A Week In The Life Of… A Screen Composer, Amanda Brown

Amanda Brown

Amanda Brown is an accomplished, multi-talented screen composer and musician. You may also remember her as a former member of legendary indie band The Go-Betweens. While Amanda’s composition credits are extensive, she is also a screen composer ambassador for APRA and a part-time composition teacher with AIM.
Cues, contracts, collaboration and of course, creativity, are some key words in Amanda’s week.

Job Description
Screen composers usually fall into two categories – freelancers and those who have their own companies or are on the payroll of a sound post-production company. In either scenario our work is wide-ranging and varied and you have to be versatile and multi-skilled to succeed as a screen composer in Australia. We work across music for film, television, advertising and multi media (including game soundtracks) and we compose in virtually every musical genre depending on what is required for individual projects.

Ultimately our role is to musically enhance the visual medium, whether writing a score for a feature film or selling air freshener. Screen composition requires a highly developed ability to understand and support the narrative, interpret that creatively and follow a brief. If we can make people believe what they’re watching and enjoy immersing themselves in the experience then we’ve done our job.

A doctor recently asked me what I did for a living and when I told him I wrote music for films and television he remarked, “Oh, so you manipulate people’s emotions.”

Monday (public holiday – Queen’s Birthday)
I have worked as both freelancer and payroll composer. Consequently what I do week by week can be wildly different. This year I’m back in freelance mode, after working as series composer for company Smith and Western on the Channel 10 drama Wonderland for 18 months.

If I were still working on a television series I would be turning around a one-hour episode per week. That entails writing, recording, mixing and delivering between 15-22 music cues per episode as well as meetings with the post production supervisor and director and any possible re-writes. It’s a tight schedule but the regularity, consistency and creative potential to develop musical themes over a long period have their own rewards.

If I was working on a freelance project in my home studio I might not leave the house virtually all week. I get up, get dressed and go downstairs to work composing 8-10 hours per day with a short break for lunch. Every day involves email correspondence or phone calls – contracts, invoicing, booking musicians or responding to feedback from directors. I talk to myself when troubleshooting technical problems. I talk to the cats.

However I have just returned from a six-week break in the USA after completing a feature film and a documentary before I left. I’m jet lagged and taking it easy. That’s one thing to be said for the freelance life. You might not get superannuation, sick leave or holiday pay but you do get to take holidays between jobs, choose your own hours and you don’t have to put up with anyone else’s tantrums. On the downside you may have no work for weeks at a time and wonder if you’ll ever have a job again. Being aware of this mindset I am determined to enjoy the relative peace and do all the banal small jobs this week.

That’s a reality check for all you prospective film composers out there.

Tuesday
I pay my tax and other outstanding bills after being away. On the bright side at least I made enough money this year to pay tax.

I read, sign and return the Wonderland publishing agreements re-negotiated on my behalf by my agent Norman Parkhill from InSync Music. I invoice Smith and Western for the latest publishing royalties.

At midday composer and musician Jodi Phillis and I have a meeting with two members of Ensemble Offspring regarding collaboration on a project we are working on with five other female composers. Ensemble Offspring are a small art music collective focusing on original commissions and cutting edge contemporary classical music and they are planning a predominantly female program of music for 2017. We are mutually really excited by the whole project but enthusiasm is overridden by discussion of severe funding cuts to the Australia Council in the recent federal budget. We will be applying for development funding but in this current climate that favours large, established organisations like the Australian Opera and Ballet it’s looking grim for innovative smaller groups and individuals.

I grew up playing in orchestras and I respect the history, influence and technique of classical music. But in my opinion the opera company and major orchestras are just big cover bands. They consume a disproportionate part of the funding pie for the edification of a few.

Wednesday
I wake up at an ungodly hour after an emotional dream. The vividness of the dream inspires me to write a song and I write the lyrics and basic chord progression in the early morning. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with this song yet but I have a (perhaps unrealistic) notion of making an album of songs in my own time for no commercial purpose whatsoever but for the sheer pleasure of making music and collaborating with some of my favorite musicians.

In the afternoon I work on another unpaid job, recording guitar parts and doing a brass arrangement for my friend Dave on his yet to be named album. The creative part is fun and enjoyable but there are technical issues with Pro Tools compatibility. My boffin capabilities are extremely rusty after time off but I eventually solve the problems with the help of that tech support resource of infinite wisdom – the brains trust known as the Internet.

