Bill Brown has won nine BMI Film and Television Awards for his work scoring the music to the well-known TV series CSI:NY. Additionally, he has scored music to the computer games Captain America: Super Soldier, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. We wondered what training and experience it really takes to compose music of such a high standard.
“I’ve always had music in my life. My Dad was a DJ on New York radio so there was that influence right away. I started playing piano age 4, started writing at 6 and never stopped.
My real training happened at Berklee though. There I learned the craft of scoring, orchestration, performance, conducting and recording. I was introduced to so many new things. That’s where I fell in love with all of the modern composers, jazz and with new and old music from around the world. That all pointed me in the right direction and gave me the tools I needed to get started. Not to mention, I formed relationships that connected the dots in my early career in the following years.”
Anyone with a musical ear can hear the intricacy of the layers in Brown’s work, available to listen to on his Soundcloud page. However composing so many layers is an immensely complicated process. It takes understanding of how to integrate the sounds of instruments together, as well as a solid musical background to compose each layer in the first place. Like a huge jigsaw, it takes a lot of time. How does he do it?
“Many times, I'll hear the idea in my head first. I have to capture that somehow: whether it was in the shower, or in a dream, or on the road (I mostly use my iPhone these days to capture ideas). Then I take that seed into the studio and begin the real work, transcribing it and fleshing it out.
Sometimes it just explodes into the sequencer revealing layer after layer like I’m possessed [he laughs], and sometimes I really have to work at it. I’m constantly working with new technology, new sounds, new musicians and beta testing new sample libraries, so that all serves the process as well.
Sometimes I’ll hear everything at once in my head and just have to transcribe it, and sometimes it’s just a rhythm, or a melody...or even just the harmonic content at first and I expand on it in the studio. It’s usually compelling enough that when I hear it again in the studio, I’m really excited to hear where it will lead and off I go creating something new!”
Well, that's the second hardest bit done. Since he has scored the music to the independent films Layover, Desiree and Brother's Keeper, we wanted to know about the hardest bit: how you make a director happy with the music! We asked how he matches the music successfully to the visual, and where he finds his inspiration.
“Every process is a bit different, but it all begins with the material. I’ll either have a working cut of the film, a final cut, or maybe just a script or a conversation with the director. I’ve had great success with all of them. It’s all about getting to the soul of the project and that gut reaction to it. It’s such a scary and yet really exciting process at the same time. The 'blank page' can be daunting, but it’s so exciting when that first idea really hits and resonates...and then it takes off and forms a life of its own musically.
Matching the music with the visuals is also an instinctive process. There is craft to it, but you have to let go and follow your instincts for the real magic to happen. I find it’s best to get out of my 'head' and more into my heart writing to picture. If I have an emotional reaction to what is happening musically, I know I’m going in the right direction, and I love that feeling so much. I feel so grateful to be doing what I’m doing in those moments and I can’t wait for the opportunity to do it again.”
Our final question was to dig into the depths of the knowledge and experience he has gained. What background or experience does he recommend to other budding composers before branching out into the world of musical film and game scoring?
“I think it is important to keep in mind that your relationships in the industry will really determine your career trajectory and success. Regardless of how talented you are, how agreeable, knowledgable or how hard you work, if you don’t make that connection and get that gig, you won’t work. Luckily, there is a new proliferation of media in recent years and many new opportunities to create for it. So be prepared, do the work, act 'as if' you are already there and that project is in front of you. The universe will hopefully respond (fingers crossed).
I also recommend living and working with a continual learning orientation to life. Continue to learn from everything, stay open, and strive to take it to the next level every day in some way. Be the best at what YOU do, and continue to build on that. That’s where your voice will come from, and where your success will too.”
Bill Brown works in his Los Angeles studio, surrounded by instruments and mountains of custom modular synth craziness. Check out more at billbrownmusic.com, his Instagram, Soundcloud and most importantly, his music...which is also available on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon.