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Interview with Elektra and Buffy Composer Christophe Beck

With over 40 film scores to his credit, Christophe Beck has definitely joined the ranks of our most prolific composers. He has covered such diverse genres as teen comedy (American Wedding), film noir (Confidence) and epic romance (Under the Tuscan Sun). While a comic book heroine like Elektra wouldn't normally be a challenge to the man who scored Buffy the Vampire Slayer's tussles.

Beck decided to spice things up. "One thing I wanted to try for a while was to create textures and music beds and edit and manipulate them to create both strange and familiar musical elements."

With the score to this month's Elektra, he has crafted a mystical soundscape. Beck pre-recorded orchestral sounds that he then manipulated into abstract sound design. This contemporary sound was used to compliment Elektra's more traditional music. Monsters & Critics recently talked with Beck about this process and his musical pursuits.

M&C: Was Elektra a different score for you since you were experimenting with new methods?

C. Beck: Well, I think it would have been different for me even if I hadn't experimented with some production techniques that I was interested in. In terms of the genres of movies I've done... most of them have been comedies and so it would have been very different for me regardless. But I saw it as an opportunity to really try some interesting ideas I'd been playing with as well.

M&C: Could you discuss the process of how you took pre-recorded orchestral music and then manipulated them to create unique sounds?

C. Beck: Sometime you hear in a hip-hop track (how) they would sample a bit from a film score or some piece of classical music. They would take a 2 or 4 second snippet of it... loop it and turn it into something else... basically re-contextualizing it and making a brand new piece of music out of it. I wanted to do something like that only instead of putting beats under them and singing and rapping, (I would) use a bit more esoteric percussive elements and re-record a newly, traditionally conceived orchestra on top of this kind of post modern orchestral stew. So that was the idea there.

From a technical level that involved going out early on in the process and recording about 20 minutes of orchestral music to use as source material. Then I spent two weeks along with a couple of other guys who did some sound design and we basically just went to town with that material to see what we could come up with.

M&C: Once you had the initial music that you manipulated, was it difficult putting it back into the score you recorded afterwards?

C. Beck: It wasn't difficult at all. I was so pleased with the sonic signature all the synth elements were getting as a result of this process. It just felt really fresh and kind of fit like a glove with the movie for which the director had told me he wanted something a little bit interesting and unique and not a typical comic book movie score.

The hardest part was that, right after that initial session, before we dove in and started making these sounds... here Fox had just spent quite a bit of money indulging what couldn't have sounded to them like a reasonable experiment. But they indulged me, for which I thank them profusely, and then, at the end of it, I was like, "Okay! Now what do I do?" But over the next few days as I and my sound designing cohorts dove in, it got pretty exciting pretty fast.

M&C: How involved were you with the actual film's sound design considering the soundscape nature of Elektra's score? More than usual for a composer?

C. Beck: More than usual on this one. A lot of times I don't even meet the sound people until I'm done. In this particular case, we met early. It was the same sound crew that handled all the early screenings as well as the late screenings and the final dubs so they were very familiar with the movie by the time we got to the final dub. I was brought on very early as well. So these early screenings had a lot of my demos in them so the sound people were very familiar with my score. They even came to the scoring sessions which was great. I think there was good communication about specific moments where the music could take center stage and (where) the sound effects could take center stage.

M&C: So they worked with you weaving it in a lot more than usual?

C. Beck: Yeah.

M&C: How long of a process was this? Longer than usual for a score?

C. Beck: A little bit longer than usual. First of all, it's a large amount of music. Much more than I'm used to. Also I was brought in early, which I love, because then I didn't have to write fast. I got about 4 months from beginning to end which was a luxury.

M&C: In the recording of the different sound elements did you work with any unusual instruments or was it all traditional orchestral sounds?

C. Beck: As far as the instruments the players actually brought with them to the sessions, they were pretty much traditional symphonic instruments. I do feature the Armenian wood instrument called the duduk which is kind of popular in film scores these days. It's a very mournful sound... very soulful. I used it in a bit more of a classical context as opposed to the more traditionally ethnic context that the instrument is used in. It's a really nice color. (It's in the very last track... the first instrument that plays the melody in the last track 'Elektra's Second Life')

M&C: I also noticed a little bit of Asian influence. Is that something you were conscious of because of story elements Elektra had?

