October 20, 2010 | By

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The following conversation occurred during the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, when Jeff Grace was in town to attend and support the premiere of Larry Fessenden latest horror film, The Last Winter, which Grace co-composed with Anton Sanko.

Much like the old studio system, which practiced a kind of internship in which future composers could learn the craft of film composition through orchestrating and arranging for a studio’s leading composer, Jeff Grace’s career has somewhat taken that path, albeit with a handful of established and resourceful composers working in very distinctive disciplines.

Having worked with Howard Shore on several major soundtracks, Grace has recently taken steps to establish himself as a new voice in the film scoring community. The results are two outstanding horror scores – The Roost and Joshua – available from MovieScore Media and iTunes as a downloadable soundtrack album. (Note: The Roost is also available, with Trigger Man, on a MP3 and limited CD album, released in March of 2008.)

Both are imaginative, avant garde scores that transcend the budgetary and sometimes creative limitations of the films, and as with the best soundtracks, each score stands on its own as a terrifying work of experimental writing. Brief as it is, The Roost is one of the best horror scores of 2006.

Grace, who grew up in Boston, studied at Berkley during his high school years, and also played in rock bands, although his interest in more complex improvisation and composition later moved towards jazz and classical music. After studying composition and piano performance at Rutgers University, Grace was faced with the one question that plagues every graduate: Now what?

The old a friend-of-a-friend scenario popped up, and Grace’s first exposure to film began with Robert Ruggieri, at Ruggieri Music.


Jeff Grace : I ended up working for him for a few years. He had this music house where they did a lot of ad music. He was very, very big in the eighties and the nineties, doing television ads like Jiff and whole bunch of huge campaigns. He also had a relationship with HBO, so we would do stuff with them and PBS, and some other people.

He also worked with Alvin Ailey of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and he had a very good relationship with a choreographer named Ulysses Dove that was really interesting for me too, because at the school of the arts at Rutgers, they have a dance and a theatre program as well

Through Robbie, I met jazz pianist Gil Goldstein, who I had listened to as a kid. Goldstein needed somebody who could help him with technical stuff, and I went to this high school where somebody had given them all this money for the music program, but that person stipulated that the money had to be used for music technology. This was around 1990. I had the first version of Finale, the first version of Performer and stuff like that, and I started working with him… He playing with the Gil Evans Orchestra for years, and he arranged for Evans as well. He also produced Pat Metheny’s stuff, and through showing him music editing, I got to help on some Pat Metheny records.

Later on I had a roommate who went to school with a guy who ended up working for Howard Shore. I didn’t even know that he worked for Howard, and one day while I was working on an independent film, he came over to our apartment and saw that I was using ProTools… He said, “Hey, I work for Howard Shore, and we need somebody who can do this kind of stuff,” and that started a three year stint up there – a crash course of film scoring at the top.

Mark R. Hasan : He’s an interesting composer with which to begin a career. Shore’s music really reminds me of Jerry Fielding, whose use of harmonics sounds very similar to what Stand Kenton was doing with brass.

JG : My understanding is that Stan Kenton was a very well versed musician (obviously in jazz stuff). I was a student of Bill Fielder as well – he taught Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard – and he would just always go on, ‘Stan Kenton… Stan Kenton.” It’s really interesting that you bring that up.

A really big musical influence for me – and this might not seem immediately apparent in film scoring – was Kenny Barron. I was a student of his for five years, and I find improvisation skills extremely helpful in writing, especially under time constraints.  While Kenny is obviously great with more straight ahead jazz stuff, he is also a person who really encourages musical self-exploration and stretching out.

Ears are a very big part of his teaching, and I have found that to have a very strong effect on me as a composer. I end up writing in front of the computer, at a desk with pencil and paper, and at the piano; they all sort of balance each other for me in this day and age with all of the schedules, crazy technologies, and pitfalls that come with all,  but it all starts for me with trying to hear something and trying to create a mood – a concept that was impressed on me very strongly by Charles Fussell; both compositionally and in orchestration, he stresses this very much, and to great effect.

MRH : The reason I brought up Fielding was that he had this unusual knack to write music that really focused on what was going on in a character’s mind, particularly the subtext, and it was stuff that must have been jarring for studio music departments used to more conventional scoring techniques. I find Shore uses that style of writing, and it must be tough to pull that off in fantasy epics, let alone psychological thrillers.

JG : Howard makes choices that a lot of other people might not make. I worked on The Score (that was the first film I did with him), and then we did Fellowship of the RingPanic Room, and Cronenberg’s Spider. Then we had to do all the extended DVDs ofLord of the Rings [LOTR] as well, and then Gangs of New York, and Return of the King, and then I left after that.

Those scores for the non-LOTR films were quite different, especially Spider. Have you heard that at all?

