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Notes From The Deadline

TV Music From The Inside
By Paul Farrer

No matter how ridiculous a line may be, it's the media composer's role to toe it — even if the fate of the world is at stake.

"Wait... that's not a fleet of bombers at all. It's the Executive Producer's ego!”"Wait... that's not a fleet of bombers at all. It's the Executive Producer's ego!”

On 26th September 1983, with Cold War tensions at their height, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was duty officer of the Soviet Early Warning Command Centre in a bunker south of Moscow. Shortly after midnight, his instruments suddenly indicated that the satellite Cosmos 1382, in elliptical orbit over the Arctic Circle, had detected that five intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from the northern United States. Protocol dictated that Petrov's immediate reaction to this situation should be to contact Soviet High Command, giving them a few minutes to get out of bed, put on their slippers, answer the phone and then decide whether or not to launch a full-scale nuclear counterstrike as the inevitable start of World War III.

However, Petrov was a pragmatic fellow, and figured that only a fool would start the apocalypse with just five nukes. So he did what any level-headed man would do. He ignored it. The whole situation, it later turned out, was caused by sunlight reflected off some high-altitude cloud formations, which confused the satellites. Seriously. The moment has since been described by the CIA as "the single most dangerous incident of the 1980s”. While Petrov maintains that he was neither punished nor rewarded for his humanity-saving act of disobeying direct orders, one thing is certain: he would have made a crap TV composer.

Trust Me, I'm A Composer

For the media composer, being obedient is a bit like pretending you go to church lots and lots while trying to get elected in America. Of course, you don't have to do it, but you won't last long if you don't. I was speaking to an established Hollywood film composer recently who told me he'd had an entire recorded soundtrack score of his binned after a new distributor agreed to show the completed movie only if he could make some 11th-hour 'tweaks'. Not the director, producer, or studio executives: the man who owns the cinema chain.

It's sobering to think that there are literally no levels of the industry where we can look forward to having our artistic opinions respected to the extent that our clients trust us in the same way they trust, for example, their hairdresser. And, in a strange way, it relieves us of any objective connection or criticism of our work, because if we live with the knowledge that at any moment all our lovingly crafted music might have to be painted pink and reworked to fit over a newly envisaged sequence involving a snowboarding animated hippo, we seem less likely to care about it in the first place. This is the reason why most media composers have such a detached and slightly suspicious view of their own work, and why the greatest compliment we can receive is not personal satisfaction at a job well done, or our own creative boundaries pushed and explored, but an email from the producer saying "We played the finished programme to the execs and they didn't mention the music at all.”

Sneaking something under the radar of the top brass without triggering any end-of-the-world scenarios is a good feeling. But while the threat of career nuclear winter is ever-present, standing up for yourself is, just occasionally, even better. Ask Lieutenant Colonel Petrov.    

Published February 2012