Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
In Junior High School I quickly became a film score fan. Specifically, I was in love with the scores to Willow, Krull and The Rocketeer. At the time, I never really paid attention to the fact that all three of those films were scored by the same composer, James Horner. But one day it clicked, and I discovered I must love James Horner. I became the kind of fan that had to collect anything and everything I could get my hands on that he scored; cassette tapes, CDs, LP records. I began writing music that was my version of film music using my Roland keyboard’s built-in sequencer. I would rescore scenes from James Horner’s films on my own for fun. Really…I have to say it was James Horner and his music that started this whole thing for me.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Not surprisingly… James Horner. His ability to craft a memorable melody was second to none in my opinion. I would also have to say my mother, who forced me to take piano lessons starting in 1st grade. She did not necessarily think I would go into music, but she wanted me to have music in my life. There were many mornings she would force me to practice piano at 6:30 am before I got ready for school. At the time I hated it, but now looking back, am so thankful that she did that. I have to mention my first private trumpet teacher, who was also my Junior High School band director. Mr. Art Farr really set me off playing the trumpet correctly from the beginning, and it is because of him that trumpet became my principal instrument. And finally, my college band director Jay Rees at the University of Arizona (who is now the band director at the University of Miami.) Jay really taught us all the definition that having fun is being really good at what you do. All the hard work to be good…to be amazing, really does pay off and allow you to have fun.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
The only thing I can control ultimately is what I write and deliver to the client. I am proud of all of my scores to date. Some have been on smaller budget films where we did not have the money for a live orchestra and others have been much bigger where we have been fortunate enough to record with a full, live orchestra with some of Los Angeles’s finest studio players. But in the end, once it leaves my hands I have zero control how well the film gets marketed, how widely it’s distributed and how well the audience receives the film. My first film, 9/Tenths with Gabrielle Anwar and Henry Ian Cusick, had a legitimate release in about 14 territories around the world, but none of that was in North America. I am very proud of that score but in reality, not many folks have seen that film.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on film score?
I love that every score is different because every film is different. I love that there are really few-to-no rules in what we create. Sure, there are technical rules we all have to deliver or conform to in post-production, but creatively, every project is an open book. The biggest challenge, really, is communication with the director and the composer. Especially if it is someone you have never worked with before. Building trust does not happen overnight, and it really is like dating. That is probably the best way to describe that working relationship. Everything you do and say can be interpreted in many different ways and you have to be able to get into your director’s head and interpret what they want for their film musically. Since every director has a different personality…that aspect of the job presents the biggest challenge.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Musicians are the heart and soul of our music. The notes on the page that we write is not really the music, it is what happens between the notes that is the music; what the musician does with the notes. The score or the sheet music is really just the road map to what our composition is trying to be. Every musician brings their own interpretations and musical experience to their performance and that really gives the overall composition its life, its humanity. Music is fundamentally a human expression and listening to music is a very human experience. It is the best argument I know for wanting to use live players in film music rather than virtual instrument samples. The samples are snapshots in time of a recorded note…but are not that expression between the notes. And that is what gives the music performance its humanity. That is why we as humans connect with and react to the music we are listening to.
How would you characterize your compositional language?
Technically… I love lydian mode (composer humor). But seriously…my compositional tendencies tend to be melody-driven themes. I try to establish those themes in a film using song form. Repetition is a key factor to humans connecting with a melody. I also like to play around with quickly shifting from major to minor keys and, at times, if I can create a cue for a film that almost has no key center but feels like it is hovering a bit musically… that, for me, is a good cue.
How do you work?
That can be a long question to answer. In general, how I work for film scores is different than how I work for any concert compositions I have done. For concert compositions, I like writing directly into Sibelius, although I am learning Dorico now as a notation program because I feel that is the future of notation programs. BUT, for a film, there are so many technical considerations in scoring to picture that I have developed a process that works for me in writing directly into my DAW software (MOTU’s Digital Performer) first. I have very strong opinions about writing my film score cues to picture. Having picture drive the timing, tempo and hit points of the cue’s compositional structure is fundamental to the craft of film scoring. I will spot the film with the director, scene by scene, determining exactly where music goes (and does not go). From that meeting, we will have timings and timecode markers where I enter into my DAW. Every cue is in its own project file. Then the first thing to do, believe it or not, is to set markers for hit points and determine my tempo for the cue. Digital Performer has a great tool for this that no other DAW has. Once the tempo is determined that will allow me to hit everything I need to hit on a beat, then I can manipulate the meter with that tempo to be what I want. Once I have the tempo and now meter determined for the entire cue, I can then begin to write. And I have the entire roadmap of what that cue needs to be to underscore the corresponding picture. I then have to craft my cue to fit into that meter and tempo map. This process is what makes film scoring uniquely different than composing music or songs away from picture.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I have an email signature that says, “Success is a journey, not a destination.” I really do believe that. The entertainment industry is a business of relationships and one project really does lead to the next. I am not sure I will ever really be at a place in my career where I will have felt like I achieved success. There is always something more being added to my list of what I want to do. So I choose to look at success as a much longer journey I am on.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Don’t be afraid to follow this career path. It is not easy. Nothing is ever guaranteed. But if this is your passion and this is where your heart lies, find a way to do this and fuel your soul. I have a biochemistry degree, was a nationally certified EMT and worked for a Neurologist for many years doing clinical research in Alzheimer’s studies, MS studies, Migraine Studies, Parkinson’ Disease studies, etc…and gave up a potential career in medicine because my heart was more in music and specifically, in wanting to write music for films. I could not be happier with my career path switch. Just a few years after that switch, I was graduating from USC’s film scoring program as a grad student, and a couple of years after that was scoring a feature and had my music playing on a nationally syndicated TV show. One can have a career in the arts, but you have to work hard at it and it may benefit folks today to become a little more versed in business skills and to have a little more entrepreneurial mindset. Musicians today are much more entrepreneurial than they once were.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Scoring blockbuster films for Disney.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not ever having to worry about how to provide for my family so we all can just spend lots of time together and have great experiences my wife, daughter and I will never forget.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you enjoy doing most?
Conducting an orchestra.
What is your present state of mind?
Stressed. My mind is always multi-tasking from project to project. Not all of which is compositionally related as I am getting into producing films now as well.
Los Angeles-based composer and conductor Brian Ralston has spent the past 15 years creating compelling, heart-pounding, uplifting, and beautifully melodic tracks that delight and inspire audiences. His creative gifts lend themselves to an extremely rich and beautiful sound that can not only be seen, but felt throughout his works.