled to New York City to visit his cousin—a professional pianist in Manhattan. It was there that Alf decided that he was destined for the musical life. Upon his return to North Dakota, he switched his major to music theory and would eventually head off to the Berklee College in Boston for more in-depth music studies. He taught at Berklee for a year after his graduation, then moved to Los Angeles where he found work as a bassist, copyist, teacher, arranger, and a ghost composer (for Las Vegas night-club acts, commercial jingles, and the likes). An emergency call from a friend landed Alf his first work for Donny and Marie, and from there the doors started slowly opening up. Today, of course, Alf is the series composer for The Simpsons. "Simpsons" creator, Matt Groening refers to him as "our secret weapon" and, unquestionably, his contributions to the show are too numerous to mention. The show provides him the opportunity to score realistic drama, overblown comedy, gritty urban jazz, Broadway-worthy show tunes, and some of the most clever and loving parodies of cheap-o television news themes, '70s action music, and feature film scores ever done. Alf delivers in spades, always bringing his trademark stylistic verve and technical precision. He has proved beyond a doubt that television scoring is not the vast wasteland it is often purported to be and that an intelligent composer can take even the most demanding shows and elevate them to new heights. It's time to pay attention.
Doug Adams: What would a normal Simpsons work schedule be like for you?
Alf Clausen: When we're on a week-to-week schedule, what I will normally do is spot an episode on Friday afternoon. The music editor will prepare my timing notes on Saturday and Sunday and then I'll start writing, usually Monday morning if it's a "normal" episode of "30 cues or less." If it's more than that, I'll sometimes start on Sunday to get a jump on things and then I'll put in probably four long days—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—of maybe nine in the morning until 11:30 or midnight every day. And then we spot the next week's episode Friday afternoon again and I'll record the cues that I've composed during the past week on Friday night starting at seven. We usually have anywhere from a three to a three-and-a-half hour recording session to do those 30 cues. Every week is different on The Simpsons as you know. It really is dependent on whether it's straight underscore type of recording that I have to do or if I have to record vocals—if I have to do orchestral sweeteners of songs that I've written in the past. So, it's never a dull moment.
DA: I know very occasionally you'll repeat some of the transitional material and stuff like that; do you do any of that as library cues or is everything started from scratch for every episode?
AC: Pretty much everything is started from scratch. We're real serious in trying to keep things as fresh as possible. Once in a while there'll be a transition cue that seems like it's repeated. Most of the time it's not repeated verbatim. It's restructured for new timings, maybe a new twist of something. Once in a while we'll use it exactly as is, and I always joke with the producers whenever I suggest using a cue that we've used before (or they suggest using a cue that we've used before): I say we can pull one from the first season and use it in the seventh season and all of a sudden they appear on back-to-back nights in syndication. [laughs] So, we try not to do that too much.
DA: You usually are using a 35-piece orchestra, is that right?
AC: That's correct.
DA: What's usually the make-up of the orchestra?
AC: The make-up of the orchestra is four woodwinds and usually the four woodwinds are based on so-called legit instrumentation. Woodwind I is the flute chair, woodwind II is the double reed chair (oboe and English horn), woodwind III is clarinet/bass clarinet, and woodwind IV is bassoon and contrabassoon. Then, depending upon what kind of music I have to do for the week, they will either be non-doubling musicians or doubling musicians— meaning they'll play also saxophones, depending on whether there are any saxophone-style cues that have to be done. I have two trumpets, two French horns, two trombones, harp, two percussion, two keyboards—both of which play synth racks in addition to one guy playing piano—and then a string section usually of ten violins, three violas, three celli, and one bass doubling on electric and acoustic. And sometimes one guitar, sometimes two guitars depending on the style of music for the week. Then, also depending upon the kind of style of cues that I have to do, I'll call in specialty players in addition to this orchestra, whether it be harmonica or accordion or tuba or whatever the style of the music calls for.
DA: I notice that you use a lot of flute solos in some of the more gentle cues. For example, some of the stuff that has that "Peer Gynt" flavor to it occasionally in the morning scenes. Is that an instrument that's pretty close to your heart?
AC: Oh, I don't know if it's closer than any other, but I have some really close friends who are marvelous flute players and I just love the sound of the flute for those kind of cues. You know, we're blessed to have the absolute best musicians in the world out in Los Angeles and it's just something that I've latched onto.
DA: Also as far as a compositional style, I always have really enjoyed the way you use the strings because it's not—a lot of composers use the strings for something that's triadic and feel-good. But you use a very aggressive attack to them sometimes that seems—I don't want to say uncommon because it makes it sound like it's a strange attack, but it's a very fresh sounding approach to them. It kind of nods, I feel, to Herrmann or even Bartók. [See score page from "There, There" for an example of this string writing.]
AC: Well, it's funny you should say that because Bartók is one of my favorite composers.
DA: Oh, really?
AC: Oh, yeah. For years and years Bartók has been one of my favorite composers and I was always fascinated by the little bit of quirkiness that Bartók would have in his dark side. Some people would say his entire side is dark [laughs]. I was always kind of fascinated by that, plus the fact that both those guys [Bartók and Herrmann] were not afraid to really challenge a string section and make them play way outside of the triadic realm, so to speak, and welcome them into the 20th century.
