JEFF TOYNE

October 20, 2010 | By

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With the release of Jeff Toyne’s soundtrack album for Chris W. Smith’s Shadow in the Trees (2007) as a downloadable album and limited CD, film music fans have another up-and coming composer with a dramatic, refined, and measured style to discover.

After years as an orchestrator for some of Hollywood’s most prominent and creative composers, Toyne’s latest score – alongside Maxwell’s Demon (1998) and Midnight is Coming (2002) – shows off his skills within the horror/supernatural genre, and in our Q&A below, the Canadian-born composer articulates some of the qualities, skills, and work ethic mandatory for a good composer-filmmaker relationship.


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Mark R. Hasan : Your first soundtrack album, Shadow in the Trees, is a mature, thoughtful, and crisply orchestrated orchestral score, and it definitely shows off your position as an experienced orchestrator. How did you initially become involved with film music?

Jeff Toyne : I think I’ve always been moving towards film, as I went through my formal music education. My concert music style is eclectic, dramatic, usually programmatic, and often “sounded like film music”. I felt that Wagner’s idea of a “total art work” for his Operas (Gesamtkunstwerk)  was true of modern day films. The schools where I studied were located progressively further South and West, until I ended up in Los Angeles.

I undertook my first film project, Maxwell’s Demon, in 1998, as I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Western. I met filmmaker David Clark, who was looking for a score for his film noir (film noir screwball tragedy, to be exact). I hadn’t written jazz before, but David said I showed “enthusiasm for the project”, which meant I was willing to work for next to nothing. All we could afford was a jazz trio.

We worked together over the following year in London, and Toronto, then Halifax and Vancouver. I studied jazz arranging with Fred Stride at UBC (and devoured books by Mancini, Nestico and Dick Grove) and I also fell in with a military band, the Band of the 15th Field Regiment, RCA (http://www.militaryband.ca /). When it came time to record, David got a grant, and our budget for combo suddenly blossomed into a full 13-piece big band, for which I used guys from the military band.

The soundtrack turned out really well, and was released by No Records. So, at the age of 23, my first film project was not only a feature length project, it was recorded using live players (on 2″ tape no less), and released as a soundtrack album! It took me eight years to be able to do that again. My previous project, The Third Eye, by Toronto brother-sister filmmakers Jordan and Leah Walker, was released in March 2007 and is also available on iTunes. So Shadow in the Treesis my third soundtrack album, but my first release with MovieScoreMedia, and I’m very excited about beginning to work with Mikael Carlsson and his forward-looking record label.

MRH : You’ve worked with a very diverse group of composers – Christopher Young, James Horner, Edward Shearmur, and Klaus Badelt among the most prominent – and orchestrated/composed music for pretty much every kind of TV and theatrical production. Given each composer has his/her own nuances and sometimes writes in a very distinctive style, is it difficult to adapt to the demands of a new score without some ideas from a previous project exerting some influence?

JT : I have been very fortunate in my career to have met and worked with several of the composers you mentioned.  Each time I go through the scoring process, (whether on my own score or another composer’s as an orchestrator) I learn something. I always like to be creative and experiment, to try some little thing that pushes the envelope somehow, and by doing that I pick up tricks of the trade that definitely come in handy down the road, or on my next assignment.

When a composer is hired to score a film, they are hired specifically because of their own nuances and distinctive style, as exemplified in their previous work. Each film score that I have composed is different; the only constant has been me. I don’t worry about previous projects influencing the current one; when I am composing for a new project I focus all my energies: intuition, skill and experience. The biggest influence I have to worry about is the temp score.

MRH : The use of electronics within an orchestral environment has moved into a supportive position, as opposed to mimicking an orchestra or part of an orchestra’s major section, and there seems to be less danger in writing music where the electronic element can smother or date a score. Do you think that’s partly due to the technological refinements in electronica and sound design, or is it still the composer whose own familiarity and discerning ears are what strike a balance between traditional orchestral and electronic instruments?

JT : The composer is always the judge of balance in a score, of all the elements, regardless of their origin, and aided by his/her trusted ally – the scoring engineer. I think the danger still exists that a score can have a sound that will become dated. Advancements in electronic music making have made some things easier to do ‘virtually’, but at the end of the day, a moving performance is a moving performance.

MRH : From the scores you’ve orchestrated, what have been some of the most complex or challenging projects, either due to a composer’s own idiosyncratic style, or the breadth of music and concepts packed into one particular score?

JT : The film where I got my break as an orchestrator was Reign of Fire, starring Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. This was an amazing score by Ed Shearmur, one with astonishing dissonance and sheer power. He used a very unusual and very, very large orchestra, in addition to choir and electronics. If I remember correctly there were 16 violins, 16 violas, 16 cellos and 10 or 12 basses, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, 10 French horns, 8 flutes and 8 clarinets, all doubling every imaginable size of flute and clarinet, and 5 percussionists. I was assisting Ed at the time, and he took me to London with him to help with the recording sessions.

