Jurgen Beck is a familiar name in the faith-based film world. Not only is he knowledgeable and talented in film music, but he’s also quick to share his wisdom with others in the industry. Here he gives a detailed look at all the work that goes into creating music for films.
What was the first musical instrument you learned to play? How old were you?
The first musical instrument was the recorder, and I think I was around 6 or 7 when I asked my mom if I could learn to play the instrument. Recorders don’t take much to produce a sound with, although it is hard to produce consistently pleasing sounding notes with it. Being able to produce melodies though with something other than my own voice was a marvelous experience. Also, it was my introduction to learning to play from music sheets. I was always fascinated with those little dots on the lines and being able to follow them, out of which melodies built? Let’s just say I was hooked.
What other musical instruments do you play?
After learning to play the recorder I joined a brass choir and learned to play the Flugelhorn. I was still relatively young and although the instrument is a bit larger than a regular trumpet, those teaching me felt that it was easier for me to get into, as it takes a little bit less lip control than a regular trumpet, or even a larger brass instrument. The Flugelhorn is taking the role of an alto instrument in the brass choir, so the notes are naturally sitting below the soprano (trumpet) and are easier to produce.
I also took an interest in the guitar, which I picked up and learned to play from reading how to place fingers on the fretboard in order to produce chords. Up to that point, single note instruments were a good introduction into reading and playing music, but being able to produce chords and a percussive rhythm at the same time was fascinating to me.
The guitar naturally led to getting into playing the bass. The first four strings on the guitar are the same on the bass guitar, although they sound much lower. So, that was a natural transition. With the bass came the introduction to rounding out the lower aspects of what makes up the music.
Since I had my own band, one of my closest friends in the band allowed me to come over and tinker around on his electric piano, a Rhodes to be precise, which had this great sounding quality that very much resonated with what I felt when writing the songs for our band. I think to this day he laughs about how he needed to show me proper fingering when playing chords on a piano or keyboard.
To round it out, I tinkered with playing the drums, again due to their availability in the band’s practice room.
When computers appeared as an option in music making in the 80’s and really took off in the 90’s, I naturally gravitated toward them, as they represented so many more options. Being able to write and produce music by myself was a dream come true. This way I could experiment and refine what I had written. If I then wanted to take it to the band, or invite live musicians into the recording sessions or live concerts, I had the choice of first working out arrangements and speed up the practices, or give very clear instructions, while at the same time allowing the musicians to contribute their talent to the music. The best of both worlds, really.
This expanded in the 90’s and early 2000 into using virtual instruments, which is using pre-recorded articulations from real instruments and playing them back on the computer. The possibilities now expanded into creating fairly realistic sounding orchestral music, which was a fantastic proposition to me and finally busted open the door into writing cinematic music. No longer was it necessary to hire an 80-piece orchestra in order to produce cinematic music.
While the sampling technology was fairly limited at the beginning, tremendous advances have been made to the degree that the casual listener will have a very hard time telling whether music they hear was recorded with a live orchestra or not. In fact, a very large number of TV shows these days feature a limited number of live musicians. There is a trend back to using live orchestra for those shows, but it is a testimony to how good virtual instruments have become.
For the typically smaller budget independent filmmaking world, the digital technology has brought tremendous opportunities to have film scores created that sound extremely real, if the score is handed to the right composer and music production team. There is a certain set of skills that are required, from the music writing, to the producing of the music, and finally mixing, all of which are able to produce stunning results for the filmmakers.
Tell us about your musical training.
I am primarily self-taught, although the basic musical training I received came when learning to play the Flugelhorn. What I didn’t receive in education through traditional ways such as college or music conservatory, I was determined to make up by reading and studying just about any music book out there, whether it was on harmony, counterpoint, music theory, orchestration, music production techniques, and so on. You should see my library! This process continues to this day, as it seems that there is still so much to learn about music, it literally takes a lifetime.
In addition to studying on my own, which included listening to and analyzing film scores, I signed up for a number of courses I could study on my own. Some were instructor led, others where self-study courses.
Then there was the realization that taking some private lessons from working composers would be a good idea. You can read so many books on your own, but having someone who is able to guide you and pass on tricks of the trade is tremendously helpful. I was blessed to study with some tremendously proliferate composers and orchestrators.
How did you get your start in composing for films?
