On the Podium at Abbey Road
The value of providing hands-on experience for gaining skills has been recognized for millennia. What follows are stories of experiential learning efforts directed by Berklee faculty members to give their students a taste of what awaits them in their chosen fields.
A weeklong trip to London to record music at Abbey Road Studios and meet with key figures in the London film industry was a pivotal experience that 33 master’s degree candidates from the Valencia campus will never forget. Lucio Godoy, Berklee Valencia’s program director for film, television, and video games, brought the students and a handful of faculty members into the spacious environs of Abbey Road’s Studio One to work with a 51-piece orchestra composed of top-notch London freelance players. For the capstone project in their program, each composer/conductor had 18 minutes to capture the best rendition of the two- to four-minute cue they had written. It was a chance to work in the facility where legendary composers have recorded hundreds of scores including those for such blockbuster franchises as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and many more.
“These students are getting a chance to work under the best possible conditions in this studio with these musicians,” said Vanessa Garde, an assistant professor at Valencia. Along with fellow assistant professor Alfons Conde, Garde watched the scores during each take, flagging wrong or questionable notes and offering suggestions for improving the dynamic balance between the instruments. For each student composer, their time on the podium was a chance to fully experience the pressure they will face as professional composers. Each worked to get the best take as the clock ticked and Abbey Road’s crack engineering team, led by Simon Rhodes, worked magic with the sound.
According to Brian Cole, Valencia’s dean of academic affairs, the students learned in the fall of 2014 that this year’s culminating projects would be done at Abbey Road. Previous classes had done similar projects in Warner Bros. studios in Los Angeles (in 2013) and Air Studios in London (in 2014). Most of the students prepared for months to have the best possible cue ready. “They had the choice of finding a video through Vimeo or some other source, or creating a storyline and then underscoring it,” Godoy said. In preparation, they were required to create a MIDI mockup for the faculty to hear in advance of the sessions—another process they will need to understand for future work with professional movie directors.
“Some of the scenes the students chose could have been scored very simply with a sustained note and one or two other instruments,” Godoy said. “But most wanted to use the full orchestra since they had the chance.” Godoy also noted that the participating students made up a diverse international group with eight women and 25 men representing 19 nationalities. Participants came from Asia, North and South America, the Middle East, and Europe. “I found it interesting this year when I’d assign them all the same cue, how different each would be,” Godoy said. “They didn’t realize it, but often they would bring something from their own culture into the cue.”
Some composers took the opportunity with their pieces to demonstrate that they are capable of writing music with the grand orchestral sweep of their heroes (e.g. John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore). Others preferred to reveal their own identity.
For her cue, Zuzana Michlerová (of the Czech Republic) chose to underscore an oceanographic clip. Images of waves crashing against tall cliffs juxtaposed with undersea landscapes and footage of sea creatures swimming slowly in small groups or darting rapidly in large formations, offered much to stimulate Michlerová’s vivid musical imagination. Conducting confidently and with much animation, her waist-length blond tresses flew as she guided the orchestra through her cue’s dynamic peaks and valleys.
“My background is in classical composition,” Michlerová says. “Before coming to Valencia, I studied composition and voice at the Prague Conservatory. For this piece I intentionally tried to create a hybrid of classical and film music, I wanted my classical side to come out. We could choose whatever we wanted to score for this project, but usually you are not free to really express your personality when composing for movies. You have to do what the director wants. Having this freedom, I picked a video that I knew would allow me to compose something that sounds very
classical. For my portfolio, I wrote a variety of pieces. We had to write for solo instruments, woodwind quartet, brass quartet, an ensemble of 14 instruments, and string orchestra. We also worked with MIDI and did sound design.”
Michlerová plans to keep developing her composing skills on whatever projects she can get. “I’m not sure that I will go back to stay in the Czech Republic,” she says. “I’ll search out other possibilities, I’d like to try London. For many of my classmates, composing the music is not such a big deal. We need to meet the right people so that we will get the chance to compose. I want to connect with young filmmakers who are at the beginning of their careers too. Of course, you have to be earning money while building relationships, it will take time.”
