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May 28th, 2010 (12:00 am)

Although his career's defining show ended five years ago, composer Steve Bramson really hit a stride this year with two of his scores recently release. Bramson worked on JAG for nine and a half seasons and Intrada Records has recently released some music from JAG: the new CD contains the full pilot score by Bruce Broughton and the Russian-flavored epsiode "Cowboys and Cossacks" by Steve. But it's not all about past glories - Lakeshore Records aslo released Bramson's latest score to Jake Goldberger dark and quirky Don McKay, starring Thomas Hayden Church and Elizabeth Shue. We discussed Steve's career with a special focus on his work with Laurence Rosenthal, his contributions to JAG and his upcoming projects.

You were born into a musical family. How did your parents shape your musical education?

Mostly just by being surrounded by music constantly. My mother was an operatic soprano who performed frequently in and around New York City and my father, though he became proprietor of a community music school and music store, was a Juilliard-trained clarinetist. There was always music in our home: recordings of classical and jazz, my parents rehearsing for a performance, even frequent musicales that my parents would put on. They urged us to play and study music but it was never forced on us.

You studied to play the trumpet before switching to piano. Why did you switch instruments?

Though I became quite good on trumpet by the time I entered high school, I just didn't have the passion for playing any longer. By then I'd become more interested in jazz and popular music and writing and arranging so I switched to piano. I wanted to play piano in the high school jazz band but the director told me that I could only do that if I was also in the concert band. Since there is no piano in a concert band, I used my keyboard-reading skills and played mallets: vibraphone, bells, xylophone, etc.

Another strange switch in your career concerns your education. Why did you get you BA in economics rather than music?

I had many interests other than music when I was in high school. By the time I entered college I wasn't sure that I wanted to become a professional musician. I thought I might become an architect or something else. I was always interested in political science and economics and had been taking classes in them, so that when I became disillusioned with a career in music in my junior year, it was an easy switch for me to an economics degree. That interest didn't last long, however, as I went to a summer session at the Eastman School of Music after graduating and was bitten hard by the music bug again, and then there was no looking back!

Like most film composers, you began your job as a composer for short films - which admittedly few people saw. What can you tell us about your animated ventures The White Gazelle and The Owl and the Pussycat?

Interestingly, both of these short films went on to win Student Academy Awards for both the film makers. The White Gazelle probably was never seen by anyone, really. But the film maker, Tony Laudati, went on to do a lot of work for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. I met him when I was preparing to apply for the masters program at Eastman. I used to sneak into the practice rooms at SUNY Purchase. I ran into Tony in the hallways during breaks. I didn't score the film until I got to Eastman where I took advantage of the great student talent there to record the score. I met Teresa Drilling, the director of The Owl and the Pussycat, while at Eastman. She was studying at the nearby Rochester Institute of Technology. That film actually did have an audience. It went on to shown as "filler" on HBO for a while. It's a really charming little film. Teresa went on to work for Will Vinton and Henry Selick. Both projects were great fun to work on and great early opportunities for me to try my hand at scoring.

You began your bigtime career by meeting Laurence Rosenthal. How did you meet him and how did he mentor you.

Again, an Eastman connection. I had become increasingly aware of Larry's work as I became more and more interested in film music and when I heard that he'd be coming for an alumni weekend at Eastman my second year there, I jumped at every chance to hear him speak and teach a master class. He became aware of my work and when I learned that Eastman was accepting proposals for study-grant money, I wrote to him asking if he'd be willing to have me come out to California for a couple of weeks to watch him work. He agreed and the school gave me a few hundred dollars, enough for my airfare. I ended up staying in Los Angeles for 2 1/2 months and worked with him as an orchestrator on one of this early Emmy-winning miniseries scores, George Washington. This was an indescribable thrill for me, to work so closely with a Hollywood legend and to be working with the great Los Angeles studio musicians at the famous old MGM scoring stage. Once I returned to my apartment in New York, it was impossible for me not to return to California. Six months later, I did. And I began a 6-year collaboration with Larry, orchestrating many more projects, mostly TV miniseries and movies. I learned so much during those years and had the added benefit of traveling with him to Europe many times to record.

I understand you became a television composer through your work on Tiny Toon Adventures. What are your memories of working on the show?

Probably some of the hardest work I've ever done. But great fun, too! I was always a big fan of the classic Warner Bros cartoons and the music of Carl Stalling, having grown up watching so many of them. I really loved the challenge of trying to emulate that sound.

