The music of Buffy is not all about Dingoes Ate My Baby and the classic Nerf Herder theme. Underpinning the action for some of season 2 and all of season 3, Christophe Beck's sometimes haunting sometimes terrifiying music brings an already thrilling show significantly closer to perfect TV. As he commences work on the forthcoming Earshot episode of Buffy, Chris talks exclusively to The Watcher's Web.
The Watcher's Web: How long have you been performing and playing music?
Chris Beck: I started picking songs by ear off the radio when I was seven years old. Luckily I had a piano teacher who nurtured my ear (rather than slavishly sticking to sight-reading exercises, at which I was - and continue to be - awful). She had me choose one song a week to transcribe by ear and play for her. The first song I ever transcribed and played from beginning to end was "Tragedy" by the Bee Gees. From there to Buffy.
TWW: Can you give us some background on how you reached the point where you became the main composer for Buffy.
CB: I'll have to give you the really short version: rock bands in high school, jazz in my first couple of years in college, then (mostly out of laziness - no practising required) shifting to composing as my main focus, musical theatre and opera toward the end of college. I went straight to USC to do the film scoring program, and had my first job (ghost-writing for another composer on a tiny little TV show) two months before graduation.
I first got a chance to send Joss my CD because John McNamara, a producer on a short-lived but underrated ABC show I worked on called Spy Game, recommended me to David Greenwalt, who was actively collecting submissions for season 2. I got the gig along with a couple of other composers. By the end of season 2 I knew I wanted to do all the episodes, and luckily for me, Joss agreed to let me.
TWW: Can you tell us what you have been working on today and how you approached scoring the scenes you worked on.
CB: Well, let's see... Today I started "Earshot". I usually write in show order so I started with the "Previously". Those are pretty easy - the cuts move so fast, you can't play any of the individual moments, so it's just a matter of providing a little energy and a little mystery and anticipation.
TWW: Could you tell us about the equipment you use to perform and record the music for Buffy.
CB: I have a computer which controls a roomful of samplers, each of which has a number of high-quality simulations of orchestral instruments. I actually hear all the correct instrumentation as I compose.
TWW: I gather you often use real instruments to augment the synths and samplers. Do you play these yourself, or do you use session musicians? Would you like to work with a small orchestra as the Star Trek and Simpsons composers do or do prefer the way of working you have now?
CB: I hire session musicians - usually a woodwind player, and a second player to round it out. Which instrument I use depends on the episode - fiddle for "The Zeppo" (are you guys in season 3 yet?), viola for "Amends", a vocal for "The Wish". And yes, I'd love to work with an orchestra every week, although it would take a little more time to turn around each score. Unfortunately it's just too expensive. I've mentioned it to the producers before, and their reaction is "why should we spend so much money when we like the way your scores sound already?" So, short of deliberately making my orchestral simulations sound less convincing, it just ain't gonna happen.
TWW: Can you describe the process and time scale of producing the music for an episode. How long do you get, does the director of the episode and/or Joss give you much feedback as you work etc.
CB: The directors rarely get involved. It's pretty much Joss' baby. When there's a locked picture (meaning: no more editing) I sit down with Joss and a few other producers and/or editors, and we decide exactly where each music cue will start and stop, and what it's supposed to do. then I write a first draft, which usually takes 4-6 days. Joss looks at all the scenes with my music, and gives me notes. Usually most (95%) of what I write in the first draft ends up being the final version.
TWW: You won an Emmy award last year for 'Best Dramatic Underscore. Can you tell us a bit about the ceremony? Was it an enjoyable experience?
CB: As a nominee, the ceremony is incredibly tense until they announce your category. From then on it's actually pretty boring. No offence intended to non-composers, but I'm mostly interested in the music categories, and once they do them, I'm ready to leave. Winning, was, of course, incredible. I feel completely unworthy, especially since I'm such a huge fan of some of the other composers I beat. there's just something *wrong* about me winning an Emmy on my first try. I'm not giving it back though.
TWW: What is the most unusual thing you have ever sampled?
CB: Some of the spooky effects I use in Buffy are actually sampled from playing percussion instruments in unusual ways. A superball scraped across a gong, for example. Or playing the inside of a piano with a guitar pick.
TWW: Do you have any involvement with the bands used for the 'Bronze' scenes to ensure that the two types of music complement each other?
CB: No. It's sort of better that they don't, actually - I like it when the delineation of source music and score music is clear, when they inhabit two very different sonic worlds.
TWW: Will you be involved in the music for the forthcoming Angel series, and if so will you and the producers be aiming for a markedly different style from the main series?
CB: Yes, I will be doing the underscore for Angel. At first I'll be heavily involved in writing for both shows, but eventually I intend to hand Angel off to another composer, so I can focus on Buffy and actually get some sleep. It's still too early to say what the direction of the new show will be from a musical standpoint, although that will all be hashed out over the next month or so as I develop a theme.
TWW: What is the current status of your score CD as opposed to the 'Music From The Series' CD (which I believe will be released in August?)
CB: There is no status. Some companies have expressed interest in putting out a score CD. It will happen 6 months to a year after they release the song CD. The problem is, they keep pushing it back. And I wouldn't bet on August either.
TWW: What are your thoughts on the Chris Beck Cameo Committee? What sort of cameo would 'you' like to have in the series?
CB: If I get a cameo I'd have fun with it, but the Committee started more or less as a joke, a response to some idle (if colourful) comments I made on the PB at one time. I love it because it raises awareness of the score and gets people listening and talking about the music. And, to do that (raise awareness about the music), if it takes a group of people whose official mandate is to get me an appearance on the show (a proposition which has nothing to do with music), so be it. Plus it's cool to have a fan club.
TWW: Are you working on any other projects outside of Buffy? (soundtrack or conventional music) Are there any albums of your work available?
CB: Currently I'm looking for my next film project. I just finished Miramax's Guinevere, and I'm looking at a few other possibilities for the next few months and into the summer hiatus. Guinevere will be my first commercially available soundtrack. I will have two cuts on it - the rest will be jazz source music not written by me. Should be out around when the movie comes out, which is in September.
TWW: Chris Beck, thank you.
Equipment list: Apple Mac 9600/300 running Digital Performer, 3 Emu e4's, 8 Roland s760's, 1 Gigasampler (Chris' new favourite toy) running on a Wintel machine, all going through 3 cascaded Yamaha o2r's and recorded onto DA88. MOTU 2408 used to record the live instruments to hard disk. Extracts from Chris' Buffy scores can be heard at the Chris Beck Cameo Committee site [Bluntinstrument note: the site no longer exists]. You will need a suitable MPEG player (such as WinAmp or MacAmp) to hear the clips
(This page, and indeed the whole site) appears to be on the verge of being uprooted
by the server. The interview probably at The
Watcher's Web, which no longer exists.
Authors: "The Watchers Web", unverified, but dated before CB's cameo in the finale of Buffy season 4, and during scoring of episode 'Earshot'