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Vivek Maddala And The Challenge Of Music Composition


We think about music in a very specific way, as something that stands by itself. Vivek Maddala doesn’t think about music this way and it’s actually his job to think about music in a much more significant, multi-dimensional way: he’s a film composer. His task is to make music that ties a film together and that builds out the feel of a film through sound. He’s very untraditional with his approach that comes from a lot of self-teaching in relationship to the art form. We had a quick chat with the artist about his work on recently premiered Los Angeles Film Festival film American Revolutionary, which tells the story of 97 year old Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs and how she incited change in the African American movement. Maddala is a very accomplished musician and his way of thinking about music and film is a truly unique one.

As an accomplished composer, you obviously have a long history with music. How did you find yourself in this subject? Has music always been a part of your life?

I’ve been writing music since I was a small child, and my interest in writing music for films was first piqued when I saw my first Hitchcock film at age 8. It was North By Northwest, and those magnificent Bernard Herrmann fandangos captivated me–the way the music elevated the drama while giving film a sort of fantastical quality. Yet, at the same time, the music helped ground the film and provided depth to the characters that otherwise was not apparent. Over the subsequent years I developed an increasing appreciation for the ways in which music can serve the sophisticated form of storytelling that is film making. I also valued the ways in which writing for this medium can allow a composer to express him/herself in ways not possible in other formats (like writing songs). It was this combination, among other factors, that drew me into the field of scoring films.

Moreover, scoring films is such a unique challenge as the music in a film often can tie everything together. How did you get into this work? How does your musical history manifest itself in your compositions for film?

At the university level, I studied other things besides music composition–-so I didn’t receive any high-level formal training in the art. In this regard, I’m mostly self-taught. But I always wanted to write for film, from the aforementioned time. In 2000, there was a national film scoring competition, co-sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, Guitar Center, and Film Music Magazine. I entered the competition and won the Grand Prize, which was a one-off movie deal to score a Warner Bros. restoration of a classic silent movie from the 1920s. My 74-minute music score for the film was so very well received that it led to my scoring five more films for TCM/Warners. This is what essentially kicked off my film scoring career. In 2008, I received the Sundance Lab film scoring fellowship, which has since allowed me to focus on scoring really good independent films, which has been a marvelous experience.

As far as how my musical history manifests itself in my film music: because my training and experiences are quite different than those of other film composer, this means the music “solutions” I come up with often are untraditional and quite apart from what one might conventionally expect. As least, this is what I’ve been told about my music. Fundamentally, I’m writing from a visceral place, and only after the fact can I be analytical or intellectual about what I’ve written. I think the resulting music is based more on instinct than on technique. And because film making, as a sophisticated form of storytelling, is very much about connecting to human emotion, I hope this serves my work well.

Your most recent project is American Revolutionary, which is played at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 16. What were you hoping to bring to the score of this documentary? What do you think the movie as a whole will bring to Angelenos?

Scoring documentary films can be similar to scoring scripted narrative films, but often there are added challenges. I think modern audiences are instinctively sensitive to being manipulated by music score, so as a composer you always have to be careful to write music with a delicate touch and to be judicious when making bold musical statements. With documentaries, I think there’s an extra responsibility to honor and respect the subject because–for lack of a better term– it’s real. You’re dealing with living subjects and the goal frequently is to present reality, not a fictionalized form of reality. A film like American Revolutionary deals with vital subject matter, historically and present-day. If the music is overwrought, it undermines the message. Conversely, documentary films commonly need music to help carry the story along, to propel the narrative and engage the audience. This was part of the task at hand with American Revolutionary. I worked very closely with the director and editor of the film to sculpt the music to fit the exact dramatic contours of the film–at every moment exploring the question, “What should the audience be feeling or experiencing right now?” We were very deliberate about exactly how much and what kind of emotion and musical color to invoke with the score.

Being a Los Angeles based artist, the city obviously has to have some influences on you. Do you see a tie between Los Angeles and your work? Are there specific sounds or styles that you use that you could pinpoint back to the surrounding geography?

Because the films I score are set all over the world, my main focus with respect to geography has less to do with my physical location here in LA, and more with where the film I’m working on is located. (The films I’ve scored recently have had geographical settings as diverse as Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Eastern Europe.) But Los Angeles has unique properties to work in because this is where the best musicians and most diverse palette of musical colors can be found–in my estimation. If I need to hire a musician to play a traditional erhu (2-string bowed instrument) part for a film I’m scoring set in China, it’s not hard to find great musicians who can do that. If I’m scoring a film set in Nigeria and I write Hausa, Igbo, or Yoruba–influenced music for the film, I can easily find musicians here to work with who can do that. That’s one of the great things about being in LA.

Relatedly, what is the culture of composing? We are all very aware of film in this city and some industries within it get more attention than others: what is it like to be a composer in this city?

Composing music is a solitary activity, requiring a lot of concentration and keen focus, with opportunities to collaborate with others coming only in spurts. I know composers who refer to their workspaces as “caves,” from which they emerge on rare occasion, bleary eyed and exhausted. I’ve joked about this on occasion: “The pay may not be very good, but the hours are long!” But one nice thing about writing music for films is that you’re part of a team, so some amount of interaction with the film’s director, editor, and producers is an inevitable part of the process.

Another dimension of the film scoring profession is the fierce competition among peers for work, because there’s a huge supply-and-demand imbalance, i.e. there’s an immense supply of composers with limited demand for them. For any given film, there’s a line of composers wrapped around the block vying for the gig. This, coupled with the fact that we’re the only creative group in the film industry without a union (or any kind of collective bargaining ability), has made working conditions quite dire. I hope that will change soon.

What projects should we be on the lookout for in the future from you? Are there any that you are especially excited about?

Yes, there are several upcoming projects I’m excited about. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about most of them yet–except for one. It’s another documentary, a heavy one. It’s a film ostensibly about former Soviet nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan and the resulting health problems for the people subjected to radiation without their knowledge. But the film also explores the question of what it means for an outsider to offer help, what that might look like, and what the implications are. I think it’s an important film, and–difficult as the subject is–I’m enjoying the process of painting “musical pictures” on the broad canvas this film provides me.

Feature photo via.

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