Navigating the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, congested with both cars and billboards everywhere you look, staring up Jack Black’s crotch or being forced to accept that Khloe and Lamar are indeed “famously” in love, it’s often hard to remember that being a celebrity used to look quite different.
It’s not that the old Hollywood is gone, you just have to pay attention. Just glance past the flashing lights at the Hollywood sign, drive by Culver Studios, grab a bite at the Formosa Cafe, and even if it’s cheesy, go to the Walk of Fame and see if your hands are as small as Gloria Swanson’s. I might work at a film studio, but sitting in a cubicle under fluorescent lights day in and day out, I often feel as close to “Hollywood” as Ron Livingston in Office Space.
So when composer/orchestrator/arranger/all-around-great-guy, Joe Trapanese asked that I meet him on one of the great old studio lots for our interview (I would tell you which, but I’m sworn to secrecy), it was painfully hard to act cool about it. While I probably said something to the effect of, “Great. Please send over parking instructions. Looking forward to it.” In my mind, I was squealing like a tween.
It was just as expected, except for one thing: behind those high walls that time had left untouched, I found the future.
Joe spent most of the past two years shut away in one of the many studios on the lot with two men, one by the name of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, the other, Thomas Bangalter, known throughout the world as the French electronic duo, Daft Punk. From that small room came the score for one of the most highly anticipated films of 2010, Disney’s TRON: Legacy.
The project was no short order. When Daft Punk first signed onto TRON, having never scored a full-length feature film before, the studio brought them to meet many of the most acclaimed composers working today with the hopes of a collaboration. At the end of the day, however, the duo decided to do it on their own, soliciting Trapanese to help realize their vision in it’s full orchestral glory.
I had the good fortune of attending a soundtrack preview this past fall, where a small audience of people bore witness to a conversation between director, Joseph Kosinski, and music supervisor, Jason Bentley, about the film. One thing both were very clear about was the fact that Daft Punk did not set out to create a new Daft Punk record. There were not going to be any “Daft Punk Presents TRON” stadium shows. It was important to them that the music serve the picture, as is the primary goal with any film score. The talented, young Trapanese not only possessed the ideal skill set for the job, but a passion for marrying electronic and orchestral music that goes far beyond his work on TRON: Legacy. In his mixtape, “Orchestra And,” he demonstrates that a synthesizer and a string quartet aren’t mutually exclusive, and gives me the inside scoop about his past, future, and working with the most famous robots around.
Arcade Fire “Intervention”
Peter Gabriel “Listening Wind”
Neil Young “A Man Needs A Maid”
These New Puritans “Hologram”
The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”
TA: So are you a fan of all the artists on your mix?
JT: Yes, in general, every artist I put on there I am a fan of.
TA: Did you start with the songs, or artist you wanted to feature?
JT: I started with songs. Neil Young’s Harvest, for example, I was actually turned on to by Thomas [Bangalter of Daft Punk]. I listened to it for the first time when I was visiting a friend in Oxford, while on the train from London to Oxford. I listened to that album like 10 times in a row, because it’s a short album and just mind-blowing. I had no idea that album was so good, and one of the reasons it’s so good is this tremendous depth to the music that the orchestra provides.
I look at my playlist as sort of an abbreviated history of the orchestra in pop music. “Eleanor Rigby” features one of the first times someone incorporated orchestral elements and really produced it in a modern way. They didn’t put the mics in the usual place – they put the mics right in the musicians’ faces, right on the strings, and they double-tracked, they did weird stuff to it.
What I’ve always been a fan of is bringing down the border between orchestra and humanity. It’s our own fault, but sadly as classical musicians we’ve kind of said, “this is only for people who are properly educated, you’re not allowed in here.” I just can’t stand that. There was a point in my life where I really wished I could make a living writing and performing classical music, but I’m not good enough as a performer, and as classical composers no one is really interested in listening to our music. So when I hear pop music with really good orchestra in it, I’m excited. People listen to pop music, and I’m a fan of anything that gets people to listen to orchestral music and see that it’s not something that is just for people with grey hair and monocles. Those are the things I’m fighting. So the fact that I got to be on the front lines on something like TRON is very humbling and very exciting at the same time. Those are the thoughts that inspired this compilation.
“Sunrise Prelude” from TRON: Legacy
TA: Most of these artists are more recent, was that a choice or are we currently seeing some sort of renaissance for orchestral elements in pop music?
