He grew up near his family’s Texas cattle ranch and learned to play piano at age four, but after seeing the movie Star Wars at eight years old, soundtrack composer, conductor and orchestrator Blake Neely knew he wanted to tell stories with music. After being denied acceptance into the University of Texas’ School of Music piano department where he was advised to “consider another career path,” his first big break came at Disney Studios as a summer intern in their film music department.
Soon afterwards he began orchestrating for his mentor, the late Michael Kamen, and then Vangelis hired him to orchestrate and conduct his large-scale Mythodea, which culminated in a PBS concert from the Temple of Zeus in Athens, Greece. Neely was soon introduced to composer Hans Zimmer with whom he continues to collaborate. He has received an Emmy nomination for his theme for the television show Everwood, and has written music for notable films such as Pirates of the Caribbean and King Kong, as well as the hit TV shows The Mentalist and Brothers & Sisters.
Neely has also written the best-selling book Piano for Dummies and the award-winning series FastTrack Music Instruction. In addition to his busy film and television composition schedule, he is a production/technology lecturer on Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television at USC’s Thornton School of Music.
SuperConsciousness Magazine spoke with Neely about the process of telling a story through music and how he created a career as a sought-after soundtrack composer
SC: Let’s start with your process for composing music. Out of all the creative possibilities, how do you arrive at an original idea for each scoring project?
BN: For me the most important thing when scoring for film or television is always the storytelling. It’s called underscoring for a reason – it should be subliminal, and it represents to me what the theme or the entire piece lacks. I try to watch the entire film without any music to see what it’s missing.
Within the sadness there should be a sense of hope and I would try my best to add that sense of hope through the music.
SC: That would seem to be a welldeveloped sensibility.
BN: The project shouldn’t be about the music; it’s about what is being told as a story or about the characters in the film. It would be like gilding the lily to simply put some music on top of what is already felt. Audiences are smart and they know when they are being led or manipulated and if they are already being manipulated by the script and then on top of that the music is telling them how to feel, you can actually ruin the scene or lose an audience.
It can be a struggle when the filmmakers think something is missing for them. If I watch it the first time and think there is nothing needed for that scene, then it becomes about what is missing for them. As much as I might love the scene without additional music when filmmakers don’t, I have to remember that I’m the last person invited to the party – the music is always the last thing to be incorporated. They’ve probably already seen the project a hundred times, perhaps even tested it and watched it with audiences. So, my part of the collaboration becomes a dialogue with them about what are we trying to say here and what are we trying to add.
Let’s say that the scene does need something. So then I figure out, okay, this is great but what’s missing from this scene is a sense of hope, that within the sadness there should be a sense of hope and I would try my best to add that sense of hope through the music. Over the years you develop little tricks, whether it’s a chord progression or a certain instrument that you can incorporate. When I want to write a piece, usually I improvise while watching a scene to come up with an idea. Once it starts working for me then I can write the piece of music and put it back into the film or the scene.
Zimmer took notice and pulled me to the side and asked me if I wanted to write, or help compose, if I wanted to orchestrate or if I wanted to conduct. I simply said, “Whatever, I just like being a part of it all.”
For me the fun is presenting my work to the people who hired me. Hopefully it works for them, but usually it doesn’t. We end up going through many versions on some of these things. Perhaps some composers see the re-write and revision process as a negative, but I actually enjoy working with the filmmaker. It’s nice to work with others, especially when the composer is traditionally last in on a project. Usually the project has been going on for quite some time before I come on, so it’s difficult to have full comprehension of a project in only one week.
SC: The role of the soundtrack appears to change over time. Is it a financial decision to use more songs in films and television shows from either established or alternative musical artists?
BN: Using more songs is certainly not a budget issue because the amount paid for using a single song for thirty seconds is four times what they would pay me to write the entire score. On the other hand, if they play the song on a TV show like Grey’s Anatomy, then that artist is going to sell millions of copies just from that play. If the same company that owns the music label also owns the television station, then there are some crosspromotional things going on there.
SC: You have spoken of Michael Kamen as your mentor. What are the differences between mentoring and an apprenticeship in the film music industry?
BN: For the longest time in the industry it used to be that a film composer came up through the ranks. John Williams is a great example. He was an amazing studio pianist and worked under lots of composers as I remember the story. At one point a composer wasn’t available on a certain TV show and John stepped in and suddenly his career took off. A lot of film composers started as orchestrators until they were asked, “do you write also?” Today, I think the best path is working with a master composer, whether it’s a mentorship or apprenticeship. You learn all that there is to learn until someone believes that you have enough hands on experience that you can take over a project.
