The Austin Chronicle

Playback: Compose Like a Pro

Graham Reynolds teaches musicians how to score ... film

By Kevin Curtin, November 30, 2018, Music

Next Thursday, Austin's most distinguished composer teaches a free, two-hour film scoring master class. For local musicians itching to diversify their careers, it's an opportunity you'd be crazy to miss. After all, Berklee College of Music charges an arm, two legs, and six ribs, while the Juilliard School demands your first born.

Not that you're required to study at a conservatory to become a successful scorer of visual media.

"At one time, you needed the resources of a giant orchestra, but a transition in gear – including sample sets and home studios – made it possible for independent musicians to do full film scores," explains Graham Reynolds, composer for Richard Linklater films Bernie, Before Midnight, and Last Flag Flying – all of which were nominated for various Academy Awards. "There's also been an aesthetic switch away from big, John Williams-style scores except in blockbusters. Trent Reznor is a perfect example: super minimal, done mostly on computer, and he doesn't need to know how to orchestrate to make his scores."

Accordingly, two of the most game-changing TV and movie scoring teams of the last 15 years have spawned from Austin's musical underground. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, key pushers in analog synth quartet Survive, rose to international acclaim in 2016 with their soundtrack to the wildly popular Netflix series Stranger Things, which spooked more John Carpenter than John Williams. They now own Emmy statuettes and garner major league projects like National Geographic's forthcoming Internet Age docudrama Valley of the Boom.

A decade earlier, another Austin instrumental outfit, post-rockers Explosions in the Sky, caught national buzz with their dynamic soundtracking of Friday Night Lights. Eventually, their IMDb page grew to include the Al Pacino vehicle Manglehorn and Peter Berg's war epic Lone Survivor. The work of both homegrown acts continues to be highly emulated. Reynolds notes that when directors send their composers early cuts, it's not unusual for the temp music to be Explosions in the Sky or Survive.

With streaming services dominating screen time behind film, television, and documentaries, it's no surprise musicians would rather hear their work on Netflix than the radio. For those aspirants, Graham Reynolds' Film Scoring Masterclass, taking place at Native Hostel on Dec. 6 at 5pm as part of the Austin Music Video Festival, will be especially valuable, because this remains a field where useful, firsthand knowledge is hard to come by.

A dabbler in both fine arts and underground experimentation with two decades of experience in film work, Reynolds is an ideal practitioner to learn from. The 47-year-old multi-instrumentalist and producer possesses the unusual balance of right- and left-brain skills – the former to convey musical emotion and the latter to execute organizational skills for complex projects. He says his presentation will pivot on a Q&A format so he can address audience members' specific queries into the technical and artistic elements of composing for visual mediums.

"Film music is such a mysterious thing to most, but so many band people are transitioning to film scoring now," explains Reynolds, who's currently wrapping work on two features: the Macon Blair-starring Sister Aimee and Linklater's Where'd You Go, Bernadette. "It's super relevant to Austin's band culture because when you want to settle in and not be in a van everyday, film and TV scoring is one of those potential career routes."

Austin's long had a broad and significant stable of film composers. Hanan Townshend handles Terrence Malik's output, Carl Thiel is Robert Rodriguez's right-hand man, Ola Podrida leader David Wingo works with David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols, and conductor Brian Satterwhite boasts an especially prolific résumé. Recently, we've also seen well-known Austin musicians moving to the film world.

Black Angels frontman Alex Maas has scored two docs, Hot Grease and Through the Repellent Fence. Former Austinite Alan Palomo, aka Neon Indian, saw his composing career take off last year with Everything Beautiful Is Far Away followed by 2018 film festival favorite Relaxer. The Octopus Project became unlikely Sundance Film Festival celebrants in 2014 when they took home Best Musical Score honors for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, an affecting narrative about a woman and her pet rabbit quixotically searching for the lost suitcase from the movie Fargo.

"Musically, the goals are much more specific scoring a film than making a record," says OctProj multi-instrumentalist Josh Lambert of the creative process. "You have a different set of parameters and constraints because you're part of something bigger than just the music. It makes you work with a totally different part of your brain and that's fun."

The sprightly yet veteran experimental pop quartet has scored several films since then and continues to pursue movie work to fill the downtime between recording and touring, though they're wary of slogging out music for projects that don't have creative latitude. Happily, they enjoy a fruitful partnership with equally imaginative Austin indie filmmakers the Zellner brothers, who they again worked with on this year's Damsel.

"We're fortunate to have gotten into an artistic relationship where we have the trust to take big swings," adds another Octo, Toto Miranda. "That's what makes it rewarding."

While it took him years of low-budget work to prove his worth as a film composer, Reynolds says that movie work is also financially rewarding for musicians.

"It's a large part of my income stream," he attests. "Film scoring definitely has one of the highest ceilings of music jobs, and even at a low level pays better than gigging."

Half Notes

Threadgill's World Headquarters on Riverside Drive, done in by astronomical rent, bids farewell with a "Last Rodeo" on Saturday. Shinyribs seals the deal in the beer garden at 7:30pm, while a separately-ticketed afternoon party features Fastball, Guy Forsyth, Cotton Mather, Michael Fracasso, Sarah Sharp, Monte Warden, and Van Wilks. The historic Threadgill's on North Lamar will remain open for business, food, and music.

Christeene takes her stank ass to New York City and thus performs a goodbye show Wednesday at Elysium. The electro-scuzz-rap anti-diva, portrayed by drag artiste Paul Soileau, promises a "hot mix mess of emotions and fukkin' fire."

On Vinyl Media launches an online store on Saturday that will sell merch from Austin bands and split profits between the artists and essential musician nonprofits HAAM and SIMS. Founder Nathalie Phan says the effort, which runs through December, will feature gear from over 50 artists including Molly Burch, Sweet Spirit, White Denim, Jackie Venson, Capyac, Walker Lukens, Smiile, and PR Newman. Shop at

Jon Dee Graham, Jesse Sublett, and Larry Seaman – three prime movers in Austin's first-wave punk scene that coalesced on the Drag in early 1978 – are now ... respectable artists? The trio, of Skunks and Standing Waves origins, shares an art opening Saturday at the Yard Dog Gallery, 7-10pm. Sublett paints colorful birds in urban and often musical settings, while Graham balances wit and compassion via bear illustrations and Seaman repurposes animal bones, wood, and old gears into sculpture. Appropriately, the show's titled "Birds, Bears, & Bones."

The Austin Music Video Festival, running Dec. 4-8 at the Alamo Ritz, Empire Control Room, and Native Hostel, showcases the musical and visual convergence of Austin artists. In addition to a slew of screenings and premieres, the fourth-year event returns with impressive programming, including multi-media performances from Neon Indian (Tue. 4) and opera-quality vocalist Sorne (Wed. 5), plus a Kesha-curated video session hosted by Cupcakke (Sat. 8) and the debut of the Whiskey Shivers' latest video mayhem (also Sat.). "People are used to watching videos on their phones, so it's a special experience to see them on the big screen with an audience that claps and cheers," points out AMVF co-founder Jeremy Roye. Five-day passes start at $65.

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