DA: Do you think that your fondness for those kinds of composers flavored your own string writing?
AC: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely, no question about it. You know, we don't have to state again Bernard Herrmann's influence on everybody, but I think it goes even deeper than that for me because I've always loved Bartók and I've always loved Stravinsky, and there's just a real guts to that music that I try to bring to my own.
DA: Do you think that that which can be said to be "good" music makes for more effective scoring, or is "good" music simply the by-product of effective scoring? Like, if something plays really well on a CD and you can sit down and listen and say, "this is a great tune," does that necessarily equate that it's a better cue or is this just a coincidental thing?
AC: Oh, I think it's a coincidental thing in ways. A good piece of music does not necessarily make a good cue because, once again, it's so closely tied to the visual. They really need to work hand-in-glove to be effective as a package. Obviously, however, it doesn't necessarily follow that if a piece of music is a good cue, it's not a good piece of music. Hopefully, all of us as composers are trying to craft something meaningful musically that not only works with the picture, but that can breathe some life into the listener as a stand-alone piece, too. It's not always successful, just by the nature of the beast. It really needs to serve the picture first.
DA: Do you think there can be cues that are terribly effective and not terribly good music? Or, even "bad" music?
AC: [pause] Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, if that's what the scene calls for. If the scene calls for bad music to make the dramatic point, that's what it calls for. Absolutely.
DA: Are you speaking in terms of, this cue is purposely written to sound bad, or this is the work of a lesser composer?
DA: I'm treading on thin ice, aren't I?
AC: No, it's a good question! The cue is not necessarily written by a lesser composer. Once again, I think that if a piece of music is crafted to the picture and can come up with the right ambiance for what the picture requires, a good composer is capable of doing that, regardless of whether it ends up being a "bad" piece of music of not. And by "bad" I'm not necessarily referring to it's [being] composed poorly, but it may be performed poorly. But, it serves the picture. There are times when we do source types of music for The Simpsons where it needs to be a technically deficient marching band. (How's that for a subtle PC phrase?) And the piece of music itself, as it stands alone, makes me shudder, but it serves the purpose.
DA: Okay. I only ask that because we see all the arguments here and there about—well, this piece is ripped-off from this and that, but oh, it works in the film. And it's just a strange equation. Does good music equal good scoring? It's interesting to get some input on that.
AC: It is an interesting question and I... plead the fifth! [laughs]
DA: That's probably the best answer there is to that one.
DA: How do you think that your approach to The Simpsons differs from something like you approach to The Critic or even Moonlighting? What is it about The Simpsons that is unique?
AC: It's funny, I've been asked that before, and I relate back to my very first meeting with the producers on The Simpsons, including Matt Groening, the creator. He, from our very first meeting, said to me, "We don't look upon our show as a cartoon, we look upon it as a drama where the characters are drawn," and that always stuck with me. He said, "As long as you treat your musical approach in that manner I don't think you'll go wrong with us," and it's really served me well because, as you know, most animated shows come from a history of Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd where there's a lot of catching of various action scenes. They really don't like me to do that with The Simpsons. They like me to score the emotion of it and it has really turned out to a be an interesting way to approach an animated show. It's very different than, I think, just about every other animated show that's around. Once in a while I'll look at a scene and try to figure out what I'm going to do with a cue, and when in doubt it's always, score the emotion and never Mickey Mouse anything. Go for the emotion first and the action second. It's been interesting.
DA: It's also been said that music in itself is rarely funny. Does this coincide with your ideas about The Simpsons?
AC: I've said this a couple of times in interviews, but it's something that has also served me very well in this position. I have an old bandleader friend that I used to work with a long time ago and he came up with the phrase, "You can't vaudeville Vaudeville." That has also served me really well. The producers and I have talked about it a lot and they keep saying, "We don't want the music to comment on the scene. We don't want the music to be funny of itself." I'm always in agreement with that because we kind of joke in some of the spotting sessions about the more serious I can play the music according to the way the emotion is laid out, the more we pull the audience in and make them think that the situation is real and then boom, all of a sudden the gag comes and it becomes twice as funny than if I would have tried to set up something leading up to the fact that there was going to be a gag.
DA: You've said several times how important it is for you to score the emotion of a scene. I would like to get into exactly what that means for you because emotion can be so many things for so many people; then, again, to put that into musical terms you get a whole other set of criterion. So, what does that mean to you—what emotions in a drama require a musical backing for you?
AC: Well, obviously emotion is extremely subjective. I think one of the reasons that the producers of The Simpsons and I have such a nice relationship is that I have kind of figured out a way of translating their directions to me into a musical style that reflects the emotions that they want to appear on the screen. We have a really good relationship that way and there's a lot of shorthand and unstated stuff that goes on where they can tell me what they want.
Obviously, I have to make a very quick, subjective judgment as to—do they really want that?, number one. Or, if they're telling me one thing about emotion, do they really mean exactly what they're saying, or is there something else that's being unstated? I kind of balance all of the things that go on with us from what they tell me to what I see on the screen. We have discussions sometimes, if they ask me to score a scene with a certain kind of emotion. I'll look at it and I'll say, "But, you know, that emotion doesn't show on the screen. Homer's not wincing in pain, he's relatively emotionless there. Why should this cue reflect the pain that Homer's going through?" Sometimes they'll say, "You're right. We'll think twice about that," and we come to some kind of middle ground. Or, other times there is the subtext-approach, where sometimes the music will reflect the pain that Homer's going through in his head even though he doesn't express it. So it's all a very subjective viewpoint.