JT: “Eleanor Rigby” has been around for a while, but yes, a lot of these are much newer. There was this whole “disco orchestra” thing in the 1970’s which was interesting, and then we went through the 80’s where there’s not much orchestra to be found because the synthesizer was such a new fun thing. Although one artist I probably should have put on here is Pink Floyd, because they did some killer stuff with Michael Kamen, whose work I think is genius. This is a very personal list to me though, and I don’t listen to much Pink Floyd. “Listening Wind,” the Peter Gabriel track is just something that blew me away recently, it’s a pretty new album.
TA: But an older song.
JT: Yes, when you listen to the old Talking Heads original you’re like, “Oh this is kind of a cool, groovy 80s song.” It’s very cerebral and heady, Brian Eno at his best. But when you listen to the orchestral version, its really intense! There is a kind of humanity about that album as a whole. In Peter’s voice, recorded really close and pretty dry, so you get this up close and personal effect on top of the orchestra, which brings all this weight and width to it. It’s this really magical combination.
It is a really cool album, and a really neat idea on behalf of Peter Gabriel.
JT: Definitely. I don’t know what they were thinking, but it sounds like Peter Gabriel was really evoking the voices from the original with his phrasing while the arrangements and the orchestra just go off and push these songs into a different place… that’s another album I listened to 10 times in a row!
TA: So did you start of knowing what you wanted to communicate before choosing artists?
JT: When you first approached me there was this sense of, “Well, what do I do?” I thought about I bring the orchestra to things that might not have orchestra, or I work on things featuring the orchestra. That’s kind of me as a person.
TA: So this mix represents you?
JT: Not necessarily me, I just listen to so much really nothing’s a good example of “me.” I’m one of those people who listens to everything…including country! But what I grew up with is always in my mind, and I grew up with a great love of the orchestra, and the goal of breaking down that barrier. So there was that, and all these great tracks that feature the orchestra. In fact I probably had 5 or 6 more songs before I told myself that I had to stop. That’s when I narrowed it down and it became more current. I said, “Let me put a spotlight on some really cool current bands, like These New Puritans, Arcade Fire, or Jonsi, who are all working right now, doing some really cool stuff with orchestral elements.” And that’s super exciting.
TA: What was the first song you added to the mix?
JT: Probably “Listening Wind,” because I was rediscovering that album at that time, even though it came out a year ago.
TA: Are these all songs that feature an orchestra, or did you choose these particular songs because of specific elements the orchestra brings to each?
JT: What the orchestra does for all these artists is really unique to the artist, and I wanted to highlight the breadth and the scope of what an orchestra can do, but within the framework of these artists. One song which almost made it onto the playlist is the orchestral version of an old Wyclef Jean song called “Gone Til November.” There is a pop version and orchestral version. The orchestral version is very well done; you’ve got the New York Philharmonic on it, and a really fantastic orchestrator, but overall it’s very traditional, middle of the road – a pop ballad backed by some traditional orchestral beds. What’s interesting about a lot of the songs on this playlist is that the artists are taking a really bold stance with what they’re doing with the orchestra. The ensemble can be used in so many different ways depending on the artist. I wanted to highlight the scope.
TA: I also really loved the These New Puritans song. It’s so unexpected and different.
JT: And that album [Hidden] is great. I have to hand it to the lead songwriter [Jack Barnett], their first album [Beat Pyramid] was inspired by Wu Tang Clan. After that he fell in love with Steve Reich and orchestral instruments, so he learned how to write for some classical musicians.
TA: Are these artists known for incorporating orchestral elements in their music, or are these songs exceptions to the rule?
JT: On his latest album, Jonsi worked with Nico Mulhy, who is a really fantastic arranger/composer. What they do together with the orchestra is really super cool on that album. But Jonsi can turn around and do something completely with his next album. Same with The Beatles. The Beatles and their producers weren’t interested in doing the same thing twice. All the artists on here think more outside the box when it comes to incorporating orchestra, they don’t just want to add some strings here and there. Any artist can do that. I can write a string chart for your song in five minutes, no problem. What’s really interesting about these tracks is there was a lot of thought not just in what the orchestra was going to do, but how are to put it all together, how to make a bold statement that the orchestra can be a part of.
TA: Speaking of working with artists to incorporate orchestral elements – were you a Daft Punk fan before you started work on TRON?
JT: I wasn’t. Of course I was aware of their big hits. But I didn’t know about them as the robots until the weekend before I met them when I did a bunch of research to be prepared for our meeting. What I saw was a depth of power in their music – yes, they hadn’t worked with an orchestra before, but oh my god this music is so dramatic and emotional it’s going to be so easy for these guys to score a film. So I guess I became a Daft Punk fan right as I was about to meet them.