In addition to Tiny Toons, you scored various episodes of diferent mystery series (Father Dowling, Matlock, Jake and the Fat Man). Would you say you could leave your mark on these series, or were you just required to adhere to the estabilished sound of each series?

Anytime you step in to work on an established series you pretty much have to stay within the confines of a predetermined sound. Still, within that limitation, there was always room for self expression. Jake and the Fatman had a unique formula: each new episode was given the title of a well-known standard song and then took its theme from that song. So each week we would have to find an interesting way to arrange and adapt the tune to the dramatic setting of that week's story. Incidentally, that work came to me through the combined efforts of three individuals: composers Dick DeBenedictis, who wrote the themes for Matlock and Jake and the Fatman, among others; Joel Rosenbaum, a truly inventive and musical force and friend; and Chuck Cassey, then head of music for Viacom.

You wrote the music for the Space Mountain at the Disneyland Paris theme park. How did you get the commission and how did you "score" an attraction like this?

I was chosen from a small group of candidates after each of us submitted a sample of our ideas for the score. This was without a doubt the most unusual work I've ever done before or since. After a theme was chosen, I went to France and rode the attraction many times in order to see what it was they were designing and to time the ride. Because the trains travel at different speeds depending on the temperature and how full they are at any given time, the total length of the music, about 2 1/2 minutes, was broken into 4 segments. I needed to know how long each segment was and then select the points during the ride where it would be best for the music to transition. At the end of the first three segments I inserted a fermata, a hold, so that there was enough time for the music to play and the train to catch up if necessary. A switch on the track would recognize when the train was passing a particular point and then cause the recording to skip to the next piece of music. It sounds a bit crude, but it actually worked quite well. I returned to California, wrote the score and created a synth mockup which I then took back to Paris and tested on the train. Once I made final adjustments to the score, I then orchestrated it and recorded it with a 55-piece orchestra at Paramount's Stage M. Once it was mixed, it was sent off to Europe and installed in the ride. It wasn't until many years later that I returned to France and heard the final version of the score in action. It was quite a thrill!

Bruce Broughton from Tiny Toons recommended you for JAG, clearly your most definite credit. What are your memories of getting the job?

I remember I was skiing in Colorado when I got the call from him. I met Bruce when I first moved to California. I had so admired his score to Silverado, I called him up to see if he would be willing to talk to me and offer any guidance to my fledgeling desire to be a film composer. He, of course, consented. He's a very generous man in this way. We stayed in touch over the years, initially when he was president and I was a member of the Society of Composers and Lyricists. Then things moved forward after I did a bit of ghost writing on one of the first Tiny Toons. He liked what I wrote and gradually worked me into the composer rotation on that show. When a decision was made to change the composer on JAG he thought of me and pretty much on is word alone, I was offered the job. I had to go on and prove my worth of course but, thankfully, it all worked out.

Would you have foreseen that this show would last ten seasons? That's some kind of commitment...

Absolutely not! In fact, NBC cancelled JAG at the end of the first season. (I had begun my work in the middle of that.) I thought "Well, it was nice for the short while it was on. Now it's back to looking for work." We were at the season wrap party when we all heard the show's producer, Don Bellisario, had made a deal with CBS to put it back on the air the next fall. From there it found its audience and went on, as you said, for ten years. We were all very fortunate. That is such a rarity in television.

The first few episodes utilized composer Velton Ray Bunch before the show settled on your contributions. Why did you get involved in the show during the middle of season one?

As I understand it, there was really just one thing that caused Don Bellisario to make a switch, he wanted to hear Bruce's theme more in the weekly score, something I guess he hadn't been happy with up to then. That was the big "note" I'd gotten from Don. So I made sure that I did. One of the fun challenges I had over those many years was finding new and interesting ways to arrange and adapt his theme. Of course, they also were hoping to find a composer who could step into an established show and carry on with the larger-than-life orchestral scoring that they wanted.

How did the scoring of an episode looked like? What was your schedule and how much music did you have to write?

I typically had 5 or 6 days from spotting (deciding where each music cue would go) and recording. The average amount of music was about 18-20 minutes but it ranged from as low as maybe 8 or 10 (very rare) to as much as 26-or 28 (all to frequently!) I usually began writing the morning after the spotting session since I needed to wait until I got timing notes form the music editor. My output would begin slowly, usually just a minute or two in the first day or so and then I'd speed up quickly. As cues were finished, I'd pass them on to the orchestrator (unless I was orchestrating) and then it would get passed on to the copyists. And so it would go right up to the night, and often even the morning, of the scoring session. During the network's sweep weeks, I would just get up and start a new episode the very next morning and go on like that for weeks at a time.