By enrolling at Berklee Valencia, Fernando Nicknich (of Brazil) journeyed further down the path begun in his undergraduate program that blended music composition and music technology. Titled “Lux Aeterna,” his cue was a soundtrack for a pastiche of seemingly unrelated computer generated images in a video created by Cristóbal Vila. “The video’s theme is curious; I couldn’t find a concept,” Nicknich says. “The maker is not a director. He works with digital animation and video graphics. He had a temp track, and I think he was inspired by that music in making the video.” Nicknich reversed the process using the quickly changing images of Vila’s video to inspire his music.
Nicknich handled the orchestra very skillfully, opening with a swirling piano arpeggio figure that led to sustained brass chords to sinewy cello lines supported by French horn ostinati. As the video images shift from shots of the galaxy to dew-laden spider webs to desert sandstone caves to swimming manta rays to the overleaf of a book, Nicknich’s ravishing themes stitched everything together while drawing on the many colors of the orchestra’s instrumental choirs. The cue ended with a spiraling gesture of lightly bowed violin tremolos on ascending glissandos, a soft cymbal roll underneath.
“I hope the video maker will release this with my music after I send him my mix,” Nicknich says. “We have an agreement that I can—at least—post it on my website.”
I complimented Nicknich when he returned to the control room about his assured demeanor on the podium. He replied humbly, “I was confident about my piece, but not so much about my conducting. But I’ve learned how to deal with this kind of pressure. You cannot do more than you are capable of at the time. I did my best in this moment, in two months I will do better.” Nicknich will return to Brazil when his current visa expires, but may not launch his career there. “I hope to make connections with people in England or America and start working as a composer.”
Storylines, Autobiographical Sketches
Among many composers whose cues were grounded in the contemporary orchestral film music tradition, were Felix Carcone and Felipe Téllez. Carcone grew up primarily in France but has found inspiration in his Italian and Mediterranean heritage as well as the film music of Hollywood. “When I was eight,” Carcone says, “I got Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to the Lion King. Later, I heard the music of James Horner.” At 15, he started playing rock and jazz guitar, but was drawn to studying classical music and completed degree programs at a French conservatory and university before studying at Berklee Valencia.
Of his Abbey Road project Carcone says, “Getting a chance to record a piece here with a great orchestra was my dream. But I was very stressed feeling that I had to write something really great. My first piece was not what I felt I should record. So three days before the deadline I started writing a new piece called ’The Last Stand,’ and worked on it day and night, finishing just before we all flew to London.”
For his cue, Carcone envisioned a storyline about a champion runner doing the final course in a 100-meter race. He confided that it was somewhat autobiographical. He identified with his imaginary protagonist and the race represented his final music project. On the podium at Abbey Road, Carcone showed a dramatic flair in his conducting and was pleased with the take he got. “I have eight projects in my portfolio with some pieces for chamber orchestra, and others for woodwinds, brass, and more. It was important to show that I can do [a full-orchestra] project too.”
As for the future, he says, “I am hoping to make some London contacts from this trip. For now, the plan is to go back to Paris where my family lives and start showing people what I can do.”
Felipe Téllez, of Colombia, wrote the cue titled “Nocturno,” also to a storyline sans video. Its lush melodic theme begins in the woodwinds and strings followed by a poignant piano solo that leads to a dark, tension-filled section before the reprise of the theme.
Téllez attended the University of the Andes in Bogotá with a double major in music production and composition before he came to Valencia. “I wanted to go into music, but I am also a very tech-oriented person. That’s why this major was right for me.” While his career preference would be writing for film, he’s also intrigued with scoring for video games. “It’s a niche you can’t ignore, games are a huge business,” he says. Following his graduation, he will remain in Valencia for another year to do a fellowship. “I’m working on a program to further integrate Berklee with the community of musicians in Valencia,” Téllez says. “I’m working to form collaborations with teenage players from local conservatories and bring them into the Berklee studios to give them experience as session musicians recording for film.”
