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Mar 25, 2009

Emmy Award-winning composer Patricia Stotter takes FLYP through the art of fusing music and film.

By Tara Kyle

Imagine the scrolling titles at the beginning of Star Wars rolling by without John Williams’s epic orchestral theme. Picture the eponymous ship in Titanic sinking unaccompanied by James Horner’s Celtic dirge. Or, as presenters at the Academy Awards once suggested, envision the opening scene of Chariots of Fire with its runners racing across the beach in silence.
These scenarios exhibit the potential iconic impact of orchestral scores. “The score is absolutely critical,” says Deborah Shaffer, director of the Academy Award-winning short film, Witness to War. “It’s critical to setting a mood, creating a pace, engaging the audience and enhancing emotion.”
Composer Patricia Stotter, who has collaborated with Shaffer for 15 years, has made a life of bringing music to all forms of media. She cut her chops on soap operas, earning a Daytime Emmy Award in 1986 for her work on “Search for Tomorrow.”
These days, she leans toward productions that spotlight social issues by such programming companies as HBO and PBS.
For Stotter, creating a great score means adding an element that isn’t already conveyed in a film.
When selecting music, she says she aims for “what I think would make people feel harder, deeper, more mysteriously…I try to be counterintuitive with myself. First I try to be intuitive, and then I try to go the other way.”
She has matched what she calls “pretty and celestial” music with the harsh lives depicted in The Salt Harvesters of Ghana, paired symphonic jazz with the reading of slave narratives in HBO’s Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives and gone “big and noisy” for Shaffer’s documentary-in-progress, Journey to Freedom, about a pair of American Holocaust heroes.
The strengths of Stotter’s work include a sharp sense of timing and a willingness to mix elements of pop music with more avant-garde rhythms, says Dutch artist Elise Tak, who collaborated with Stotter on the short Suicide Notes.
“She’s fantastically creative,” remarks Shaffer. “I say she shouldn’t make things look so easy.”
For Ohio-born Stotter, who is the daughter of an actress, the process of producing a score comes long after the script is written and the actors, set designers and cameramen have all gone home.
The first step is during the post-production phase, when she sits with a director to watch a rough cut. “I love every step of collaboration. Even the really difficult, awful parts, I find exciting and interesting,” she says.
But that period of give and take is brief. Most of the work done by composers is completed on their own, writing and piecing together music that they then take back to the director for review.
In recent years, the switch from analog and MIDI formats to digital technology has significantly simplified the process. “Humming things to directors—humming polyphonic things—unless you are in some altered state, is impossible,” Stotter says. “Now, of course, I can just email the file.”
For example, while working on the score for Journey to Freedom, Shaffer remembers watching the rough cut with Stotter. During the viewing, Shaffer used words like “bittersweet” and “moody” to explain her impressions, while emphasizing that she wanted to avoid the cliché of using Eastern European Jewish music.
“It’s very vague. That’s part of the difficulty—it’s hard to put music into words,” says Shaffer.
A common mistake in the film industry is to try to make the score do too much in order to compensate for other flaws in a project. Take a climatic kiss scene in any cut-rate romantic comedy: swelling music is often used to force the mood and cover up for bad writing or a lack of chemistry between the leads.
“The bottom line in any work is that you have to be truthful with the audience,” says Shaffer, emphasizing the importance of music that works in harmony with other components. “If people feel manipulated, you lose them.”
For Stotter, the most frustrating part of the job is when she has to act as a doctor, mending weaknesses in a film. She also has a hard time working with directors who can’t articulate what they want.
“When you have the opportunity not to be fixing bad cuts, making transitions work and all that, you get to put something there that wasn’t there before. Sad scenes shouldn’t be using sad music, if you are lucky.”

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