Krakower Group Spotlight: John R. Graham

Spotlight Composer John R. Graham

Today, we’re excited to highlight John R. Graham, whose current projects include scoring “Kingsglaive Final Fantasy XV”

Outside influences

I’m more of a story person than a musician, really. My parents had PhDs in 18th century literature and aesthetics, and I grew up reading literature and watching French New Wave and strange German experimental films, rather than Hollywood blockbusters. But along with Swift and Kafka and the Enlightenment and bizarre movies whose plots don’t always make sense, I also loved the baroque and modern orchestra, electronics and raw guitar power and the kind of living-out-loud that the best pop artists display in their music, from the Sex Pistols and Bowie to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Stray Cats to Sigur Rós or M83 or Beyoncé.

So I adore the orchestra but I like loud guitars. I am trained to arrange a traditional brass section but will add pulsating electronics to it. I admire the piety and reverence of Palestrina, the intensity and emotional power of the orchestra, but also like the recklessness of rock and electronics. Life is crazy now; people contend with the sacred and profane, the elevated and crude sometimes all in one day or even simultaneously. Films, plays, games, and art respond to all that, and the music has to as well.

What’s your composing method? (a) sitting at a piano (b) computer (c) pencil on manuscript paper (d) improvisation with musicians (e) other

Stories and visuals dominate my thinking when I’m writing, which makes for an agonizing process, since half the time I start a score with something that’s barely recognisable as music. I try to avoid analysis at first; I start with a reaction to the character or the aesthetic of the scene or something about the period and I do everything I can to respond to it initially without labeling it or analysing it too closely. The trick is to move quickly — film deadlines are horrendous — from that inchoate, somewhat unformed reaction to a more analytical level without losing sight of that kernel the story or imagery triggered. So, I’ll come up with a few chords or a pulse or a texture that evokes something elemental about the character or scene, and then wrestle with it so it can grow and evolve into a coherent work. It’s much easier, honestly, to start with what people call “material” and wedge it into a scene but I never work like that.

Phillip Glass described composing like looking out a window early on a foggy morning — you can maybe see the outline of one or two buildings at first, then gradually as the sun begins to rise you can make out individual trees, or the grass, or the details of a tractor, until the whole thing clarifies. My process is a lot like that; iterative, and more a process of discovery in a way; discovering the music of the film that somehow is intrinsic to it rather than making something up and sticking it on.

The best film music is working on part of the scene that’s not already present. Yes, you have to reinforce sometimes, but the most interesting thing music does is add what’s not already there in front of you. If the hero’s brother has been betrayed and killed and he was a pure-hearted, noble kid, you don’t need to ladle syrup on that, you need to go to some other idea altogether or say very little or evoke his youth or even his playfulness.

How did you first get involved writing music? What challenged you most, and what rewarded you most, as your résumé evolved over the years?

It’s tricky to take your training and knowledge and discard it all for each project, but if you want to bring something really particular to a new project that’s what you do — chuck it all and try to let yourself have a raw, unfiltered response. The story is that Ennio Morricone cried for ten minutes the first time he saw “The Mission,” and then he wrote a score that many think is the greatest ever made.

At the start of a new project, I try to jettison my training and my experience. Instead, I focus on the raw reaction I have to the material, then cultivate and nurture that for a while. After that, I go back through my tool kit and bring back only as much technique as necessary to do what the music is telling me it needs. It’s great to know a lot, and it’s great to have done a lot. Those help you move fast once you work out where the project needs to go. But if you let your technique and education lead, you risk stapling onto the images music that doesn’t spring from them organically enough.

What do you do to get away from it all? What do you like doing outside of the studio?

I read as many of the Booker prize-nominated books as I can every year. Music is my main occupation but stories and images and the intensity of elevated language still draw me and help me when I want to escape.