Could you describe the key themes used in the show?

While always keeping an eye out for places to play Bruce's theme, I came to think of each episode as a separate little movie each week and would always come up with a new theme or themes for that specific show. Out of that practice, over time a few themes rose to the top of the heap and became recurring themes. The theme for Bud and Harriet, is an example of this. It has a simple sweetness and innocence that reflects their personalities and their type of love for each other.

How would you describe the evolution of the series music over 10 seasons? Were there thematic changes as the show kept going?

As I mentioned, the evolution of themes was a product of my approaching each week's show as a tabula rasa, other than Bruce's theme, of course. I am not conscious of there being an evolution to the overall sound or style to the score. I followed the lead of the writers. If the stories changed, I would change to suit, if it made sense to do so. But that really never happened. The only instances of that sort of thing were that, occasionally, there would be a special, one-off diversion from the typical JAG. This might be a story based around a true historical event, a "flashback" show, one that had a unique cultural setting, etc. In these cases, I had a lot more liberty to come up with a score that had its own stand-out personality. I really enjoyed doing those. Examples might be "Need To Know", Mutiny", "Each Of Us Angels" and even "Cowboys and Cossacks" which is included on the new JAG CD.

What was the most memorable episode or scene you worked on?

The above mentioned episodes are definitely on that list as would be "To Russia With Love", "Adrift" and "Back In The Saddle" among others.

Was there anything that seemed hopless - such as a particularly hard scene which you had to try several times?

There frequently would be stubborn scenes for me. But I can't say what specifically was the trouble. Sometimes you just can't see your way into a particular scene. Usually all I'd have to do is move on to something else, get the juices flowing and then come back to it. That usually worked.

Some of the 2004/2005 episodes are credited to other composers (Christopher Klatman, James Stemple). Why did you miss out on those few occasions and how were your replacements chosen?

Those were all due to personal reasons: my marriage and the birth of my son, for example. There were probably a couple of others as well but I don't recall the circumstances.

The music for JAG remained orchestral for the whole ten seasons, using 35 players each week. Wasn't there pressure to cut costs in the field of music?

Fortunately, no. I don't remember ever being pressured to use a smaller group. That said, there were a couple of occasions where I had beefed up the orchestra a few times and later, as the season progressed and the music budget was drawing down, I would be denied requests for additional players. But it never really was an issue.

JAG kept you busy for ten years - you have very few other titles from this period (1995-2005). What were some of the things you had to turn down because of JAG?

The only significant conflict was when I was trying to write the first episodes of NCIS concurrently with JAG. That was just impossible for me. I just couldn't give the kind of attention the new show needed while maintaining my schedule on JAG. So after the first two episodes of NCIS, I resigned from that in order to focus on JAG. Any other work I had during those years I was able to do during the hiatus.

Intrada recently released music from JAG. Instead of giving an overview of the show, they released two episode scores. Why was "Cowboys and Cossacks" chosen to represent your whole body of work?

Doug Fake of Intrada explained to me early on that their customer base was really interested in complete, intact soundtracks as opposed to compilations. So the idea of releasing an overview recording was never a consideration. Ironically, though, he became interested in pairing the "Cowboys and Cossacks" score with Bruce's pilot after hearing examples of it while helping me prepare my own promotional sampler of music for the show. Thus it was his choice to put that score on the first JAG CD. And I think it is a fine choice, a good score, one that I am very proud of.

You'll have another soundtrack coming up - the score to Don McKay will be released by Lakeshore Records. What could you tell us about this work?

That soundtrack is out now and is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon. Don McKay was great fun for me. It's such a wild story, so unpredictable and absurd on the one hand and a gripping mystery on the other. To find a tone that suited the story and work to allow the music to kind of unfurl as the hints in the story do was a lot of fun and a great challenge. Working with Jake Goldberger, the writer director, was extremely rewarding. I think though he felt a bit unsure about his ability to communicate musically, he has great instincts for music and was an easy collaborator. This was a refreshing change for me in so many ways. The score features piano, acoustic bass, vibraphone, multiple synthetic sounds, all played as samples by me in my studio. To that I added live performances of cello, multiple guitars and such and a bit of ethnic woodwinds.

Finally, what's up next in your schedule?

I just completed the score to a pilot for a new television series and am waiting to hear on several projects. And so the life of the freelance composer goes...