Tell us a little about your background, both personally and professionally (in terms of film music). How did you first discover film music?
I’m not sure there was an actual moment of discovery. My parents were not specifically “film music fans,” but they were fans of both movies and music, and as I grew up, we listened to film soundtracks as much as we did any other kind of music. I was born in the late-1970s, but as a young kid in the 80s, I listened to the Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown-penned songs from Singing in the Rain as much as I did Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Like many people of my generation, I was obsessed with John Williams’s music, especially his score for Superman—as well as Ken Thorne’s music for Superman II. My parents were divorced, but no matter which one I was with, I had access to vinyl LPs and cassettes by John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Maurice Jarre, John Williams, and even Vangelis’ score for Chariots of Fire, among others. So film music was always just music to me. It was in the rotation just as much as rock, pop, jazz, and show tunes. I never made a distinction between it and other styles of music.
I will say, though, that my life changed on my seventeenth birthday when my friends and I rented John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. It was during the independent film boom of the mid-1990s, and we were budding filmmakers. I was applying to colleges in hopes of going to film school. I wanted to be the next Quentin Tarantino, and then we watched this reality-bending horror film with a rocking opening theme and a cool synth score, and that was it for me—I was hooked! After doing a bit of research, I discovered that John Carpenter directed many of the films that I loved growing up. Unbeknownst to me until that moment, he had always been one of my favorite filmmakers. I began buying his soundtracks on CD and his movies on VHS.
Then, two years later, while in film school just outside of New York City, I fell in love with Italy’s horror films, especially the works of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. That, of course, led to a passion for the music of Goblin and Fabio Frizzi. I didn’t realize it then—while in my teens—but it was that burgeoning love for synth-based horror scoring that would eventually lead me to write books about horror film music twenty years later, and then eventually here to the IFMCA.
How did you begin your career as a film music journalist? Tell us a little about its history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
My career in this field actually began first as a film journalist and then as a blues and rock music journalist. After film school, I went into film and TV post-production. Later my alma mater asked me to teach a film history/theory class about horror cinema. It was while researching to teach that class that I became interested in analytical writing. So I began writing for horror film websites and magazines. I’m also a musician and have played the blues and rock in NYC for a long time. So writing about music felt like a natural extension of what I was already doing for film. So I began writing a weekly column for an internet magazine dedicated to blues music. I did that for three or four years, and that is where I first started to conduct interviews and developed a passion for interviewing creative people. I was able to speak with some of my guitar heroes, such as Steve Cropper, Robben Ford, and the late Leslie West. It was a fantastic experience and a great place to cut my teeth as a journalist and interviewer.
At the same time, my interest in film music—and especially the music of Goblin—had never faded. I would go through periods where I didn’t listen for a while but would always return to it. Then, in 2010, a hybrid line-up of Goblin, called New Goblin, released an album called Live in Roma, and I got obsessed again. I wanted to find out more about Goblin and the music, but here in the US, the information was not available at that point. In 2013, New Goblin toured the USA [under the name Goblin], and I saw them live. It was the excitement of seeing this obscure Italian progressive rock band—that I loved—play live that took me from being a fan scouring the internet for information to being a journalist hellbent on finding out what I wanted to know. That change in mindset led to what would eventually become my first book, Scored to Death: Conversations with Some of Horror’s Greatest Composers [released in 2016]. It features in-depth interviews with fourteen composers who have contributed to the horror genre, including John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi, and two members of Goblin—Claudio Simonetti and Maurizio Guarini.
In the years since, I’ve continued that work with Scored to Death: The Podcast and have written various articles, essays, and liner notes about horror film music for notable magazines and record labels. In late 2020, my second book, Scored to Death 2: More Conversations with Some of Horror’s Greatest Composers, was released—featuring detailed interviews with sixteen more amazing composers who have worked in the horror genre. I enjoy writing, but my real passion is interviewing. Yes, there were people interviewing film composers before me, and many more have started since. However, I have carved out a little niche for myself by focusing primarily [but not exclusively] on horror and conducting interviews that are longer and more detailed than most.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
In my humble opinion, a film score has one job and one job only—help tell the story. It can be melodic, or it can be abstract and atonal—made with an orchestra, or a synthesizer, or even a garbage can and a hammer. It can be music in a traditional sense or just random noises, but it has to help tell the story the filmmakers are trying to tell, and it has to make the film better than it would be without it. A composer can create a beautiful orchestral soundtrack that is wonderful to listen to on its own, but if it doesn’t fulfill its job for the film, it is not a successful score. You can also have a score made up of tonal drones and loud metallic screeches that is almost impossible to enjoy as “music,” and if it works for the film, it is successful. I see many people on social media talk about the quality of a score before they’ve even seen the film. There is a difference between the music being great and it being a great score. They do not always go hand in hand. That may be a controversial stance; I don’t know. The scores that seem to stand the test of time are the ones that accomplish both.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today? Specifically, as someone who specializes in the horror genre, what’s your take on where it is right now?
