Catching up with Judith Gruber Stitzer, whose music is as varied and exciting as the many animated and live-action films and TV productions she's created soundtracks for.
Continuing with the news and views of indie artists, I caught up with music composer and soundtrack artist Judith Gruber Stitzer at the Ottawa festival last fall. We continued by email over the past few months...
By way of introduction, for those who have yet to enjoy the delightful company of Judith Gruber Stitzer, she is an award winning, Emmy nominee composer and sountrack designer who specializes in bringing the world of sound to animation and live action film.
Most notable of her productions are the National Film Board of Canada's Palme d'Or winner and Oscar nominee When the Day Breaks. She also scored the Oscar nominee Wild Life, and the Emmy nominee Flawed among her more than 80 films and TV productions to date.
Thank you for making the time Judith, let's start with a quick look at your musical roots.
My mother and father enjoyed singing around the house. My brother was eleven years older than me and had a doo-wop singing group that practiced in our house. Listening to them sing was my first lesson in harmony! Then when I was in sixth grade, I found out that you could get out of Spanish class if you could play La Bamba on the guitar and sing the song for other classes. My parents bought me a guitar and I quickly learned the 3 chords of La Bamba and never did become fluent in Spanish.
As a child, I’d taken 3 years of piano lessons which helped to nurture my love of playing music. While on my way to earning a B.A. in English Education in New Jersey, I picked up a mandolin in a thrift store and started jamming at parties. I loved it! After graduating from college, I realized that I didn’t want to teach English and work within a school system. Soon after graduation, I had the chance to live in Alabama for a year and while there took a few violin lessons. It wasn’t until I landed in Montreal that a career in music seemed possible.
It all came together for me one afternoon at a café in Montreal. I was playing the mandolin with someone who was noodling around on the café’s piano. The pianist said, "Hey, we have a little band that could use some mandolin. Would you like to give it a try?" I had barely arrived in Montreal and didn’t speak French when suddenly I found myself accompanying a wonderful Quebecois poet / singer, Marie Savard. I spent 3 years doing shows with Marie and her band, ‘La Jaserie’. It was a crash course in French and was a great lesson in the art of accompanying a singer.
Perfect for a twenty-something fresh from Alabama!
Exactly! After playing with the band ‘La Jaserie’, which consisted of 2 guitars, mandolin and fiddle, an eclectic experimental band named ‘Wondeur Brass’ asked me to play the electric bass with them. Looking back on it, I think their ulterior motive was their need for a van to haul the band’s equipment around because I had never played the bass, nor did I have one, but I did have a Volkswagen van.
Wondeur Brass featured nine musicians, mostly brass players with a rhythm section. A few of the band members composed for the group so I started composing, too. My 6 years with Wondeur taught me a lot about arranging.
Is it a natural progression to go from arranging to composing?
I remember trying to compose when I lived in Alabama but I had no idea how to do it. I was comfortable improvising while playing with other musicians but didn’t compose tunes. Soon after I arrived in Montreal a film director asked me to play an Eric Satie piano piece for a short documentary. While warming up on the piano, I played some fragments of one of my half baked improvisations and he said, "Oh, I like that. I'll give you fifty dollars if I can use that in my film." I thought, “Wow! This is great.” and that’s when the first glimmer of film composing occurred to me. I learned a lot about composing and arranging when playing with Wondeur Brass. I also began to listen to music differently, as I tried to understand a tune’s structure.
But what really launched my career as a film composer was one of those moments of pure chance. I was standing in line for a Laurie Anderson concert in Montreal and was introduced to Bonnie Klein, a seminal documentary filmmaker at the National Film Board of Canada. She invited me to go to the NFB to meet some directors and pass around my music demo. It was a meeting that launched my career as a film composer.
I got my first job scoring three half hour documentaries, and with that contract I bought a house!!!
A whole house?!
I was lucky because real estate prices in Montreal were very deflated at the time. I worked in the NFB documentary studios for a couple of years and learned the craft of film composing as I went along. After a few more years scoring documentaries, the legendary American director Robert Altman was in Montreal and most remarkably, he hired me to score two made for TV films. This was quickly followed by the great NFB animator Caroline Leaf asking me to score Two Sisters, which was followed by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis hiring me to compose the music for When the Day Breaks. It was a wonderful introduction into the world of animation.
My path to film composing has been unconventional. For sure had I gone to music school it would have helped me tremendously, but I also know that my B.A. in English and love of literature has helped me in terms of understanding the role that film music plays in underscoring character development and the dramatic arc of a film.
I love composing for animation because it most closely resembles improvising or playing music with another musician. Independent animation is often times done by one person and it is an intimate and solitary artistic journey. When an animator invites me into their imaginary world, the back and forthing between us feels much like making music with someone whose instrument is simply in a different art form.
Your music is beautiful but it isn't music alone that makes your work so terrific. Tell me about how you got into playing with sound fx.
Did you see Alex Boya’s NFB animated short Turbine? It played at the OAIF festival in 2018. The central story of ‘Turbine’ is that of an unlikely love story between two people caught within a surreal world. When I was asked to score the film and saw it the first time, I immediately thought of a tango. I knew that this easily recognizable musical form would help us suspend our disbelief as we watched this impossible love story unfold. The tango immediately created a kind of passionate tension between the two main characters in the film because of the association that this musical form evokes. This type of scoring creates a kind of musical shorthand for the story.
But back to your questions, when I’m hired to create both the music and sound design for an animated short, it gives me great liberty to create a unique soundscape.
