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New Orleans Composers Feature Bayou Sounds in TV and Film Scores

Profile: Film score composer David Torkanowsky

Traditional musical scoring for film and television has been, geographically, pretty generic. Although geared to the subject matter, it rarely reflects a definite musical idiom. Although there are brilliant exceptions, usually under an auteur's direction - think Woody Allen's use of Gershwin in his classic Manhattan - most American scores reflect a character's mood or some dramatic import more than the film's location. You don't hear the Philly "Sound" (assuming there still is one) in a movie like Philadelphia.

But New Orleans and its surrounding river parishes, as usual, are exceptions to the rule. Although part of this has to do with the area's reputation as a major tourist trap, the very same diversity that attracts visitors here also tends to muddy the waters of musical heritage, leaving no one discernible "sound" to focus on. When you see a shot of Paris, you might expect to hear an accordion. Rome, an Italian tenor. Munich, beer hall polkas. But one sound could possibly serve to sum up The Crescent City's musical melting pot? For years, hack filmmakers have reached back into their Generic Southern Catalog for accompaniment, assuming anything below the Mason-Dixon Line is best represented by Buck Owens. That's obviously insufficient (and misleading), so what's the alternative? Dixieland? Jazz? R&B? Zydeco?

The answer, not surprisingly, is a bit of everything. David Torkanowsky, a local composer with scores like PBS' drama Elysian Fields to his credit, knows all about this. As composer for the USA series The Big Easy, David is constantly making gumbo of a number of indigenous styles.

"Usually, [the producers] tell me what they want, and I provide it," he says. "About ten days into shooting we have a spotting session, where they decide what they need: Sound FX, dialogue replacement, and scoring. I usually have one week to score 15 to 20 minutes of music." For a show that has taken constant hits for its depiction of local life, the minds behind the series are surprisingly astute. "I'm really lucky to be working for them, because they really understand the music of the region, " David says. "As opposed to most people in the business, who just see New Orleans as nothing more than a cool set." The USA Network isn't exactly known for lavish budgets, so David sometimes finds himself accompanied by local legends. If, for example, the series can't afford to buy Earl King's "Trick Bag", David says, "I'll bring Earl into the session to play along."

Some locals have taken issue with the large amounts of Cajun and Zydeco music in the show, especially since the series is set in the city proper and not in the outlying bayou areas from where the music originates. It's a common mistake among many moviemakers, sort of like using surf music in a scene set in downtown Los Angeles, but for once, there's a valid reason: the main character. "It's Remy McSwain's theme," says Torkanowsky, "and he's a Cajun. It's what's needed."

New Orleans native composer Terence Blanchard is Torkanowsky's closest film equivalent. A former member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the trumpeter has scored over eight national film releases, including "Sugar Hill", "Trial By Jury", and "The Promised Land". He's probably best known, however, as Spike Lee's main composer ("Mo' Better Blues", "Jungle Fever", "Malcolm X").

An original jazz composition, "Sing Soweto," was the door into scoring for Blanchard, who had previously played in Spike's finest hour-and-a-half, "Do The Right Thing". The director heard "Soweto" and was so impressed he ordered Blanchard to create a string arrangement of it. This proved to be a watershed experience for the neophyte, leading him to other scoring gigs and helping him find his compositional style: Rather than give an orchestrator the music and have him "blow it up" to a symphonic level, as most players-cum-composers do, Blanchard scores "like a John Williams" and works the arrangements out himself.

Still, for all his control, Blanchard finds himself fighting the Hollywood system in order to get his music heard. Creating a film score is one thing, but when it comes time to press the soundtrack, most composers are left high and dry. For all his work, Blanchard has never had his scores featured on any of the films' "official soundtrack" CDs. Even on a "Spike Lee joint" like "Jungle Fever", Terence was left off of the CD in favor of Stevie Wonder songs that were written for the film but barely present in it. Says Blanchard, "There's a big trend in Hollywood with some of the directors to put out soundtracks of all the pop music [instead of the score]. A friend of mine who's a film scorer [Bob Strickland, a Blanchard collaborator] just recently got his first CD of the music from one of his films, and he's been scoring for years and years and years." Nevertheless, the composer presses on, in demand in Hollywood, if not exactly well represented. His goal: "to bring out the tangible essence of whatever the director is trying to convey… The whole key to making great music is your judgement. What direction you choose to go in - that's what makes it great to me."

These two New Orleans musical architects - among the best in their field - present two sides of the same coin. Working within an entire system, one that's infamously rigid but still hungry for talent, they manage to breathe the essence of their surrounding city into whatever they're given. One brings a taste of New Orleans to the rest of the country, while the other instinctively spices his music with local flavor. With the film and television business booming in the South Louisiana area, it's a good thing they're there. Or would you rather hear more Country music?

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