Interview: Jack Curtis Dubowsky on Live Music For Film


  1. Introduction
  2. An introduction to live music for film
  3. Types of improvisation that are well suited for film
  4. Structure, dialogue and other aspects of film music
  5. Rehearsal and performance
  6. Recommendations
  7. Links


In this interview with composer, author, filmmaker and educator Jack Curtis Dubowsky we talk about live music for film. Everything from what is needed to organize a show involving film and music, to the different techniques (improvisatory, structural etc.) he uses and how he prepares his ensemble for live performance.

For his live music for film, Jack performs with the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble, combining acoustic instruments, electronic hardware, composed material, and structured improvisation. He is also a composer of orchestral and choral music, and has written on the various intersections of cinema, animation, music, and sexuality. In March 2016 Palgrave MacMillan will be publishing my first monograph, entitled Intersecting Film, Music, and Queerness.

An introduction to live music for film

Diego: How did you get into doing live music for film?

Jack: I started scoring indie films professionally in 2001. I had been working in Pixar’s in-house music department since about 1997, back when the company was in Point Richmond, even before the Emeryville campus. From a practical standpoint, film and media are areas where a composer or musician can get some monetary compensation and work with other interesting, creative people.  Many composers entertain fantasies of meeting some Diaghilev figure and composing ballets and operas.  I was particularly interested in opera.  But, there are just more opportunities for work in film.

I started JCDE in 2008.  I wanted my own group to do live performances under my own name, rather than some obfuscating ensemble name.  Doing live music for film was a way to bring in my expertise from the professional world, but furthermore it was a way to bring in filmmakers and a wider audience. We started doing performances incorporating film in 2009 at ATA (Artists Television Access) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. We did films by Samara Halperin and other local filmmakers, and Jean Genet’s Chant d’Amour.  In 2009 we incorporated visuals in our concert at the Meridian Music: Composers in Performance Series at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco.  I began to introduce some of my own work as a filmmaker into JCDE programming.  In June of 2010 we did a big performance with an early cut of my experimental documentary, Submerged Queer Spaces, at the African American Arts and Culture Complex in San Francisco CA as part of the National Queer Arts Festival.

Really, as a composer or ensemble, you will bring in a larger, wider audience in collaboration with filmmakers or with public-domain silent films that people know, like The Golem.  There’s a lot of groups doing live music for film.  It’s something that has a very direct, simple appeal.  Sometimes, with a new music group, it’s difficult to describe what the concert will be like.  But, if you’re doing a live score event, you describe the film, and people get it right away.

Diego: What do you find most constraining and most liberating or inspiring in doing this kinds of shows?

Jack: The most important constraint is rights and permissions and clearances.  You have to use a public domain print.  Well, guess what, if a private company like Kino International or Criterion has restored a film, they own that restoration. So you need to get a public domain copy, an unrestored cut of the film.  That, or pay a screening fee.  So, that’s definitely a constraint.  You also need a certain kind of venue, one with a screen or a huge white wall that you can project on.  You cannot just set up and do a show in a bar or café like Classical Revolution.  The venue has to be a good one for projecting a film.  JCDE has its own projector, so it’s not necessary for the venue to have a projector, but they need to have a good place to throw the image.

I guess what’s most liberating is the constraint of the film itself: by having creative demands put upon you, such as following the narrative of the film, it guides you, but also liberates you.  You can do whatever you like, as long as it works with the film.  If you have no constraints, it’s like being trapped by having too much freedom.  You don’t know what to worry about.  What should I write?  But by having the film provide a very rigid temporal structure, that gives you the freedom to do whatever you like within that form and structure.

The film itself has to be the main inspiration.  So what is inspiring, that would be the film.  You don’t want to select a film that is boring or uninspiring.  It’s easier to do a film that suggests all kinds of musical possibilities.  The Golem is a very complex film, but there’s all kind of gestural acting and complex subplots going on that suggest certain musical approaches.

Diego: What characterizes a great live music for film score? And what a performance?

Jack: That’s a tough question; I can more easily tell you about some terrible ones I’ve seen, without naming names.  There have been some bands and performers from the rock and popular music worlds that have done live scores for films, and while some have been good, some have been terrible because they were stuck in the concept of the “song.”  And by song I mean just that: a binary AB verse-chorus structure in regular 8 or 16 bar patterns. So the opening sequence is one “song.” Then the next scene or two is another “song.”  Or if it’s not a “song,” then it’s a groove or a jam.  And the resulting score is just a chain of “songs,” like when you play Dark Side of the Moon to Wizard of Oz. It’s cool for a while, but after the first 50 minutes, it’s tiresome.  Structurally, films are not a chain of songs, and while you can subdivide a film that way, it’s like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

So I guess I’d say a great live score is one that understands the film, and adds something to the experience.  It helps the audience understand and process the silent film. As far as performance, the audience is going to watch the screen, not the ensemble, so there’s no need for gratuitous posing or flamboyant soloing. You do what serves the film.  What makes a great performance is when the players are really well prepared, and know the film really well, so they hit their mark perfectly.  So there’s no hesitation with the improv.  For example, if an instrument has to represent what a silent film actor is saying or doing gesturally, they need to be right on that, they need to know with confidence where that happens and how they want to play that moment.