The NFB encouraged me to take on the role of sound designer on short animated films that I was hired to score because it sometimes makes sense to have one creative vision behind the entire invented soundscape. I like to blur the line between music and sound design. I have a large collection of eclectic sampled sounds that I’m always using in my soundtracks either musically or as sound fx. I often use musical instruments to create sound fx.
I love rhythm and using found percussion for sound design and music. Janet Perlman's film Bully Dance is a 7 minute all percussion track. She specifically asked me to score her film only using drums. It was a great creative challenge. I wound up artificially changing the pitch of some drums to get more tonal variety and I sneaked in some mallet instruments so that I could have some melody.
Tell us about your creative process and how you wrap your creativity around that of the director/animator.
My first impulse when scoring a film is to think, "Okay, what would we expect to hear as music to accompany this type of story and how can I give it a half twist?” When I first started scoring films I didn’t use a click track which created a varying uneven tempo. I find that breaking a tempo or musical meter causes the viewer to unconsciously pay more attention to the film because when music is predictable it becomes like audio wallpaper. Film music always walks a fine line of needing to not draw attention to itself and away from the film and yet to also give voice to the soul of the film. Some of what I consider to be my best music cues rarely make it to my demo reel because the music sounds incomplete without the cadence of the dialog and sound fx.
When scoring a film, I’m always aware of the third narrative line that the film and music create together, that is I try not to score what is on screen but rather the intention of the scene. This is really important. A film composer has to understand that which is not spoken in a film. We are giving voice to the emotion and that emotion can be very subtle. We have to get it right which isn’t always easy.
In 'Turbine' it’s the music that’s clueing us to the relationship between the two people.
Yes, and that was a very conscious decision. I wanted to humanize these characters who were very mechanical. Film scoring involves a lot more than musical ability. I think a lot about the film’s structure, pacing, thematic development and intention. Sometimes I’ll score just to illicit an emotional reaction that I myself want to feel when I'm watching a scene. Or I’ll score to change our perception of how quickly or slowly a scene is playing. These are almost directorial decisions. I've worked with directors who understandably want to discuss everything because the music can so change their film. But I do my best work when I'm just left to my own devices, at least for the first pass, after which there’s a spring board for discussion with the director.
Some directors come with a strong expectation of what they want. How do you deal with that?
Temp music tracks have become quite popular with editors and animators. The music helps to impart a rhythm to the edit and also helps to get financing for the project.
And what if they fall in love with the temp track?
It's a big problem for film composers. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked to copy Philip Glass’s music for documentary scores. Sometimes I've been asked to mirror the cadence of the temp music because the film has been edited to it and the spirit of the music matches what the director has in mind for the scene.
It's my responsibility as film composer to understand what works about the temp music and to then impart that into my soundtrack within the musical palette that I’ve chosen. I always try to come up with a score that sounds original and touches on the basic theme of the film. I don’t always succeed but this is always my goal.
Give us an example...
For ‘When the Day Breaks’ directors Tilby and Forbis chose a temp music from a Quay Brothers' animated film that perfectly fit one of the scenes in their film. I composed two songs for the beginning and end of the film. I even knew what the end credit music was going to be but I left the middle section that had the great temp music for the very last moment in my composing schedule because I was so nervous about trying to replace it. Eventually I was able to step back, analyze why this particular piece of music worked so well and then dive into creating my own version within the musical landscape that I’d already established for the film.
The soundtrack is critical to communicating what the director wants from the film. You're certainly participating at a very deep level in how the viewer understands the film and makes meaning from it.
I always try to give voice to that which is not spoken on the screen, either visually or with dialogue. Independent animated films usually feel quite small compared to the animation that comes out of commercial studios. They often have a wonderful handmade quality that makes them feel palpably fragile. You can see the threads and the little crayon marks. Because of this, when scoring short animation, I usually create music for a small ensemble of musicians.
I'm not sure it's the best approach. I've heard some people say the NFB has a sound, and I suspect Norman Roger and I tend to react to these films similarly, to not overwhelm them with big arrangements. I've rarely done anything orchestral for these films though I did go to Prague to record an orchestra for a Bretislav Polar film. I also used a string orchestra for a Georges Schwizgebel film but these remain the exception.
It's funny when I played with Wonder Brass, I played electric guitar and bass and the music was quite dissonant. I love really rocking out and making raucous or hard, loud electronic music. For Nickelodeon, I scored an animated series called ‘Zevo 3’ and it was a combination of hip hop and histrionic orchestral electronic music. I loved doing it! Linda Simensky had recommended me to Liz Daro, the series producer. They hired me without knowing any of my NFB animation scores which was liberating in a way.
Sharon, I think I’ve done quite a bit of rambling but what can I say, film music is one of my favourite subjects!
Gruber Stitzer’s 2019 completed soundtracks:
‘Ottawa International Animation Festival 2019’, festival trailer, director Lizzy Hobbs
‘Anima Mundi Animation Festival 2019’, festival trailer, director Janet Perlman
‘Newspaper News’, short Swiss animation, director Sophie Laskar
‘Conviction’, feature independent Canadian documentary
‘Balakrishna’, short NFB animated doc, Aparna Kapur & Colin Mackenzie
‘Ice Breakers’ short NFB live action documentary
‘Have You Seen My Sister?’, short independent Canadian animation, Antonio Cerdas
Gruber Stitzer’s 2019 upcoming soundtracks:
‘One Minute Memoir’, international compilation of 1 minute films by an array of animation masters
’Two Shoes’, short French / short Dutch animation, director Paul Driessen
‘Kinshasa’, short Canadian animation, director Eleonore Goldberg
‘Darwin’s Journal’, short Swiss animation, director Georges Schwizgebel
Some of Gruber-Stitzer’s favourite short animated films:
‘The Big Snit’
‘When The Day Breaks’