Film-Scoring Magic

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

‘HERE’S the scenario,” musician and composer Michael Bacon tells his students on the first day of their film-scoring class at Lehman College. “I’m a film director and you’re the composer. My film is in trouble and I say to you, ‘This scene doesn’t feel sad enough. Or it’s too sad. And this scene isn’t exciting enough.’”

Michael Bacon teaching film scoring at Lehman College. He works with student Nicole Johnson.

Michael Bacon teaching film scoring at Lehman College. He works with student Nicole Johnson.

There are a dozen students, each sitting at a supersized Apple desktop paired with a keyboard — the kind that generates music, not words — in Lehman’s high-end Multimedia Center. Their semester’s work will be to compose original music for scenes clipped from familiar movies. The first thing Bacon wants them to know is the first thing that happens in the real world — or doesn’t. Before a note is written, he says, the composer and director have to be in sync in the way they hear — and feel — music.

Angela Piva, chief audio engineer, and adjunct lecturer Steven Buonanottee.

Angela Piva, chief audio engineer, and adjunct lecturer Steven Buonanottee.

“Film people, all they’re thinking about is their film,” Bacon says. “But music is a very powerful thing in their film. And if you can give them the impression that you control that power for them, then they won’t be able to work without you. They will hire you for the rest of their lives.” Of course, the opposite is also true: A filmmaker won’t rehire a composer who’s on a different wavelength.

Bacon speaks from long and varied experience. He’s been a top film and television composer for decades, an Emmy winner much in demand particularly by producers of top-shelf historical documentaries for PBS and HBO, among others. But he’s also still the rocker he’s been since he was a kid growing up in Philadelphia. He spends 50 nights a year as half of the Bacon Brothers, the duo he formed with his younger brother, the actor Kevin, nearly 20 years ago.

The difference between those two parts of Bacon’s professional life is like night and day. The Bacon Brothers is carefree creativity, no restraints. “We have a little tiny following, and we control the whole thing ourselves,” he says. Film scoring, on the other hand, comes with conditions, like any livelihood. “It’s not an art; it’s a craft. Because art has no bounds. In film you’re a team player.”

Michael Bacon plays the cello, his first instrument, in Lehman’s Multimedia Center.

Michael Bacon plays the cello, his first instrument, in Lehman’s Multimedia Center.

In 2009, the year he turned 60, Bacon added a new gig: teaching at Lehman, his midlife alma mater. He earned a degree in music at the Bronx campus in 1995, 25 years after he’d quit the University of Denver to join a band. He maintained ties with Lehman faculty over the years, and he and his brother made a few benefit appearances at the school. When the college was opening its new $16 million Multimedia Center, complete with a state-of-the-art recording studio, the center’s director, Jerry Barnard, asked Bacon if he’d be interested in coming back to teach.

“I never saw myself as a teacher,” Bacon says, “but when this opportunity came up I said I’ll try it. And I ended up liking it.”

He turned out to be a natural as a mentor, guiding music students with the talent and interest toward potential careers in film scoring. It’s a fertile job market, he says, especially for those who look beyond the glamour of feature films. “Look at the number of cable channels,” he tells his students. “There were three or four networks when I started. Now there are hundreds, and they all have original programs, and all the programs need composers, and all those composers need help.”

Bacon himself arrived at film scoring as a career seemingly by a combination of happenstance and necessity. Music was always central in his life, a passion infused by his parents, a city planner and a nursery school teacher who moved their family of five kids into a Philadelphia row house in the late 1940s, a time when city dwellers were moving out in droves. “My parents were urban pioneer types,” Bacon says. “They thought the city was a better environment for kids than the suburbs. They valued creativity above everything else. We had music lessons, art, singing, acting. That was what they cared about. They didn’t care about grades.”

The Bacon Brothers, Kevin and Michael, perform at Lehman College.

The Bacon Brothers, Kevin and Michael, perform at Lehman College.

Bacon started playing cello when he was 8 and later took up the oboe, but it was folk and rock that got his ear. His older sister, Hilda, taught him the guitar and he added the banjo when he discovered Pete Seeger. Kevin Bacon, nine years Michael’s junior, has said his earliest memories of music were whatever his brother brought home or played. The first Bacon sibling band was Michael and Hilda, and Kevin recalls sitting on the basement steps as a young boy and listening to them practice.

