Emmy® award winning composer, producer and conductor Joel McNeely is one of the few film composers today whose knowledge and skill in music composition I can say is truly inspiring. His diverse skill-set has allowed him to work in television, feature films, concert music, big band charts, pop music and more - his most recent projects including Seth MacFarlane's second solo album and feature film titled A Million Ways to Die in the West. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Joel about his experiences and views on today's music industry (thanks Joel!):
Nick: You decided to become a composer at an early age, what was it that attracted you to writing?
Joel: I really think that this is something you're born with. Music always came easily and composition seemed to be the best way for me to express myself in music. My brain just works that way. It's super clumsy in other ways, but combining different elements to make music just comes naturally.
Nick: Can you tell us about how you got started working as a film composer?
Joel: I made a demo tape that used a live orchestra. A bunch of good friends came and played a session for me and that tape got around. Bruce Broughton and David Shire were both very supportive and helped me get into the Sundance Composer's Institute. An agent from Gorfaine/Schwartz heard my tape at Sundance and invited me to become a client.
Nick: How did teaching at the SMPTV program affect your writing? Did students ever inspire you to try something new?
Joel: I suppose it made me think harder about what I do and how I do it. Sometimes it's helpful to analyze how one works. I wouldn't say the students inspired me to try new things. There was so little time to pack in so much information, that it was always a struggle just to teach them what they needed in the time allowed.
Nick: What is your most memorable experience on a project?
Joel: In the past I'd have to say Young Indy and Radioland Murders. That's where I really learned to write. By doing. In large amounts in very little time. No substitute for jumping into the deep end of the pool not really knowing how to swim. More recently the best experience has been working with Seth MacFarlane.
Nick: How was it working with Seth MacFarlane on his debut album?
Joel: It was fantastic. He has such a wonderful outlook on music and is an incredibly intuitive musician. He really appreciates craft and skill in arrangements and playing. We are finishing up the 2nd album now. As well, I'll be scoring his new feature, a western called A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Nick: What skills would you say are essential to success as a composer?
Joel: Before computers made it possible to make somewhat credible sounding music with little or no training one really had to know how to write. This takes years of study and training. Nowadays, not meaning to sound cynical I guess the most important skill would be self-promotion. The composers who have become the most omnipresent have very good people skills. Bernard Herrmann had horrible people skills. But his scores will still be remembered in 100 years I think. I'm not sure what scores from today will be remembered in 100 years.
Nick: Where do you see the film scoring "industry" moving in the future?
Joel: I honestly don't know. I do hope it moves away from the drone scores that are so pervasive now and toward music that has more emotional and foundational integrity, whatever that may be. There are some very effective drone scores but I fail to see why the bar across the board has to be set so low. For the almost the entire history of music, craft, technique and skill was cultivated and demanded and contributed to the overall artistry. What would Debussy's music be like if he had had no training? In film music at least, for whatever reason I can't say, it seems we've stepped away from those things. I hope a day comes where the audience begins to demand more from composers as well as filmmakers.
I'd like to thank Mr. McNeely for taking the time to chat with me and for his endless contributions to the modern music industry.
For more information about Joel McNeely, visit his website here.
Film | Music
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