In a celebration of SFCM’s 2018–19 academic year theme, “Sound and Image,” members of the Conservatory community converged at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco on Monday, April 29 for an evening of demonstration and discussion with lauded film composer Harry Gregson-Williams, sponsored by Harry Winston and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The occasion, in support of student scholarships, was part fundraiser, part educational journey, giving the opportunity for students, alumni, and supporters to participate in an evening that was both artistically informative and celebratory.
The event started early with a master class led by Gregson-Williams specifically for SFCM students and children from the Bridge to Arts and Music after-school program. Taking a seat behind a laptop, keyboard, and synthesizer in Dolby Cinema—billed as the most advanced movie theater in the world—Gregson-Williams gave attendees a taste of his compositional process, highlighting films he’s scored such as Shrek, The Martian, Man on Fire, The Meg, and others.
Gregson-Williams gave keen insight into the intentions of a director, such as Ridley Scott—someone he has worked with multiple times—and the task of the composer to negotiate the challenges in cueing scenes properly, delivering themes with substance, and other aspects of the job.
Students in attendance were awestruck by his workflow and were eager to know more about how he, or other composers in the industry, operate in the fast-paced world of film composition.
In a Q&A after the master class, technology and applied composition student Molly Monahan ’20 asked Gregson-Williams about his encounters with scenes that gave him pause when trying to incorporate the right music.
“I don’t think there’s any easy answer to any of it,” Gregson-Williams commented. “There are definitely no shortcuts. For me, it’s sometimes about trying to allow myself to be okay with some of the little tunes I’ve written. Hopefully, what really makes a difference, is what I do with them and how I put them in the film. It’s a lot of watching and listening and learning.”
After the session with students, the sense of inspiration was palpable.
“Being able to hear such an accomplished and modern composer explain his musical process was an incredibly valuable part of the night for me,” said Jason Hebert ’21. “I didn't realize how much work goes into movie music behind the scenes, and that really makes me think about performing in movie orchestras as a career choice. Hearing Harry Gregson-Williams talk about how he got into movie music inspires me to try to create similar paths for myself.”
“It was a crazy moment when I realized I was sitting only a few feet away from someone who has worked with some of the biggest names in the film industry!” remarked Stephanie Li ’19. “Hearing about how he found inspiration and how he works under pressure really inspired me. I feel motivated to get stuck into more music-making.”
After the student session, Gregson-Williams returned to Dolby Cinema to take the stage with John Loose, Dolby’s director of audio production. Introducing the composer, SFCM President David Stull noted the connection of the evening’s talk and the space in which it took place to the Conservatory’s academic theme this year. Additionally, he pointed out the unique collaboration between SFCM and Dolby as students from the technology and applied composition department have worked with Dolby’s research team on testing new technologies.
“Composers have been experimenting with sound for hundreds of years, all the way back to antiphonal call and response seen in the works of Gabrieli performed in the world’s great cathedrals,” he said. “Dolby is experimenting and innovating with sound in much the same way.”
The wide-ranging conversation touched on many parts of Gregson-Williams’ career, including his start as an assistant to Hans Zimmer. He went into detail about the nature of collaboration and what it takes to be successful in the film music industry today. The audience was especially thrilled to see his artistry come to life in a demonstration of his process from The Martian.
After the talk, guests were treated to a Gregson-Williams-themed dinner, including foods inspired by the films the composer worked on. For example, New England clam chowder and lobster rolls were offered as a nod to the Boston-themed movie The Town, a film Gregson-Williams scored.
Several celebrities attended the event, including Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano, former Phantom of the Opera Franc D’Ambrosio, and former San Francisco mayor Frank Jordan. Supporters of SFCM such as Ute Bowes, Dagmar Dolby, Chairman Timothy Foo, and many SFCM trustees were also in attendance for this special occasion.
The evening was catered by Epicurean Group.