AARON ZIGMAN: Soaking Up Landscapes

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s midnight on the old Fox back lots in Hollywood, and composer Aaron Zigman is making small sonic repairs to the recording of a score. He takes a momentary break and sits down at the grand piano in the studio. Suddenly, the main melodic theme of his next score-for the film Bridge To Terabithia-has emerged. It’s the way he often works, connecting with a tune, a melodic motif that carries him into the heart of score. Terabithia is part fantasy, part reality, but that line where the surreal meets the real is often a sketchy one in Hollywood-especially at midnight.It’s midnight on the old Fox back lots in Hollywood, and composer Aaron Zigman is making small sonic repairs to the recording of a score. He takes a momentary break and sits down at the grand piano in the studio. Suddenly, the main melodic theme of his next score-for the film Bridge To Terabithia-has emerged. It’s the way he often works, connecting with a tune, a melodic motif that carries him into the heart of score. Terabithia is part fantasy, part reality, but that line where the surreal meets the real is often a sketchy one in Hollywood-especially at midnight. “I always write the main theme first…what the movie is,” he says over the phone from Seattle, where he is recording the score for yet another new movie (the man is busy). “And I thought of three elements-children playing, motion and wind. So I played this little rhythmic, left-hand figure in 6/8, and the melody came instantly.”

It’s not an unusual occurrence for the composer, who has scored a vast array of films, such as Pride, Alpha Dog, The Notebook, Flicka and Akeelah and the Bee. Writing a score for him commences not with over-thinking a concept, but with improvisation. “It always starts at a piano,” he says. “I play a few chords and something happens. And that becomes a structure that I can build on.”

A self-declared “old school dude,” Zigman says he does everything on acoustic piano, preferring its sonorities to that of a synthesizer. “I use piano for everything. I write, orchestrate…all on piano. If I didn’t have to do a mock-up for the director, I would just be going from the piano to the score.” 

It’s an emotional process, he says, this science of creating music to underscore the moving image. “First I write how I feel inside my body, what  the movie is saying to me…then I start investigating who the individual characters are.” Often the process begins with the composition of an overture, a suite of unified themes. And from that garden many flowers can blossom. “Often I’ll cull melodies from these overtures,” Zigman notes. “I’ll find a theme that fits another character. I did that on Flicka, on The Notebook and on Bridge To Terabithia.

Sometimes before scoring a film, he will read the script and then actually travel to the location of the movie to connect with the underlying emotion of the film. As his job is to provide a musical context of emotion, he knows he has to experience it himself to do the job right. For The Notebook, since he had the fortuitous occasion to get going on the film early in the process-not always the case-he went with the director, while he was scouting locations in South Carolina, to get a feel for the land. Similarly, for Flicka he went first to Sheridan, Wy. “Movies often have a lot to do with landscapes and beauty,” he says. “So even before I write a note of music, I’ll go to that area and get it in my blood. Sometimes I won’t even know how I’ve been affected, but by a kind of osmosis, some music will come out.”

Though he’s now a veteran of scoring, Zigman started out in the business as a songwriter, producer and arranger; he’s worked with Christina Aguilera, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle and others. A classically-trained pianist, he’s written several symphonic pieces, and his orchestral eloquence led him to orchestrate scores for other film composers (many of whom never do their own orchestrations, unlike Zigman). He orchestrated Mulan, Pocahontas, The Birdcage and more. Those gigs led him to write his own scores, which he’s done ever since. His first scoring opportunity arrived when Nick Cassavetes invited him to do musical sketches for the film John Q., starring Denzel Washington. Zigman, knowing when to open the door when opportunity knocks, wrote an elaborate six-minute overture which he recorded, as a demo, with a 55-piece orchestra. The director was impressed, and Zigman has been a steadily employed film composer ever since.

But he also will write an occasional song; for Pride, he wrote “Dare To Dream” with r&b star John Legend. Unlike other film scorers who give a melody to an artist to take away and write lyrics for, Zigman and Legend worked in tandem, on both words and music, to create this song. “His singing is amazing,” Zigman says. “I really got a great performance out of him.” Songwriting for him and composing a score are not as dissimilar as some might assume. “One thing I learned from writing songs is how to write a tune, a hook. And in my scores, I’m a thematic writer. I pride myself on my ability to write melody-to be a tunesmith. Morricone was a tunesmith. So was Raksin.”

Asked how one learns to be a good scorer, Zigman offers, “You can’t learn it; it’s innate. You have to translate visuals into music. When I write music, I see colors.” Having arranging chops made his transition to film composer an easy one. “When you arrange, you are building music around the singer. In a film, the image is the singer. The movie is like Aretha Franklin, and I’m the arranger, creating the music underneath it.” He feels the orchestra is the best medium for movie music, but is known to often weave interesting textures and unusual instruments into his scores; to capture the genuine essence of the past for The Notebook, for example, he not only used vintage instruments, but also vintage recording gear to get the sound right.

Upcoming projects are diverse and profuse, including 10th and Wolf, starring Dennis Hopper, and Martian Child, starring John and Joan Cusack. “I love writing film music,” he says. “It’s so challenging and so diverse. I’m a lucky guy to be able to do what I love to do.”


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