As I say, one of the nice things about our relationship is we have this kind of shorthand where they can tell me something and I think I understand what that means in a human-emotion perspective. Now, transferring that to a musical emotion is another story. That's why film composers are so lucky in many ways, because if they're real serious students of the craft they've really thought a lot about what kind of melodic, what kind of rhythmic, what kind of harmonic, and what kind of orchestrational hooks will create certain kinds of emotions for the masses, so to speak. Obviously, on The Simpsons we run the gamut of everything. When you brought up this question I almost immediately flashed on this poster that you've probably seen that has about 150 different faces on it—happy faces, sad faces—and it says "How are you feeling today?" And I'm thinking to myself, well that's almost the way I have to approach the music on this particular series. I think most film composers probably do as well. They have to have a library of what kind of musical turns will create, "How are you feeling today?"
DA: That's very interesting.
AC: Yes, it is.
DA: Well, why don't I pose that question to you then? Let's take an example of an emotion, say Homer wincing in pain—we'll use that example you brought up. How do you go about putting this emotion into musical terms? I think a lot of times, people in Western culture are trained to hear dissonance as meaning some sort of discord in the drama, and if it's a soft woodwind palette it's going to mean a gentle scene or something. I think it's interesting to break that down because the precedent for this has been set, but I think it can be recreated from time to time. I'd be really interested to know how you personally would attack a scene that's trying to make an emotional statement with music.
AC: Well, that's an interesting question too. That's a study all in itself. As I'm structuring these cues, I can play two and three chords over and over and over again until I find just the right combination of stuff that creates that small, momentary piece of pain for Homer. Sometimes it literally can take two or three hours of working voices within a harmonic structure to come up with the exact right level that I think applies to the pain that Homer is going through. Sometimes it's too intense, sometimes it's too shallow, sometimes it's too shrill, sometimes it's too dark. Obviously, pain has all sorts of different levels and means a lot of things to a lot of people.
Sometimes the approach on The Simpsons is extremely real from the standpoint of maybe cutting to the core of the normal level of emotion pain, shall we say. Sometimes, as you've noticed, it gets to be rather overblown because Homer's palette is extremely wide. He overreacts to everything. It creates a lot of laughs in and of itself, and then when the music is added to it, which sometimes also gets overblown, it just helps make that moment larger than life. So, I have to make all of those evaluations about what kind of pain he's really relating to and is it a real, sincere pain of a guy that's got a lot of heart? Or is it a pain that's somebody who's got a little piece of psychosis in him is reacting to? It's a very deep discussion and we could go on for a long time about it.
DA: Do you have a hierarchy of musical devices that you equate to emotions?
AC: I probably do. I probably make some, shall I say, arbitrary choices based on the fact that I only have four days to do this episode. One of the things about trying to become a better composer on a daily basis is to try to stretch yourself and use things that you've never used before and study scores you've never seen before and listen to CDs that you've never heard before, to try to assimilate and grow personally as a composer. Yet, only having four days to do an episode, that's kind of limiting. I have made some arbitrary choices to say, "Okay, stylistically this works for me in this particular case. I'm not going to use it all the time, but nevertheless, it's going to go in my library of stock stuff that has become my stylistic trademark on the show." There are things that I have probably used in other places, whether it be movies-of-the-week, longform drama, hour-long drama shows, whatever, that I probably wouldn't use in this series, that have taken a back-burner for the moment because I just don't feel that they're appropriate. It is, in many ways, a very conscious effort of accumulating a certain number of, if you want to refer to them as such, devices that will work for this particular series to give it the sound that it has.
Even though The Simpsons draws from an immense musical palette, there are still places that I haven't gone with it. Not to say that I won't eventually, but there are places that just haven't seemed to be appropriate from the amount of musical literature that there is to draw from.
DA: It seems like the amount of music per episode has increased in the more recent seasons. Do you think the needs of the show have changed or your ideas about it have changed or...
AC: More in the recent ones? That's interesting.
DA: Maybe it's just more extended cues. I watched a whole bunch of shows getting ready for this and as we went through the videotapes it seemed like the more recent they got ,the more I was writing down about the music.
AC: That is interesting. You know, with me being on it as long as I have, I really don't have a perspective about that, I guess. I think probably what has happened, among other things, is that we've gone through basically four sets of executive producers. And I'm working with four different groups of people whose thrusts are all a little bit different and I think maybe that's why it's happened.
DA: Do you ever have a hard time keeping things interesting or inspiring for yourself? I mean, there's basically more Simpsons music than in a handful of feature films or TV movies.
