“Many musicians would like to have the opportunity to compose movie soundtracks and television music. I understand why. It’s a fascinating job. It pays well. But you’re not going to get there on talent alone.”
Coming from James Gelfand, a composer who has scored 60 films (Pinocchio 3000, Cyberbully, Swamp Devil) and 200 TV series episodes (Sous un ciel variable, Jack Paradise, Virginie, Crusoe), this assessment might sound a bit surprising. Sitting in front of his piano, an instrument that has taken him to the world’s leading jazz festivals over the years, the Montreal musician talks rapidly, as if to accommodate several ideas trying to come out at once. His answers to our questions are somewhat convoluted, but he doesn’t seem to care. “I don’t use a filter when I’m being interviewed,” he explains. “I speak my mind.”
“When a producer brings you his comments, you listen to him and say yes.”
At 55, Gelfand, a winner of many SOCAN composition awards, looks back on his past work lucidly, and in a straightforward manner that the future John Williams of the film composition world might find enlightening. “What’s really going to help you along, in this profession, is your ability to deconstruct a film script, to figure out what makes the characters tick, to understand the emotional mood of each scene, and to feel the dramatic tension of the story,” he says. “You have to be able to establish a connection with the director, such that you can understand his movie without having actually seen it. But most of all, you have to realize that you’re not in this type of work to please yourself. The client’s expectations must come first,” claims the much in demand composer whose list of customers includes the likes of HBO, PBS, NBC, Lionsgate and Lifetime.
“I remember working stubbornly on a film score trying to produce something unique,” says Gelfand. “I was racking my brain to create something different, something deep. When I finally presented the result to the director, he asked me to come back with something more accessible. Of course, I was disappointed, but I took it in stride. I don’t argue with clients. When a producer brings you his comments, you listen to him and say yes. You have to know how to choose your fights. In the case I just mentioned, I came back to the director with a simpler score that was bordering on cliché. He loved it!”
That day, Gelfand understood that, as a composer, self-satisfaction must come from personal projects rather than from commissioned works. Besides working on the music of some 30 albums, the JUNO and multiple Jazz Report award winner has released eight albums of original compositions. “Initially, I had no idea I was going to end up writing film and television music,” he says. “In the late 1980s, I was approached at a corporate show I was giving, by a corporate video producer, who said he sometimes needed musicians to write themes for him. He hired me for one of his projects. Shortly thereafter, Michel Donato [with whom Gelfand released the Setting the Standard album in 1996] asked me to contribute music for the Radio-Canada Sous un ciel variable television series. I never looked back.”
A quick look at Gelfand’s repertoire is enough to appreciate the enormous breadth of his composing talent, from the epic orchestrations of the action film Exploding Sun to the pop-style children’s music of the The Mysteries of Alfred Hedgehog series, to the techno-sounding score of the National Geographic Channel’s Naked Science documentary. “Flexibility is the key to success in the film scoring business,” he stresses. “The more musical genres you can master, the more doors will open for you. If you can only write in one particular music style, you’ll soon be pigeonholed, and you’ll be losing contracts. When I was young, I studied jazz, but I also played classical music at home. As a teenager, I played in rock bands. I even accompanied pop artists onstage. You have to keep your opportunities wide open. Being able to improvise in any style is paramount. ”
Gelfand speaks from experience. Over the past two months, he has worked on three unrelated projects – scoring the Christmas movie North Pole, co-scoring the psychological thriller Forget and Forgive with his wife (the pianist Louise Tremblay), and writing the music of The Prodigal Son biblical musical. “Some weeks, I don’t get much sleep, but at least I’m not boring myself to death.” Still want to be the next Ennio Morricone?