Michael Bacon went off to college thinking that music was to be played and loved but not studied as one might study, say, international relations. So he majored in international relations. Perhaps not surprisingly, he left before his senior year to go on the road as a singer and guitarist with a band called Good News. They had some success — a record deal, national tour and a moment of glory opening the fifth day of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival — “in front of 250,000 cranky hippies” awaiting the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Moody Blues and Leonard Cohen.

Bacon played on his own after the group broke up, sometimes backed up by a band that included his kid brother on percussion. And he focused on his songwriting. His tastes and talents matched the times — “acoustic guitar songs with confessional lyrics” in the vein of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell — and eventually he landed a job on the songwriting staff of a major Nashville music publisher. One of his songs was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, another by Peter Yarrow.

Familiar pop music story, so far. Then came one of those life-altering, one-thing-leads-to-another sorts of discoveries. A friend asked Bacon to write some music for a film he’d made. It was a documentary of sorts: “Safe use of pesticides for farmers,” as Bacon describes it. (Opening lyrics: “Mites an’ ticks an’ skunks an’ slugs/Weeds an’ weevils an’ hundreds of bugs …”)

“It got around that I was good at writing cool songs for strange subjects,” Bacon says. Writing music for movies eventually started feeling like a possible career path. But for one thing. “I realized I had too many holes in my musical upbringing, I was a professional songwriter with records out, but for this sideline of film scoring I needed real training in theory, composition, the things all the conservatory guys knew.”

Bacon moved back to Philadelphia, studied composition and theory and built a studio in his garage. In 1985, he moved to New York to pursue film scoring full time and spent a year making demo reels and sending them out to filmmakers. One of them, documentarian David Grubin, finally hired him to score a film on the artist Andrew Wyeth for his PBS series “Smithsonian World,” adapting music by the artist’s daughter.

The film was Bacon’s big break — the episode won an Emmy — but his education wasn’t finished. He enrolled at Lehman for the chance to study with one of its faculty — John Corigliano, a member of the pantheon of internationally renowned American composers. (He has since won a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar and remains a Distinguished Professor on the Lehman music faculty.) Bacon studied closely with Corigliano and considers his return to school at age 43 a major turning point of his career.

“Lehman was a great force for me,” he says. “So much of film scoring is the confidence that you know everything there is to know. Studying with John Corigliano gave me that confidence.”

Bacon has since become a prolific film composer himself, scoring 12 feature films and hundreds of hours of documentaries for television on figures ranging from the Kennedys (for PBS’ “American Experience,” for which he won an Emmy) to Marie Antoinette.

Teaching the craft nowadays is a world apart from when Bacon was learning from the masters. For today’s students and aspiring composers, computer technology can make up for some of the gaps in musical education Bacon felt he needed to fill when he was younger.

“When I first started, it was sitting at a piano and orchestrating a score with a pencil,” he says. “Now it’s kind of a hybrid of traditional and contemporary composing skills,” the contemporary, of course, being the ever-advancing technology that allows a single electronic keyboard and computer program to generate the complex sounds of an orchestra. But making something broadly known as Musical Instrument Digital Interface sound natural is another thing.

“Believability is what I’m trying to teach,” Bacon says, and there are a few techniques — “secret weapons,” he likes to call them — that the modern film composer uses to convert a recording session with just a few live musicians into the (virtually) true sound of a MIDI orchestra. For instance, using just one live violinist to create the sound of 25 will sound artificial. “But if you have three violins playing on top of the orchestral samples, all of a sudden the idiosyncratic movement of their fingers and intonation gives believability to the orchestra.”

To be sure, Bacon wants his students to work with live music so they learn how to combine the two elements and make them compatible. So he brings in the first instrument he ever played. “The cello helps them go through the process of writing the piece, spitting out a part for me to play and recording it into their system, mixing it, adding reverberation and that sort of thing.”

There’s another reason: “Working with MIDI and working with a human being are totally different. Live players are temperamental. If things aren’t clear they get frustrated. I want them to have as many negative experiences as possible because that’s how they learn. I’ve had 40 years of negative experiences. You have to know the pitfalls.”