There are two aspects of the industry. There is the art of creating music for films and then the craft of releasing film soundtracks. I think there is some merit to the arguments that “film music isn’t as good as it used to be” and “many filmmakers consider melodic film scoring to be old-fashioned, so we don’t hear that style of film music much anymore,” etc. Because I’ve spoken to many film music fans and composers, I understand why those opinions exist. Still, the truth is there is no shortage of wonderful film music today. I personally think that side of the industry is doing quite well.
At the same time, because I speak with many film composers, I am aware of their views and worries about things like shrinking budgets, the demands on them to deliver score mockups, and the negative impacts of the dreaded temp score, etc. So even though, to my ears, the industry of creating music for films seems like it is in a fantastic place, I recognize that the evolution of the craft and industry of filmmaking as a whole has created new hurdles that can negatively impact a composer’s creativity. Being privy to these concerns, I worry these types of limitations will eventually cripple the composers’ ability to create music of a certain scope. For instance, I would hate if the day arrives when huge budget blockbusters are the only films that can afford to use live players—let alone a full orchestra—on their scores. Because of the advancements in musical technology, the use of live orchestras, or even a live ensemble, is already rarer than most people realize—and seemingly even more so in horror. I hope that things don’t continue to go further in that direction.
As for the world of soundtracks, it is a wonderful time to be a film music fan, especially a fan of horror film music. Since I began work on the first Scored to Death book in 2013, many fantastic scores have been released—or in many cases reissued—on both vinyl and on CD by several new [and old] film music-oriented record labels. Additionally, before Covid-19 hit, many composers who are known for horror—and even some who aren’t, like Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer—were touring and performing their film music live. It is all exhilarating, and I hope it continues in the future.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
Most of the composers I have spoken with point to Jerry Goldsmith as the ultimate master of this craft, and it is easy to see why he is so revered. He has a massive body of fantastic work in all genres. As I stated earlier, I grew up loving the music of John Williams and still do. His music transports me through time and space. While working on the Scored to Death books, I came to appreciate Bernard Herrmann’s work even more than I did before. I had the extreme pleasure of having many of the greatest living composers of suspense music explain why Herrmann’s work is so important, what he was doing, and how he has influenced them. It was my own personal masterclass, and it is clear that his impact on this artform is unmeasurable.
A composer whose work I adore, who doesn’t seem to get mentioned very much anymore, is Bill Conti. I had the honor of speaking with Mr. Conti at length for my podcast, and it was a dream come true for me. Rocky is my favorite film. His work for that franchise is magical, and a perfect example of how music can help tell and elevate a cinematic story. It even managed to find a place of its own, away from the films, as an instantly recognizable pop-cultural artifact. It is iconic. Much of his work affects me profoundly and is some of the only music that can consistently bring me to tears. Conti is one of my favorites.
As for working composers who are of a younger generation than the ones mentioned above? That is a tricky question because most of the extraordinary composers featured in both Scored to Death and Scored to Death 2 are still working. I enjoy all of their work very much, and I genuinely think they are all great. For example, I believe Joseph Bishara and Charlie Clouser are the best at what they do. They both have their own specific styles and approaches, and when a film needs “that,” I don’t think you can find better than those guys for the job. I am always in awe of Christopher Young’s talent, and whether it is beautiful orchestral music or abstract musique concrète, I always look forward to hearing his latest work. Another composer whose work I always look forward to is Bear McCreary. Having studied under Elmer Bernstein, Bear has very classic sensibilities with a totally modern approach. I find the way he works and how he manages his business and career fascinating, and I think his best work is still ahead of him.
Of the composers I haven’t yet had the honor of interviewing yet, I really like Marco Beltrami and Michael Giacchino. Beltrami is a fabulous horror film composer who manages to step outside of the genre and collaborate on some fantastic films and music. Giacchino, like Bear McCreary, manages to link classic/traditional sensibilities with a modern approach. He creates thematic music, and he has a distinct style—when you hear it, you know it is him—but he manages to mold it into many different types of films successfully.
The truth is, I am in awe of anyone who does that job with any degree of success. It is a tough business, challenging work, and largely thankless. Anyone who manages to build a career composing music for films is amazing in my book.
Read Blake’s work and listen to his podcast at Scored to Death, and follow him on Twitter @scoredtodeath.