So my first conducting gig ever was this hundred and twenty piece orchestra, two hundred piece choir, thirty percussionists and two soloists. I’m sure they would have been horrified if they knew that it was my first time to conduct. But that was the reality: I was a quick study and I never said “no.” I learned a lot from a project of that size.
In the case of Hans Zimmer’s studio, Remote Control Productions, some of the composers have their own projects while also working together on Zimmer’s projects. The great thing is that you can always turn to Zimmer and he will help you out. For instance, if you run into problems with your director, he might step in and help, or counsel you on the politics because he has had that experience.
The time I worked with Michael Kamen I consider more of a mentorship because I was merely assisting or orchestrating for him – learning by helping him with his projects. I just soaked it up and I never felt any frustration about when the time was going to come to have my own project; I just wanted to keep learning.
Being under someone’s wing like that, I learned things that I knew I would want to try and incorporate someday, and things I knew I wouldn’t want to do. I took the goods and the bads away with me and learned to form my own identity.
SC: It would seem that Zimmer’s company also provides him the opportunity to pass projects he is offered, but is unable to accept himself, on to the other writers in his studio – creating a lot of opportunities for young composers there.
BN: Yes, for instance, if Hans were called to do a project and he was not able to take the job, he could reply that there is a composer that he has had his eyes on for the last few months who is really coming into their own. He would also be able to back him or produce him so that if something goes wrong, then he could come in and pick up the slack.
My relationship with Zimmer differs from most composers at Remote Control because I didn’t really come up through that system. I was doing my own thing and came in as an orchestrator and conductor on the team of Klaus Badelt who scored the first Pirates of the Caribbean. When I was working with Badelt, Zimmer took notice and pulled me to the side and asked me if I wanted to write, or help compose, if I wanted to orchestrate or if I wanted to conduct. I simply said, “Whatever, I just like being a part of it all.” We started a friendship and a working relationship and I became one of his main conductors over the past five years. I learn so much by sitting in a meeting with Hans and just watching him while he does his job.
I think the best path is working with a master composer, whether it’s a mentorship or apprenticeship. You learn all that there is to learn until someone believes that you have enough hands on experience that you can take over a project.
SC: You’ve also worked with Vangelis. How did that happen for you?
BN: I did an enormous project with Vangelis. His approach is completely different. It’s funny how different all these composers can be, but, of course, we are all different human beings.
Vangelis is not computer based – his process is to play the synthesizers on the spot and record his performance. So coming in as an orchestrator was completely different for me. I had to use different skills, listen with my ears and write down what I was hearing as opposed to taking computer files and moving them around. We didn’t have a language barrier because he speaks many languages fluently, but there was the distance. I spent weeks upon weeks in Greece, which was just amazing.
After orchestrating the piece, I flew over for the rehearsals. When I got off the plane, he told me he had just fired his conductor that day and asked, “You conduct, don’t you?” Without hesitation I just said, “Of course.” So my first conducting gig ever was this hundred and twenty piece orchestra, two hundred piece choir, thirty percussionists and two soloists. I’m sure they would have been horrified if they knew that it was my first time to conduct. But that was the reality: I was a quick study and I never said “no.” I learned a lot from a project of that size.
The most important thing when scoring for film or television is always the storytelling. It’s called underscoring for a reason – it should be subliminal, and it represents to me what the theme or the entire piece lacks.
SC: You were also involved with the project Kamen did with Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
BN: I was one of the orchestrators and also one of Kamen’s assistants for that MTV concert. There was just so much going on during that concert. First there were the fantastic orchestra members who have never played with a rock band before. Then there is Metallica, not even arguably the loudest band on earth, and the orchestra has to synch up with the band without a click track. There is nothing keeping everything in synch except their ears and Michael’s conducting.
So there are all these sensibilities that aren’t really happening at the same time as the incredibly difficult music that was not easy to play. Michael [Kamen] had arranged and written the orchestra parts and wasn’t just leading the orchestra, he was a star performer in this act. All of us assistants would trade off wearing black and hiding out of sight just to make sure that everything went smoothly. I was literally squeezed in between him and Lars Ulrich, the drummer. Lars would occasionally look over and see me just sitting there between him and Kamen and would start banging the cymbal right over my head and just smile. During that show, I learned about all the components that go together to put on a live show and make an album. It was amazing.
SC: How does the son of a Paris, Texas cattle rancher end up composing music for films in Hollywood, and conducting along side Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Forest Whitaker?
BN: Besides the fact that I knew very young that this was what I wanted to do, I just never said no to whatever opportunity came my way. When someone asked me, “Do you want to meet Michael Kamen?” I answered, “Yes.” That opened doors. Michael asked me if I wanted to come to London with him and I said yes unconditionally. Also, I had parents that always encouraged me early on.