Diary of an Orchestrator: Creative Moves – Advice, Caveats, and Game Plans

Her back ached a little bit, and her bones were still chilled from sleeping in her car the night before. But she barely felt those mild discomforts as her car came through the tunnel, topped the ridge, and she saw the whole of the San Francisco Bay Area gleaming before her in the midmorning sun.

The rest of the day went like a whirlwind. She checked in at the San Francisco Conservatory, then looked through the newspaper. By the evening, she had a part-time job and a place to live. In the early 1980’s, that was still possible in the city. Pleasantly bleary from a couple of glasses of beer and stomachful of cheap Chinese food, she sat on the sand and watched the relentless pulse of the Pacific Ocean hurling itself at Ocean Beach. It was a revelation – a cowgirl from Eastern Colorado, she’d never seen an ocean before. And for the rest of her life, she would never live more than a few blocks from it. After two and a half decades, she’d finally come home.

That’s the story of a composer I know, whose welcome to San Francisco seemed magical. Yesterday, another composer friend Deniz Hughes held a YouTube webinar that’s quite worth watching: “How to Move to L.A.” With fellow film composers Wlad Marhulets, Mark Meilander, and Steve Blumenthal, stories were shared about making the Big Move. Though the discussion had a lot of good-natured banter, and was a bit free-form at times, there was still some underlying advice: look ahead before you move, make plans for when you get there and for how you’ll move your belongings, find a place to live, and so on.

Now I might well be considered the last person to give advice on moving to Los Angeles, because I’ve been moving away from it my whole life. I was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, and spent the first four years of my life at UCLA’s Married Students Housing while my father pursued a degree in Foreign Language Studies on a G.I. loan. There’s a side to that region that I know and treasure: the bits and pieces of cultural backbone that knit its identity together; the little neighborhoods, parks, and out-of-the-way places that have their own run-down sort of magic; and hovering over all that, the energy of people are making entertainment happen out of nothing but a few ideas, every day, every week, for a solid century now.

And yet every step I’ve taken has been away from Los Angeles and toward the life I made for myself. As a child, I experienced at least 20 moves over a dozen years, which left me a bit restless as a young adult. But eventually, I started making decisive, long-range changes of location that built my career little by little. It’s not that I locked myself into a plan with set goals and expectations. Rather, I positioned myself in places and situations that afforded the greatest scope for thinking on my feet, and creating my own opportunities.

One such move was to San Francisco in 1998. From a home base in the Sunset District (in fact right across the street from the Conservatory), I interacted with a wide community of collaborators and ensembles. I helped to direct one composer’s group, while sitting on the steering committee of the local chapter of the American Composers Forum. I also worked with dance companies, orchestras, youth groups, and community arts foundations. It was a big enough world that I could comment on it as a music journalist on the one hand, and encourage it on the other by facilitating the commission of a couple hundred new works from a broad spectrum of composers, all without ever running into a conflict of interest.

Ultimately, San Francisco brought out the best in me as a composer as well, resulting in a huge rush of new works. By the year 2000, it was rare to find a month in which I hadn’t had a review published, a work performed, or a commission negotiated. In fact, most of the time I was balancing many different artistic roles, and on top of this I was traveling to New Zealand three times a year. By the time I moved there in 2003, my career had gone to a different place as well. I didn’t need to mix it up so hotly anymore, and thanks to the internet, my client was now the world. I could speak to that world from any place at all, offer it my creativity, and build my career through its vast interconnection. And so, I once again moved a step further from Los Angeles, thousands of miles away this time.

One of the questions I’ve been asked many times throughout that career is “why don’t you become a film composer?” This would usually happen after a premiere, when an audience member or performer might have a good word to say about my populist, descriptive style of composing. Even more flattering, the questioner might shake their head with a dire comparison about how they thought I’d probably sound a whole lot better than this or that film composer to whom they were sick of listening. But as nice an ego-stroke as that might be, I was well aware of the realities of film industry composing, which didn’t suit my goals. I’ve always needed to create my own little corner, in which I can do the most good for both my clients and my own preferred pace of living. It’s the very thing which allows me to create communities of composers and educational resources. That’s my magnum opus, in a way: bringing together a wide scope of interests, perspectives, and motives, and helping them to find both a voice and a pathway to development.

But just because it doesn’t suit me doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suit you. In fact, I’m hoping that a lot of readers and Orchestration Online subscribers and group members find success in the film industry. You are needed, more than you imagine right now. That doesn’t mean you will make it in the way that everyone else has. As creativity becomes ever more personalized, the vision of what you may become is bound to change and evolve in ways no one suspects. That is always the way of these things.

