TV Composers Put Their Craft in Focus

by Jon Burlingame
Article re-printed Courtesy of Howard Levitt ©1995 BMI

Four top BMI composers talked about the challenges of creating original music for television at a BMI-sponsored seminar held October 12 at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City.

Steve Dorff, Charles Fox, Edd Kalehoff and W.G. "Snuffy" Walden addressed an audience of almost 300 in a 90-minute presentation titled "Facing the Music: A Discussion with Four Television Composers." In answering questions from Museum Director and moderator Ron Simon and the audience, they outlined their backgrounds, the writing process, the growing influence of technology, and how some of their most famous themes came about.

"This is not where I had intended to be," explained Walden (Emmy-nominated composer for "Stephen King's The Stand" and "My So-Called Life," co-writer of the "thirtysomething" theme and currently scoring "Ellen"). After years of touring as a guitarist, an agent approached him to ask if he would consider writing for film and television. Walden's answer: "Why not?"

For Dorff, writing for film and TV had "an element of being in the right place at the right time." A hit songwriter, he was asked to replace an earlier score for Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose and went on to write the Emmy-nominated themes for "Growing Pains," "Major Dad" and others, including the signature music for Robert Urich's popular series "Spenser: For Hire."

Fox, BMI's 1992 Richard Kirk Award recipient, came to television after years of arranging and a couple of well-received film scores. For his first series, "Love, American Style," he won two music Emmys; he went on to write the familiar themes for "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "The Love Boat," "Wonder Woman" and
others, and continues to score both TV movies and feature films.

Kalehoff, composer of the themes for the news programs "48 Hours," "A Current Affair" and "Inside Edition" and an Emmy winner for his "Monday Night Football" music, was a highly respected keyboard and synthesizer player before becoming a full-time composer. He was the sole New York-based composer on the panel.

All lamented the recent trend of reducing most TV main-title sequences to 10 seconds or less, as well as the ongoing problems of shrinking music budgets and impossible schedules. Walden said he had just six weeks to write and record four and a half hours of music for ABC's "The Stand." Added Dorff: "Music is definitely an afterthought [for many producers] -- `oh, yeah, we've got to do the music.'"

Noted Kalehoff: "Television has become much more sophisticated in what it is demanding from the composer," whether it's a fully electronically executed piece (as he has done with several news shows) or a room filled with live players -- "a most welcome addition," Kalehoff said, resulting in "more substance in the writing, rather than ear candy."

Communication with producers, or the lack thereof, was the subject of some of the evening's best stories. On "Growing Pains," Dorff recalled, one producer wanted a John Sebastian-style tune; another liked the sound of guitarist Pat Metheny; a third wanted "lots of percussion" for the Alan Thicke-Joanna Kerns sitcom. "I said,
`Well, yeah, I can do that,'" Dorff said. "I just went home and wrote what I felt." In collaboration with lyricist John Bettis, he came up with the song "As Long As We Got Each Other" for vocalist B.J. Thomas and all three -- despite having asked for something different -- were happy with the result.

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture," Walden quipped. "I just try to listen," he said, interpreting what the producers are saying and coming up with the right sounds that "carry the essence of what you want it to feel."

"We have to do what we feel is right for the picture," Fox pointed out. And while he noted that television movie scores often must be written in half the time of a feature-film score, "I always look at a movie as a movie -- to support the moments, whether tense or happy. To me, a film is a film. I don't think we necessarily need to be limited by the size of the screen."

Jon Burlingame's history of American television scoring, "TV's Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes from 'Dragnet' to 'Friends'," will be published in May by Schirmer Books.