AC: Yes, it's a constant struggle for me because of the sheer volume of music. With an average of about 30 cues per episode and all the way up to, I think our record is 52 cues for one of the Halloween episodes—and that's in a 23-minute show—I keep thinking that we've covered just about every musical style there is on the face of the earth. And then I spot the next episode and I go, "Oops, forgot about that one!" [Laughs]
So, sometimes I end up composing the cues the way producers have slanted the individual scene, sometimes they have actual music in mind before they even write the scene. But, many times, it is totally up to me and it absolutely is a challenge to keep it fresh just because of the sheer volume of stuff. And also the schedule is so tough week after week after week, that not only does one's body start getting tired, but the mind starts getting tired too. So, it's a real challenge to keep it fresh.
DA: You mentioned all the different styles that you're using on the show: which style do you think is closest to your own musical personality?
AC: Oh, that's interesting. [laughs] I've almost become a chameleon with this because there are a lot of different things that I'm required to do, and my musical palette has become pretty broad. That's a very, very difficult question because I have a lot of loves. As I say, Bartók is one of my favorite composers and I love contemporary symphonic music, I love jazz, I love big band music, and I just have a lot of interests. That's a tough one.
DA: That's a fair answer. Do you try to keep a balance between the scoring that is totally your own, and then the bits and pieces of music that are quoting or paraphrasing other compositions?
AC: We try not to overdo the parodies. I think, for the most part, it's been very successful and I think that when you try not to overdo them they become funnier in the context of the show. I think the producers and I really try to focus on that.
DA: In regards to the quotations, do the producers usually bring these to you, or are these your ideas?
AC: Most of the time it comes from the producers. We have a very, very astute set of producers and writers on this show and many of these things are born along with the script. There are actually sometimes indications in the script about, "Music starts at this particular point, a la Bernard Herrmann from such and such a picture." And you probably know that many of the scenes in the parodies are virtual computer renderings of the filmic scenes and it really makes it fun.
DA: Do you have any favorite quotes that you've been able to work in?
AC: The Great Escape one was a lot of fun when Maggie was trying to escape from the day-care center—the Elmer Bernstein cue. Also, I think we did a John Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark cue when Homer was trying to run out of the garage before the garage-door came down, and that was hilarious. I just loved that.
DA: Do you ever hear back from any of these guys after you've quoted their scores?
AC: No, I don't think I ever have. Which is unusual!
DA: I'd be interested to see what it would be like to enter pop culture on that level.
AC: The other interesting thing that happens on this show is because of the fact that a lot of the parodies are based on very large orchestral scores, I have to figure out a way of distilling the essence of those with my orchestra. That becomes a big, big chore unto itself because, obviously, with it being a television series they don't have the kind of budgets that can afford a big, filmic-size orchestra. So, adapting all those cues to make them work with this size orchestra is a real challenge.
DA: When you're using these quotes, is it most important to you that people are recognizing that piece in the score, or do you just want there to be some sort of emotional or even subliminal correlation between the original piece and the use of it in The Simpsons?
AC: When we do quotes and the actual music has been licensed and used as an identifiable hook, I think it's very, very important that the people identify it right away. That's why it's extremely important to me to be able to duplicate the sound of those big orchestral scores as closely as possible. Normally I get really lucky because I've got a great music-preparation staff over at Jo Ann Kane Music Service, and they have contacts all over the place as far as getting copies of the original scores very, very quickly.
As you can imagine, when we're on a four- or five-day turnaround with this stuff, and not only are there 30 or more cues to be composed for the week, there's a tremendous amount of research that has to be done very quickly, from film clips that the producers' assistants have to get to me of the various parodies that I have to shape, but also when I try to get a hold of the original scores through the music-prep department. And sometimes they're not easy to find. It's really, really something how thick the layers of stuff go as to where the scores are buried. Some of these things are pretty old, you know?
DA: Yeah. Too bad that stuff is so hard to get a hold of now days. So when you're working with all these different quotes, are you just pretty much an encyclopedic guy when it comes to film music, or do you have to go out of your way to find something?
AC: Yeah, it's an interesting challenge for me in that no, I'm not an encyclopedia and our process, basically, is that when the producers tell me what the scene is supposed to be a parody of, or they want to use music in the style of, I ask them to get me three or four clips of the movie that we're going after and as close to the scenes as possible. Then I have about three and a half seconds—I'm being facetious, but I have a very, very small amount of time to watch those clips and to try to distill the essence of the clip into what I think the public, who is not schooled in film music, would identify as being the melodic, the harmonic, the rhythmic, the orchestral hooks of the score from that particular picture. I literally have to do that in about 15 or 20 minutes. It's kind of a weird gig! [laughs]
Many times, a composer's representation of the score of a particular picture is not always what the public's representation would be, and I really try to put myself in the public's place and think, "What can I use melodically, rhythmically, harmonically, orchestrationally to make a person sit down and watch a ten-second clip and say, 'Yeah, that's the music from Waterworld,' even though it isn't?" That's really fun.
DA: That's very interesting. Do you think it's fair to say that, with the exception of shows like The Simpsons, TV scoring today is not—I don't want to say not what it used to be, but maybe not in the same vein as in used to be?
AC: Ah, go ahead, you can say it's not what it used to be! [laughs]
DA: Okay, thank you! I didn't want to do that, but...
AC: Yeah, I know and, of course, we all tread lightly on this subject, but I absolutely agree with you that it is definitely not what it used to be, and one of the problems is budgets.
DA: Oh, really?
