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An Interview with Eckart Seeber

by Roman Deppe

In my article about the movie BRAM STOKER'S SHADOWBUILDER I wrote about the film's temp-track and its actual score, as I had the opportunity to see unfinished, temp-tracked version of the movie at the Fantasy Film Festival in Germany last year. After the release of the movie (aka BRAM STOKER'S DARKWORLD) I could enjoy it, a bit re-edited, changed, with completed visual effects (pretty impressive) and of course with the original score, though the first score got rejected.

The composer of the big orchestral-choral score is 35 year-old Eckart Seeber, an Austrian-born composer who moved to Canada almost 20 years ago with his parents and his sister. Seeber is mainly focused on classical music, but as many other film composers he writes music for films and shows to make a living. Though he lives in Canada, he worked several times in Europe, be it concert performances or writing music for theater productions in Switzerland and France. He also wrote some music for a German TV channel.

Seeber's music ranges from the dark, choral horrormusic of a SHADOWBUILDER to light electronic music for comedies or children movies to small ensemble scores, to contemporary music and swashbuckling adventure themes. Some of his music reminds me of the film music by Michael J. Lewis and certainly more of the older scores, music from the '50s, like Herrmann and Rozsa.

Next winter, Mr. Seeber and his music will be featured in a television special produced by Cadenza Entertainment. This TV special will be a collection of videos to be shot in Austria and will be used to showcase Mr. Seeber's soon-to-be-released CD collection of instrumental music entitled ELEMENTS OF THE SOUL.

Roman Deppe: As you already worked in Canada, the States and Europe, what would you say are the main differences? How are composers treated? In my opinion, in Germany no producer or director really cares much about the score of his movie, whereas in Hollywood they may care a lot, but don't care about originality or what the composer thinks...

Eckart Seeber: I believe the differences between Europe and North America with respect to the role of music in film or TV stem from the difference in status that the composer enjoys in the two environments. In Europe, I believe, the composer enjoys a more respected status as a specialist/artist. A European producer would feel more uncomfortable to dictate to the composer what he or she should do musically than his or her American counterpart. In many cases composers have gone through fairly extensive formal training and may hold university degrees. I think this would intimidate a European filmmaker more than his or her American counterpart. I also think that the European filmmaking tradition is more of a collaboration where filmmaker and composer contribute to a film project independently in some way.

In the States it seems more often than not that the filmmaker hires the composer to deliver a product on the basis of some fairly specific instructions. In many cases the composer is an employee that is hired to create to certain specifications. It seem that in a lot of cases the producer/director is not necessarily interested in how creative you can be but he or she is interested in you filling certain specifications. That in itself, however, does not preclude creativity. In fact, limitations and certain parameters may require quite a lot of creativity in order for you to still be original. More often than not, American film productions are produced within very tight timelines, which does not leave a lot of room open for experimentation. The film requires a certain sound, a certain score to accentuate the filmmaker's vision. This is what is needed and that is why the producer hires a certain composer to deliver that product. There is also a huge abundance of composers wanting to write for film and TV in LA. If one composer does not deliver what you are looking for as a producer, you can simply hire another one to give you the sound you want.

It is true that Hollywood cares a lot about what kind of soundtrack is attached to the picture. This is because of the realization that music is a very powerful element of film. In many cases it can be used as counterpoint to the visual drama, thereby making it an integral part of filmmaking and a tool for the director to tell the story. In other instances it may underscore what is already being said in the picture. But the music completes the sensory experience that a movie provides.

RD: How is the film industry in Canada in general? I heard Australia, for example, has almost none...

ES: Canada has had a fairly strong documentary filmmaking industry for quite some time. In recent years there has been growing TV drama and feature film production activity. Many of the American series and quite a few of the features are being shot in Canada, thereby creating quite a sophisticated and technically advanced infrastructure. Canadian crews are very well-liked and respected. This influx of American productions has cultivated a lot of Canadian talent, which makes it easier for Canadian producers to create competitive films for the international market.

I used to write "classical" music almost exclusively. Now I am busy writing for film or TV. However, I am fortunate enough to be able to work within the "classical" orchestral vein on a lot of the projects.

RD: What can you tell me about your ELEMENTS OF THE SOUL?

ES: The ELEMENTS is a 4CD project I just recently completed. Part of the music was written for an interactive CD-ROM release on the 12 signs of the zodiac. The music was re-compiled into a more than 4 1/2 hour music disc set. Earth, fire, water and air are the four elements and musically I have tried to reflect the energy, sentiment, and my personal interpretation of these elements. All music has been recorded in my own studio using various samplers (K-2000, AKAI), various KORG and ROLAND, YAMAHA and PEAVEY gear. The ELEMENTS 4CD collection is due to be released on the new label MANTRA MUSIC later this fall and in the spring of 1999 in certain other territories.