MRH : No, that’s one of the few scores by Shore that I haven’t heard. I’m familiar with his Cronenberg material because it’s sometimes so strange. Additionally, the music he wrote for Se7en is unbelievably unsettling; it really crawls under your skin. It clearly sets the tone of what’s going on in the film, both emotionally and the implied horrors, and the portents of what’s going to happen. But in Se7en, he doesn’t overtly variate a theme throughout the film, or counter-balanced it by a happy theme. It’s just a dark, unrelenting oppressive score.

JG : Yeah, I think to me, in what he did in those scores, there’s a thing that he uses that’s part of his style. Someone once pointed out to John Corigliano that ‘style is basically the choices that you make,’ and I totally agree with that, especially when you look at somebody like Corigliano or Howard or anybody who’s established.

With Howard, you can see the advancing parts that he chooses to pull back on, thematically or whatever. In Se7en, what’s uncomfortable about that score is that he sits on the chords; he sits on the harmonies for long periods of time, and builds tension by not letting things move forward. There are times when even in LOTR he uses those devices.

MRH : Do you find that, because his style is so unique and he takes those kinds of chances, Shore’s creative risk-taking was one of the inspirations from which you drew to build your score for The Roost, because it’s a really unusual score, even for a modest and low-budget film. Often the music is one of those last things on the schedule, and it’s done quickly. Did some of the concepts originate from writer/director Ti West, or did you bring them to him?

JG : It was kind of both. The director showed me the film and he said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, this film needs a horror film score with a huge amount of horror in the sound and the music, and if you don’t have the sound and the music, you’re missing half the film, and if you’re missing half the film, then it’s not a film, so please bear that in mind.’

So we watched and spotted the film together, and he said he wanted some things to be more action oriented, and then there are some things he wanted to be more unsettling, and just play off of that.

With all the good musicians that I know in New York, I suggested that we use a string quartet. I’m good friends with the guys from Flux Quartet, so I talked to them about doing the score; it’s actually the two main guys from Flux, Tom Chiu and Dave Eggar, as the rest of the quartet wasn’t able to do it.

I explained to Ti that if he wanted these two different approaches, the strings will give him more flexibility. He definitely wanted the Evil Dead synth stuff – he was very big on the homage with that – and then I played him some modern string quartet writing; we listened to a bunch of stuff like LigetiGiacinto ScelsiPendereckiKrumm, Miloslavsky, and he actually took to it. I was kind of surprised, because he took to it really well. It was really funny.

We just spent a whole bunch of time just hanging out, listening to different things, but I think with The Roost, they were doing the sound effects at the same time that I was doing the score, so when I would do mockups, I would just post them up to the website for the sound designer, and I would check out what he was doing, and he would check out what I was doing, and we’d talk about how we were going to layer things together.

MRH : Was there a lot of experimentation done to get those actual sounds?

JG: With stuff that I wasn’t totally sure about myself, and where I wasn’t sure if the director was going to be happy with, I scheduled a rehearsal. The players are fantastic, so we just banged through stuff very quickly. We actually did that at my place, and then I just put it up against picture and sent it down to him, and all of it survived; we didn’t have to go back and have me rewrite that stuff.

MRH : I think it’s in Joshua – the other score coupled with The Roost on MovieScore Media’s album – where you use the strings to mimic swarms of insects. Was a great deal of it written down and the musicians performed it? Or were there a series of ideas, and through their performances, you came up with some of the more unique sounds, like sustained chords and scratchy vibrato, and high shrill notes that actually wiggle instead of tremble?

JG : Most of the score is written out in one way or another. I look at the two different approaches: there’s the Ligeti approach, which is so notated; and then on the opposite end of the spectrum there’s the Penderecki thing, which is graphic events that take place that have parameters for the musicians, and they can choose various things within notes that they can arrive at these events; while I used a little bit of that, most of it is formally written out.

It’s just a string quartet, but there are some places where we had to overdub, because I needed more notes. I like horror because you get to shine way more, and in a lot of different ways than you do with other films. I’ve done a fair amount of animated stuff, which again, compared to other things, you do get to shine quite a bit there, but in the horror stuff, you get to do all these crazy modern things, and they’re a lot of fun.

That really dark stuff in the opening title music is Dave Eggar, the cellist. He and I are old friends, and we actually lived together for a while, so I’ve done a lot of session work with him. He has this crazy stuff that he can do to make the cello sound like a distorted guitar, just through using harmonics and bow technique.

I knew that I wanted to do that kind of sound for the film’s beginning, so he and I kind of worked on that stuff. There’s a section where we talked about textures, but I don’t personally understand how he goes and does it. There’s a little bit of delay and some panning going on from the engineer, but there’s no distortion or anything; that’s all just the cello, and what he’s able to manipulated out of the cello.

