From the dept. of interviews: Alex Mandel on music
Posted on 13 July 2011
We sat down recently to talk to Aerial Contrivance’s resident musician Alex Mandel to find out his process with music and his thoughts on the various projects he has worked on in the past and the future.ACW: When did you start playing music?MANDEL: I first played piano when I was five, and started teaching myself guitar shortly after.ACW: Who were your influences? Who still is?MANDEL: The first influence was hearing my mother play the piano, specifically Chopin’s Nocturnes. To this day, that is some of my favorite music. It’s beautiful but also has a sadness to it. At the same time, as a 7 year old, I listened to bands like Cheap Trick, Led Zepplin, and my parents’ Beatles albums. That music was, powerful, thrilling and a bit scary. To this day, I’m interested in music that has an emotional power to it, that’s sublime, both beautiful and frightening.ACW: Take us through your process for writing a song?MANDEL: I’ve been writing songs since I was seven. Generally, I get a kind of agitated feeling and I’ll pick up the guitar or sit at the piano. Then I go into a kind of a fog. If I’m lucky 15 minutes later I’ll have a song completed. The lyrics and music come out very quickly. Often what emerges isn’t that great, but sometimes I catch a good one and bring it to a band.ACW: How do you collaborate with the other members of the band?MANDEL: I’ll bring in a print out of the lyrics, and play the song for them. Sometimes I’ll have a rough chart. They’ll join in, and we’ll play the song many times over several sessions. We’ll experiment with different instrumentations — for example, drums or vibraphone, bowed or plucked bass. In the recording process, we hone the arrangements further.ACW: You’ve also scored movies - Your Friend the Rat and Tracy – how have you found that process? What is your approach to film scoring?MANDEL: Scoring films is quite different than writing your own songs, and being a singer-songwriter. A film composer is a filmmaker as much as a composer. I’m supporting the Director’s vision.When I bring in a partly finished song to a group, I really appreciate a supportive, collaborative response — a “yes and” response rather than a “no but” response. When you have an unfinished idea, it’s like an infant that should be handled gently, so it can grow into something great. So I bring that attitude to my role as film composer. The Director brings me an idea, even if it’s unfinished, and I stay positive. Once the trust is established, I’ve found I have freedom to experiment and try things the Director maybe hadn’t considered.The films I’ve scored have touched on a lot of different genres. The trick is maintain a thematic unity, so it feels cohesive, and also to bring your own style to whatever you do, so it’s not merely “generic” or anonymous.“Your Friend the Rat” was fun because Jim didn’t have, or want, any temp music, though we did listen to music from Jacques Tati’s films as inspiration. So I had a lot of freedom to compose to a lot different genres — from Dixieland and Django “hot jazz”, to heavy metal and more dissonant composition — and they all seemed to work in the film.“Tracy” was also really fun. I drew on countless Saturday mornings watching live-action children’s shows. We started with the theme song from “Imagination Train Station”, which Dan Scanlon had written the lyrics to. That was the first time I wrote a song to someone else’s lyrics, and it become the opening animated sequence of the film. There was a lot of temp music, but the main themes for the three main characters weren’t derived from any temp music.ACW: Do you have a different approach in regards to animation then to live-action?MANDEL: In my experience the two media are very similar. I haven’t done too much of the traditional “Mickey Mousing” style of composing, where the music acts much like a sound effect. I did a little of that in “Your Friend the Rat”, but it was very limited. I think the main difference is less between media (animation vs. live action) as between genres (drama or comedy). So the challenge is basically the same. Developing a great rapport with the Director and his or her vision. Understanding the story and characters. Knowing what to emphasize to amplify the emotion or humor at the right time. So far, for the live action films, I tend to write a theme for each of the main characters, or in Trifles, a motif for the main theme — that women are connecting their experiences together — so that’s more abstract.ACW: Are there any composers or film compositions you study?MANDEL: I’ve studied the harmony of Chopin and Schubert in particular, and the orchestration of Ravel. Everything I listen to I’m analyzing what I like about it, or what I don’t. But the composers I’ve studied most are groups — rock bands, jazz combos, hip-hop artist, blues and folk music. I break down tracks so I understand each part and how it fits together to create an impact. Also instrumentation, and the specific sounds and how they work together.I watch a lot of films and TV and I pay attention to the music and how it supports or distracts from the story. When does it enter and exit. When does it amplify the emotions without you noticing it, and when does it become too noticeable.Good film music is magical; it makes you feel, but you often don’t notice it’s there. At the same time it subtlely calls your attention to certain patterns or moments. Bad film music is obvious and you know exactly what it’s trying to do – so the illusion can be ruined.ACW: What is it you’ve discovered in them that appeals to your sensibilities?MANDEL : I love music that has an ambiguity about it. Like the Chopin I heard when I was an infant. It’s beautiful, it’s virtuosic, it’s sad, it’s powerful. There is a power to live instruments; they’ve evolved over hundreds or thousands of years, and there’s a tremendous power to live musicians, each with his own style, performing together. That’s why I gravitate towards smaller combos or chamber music – each voice is critical, and they work together to create something with a collective personality. When music expresses something of the people who create it – their experiences, their point of view, their character — it is authentic and that fascinates me.ACW: Can you talk about some of your new projects?MANDEL: I am working on a new TV show on Public Television called Snap Judgment LIVE. I wrote and performed the title song. I compose music to accompany different story tellers, and interstitial music, performed live in front of an audience. The first episode aired in October, and we filmed two more episodes in October live at the Brava Theater in San Francisco. The shows air both on NPR and PBS.The Echo Falls is an acoustic trio in the folk-rock genre. I write the songs, sing and play guitar and piano.