Not many people get to sit at the foot of a master to learn their trade, but musician, composer, and producer Mikel Hurwitz has experienced that golden opportunity twice.
Now, he might not characterize it that way himself, but having chosen film scoring as his profession, being able to observe two giants in the field, at work – John Welsman and Danny Elfman – altered his early life plan, moving him from the world of Latin American politics to a universe of sound. An award-winning composer in his own right (for Ron Taylor: Dr Baseball, a documentary about the World Series-winning pitcher who became team doctor for the Toronto Blue Jays), Toronto-born Hurwitz now lives in Los Angeles and works as the “technical score assistant” for Elfman, on films including Justice League, Fifty Shades Darker, and re-boots of The Grinch and Dumbo.
Serendipity has played a large role in Hurwitz’s life. Although he always had interest and ability in music, at 19 he left Toronto for the University of British Columbia, eventually earning a BA Honors in Political Geography and Latin American Studies. While studying in Vancouver Hurwitz had a regular gig on Saturday nights with a jazz trio. “I could have taken a minor in music,” he says, “but the School of Music at UBC was very conservatory-ish, and felt really dry.” His studies led him to become a human rights observer during 2006 social upheavals in Oaxaca, Mexico. “It was a time of pretty intense political unrest,” he says. “I was working for an Indigenous human rights group. It was the early days of YouTube and they were making all these little documentaries. I helped them put together the videos, but they also needed some music.”
This is where the first instance of serendipity came into play. It just so happened that John Welsman, currently the president of the Screen Composers Guild of Canada, but then merely the country’s premier, award-winning master of the craft, was a close family friend and had earlier noticed 15-year-old Hurwitz’s musical talents.
“He invited me to one of his orchestral sessions. It was the first time I saw that whole process,” says Hurwitz. The memory sat dormant in his mind for years, until the scoring opportunity arose at Oaxaca. It was after this second episode of serendipity that he realized, as he says, “Hey, this music thing can go well with my philosophical/political [endeavors].” The experience was so life-changing that, four years after his UBC graduation, Hurwitz traded coasts and careers, moving to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music, where he’d earn a Music BA in Film Scoring. Since then, he’s worked on national advertising campaigns, feature films and music for television and theatre, as well as collaborations with other highly regarded composers and producers.
The Lessons of Elfman
Hurwitz has been working with Danny Elfman – who’s earned two Emmy Awards, one Grammy and four Academy Award nominations – for three years and seven films now. Asked what lessons he’s learned that he’s applied to his own work, he comes up with three.
“The first big lesson,” he says, “is kinda boring. It’s file organization. He’s had a career that spans so many different incarnations of technology. He started out in the early days of orchestral demos, where you would take a sampler, and there are millions of wires, and there’s lots of outboard gear ,and you’d put together an orchestral demo on a four-track or eight-track recorder, [using] the early Macintoshes.” Hurwitz’s first job for Elfman was compiling the sound library from has decades-long career. “I learned a lot from that, because it allows me to organize myself so that, 20 years, 30 years down the line, if I’m lucky enough to have a career that long, I’ll be able to go back and be organized, look at my earliest projects and say, ‘Oh hey, that’s where this thing is.’
The second lesson? “We’re living in a self-scoring world now, that’s dominated by the Hans Zimmer model of very, very, very light on melody and very heavy on rhythm and sound design,” says Hurwitz. “The melodic score is still there, but it’s not the trend. Yet Danny has maintained an ability to write a melodic score for big superhero movies and make it work, make it relevant to modern audiences. There’s a certain genius to that, and it’s really interesting for me to see how that plays out.
“The third lesson, also a musical thing, [came from hearing] some of his demos, his basic sketches for either his concert music, or his film scores. It’s invigorating, from the standpoint of my own compositions because you realize that, ‘Wow! Everything has to start somewhere.’ We’re often used to hearing a composer’s final product. It’s for full orchestra, it’s mixed, it has tons of different, really interesting orchestration elements. You don’t really think about how it started out as a piano sketch, a really simple idea. I’m lucky enough to hear those germs of ideas. I think what that allows me to do is respect the germs of my own ideas. Before I was working for him, I would have this little seed of an idea, and then I’d take ‘X’ amount of distance, and think, ‘That’s crap,’ and move on to something else. Now I never think of a piece of music that I write as insignificant, because there’s always a way to take it to the next level from a production, orchestration, mixing, and compositional standpoint. It’s enabled me to learn about and respect my process.”