Kristen Baum is a Los Angeles-based film composer and pianist who participated as a Fellow at the 2011 Feature Film Composers Lab. She wrote additional music for The Book of Eli and composed scores for independent films including Kicked Out, Echo, and Porcelain, among others.
Heaven. It’s the closest thing to heaven here on earth. That’s what I said as we rode to our house on the first day to drop off our luggage. It was my first glimpse at the beauty of the mountain, the lush green meadows and trees, the flowers, and the river that runs through it. Sundance Resort is a magical place. And we came for a specific purpose. We came to transform our creative processes as composers.
The Composers Lab promised a safe and nurturing environment in which we could stretch our creative muscles, try things we’d never tried before, experiment, fail, succeed, whatever. And no matter the result, safety and nurturing were guaranteed. The Lab delivered on that.
2011 Composers Lab Fellow Kristen Baum. Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.
Time blurred as each Creative Advisor shared their own work, talked about their process, and gave us assignments to work on. They came one by one, each sharing something uniquely their own. Many of them were great teachers in addition to being extraordinary film composers. Several have been my longtime heroes, having written the music for movies I have loved for decades.
We were given assignments that stretched us. And at the point of stretching further than seemed comfortable, an Advisor would suggest, “Get some sleep. You can work on it again tomorrow.” Our coordinator, Corey Brill, would be there with a hug, a joke, and sometimes a secret potion that would help make things feel like tomorrow there would be an answer. Of course, on the morning walk down, amidst all of the flowers, the deer and the sound of rushing water, the answer would come. By the time I turned the key in my trailer door, I would be ready to work again.
What I Learned
Story is everything. Good food and plenty of rest are essential. A beautiful environment fosters greater creativity.
Sing it. When you begin writing a melody, sing it. Step away from the keyboard. Walk around. Take in your surroundings. Let the idea germinate and grow. Once you’ve got it fully in mind, go back to the sequencer.
Play first. Experiment. Find a sound you really like and follow where it leads. It may take you somewhere you haven’t been before. Allow it to be organic. A cue can begin with one small idea and grow until it naturally unfolds into a melody. Sometimes, a rest is the best thing. In the middle of a cue it can create anticipation and help shape the music.
Be yourself. Let your own voice come through. Every composer is unique in the way he or she reads a scene, in melodic choices, in instrumentation, in his or her sonic storytelling. There are as many ways to compose for a scene as there are composers. Everyone writes with a unique voice and each approach brings out differing qualities of the story and emphasizes different aspects to the audience.
Film music is collaborative. My final take-away from the Composers Lab was not learned, but gained. I gained community. In sharing our creativity, our processes, ideas, and encouragement, we found in each other friendship and support that we can carry forward on our paths as filmmakers, composers, musicians, and as human beings.
Play hard. Work hard. Laugh lots. Share freely. Refresh as necessary.