Types of improvisation that are well suited for film

Diego: How do you use improvisation in this contexts?

Jack: There’s all kinds of improvisation approaches that we use. Most of it is “structured improvisation,” with the film providing the structure, and the players are free to play anything within certain guidelines dictated by the narrative. I will go over some of the more specific improvisatory techniques that we use.

For The Golem, I’ve composed several themes. They are fully notated, and written out in one to three parts.  So in the score I can specify, for example, certain instruments will play “Theme A.”  Or I will have a solo instrument play a fragment of theme A.  The player can choose the fragment themselves and how to play it, what tempo or emphasis or variation of that fragment. Or I might have two instruments play a duet based upon theme A. These are improvisations, based upon existing melodic material that I have supplied.  So it gives the player freedom, but also keeps things coherent.  I’m not micro-managing. A good player can come up with a variation of a melody.  And of course we have rehearsals in which a lot of this gets worked out, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

Certain accompanying textures may be completely improvised. So if we want the sound of wind, or of cold, or of heat, or of fire, certain instruments can do that nicely, and those textures can be specified in the score but then freely improvised by the player.

Certain visual gestures can be imitated with music, a technique often called “mickey-mousing.” It just means a player should follow that onscreen action closely. So if I write for doublebass, “MM Golem footsteps,” the player will hit those footsteps. This “MM” is really effective to do with dialogue, which is often delivered in exaggerated gestures in silent film. In one scene, Miriam is whining to her father, Rabbi Jehuda, who angrily barks back at her.  So these gestures, whining and barking, are easily improvised and imitated by instruments.  There’s no need to write out a precise part for the player; it’s much more fun for the player to improvise this themselves.

One kind of improvisation I tend to avoid or use sparingly is that sort of jazz or rock improvisation style of playing over preset chord changes. This tends to fall into what Derek Bailey called “idiomatic” improvisation, and it is often predictable or boring, and harkens back to that jam-band kind of scoring which I dislike. There’s places where it comes in handy, but I favor free improvisation, structured improvisation, improvisation based upon supplied melodic material, and textural and gestural improvisation.

There’s also, of course, improvisation based upon graphic notation; I tend to use that more in my concert music than I do in live film scores. I think the reason graphic notation is more suited to concert music has to do with available space on the page, page turns, and rehearsal time. Also there’s less of a reason to draw a pictograph when there’s already plenty of visual cuing on the screen already in a film.

Structure, dialogue and other aspects of film music

Diego: How is your work process different when working with films, as opposed to working solely with music?

Jack: The compositional process is similar, with the main difference being the handling of form and structure.

When you study any kind of composition, one of the things you study is form and structure.  This is true whether this is musical composition, poetry, prose, or architecture.  Form and structure is often supplied by established conventions: maybe I’m writing a sonnet, or a sonata, or a theme-and-variations, or an opera.  Maybe I’m writing a TV commercial, or a piece for organ that will unfold over 10 centuries.  In any case, a trained composer will approach a piece with an idea of the form and structure.  It’s like the architect who builds a house, and the first thing he thinks about might not be the façade, but the frame. What holds it up? How big is it?  What’s the pacing or the overall size and shape?

With a film, that basic structure comes supplied. You know how long the film is, where the “acts” are dramatically, what are the important scenes, the “tentpoles”, and what is transitional. A film solves most musical problems of form and structure, and allows you to concentrate on other areas, like themes, development, texture, mood, arrangement, and orchestration.

Diego: Besides structure, which aspects of the film do you pay most attention to  when writing the music? And how do you approach each of them?

I am very sensitive to visual issues and dramatic issues. What needs emphasis? Where are the storylines? What is important? What needs to be indicated?  For example, in The Golem, Miriam is looking dreamily out the window.  Unless we are really paying attention, or have watched the film a hundred times, we might miss that she is looking at her lover Florian, offscreen, in the street below. Playing the love theme can signpost what is going on in her head.  For another example, when Florian shows the Emperor’s seal to the guard at the ghetto gate, the audience might not understand that the seal belongs to the Emperor and that’s what gives Florian the ability to travel wherever he wants. So, the Emperor’s theme can indicate that. Music will remind the audience where the seal comes from and its political importance.