RD: Why do you work now more for films and TV?

ES: One of the reasons for working in the film music business is that it allows me to maintain a living while still working in the field of composing music. As a classical composer you write music for the love and for the art of it, and it takes a long time to get a premier performance by an orchestra or other ensemble. And in very many cases that first performance of a piece may also be very often the only performance you get for it. It is a very labour-intensive process with very little monetary return, because--unless someone commissioned you to write the music in the first place--all the compensation you get is some royalties for that concert performance and, maybe, some royalties from a radio performance if the radio station actually went out to record the live performance. Very rarely will a record company deem it economically viable to release the music of a contemporary "classical" composer. The repertoire of the fragile "classical" music market is the music of the Great Masters, and the music of contemporary composers under the age of 80 is really seen as only as a special interest component.

When writing for film or TV a composer typically gets compensated for his work by a composing fee as well as royalties through broadcasts of the film/TV show and/or theatrical exhibits of the motion picture. Of course, there are some compromises you have to make as a composer. In the film/TV music realm you are catering to a client and your job as a composer is to satisfy that client and to create what is needed to supplement the picture. When creating music purely for the love of it or for the sake of the art, your outlook on the process would be different. Yet, a composer would still find herself or himself making certain decisions about the process and establishing certain limitations within which the creative process would take place. Rather than satisfying a "client" or a "picture", the composer may try to satisfy a quest for "newness," work within specific tonal or atonal systems, or any other notions.

So, as a composer you are striving to satisfy certain goals, no matter if you are working for yourself or for someone else. The latter may harbour issues of differences in opinion and the necessity of resolving those issues. But all in all, that is a small price to pay in exchange for being able to put food on the table.

RD: Okay, let's get to the darkness of SHADOWBUILDER: How did you get the job?

ES: I worked for the producer on a different picture before. They called me up to work with them again on this project.

RD: Do you know what happened to Guy Zerafa and his score? As he and some musicians were already credited in the original End Credits, I was surprised to read that his score got rejected.

ES: The producers, upon receiving Guy Zerafa's score, did not feel that his music was appropriate for the film and they rejected the soundtrack in its entirety. The film was co-produced by Imperial Entertainment of Los Angeles and Apple Creek Productions of Toronto. Apple Creek hired the original composer.

RD: Have you heard his score?

ES: Yes, I did hear his score. It was an all-electronic score that did not seem to give the film the dramatic depth and grandeur it needed. It sounded too much like a shallow TV show, rather than an intricate thriller.

RD: Why did the producers chose an electronic score first? If that was a question of money, then how could they afford a second, orchestral score?

ES: I think the reason for this is this: the co-producer Apple Creek Communications has worked with the previous composer before and agreed to employ his services in this film as well. The medium that this composer works in is probably electronic and, I guess, no one really anticipated that the score could turn out to be at odds with what the producers wanted. I was told that the producers did not hear the score until it was already completely finished. Under the circumstances it was deemed necessary to replace the music and since I have done a lot of orchestral work and my take on the film and work practice seemed to mesh well with what the producers wanted, I was hired to do the job.

RD: How was your collaboration with the makers? Did you work only with the producers or with the director, too?

ES: I was fortunate to have been able to collaborate with both the producer and the director on this film. Typically, our working relationship would take the following form: We met at first to talk about what they hoped to get out of the score. I then prepared a collection of main themes. Both producer and director listened and would give me their feedback, on the basis of which we then revised the material and settled on specific themes to be used in the score. I would then score the entire film, send the producer and director a VHS copy of the visuals and the music, and receive feedback on the work up to that point. The material would then be revised to incorporate the feedback and would be offered for further criticism. After the score seemed basically agreeable with the producers and director, I would commence the orchestration process and record the material.

RD: How did affect or did not affect the temp-tracks your working? What do you think about temp-tracks in general and in the case of Shadowbuilder? I found them distracting, but then I thought they are so different all the time, that it wouldn't be possible to just copying them, that the composer had to come up with own themes...

ES: Attaching temp music to a film is for most producers and directors a way--and probably the only effective way--to convey their musical wishes and to have effective input into the composing process. It is also an important tool for many in the editing process to get a "feel" for what the music could add to the scene. And thirdly, it completes the package when shopping around for early sales of the film.

RD: Yeah, that's probably, why I have seen this temp-track-version...