At the eleventh hour, the orchestrations for a couple of cues came in from L.A. and Ed was unhappy with them, because they weren’t avant-garde enough. He noticed that I had named the folders on my laptop after 20th-century composers like Ligeti and Penderecki, so he said “Alright, if you are suggesting that you know this style, have a crack at one of these cues”. The great thing about the situation was that Bob Elhai, one of the greatest orchestrators around, took me under his wing and had a look at my cues. He’s been a mentor and a friend ever since.

MRH : There’s perhaps an assumption that by scoring many diverse projects, a composer will gradually mature into a full craftsman, yet you emphasized the benefits a young composer can find when an orchestrator is willing to take them under their tutelage.

I wonder if you can expand on some of the skills you’ve learned from Bob Elhai, and how these would’ve been harder to learn as a mostly solo composer working from project to project.

(For example, if you take someone who comes from a more narrow idiom or background – say a keyboardist from a rock band – he may be used to doing multiple roles in collaboration with just a few musicians or doing it all solo, and when he moves into film composition, he works in a kind of self-imposed vacuum with only the director, producer, or a few musicians among critics and collaborators .)

JT : What did I learn from Bob? How to orchestrate!? Bob has an amazing way of imagining a piece of music from a completely orchestral point of view, free from the limitations or illusions of a synth demo. He’s also a fun guy!

MRH : Edward Shearmur’s Reign of Fire is one of my favourite scores, and it’s perhaps indicative of how the horror/fantasy genre permits composers to embrace some wild experimental concepts, and work with more unusual groups of instruments. In many ways it recalls Alex North’s vicious Dragonslayer, and in Reign there’s some really amazing material performed by a huge brass ensemble which not all composers and orchestrators can write. (A case in point in Steve Jablonsky’s D-Wars , which is above average for the composer, but lacks the fury and subtext found in Reign of Fire.)

Having said all that, is it fair to say that writing an experimental-styled score is a demanding endeavor, and one that forces a composer to ignore all the common conventions and easy solutions, and spend far greater time organizing thoughts to craft a more finely detailed work, regardless of a film’s budget or dramatic scope?

JT : I thought Steve’s score was great but musically it came from a different place, even if where it ended up was similar. Every film score is a demanding endeavor, and for all genres, regardless of budget or dramatic scope, a good composer strives to create a thoughtful, musical, and purposeful score. Bernard Herrmann showed us that film music is a great medium for composers because you can write in the most avant-garde of styles and if it compliments the picture the audience will be completely accepting of it.

MRH : For independent filmmakers, one area that can greatly support their film is a well-written score like Shadow in the Trees, and some directors might be intimidated to approach a skilled composer like yourself with their roughly edited film, thinking ‘How can I possibly get an orchestral score for my little movie?’ What are some of the qualities you look for in deciding whether a film is worth scoring?

JT : To answer your second question first, I’m looking for a project to be excited about, and there are different things that I can find exciting about a film project – a great story, great performances from the cast or crew, a chance to experiment and take risks musically or dramatically, relationships with cool filmmakers, etc. I definitely want to be writing music that is interesting to me, whether it’s a beautiful melody, or it’s the darkest thing ever, or the loudest thing, or the quietest…

A film that has a budget that will allow me to do something interesting can make that easier. But it doesn’t have be orchestra. That brings me to your first question. If a filmmaker wants an orchestral score for their film, they need to budget appropriately. But does the film need an orchestra? The sound of an orchestra is a wonderful thing, but not for every story. It might overpower an intimate film, or it might not speak to time and place as appropriately as some other group of instruments or electronics.

If it is the right sound, but the money isn’t there for a live orchestra, there are ways to lessen the cost, just as you would if you couldn’t afford to shoot on film. I think the analogy holds true; a movie shot on film looks as good as a score recorded live sounds . If you want an original score, you have to have a line in the budget for it. Films should have their own sound world in which to exist.

MRH :   What are a few key things indie directors and producers should do to make the relationship with a composer a rewarding experience?

JT : There are a couple of practical things that indie filmmakers can do. I like to use the “Trinity of Low Budget”, which goes like this: Good, Fast, Cheap – you can have any two. Using this rule, most (unfortunately not all) filmmakers want a ‘good’ score, and they usually want it ‘cheap’ as well, which means they can’t have it ‘fast.’

The earlier you can bring in a composer, the better. And the longer that you can give the composer to work, the better. It is nearly impossible to stretch a low budget if you are also in a time crunch.

Often music seems to be an afterthought; i.e., after the time and money have both been spent. All joking aside though, I think the things that make composer relationships work are the same for any relationship: trust and communication. Trust will come over time, especially if the communication is good. For filmmakers, I really encourage them to not try to speak in musical terms, just dramatic and emotional terms; it’s up to the composer to translate those directions into music.

MRH : And finally, with the positive response to your first soundtrack album, will there be further albums of your work?

JT : I certainly hope so! I’m currently working on two featur es: Late in the Game, directed by Christopher Johnson, and Within, directed by Hanelle Culpepper.

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KQEK.com would like to thank Jeff Toyne for participating in this Q&A, and to Mikael Carlsson at MovieScore Media for facilitating this interview.

Visit Jeff Toyne’s website HERE.

More information on MovieScore Media and downloading/purchasing Shadow in the Trees is available HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2007 by Mark R. Hasan

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