There’s a tendency to approach these moments with what are called “tropes,” or basic musical gestures the audience understands. These tropes go back to opera, to theatre music, to the troubadours and storytelling, they are very old and recognizable. Everyone has heard pizzes used for tip-toes sneaky music, and agitato chase music, for example. You can approach things in so many ways, depending upon what you would like to emphasize. Are we following the action that we can see, or are we indicating that there’s something else happening outside the frame? Are we playing the point of view of one character or another?  Do we need to emphasize emotion, or maybe just the time of day or how cold it is?  Certain scenes might be tonally ambiguous, and you can play things up, or keep them small. There’s just so many approaches, and I think it helps to decide how you want the film to play.  As far as musical approaches, it’s whatever works, whatever is interesting. There should be no limitations musically, as long as it’s working with the film.

Diego: Do you always see the music as supporting the film or do you aim at establishing other types of relationships to it, producing music which might at times diverge from the film’s intentions (commenting, contradicting, etc.)?

Jack: First of all, there’s a huge history of what you describe, going back to the “film funners” of the silent period, as described in Rick Altman’s important book, Silent Film Sound.  These were cinema accompanists, typically organists and pianists, who specialized in making fun of a film by accompanying it with comedic music, much like the “Mystery Science Theatre” television program. So instead of supporting the film, they were trying to tear it down and make the audience laugh.

Consider also Dark Side of the Rainbow, the legendary underground VHS tape and DVD that post-synchronizes Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz.  It’s cute and clever, but it gets pretty tiresome once the album needs to start repeating itself to cover the length of the film.  The first few reels are pretty fascinating though, and show us how independent narrative structures of concept album and feature film can surprisingly align temporally just by chance or happy accident.

There’s also an academic notion or theory of ‘counterpoint’ in music for visual media, which is to say, music that goes unexpectedly against the visual, for example scoring a combat scene not with action music, but with sad music; there’s a well-known example of this in Platoon.  So the film becomes a commentary on the horror of war, rather than a typical action movie.

With The Golem, we are treating the film entirely with respect.  There’s little funny moments in it, but overall we are trying to support the film, not undermine it.  The Golem is powerful cinema, and our intention is to support Paul Wegener’s original vision and to help communicate the story effectively to the audience, whether or not they have seen the film before.  Since it’s a public domain film, there’s a version of it online that has some pretty random classical music dumped in everywhere, and that version of the film makes little sense, because the music is so meaningless or confounding.  We are trying to make the film come alive by having appropriate music, music that works with the film.

Diego: And about ensembles, what kinds of instrumentation do you think are better for live music for film, and which size of an ensemble would you suggest as ideal (if any)?

That’s driven by a number of variables, as you might expect.

One is the performance space: how many players can it hold, what is the set up there? Do they have a projector and a screen, where are those, or if we bring in our own gear, where does it need to go?

Another is budget. Not only in terms of money per player, but also in terms of the number of “services,” how many rehearsals there can be based upon time and money, and how much rehearsal time there is available.  A larger ensemble might need more rehearsal time, or they might just need a simpler score, in the same way that large ensemble music differs from chamber music.  Things that are complex, virtuosic, or more specific to a particular technique will warrant more rehearsal time.

JCDE, pretty early in our inception, did concerts at ATA in San Francisco that just were two players: Fred Morgan on drums and percussion, and myself on Roland Jupiter 6 analogue synthesizer and electric bass.  That was pretty minimal; so live music for film can be done with a small ensemble.

Instrumentation depends on the film, but I’m also thinking about what types of players to bring in on a show.  For The Golem, we need players that can improvise in the techniques and styles I’ve described above.  For The Golem, we also benefit from clarinet, which can invoke a klezmer sound, and can also imitate a shofar, which is necessary as it appears visually in the film.  Our clarinetist, Alicia Byer, does this amazing job of imitating a shofar on a clarinet, you cannot tell that it’s not the real thing.  It’s absolutely unbelievable.  Trade secret!  

Rehearsal and Performance

Diego: How does your rehearsals look like?

Our rehearsal schedule depends upon if the piece has been done before and the familiarity of the players with the piece.  When we first debuted The Golem in March 2015, we had three rehearsals.  The first rehearsal was meant to just get through the whole thing, stopping any time when needed, trying out different approaches in rough spots, and making sure everything worked.  So the first rehearsal is about getting people familiar with the score, making sure everything works, and settling on the approach we will take for every moment of the film. The second rehearsal we attempt to get through the whole thing without stopping, but likely stopped a few times and ironed out some rough patches.  The third rehearsal was a dress rehearsal. No stopping, no fixing, going through the whole show. Afterwards we might have hit some spots, but the main thing in a dress rehearsal is to run through the whole show.