ES: In the case of SHADOWBUILDER I read the script first and already had a notion of what kind and style of music the film needs. The fact that the temp music was very close to what I already envisioned was reassuring and certainly made it possible to go right into the music creation process more swiftly. To some degree I accept temp scores as a helpful element in the way that it provides a ready guideline to what the producer/director is looking for. If nothing else, it may reassure you as a composer that you are on the "right" track or completely off base as far as the producer/director is concerned.

Although temp scores seem to lay out the style of music, etc. quite clearly there are some real problems. The difficulty lies in the interpretation of temp music. I, personally, find myself listening to music differently than some other people. And sometimes it is difficult to know which part of a piece of music is the element that makes that music the right choice for a particular scene for some people. To illustrate I would like to bring up a case in point: I was working on another film and was trying to capture the feel of a certain piece of music from the temp track. I analysed the temp music's harmonic structure and melodic components, which seemed to me the real substantive elements that made the piece of music what it was. I then tried to reflect in my own musical language those quintessential elements. Unfortunately, I discovered after long hours of work and several rejections and rewrites that the producer really did not like the temp music per se; what he liked was simply the orchestration of using a certain combination of instruments. He did not really care what the music was like as long as it had "that sound." From my perspective as a composer I was still far away from the orchestration process or the "packaging" of the musical material or themes. I was not aware that it was the packaging and cosmetics rather than the musical substance that was the crucial point here.

RD: Where did you record the score?

ES: I recorded the score in Kiev with the Ukrainian State Radio Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Vladymir Sirenko. I have worked with Maestro Sirenko and his orchestra and chorus before and we have a very good working relationship. He knows my style of music and what I would be looking for in terms of interpretation.

RD: How is your working-relationship with Ash Shah? You already worked several times now with him. Wasn't he the producer of SUDDEN DEATH?

ES: I enjoy working with Ash Shah. He seems to be quite in tune with a film and the kind of music it requires. I think we are able to communicate well together. Yes, he has produced several movies in the past with Van Damme, including "Sudden Death" for Universal.

RD: Christopher Young once stated, that on JENNIFER 8 it was very hard to work with the director, because he already rejected a score, no experiments or anything were allowed. How have your experiences been?

ES: I do have to say that I did enjoy working with the makers on this film, even though they had rejected the first score by a different composer. I think part of it was the fact that we actually happened to see eye to eye on most cues and so there was no struggle or too much compromising or revising necessary to create the score.

RD: How long did you work on SHADOWBUILDER?

ES: I believe originally there would have been only three weeks to compose, orchestrate, record and mix the music, since the producers wanted to have the film finished for presentation at the Canness Film Festival. Obviously, it was not possible to accomplish everything during such a short time. Also, the orchestra I was going to use for this score was on tour during that time and it was almost impossible to set up a recording schedule with any other orchestras within a three-week window.

I ended up working on this score for about six weeks, plus about six days of recording sessions. Although the film was basically finished, some changes were still made after the music had been recorded. So that entailed some editing of the score after the fact.

RD: Yeah, I remembered that the Main Titles were changed and the credits were taken out. Are you satisfied with the score?

ES: I think, as a composer, you are never really satisfied with what you have done. I think, there is always room for improvement, there is always another way of saying things. If I maintained that I was completely satisfied with the music I would also be suggesting that I have nothing else to say as a composer - and that would be a sad thing.

RD: And are you satisfied with the final mix? I remember some loud, though very effective and cool sound effects...

ES: I like the mix in some scenes, in others I would have chosen to do it differently. But I was not the only one to make mixing decision and I have to respect the fact that personal tastes differ.

RD: Were the nice End Titles an actual piece of music or just cut together (from the cue THE KILLING BEGINS)?

ES: The end title music was simply cut together from the score by the music editor.

RD: Which composers do you think influenced you, in general and this score?

ES: My influences are probably more European than American. I grew up in Austria, I grew up listening to 'classical' music. Some composers I admire very much and have studied quite a bit are Rimski-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Verdi, and Leoncavallo. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert and others have been influences from a very early time on. My music also seems to be influenced to a degree by some of the folklore that I grew up in.

On the Shadowbuilder score I think one of the main influences came from the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (Bram Stoker's Dracula score).

RD: Is the Score of SHADOWBUILDER available somewhere, somehow?

ES: Actually, it is. If anybody is interested in it: CDs and Cassettes are available at Mantra Music Group Ltd. Their homepage is: www.mantragroup.com. You can also order a copy through my homepage www.seebermusic.com or send us an e-mail to order@seebermusic.com.

Roman Deppe wants to thank Mr. Seeber for the following interview, that he despite his busy schedule found the time for answering my questions. He also wants to thank Jorg Kremer for his help.

MailBag@filmscoremonthly.com

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