Silas Hite talks about composing for art museums

March 31, 2014
Silas Hite
Silas Hite
Lilly McElroy

Composer Silas Hite is by no means a household name, though he's worked on many of the biggest films over the last few years — like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs — and the television show Eureka, along with video games and commercials (the Apple ads with John Hodgman as "PC" and Justin Long as "Mac"). Hite's music played a major role in The Record Breaker, a Vimeo Top 10 Video of 2013.

Some of Hite's latest work taps into his art school experience, with musical creations designed for work shown at the Whitney Biennial and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I spoke with Hite not only about this new work, but about how he got started, his connections to Devo, and his transition from working as part of a team to taking charge of his own creations.

In the video on your website you talk about how your uncle kind of helped you get started because he already had a place for doing music and other production.

Yeah. He's been an established composer for many years and he had a studio. I was able to start there as an intern doing things that interns do — organize stuff, make coffee, and those sorts of things — and slowly I was able to write some music for commercials, television, video games, and film, and worked my way up from intern to full composer. I really had to prove myself. It wasn't just a given because I was family, but he was nice enough to give me that opportunity and I learned quite a bit from him and my other uncle who actually worked in the studio as well.

Did you always know you wanted to be a composer?

I think from a young age, yes. At least a musician...maybe composer came a bit later. My whole family is so musical. My uncles [Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh], you know, they were in Devo and I grew up listening to that. So that was a huge influence on me as a child. Also my father plays a number of instruments — not professionally, but he's quite good — and my mom would pick up instruments now and then, and my grandmother played piano, so it's a very musical family.

I started studying jazz drums when I was eleven. I grew up in the middle of a national forest, a very small town, about 100 people, and as luck would have it there was this jazz drummer — an older gentleman named Mel Zelnick, who played with Benny Goodman among others — who lived in the middle of nowhere, not even a town, and I started taking lessons with him.

I picked up other instruments on my own and learned a little bit from my dad, and then as I got into college I studied drums and percussion as well as composition, experimental composition, and art. At that point, when you're in college, you have to play a lot of other people's music, right? You're learning pieces, and I really didn't enjoy that much and I think that's when I realized I really wanted to write music on my own because I heard all these ideas in my head and I wanted to get them out. I just wasn't that interested in performing other people's music.

When you were taught, was there a particular process your teacher took? I know some drummers get one piece and once they can play that like an entire drum set they get another piece and that's a way of teaching to not need an entire drum set to be a drummer.

I think that is fairly common, but I also think it's a good way to turn off a child: just stick them with a snare drum if they want to play a drum set. A kid may not have the discipline or attention span for that to work, but a lot of teachers have done that. My teacher definitely started me with drum rudiments — snare rudiments. Probably I started trying to play a simple jazz pattern on the ride cymbal, use my left foot for the hi-hat and fill in from there.

He definitely wanted me to be a jazz player, and as a kid I wasn't that into jazz, but I am so glad that I learned that stuff because I think it gave me a great feel for different styles of swinging. I feel like even though I wanted to be more of a rock drummer — later I've incorporated different Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, New Orleans, different styles — I feel like that jazz foundation really helped my time and my feel immensely.

That's some nice context for this newest work. You were provided at a young age with insight into what music can do. You can really bring in all these different players that allow you to mix them in a way that's not just a mess.

Yeah, and I was always very interested in different styles and genres and what made them tick — what sounds were used and what rhythms, and the productions' styles — and I think that's why I became a composer, because I wanted to explore those different things and not just be locked into one genre or something like that. I felt like composing was the best way to explore all those things or the alternative to have 50 different bands with 50 different styles.

Would you consider your center to be percussion, as far as being a composer?

It's hard to say. It's a huge cornerstone for me, but it really just depends on what's needed. I play guitar, I play bass, I play keyboards, accordion, and some mandolin, and I'm constantly picking up new instruments and taking lessons. I just finished a course on harmonica and I bought a vintage Gibson lap steel and I'm going to be taking lessons on that. I'm pretty excited. I want to use that for some background textures.

