FREDERIK WIEDMANN

October 20, 2010 | By

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The only way to really learn a craft is to do it, and that’s been true for Frederik Wiedmann since he got the bug to score films in Germany. After a long apprenticeship with John Frizzell, Wiedmann has been active in several aspects of film scoring: composing, mixing, and learning to integrate new technology into a medium with sophistication and precision.

It’s that latter part that’s perhaps his most interesting skill, because he still works and thinks within an orchestral mindset. It may have become harder to discern what sounds in his work are purely digital, but perhaps that’s the point: he uses technology to enhance a personal sound that embraces classical, experimental, and contemporary.

It’s also a signal of another musical evolution within film music, wherein there’s less divisions between classical and modernism, since the two camps have entered into a kind of marriage through digital interfaces.

In our lengthy conversation, Wiedmann describes his formative years, working in horror, and some of the subtleties in scaring moviegoers.

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Mark R. Hasan: How did you get involved in film scoring?

Frederik Wiedmann: I think my love of film music started when I was about twelve years old and I saw Dances with Wolves (1990), back then in the theatre with John Barry’s wonderful score.  I realized that was the first time that I was really aware of film music itself; I realized that ‘Oh God, there’s music behind this picture and it’s beautiful.’

I bought the CD, which was also the first soundtrack that I ever owned, and played it a thousand times, and then gradually realized that there was more music out there, and got to know all the great composers and really started to love that genre.

And then back in my home town Auchsburg in Germany, through a friend I met a composer who was actually living there and working quite a bit in the German TV world, and he was kind enough to let me hang out in his studio for quite some time, for me to just see how it’s done, and how he works. That completely blew my mind and opened up this whole world. ‘This is a profession, this is something I would love to do,’ and from that point on I started to pursue that career on a full scale.

MRH: Had you done any formal training, or was it something that began as an apprenticeship, because I think you also did a lot of work later on with John Frizzell?

FW: Absolutely. Once I had set my mind on doing that, I left Germany to go to Boston and study at the Berklee College of Music, where they have a great film music program.

I basically went there in 2002 and I made my Bachelor of Music with the major Film Scoring, and straight afterwards moved to Los Angeles, where within a couple of months I got this gig to work as John Frizzell’s assistant, which really entails everything from just being his technical help to coordinating sessions – you’re basically around all the time on every score that he’s writing and sort of help produce the whole thing.

I was working for him for about three years, which gradually had me doing a lot of mixing, and even some writing. Towards the end of those three years I did a little music on a couple of projects, and after that I technically graduated from that position and managed to be on my own with my own studio.

MRH: I guess your experience with Frizzell is like the old apprenticeship system where you basically work with someone, you learn the ropes, and get an idea of what’s involved in the job, but I guess there’s also a sharing of ideas, because there must be something which you brought to him as well as something he brought to you, so that you both could grow as artists.

FW: That is absolutely true. When I came out of Berklee College of Music, they did teach me a lot of how to make film music and the basics of technology, but actually working on a real score that is going to be in theatres with one of those big composers is really the best experience anybody can have because there’s so much that you can’t cover in college just because there’s no time.

I absolutely learned a ton from John Frizzell, not only how to write music, but also how to produce it, how to be efficient, how to not lose your mind with multiple versions of cues that go to different places of picture. John is incredibly organized and really taught me how to basically go through a project without major headaches and still do the quality work that the project deserves.

And visa versa, I really quickly learned how John works and how he likes his music to sound, and somehow I turned into his co-producer/score mixer. In the last three years I’ve pretty much mixed most of the music that John has made, and we’ve developed a technique where, during the mix, we can take the music up a whole other level, which is basically the two of us just sitting in a room working on every piece of music again and again and again until it is to the point where we’re both happy with it. We’ve developed a process that really the two of us are very efficient in.

MRH: I think it’s also kind of rare where you have someone who is working with another composer in different areas, and at the same time is able to branch out and do his own scoring and still maintain that collaboration with his mentor, so to speak.