So, after a thousand words of perspective, here’s the solid advice. What you need to know is that if you’re a beginner, you’re looking at the careers of the established composers as a story that starts in the middle. The beginnings of each of those composers’ individual stories are highly personal. They might start with a car, a newspaper, and a first look at the Pacific Ocean at age 24. Or they might start with a conductor getting sick, and being asked to fill in at a moment’s notice directing a cuing session. Your vision of where you want to end up is always modeled on the example of those who are making it. My advice is to scale things back, and look at where the roads start right now that are moving forward, whether they lead exactly in that direction or not. Then see how you personally and creatively fit that road – because that way, you have the greatest chance of personally influencing the ultimate conversation, rather than just being a hired hand.

In the end, that is the kind of person that industry pros want to work with: someone who’s got their own sense of direction, their own strong artistic identity, and their own vision of how the future should look. Yes, you’ll work with directors who are stuck in temp-track hell, or who are looking for the next Hans Desplat von Williams. Even then, if you are clever, even audacious, you’ll find a way forward through a hodgepodge of influences and quotes, to preserve a germ of something unique to you.

That type of determination should be the first thing you pack in your bag for the move to L.A. The second thing should be a track record. Have something solid of your own to take with you, whether it’s a show reel, or a list of premieres of concert works, or a degree, or hopefully all three. Establish yourself on your own terms as a way of proving to yourself that you’re a creative force worth bringing to the table. Because if you can’t prove it to yourself definitively, then you’ve got no business wasting anyone else’s time.

The lessons learned in dealing with new situations and people will help harden you to the challenges ahead, and they will be the biggest you’ll ever face. You can count on getting your heart broken – because this is is a career worth facing enormous emotional challenges over. Expect them to happen. The best way to prepare is to rehearse. Make yourself into someone whose heartbreaks and inspirations will eventually change things for the better.

The third thing to pack is foreknowledge. Learn the ground very carefully: what are the paths, who is getting work, and why? Can you make a living out of it? Professor Sean McMahon, now department head at McNally Smith College of Music, once wrote a tome called the “Film Music Job Handbook.” Sadly out of print, (or at least its website is now inactive), it’s a detailed overview of the film industry of the early 21st century. But its strongest point, in line with what I’ve written above, is in the personal. McMahon, like so many other composers before and since, arrived in L.A. without any strong contacts, personal resources, or even much money. He writes of sleeping on couches at studios; sweeping floors, running errands, and acting as a P.A. at the shops of established composers; and then eventually getting little bits of work as the opportunities availed themselves. He eventually went on to orchestrate several major motion pictures like Spiderman 3 and Ghost Rider. But to get to that point took years. Why? Because he’d set his sights on the highest possible level of film composing at the youngest available age.

Thus McMahon’s story is as cautionary as it is instructive. He went to L.A. to be part of the industry, but hadn’t really looked over the situation from afar, or gotten much perspective before hitting the ground. And this is a real concern for not only young composers, but the industry itself. Building a career from smaller opportunities into larger ones isn’t a strong part of many young composers’ plans. It’s such a problem that one film composer’s organization at one time had a special emergency fund dedicated to helping out composers who’d come to the L.A. region with no contacts and no work, who quickly found themselves out of their depths. Sometimes it helped them find a place to crash for a few weeks, sometimes it helped them get a ticket back home.

The lesson to take away from all of this is that even in the best of possible worlds, an industry in which everyone dreams of participating is going to have stiff competition. The higher the goals, the harder the climb. So you must prepare yourself, and know the realities. Do the type of work now, in the place you live, that you’ll be asked to do when you go the Los Angeles. Get a track record. Or see what kind of connections you can make there, and what kind of freelancing you can do from afar, as a kind of prelude to moving there yourself.

The last bit of advice is to echo something I heard a lot in Deniz’s webinar: have a car, and expect to do a lot of driving. The point of being in L.A. is to personally engage in many places for many different job-related activities. Some of these may just be meet-and-greets, but that’s where a lot of business gets done in a casual way. And have some kind of financial cushion. You’ll want enough for first-and-last month’s rent (plus another month ideally), a couple months of food and gas, and plenty for expenses, because you are going to be doing a lot of job-hunting. If you haven’t laid the ground too well, some of that job-hunting might be something to get you by if the industry jobs are lean. There’s nothing glamorous about this; but the more practical you are in the short term, the better your chances for an eventual career.

Finally, this ex-L.A. basin boy can only say: get to know L.A. All of its moods, its characters. Where are the mean streets, and where are the unexpected corners? Go to Griffith Park, Venice Beach, Olvera Street, and La Brea Tar Pits. Get to know the people, many of them transplants just like you, but a lot of them natives with that odd blend of California optimism and Midwestern gentility. If you’re going to live there, you might as well learn to love it. And it is lovable, just like a grizzly bear is lovable. Approach with caution, and go with all my blessings if that’s where you’re meant to be.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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