All my life I have been involved in music, either playing it, recording it, or producing it for others. All along I had an affinity for film music, but never thought that I had the skills to write cinematically. After all, I was a songwriter and music producer, not a classically trained composer. Around 2009 I got burned out working on a new worship album I was trying to put together while at the same time working a full-time job. My wife suggested to put it aside and write some instrumental music that sounded like it could be used in a film. That was the end of my song-writing career and the beginning of what turned out to be the most satisfying musical journey I have embarked on.
The notion of writing for films was very attractive. However, before I would do a disservice to some poor director soul and create music that wasn’t really cutting it for a film, I needed to prove to myself that I could really write in a cinematic style. I decided that I would compose and produce an instrumental album in such a style, put it out there and then let people decide whether they wanted to take a chance on me scoring their films. That album took the better part of two years before I had the collection of songs together and incidentally is still blessing people, contrary to some obvious shortcomings it has in quality and execution. It is amazing what God can do with the comparatively little we bring to the table.
Once that album was out there, people seemed to take note. It wasn’t the best music ever written, compared to what is produced by much more talented composers out there. However, it seemed to resonate with folks enough to provide opportunities to contribute to their films.
What are some of the movies you’ve worked on?
I have had the privilege and honor to work on a number of feature films, short films, documentaries, trailers, PSA’s, commercials, and TV shows. Among the movies are films such as My Name Is Paul, Standing Firm, and The Penny. Music for documentaries is moving more into truly cinematic styles and require just as much work and effort as the narrative films. I recently finished Not Forgotten, which is a fantastic documentary on autism in Ukraine. Another great documentary is Rescued, which deals with adoption and why we should consider it as believers. Another one I will be starting on in a matter of weeks is Targeted, a look at the gun control controversy here in the US.
How has your work evolved over the years?
These days composers very seldom get around using computers. Whether it is composing, sketching, or producing the music for a film, computer software has become the central part of what we do every day. This includes what we call virtual instruments, which are recorded articulations real musicians play on their instruments and which are reproduced through individual notes played on the computer. The challenge for a composer is to learn how to use them effectively, so that what we compose and produce with the virtual instruments sounds as real as possible. It is almost like learning to play a real instrument, whereby one has to master the virtual instrument, which articulations to use, and how to coax the best performance out of them. Do this with not just one instrument, but every instrument in an orchestra and beyond, and a composer has their work cut out for them.
Budgets for movies are ever shrinking, which means we have to get more efficient at what we do, work fast, and make sure all the equipment we use is up to snuff. Since the music budgets are relatively small for faith-based films, a large amount of music is produced digitally, meaning that very few live musicians, if any, participate in the creation of the score.
A composer today has to be the one who is not only writing the music, but also has to be proficient with computer hardware, software, and the entire production process in order to create what we hear in movies.
When I first started experimenting with cinematic writing, the computer technology was still fairly limited. Subsequently, the music I created was often limited by what I was able to produce with the virtual instruments without running the risk that everything sounded synthetic and digitally produced. Over the years the capabilities of these libraries has increased tremendously and with it what we are able to create today. In other words, the music has become more elaborate, as the quality of the virtual instruments has vastly improved.
Of course, there is the use of live musicians and instruments, which is something that these days not many composers have the budgetary freedom to do. What we find today is that much of the music we create for films is a creative mixture of virtual instruments play on computers and live musicians.
What excites you most about film scoring?
Very good question and one that gets to the core of why I write music, whether it is for a film, or just instrumental music other than for a movie.
John Williams is credited with stating that “…there’s a very basic human, non-verbal aspect to our need to make music and use it as part of our human expression. It doesn’t have to do with body movements, it doesn’t have to do with articulation of a language, but with something spiritual.”
I love this quote, as it expresses the underlying aspect of what it is that affects us when listening or experiencing music. It is a spiritual phenomena. While I write and produce musical notes and sounds, what I really create with them is emotions. Another medium that does the same is film. You could watch a film without music and be very much affected by a well-acted, well-scripted, and well-produced performance without having music contribute anything else to it. Add to that the emotional dimension and capabilities of music, and you have a dynamite experience that is rarely achieved otherwise.
Tell us about your upcoming movies Love Covers All and Beyond the Mask.
Love Covers All is the second feature film by talented filmmaker Kyle Prohaska and also the second one we worked on together. Kyle has the ability to tell a story in a way that allows a composer to create music that truly becomes part of what unfolds on the screen. The music essentially ends up adding a side of the story that may not be immediately apparent, but in the grand scheme of the story becomes a vital part, almost like another actor. Kyle allows a lot of room for this to happen, which is a challenge, but also extremely rewarding.