When we do repeat performances, we will have fewer rehearsals.

Diego: How do you prepare a performance (where is the best place to set the ensemble, how do you dress, interaction with the audience, etc.)?

For live music to projected cinema, concert black is a good way to go.  We all have stand lights, and otherwise the only light should be from the screen. You don’t want to block the screen for the audience, but you also want to preserve good sight lines so the ensemble can see each other and see the screen as well.  That’s particularly important for the “mickey-mousing” improvisation that needs to synchronize tightly on screen action.  If physical space in the venue allows, we tend to go on either side of the screen, facing the screen, and facing each other.

There’s generally not much audience interaction, although sometimes we can get the audience to scream during the onscreen earthquake, for example. Although it is a live music event, primarily people are coming to see the film and want to engage with the film.

For The Golem, we all wore these tall, black, pointy hats, as you might be able to see in some of our PR photos that were taken at the show at HM157 in March, 2015.  That’s because the Jews in The Golem, at least all the men, all are wearing these big black hats, and we thought that would be a fun thing to do, to have us be kind of “part” of the film visually as well as musically.  When we walk out on stage, some people might get it right away, and then everyone will certainly get it once they see the film.  For me, Alicia gave me this crazy “wizard” hat to wear, and, I don’t want to give anything away, but it really complemented the film.

Diego: What is the most important thing (or things) to keep in mind when doing live music for film?

You’re doing it to enhance the film.  If you are a band, don’t play a bunch of your songs and use the film as a pretty backdrop. I mean, you can, but then you have Pink Floyd.  I love Pink Floyd, but, most bands are not Pink Floyd. Support the film. Know the film. Every detail. Understand the film.


Diego: Are there any musicians or composers that you would consider as important references for musicians engaging in live music for film?

Clubfoot Orchestra and Alloy Orchestra have both been doing this type of program for a long time.

Tuxedo Moon did a very nice score to Pink Narcissus that is available limited edition on LP; I’ve not seen their live score for the film, but the music is very textured and sensitive and enjoyable.

Diego: What musician(s) would you like to recommend?

Jack:Tough question, because I think people should discover things for themselves, or if one makes recommendations, one should do that based upon knowledge of the particular needs of the recommendee, what it is they are missing from their collection. New Amsterdam Records, Bedroom Community Records, almost anything out of Iceland or Brooklyn, those are the correct answers right now. You have to know what these folks are doing because they have momentum. Mason Bates, Nico Muhly, those are among the rising stars of today’s generation. Bang on a Can, who have been around for a long time now, started a movement towards collectives that is now realized in other groups like WildUp in Los Angeles. There is a lot going on, and often it’s not a particular musician, but groups of musicians who share affiliations geographically or structurally through these organizations.  There’s a smaller group here in LA called WasteLAnd and they have been doing interesting shows; one of their directors, bassist Scott Worthington, just released a beautiful new solo CD called Prism which is on Populist Records, a boutique label that promotes new music. I also would recommend going to a used record store and buying a bunch of old LPs with covers you like.  If the album or its music is not posted on YouTube, buy it. So much important music has never been re-released on CD or digitally, for example early electronic music on Nonesuch or improvisatory chamber music by Lukas Foss, and so on.  There’s tons of important “new music” and avant-garde and experimental music out there waiting to be discovered and re-discovered.  But just to reiterate, it’s really difficult for me to make recommendations unless I know someone, as a student or a friend, and know where their head is at.  I think our appreciation of the arts is very unique, and I don’t think everyone needs to like the same thing, and everyone has certain areas where they don’t adequately know the rep, myself included.  It’s great to talk about music and art and culture with people and discover gaps in knowledge and new areas for discovery.

Diego: How about books?

Jack: I read so much, I go through a lot of stuff, I have quite a library. If there are students reading this, I’d recommend, when you are starting out, you need a good orchestration book, and you need to write in it all your observations in your own words, about what works and what doesn’t.  You should annotate your orchestration book so it makes sense to you.

Currently I’m reading Sheppard’s biography of Brian Eno. That has got me to go back and listen to tons of Eno and to complete my collection. Especially I’ve been enjoying his collaborations with German musicians, such as Cluster & Eno and After The Heat, even more so since Dieter Moebius died this year, sadly, a great musician and a great innovator. Also Musik von Harmonia. All that music bridges so many approaches and is so under-appreciated.  Also Gavin Bryars, I got a copy of his Homages LP, and it is brilliant.  He’s also connected to Eno through the Obscure label, although you may know him through Jesus’ Blood, his piece for tape and orchestra.

Official Website

Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble

Intersecting Film, Music, and Queerness (Book)

Twitter @JackCDubowsky

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