I guess the immediate example that comes to mind is Ken Wannberg, who for many years was John Williams’ main music editor, but during a short period during the late seventies and eighties scored a couple of films (The Mother Lode, The Philadelphia Experiment), although he seemed to step away from scoring afterwards, and returned to work with Williams exclusively.

I think now the climate is more different where you’re able to step away from the shadow of a mentor, do your own work, but at the same time you’re not obliged to sever ties and enjoy both collaborative and solo work.

FW: I think that’s very important. I mean, I love scoring movies, and primarily that is what I want to be doing most of my time during work, but I also really enjoy producing other people’s film music. I’m really only doing this for John and nobody else, and it’s a great gig that I enjoy quite a bit, and I think he gets a lot out of it too, just getting my input and my creative ideas on his music, so it’s kind of a win-win situation, but John has definitely helped me get my first couple of feature films, and kept me going on my own.

MRH: Where did you get a keen interest in electronics, because you use them with great sophistication, particularly with your current score, The Hills Run Red (2009).

FW: Thank you. Again, John is known to be somewhat of a pioneer in terms of music technology, and he’s always on the newest, most untouched technical level that anybody can be at. Anytime something new comes out, he’s getting lost in it and trying to use it as best as he can, and so I’ve sort of grown into that same mentality of doing that.

When something new comes out he’ll get it, and we’ll spend in his studio, the two of us figuring out how to use it, and how to make something interesting out of that new piece of technology. We’re both big fans of doing our own sampling, so we would bring in a soloist or some interesting instrument and just play it for hours and just record different material played in unconventional ways, and then incorporate that into our music in a very unique way. That’s something we do quite a lot together.

MRH: I think the danger is because you can virtually do anything – create any sound, shape it in any way you want – and go overboard and create a sonic mush that can be applied towards anything, like a generic mood cue for horror, for example.

It can be intense, horrific, etc., but I find that what you do with your use of electronics and samples is very precise, and at the same time you use a bit of classical, contemporary, modern, and even if there’s electronics in a cue, there’s very sparing, carefully applied, and organized.

FW:  Yeah, that’s something I definitely try to avoid is to clutter things up with too many different sounds so people just hear it as a wall of sound. I’m very much in to using very defined instruments and recording them really well, and then I’m not afraid to expose them on their own and feature them with very little around them because they’ll sound beautiful, they’re well performed, and I think that’s very important, because in the movie itself there’s so much already going on – the dialogue and the sound effects.

There’s so many other sound levels to a film that you really have to make sure not to add more confusion to the whole process, and just stay out of the dialogue, stay out of the effects, and use very selective instruments in a clean way so people can register the work you’ve done on them.

MRH: One cue that comes to mind on the album is “Redneck Requiem,” where I think you took certain tones and reversed processed them, but they’re arranged in a melodic fashion; there is a melody that you hear, but the actual tones that you hear have been digitally flipped around. I just like the fact they’re abstract sounds organized in way that’s still sympathetic towards the characters.

FW: Yes, absolutely. What you hear there I think is we recorded a piano and processed the audio not only in reverse but made it sound more muted by adding certain filters on that recording, and it is a melody that is played earlier in the piece, but later in the “Redneck Requiem” it’s flipped around; so you’re hearing it backwards, but from the back to the front, which I thought was kind of an interesting way to twist things even more.

The Hills Run Red is a very twisted film. There are a lot of turns and twists and things that happen to catch the audience off guard, so I was trying to do similar things with the music, which is obviously happening on a very subconscious level; I’m never very obvious with that kind of stuff, but you seemed to have noticed it, so that’s great.

MRH: I noticed it, but I also like the fact that it’s something that isn’t repeated later; it’s unique to that cue, and it’s not something that’s part of, say, five recurring sound samples, that lesser composers would repeat throughout a horror score with little variation.

What’s interesting in a lot of horror scores (including your own) is that there’s a series of sounds with which we’ve become accustomed, whether it’s bass drones, shrill sounds, vibrations, and they’re used in a musical context, but these sounds are now part of an accepted musical language which audiences recognize in horror films, as well as the traditional string stab or piano hit, and these particular sounds that used be used as sound effects are not part of that musical language.