TA: So how did you come to the project?
JT: Word of mouth. I got very lucky, one of the composers I’ve worked with as an arranger recommended me. I think one reason why they went with me is because I’m not your standard choice. I haven’t been bred in Hollywood for the past 40 years. I’m not gonna come onto a project and say, “this is the way we do it,” and force them into a box. I think the fact that I’m young and open to influence, and excited about finding creative ways to bridge the gap between electronics and the orchestra – that’s something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a teenager – luckily I had the right combination of skills that could help this project. And we got along as people.
TA: What was the interview process like?
JT: It was much less like an interview and more like just hanging out. That’s the way it seems to be most of the time in this business. After being here for a few years you come into the room with a little bit of a reputation, people have done that research about you, so when they want to meet you its more important to just kind of show you how you are as a normal human being. We got along great. Disney locked the door, and we were in here for almost 2 years.
TA: Were you a fan of the original TRON?
JT: I knew what it was, but it was a little bit before my time. TRON permeates our culture though. It’s this small cult classic, but The Simpsons, Family Guy, Robot Chicken…they’ve all had sketches referencing TRON. So it’s something that even if you’ve never seen the film, you know what it is. When I got the call about it, that’s when I finally saw the movie.
TA: What was your first impression of it? We’re close to the same age and I also hadn’t actually seen the film until recently. And after all the hype and references – I have to say, I felt like I was missing something.
JT: I think what we’re missing is just the fact that is was a very different era. To me or you, when we talk about “going inside a computer,” we know what a computer is. We grew up in front of the damn things. In 1982 [when the original TRON was released] no one really had a computer. That was just when the first PCs were really starting in the market, but were still pretty expensive. So the idea of what a computer is was still pretty open. Second of all the original is a very campy film. I think many of our particular generation has a soft spot for this old innocence that existed before the big, blockbuster action filmmaking of our 90’s childhood. At the risk of sounding crazy, one of the cool things about the sequel is that they kept some of the ridiculous humor about it, some of the campiness. And I think that’s one of the biggest and most appropriate homages to the original. Just stay faithful to that spirit regardless.
TA: So they locked the door and you were in here for two years?
JT: Almost. From start to finish it was more like a year and 8 months
TA: Did you have any idea that was going to be such a long process?
JT: It was an open door. We really didn’t know when the film was going to come out at the beginning of it. There was even talk of summer 2011 I think. But the idea was simple – just to create an atmosphere where our ideas could gestate along with the other creatives on the film, and grow together. To embrace the fact that as composers and arrangers, most films you get after everyone else is done, but this was different. Sometimes that’s fine, but with a film as bold and as special as this you can’t work like that. So that was the idea. And we were all nervous.
TA: How did you guys work with the creative team, and with the studio? With such a highly anticipated film, there must have been a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
JT: I was amazed at how, when you begin working on a film in earnest at the very beginning, you go down less wrong paths because the ideas in your head have grown with the ideas of the filmmakers. By the time you’re a mile down the road, you’re still on the same road with the same people. That being said, when I work in in film I’m ready for a shit storm whenever there needs to be shit storm. Luckily there wasn’t a shit storm on this. Notes, though, are more than welcome on these projects, because the fact is, while I sit here talking about the creative team working together as one, at the end of the day it’s not our movie. It’s the director’s movie, and ultimately the studio’s movie, so when you’re doing something that might not be helping the film in the way that the filmmaker is intending, you just have to put your ego aside and change it. Everyone on our team understood that from the beginning. There wasn’t any sort of elitism about who were working with, or who we were working for, or what we were working on, there was just this fact that our director had a really bold, creative, inspiring vision for a film, and we were inspired to do whatever we could to make it as good as it could be.
JT: I was quite pleased at the end, because I realized that it really was an accumulation of everything I’ve been doing. What I was called upon to do and what I asked to do – I really wanted to orchestrate the film from the beginning, because I’m really particular about my arranging – it was just a fun combination of what I happen to be good at. Just being able to combine my classical background working with orchestras, with scoring to picture, with programming electronics. I was just very humbled to be on such a cool project and realize that, “Oh wow I’m helping out in some way.” I don’t think you can be a good creative person in this industry if you didn’t have that voice inside you that was like, “Are you sure you can do this? Don’t you just want to quit, and go home, and crawl into bed?” I have that just as much as the next guy, so coming out the other end without just losing it, and having done what seems to be a fairly decent job is very exciting.
TA: What was the dynamic in the room like?