Téllez is continuing with his own projects that include remote sessions with conductors and orchestral players from Budapest. “I have to start cranking out work,” he says. “You can’t get work if you are not working—even if the project will cost you rather than make you money. I love everything about this work: writing, orchestrating, making mockups. I also love mixing because I have a production background. So many people say there is no one avenue to a stable position in the film industry. But there are certain gateways, and if you try each of them, one will lead you to where you need to go.”
Téllez may return to his hometown of Cali, Colombia, after the fellowship. Many Colombian film productions are done by people from that city. “I’m in this for the long haul. It won’t be a one-year endeavor.”
One for India
Satish Raghunathan (of Chennai, India) titled his cue “15 August 1947” marking the day when India gained independence from Britain. “I wrote to a script, but not one with synch points,” Raghunathan says. “The music portrays the emotion and the history of Indian people being under British rule.” The cue is in two distinct halves. The first is in an imitative classical style. “It is dolorous in the first half,” he says. “There were some very sad things that happened in our history with Britain. Then there are four bars of silence symbolizing divided rule that caused a rift between Indian Hindus and Muslims. The second half portrays the victory of India gaining independence. I chose the key of C major because it feels to me like a naturally victorious key.”
Raghunathan will return to India to launch his career. He had worked as a keyboard programmer and arranger in the Indian film industry for four years prior enrolling in Valencia’s master’s program. “I plan to go back,” he says. “After this year, I feel reassured that I’ve been on the right track, and I am ready now to take off. There is such a huge film industry in India, but only the people at the top league have the freedom to use the orchestra. It’s not used as much as it is in Hollywood or Europe. I hope to change the sound and think we can use the orchestral sound for the Asian emotional quotient. Some of the lesser-known Indian composers have a fear of writing for the orchestra. But after doing a three-minute cue in 18 minutes, I feel I will know how to use a movie producer’s money judiciously.”
A Fairy Tale
For her cue, Belén Vivero of Quito, Ecuador, forwent a video, opting to underscore the storyline of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Ugly Duckling. “I love that story because the duckling was not really ugly, just different,” she says. “The story has a lot of different emotions—drama, sadness, and joy—that I wanted to convey. I was always excited to know that even though there were sad parts, the ending was happy.” Vivero’s cue was largely melodic, opening with winds and strings trading themes. A middle section, bookended with lovely cello and violin solos, portrays a bit of anxiety before the work’s more calm conclusion that finishes on a triumphant D-flat major triad.
Belén, her husband Alec, and their young son came to Berklee Valencia in 2013 so Alec could pursue a master’s degree in the Music Technology Innovation program. Before that, Belén had studied contemporary performance for piano at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (a member school in the Berklee International Network). As a figure skater in her youth, skating to classical and film music left a deep impression on her.
When Alec graduated in 2014, the couple faced a tough decision. “I heard about everything that was going on in the [Valencia] film scoring program and really wanted to do that,” Belén says. “Alec was hired by Chico State University in California, but when I was accepted to this program, we got very excited. I decided to stay here with our son while he went to the States. It was a very hard year—a lot of sacrifice—but it was worth it.”
Since graduating, Belén and her son have reunited with Alec at Chico State. “There is a theater department there,” she says, “and I am really interested in collaborating on theater works to get more experience writing.” Looking ahead, she says, “My husband is American, so we will stay in the States for a while, but will leave the door open for returning to Ecuador. The film industry is developing in Quito, and I’d like to collaborate with people there where I grew up.”
Jimin Kim hails from Seoul, South Korea and earned her undergraduate degree in film scoring at Berklee Boston, graduating in 2013. She met her future husband Jongho You at Berklee, and they married in Seoul before heading for Valencia where each pursued a master’s degree in film scoring. (Unfortunately, I was not able to hear You’s Abbey Road project; his session took place before my arrival.)
