Interview: Mr. Beal and the Elusive Melody
Malaga is the ideal place to have a chat with film composers. Not only because Movie Score Malaga – MOSMA gathers many in this amazing Spanish city once a year, but also because the environment helps them to freely speak about their craft. Which, considering the tight schedule, the rehearsals and all the stress surrounding the concerts, is quite surprising. In fact, we caught Jeff Beal in between concerts. The previous day he had won over the audience both with his music and his trumpet. That night, he’d do it again in the symphonic concert.
Beal is a relaxed and extremely nice person, with an everlasting smile on his face. Success seems to have been kind to him, while he speaks about his work with utmost humility. In the almost half an hour we spent together, we had the chance to talk about everything, from his well-known House of Cards score to his beloved Rome. Even politics, a subject he’s got no inconvenience in.
Though none of us mentioned it openly, I’ve got the strong feeling that we all had in mind one person who was not present and whom we missed so much: Beth Bobo Krakower, his publicist. She’d have loved to visit the city, but her health prevented it. Beth, see you next year.
Jeff Beal (1963) was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a graduate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. His beginnings were as a jazz trumpeter and recording artist, with solo albums such as Liberation (Island Records, 1987), Three Graces (Triloka, 1993) or Red Shift (Koch Jazz, 1998).
Beal moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, where he has scored the films Pollock (2000), Appaloosa (2008) or Shock and Awe (2017). He has received seventeen prime time Emmy nominations for his music, and has won five statues. Scores of note include his dramatic music for the series House of Cards, Carnivàle and Rome, as well as his comedic score and theme for the detective series, Monk.
Beal’s commissioned works have been performed by many leading orchestras and conductors, including the Pacific (Carl St. Clair), Munich, Frankfurt and St. Louis (Marin Alsop) symphony orchestras.
What could you tell us about your beginnings in music?
There was a piano in our house, and an organ. At a very early age I started to sit down at the piano and pick out tunes. My grandmother was a great improviser. I was a boy, probably five years old, when I was trying to figure out a tune and she would yell from the other room what the note was. But, for me, the love of music really took off when I started playing the trumpet. When I started playing jazz, I sort of discovered the whole round of creativity and improvising.
I don’t play trumpet on all my scores, but there’s an element of that musical voice in everything I write. The fact that the trumpet is a melodic instrument, a single line. I love melody and I always try to write a great melody. Some film music is obviously harmonic and sort of subtle, but I always try to find some interesting line to create.
Is improvisation something you use in your work?
All the time. I think the computers helped on that a lot too, because I can capture the spontaneity in the ideas as I’m working. A lot of the things that happen when I’m writing are accidents, so I discover them as I’m doing them. I like the fact that I don’t know what’s gonna happen before I start. I discover it. I’m very much a process type of person, I discover the music as I’m creating it.
Film is wonderful, because I have the gift of whatever is the actors are doing and the story. It’s like playing at a band. You listen to everybody around you. I’m trying to not just write in the vacuum and have the music be related to everything else.
When and how did you decide to compose for film?
I went to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. In my last year, they had a film scoring class, and I really loved it. I got lucky. There’s a matter of luck in everyone’s career. For me, right out of college, I met the filmmakers that made the first film that I ever made, a little movie called Cheap Shots. From there I was kind of organically progressing over the years.
It takes longer to develop a career as a composer than as a trumpet player. Earlier, in my twenties, I made some jazz records and the composing came out of that. As the composition took off, I realized that I was able to express as a film composer a lot of the same things that I was able to do as a trumpet player, but in a more varied and rich world, because it was different every time.
Still, you’re very active with commissions for different orchestras or the stage. Is your work on these other fields further inspiring?
Absolutely. I like to not stay still as an artist. I like to be challenged and always be trying new things. We went to the Picasso Museum here in Malaga. It was so inspiring to see all the different things that he tried, like the sculpture, the charcoal, the painting… and he never stopped. Those are artists that always inspired me. Miles Davis is another good example. He wasn’t content with just doing the same thing over and over.
I think you love Sketches of Spain.
I do. Probably you heard a little bit of it in my trumpet playing last night. That was one of the first records my grandmother gave to me when I was a little boy. It’s an amazing recording.
Your score for Pollock has a real Americana feeling to it. What are your memories of it?
I love painting, you know. I’ve mentioned Picasso. I think painting is closely related to music. A lot of the same things that are implied in a great painting, hopefully, exist in a great piece of music. I was very lucky to get that film. It was early in my career and I was recommended by a great friend of mine, Mark Isham, who was not available, as he was touring that summer.
The funny thing was, originally, they had thought that it might be more of a jazz score for Pollock. It turns out I was the third composer hired. Other scores were tried and not used. With Ed Harris, we really hit it off. We understood each other. He liked my music.
I remember I went to his house for what I thought was just gonna be an interview to see if he’d hired me. We ended up staying there at his house and spotting the movie that day. I just went back and started writing. It was very fast. But I like that. Because I’m an improviser, I’m a pretty fast writer. I do well when I’m not judging or thinking.
One of the things we discovered in Pollock is part of his life story is very tragic: he was an alcoholic, he wasn’t never really properly medicated… He was a destructive person, but, as an artist, he invented this whole new thing. In the cues, like in the one we’ll play tonight, there’s a sense of joy and celebration. It’s very American. The main theme is very American, because he was the first painter to really do something that the world considered as great as Picasso or Matisse. That’s what all of us are trying to do as artists, to tell our own stories from our own point of view.
You also collaborated with Ed Harris in Appaloosa. How was this second experience with him?
It was wonderful. I wish he’d made more movies, he’s a wonderful director. I love working with Ed. Appaloosa was trickier than Pollock. Because it was a western, we had all this baggage westerns have. It’s a wonderful genre, but we wanted to do something very honest. We didn’t want to do it with a sense of modernity. We wanted to do it like a classic story.
The themes we found were very much like the classic western theme which, ironically, was trickier. It’s a very specific style and it’s easy to do it in an insincere way. The main theme was actually one of the very first things I wrote. We put it away and we tried a bunch of different things, but we ended coming back to it. Western music has a sense of folk music to it and a sense of openness. I really treasured working with Ed again. He commits so fully to his vision, and loves the creative hunt of filmmaking.
Speaking of period pieces, you also worked in the cult series Carnivàle. What could you tell us about it? Your music exposes such a complex world, within ours…
I loved that because it was sort of very American, but it was obviously mythic. It had these elements of good and evil. I loved the idea of mysticism and religion. Those myths are so powerful. I liked the fact that in our show we had this sense of mystery and magic.
One of the things that really helped me with Carnivàle was this sense of improvisation. They are traveling from town to town. The idea that the music was not too perfect nor too predictable was useful. Also the fact that it is a very scary show. I like scary music, but it’s actually hard to do, because you have to surprise the audience. I had to find ways to be unpredictable, but interesting. There was a lot of sound design. I did things with the trumpet or the violin. I recorded real instruments and then manipulated then digitally.
One of my personal favorites is your score for the episode Battleground of Nightmares & Dreamscapes. William Hurt is incredible on it.
It’s great you mention that, because actually I’m just starting to do a live version of it, with orchestra. It’s an amazing film. It was so much fun. It was an homage to a Twilight Zone episode. It’s really an unusual project, because it has no dialogue. It’s basically a silent movie, except for sound effects. The idea was that music could tell the whole story. I kind of went crazy. My music editor had a funny description for the score after he’d heard it. He said it was like Bartókon crack. It’s kind of like that, but it was also about the character.
Brian Henson, who directed it, asked me if I would like to go the set. I visited them in Australia while they were shooting. It was really fascinanting. I got to see them doing all the green screen stuff and, of course, there was a lot of wonderful visual effects. Brian told me something very useful about William Hurt’s character. He is not a nice person. He’s like an animal, like a predator. He is a hitman. He is a monster. Even more than Frank Underwood, who has a little bit of humanity to him. This guy was pure evil. So there was something interesting about making him the villain and, then, the fact that he gets his revenge from these little green men.
And it’s also a very funny movie, but we tried very hard not to play the comedy. Just let it play straight and let the irony come out of the story itself. I love Stephen King. He is a genius.
Another personal favorite of mine is Rome. How did you get the right sound for that one?
With a lot of experimentation, a lot of research and a lot of improvisation. One of the things we do know about the music is that it wasn’t written down, it was pretty much all improvised, but we did know the collection of instruments used during the time. I had so much fun. I ordered a bunch of instruments from internet. I got a duduk, a lute, recorders and drums. Of course I had other people come and play, but a lot of the first sketches I actually created myself. Throughout the series I played a lot of the instruments: the frame drums, the recorders.
That was really a way into composing the score: to give it a sense of improvisation, of roughness. You wanted to feel the dirt on the floor. We don’t know how it sounded like, but I didn’t want it to sound like a history lesson. I wanted it to feel real, like it relates to a modern audience.
And, of course, we could not forget House of Cards. So far, it’s impossible to think of the series without humming its main theme. Was it difficult to encapsulate such tough personalities in your music?
I originally wrote the main theme before they started shooting the film actually. David Fincher said that we needed a call to arms. He described Frank Underwood as a movie producer he knew, who reminded him a little bit of Frank Underwood. He described him like this sort of guy that just plows into the room and doesn’t let anybody stop him. It was just a sketch idea, but often good film music can be based in very simple, hopefully effective, ideas. That’s why the baseline, which never changes, was really so important, because it’s what holds the whole thing together.
I wrote it very quickly. The orchestration we spent more time on, but the bones of the theme had this sense. And, then, there were a lot of little dissonances in there, like major-minor themes, which are very unsettling to the ear and they sort of feel grand or powerful, but also manipulative or dark.
You have a complete control on your music: composing, orchestrating, mixing…
I do a lot myself. I’ve always been that kind of artist. I’m not comfortable having a team of people doing all that stuff. It’s not just my personality. I do have one assistant now, but I do all of the creative work. That’s always been my process. I see this like a painting. If it’s gonna be a painting by me, I have to do it. I´d rather do less work, but have all the work I do feel like it has the stamp of my creativity in it.
What do documentaries offer you that no film or TV series may offer?
I love documentaries. Often they say you don’t choose your jobs, but they choose you. Documentaries kind of found me. I think it’s one of the most creative areas of filmmaking right now. I’ve been at Sundance many times, with many films, and every time I’m at that festival, you ask people what you’ve seen that you like, nine times out of ten they mention a documentary.
I think documentaries have sort of come in where investigative journalism used to go. Now the news has become entertainment. It’s not really news anymore. So the idea that a documentary can give you a deep dive into a factual story that you can care about has filled a much needed void for us . I did a lot of music last night from documentary films: An Inconvenient Sequel, Blackfish, The Queen of Versailles…
This summer we premiere Generation Wealth. A really powerful film about, basically, the idea of affluence and how Americans have taken this idea as a value and exported it all around the world with disastrous consequences. Trump is the perfect example of that: we’ve elected a billionaire as president. It’s a false equivalency of money equaling intelligence. Money does not equal taste. Money does not equal morals. Money only equals money, but we’ve set it up as a value and we’re paying the price for it. Personally and politically. Globally.