AC: Yep, it's a big problem.
DA: Is this from the higher-ups not realizing the importance of music and not delegating enough money to that?
AC: I think that that has a lot to do with it. There was an interesting seminar over at the television academy just a few weeks ago on quality in television—where did it go and how can we get it back? From the music point of view, my take on it is that it's very easy as to where it went and where we can get it back—it's budgets. Business- affairs people don't want to pay the money that is required to produce a quality television score. And, unfortunately, there's a wide layer of upper echelon people who think it doesn't make a difference. Obviously, all of us composers think that they are so wrong and it really does make a difference.
It's affecting not only the music-end, it's affecting the length of shoots, it's affecting the entire post-production cycle. It's really, really frustrating to everyone whose trying to put out a quality product. There are movies-of-the-week for television today whose entire music scoring budget is less than what a usual composer's fee alone was a few short years ago. And who is taking the hit? Not only the composer and the musicians, but also the viewing audience, and ultimately the broadcast network. That's a travesty.
DA: Sounds like a headache.
AC: It really is. You know, the networks lament the fact that they're losing more and more of the audience every year and there's no simple answer, but to me it's very obvious what one of the problems is, and it's the fact that they keep cutting back on the amount of money that people can use to produce television shows in a quality way. Very frustrating.
DA: I can imagine it would be. Again on the TV scoring, I read something by Bruce Broughton where he was talking about some of his TV days and how he would try and see how far he could push atonal harmony and some more contemporary gestures, and get away with it on TV. Do you think that there's a limit for these things in TV, that TV has to somehow be more "user friendly" than a feature film?
AC: [Long pause] Oh, that's a very good question. I don't think so, I don't think so. Bruce was very successful in his television days. He was known as one of the most creative composers working in television and I don't think it ever came back to haunt him. I know Bruce fairly well and I don't think I've ever heard that in our discussions. I don't think that... Of course times have changed, too! But, overall I don't think that that is a problem.
DA: Do you think that television scoring gets unjustly ignored compared to feature-film scoring, and would this be because of the budget problems we mentioned, which means that it's generally not up to where it was in the past?
AC: Oh boy, that's an interesting question. Well, I think there's no question about the fact that television scoring certainly takes a back seat to feature-film scoring.
DA: As far as press you mean?
AC: Yeah, as far as press goes. And obviously as far as budgets go, but that's all along the line with television as compared to features. I think from the press standpoint—it was interesting, I went to a book signing for Jon Burlingame's new book the other night [TV's Biggest Hits, Schirmer Books] and somebody kind of asked the same question. His response, which I think was very dead-on, was the fact that some of the finest composers today are working in television as well as motion pictures. There are so many composers who are now very, very successful in motion pictures who got their start in television a long time ago. You know, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams and people like that. Bernard Herrmann did some television scores.
I think it's the kind of thing that in the society today—and maybe it hasn't changed too much, because of the fact that I wasn't around when those guys were doing television. I don't know if they had the same identity problems or not but, I think especially today, it's the major feature composers who are getting the press. You know, the guys who are doing the blockbusters, the Mission: Impossibles and movies like that, and yet there are some very fine composers working in television who are virtually ignored.
DA: That's kind of an imbalance there, isn't it?
DA: Yet, it just seems funny to me that you have something like the intelligence of a Simpsons score where you can compare it to Bartók, and then you flip the channel and you're listening to the theme from Friends or something.
AC: Yeah. "Different strokes for different folks!"
DA: I don't know if they're just going for the teenaged audiences that they're trying to reach, or if they just think that you have to hear it and within point-five seconds be tapping your foot to it.
AC: There's a lot of that, and also there's a really interesting observation that I think we can talk about. For years, the music budgets in public schools have been sinking and sinking and sinking. Music programs have been cut out of public schools little by little for a long time. The students who grew up in a public-school atmosphere normally used to be exposed to concert-band music, orchestral music, choral music with a great frequency. If they didn't participate in those groups themselves they were at least exposed to some of that music through the concerts that the school groups would give.
Now virtually all of those groups are gone and it's been a gradual process—there's been less and less and less of it as the years have gone on and I think now we're really starting to pay the price. Not only from the standpoint of the fact that there are fewer and fewer musicians who are trained to be able to play this kind of stuff, but there are also fewer and fewer listeners who have developed any kind of sophisticated musical tastes, because everybody has grown up on pop music and rock music. The sophistication of the classical-music listener has not been developed over the years because of the fact that all of these programs are being eliminated. I think we're all starting to pay the price now.
DA: I couldn't agree with you more. I like a lot of 20th century music and every time I put it on I get condolences on my broken stereo.
AC: [laughs] You know, it's not necessarily contemporary 20th century music per se, but to me it's more an exposure situation of just being exposed to the classics, for instance. Being exposed to different kinds of textures in music, whether it be choral, whether it be symphonic, whether it be concert-band instrumentation, whether it be big band music. Whatever it is, just to expose the people who make the creative decisions to all the various colors of the musical palette, so to speak. And I think that we're all really, really starting to feel that in the requests that come down.
DA: Man, another depressing topic I guess.
AC: Ha! Well, it is what it is, you know? Somehow or another we, as a group of composers, try to rise above that and to try to create some kind of quality for the people who are asking us to write this music.
