Monday, April 06, 2009

Scratch the Contract

Young and experienced composers alike might complain that temp tracks limit creativity, although the process of modeling a temp can certainly prove an invaluable training tool.

In fact, student composers have invariably participated in the temp track process without even realizing it. Almost all university students in a composition program are assigned the task of composing a four-part harmony. In order to fulfill this assignment, one must learn the theoretical rules governing the traditional four voice chorale style.

The resulting student work is hopefully original while also paying strict adherence to the rules demanded by convention. By extension, a formal education in music is not really about finding one’s unique voice –leave that to biology, time and life– but rather, learning how to reproduce conventional material.

The analysis of a scratch track, and the subsequent composition of a derivative work, share a parallel process (though often scaled larger befitting the magnitude of some professional assignments).

Temp tracks DO limit creative direction, but that’s not necessarily a negative. Given the option of taking verbal direction from a client (who may otherwise be layman when it comes to music), a temp track may provide the only accurate brief for a given assignment. A director (or client) may deliver creative goals verbally or via written text, or by both means, but only when the music does the talking, does the exact nature of the assignment crystalize.

Brian Eno has suggested that working with limitations, and not wallowing in infinite options, is the most direct path to creative results, and I tend to agree. I love it when he points to Marshall amplifiers and suggests that it is the very limitations the thing that gives it personality (The Revenge of the Intuitive, Wired, Issue 7.01, Jan 1999). I think the same is true for people.

As it happens, if temp tracks lock the composer into a direction, they also lock in the client, and that is to the composer's advantage (especially if the client is otherwise prone to indecisiveness).

For instance, should the client change the direction after production has started, a composer can rightly request overages on the premise that the new requests were not explicit in the temp (assuming that the original bid was based on direction indicated in the temp).

But likewise, if a client decides a minimal electronic score is more appropriate than a previously agreed symphonic direction, they may seek to renegotiate a contract so that it no longer reflects the necessity of paying a hundred musicians or renting a sound stage.

Also, if a composer delivers a track that does not in any way reflect or reference mutually agreed specifications, the client can demand a rewrite, threaten non-payment, or justly fire the composer for not keeping to the agreement as defined by the temp.

Temp tracks do more than indicate direction; they also specify convention and clarify language. One might even argue they actually give language its meaning.

For instance, if the client requests a symphonic score (without providing you with a musical recording as an example of what he or she means by 'symphonic'), and you, the composer, deliver a work in the style of Leonard Bernstein's WEST SIDE STORY, you may have fulfilled the assignment only to learn that Bernstein was not was the client had in mind when they asked for something 'symphonic'.

If it was, then you’re simply lucky. But if the client was thinking Mahler instead, or Glass, they might justly or unjustly demand a rewrite –and you may or may not be able to win overages.

In order to preclude such a scenario from occurring, what usually happens is that one party or the other will seek to define particular aspects of verbal (or text) instructions by using an existing piece of recorded music to clarify the meaning of some adjectives.

So, if our hypothetical client requests a symphonic score, and additionally presents you with a recording of the Star Wars music as reference, then in this case you know exactly what they mean by symphonic.

Alternately, if in another meeting, another client asks for a rock track but doesn't provide you with an audio reference, then it behooves you, the composer, to present a variety of songs you consider rock (before beginning the composition process), in order to clarify that you and your client share the same definition of the word 'rock'. Is it Little Richard? Is it Nirvana? Big difference.

In this respect, a scratch track serves as both a creative brief and a contractual agreement –written in the language of music– between composer and client that explicitly details what is requested by the client, and what is expected of the composer.


Ty said...

I never use temp tracks or scratch tracks. I also, don't do multiple takes. If I do create a similar track or style, it goes toward the creation of a new song.

My philosophy is, if you're talented, take the first take provided to you by your talent. Must be a reason, why you were provided this inspiration.

Move on and don't stifle creativity. It's also more fun to be creative. Work out the nuances in production.

However, I speak on this not as a professional musician, just somebody who's gifted to play music.

Terry O'Gara said...

Good point, Ty. When I compose music for its own sake, I never reference another track either.

Neither does Chip Jenkins, a friend of mine and an award winning composer in his own right. Chip just digs in and prays for magic. Lucky for him, he's a wizard and you can hear his music all over the last twenty years of television. So, there's someone who definitely proves you can buck the system provided you have the talent to deliver.

Not to mention that some composers like Philip Glass would never need to reference a needle drop because they're commissioned as specialists, i.e. to produce something similar to what they've previously demonstrated as a unique creative style. It's highly unlikely Glass would ever be hired to write the blues, for instance.

But most professional composers scoring moving picture aren't necessarily commissioned with a style that appeals only to their strengths or interests. They're forced to write in all styles, and if they aren't acquainted with a certain style, they're going to have to listen to something in order to pick it up.

Across the table, clients often require the security of knowing that a composer will score exactly what they've commissioned them to do, lest they be hit with overages because of some miscommunication.

That's why referencing third party audio continues to be a simple fact of life throughout the advertising and film communities.

thanks for the comment!