Kim’s cue “Flip” was created for a 3-D animated film depicting paper dolls being torn and papers flying about. But Kim decided against conducting to picture. “I didn’t bring it here,” she says. “I’ve watched it more than 100 times and just wanted to work with the music.”
Her cue begins with solo clarinet joined by bassoon accompaniment a few bars later before the full orchestra enters. Throughout, Kim contrasted sparse and full textures that facilitated shifts in the mood of the music from peaceful to tense and back again. Dark, low brass figures, pounding tympani, and swirling whole-tone lines in the high winds underpinned with occasional piano accompaniment showcased her colorful sense of orchestration.
As for future plans, Kim says, “We are thinking of either going to Los Angles or staying in Europe for a while. But as someone who has studied abroad, I’d like to teach film composing to young students in Korea. Before I came to the U.S. I couldn’t find programs dedicated to teaching film scoring there. It’s now opening up and I feel I will have a lot to offer in Korea after all of my studies. Having the master’s degree will help me find work at a university there.”
American Peter Eddins of Kansas City, MO, was among the last to take the podium. He chose to score the murder mystery short titled “The Clean Up.” “A buddy from my undergrad years at Truman State University went into directing movies,” Eddins says. “But I didn’t know that until I was looking for a movie on Vimeo and came across his name. I liked his film and it had no music, so it was perfect for me.”
Without dialogue, the video portrays a man who has apparently just killed his wife and is searching the Internet for information on disposing of her remains that lie in a pool of blood on the floor. Eddins’s score highlights the tension throughout and ends with an enigmatic chord and rumbling tympanies accompanying the visual of the incredulity of the murderer discovering that the woman’s body has mysteriously disappeared.
Thrilled with how his cue turned out, Eddins said afterward, “Nothing can compare to the culminating experience we’ve had here. I had tricked myself into thinking that I was ready, but when I actually stepped onto the podium, I felt that I might have been a bit naive. But the players here were great, they are doing what they love. Consequently everyone’s session turned out really well. This whole experience has been wonderful.”
While commenting on the work of all 33 composers was not feasible in this article, it should be noted the musical standard remained very high throughout both days of the sessions. The projects—including music created for dramas, animations, video games, and more—were all impressive.
After the last cue was recorded, the orchestral musicians took the time to pass advice along to the young composers gathered on the soundstage floor. The comments included counsel on proofreading carefully and repeatedly to ferret out notation errors and the use of enharmonically spelled notes within a single bar that can result when exporting MIDI files to a notation program. “It’s confusing to read a C double-flat and a B-flat in the same bar,” violin section leader David Juritz told the composers. “That could cost you a take.” As well, pianist Catherine Edwards stressed the value of using multi-measure rests rather than a string of empty bars and providing cue notes before an entrance for any instrumentalist who hasn’t played in many measures. Other input focused on conducting. “For any tempo above 152 beats per minute, just give the down beat, we don’t need the whole pattern, we’ve got the music going in our ears,” Juritz added. “We consider the click to be king,” said clarinetist Matthew Hunt. “If you fall behind it, the players have to determine what to follow.”
The musicians also gave a shout-out to McKenna Smith for making brief humorous comments on the podium before starting her cue. The players agreed that her remarks had won them over and put them at ease before the downbeat.
After putting their skills to the test and having a professional recording to prove it, the company headed back to Valencia for graduation before taking the next step in their careers.
Selections from the Abbey Road sessions
“The Last Stand” by Felix Carcone:
“Prelude to a Fantastic Journey” by Guido Arcella Diez:
“What These Ithakas Mean” by George Karpasitis:
“Coming Home” by Andy Mastroddi:
“Birdless Birds” by Matteo Nahum:
“The Ugly Duckling” by Belén Vivero
“Lament” by Ana Kasrashvili:
“The Clean Up” by Peter Eddins:
A brief documentary overview of the entire project: