A conversation about music in the cinematic realm, communication, and royalties paid in tuna fish with the newly appointed film music professor Walter Werzowa, media composition and applied music professor Judit Varga, film directing student Wolf-Maximilian Liebich, and film editing graduate Barbara Seidler.
The mdw has just established its first-ever professorship in media composition with an emphasis on film music—a position that Walter Werzowa assumed on 1 October. What were the considerations that led to this new professorship?
Judit Varga (JV): It’s definitely something new, and I’m convinced that it’s the right way forward. We’d already been teaching film music, of course, but so far it’s only made up something like one sixth of our portfolio; this is the first time we’re actually offering a specialisation,and it’s in high demand among our students. A factor that’s not unimportant is that our new home here at the Future Art Lab is in the direct vicinity of the Film Academy, which makes deepening this connection—strengthening our relationship and maybe going on to develop new curricula—an obvious thing to do. But even now, we don’t yet have a dedicated degree programme for film music, and we’ve still got a ways to go as far as that’s concerned.
Professor Werzowa, the range of activities you’ve been pursuing is quite broad; you’ve composed Hollywood movie scores and iconic corporate jingles, you do sound design and sound branding, and the list goes on and on. What kind of contribution will this experience make to your teaching at the mdw?
Walter Werzowa (WW): I’m all about real-life practice and teamwork. I’m looking to have my students accompany the Film Academy’s diploma projects as film composers—such that they’re able to converse and grow together with the directors and authors. My big theme, with 30 years of work experience in the US under my belt, is collaboration. So my dream is for the composers and orchestral musicians here at the mdw to really make friends with the film students, collaborating with them and getting to know the industry in the process. Music is something highly subjective; it can happen that a composer writes something fantastic and the director thinks it’s terrible. How do I deal with that? How can I rescue a project? And how can I still enable a director to trust in the fact that I’m a good composer for him or her, all the same?
JV: Those are important questions! How to deal with frustration is something that has to be learned, as is how to communicate. Speaking about music is so difficult even just among musicians—and it’s that much harder for producers and directors who aren’t as well versed where music is concerned. That often gives rise to inhibitions in working together, and it’s important to shed those.
Mr. Liebich, you embody both sides: you study directing at the Film Academy and have already made several films, and you also make music in various band projects as well as create music for your own films. So from what starting point do you approach a project?
Wolf-Maximilian Liebich (WML): I have a strong affinity for sound design and sounds as such, and it’s always seemed weird to me how, in film, the dimension of sound is treated so much like an afterthought. That starts with location sound: the sound department always has to fight to get good recordings. There are some directors out there who like to do the camera work themselves; I like to do the sound. I make very personal films, and it’s important to me to be able to tap into my personal experiences, into the idea underlying a film, on the level of sound, as well. To me, sound and music are forces in film that we tend to underestimate.
Ms. Seidler, you graduated from the Film Academy’s editing programme this past summer semester. At what point does music come into play in your work on a production? And how does your approach to it look?
Barbara Seidler (BS): That varies greatly; the musical concept—what it is and whether there should be one at all—usually comes from the directorial level. But if they don’t have a precise idea of what they want, we’ll try to arrive at something together. I do the rough cut without layout music, but that’s a matter of taste. Other editors are fond of editing with music and then removing it. But the problem with layout music is that you get too used to it.
How do you view film music’s development from those great melodies with which Ennio Morricone enraptured audiences in orchestral stadium appearances to soundtracks CDs marketed independently of their movies and on to the present-day Netflix series that pushed 35-year-old material by Kate Bush back to the top of the charts? How has the significance of film music changed, and what does that mean for composers?
JV: They’re still releasing soundtracks even now—on streaming platforms, if no longer on CDs. European film music, though, has moved pretty far off from American film music, in part depending on the genre. I’ve noticed that beautiful, good melodies have vanished from Europe in recent years—and audiences might be noticing that, too. It’s often the case that what’s called for and used is a mere musical skeleton; it’ll contain some nice timbres and chords, but there’s seldom anything you could sing along with.
WW: It’s a good thing that music is constantly changing, and ever faster at that. And we still do see concerts taking place: Hans Zimmer’s tours are hugely successful, including in Vienna. But I believe that the film composer as such is becoming less and less of a thing. Quite a few movies are more colourful, now. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, they’d choose one film composer who did everything—even the source music and maybe songs, as well. While that does still happen, it’s often the case nowadays that more people are involved. Morricone was lucky—he always composed his music prior to filming, and his ingenious melodies were things that no editor wanted to chop up. But today’s music is a bit more amorphous, more flexible, more easily edited.