JT: Thomas and Guy-Man are brilliant musical artists and to be in a room with those types of people is an honor and pretty mindblowing. But at the same time they have a tremendous amount of respect for the people they work with. There was never any ego, it was just, “let’s make the best music we possibly can.”
TA: What was the process like? Did the Daft Punk guys come in with ideas, and then you had to figure out how to add an orchestra? How did that work?
JT: Daft came to the table with tons of electronic ideas and demos, and when it came to working with the orchestra, they’re really quite smart about it. Coming from Paris, they’ve grown up with orchestras in their heads, it’s such a strong part of the culture, so they know what they’re looking for, they know what they want. At the same time I grew up playing with synthesizers, I remember saving all my money from my first summer job to buy my first synth. So it was really a two way street of collaboration, an open table with everyone really laying out what they could do. There was never a moment where I wasn’t thinking about the electronics, and they weren’t thinking about the orchestra. From the get go, we knew we wanted to create a combination that didn’t feel like a combination. We wanted to create something that just felt like music, that went beyond, “Oh, its Daft Punk, they’re gonna mash up drums, and they’re working with an orchestra so there’s gonna be some violins and shit.” That’s not interesting. That’s been done. What we wanted to weave was a texture that blurred the line between all of it. In order to do that you just have to be open to ideas and take a lot of time experimenting. So when I say they closed the door and locked us in here, that was a year and a half of hard work, continually going back and forth with ideas.
TA: What was your favorite part of the process?
JT: I think being in London with the orchestra, and hearing something come to life like that. Musical people, we like to think we can imagine what the orchestra will bring to it, and to a certain point we can, but once you get there and hear the amount of depth and expression and passion that’s being poured into the score, into music that you’ve worked on in a dark room, is just overwhelming. When we are producing the score here its just a few people hanging out with some computers. When you’re with the orchestra there are 90 people in the room funneling all their energy into the music. No matter how good technology gets, there’s nothing that’s ever going to be able to equate to having an orchestra in a room. But you know that being said I don’t want to overshadow how fun the mix was. How fun it is to hear how the music changes and comes to life even more there. To really enjoy this process you kind of have to be in love with all of it.
TA: What was your specific role in London?
JT: I like to joke that my job was being the interface between two robots and an orchestra, and that’s exactly what it was in London, just ensuring that the orchestra was performing to the exact specifications of Thomas and Guy-Man.
TA: Is the blend of orchestral and electronic something you intend to continue with your music?
JT: It’s something that’s always been there for me. If someone listens to my score to the web series The Bannen Way [scored in late 2009 during a brief break from TRON] – what the heck is that score? My girlfriend and I were watching it the other night and I realized that I hadn’t watched it in a while. I was shocked by the varying degrees of music I had to write in that score. So I guess what I love other than combining orchestra and electronics is the challenge of scoring. I try to be really careful about what I work on, and I feel really lucky to be working on artistically inspired projects, whether it’s a blockbuster movie or an indie film. It just so happens that one of my strong skills is the combination of orchestral and electronics. I wish I was better at jazz.
Joe Trapanese “Fuzz” from The Bannen Way
Joe Trapanese “Stiletto” from The Bannen Way
TA: Are there any movies you see and wish you could have worked on, or that you would change?
JT: Breaking Bad is my favorite show on TV and I think what they do is the coolest thing ever. I would give my left nut to work on it. [The show’s composer] Dave Porter does such a fantastic job. Still though, I might say right now I would love to score a show like Breaking Bad, but there might be a show that no one’s even thought of yet that comes to me and says, “I need some music,” and it will be the perfect show for me to score! It’s interesting how we all try to predict where we go, and you just never know. I was producing a benefit concert in Seattle in November 2008 with a symphony orchestra when out of left field I got a call to work on TRON.
TA: Based on either what interests you, or your skill set – are there any genres in particular that you’re drawn to?
JT: Well, I try to avoid being pigeonholed… but I really dig action and drama, especially more on the psychological side of things, like thrillers. I think comedy is the hardest thing to do. People who can write good music for comedy are brilliant. It’s one of the most thankless areas, because the music you write for a comedy is not going to get nominated for an Oscar, even though some should be because the music is so freakin’ great. That being said, I’ve worked on comedies and I do best where it’s the Elmer Bernstein method, taking itself very seriously, like Naked Gun or Airplane!. I tend to overwork when I write music that tries to be comedic itself.
TA: So now that TRON is over, what’s next?
JT: TRON: Uprising [the animated series] is just around the corner. But tight now it’s a bunch of cool, little projects that other people are passionate about, and luckily have invited me in to share with them. There’s a small trailer library that produces some really cool music, and I’ll be working with them in a couple weeks recording some of my music. Then there are some indie films; I’m gonna be scoring my first film for AFI. Usually I do a lot of work with filmmakers over at UCLA, and that should be starting in earnest as we approach their film festival.
