Name: Graham Reynolds

Occupation: Musician

Nationality: American

Current Release: The Lodger on Fire Records
Recommendations: The first paintings that changed my life were the murals in Mexico City. They are an amazing example of overtly political and social art succeeding at a high level / The Waves by Virginia Woolf and A Million Windows by Gerald Murnane. They both look at their subjects in ways that I have never experienced elsewhere and from deeply personal and unique angles.

Website/Contact: Visit Graham’s comprehensive website at www.grahamreynolds.com

When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

My Mom drew me to music. I was five and she was taking piano lessons. I thought my Mom was cool and wanted to be like her so I asked if I could have lessons too. Once my brother joined in, my Mom had to quit because we couldn’t afford lessons for all three of us. 

While I’ve always loved scores and soundtracks, film music work came to me rather than the other way around. I was playing gigs around Austin and people started asking me to score their experimental shorts and student projects. Then Tim League asked me if I would score a silent feature for the Alamo. I learned a lot on that gig, it was Battleship Potemkin so I had to create 75 minutes of music. No contemporary film requires that much music, so all the subsequent jobs seem like a lighter load in some ways. 

As far as influences, it’s really everything I’ve ever heard. I try to listen with a mind geared towards adding to my vocabulary. Certainly, all of the iconic film composers, but also everything else from Prince to Duke Ellington to traditional Chinese percussion music.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

All of the players and composers that I admire have personalized skill-sets that differ from mine, so I don’t spend too much time worrying about being an exact sound-alike. I try to learn from everyone and trust that by the end I will sound like me. I’m not sure that always works but that’s how I approach it. When I incorporate ideas from other work, say a chord progression, I’m changing everything else about the piece, trying to make it my own while using that chord progression as an initial jumping off point.

What were your main compositional challenges when starting out as a film composer and how have they changed over time?

I think my biggest challenge has always been and continues to be figuring out what the film and the director want and need. That is what I see as my mission and guide.

What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, meeting the expectations of the director?

For me, the functions and goals of film music are different for every film and every collaborator. My listening and playing interests are broad and in a way, my convictions change with the music and project. For example, if a piece of music is supposed to make a person want to dance, what I value in that music will be very different from a piece of music that is meant to commemorate a lost loved one.

What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?

My first studio was my bedroom.  I try to evolve my setup with each project, adding bits here and there, whether it’s an instrument, a piece of gear, software, or anything else.  In terms of instruments, my piano is still home base, but I love all of my many bass drums as well, from 18 inches to 40. In terms of software there are many but I use Reaper every day for recording and mixing and Ableton for performance. 

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?

Depending on how broadly you define it, everything I do uses technology. The piano is an incredibly complex piece of machinery. But, if we’re talking about computers as well as digital and electronic technology, then these play a central role in my work. Not like Kraftwerk or circuit benders, but in that everything I make, whether it’s acoustic, electronic, synthesized, or sampled, goes into the computer. That’s where a huge portion of the work happens and what the final mixes come out of. Knowing your tools is as critical as knowing your instruments, so I try to get deeper into them every day. 

As far as human vs machine in terms of excelling, that line becomes blurrier all the time. 

Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?

The tools you have in front of you play a huge role in what music you make. If I sit down at the piano I will certainly create very different music than if I sit down at my drum kit. Choosing the right tools for the job, which while clichéd, is essential. The tools will point you in a direction and continue to shape the sound until the end.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

I approach collaboration as broadly as possible. I’ve worked with plenty of musicians and directors of course, but also scientists and chefs, historians and graphic designers. Collaborators pull me in directions that I wouldn’t find on my own and that process of discovery is my main driver.

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

If I am passionate about something I try to turn it into work, so I definitely lean on the blending side. Pre-covid my schedule was pretty clear: 8am-1pm in my studio with the whole team, 1pm-6pm meetings and solo studio work, 6pm and on networking, seeing others’ work, and gigging. During covid, the team is working from home so I’ve adapted.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a soundtrack or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

How about A Scanner Darkly, because that was both incredibly challenging and a long process while being a pivotal work in my career and highly rewarding. Because it was being rotoscoped, we had a long, long post-production and the score went through many iterations. I started writing ideas on set and kept writing until the final mix at the Warner Brothers lot. The breakthrough was when I started adding electric guitar and the palette finally became clear.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

There are many, many strategies for getting in the zone and being creative. Mainly I try to prepare myself for idea creation. That means reading the script, listening to other music for inspiration, improvising while thinking about the film, throwing other music up against the picture, and on and on.  If one trick doesn’t work I’ll try another. What I don’t do is wait for the music, if I did, I’d never make a deadline.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of film music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

Star Wars was the first film I saw in a theater. I got the soundtrack and was confused when the sound design wasn’t included. To me they are interwoven crafts that require sensitivity on both sides. I hear them both as the sound world of a film.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

Sound, and each of the senses, can do so much more than it’s basic job. The ability to tap into personal and collective memories, knowledge bases, emotions, and experiences give the senses incredible power. Any of these impacts can range from subtle and unconscious to fully overt, from collective experiences to very personal ones. No listener is going to respond to any sensory input in quite the same way. Some artists make the most of that, limiting the decisions they make for the audience and embracing ambiguity. Other artists make those choices for you. The second kind tends to make more money while the first tends to stay relevant longer, though great art has been made from both perspectives.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

That is a hard question! Music can play so many roles and I’m interested in all of them. Some work might be overtly political in content, while other work might serve more personal, emotional, or intellectual ends. I want to do all of it. 

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of soundtracks still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what film music could be beyond its current form?

For me personally, my future of music is about what’s new to me, even if it’s not new to the world. As far as soundtracks generally, they keep leaning towards the tools of the 20th and 21st century, as opposed to the work of folks like Bernard Hermann or John Williams, who used primarily late Romantic vocabulary and tools. I imagine some kind of merger of the two approaches and some composers are already working in that direction. And as far as music generally, I’m curious to see how it finds its footing now that the one century where recorded music sales were the main revenue source has come to an end.