There were several scenes in the movie where the music had to be very carefully constructed, never becoming a force on it’s own, but delicately contributing and propelling the story forward.
The scariest part of creating music for any movie is the heavy responsibility one carries of supporting the movie and not destroying it with the music. I think we all have watched movies where the music was so bad that it pulled you out of the story, even to the degree where it was not watchable. Various circumstances are often at fault when this happens, one of them being communication problems between the director and composer. I am very blessed to be able to work with directors who respect the hard work that goes into creating captivating music for a movie. The cherry on top is when you really hit it off with a director, which is one of the reasons why so many directors typically stick with a composer. I certainly enjoyed such a relationship with Kyle.
Beyond The Mask is one of those film scoring journeys that can scare you to death as a composer. You just can’t miss it, or you run the risk of minimizing the hard and long work so many talented people have contributed to it. This is true for any film. However, that heavy burden increases with the scope of a large production movie, and it never leaves you until the very end.
On the flip side though is the tremendous satisfaction that comes with a collaborative effort, which filmmaking really is. When the music really clicks with the scenes, there is an emotional high one experiences that is hard to describe. That is what drives many composers. A film like Beyond The Mask provides opportunities to let your skills really shine. It is also intimidating, sitting in front of a blank piece of music paper or screen and knowing that everyone is counting on you to produce that perfect piece of music.
As Beyond The Mask is an action-adventure-romantic drama that also spans several continents story wise, it is both a composer’s dream and nightmare simultaneously. The complexity level of the music goes way up, as do the expectations, of course.
How does scoring a period movie (Beyond the Mask) compare with a modern movie (Love Covers All)?
For one, unless there is a creative reason to go completely out of genre and style, a period movie needs to at least on some level convey to the viewer that they are watching a story unfold in that period. That means that we rarely watch a period film with modern music, even down to the various musical elements or instruments that produce the music.
On the flip-side, there is more leverage we have in a modern movie, depending on what we want to do creatively. For example, various “modern” movies include classical music, because either the music is coming from some source on the screen (think radio is playing, or a ball scene, etc.), or the director wants to convey something in a funny way and chooses to use music that is completely contrapuntal to the story or scene.
All the above means that special care and usually quite a bit more research goes into a period movie. We want to stay true in many ways to the time the story plays in. With a movie like Beyond The Mask we really don’t have any period recordings that document how the music sounded back then, so we can only go by what was documented on paper and figure out what that may have sounded like. For example, the movie plays in 1776 on three continents, each having their own flavor of music. So, in a way, the locations become characters of their own and need to be represented in the music.
Subsequently, research has gone into the instruments of the period, as well as styles that we may have heard back then, which then were incorporated into the score. Of course, creative license was used and since this is an action-adventure movie, you do hear instruments that fall outside of the period. It is not a Jane Austen movie, so creativity can be pushed, hopefully to the degree that everyone stays within the film and enjoys what they are seeing and hearing.
<p><a href="http://vimeo.com/65309822">My Name is Paul (MNIP) Teaser Trailer</a> from <a href="http://vimeo.com/user3824907">Trey Ore</a> on <a href="https://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p>
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort that requires a tremendous amount of dedication and energy from so many involved in it. I am thankful for the medium, as it seems to be the most satisfying creative effort that I can think of as a composer. I appreciate each and every opportunity I have to let that creativity flow freely, whether it is a feature film, a short film, documentary, or any other medium that uses music.
Those who wish to break into composing for film, I would encourage to study as much as they can from listening to existing soundtracks in the context of a film, as well as reading books and either taking online courses, or study with a mentor. In other words, you have to apply yourself and never give up studying. Film scoring programs for colleges or universities are of course an option. However, it is the actual writing for film that will bring the broadest education.
To the independent filmmakers on a tight budget, I encourage you to engage a composer early in your production, even at the scripting stage. If you have never worked with a professional composer, you are missing out on a grand adventure that has such potential of pushing your movie to the next level. It can be a scary proposition inviting someone to eventually put a take on your film musically that you may not necessarily have anticipated. It is in the collaborative creative effort that your movie gains what you may otherwise miss out on.
Finally, thank you to Faith Flix for your hard work and inviting me to chat what I am extremely passionate about!
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