Cliff Martinez, the man behind the eerie, pulsing synth sounds of Cinemax’s The Knick, sat down with us to talk about how he got started composing for film, working with Steven Soderbergh, and using AEON in The Knick:
How did you end up composing for films?
I was a rock-and-roll drummer for many years. I performed and recorded with The Weirdos, The Dickies, Lydia Lunch, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and my all-time favorite musical hero, Captain Beefheart. I became fascinated with music technology in the late 80’s and in part, that is what led me out of rock-and-roll and into film scoring.
My first scoring job was an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse for CBS and I remember thinking how writing to picture created unique musical structures and allowed for more originality and diversity than the music I was hearing in clubs and on the radio.
I got into scoring films via a chance introduction to Steven Soderbergh who recently admitted that he hired me for Sex, Lies, And Videotape because “Cliff was the only composer I knew.” This supports my theory on how to achieve success in show business: stand at the slot machine long enough and eventually you’ll hit a jackpot.
We’d love to hear a little bit about your creative process. How do you usually get started on a piece?
The process usually starts with watching the movie. The next step is laying on the couch and staring at the ceiling for a while. Then I talk to the director and ask a lot of questions. Eventually, I get around to sitting down in front of the keyboard and trying to make myself useful. Typically, I’ll sketch out a couple of terrible ideas before I write anything that’s any good. A little goes a long way in film music, particularly with my style. So once a couple decent ideas appear, it becomes more a process of developing and refining them than of constantly having to come up with something new for every scene. The director is typically the person that I interact and look to for feedback and direction.
Do you ever encounter writers’ block; what’s your remedy to cure it?
I think that staying fresh and inspired is always the biggest challenge that I face. The blank page is something we all experience at the beginning of a project. I don’t have a good answer except I know that you have to strike a balance between the micro view or “getting in the zone,” which requires putting in enough hours to plant the basic music problems into your subconscious…and the macro view which requires stepping away from the keyboard long enough to see the big picture. You can’t look at the Empire State Building with your nose up against it. Beyond that, I just keep my head down and feet moving. I drink as much coffee as possible and whatever other stimulants I can get my hands on until lightning strikes.
We loved hearing AEON in your score for The Knick. What was it like scoring a period piece set in 1900 with some of the more modern synth sounds you used. How did AEON fit into that?
The idea to have a contemporary electronic score for a period drama came from director Steven Soderbergh. It seemed jarring at first but after hearing the first couple episodes, your ear seems to just accept it as the sound of the series. As for AEON, I often find a way to shoehorn whatever sounds, software or instruments I happen to be interested in at the moment into my current project. I just thought AEON was cool and it seemed to fit.
How did you go about choosing the timbres and sounds for The Knick? How did AEON complement some of your other choices for sound sources?
I’m pretty much a preset kind of guy. First, I sniff around for an existing sound that feels appropriate, then I do some subtle tweaking of the basic preset and/or apply real time control to have the sound evolve throughout the piece. I find that keeping the sound moving helps to prevent things from sounding too laptop-y.
For The Knick, I usually started with the idea that I would score an entire scene with only one motif/sound/patch. When that didn’t cut it, I would slow the motif by half, pitch it down an octave and add it to the piece as a bass element. Then I would try to squeeze as much expression out of the controllers and only when and if that still didn’t complete the piece…I would add a new element.
There are a number of pieces in the show that are almost exclusively AEON. It had enough knobs to twist that I could get pretty far into my “one thing” idea before I would have to resort to adding additional elements.
Tell us a little bit about your studio setup (DAW/Hardware systems); do you have a favorite piece of gear (or plugin)?
I have a 12 core Mac Pro, three 20” monitors, Genelec 1031A speakers and various keyboard controllers. My main DAW is Live and most of my music making artillery is software based. My favorite piece of gear is quickly becoming the iPad. I’m determined to write more music laying on the couch and only moving my index finger.
If you could snap your fingers and have any virtual instrument custom-tailored for you, what would it be?
A virtual Baschet Cristal would be nice. There are a couple out there already and I’ve tried to create a sampled version myself, but the real thing is a very expressive instrument that is difficult to capture in software. Much like the violin, guitar and voice, there are some instruments that just sound better when played by humans.
Check out Cliff’s full list of credits and upcoming projects at: http://cliff-martinez.com/