When the director heard certain stuff, like when they were playing ponticello, he’d say ‘Oh I love that! More of that.’ So at certain parts of the score, we sort of amped things up a little bit. The opening credit music is like that: it’s six tracks of cello, and there’s some scordatura that’s going on there, too. Dave would tune very low on the C string. Then where the bat theme comes in, that’s obviously overdubbed, with Dave and Tom playing against themselves, because it’s hard to create a string orchestra sound with just four players.

Check out sound samples of sul ponticello and other happy sounds at the University New South Wales website HERE [requires Quicktime]

MRH : Today you’ve got a mixture of orchestral elements and electronics that are blended together and finished on a computer, but in your score, you rely on and emphasize the talents of the musicians, which isn’t done as often. There may be a solo piece in a score for an artist to individually shine, but The Roost basically feels like a small handful of musicians performing what they know extremely well, and you can’t help but admire their skill.

JG : I really wanted those guys to do it, and when I wrote the stuff, I had them in mind, because they do certain stuff very, very well. They’re in New York, but they’re known internationally for doing that kind of stuff. It was a great learning experience for me to work with players like that, and so fast. I’ve done other scores with them, like The Last Winter (2006) for Larry Fessenden [who also appears in The Roost, and is credited as Executive Producer].

For his prior film, Wendigo, Larry actually used sound design with ambient aspects, but in The Last Winter, the majority of the score is “musical score,” which is what I’ve done. He also has this other guy named Anton Sanko do this ambient stuff. I did end up doing some ambient stuff for it as well, but I used more actual instruments. We have the bass ocarina in some parts of it, so we made these really weird, out of tune textures. My wife actually plays ocarina, and I would have her play just slightly out of tune, and we tracked it over fifteen times to make these weird clusters.

The film was shot in Iceland, although it takes place in Alaska. They’re drilling for oil in the Arctic, and it’s sort of an environmental ghost story, where one of the characters poses this question of ‘what if this stuff starts to contribute to global warming?’ The permafrost is melting and these ‘things’ come out of the ground, and what would that be? That’s’ sort of what kicks the movie off.

So there’s an opening shot of the tundra, and we ended up using this sort of tundra sound, where we had the bass player bowing the tail piece. The engineer set up mikes in a really weird pattern on the floor, and we also had it kind of against the wall to create this bass track to make this really bizarre sound. There’s also more scordatura too, where he’s detuned the strings in whole different places, and he’s bending the strings as well.

For The Last Winter, Larry used some thematic score. With The Roost, Ti West kept telling me, ‘It’s too musical. It needs to be more cacophonous.’ He did like the craziness of the score. Larry’s film is more tonally accessible. In addition to bringing in one member from the Flux Quartet, I had a bass player, and a brass quartet that consisted of one horn, trombone, bass trombone, and tuba. The Last Winter sort of looks back to his earlier film, Wendigo, and tends to reference the same creature, so for the creature we used this crazy brass sound.

MRH : Will the score for The Last Winter be released at some point?

JG : I have talked to different people about it, and there’s a definite interest for it, so I think one way or another, it’ll come out. I’ve gotten good responses from people here at the Toronto International Film Festival.

MRH : I think fans of the old Twilight Zone series will find The Roost particularly chilling, because you exploit the possibilities of chamber instruments much in the way composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Morton Stevens, Nathan Van Cleave, and Leonard Rosenman did. With some of their scores – episodes like “Back There,” and “King Nine Will Not Return,” in particular – you just don’t want to listen to them through headphones if you’re alone in the dark, and it’s 2 AM.

JG : It’s funny… The main teacher who I studied with and who I see myself extremely indebted to is Charles Fussell. He was very good friends with Virgil Thomson (he’s actually the chair of theVirgil Thomson Foundation) and he went to school with Leonard Rosenman, and he speaks very highly of Lennie. He said Rosenman was a very talented concert composer, but Hollywood just wasn’t into having you get your cake and eat it, too.

Now it’s a totally different ballgame: you have a lot more composers who have these hugely varying backgrounds working in film. Some of those people even head over to concert music. It’s like a total 180 from the way things were back then, but those guys were great composers. Even the British composers worked in TV.

MRH : I was surprised that several even contributed to TV productions and stock music libraries.

JG : A lot of them did, because there’s so many government subsidized films. A lot of them did horror films and things like that. Britain produced a lot for film and television.

MRH : And documentaries and industrials.

JG : For me, it’s really funny, because I like doing concert music as well, and I find that it keeps you on your toes; it lets you stretch. When you’re working for a director, you have to remember: at the end of the day, you work for the director. If they want “X” and you want something else and you can’t convince them at the end of the day, you’re still responsible to deliver what theywant.


. would like to thank Jeff Grace for speaking about his craft in such splendid detail, and Mikael Carlsson for facilitating the interview.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2006 by Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Trigger Man(2007) / The Roost (2005)

DVD/Film:  Evil Dead, The (1982) —   Trigger Man (2007)


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