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Mark Wolfram, The Composer of Our Youth
By Ben Ohmart
(more articles from this author)
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I was fortunate enough to get the nod to pose some questions to a tv/film composer we all grew up with (whether we knew it or not!). Yep, I’m talking about one of Hanna-Barbera’s finest. Well, he’s more than just a pretty cartoon. With a new cd, Piercing The Celluloid Veil, making the rounds now, Mark, as usual, has a plate that’s full and teeming with life. Check the score:

[Ben] It's a really great CD. How DOES one pierce the celluloid veil?

[Mark] First you must define the veil: WHAT IS IT? I use the term "celluloid veil" as a metaphor for the mystical cohesion of cinematic image and music. When I attempt to "pierce" this veil I am, in essence, composing music to cut through to the raw emotions that define and drive a visual image. I have created the works on my CD with even MORE emotional depth to the music than that of a scoring cue. By adding more complexity to the music I'm attempting to create a non-existent piece of cinema in the listener's mind. A chance to go to the movies without pre-defined images - a chance for the listener to tap into their own inner creativity and project their own imagery through their mind's eye. So, it is the listener who, in fact, is the one who actually pierces the celluloid veil.

[Ben] How did you get started in such a tough field?

[Mark] From my earliest days I was fascinated with movies and the music within them. I would watch films several times to try and analyze what made the music "work" with the picture. I don't think that I'm alone in the fact that powerful images and music bring great emotion out of me. I began working with music for picture while in college - I constructed my own ad hoc program in film scoring while a student at the Northwestern University School of Music. I would travel to Hollywood - interview composers, musicians, music contractors and copyists - anyone in the business who would shed any light on this whole process. Then I'd go back to Northwestern and create my own original music for whatever films I could get - often old industrial films - I would then get an orchestra to record the cues and sync them by hand for review. I did almost everything using only a watch and a metronome for timings. It was a LONG process - but one where I learned a lot - BY DOING!! I would also try and visit as many sessions as I could to see how composers "married" their music and the image that they were scoring. Soon, while still in college, I began writing background scores for commercials. All of this experience gave me the foundation to do much of the work that I do today.

[Ben] Is there a story connected with the CD's track list? What self-made movie ran in your head while composing your current disc?

[Mark] There is no specific "thread" of a storyline connecting the titles. They [the titles] are designed as generic sign posts. They are intended to point the listener in a general visual direction - but it is up to the listener to provide the specific visual imagery in their mind's eye.

[Ben] Are there more CDs waiting in the wings to be released?

[Mark] "Piercing The Celluloid Veil II: The Odyssey Continues" is in the works now! (In other words, I'm writing it now - it'll take some time to finish writing, recording, mixing and manufacturing this next one - please be patient!)

[Ben] Having written for everything from soaps to Disneyworld to Jim Brickman arranging, what is your one true favorite above all musical things you've done?

[Mark] That's a very hard question. It's kind of like asking a parent to choose which one of their children gets to live and which one must die. I absolutely love all of the various types of music I write and facets of the business in which they are produced. (i.e. Records, TV, Films, Concert Works, Live Shows, Spots, etc.) I am very passionate about what I do. I put all of myself into every job that I write, whether it's big or small. But the one thing that absolutely blows me away is when I'm given the opportunity to stand in front of an 80 to 100 piece orchestra and conduct my own music. Wow!! There is no drug on this earth that can match that rush! My second most favorite thing would be...everything else.

[Ben] I gotta tell ya, I grew up with Capt. Caveman. Do you remember what the show/shows were about that you scored for that series?

[Mark] I wrote music for several different episodes of Captain Caveman. I was one of several composers assigned to each episode by Hanna-Barbera music director Hoyt Curtain. He would divide up an episode and have 3 or 4 guys write cues for it. Then he'd record them all on the same date. It was fun to see what the other composers wrote compared to what I came up with. This was one of those rare situations where several composers would come together and listen and support the others' work. I have to thank Hoyt for giving me the opportunity to work on Captain Caveman, The Smurfs, The Flintstone Kids, Jonny Quest, Yogi Bear and others - again, what a rush!!

[Ben] What work did you do for Disneyland/world?

[Mark] In 1974 I was a member of the All-American College Band at Disneyland. It was great fun playing in the park every day and learning from industry heavyweights in a classroom type of situation several mornings a week. I wrote several arrangements for the band that have played by the bands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World since 1976. It's a lot of fun to hear these great groups of young musicians playing my charts 20 to 25 years after I wrote them. A special thanks to Ron Logan and Dr. Art Bartner.

[Ben] I'm sure many would-be composers/arrangers would like to know the answer to this. Do you get royalties from arrangements on Jim Brickman's CDs, or was it a one time fee?

[Mark] Royalties are paid to the composer(s) and publisher(s) by the performing rights societies (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc.). Arrangements are paid on a one-time-only basis. I get a fee for each arrangement at the time it is written and that's all. As an active professional arranger it is also important to get on the musician's contract so that you get paid for further new uses of the music (such as use in a commercial or TV show or movie). No, I don't get royalties for my arrangements - but I did get 4 Gold Records and 1 Platinum Record. (Hey, life could be worse!)

[Ben] Any good insider advice for the idiot trying to make it into film/tv composing?

[Mark] No idiots need apply. Rather, only well trained composers with tremendous musical flexibility and a tenacious drive for success. It's a very long and hard road. It takes a lot of sacrifice. With the right amount of effort and luck (and I stress LUCK) one can "make it" into the business. But don't think that you haven't made it unless you're scoring the latest blockbuster movie - NO! There are many different definitions of success in the music business. Measure your success against your own abilities - not other people's standards! Be the best composer that YOU can be and you will be successful!

[Ben] Not many film/tv composers seem to take much time out for serious works, but you do. Tell us about your classical music ambitions.

[Mark] I love composing music for the big and the small screen! I also love composing music for the concert hall! While I consider myself a "composer", I know that others are more comfortable with the labels of "TV/Film composer" and "Classical composer." A hundred years from now people may or may not of heard the music from the latest TV movie that I wrote - but my concert music may have a more enduring legacy. Composing for the concert stage gives me the opportunity to write music that people can relate to on a purely emotional level without the "distractions" of dialogue, sound effects and visual images. Music for music's sake - and not as a response to film. Concert music lets me write in styles and textures that are not common in film music. It helps me recharge my creative batteries. As far as my ambitions, I would like to leave a large body of concert works as my lasting legacy. I believe that same intensity of emotion which is in my music for TV/Film is present in my concert works. Reaching people and moving them to new emotional places is my ambition for all of my music.

[Ben] Which is better to belong to - BMI or ASCAP?

[Mark] Here's a better question: Which is better - Chocolate Ice Cream or Vanilla Ice Cream? Seriously, there are MANY similarities between the various performing rights societies - and many differences. Depending on the type of music you write - your background - your current level of success (or non-success) - all of these factors (and more) must be weighed in making that decision. But first, do the homework on each of them - call them up - ask questions (there are NO stupid questions!) - be a pest - BUT BE INFORMED! Then you can choose wisely - for you!

[Ben] Any good or juicy backstage stories you'd care to share?

[Mark] There are sooooooooooo many stories in the naked city...I'll share one with you and point you to a source for more music biz stories. But first, my story:

My wife and I attended a banquet honoring film composer Alex North (this was a few years ago). In attendance were mostly other composers and their spouses. Upon completion of the evening's activities everyone headed for the parking lot where the valet parking service was slowly returning cars to their rightful owners. Well, it was a very long line of composers waiting for their cars. Some spoke amongst themselves, others just gazed coldly past the others, and in the back was an anxious little man who stood for about 30 seconds and then bolted to the front of the line declaring, "Out of my way, I'm XXXXXX (you guess who) I've got cues to write for my scoring session in the morning!!" With that, he grabbed his keys - ran to his car and sped off. All of the other composers in line (many of which also had work to do) growled under their collective breath, "What an asshole!" Today, that Oscar-winning composer is still active in the business - and still cuts to the front of lines. The lesson of this story is that not all Hollywood composers are equal - some are actually bigger assholes than others!!!

You can check out more hair-raising stories of the music business (including one about me) in the upcoming book "MUSIC HORROR STORIES: A Collection Of Gruesome, True Tales From Actual Victims Seeking A Career In The Music Business" by Janet Fisher. The link below will take you to their website.

[Ben] What do you think of the current trend of film soundtracks?

[Mark] I love soundtrack recordings. I'm not quite a soundtrack "buff" because I tend to only collect the scores which I actually like. I follow all of the soundtrack collector sites and webpages. Many of these sites and the collectors and reviewers tend to get a little anal about being able to hear all of the cues in the actual running order of the film - and as if by not having every moment of the film on disc in its correct sequence their entire experience is compromised. In a perfect world - yeah! Wouldn't it be nice if things were perfect. But soundtrack albums are made NOT for the collector (in general) - but for the public, CDs are made by record companies to MAKE MONEY!!! Not to satisfy a few thousand soundtrack collector zealots. Be happy for the good ones that come out. Be happy that ANY come out - after all, most soundtracks lose money. If a record company thinks they can sell more CDs by resequencing the order of cues and cutting some - get over it!! If it's that big of a deal go rent the movie!!

With the high cost of putting out a CD of orchestral film music (believe me, I know the cost) we should be thankful for any and all soundtracks. Some will always be better than others - that's life. Let's not quibble over the minutia of it all - rather, let's enjoy the music!!!

[Ben] Is there any one show or person you'd kill or seriously injure to work with?

[Mark] Despite my passion for what I do - I'm a lover and not a fighter!! Seriously, I'd love to work with any director who is mature enough to understand the power and scope of what music can (and can't) achieve. The Director-Composer relationship is one of the more delicate in Hollywood. After months (and sometimes years) of total maniacal control and vision, the director must trust the composer the add an emotional subtext to his film. I don't believe that the composer should be in a vacuum. I believe the director-composer relationship is a two-way street. The composer's task is to serve the musical/emotional needs of the film and the musical/emotional needs of the director. The director must give the composer the time and space to create - and the composer must be able to reassure (demonstrate to) the director that the music serves not only the film, but also the director's vision (sometimes the actual content of the film and the director's vision are different in subtle ways). The composer music continue to earn the director's trust.

[Ben] What are your plans and projects for the future?

[Mark] Write more music! Upcoming projects include co-producing and arranging an album for jazz artist Marilyn Harris, writing a new concerto for Tuba and Orchestra, continuing to write for the 2nd "Piercing..." album, and answering the calls of my many friends and clients that I serve.

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