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David Libby talks score — an interview with the composer for the “Planet Hulk Trailer”

Pakbuzz Q&A is proud to present an exclusive, in-depth interview with David Libby, the composer of the scores for the Greg Pak films “Happy Hamptons Holiday Camp for Troubled Couples,” “Super Power Blues,” and “Planet Hulk Trailer.”
[UPDATE: Libby has launched BroadwayDemo.com, a demo and website production service for musical theater actors — click here to visit the site.]
Greg Pak: We’ve worked together on three different short film projects now, but I’m realizing I have no idea how you work your magic — I email you video and tell you some of my ideas for the score and you email me back links to gorgeous music. Walk us through the process a bit. First, the technicalities — what kind of equipment and computer system do you use? Is all the music generated through synthesizers and computers or do you do any live performances? And how do you keep the neighbors from calling the cops with noise complaints?
David Libby:
I have very cool neighbors, no doubt! I’m always playing piano and my wife is a singer, and we’ve never had a complaint. Actually, we’ve even gotten requests to play louder because they like it! The only down side to this is that I can never move.
Once I get the video file you email me, I import it into music production software called Sonar. I have a Kurzweil PC88 keyboard which is connected to my computer, but I don’t use the keyboard for sounds. I only use it to trigger sounds that are generated on my computer by a software sampler called Gigastudio, which produces the most realistic sounds currently on the market. So, when I play my keyboard it triggers sounds that are generated on my computer by Gigastudio, and those sounds are recorded on my computer by Sonar. I also use Reason and Acid type loops for sound generation, and Sibelius for music notation when I want to write something out.


Also on the techology end, I think the internet has enabled us to exchange ideas very quickly, making it a really collaborative process. With the trailer especially, we really bounced ideas back and forth quickly, and I was really happy when I saw how well the music worked in your final edit!
GP: How do you tackle the job of actually composing? Do you develop ideas for music in your head or by playing things out?
DL:
Both, really. Sometimes a scene in a film will trigger an idea in my head, and I go to my studio knowing where I’m going to start. With the Hulk trailer, I knew I wanted a primitive vibe in the beginning with heavy percussion, and I also had an impression of low horns sounding a kind of call to battle. Then it was just a matter of working that out in my studio. Other times, a sound can inspire an idea. That was definitely the case when the gray-skinned Shadow Guard woman is introduced in the trailer. Since she appears very briefly, I needed to find a sound in my arsenal that could convey the feeling of this character immediately. When I found the sound I ended up using, I thought it sounded exactly how she looked. The notes didn’t matter nearly as much as the actual quality of the sound.
GP: Tell us about your training. I see you have an extensive background in jazz. How did that affect your development and how did you come to scoring films?
DL:
I’m realizing more and more that I approach all my musical activities primarily as a player. Sometimes I need to rein that in, which is certainly the case with composing film music. I think the best scores help the filmmaker tell the story, and players can get caught up in the music sometimes. That said, my jazz background and the years I studied with Kenny Barron at Rutgers is really invaluable in everything I do. I’ve played so many different kinds of music, from orchestral Broadway scores to Manhattan jazz club gigs, bluegrass, and even eastern European folk music. All that experience really helps me cover any kind of music that a situation might call for. One of the things I love about writing for film is that it isn’t confining stylistically.
My first score was for a student film called “Viewfinders” when I was studying composition with Elliot Schwartz at Bowdoin College in Maine. I really got hooked on the process of helping to tell a story with music. Since that time, I’ve written music mostly for documentaries, industrial videos, and commericals. In the past year I’ve had a chance to return to film and storytelling, which has been really exciting.

Watch the “Planet Hulk” trailer!