WML: It’s my impression that electronic music and its technical possibilities are having a huge impact on film music. You no longer need an entire orchestra, and you can do great things with samples. Beyond composed music, a lot is being done with notes and sound, with voices, with noises. And I do think that the world already sounds really great on its own. So if I’m going to create music for a film, I don’t want to destroy anything—and sometimes, I don’t want to add any additional levels at all. To me, that’s the ideal case: a film that already sounds so beautiful and lyrical on its own that the dimension of film music becomes superfluous.
What kinds of skills do students need to have in order to compose for film? Musical abilities, technical skills? Perhaps also an exact understanding of film production processes?
JV: Composers who write film music need to already be really secure in their own line of work. They need to have the ability to resolve every task that gets thrown at them by the director or the editing department—regardless of style, genre, dramaturgy, or length. So I have to be a very good, broadly skilled craftsperson. And I also have to be totally up to speed in terms of studio technology, programming, and producing. The third pillar here is dramaturgy—learning about how a film is being perceived. Not as a member of the audience, but in terms of understanding how scenes are structured and what a director is looking to express. The fourth pillar has already been mentioned, and that’s communication—all the way to psychotherapy sessions with your moviemaking colleagues.
WW: Our students already have a very good grasp of composing, and of more than just that. But I want them to also enjoy their work and shake off their fear of making mistakes. Years ago, I was contacted by a designer who was working on the title sequence for Eraser; he told me that the director wasn’t satisfied with Alan Silvestri’s main title score and asked whether I might be able to come up with something. So I sat right down and started writing. And at four in the morning, as I was recording it, I completely screwed it up because I was so tired. But when I listened to the outcome, it struck me as highly original—so I left it that way, and my title got taken. That was my first big success in the US, and it led to a whole lot of other things. Being unafraid to make mistakes is enormously important. Back when I was a student, we were always told: what you’re doing is terrible; Schubert was way better! That was terribly frustrating. So in my teaching, I want to make it clear that there’s also some fun to be had.
JV: Right, fun and quality aren’t mutually exclusive. Quality is something that I’m obsessed with—but you don’t have to suffer to produce something good; doing good work and having fun go hand in hand. And it’s also true that how fast or slow you compose has nothing to do with quality. It just has to sound good, and it needn’t smell like sweat. And as far as what you said about your recording screw-up goes: a few of the passages in my opera were actually composed by my cat. She walked across the keyboard, and I took what she did as-is.
WW: Can you lend me your cat?
JV: Sure, but that’ll cost you—she’s very good! Royalties are payable in tuna fish. (laughing) In film music, it’s very important to be authentic; one’s hugely tempted to copy things or sometimes even pressured to do so. I get a layout, the director is in love with some Hans Zimmer soundtrack, and I’m told to get as close to that as possible without having to be paid too much. Such jobs do exist. And that’s fine as a learning experience, but it’s no good later on. No matter how I try, I’ll always be a worse Hans Zimmer than Hans Zimmer himself. But the good news is that I am the world’s best Judit Varga! So if you learn to be yourself, you’ll be on a good path.
WW: Even Hans Zimmer doesn’t want to copy Hans Zimmer. People like him just hate constantly being confronted with their own hits and getting asked to do the same thing over and over again.
BS: That applies to every art form, really. And as a filmmaker, too, you don’t want to copy your favourite directors; you want to arrive at your own language.
You’ve already worked together with composing students in your directing tutorials at the Film Academy. What kind of experience did that provide you with?
BS: Music isn’t among the Film Academy’s majors; some students deal with scores and sound design on their own, while for others it’s less of a focus. For me, working together with the composers was a positive experience.
WML: I actually always look forward to composing the music for my own films, but when I actually see the film, I find myself unable to create any music for it because I always get the feeling that it’s too much.
JV: A good filmmaker creates space for music in his films—if he wants it. The level of sound has to be thinned out, the visual level functions differently, and editing is extremely important.
BS: That’s true—and I personally think it’s horrible when the film music gets replaced post-editing. In film, it’s a problem in and of itself that people often begin with the sound design far too late in the process—often only once the film’s wrapped. It would actually be a lot better to get composers involved while the script’s still being worked on.
How will things shape up going forward, with the two departments and their cooperation, now that the Film Academy and the composers have become close neighbours at the FAL?
BS: The ELAK programme and the Film Academy have been cooperating for a while already, and we students get to know each other as a matter of course, so that’s all well established. But with the mdw’s composing students, it all still has to happen—and there’s no platform for it thus far. ELAK students who’ve already been at a film shoot get passed around, and you form networks in the process, but it’s not yet common to ask mdw composing students to do film music.
JV: We’re conscious of that—and we’ve been planning to hold regular composer-filmmaker get-togethers. But since we moved into the Future Art Lab, the pandemic has made all such meetings impossible. So it’s been a rocky start, but I do believe that both sides want more exchange, so we’ll be tackling that now.
WW: It really does need to be made possible. I think that every directing student here potentially has ten film composers to choose from!