DA: You know, it's funny, most of the kids that know something other than pop music mainly know things like Simpsons music or the theme from Star Wars or something like that.
AC: But, you know, think about this for a moment: If you talk to anybody in their 20's and play a copy of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and say, "Have you heard that before?" They'll say, "Yes, we've heard that before and we really like it." And you say, "Where is it from?" And they'll say, "Oh, Platoon," because they had never been exposed to that until Platoon came out. Whereas, back a ways in time it would have been possible to hear a piece like that with more frequency, actually in a school music program, and to realize that there was a composer by the name Samuel Barber who actually wrote that before Platoon.
DA: Well, keep our fingers crossed for music education I guess. Let's see if I can find some more cheerful questions.
AC: [Laughs] No, those were fine!
DA: Let me see. All right, before we were talking about all the different styles you get to approach in The Simpsons. Is there anything that you just couldn't make fit into a Simpsons episode that would either be to far out or just couldn't blend at all? Or can The Simpsons take anything?
AC: It's very interesting, because the basic thrust of the Simpsons music is acoustic music. Matt Groening loves acoustic music and the other producers love acoustic music and they all seem to feel that acoustic music smoothes out the animation. A lot of times the animation is pretty crude and pretty roughly drawn because of time constraints, for one thing, and they all seem to feel that acoustic music smoothes out all of the animation.
When I first started doing the series back in, I guess it was around 1990, I would occasionally use a synthesizer color within the orchestra, or a Fender Rhodes piano color in the orchestra. All of a sudden one of the producers said, "No, we don't use synthesizers here. We don't care for synthesizers in the score." So I took the synthesizer stuff out and I continued to use a Fender Rhodes piano color and the next week he said, "Oh, I told you we don't use synthesizers here." And I said, "Well, what color are you referring to?" Well, I found out it was the Fender Rhodes piano and they look upon even that as an electronic synthesizer sound.
So, the synths have kind of gone bye-bye which is an interesting take on television music. The only time that I really use synthesizer colors is in the actual source music that comes from the show, whether it be a parody of a Die Hard score, or whether it be a video game, or whether it be a local television theme—a cheap television theme where the television station couldn't afford a real orchestra and that kind of stuff. So, we cover pretty much the entire musical palette but, in very specific ways.
DA: It sounds like you have a lot of fun playing with the Elfman theme as well, doing some variations on that.
DA: Would you rather have come up with your own main theme in an idealistic world, or are you having just as much fun playing with his material.
AC: Well, that's a touchy subject for a composer. I would certainly have wanted to come up with my own theme, but you get what you get and that's the way it goes. And you know, you just do what you do.
DA: That's a fair answer. You have a couple of your own themes—the "Side Show Bob/Cape Fear" theme, the "Itchy and Scratchy"...
AC: Well, actually "Itchy and Scratchy" is not mine. It was written by a composer in New York by the name of Robert Israel along with one of the writer/producers on the show, Sam Simon.
DA: Wow, I'd never seen that written anyplace else before. That's interesting. Well, you've also got the "Halloween Aliens" theme, that kind of theremin-y...
AC: Yeah, that was my version of the main title, right. I've also been fortunate (and I'd put fortunate in quotes) to be asked to come up with variations of the main title to use basically in the end credits. They like me to do it in many, many styles. I came up with a way of doing it like renaissance music, and I came up with an Australian-style cue, and like the theme from Mad, Mad World, and the theme from Hill Street Blues, and all those different styles based on the main title. So, that's been kind of fun.
DA: Was the end-title music for the "Who Shot Mr. Burns" episode based on JFK?
AC: Yes, it was. Bravo!
DA: The Simpsons is a pretty quickly edited show; I think they're trying to get about as much in 30 minutes as they can. It seems to me that instead of trying to keep up with the frantic pacing, which might create kind of a skittish scoring, you go a long way towards shaping the quick sequences by sustaining and releasing dissonances. A lot of that goes back to the string writing I was talking about.
DA: Then you save the fast-paced scoring for flourishes and McBain-jumps-in types of Die Hard cues.
AC: Yeah, and what happens is that the thrust of the editing kind of changes from exec-producer to exec- producer or groups thereof. It depends on how music-oriented a group of executive producers are. Some are much more music-oriented than others, and some understand the value of opening up a story a little bit and allowing music, in a sense, to breathe a little bit more and to play greater expanses of transitions and things like that. Others look upon music a little differently.
Also it depends on how intense the story becomes. It's funny, even though the shows are cut very tightly and are very packed with story ideas, there's still stuff that gets left on the cutting room floor—various story asides that are looked upon as, I suppose dispensable would be a good word for it, in the 23 minutes we're allotted to make the story point go home. So, each group of people approach it just a little bit differently.
DA: A lot of your cues end up being really short, again, because of the editing.
DA: How do you go about actually saying something relevant and musically interesting so fast without it just being some ambient noise of shock chord?
AC: Well! I appreciate the fact that you feel I'm doing that! It's tough. It is really difficult, especially for someone who came from dramatic scoring first. When I was doing Moonlighting, I had many long cues in that series—four minutes long, four-and-a-half minutes long sometimes. And then, all of a sudden I get seven seconds to make the same kind of statement. It's really something there to be able to figure out, once again, what kind of musical cue will have the right kind of impact for the viewing public—to come up with the right kind of emotion very quickly.