I always pick up new instruments. I may not master them, but I'll study them long enough so that either (a) I can incorporate them into scores, or (b) I'll have enough understanding of it so that if I hire a player who can play better than me, at least I can have an intelligent conversation about what I'm asking them to do. When I'm writing parts, I will know what is realistic and what is not.

It's like being a kid, when everything is fascinating because you don't understand it. Sometimes study can almost destroy what was so fascinating if it's too drilled into you.

Exactly. You totally hit that on the head. I'll study an instrument or even a particular style on an instrument for a while and I don't beat myself up about it — that I have to practice this for two hours a day or three hours a day — because I've already made it as a musician, so for me it's more of a creative exercise and learning that is pleasurable. For example, I studied boogie woogie piano for maybe a year and a half. I went to the teacher and said I play piano, okay, I play every day for a living, but what interests me is this old rock-and-roll-style boogie woogie, early country kind of piano. That's what I wanted to study, and I did that for a while and then I moved on. Expressing yourself on a new instrument is something I find to be one of the most fertile creative explorations that I can take part in.

It also helps you understand that something like boogie woogie shouldn't be played on a grand piano.

Absolutely, and the other thing I find interesting is that while I was studying boogie woogie, I was scoring a film. I remember taking some of the left hand bass lines I had learned and wrote pizzicato string parts based on that for a piece of score that needed to be kind of a wacky, fun piece of music. So it fit and applied. I like taking rhythms or melodies and subverting them.

Sometimes not being expertly skilled at something can be a benefit.

I agree.

Those are those accidents of chance and happenstance that you latch onto because you couldn't manufacture it, you couldn't replicate it; it exists and you're lucky you captured it.

I use a lot of strange, vintage instruments that I collect and some of them I don't know how to play "correctly," but the sounds that you can coax out of them are so interesting and if you're not afraid to just experiment a lot of times it can be really rewarding — not only for myself, but for the listener and the project.

It harks back to that childhood exploration. You're not cutting off experimenting with the instrument and seeing what it wants to tell you.


Am I right in assuming that a lot of your early credits came from working in your uncle's studio before you fully transitioned to your own personal studio?

The way IMDb allows you to post can be fairly inaccurate, but a lot of the stuff I did at Mutato (Muzika) was on a team and there were so many projects coming through the doors that a team was needed. It was fantastic. I worked with some awesome composers there. I was writing cues and so was Mark and other people there, and a lot of times we would collaborate and play on each other's tracks and things like that — which is quite fun, because everybody played different instruments and things like that. Everyone has their own strong suits. Now I'm freelance; it's been about four years, and I'm pretty much the only composer. So, what I'm doing now is pretty much the same thing only I'm not working as part of a larger team or splitting projects so much. I'm just on my own here. I do score commercials sometimes with another composer named Ben Decter. We started a commercial company together called 3Pop Music. I collaborate with him sometimes, but for the most part it's just me and sometimes I bring in players.

When you get a project, do you kind of tinker and record everything or do you hold off recording until you know what you want to do?

It depends on the project and the time frame. But, let's say a film...a lot of times I'll record as much as I can. The things I'd save to the end would be the drum set. If I know I'm going to hire an upright bassist or string player, I'll program it in first with really good samples to give an idea of what it will sound like, and once that's approved I'll hire the players to come in and record. But, for the most part I try to write stuff where I'm playing or the samples are good enough that you would never know that it wasn't a real person. Unfortunately, music budgets are shrinking and have been shrinking for years, so the more that I can play on it I'm basically passing the savings on to a director — and to myself, because you only have so much of a budget for live players most of the time.

Do you tend to reserve pulling in players for when it's most required?

Yes. For example, I just did a short film, and the piece of music was just me playing brush drums in a jazzy style with an upright bass. In that case the bass was very exposed in the mix and it definitely needed to be a human. In places like that you definitely want to have a human in there. As much as possible I try to have real players on everything because nothing replaces that human touch.

I think that's becoming a new skill set, maintaining that human element with so much electronic interface and intervention.