In the evening I attend a Japanese film at the Sydney Film Festival called Our Little Sister. It’s so Japanese – beautiful, meditative, elegant and impeccably polite.

Thursday
I type out the minutes from meeting with Ensemble Offspring and send them to the other composers. My noble compatriots decide that in the face of dire funding circumstances if we have to start developing our show and composing music for the project with no money we are prepared to do that.

I finish the arrangement for Dave’s song and email an MP3 to him in Los Angeles. I talk to a musical acquaintance from years ago – Ed, about yet another unpaid job doing string arrangements on some of his new songs.

Either I’m really stupid or I’m accruing massive brownie points in the next life. Either way I subscribe to the idea of following opportunities and seeing where they take you.

I go to a late screening of Gillian Armstrong’s documentary about legendary costume designer Orry-Kelly titled Women He’s Undressed. It’s hugely enjoyable, featuring great footage from the golden years of Hollywood. I appreciate the enormous amount of music composed for it by Cezary Skubiszewski – his score is vibrant and beautifully executed – he nails it again.

Friday
I talk to my long time collaborator – producer and director Catherine Hunter – about her next documentary project. She’s received good news that this film will be fully funded. We have worked on several films over the years and we have established a relationship of creative freedom, mutual understanding and trust. This project won’t start for a few months and I wish (not for the first time) that all jobs could be like the ones I do with her.

I make a rough recording of the song I wrote on Tuesday morning so I don’t forget it.

I catch the bus into the Oz Dox party at the SFF Hub. Afterwards there’s a screening of Wide Open Sky – a film about a remote outback children’s choir – that I did a small amount of work on. The majority of music was by The Dirty Three but there was a scene featuring an Andrew Lloyd Webber song and they could only budget for 30 seconds of usage. My job was to bookend this song with additional music that was original, but sounded like it was seamlessly part of the Lloyd Webber song. The film’s cast of kids, the set designer and the inspirational conductor attend the screening and Q&A session afterwards. Even the cake lady and camp leader from the film are here – salt-of-the-earth women travelling all the way from far western NSW. It’s an emotive, wonderful and heartwarming documentary in every sense – the filmmakers have done a terrific job. Standing ovation and tear wiping is in order.

That’s right. Moments like these are why we do this job.

Saturday & Sunday
Regardless of whether I’m working on payroll or freelancing I try to have the weekend off. If I’m on a ridiculous deadline or if a musician can only schedule a session on the weekend it isn’t always possible – but having a break is beneficial physically and creatively.

I do three hours of yoga over the weekend – it’s great for people like me who spend hours sitting on their butts in the studio in front of a computer.

I ride a bicycle and shop locally. Saturday night we catch up on series 3 of Vikings. I love its mixture of paganism and Christian hypocrisy. The score by Trevor Morris is magnificent. On Sunday evening I meet my dad for the last session of the SFF featuring Danish film A Second Chance. It’s an expertly made, gut-wrenching story of moral ambiguity and suspense. Very Scandinavian. Very noir.

Naturally I loved it.

Words of Wisdom
Some qualities I believe will put you in good stead as a screen composer in addition to the creative and technical skills I have mentioned previously:

Clichéd but true – be a team player! Film and music are the most collaborative arts. You will always benefit from the input of others. The process is more enjoyable and the final product will be better. We can’t all be Prince or Stevie Wonder.

Possess a decent understanding of copyright law and deciphering contract legalese – because every commission has a contract and sometimes they can actually work in your favour.

Have a sense of humor and the ability to check any vestiges of ego you have at the door because ultimately screen music is written to commission – you have a team of people that need to approve your music including directors, producers, agency clients and television networks. Sometimes they hate your work. Sometimes they love it. Sometimes they express their opinions in an insensitive way that could potentially destroy the confidence of a thin-skinned artist.

At the end of the day you are at the mercy of the free market – you are competing with other composers for work, you are frequently required to pitch (writing on spec) for jobs and if you don’t succeed you don’t get paid for the pitch. You can be replaced at any time and sometimes it takes months for people to pay you. So regardless of whether you’re male or female – sometimes you just have to Suck It Up. And Grow A Pair.

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