View in Quicktime at PakBuzz.com | View at YouTube.com

GP: I was kind of stunned with how great your trailer music was for the “Planet Hulk” trailer. Of course I’ve loved all the music you’ve done for me, but the gentle themes and goofy porn music of “Happy Hamptons Holiday Camp for Troubled Couples,” for example, didn’t prepare me for the ominous, raging crescendoes of “Planet Hulk.” Were you pulling a Bruce Banner before, just waiting to cut loose with your Hulk thang when the time came?
DL:
Aren’t we all? I remember driving in Manhattan around the same time that I was working on the trailer. I kept getting cut off by taxi drivers and pushy BMWs, and all I could think was “You are all going to pay!”
Actually, the trailer was a great chance to cut loose! As I said earlier, I usually need to be restrained when writing for film so as not to steal focus from the story. But in the case of the trailer, the music could really be prominent, and even needed to be. So yeah, the trailer was a great outlet to do some musical smashing!
GP: What kind of music do you most love? If you could score any kind of movie in the world, what kind would it be and what kind of score would you write?
DL:
Like a lot of musicians in my generation who grew up on “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I’ve always dreamed of composing a big sweeping orchestral score for a Hollywood action/adventure movie. I think an outlet for that kind of writing these days is scoring video games, which I think would be a lot of fun. But I also love smaller, more intimate scores. I would love to score a movie with a chamber group, like piano and an octet of orchestral instruments.
I love jazz, and when I’m driving somewhere I’m likely to put in some Keith Jarrett, Sonny Rollins, or Miles Davis. But I love all kinds of music, really. If you were to check the contents of my mp3 player at any given time, you would find a pretty crazy range of musical styles. I mean, how many people have Miles Davis, Mozart, Patsy Cline and Pink on their ipods?! I guess my philosophy is, if I like it, that’s all that matters.
GP: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far in scoring for film? What are the challenges you’re looking forward to tackling?
DL:
As a pianist in the Broadway community, I accompany a lot of singers. I’ve learned over the years how important it is to support the singer’s acting intentions in my playing, and I find that composing for film is similar. It’s a fine line of playing or composing enough, but not too much. So, it’s important to stay flexible and to pay attention to your scene partner, so to speak. I think of dialogue in a film as the melody, and I’m writing the accompaniment.
I recently conducted a new musical called “That Other Woman’s Child”, which was written by Sherry Landrum and Hollywood composer George Clinton. I had a chance to see a premier of one of George’s movies with him. I liked the score a lot, and I asked him how he approached it. He said that he tries to think of what kind of music the character would like to hear. That makes a lot of sense, because it really gets you inside the character’s head. So, I try to do that in my writing.
As far as future challenges, I would love to have the budget to record live musicians in a studio. Computers are great, but there’s nothing like the real thing!
GP: All time favorite bands or composers or film scorers?
DL:
Favorite musicians would have to include artists from the jazz pantheon. There are so many great musicians in other genres though, it’s really hard to pick one favorite. My list of favorites would have to include Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan, Sonny Rollins, Michael McDonald, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Steely Dan, and James Booker, to name a few.
As far as film scores go, one guy that I think was a genius is Carl Stalling. He wrote the music for most of the Looney Tunes cartoons. Those recording sessions must have been a lot of fun. There was hardly a twitch of Bugs Bunny’s ears that Stalling didn’t echo musically. I was watching “Laura” recently, and David Raksin wrote some great music for that movie. The intensity that musicians played with in that era was incredible. I think Thomas Newman’s score for “Shawshank Redemption” is haunting. There’s so many great film scores, again, it’s hard to pick a favorite.
GP: What are you listening to now? Any recommendations?
DL:
Right now, and as usual, I’m listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett. In my mind, he’s one of the most brilliant musicians of any genre. I’d recommend CDs of his like “At the Deerhead Inn” and “Live at the Blue Note”, to name a couple. I’m also listening to a lot of John Mayer, who I think is a great songwriter, guitarist, and singer. He did a song called “Stitched Up” with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock that I’ve listened to about a million times. I also like the song “Neon” a lot.
GP: Tell us about your big goals. Feature film scoring? Broadway? Rock stardom?
DL:
All of the above, please, and throw in touring jazz artist while you’re at it. I am really enjoying the composing aspect of my career lately, though, so I’m really hoping that continues to grow. It’s a great convergence of so many of my interests and musical experiences. I would love the chance to score a full feature film, to really have the space to develop a musical arc that supports a character’s journey.
GP: I understand you’re working on a musical for children. Tell us about the project?
DL:
Jennifer Palumbo, a writer/comedian and probably the funniest person I’ve ever met, wrote a children’s play called “Back to Brooklyn”. It tells the story of a young girl named Isabelle who is enamored of fairy tales, mostly because of how the princess is always rescued by a hero of some kind, whether a prince or knight in shining armor. One day, she decides to go to Grandma’s house in Bay Ridge, but she gets lead astray by a skaterboarder named Jimmy. He convinces her to take the subway rather than walk, and that’s where the trouble begins. She mistakenly takes the train in the wrong direction and ends up in Manhattan. There are no heroes around to rescue her, so she has to rely on her own smarts to figure out how to get back home to Brooklyn. So, in the end, Isabelle learns that fairy tales are great, but it’s even better to know that when she finds herself in a problematic situation, she’s smart enough to rescue herself. It’s a really cute story and Jennifer did a great job of writing material that both kids and adults find entertaining.
I asked Jennifer a while back if she’d be interested in writing a musical with me. She suggested turning “Back to Brooklyn” into a musical, and I thought it was a great idea. I had recently played keyboards in the Las Vegas company of “Beauty and the Beast”, so I had the Disney fairy tale vibe in my ear already. It’s been fun parodying that sound and telling Isabelle’s story with music. We’ve finished a couple songs and some of the thematic underscoring, and we hope to get a production in the Fall.
GP: You offer a number of different music related services, correct? What do you do and how can prospective clients get in touch with you?
DL:
I’m a composer, arranger, and pianist. I write music for film and video and am always on the hunt for new projects. They don’t necessarily have to be fictional or dramatic, as I do a lot of industrial video work. I’m also a music director and pianist in the musical theatre world, and my wife and I have an audition coaching business together. We teach classes in Manhattan and we also coach privately. I do music copy work (musical notation), CD production in my studio for vocalists, and I do arrangements for a lot of my clientele. Anyone who would like to reach me can email me at david@davidlibby.net, and there’s further info on my website at www.davidlibby.net.
GP: Finally, the really big question: who’s your favorite superhero and why?
DL:
I was recently in Los Angelas and got a chance to meet Linda Carter, aka Wonder Woman. That was great, meeting someone I watched every Saturday morning as a kid!
My favorite superheroes were always Thor and Iron Man. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have the powers those guys have?? Thor’s hammer and the lightning and the Norse gods, and Iron Man with that blast of energy bursting forth from his palm! I mean, it’s just plain cool! These days, though, I’m a bit partial to the Hulk. I think he validates an experience everyone has, feeling wronged and wishing we could act on our outrage. But perhaps I’ve said too much.

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