C. Beck: Yes, because of the... well, ninjas first of all. Second of all, the supernatural / mystical elements. I mean we didn't want to pound everyone over the head with Taiko drums and gongs, but they're spiced throughout the score for sure. Sometimes in a quite natural way and sometimes in a more processed way.

M&C: You've also scored the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and you had some experience with that heroine's action scenes. Did any of your experience writing for Buffy over to Elektra?

C. Beck: Certainly I tried very hard to give Elektra the film its own identity separate from anything I've done before, as I try to do on every project. Strictly from a technical level, in terms of my chops... what kind of vocabulary I have command of as I'm writing action music... I think doing orchestral action music for 3 years on Buffy was a great training ground for this and made the action sequences a lot less daunting.

M&C: Was it hard to leave the small screen for the big screen?

C. Beck: It was very hard. There's very little difference on a basic abstract level between the process of scoring for TV and films. Differences are more superficial... the budget and time deadlines are tighter in TV. You have to write a lot faster. The cues tend to be shorter. But as far as the actual abstract process of putting music up against picture in the service of the story... you're basically exercising the same muscle. But, somehow, there's this prejudice in the film world against people who come from TV and you really have a lot to prove. It's very easy for film people to say, "Oh, he's just a TV guy." For me, I had to make a move that was bolder than trying to get some films while I'm doing TV shows.

I really needed to make a clean break and announce to the world and, probably more importantly, to myself that I was not going to do TV anymore. So I quit Buffy and the other show I was doing at the time, The Practice, just to focus on doing movies. It took about a year and a half before film offers from studios started coming in. That was a tough year and a half.

M&C: I know. It takes time to convince people that you're something other than what they've categorized you as.

C. Beck: Absolutely. It also happens within the film world with (different) genre's as well.

M&C: Well, you've worked mainly in romantic comedies and teen movies, a little in film noir. Are there any other film genres you would like to work in that you haven't quite touched yet?

C. Beck: I would just love to diversify my portfolio. You know, I want to work in every genre. I would even ideally love to not ever work in the same genre twice in a row or even twice in the same year.

M&C: Just to keep it spicy for you.

C. Beck: Absolutely because I hate repeating myself. (laughs) I mean, I try very hard not to.

M&C: Going back even further... you studied with the late Jerry Goldsmith, somebody who also worked in many genres. Did he have a strong influence on your work?

C. Beck: Oh, definitely. I was part of a group of people at USC who had a class with him. What I took from him more than anything was the importance of economy in a score. He was the king of that. He was so great at making so much out of so little and it just gives his scores a real unifying quality that's really hard to achieve.

M&C: Is that something you strive for yourself?

C. Beck: It is. It's easier said than done a lot of times. Sometimes the kind of thematic development he was able to achieve and the kind or overarching structure he was able to articulate in his scores... someday I'll achieve that. If I'm lucky.

M&C: You also do musical work outside of films. I noticed online a site for the Ape Quartet.

C. Beck: Congratulations! You are the first person to ask me about the Ape Quartet.

M&C: I know a lot of composers like to also do something outside of their work.

C. Beck: Well, there is an Elektra connection, too. The other half of Ape Quartet is a guy named Mark Kilian who did all my production programming and had a big hand in designing a lot of those orchestral samples as well.

He and I have that band Ape Quartet, which has been inactive for a year or two. We made a record and we played a hand full of gigs... maybe a dozen or so. We're actually working on another record on and off. He's a busy composer for commercials and television as well so it's kind of tough sometimes to find the time. Give us another year and we'll finish. It was a great experiment at trying something besides film
scoring and I think very successful in a lot of ways... definitely I'm interested in doing that kind of thing again.

Also, as much as I love working with Mark, and we are definitely going to make another record, I'm curious to see what it would be like to actually work on something completely on my own... to try to discover what that would sound like. Maybe sometime in the next few years I'll check that out, but, so far, my nature is so collaborative that I have a hard time working on things by myself. I always find myself needing the extra inspiration of another piece of source material or another artist to collaborate with.

M&C: Any new film projects on the horizon?

C. Beck: I'm currently working on Ice Princess at Disney which is a skating movie. After that, this one is coming out later in the year, Perfect Man with Hillary Duff. Like a moth to the flame I am drawn to the teen romance. Following that is Pink Panther with Steve Martin.

M&C: We look forward to them all. Thank you.

C. Beck: It's been a pleasure.

Source: M&C Soundtracks feature
Authors: Frank H. Woodward and Mark Sung, 2005.01.19