Do you think our familiarity with and acceptance of these sounds comes from our 20+ years of exposure to the dense surround sound mixes?

FW:  I think it’s a gradual process of people being more and more experimental with their music over the past decade; it just becomes something that we accept without wondering, but yes, I still try to evoke some interest in the listener by making them think ‘Oh, that’s an interesting instrument. I can’t quite figure out what it is, but it sounds cool and I like it.’

I like to sort of alter sounds in a way that you accept them as a melody or as an instrument in the score without it sounding awkward, but you’re still not quite sure what it is. I think that’s a very important thing, especially in horror movies, to get into that whole strange area.

MRH: The Hills Run Red is certainly a very violent film, and I wonder if you as a composer find it’s actually harder to score a scene when it’s incredibly graphic. For example, I’m thinking of the title sequence where a child snips off most of his face, versus something that’s more cinematically classical, such as the use of shadows, actor reactions, and a much slower pace?

FW: You get used to the violence very quickly. The first time I saw this movie I was blown away by how violent it is. I thought the effects were really well made, but once you’ve gone over the opening scene several times, when you write this piece of music you go through several versions so I’ve watched that at least a hundred times in a row during the scoring process.

I’m looking at it from a different angle at that point; I’m no longer grossed out by it or finding it disgusting. It’s become an image that I need to hit with my music, so I’m emotionally detached with what’s happening on the screen.

However, in Return to House on Haunted Hill, which is another score I’ve done that was released in 2007, it wasn’t nearly as gory, but there was a lot more of that ghost presence that we had to emphasize with the music, which, like you mentioned, is shadows or even just a sound the sound effects people put in, like a haunted breath or a certain sound like that which would show the presence of these ghosts in this haunted house.

The music was a little bit more subtle with that, but still made the audience aware that they’re always being watched by these ghosts in the corners; you don’t really see them but you’re kind of always on the edge of your seat, thinking ‘Somebody is in the back corner where you can’t really see because it’s too dark of the shadow,’ so it’s a different approach.

In The Hills Run Red, everything was a lot more obvious with the graphic violence, and you have to play the music a little more obvious to support that.

MRH: I also got the impression the film was a lot more challenging because it’s self-referential to the horror genre; it tries to evoke the look and nastiness of seventies slasher and exploitation films, and at the same time, you as a composer have to create some sympathy for these characters because some are really not very bright bulbs, and the film does feel very tongue-in-cheek.

FW: Yeah, it does. There are certain emotions within the characters and these little personal stories that are going on that I was trying to bring out a little further with the warm strings and the emotional piano theme.

Alexa is this girl that is pretty messed up to begin with; she’s taking drugs and she’s obviously had a rough childhood with her dad as we learn later in the film. When we are in her apartment, the cue called “Alexa” is still a little bit disturbing, but there’s also a sense of pain and beauty that I think really helps you identify with her up front, especially not knowing what’s coming later in the film. I think it’s important to evoke that sort of emotion with her, with that warm cello and the warm strings that come in under her injecting the heroin.

MRH: You background includes television work, horror films, and short films. Are any specific genres or types of films that you’d like to score.

FW: I’ve been very lucky to have worked on a lot of different genres. It’s been primarily the dark stuff lately, especially the thriller and horror genre, which I really enjoy working in because it does give me so much flexibility in creating new sounds which is a process that I really thrive in and enjoy.

I do love the action genre just as much, though, because writing for it is one of the most difficult things in film music in my opinion. The cues have to go on for so long, they’re fast, and you have to keep it interesting; there’s so much action involved, which is very challenging, but also a lot of fun once you get through it. If I can do a lot more work in the action, thriller and horror genres, I’d be a very happy composer.

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KQEK.com would like to thank Frederik Wiedmann for discussing his work, and Beth Krakower at CineMedia Promotions for facilitating this interview.

Visit the composer’s website HERE.

For more information on The Hill Run Red , click HERE.

For more information on John Frizzell, begin HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2009 by Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film:  Hills Run Red, The (2009)

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