TA: And these are student projects? Shorts? Features?
JT: Student shorts, yes. Its super important to do stuff like that, because it just builds your awareness of what you do, and how well you do it, with the people who are going to make the next TRON, or the next whatever. I see a lot of guys in a similar position to me complaining about not wanting to be known as just the orchestrator or just the arranger, but you kind of choose your own destiny. That’s why I make sure to work as often as a composer as possible.
TA: So true. Maybe for the “big leagues” you’re known as an orchestrator, but when all these people you’ve build those relationships with move up the ranks, you’re just gonna move up the ranks with them. And they all know you as a composer.
JT: It’s especially important that you have a mindset that is firmly rooted in the fundamentals of what we do, but also aware of the changing world around us. The business model from ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago – those business models don’t work. The dreary state of record industry serves as a great example for the film industry, and hopefully the film industry antes up, because we are right behind them. Right now we have 3D, which is one of the few things that’s keeping people coming to the theatres. Eventually when everyone has 3D TV’s, what’s going to keep people coming? How this trickles down to me, is the fact that the job I do isn’t the same as if I was in this industry twenty years ago, and you have to adapt. I think James Franco is a great example of someone in this generation who has seen great success while being really creative about his career. He was on General Hospital for crying out loud, he’s done Funny or Die videos. Look at his choices in films and television projects over the past four or five years, and he’ll go from some big budget, special effects, action movie like Spiderman to [Gus Van Sant’s] Milk. And of course everyone talks about how he’s taking 62 credits at Yale. That may not be entirely true, but he’s interested in expanding his mind, and figuring out what it means to be an artist right now. Thomas [of Daft Punk] loves to say “Hollywood is the intersection of creativity and commerce.”
TA: And in addition to orchestrating and composing you’re a professor at UCLA.
JT: I’m a lecturer, but people call me “professor.” I don’t know what the definition of professor is these days, so maybe I am a professor? I teach two classes a year, and might start teaching more. I mean, the reason I do it is really simple: these students are really hungry to learn more about what we do in Hollywood and how we do it.
TA: What subject do you teach?
JT: Electronic music. It’s very interesting, here I am the guy that’s arranging and orchestrating stuff, and I’m teaching electronic music. I teach it with a film scoring tint, so I think that makes it perfect for me to teach. Most of the professors at UCLA are traditionally trained, old school guys who are brilliant, but also are not too familiar with the production music world. So when these students graduate many want to be in the film industry, but they might not have the skills necessary. In the same way that I’m trying to show that the orchestra is still a really current and relevant medium, I’m also trying to show students who are classically trained how to apply their skills to other places they may not have thought of like electronic music and film scoring.
TA: Do most come to you wanting to get into film scoring?
JT: Well for some of them it’s a required class, so they don’t come to me at all… in fact I have a hard time getting some to come to class at all! But all composers, whether they admit it or not, have a fascination with film music. A lot of these students are kind of closeted film music fans that have been brought up in conservatories thinking, “I’m beyond that,” but most of them can’t do it. It’s just a very specific skill set. And vice versa – probably most people working in the film genre can’t do what they do. Can you imagine how good music could be if the skills overlapped a bit more? Some of them do come in though, and are like, “I wanna be a film composer, how do I do this?”
TA: It seems like a lot of pop artists these days are trying to incorporate orchestra elements in their sound…If an artist came to you asking for help with doing that would you be interested?
JT: Yes. I’ve already worked with other artists in that role. I like to keep my mind as open as possible because the fact is, I’ve never worked on something where I haven’t learned. Even if it’s learning what not to do! It’s a huge world out there, a huge world of sound. So whenever artists come to me asking questions about the orchestra, I’m eager to help them discover, because in the process of helping these artists discover, I discover more about what I do and what the orchestra can do. Some things we did on TRON, I wasn’t sure they were going to work, but they did. And if they didn’t we found a solution that worked even better than what we originally pictured. Every artist has to be pushed, whether you’re pushing yourself, or other artists are pushing you, or you’re working with different kinds of music that are opening you up. If you don’t keep yourself open to other ideas you just stagnate.
You can purchase both the TRON: Legacy Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and TRON Legacy R3CONF1GUR3D (featuring remixes of Daft Punk’s score for the film by artists such as Moby, The Glitch Mob, Paul Oakenfold, Pretty Lights, Kaskade and more) on the soundtrack website.