Absolutely. You'll hear that a lot in the vocal samples that people choose for electronic music — you'll hear maybe the singer bending a note in a way that really only sounds authentic when a person does it and they'll highlight that thing, that imperfection, or a vocal sample that has a person talking who has a particular strange inflection that you just couldn't program in. I think the same thing applies to rock 'n' roll, garage, or even punk rock. It's not about the virtuosity, but the human. Maybe the person playing it is not technically amazing, but it's just the human coming through, the humanness, the humanity coming through.

Do you do a lot of work with electronic music? This recent work, Discussion Questions, with Jonn has a certain connection and the feel of house music. Is that built on previous experience or was it just the product of working with him on that and being the right direction for the project?

We discussed what he was trying to achieve with this project and basically it was a cathartic dance party at the end, so I thought that modern-sounding dance music was the way to achieve that. There's a lot of catharsis in dance music, with the giant build-ups and drops. I've written a lot of stuff like that; most of the time it's for television. TV uses a lot of EDM, dubstep, and hip-hop. I write a lot of stuff like that for TV in particular. Sometimes for commercials and once in a while for more like background music in movies, not like background music as in score, but if it needs to sound like a song is being played.

I also do a lot of songwriting and producing for people — and remixes — so I try to stay current with the sounds, the styles, in those genres because people want to sound fresh.

Do you find the way you work with those kinds of productions and stylings are different than when you work with instruments in a more organic fashion? Or, are they pretty similar for you?

I think it's pretty similar, actually. With the technology part, I think it's more about exploring with different synths and finding sounds that really grab my ear and gives me some inspiration. It's about finding that sound. It's the same thing playing a mandolin or ukulele: it's about finding something that sends me running. I guess a lot of times with the electronic music it's more about the sound quality, finding an interesting sound, and usually if I'm playing a traditional instrument — say a mandolin — it's not about that, and more about I'll play a chord or some melodies until something jumps out at me. That said, any instrument and any style it really just boils down to put my hands on an instrument and experimenting with it until something strikes.

How did you get hooked up with Jonn Herschend?

He saw a film I scored called The Invention of Dr. Nakamats. Jonn, myself and the director Kaspar Astrup Schroder were in San Francisco for the San Francisco International Film Festival — this was a few years back, and Jonn and Kaspar were on a panel together and I was just in the audience. I came up to meet Kaspar, see the movie, that sort of thing. Kaspar and Jonn became friends, Jonn saw the movie, and then a few years later he needed a composer, thought of me and reached out to Kaspar. I believe that's what happened.

Was that for Stories of the Evacuation?

Yes, it was — and since then Jonn and I have worked on a couple projects together. He also runs The Thing Quarterly. It's really cool. He teams up with different artists and they create an object. So, the way it works is people buy a subscription to The Thing Quarterly, Jonn teams up with an artist and the artist creates a unique thing and then that thing gets shipped out to the subscribers or you can buy one thing. So, I did some sound design for them and then Jonn got the Whitney Biennial and he asked if I would collaborate with him. So, I said yes. It's been a great collaboration and I really enjoy working with him and I feel like we have a lot more coming up — we work really well together.

Can you talk about working with him? How did Stories work?

He told me what he wanted to achieve at the different moments and where he thought music would be appropriate, but he didn't really give me a whole lot of direction in terms of music direction, which was kind of great. He left it pretty open and I don't even think he had temp music, if I remember correctly. He just said, "Hey, I like what you do, go for it. Here's where I think music should go, you try it, if you hear other places try it too."

So I scored where I felt it was appropriate and then scored the places he asked me to and just created a palette that I thought was fitting and a mood that I thought was fitting — really drawing on the emptiness of the spaces and the beauty of the big open shots and the sort of emptiness that is being described and the emotions they are going through as these people are leaving this space. There's a bit of apprehension about the whole move and then of course it switches and becomes something completely different by the end and so there is that story as well. The first thing I scored was the trailer and he really liked the palette of instruments — marimba, upright bass. I used vibraphone, but then rolled off the attack so there was more just tones.

Is that what that is? Throughout there are these particular sounds I was trying to identify because I thought I knew what they were, but the whole sound isn't there.

