The New Editors: When Composers Stop Composing
It started in television music about ten years ago by my recollection, and has picked up steam every year. The birth of the editor, the death of the composer. When composers stop writing notes and start stringing together loops, atmospheres and hits, I’m not so sure that is still composing. To me, it’s a lot more like editing, and most composers I know who have had to do this to “keep up” with current trends are not very happy about it.
Sure, it’s quick and easy to slap together some rhythm loops, pads, hits and such, but to me doing this kind of “assembly work” isn’t why I studied music for many years. So when did melodies become something to be avoided rather than something to be appreciated? Let’s go back a few decades…
Historians tell us that the 60 second theme “song” that was popularized in the 1970s with hit shows like Mission: Impossible, The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie were designed to have striking, easily identifiable melodies designed to alert the entire household that the show was on so everyone could wrap up what they were doing and come to the living room and gather around the television.
In the 1980s, we saw three interesting phenomenon: the entrance to the scoring business of songwriters from rock bands, the wide availability of synthesizers and early samplers, and the popularization of minimalism as a music form. For those who believe that composing is writing notes for live players to play, this was the perfect storm. People were being hired to score television shows and films who were much more comfortable writing grooves and pads and thought in terms of “chords” rather than notes, and these people had readily available electronic means of generating sound rather than having to write music playable by live players. Meanwhile, during the 1980s we saw what many consider to be the heyday of television music with live musicians, with weekly dramas from Dynasty to Dallas, from Remington Steele to Moonlighting and so much more, all done with live orchestra. Synthesizers’ early experimental usage in television from the mid 1970s on when they were a novelty (who can forget the infamous “Synare” synthesized pitch-falling drum used ad nauseum during this time) expanded into limited usage to accompany some live orchestras. But for TV in the 1980s, live orchestras ruled the day.
Then came scores for films like Risky Business and others where the musical form of minimalism – bare, minimal repeating figures going on in various ways for a long time – became popular. The availability in the 1980s of early hardware sequencers where sequences of notes that would repeat at an exact tempo could be programmed followed by early computer based MIDI created a composing environment where melodies by live players was almost passé, technology bravely leading the way for new, unexplored frontiers in modern composing.
The 1990s brought much better sounding sampled audio, including drum and rhythm loops and patterns with variations, fills, endings, and much more. The early “Symphonic Adventures” and other CDs of sampled orchestra riffs were a sign of things to come, as composers started to become editors – taking arrangements of recorded musical phrases and editing them and putting them together.
The 1990s saw the rapid decline of orchestras used in television scores, and by the mid 1990s the few shows left with orchestras included the Star Trek various series, The Simpsons, and a couple of others. Most shows were scored using hybrid scores – sampled instruments plus a very small number of live instruments added to create an organic sound.
As the use of orchestras declined and the availability in the late 1990s of better sample loops increased, we saw the emergence of the edited score. 2001 brought us what many believe to be the first major TV theme created by loops and samples with the theme to Alias, composed by the show’s producer JJ Abrams using early sample looping software.
Since then there’s been a very clear trend in television music: a theme is no longer a melody composed of notes. Instead, it s a feeling, a groove, a rhythm, and increasingly, a song. Maybe it’s related to the fact that theme music for television is now 10-30 seconds long, and maybe it’s a result of television producers wanting to appeal to a “younger” demographic who, they think, would rather enjoy a groove than be bothered by a pesky melody, or maybe they just think melodies are old fashioned and dated, only to be played by the orchestras and live players of yesteryear (aka the 1970s and 1980s).
Where television music is headed is anyone’s guess, but let’s not forget about the art of writing notes, writing melodies, and writing music. Editing samples, loops, pads, phrases and hits is quick and “cool”, but it hardly compares to the art of writing notes played by live musicians.