I did a seminar at the Berklee college earlier this year on The Simpsons and I mentioned that one of the first things I figured out about doing this show was, forget intros. There's no time to set up a mood because with this particular series it's, bam!, the mood is right there. You have to state the mood very quickly and wrap it up very quickly and move on.
DA: So, do you have a technique to make these things work so well, or is it just a matter of putting the thinking cap on extra tight?
AC: It's just thinking about it and going with my hunches. Sometimes they work better than others, but I think, overall, my approach has been, while not trying to be blatantly obvious about something, still trying to be as in-the- public's face as possible and as quickly as possible to make that musical statement within the short amount of time I've been given. It's very much like the show is done overall. The Simpsons is not known for subtlety in many ways. It's like bam, bam, bam, bam, and the joke develops very quickly. That's one of the things that makes it fun to go back and watch a second, a third, and a fourth time and do the freeze-frames and all that fun stuff with it. And the music has become styled in the same way.
DA: Now with the bam, bam, bam attacks is it difficult to keep one eye on the score as a whole—to keep an ebb and a flow about it instead of just having a bunch of bam, bam, bam, bams?
AC: Each episode is a little bit different that way. If there is an episode that has a story arc that moves away from center, so to speak, like the "Cape Fear" episode, then I try to figure out if there is a musical arc as well that can start fairly soon with the episode and carry over through the 23 minutes. It's really difficult to do it on this series overall because the show goes so many different places. Some episodes are totally impossible, there's just absolutely no way of getting a musical arc to hook anything together because it's like a variety show. It goes everywhere with every possible style. But, sometimes, like the "Cape Fear" episode, you can really hook it together and make it seem as one piece.
DA: How do you go about writing some of the source cues, the Stonecutter's song and things like that? That's a very general question.
AC: The procedure is that normally I will be given the script pages that have a lyric already written by one of the writers on staff. They'll give me a couple of script pages ahead and a couple of script pages behind to what the set-up is and where the scene is going. Then I'll have a conference with the writer and the producers as to what they feel the thrust of the mood of the piece should be and what the intent should be.
Once they give me that, most of the time I'm fairly free to create however I want to create. Like the Stonecutter's song, there was no model for that. That was strictly a direction of, "This is what the scene is supposed to do and go for it." Other times there are parodies, as you are well aware, and I end up having to do sideways versions of things. They're very specific about the parodies that they want to do, and it becomes a little bit more difficult to figure out how to do that with paying homage to the piece that we're doing the parody on, and still not using the piece that we're not allowed to use. So, it's a real challenge to do each one of them.
Then, once I've composed the song, basically what I do is write out the rhythm-section parts and we do a demo in the studio of the song and record the rhythm-section track first. It's either just a plain piano track or, if it's a more rhythmically oriented song, I'll end up using piano, bass, and drums, and/or guitar depending on whether it's got a rock feel, or a hip-hop feel, or something like that. We'll record a set of what are called scratch vocals with studio singers if the vocals are going to be sung by the cast members. If they're not going to be sung by the cast members and we're going to use our own vocalists, then normally we'll keep the vocals that we've recorded all the way to the end of the process. If the song is going to be recorded by cast voices, then I'll record scratch vocals which are thrown away eventually, but they're used for demo purposes so that we can make cassettes for all the cast members to listen to so they can learn the material before they go into the voice-record session.
Once they've learned the songs (and this is just in a matter of a day or two usually), they go into the voice-record session, we transfer our rhythm tracks and scratch vocals onto 24-track tape, and the voice-record session is used to record the cast voices singing the song. It's done over and over again until the right thrust and the right mood and all that stuff are obtained. Then once that's done there's a mix made of the rhythm-section track and the click and the cast voices which is sent to the animators.
The animators then animate to those tracks that are given to them with the rhythm section, the cast voices, and the click. Nine months later, when the show is finished at the animation house, it comes back to us and hopefully they've left the songs alone and I don't have to do any major surgery on stuff that's happened. But, more often than not, things have been changed. The songs are quite often sped up for dramatic purposes which makes my original click-track scheme totally useless and I have to start all over again. Or, they will oftentimes open up the song for dramatic purposes. I try to leave enough space, according to what I see in the script, for all of the comedy bits to go on within the song but, sometimes dramatically the animators say, "Well, we need another two bars to do a little comedy bit in here before we go on to the next phrase," so then they'll open up the song. We talk a lot about it so that, hopefully, they will open it up by an even number of bars or an even number of beats according to the click track that we furnish. But, sometimes, even that falls by the wayside and there ends up being a 5/4 bar here and a 3/4 bar here and I have to compensate for that in the final track.
So, the stuff finally comes back from the animators and then when I score the underscore cues for that particular episode, I'll also sweeten the tracks that have come back, which means that I replace the rhythm section track with an orchestral track so it sounds as if the orchestra is accompanying the voices in the finished piece. So, there needs to be new orchestrations written and then I have to make patches to the click tracks and figure out if there's a new routine involved because of the fact that they've opened it up, or closed it up, or sped it up, or any of the stuff that they like to do—which makes my life hell. [laughs]
DA: Sounds like a long journey.