Yeah, there's that, and also a Mellotron sample of a guitar that's being reversed. I like to use some sounds when I can that don't completely grab the viewer's attention, but in the back of their mind you want them wondering what it is to make it a more interesting listening experience.

Jonn liked that musical palette for the trailer, so I just ran with that for the film and it fit really well. I also did some things with the reverb where I made the instruments sound further away so you can hear the space around the instrument. I gave them a real spacial identity, so to speak, more so than I probably would with other scores and projects because there are a lot of shots of empty spaces and there is that feeling I was trying to capture in the score as well.

It gives the feeling like the film is haunted.

Yeah, it is kind of a haunted movie.

You almost feel like you're watching ghosts, instead of real people, like they are all just hanging about because they don't know what else to do.

That's a good way to put it.

Was everything you scored for Stories done to picture [specifically crafted to match existing sequences], or did you do stuff without?

Yeah. Although, when it was done I didn't anticipate it. The music happened over a week or so, very quickly. He just loved everything immediately. We tweaked a couple things and tried timing things differently, like entrances and exits for the music, but it all happened so quickly and was over really fast and I actually got the music mastered and was listening to it and was really happy with it as a little collection. I ended up putting it out on iTunes. But, I've actually toyed with the idea of doing an expanded scored and just writing in that style to make a longer album because it's only ten minutes worth of music — and as a matter of fact there might be one or two tracks that are on the album, but didn't make it into the movie. You know he liked them, but didn't think the scenes needed music. But, I love that palette and want to keep playing with it. So, we'll see.

It's a very cool palette and it has that feeling that you recognize, but you don't. It has enough of these connective fibers to make you feel like you've heard it before, but in a way that reaffirms that you haven't because it operates differently. So, you get this emotional attachment to the work right away, but then it's constantly shifting your attachment.

I'm glad to hear you say that. It's something I deliberately do with my music. I want to hit close enough to home so people will be attracted to it, but be fresh so you don't just think you've heard it before. I think there's a sweet spot there that I definitely aim for.

Do you think a lot of that is pulled from your work in pop music where a lot of that is what you are trying to do — get people attached right from the beginning and then shift it?

I think so. You could say that.

So Stories happened very quickly, how did Discussion happen? Was that a similar process, or was that a bit more developed?

It was pretty quick. He got me the first cut to see on a Monday and said he was going to be in L.A. on Friday and asked to meet and talk about it, not knowing if I would have anything by then. So, I said yeah sure and I actually had a lot of stuff going on, but I was very excited about the project and ended up scoring the entire project, front to back, so when he showed up he was surprised and happy — thrilled — so we sat and talked about it, what he wanted to achieve.

When we discussed this piece it was very much like discussing a piece of art rather than a traditional film in terms of what he's trying to portray and the message, what he's trying to get across, and how the music can portray that and how the visuals can portray that. It reminded me of when I went to art school and you critique art for its effectiveness, and the best way to get this message across. So, we talked about different things we could do with the music and what's the best way to deliver the message. He left and I ended up trying some different directions, and we played with it a couple ways before we settled on this final incarnation. But, it was very much like a conversation you would have about a piece of art rather than a Hollywood film. Obviously, it's not a Hollywood film, but I can really relate to Jonn on that level; having [my] art background, I feel like we're a good match because we can have those conversations and critiques more so than he might be able to have with a traditional composer. A large part of this was setting the viewer up for one thing and then delivering another. So, it was all about that.

How early did you come upon that really low bass for the beginning? When I first listened to it I thought there was something wrong with my headphones.

Perfect. That was one of [Jonn's] first suggestions; that he wanted the music to sneak in and sound like it was coming from another room, annoyingly. We're thinking of it primarily being viewed in a gallery so he wanted it to sound like someone next door had just turned on a stereo and he wanted the viewer to be annoyed and try to ignore it until it builds and they realize it's the piece — and part commentary on the story as well. Again, Jonn playing with the viewer's expectations. So, basically I was playing with rolling off to find sounds that worked when you roll off the high end. Some sound great in full, but then don't work when you do that, so I played around to find what would.

Did you start at the end and work backwards? Or, did you build from the low end up?

I think I did work backwards, actually.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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