Before we begin, we would really like to thank you for according to this interview, Michael.
You are welcome.
You’re mostly known for scoring two hit CBS -series, Cold Case and Close to Home, along with the "300 Flowers" for "Beautiful Little Fool," a Cold Case episode premiering April 9, 9 p.m. Liz Garcia provided the lyrics for the song, from what we know, but what can you tell us more on it? What about your source of inspiration, the nature of the lyrics and your arrangement and who does the lyrics?
In “Cold Case”, police detectives reopen unsolved cases. In this episode, which was written by Liz, the unsolved murder took place in 1929 – the oldest case ever dealt with in the series. Liz’s protagonist was a songwriter, and clues to her murder are in her songs. So the lyrics, which Liz wrote before I wrote the music, had to both work as a song and relate to the plot in specific ways.
I tried to compose something that was true to the era, so it would feel like something that Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, or Jerome Kern might have written. We wrote two songs for the episode: “300 Flowers” and “One Dress Left Blues,” both of which are performed on-camera. “300 Flowers” is reprised in an expanded arrangement over the signature montage at the end of the episode. This is the first time Cold Case has used a song that was not already a famous pop song for this part of the show.
The signature instrument in your score for “Close to Home” is the tenor violin - an octave lower than a standard violin - which you play yourself. How did this decision come up, is there a specific reason? Do you know any other contemporary composers who use this instrument?
It is a somewhat unusual instrument. I’m not aware of other composers who regularly use it. I first heard an electric version, called the violectra, many years ago played by Jean Luc Ponty. But last spring, when I was playing a fiddling pirate in “Pirates of the Caribbean II” for my friend Hans Zimmer, one of the other musicians, Craig Eastman, had an acoustic tenor violin. It had such a wonderful, distinctive sound. I said (in my best Will Smith voice), “I gotta get me one of these!”
Later, when “Close to Home” came up, I wanted a sound that would represent the voice of the people of Indiana (Indiana is where the show takes place). I loved the folksy but profound quality of the tenor violin.
You were born in Tokyo, raised in the Midwest and schooled in Canada (McGill Univ.), Wisconsin (UW), and Boston (Berklee College of Music). You later moved to New York City, where your first job was playing violin on the streets. What’s your exact musical education Michael? Is violin your primal instrument? What other instruments do you play?
I started piano at age 4 and violin at age 8. Violin quickly became my principal instrument and it is my melodic voice. But I have had a professional career playing both along with some guitar, mandolin, and harmonica.
I was born in Tokyo only because my father was a university professor who specialized in Japan and he was there, doing research for a book. I grew up in the Illinois, not far from where “Close to Home” takes place, so I actually lived in the U.S. and then moved to New York City. (New Yorkers consider themselves New Yorkers first, and Americans a distant second).
These were financially difficult years, but I met many wonderful people – most importantly my wife Claire. The first time Claire and I went out to a restaurant together – I had been in NYC maybe two weeks at that point - there was a fantastic woman playing the piano and singing, named Elise Morris. Many years later she sang the distinctive vocal introduction to the “Cold Case“ theme for me.
It’s generally accepted that there’s a constant movement of talented people from around the globe, to the U.S. Successful composers and artists, that many suggest they would have probably never succeeded, haven’t they moved to America first. Do you think that this emigration is necessary for someone to have more chances in succeeding, even if talented enough to stand on his / her own right? What do you think of this phenomenon?
America is indeed a land of opportunity for many. And eventually, most film composers must deal with Hollywood. But I don’t think Ennio Morricone, Maurice Jarre, Nino Rota, or Mikis Theodorakis found it necessary to emigrate to the U.S. nor has Alberto Iglesias, Jan Kaczmarek, or dozens of other successful contemporary film composers.
Moving on in your career, and in the early 80s, you founded the legendary No Guitars, one of the first bands to have a video on the just-launched MTV. What do you recall of these years and your work with the band? How did the decision to form something like this come and what your specific role was?
People kept saying my electric violin playing sounded like an electric guitar, so I named the band No Guitars out of frustration as much as anything.
What did you think of the newly-established MTV back then? Do you keep track of these things nowadays and how do you find the today’s MTV and current popular music status, compared to the years you were starting out in the business?
I was always terrible at the business of rock ‘n roll. And incredibly un-cool. Wrong hair. Wrong clothes. MTV was even more moronic then than it is now – they wouldn’t play music by black artists other than Michael Jackson for years. And they had these vapid DJs who would make Paris Hilton seem like an intellectual giant in comparison.
