The Dave Grusin Archive
Music for the Screen
Realization of a Film Score

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“Even something that sounds so simplistic in its final version, I promise you, is full of doubt and angst in trying to get there.”

-- Dave Grusin

The deeper one considers what the exact necessities of a film are, and then, the specific requirements of individual scenes, the more complex the process becomes.  For Dave Grusin, it's a matter of “how to integrate music with film.”  Something which is perfectly married to one scene in a picture can be totally wrong for a similar one.

About the scores he's completed, the composer declares bluntly, “there's nothing easy about any of them.”  From his first to his most recent, he's found, “they all have their ups and downs, and they all have stone walls that you run into in trying to satisfy both your own sense of musicality, the director and producer's sense of drama, and the studio's sense of commerciality.”

Therefore, when a tune emerges, one that is satisfying to the composer, he still cannot know if it will work for the director.  Then come the complexities of trying to meld the musical inspiration with not just the needs of the film, but other people's concept of those needs.  Because there can be numerous perceptions of a picture's goals.  Director, producer and writer may have been occupied with the project for many months or even years when the composer comes on board.  

If each has developed his own idea of what the music should be doing, he is necessarily trying to be creative while making his way across a battlefield.  It has been Dave Grusin's experience that, “the director might say about the producer, `don't listen to him, listen to me, he doesn't understand the film, I'm the only one who understands it.' And the producer might take me aside and say the same thing.”

Even the procedure for selecting records for film sequences requires cautious judgment for every scene. With a scorer's knack for sensing when something is right, he says, "it's amazing when I hear a record that would be perfect for a particular spot of film.” He follows the example, declaring, “especially when I put it up, watch the picture, listen to the dialogue, listen to the singer, slide the music around a few places to avoid those train wrecks where all the sound happens at once, and it just doesn't feel right at all.” On the other hand, it may well be that, “something that you never thought would work, fits perfectly.”

In terms of writing a score, he believes, “the single most high there is in this business is the realization of the piece - when you get to go in front of your friends and have them play it.”  That thrill is accentuated when musicians gather on the scoring stage, and picture and music are at last married.

Even for a director like Sydney Pollack, the moment has significance.  For him, it is almost like seeing his film for the first time. “There's such a transformation that happens,   not unlike an out of focus picture that gets sharp.  You suddenly are in the scene, instead of watching the scene.”

Of course, when one speaks of Dave Grusin the film scorer, one is usually also talking about the musician as a conductor as well.  While he has been known to conduct from the keyboard, as when the music track involves a rhythm section, in the case of an orchestral score, he generally found conducting from the podium preferable for many years.  

Likewise, the matter of playing piano in films is something he mostly left to others for much of his scoring career unless the music was in a jazz setting.  However, from the eighties on,  Dave Grusin could frequently be heard at the keyboard, even on more orchestral scores.

From "On Golden Pond" onwards things started to change.  Of the film, he says, "it was a pivotal point in rationalizing  using my own instrument in terms of that amount of piano on a score.  That was sort of new for me at that point."

Being a pianist, one could assume that, as a songwriter might, Dave Grusin composes his film scores at the keyboard.  However, certainly in the case of orchestral music, he works away from the piano, only going back occasionally to check out what he has written.  Amplifying on the reasons for this, he indicates that hearing notes on a keyboard is not the same as hearing the instruments in the orchestra which will play them, and thus, he writes what he perceives in his mind instead, explaining,  “I'm used to hearing lines without the keyboard.”

It should be noted that even a fulfilling experience on the sound stage, seeing everything come together, might bear scant resemblance to what comes out in the cinema, for after the scorer has completed his work, it is by no means considered sacred by studio executives and the above-mentioned team, for as Dave Grusin reminds us, “in the final mixing process, they make a lot of changes.  Music often gets the same treatment as sound effects, particularly with American filmmakers.”  Sometimes a composer might not even be aware of what has become of his score until he sees it in the cinema.

Go to: Some Conclusions on Film Scoring      

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Dave Grusin
Feature Films