AC: It is a long journey. Usually, by the time the stuff comes back, I've already forgotten about it because there is about a nine-month time from the period when I first compose a song until it comes back and it has to be sweetened in the orchestral session.
DA: I loved that Planet of the Apes rap.
AC: One of the titles that I've always liked the best was from that same show: "From Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z." [laughs]
DA: Do you ever have any input in the lyrics in it or is it almost always handed to you?
AC: It's almost always handed to me. The producers are very flexible and they're very open to changes. We have discussions sometimes about, there are too many words in this line, how can we compact it so that the line matches the line that was 15 lines above, as far as matching a song form? They're accommodating about that because they all want it to come out as good as it can too. It's a great collaborative effort, but most of the time I'm— in fact, I think all the time on The Simpsons I've been handed the lyric.
DA: We've talked a lot about the purposes the music serves within the story. So I'd like to ask you this question in a more general sense, why do you think there is music in a story at all?
AC: Oh, that's easy for me. Because music brings to film an emotion that no other device can. There was an old saying and I'm not positive of the source. Somebody told me it was Oscar Wilde, but I'm not sure. The saying was, "Music begins where the words leave off." I think that's really, really true in many ways. Music can be so many things to so many people because it opens up a person's emotional psyche to the past experiences they've all gone through as individuals. I think it's a much stronger medium in many ways than the written word, even though the written word certainly cuts to the quick of human emotion and lays out what the scenario is going to be.
But the written word is very much in your face, so to speak, and leaves very little room for interpretation if it's done well. Whereas, music is a much more esoteric medium, and allows every individual to bring his experience to the party. From that standpoint, I think it's just fascinating what it can do with a piece of film to either bring it to an absolutely new creative height, or to kill it.
It's very interesting. I can watch certain television programs now and certain movies-of-the-week and whatever which are terribly affected by this budget situation that we were talking about. And the scores are done so poorly that they are really painful for me to listen to. I think that that's one of those situations that I just talked about— about the fact that each individual comes to listening to a score with his musical experience and his own life experiences and if all of a sudden something is done poorly in relation to where a person's reference point is, it's painful. And vice-versa, it can absolutely be glorious.
DA: Do you think that the audiences' personal experiences colors their taste in film music and TV music?
AC: Probably. I think that my take on it has been that there is always a universal truth to human emotion. And, even though individuals bring their own experience to the party, the universal truth in the center of the emotion will always stay anchored firmly in place. It's the fringe stuff that people bring to it that colors their reaction to how a scene is playing. But, the core of the work will always remain there for the people in general as a body.
DA: Well, let's see. What am I missing? It's my catch-all question but, what is there about your work on The Simpsons that no one ever asks about, but we all should know?
AC: Well, I do write virtually all the songs now which a lot of people don't realize yet. I think this is my third season of writing all of the original songs. I didn't do something like "Streetcar," that was written by a producer by the name of Jeff Martin who was on the series originally. Jeff's also a composer and he had a little home studio. He wrote a lot of the early songs as part of the scripts that he would turn in. Then he moved on to other pastures and when he left they needed somebody to write the songs and so they asked if I could do that and I said, "Well, watch me."
So, I started turning in a few things here and there and they really liked what they got. It's been great fun for me because I would say 90% of the time an underscore composer never gets an opportunity to write an original song. Maybe there's a chick singing in a bar somewhere as some piece of ambiance material, you know? And even those are pretty few and far between. So to now all of a sudden have the opportunity to write featured solo vocal and vocal group style songs that are really songs on a series like this is really a very special place.
DA: What do you see as your contribution to The Simpsons. You could argue that the show would still be funny without your music and that some scenes would still be touching, but somehow it just wouldn't be the same. What do you feel that you're bringing to it?
AC: I guess I can kind of relate to you the things that the producers have said to me. They say that music has become a very major player in this series. I'm really thrilled about that and thrilled I have a part in making that happen. Music usually is not a major player in most television shows. I guess in just doing what I do week after week, perhaps it's difficult for me to realize music's place in the show. I kind of have to just listen to what they're telling me because I'm usually so busy that I don't have much of a handle on that other than, I know that the opportunities that they have given me have increased from the time that I have started. It's come a long way in six seasons.
DA: I would definitely tend to agree with your producers.
AC: Thank you. It's been a lot of fun. It's been a job like I've never had before. I never did animation before this. This is the first animated show that I've ever done. I came from longform dramas and a sitcom—you know I did the Alf show for four years. It's been a really interesting approach to an animated show and it's funny because in many ways some of the scenes aren't that different from scoring Moonlighting or any other kind of longform drama, because of the direction they've given me. They say, "We're a drama where the characters are drawn and we want you to score the emotion," and that's exactly what I try to do and it's a lot of fun.
Thanks to the good people at Fox, the equally as good people at Jo Ann Kane Music Service, Inc., and Lukas, who is pretty darn good in his own right. And a huge thanks to Alf Clausen. This article was the result of about four months of constant back and forth to get everything assembled and Alf was absolutely remarkable about making himself available to help with every step. All help was deeply appreciated!
Last updated on February 15, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)