What are your musical influences Michael? Is there a personal separation between the music you listen at home, for leisure and the one you listen when working on your own scores? Do you allow influences from the music you listen for your personal pleasure to be channeled in your own work?
Where it should say what my profession is on my business card it says, “pathological eclecticist.” This is true of my listening as well. I adore Debussy, Coltrane, Jeff Buckley, Peter Gabriel, Ennio Morricone, obscure folk bands, roots and country, swing… this could get to be a long list very quickly. It all creeps into my work.
Recently I´ve been listening to a lot of James Newton Howard’s scores. I´ve discovered that I´ve probably been unconsciously influenced by him for years.
You returned to your roots on an April 2 episode of Cold Case where you briefly appeared playing "Wilkommen" from Cabaret on the violin and also as a violin playing pirate in the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man´s Chest. How did those assignments come up and what did you do exactly? Is there a hidden actor in you?
Not hidden, simply untalented. I acted on stage as a child and really got into rock more as an extension of theater than as an extension of my classical music training.
A University of Cincinnati study of "earworms", appointed as a condition in which tunes get stuck in peoples heads, concluded that the "worst" cases included "We Will Rock You", "YMCA", and the Kit Kat "Gimme a Break" jingle, your composition. What can you tell us about it, how did the inspiration come? Were there any specific reference points for the very piece? Do you agree with the term "earworm"?
My inspiration was an assignment from the AD agency. The words were written by Ken Shuldman, then a copywriter for DDB Needham. The music was inspired by Zydeco but the client hated the accordion on my first version. Many outstanding singers have done versions of it over the years including Shawn Colvin and, more recently, American Idol winner, Carrie Underwood.
I love the term earworm. It’s sooo creepy
Another particularly interesting work is your collaboration with William Phillip McKinley on the production of "Orpheus Electronica," a multi-media techno-opera which sets the myth of Orpheus in an underground dance party. McKinley directed the Broadway hit musical The Boy From Oz, starring Hugh Jackman, and also directs The Ringling Bros. Circus. So, this is something we don’t get to hear very often…what can you tell us about this project? It certainly sounds very exciting and fresh .
I first began working on Orpheus a number of years back with James Lumb, leader of the seminal rave band, Electric Skychurch. James is the person who coined the term “electronica” back in the early 90s. James was too busy to develop the piece with me, but passed on invaluable expertise about techno music and rave culture.
Orpheus is the classic story of the world’s greatest musician who journeys to the Underworld to rescue his true love, but is set in the Bacchanal of our age – the underground dance party. It is fundamentally about the loss of innocence that every idealistic community undergoes.
Phil McKinley is one of the smartest and most creative people I know. There is no one better to direct this complex and challenging work. We are in the process of mounting a modest “workshop” production this fall in NYC.
You’re also enlisted in 2004’s “Sharktale”, under the music/sound programming credits…
I contributed very little to Shark Tale. However, Hans Zimmer, who scored the movie, did a marvelous job.
You also share additional music credits with Harry Gregson Williams on scores like Veronica Guerin, Sinbad: the legend of the seven seas and Zimmer´s Tears of the sun. What can you tell us about your involvement in those projects and what´s your particular relationship with Zimmer and the Remote Control studios? Do you have any planned future collaborations with this team?
I don´t think anything I did for Sinbad or Tears of the Sun made the final cut. However, on Veronica Guerin, Harry asked me to score a key moment – the climactic murder scene – which had been temped by a cue of Hans´ from Gladiator. The producers loved the temp and disliked everything he did to replace it. The temp featured duduk, a quintessentially middle-eastern instrument. But Veronica Guerin is an Irish story. I thought, “What´s the equivalent that´s Irish?” And the answer was fiddle – but dark. So I played a reflective tune over a drone with my viola and the producers finally bought it. Ultimately, the wonderful Hugh Marsh replaced my part with a 5 string electric violin.
I love both Harry´s and Hans´ work and would love to work with either again. I´m guessing I´ll do more work on Pirates before it´s released. Currently there is a studio being built for me in Hans´ Santa Monica complex. Once I move in, I imagine I´ll see Hans more often.
Is it true that you were an orchestrator for Any Given Sunday, albeit uncredited?
I was a ghost writer for another composer on the film. “Orchestrator” was the consolation-prize credit I was supposed to have received but did not.
What are your confirmed upcoming works and future plans Michael? We´d love some info on these ones!
Everything I have in the works is too tentative to talk about at the moment. It would be embarrassing to brag about an upcoming project only to have it fall through. I´ve learned not to tempt the gods with my hubris!
Scoremagacine wants to thank you for according this interview and wishes you all the best for the years to come.