It was a rather pleasant surprise that I got to meet thisinteresting and unique composer: Daniel Alcheh. I have to be honest in that I had never heard of Alcheh before this interview, but one score that he wrote, The Man Who Collected Food, had gotten some rave reviews and brought him significant attention. Now, with his recently-released film The Trouble With Bliss, he is sure to garner even more exposure as a composer and orchestrator. It was a fun experience speaking with this kind and generous Israeli composer, and I would like to share it with you. So enjoy!
Hi, Daniel, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I hope you are well. So let’s start off with your most recent project, The Trouble With Bliss. How did you get involved with the film?
I knew Michael from our days in New York. We’d worked on a few of his other films. I got a call from him a few years ago telling me that he was casting a feature film and that Michael C. Hall was attached to it. It was called (at the time) East Fifth Bliss. He asked me if I would be interested in scoring it and I said yes. We met in my studio, he gave me a script to read and that’s where the dialogue started. Michael had a very cool idea of how to “test the waters” of working with some of the creative team on Bliss – he decided to shoot a short film written by the same writer (Douglas Light), shot by the same cinematographer (Ben Wolf) and scored by the same composer (me). We recorded the music live in Hollywood – just strings and me playing piano. It was a great way to get introduced to working with the creative team, and it even yielded quite a beautiful short film called “After Lilly.”
In reading the liner notes to the soundtrack Director Michael Knowles, he stated that “It became so clear to me that every song or cue had to express what Morris was feeling. I wanted the audience to be completely in Morris’ world. It’s almost as if this Greek music is always playing in Morris’ head and we just tapped into it for the time we are watching the movie, and get to experience what he experiences every day.” How did you approach your music in the way that the director had specified?
Michael suggested the idea of having the score be Greek-influenced throughout, for that exact reason. We knew it would need some careful thought and handling, since the film takes place in the lower east side in New York City, and very little of the action in the film has to do with Morris’ emotional and familial links to Greece. We had time to do some research, listen to Greek music CDs for choice of instrumentation and just to grasp the general sensibility of the different styles that we could use as a starting point. I think if you listen to the whole soundtrack looking for “the Greek thing,” it sounds more Greek than it actually is. In some cues, it is really lightly suggested, a little bit in the harmony, and by the use of the bouzouki. Greek music in itself has many influences and styles, so in some cues, it is just an ethnic feel, a more Balkan or Turkish sound; in others, you’ll hear Greece’s Italian influences.
How did you and Michael Knowles get along from a director/composer standpoint?
We knew each other from working together in the past, so that made things easy. We knew each other’s sensibilities and ways of thinking and communicating. Some cues were discussed during spotting, scored once, Michael loved them and we moved on. Some were scored a few times, in multiple versions, and needed corrections and minor adjustments till we were all happy with them. On some cues, there was perfect agreement. On others, we had to talk more in order to reach an agreement on how to approach the scoring. There is really no one way to do things. When everybody in a collaborative process understands that sometimes you can do something (in our case, scoring the film) three different ways but that one way isn’t necessarily better than the others, it is just different, that makes decisions much easier. It becomes more about having a preference, while always remembering to be efficient with time and resources.
What made you decide on the number of musicians that you needed for the score?
Once we knew what the tone and sound we were going for was going to be, what the final cut looked and felt like and what our budget constraints were, it was pretty straightforward. We used the basic sound palette and then made some additions and subtractions based on the specific cue. For a few of the cues we recorded live strings, a few needed a bit of electronics, and a few were stripped down to a soloist and just a wall or bed of sound behind them made of guitars, saz, bouzouki, mandolin, all based on the scene and visuals.
What were the recording sessions like as you performed the music with your fellow musicians? Where was the music recorded? How long did it take?
Recording was divided among three locations. We had the first “band” recording in Chicago – bass, guitar, drums, accordion, bouzouki. Producer Elliot Hunt, who also brilliantly mixed the music later, ran that session in Chicago. Then we had additions, overdubs and soloists recorded in my studio in LA – two more bouzouki players, additional guitar, mandolin, saz, melodica, and accordion, including a bit of the electronics that I did. Then the live strings were recorded in another studio in Hollywood.
The actual music production probably took less than two months. But of course, there is a lot of pre-production and post-production involved, so all in all, a composer can be involved with the film score for quite a long time. Putting together the soundtrack CD, together with Sony Classical, was a fascinating process in itself.
Before the music was written or even recorded, did you and director Michael Knowles do a spotting session? Can you please explain this process for the readers.
Yes. We waited till Michael had a final cut that he was pleased with and then I made detailed spotting notes that we discussed. Spotting is going through the film and deciding where music will appear, and sometimes more importantly, where it will not appear. Then more precisely, when music will come in on the scene and where exactly it will come out. Part of it is also discussing what each of these music cues will emphasize, why it is there, and based on that, what we want it to sound like. The music can be a backdrop, it can serve to enhance or bring out a certain emotion, and it can be used to just enhance a comedic moment or to be ironic. A scene can be multi-layered in terms of emotion, narrative, etc. and we make these choices carefully to be sure the audience will eventually get the feeling or understand the story the way the director intended it to be told.
Along with your charming score, there were songs featured in the film. Can you tell the readers, how big of a part that they played as a complement to your score?
When we were starting to plan for a soundtrack to coincide with the theatrical release of the film, I told Michael the director and John Ramos the producer that I thought it would be really interesting to take a few of the longer tracks I’d written that were already in song form in one way or another and write Greek lyrics for them and have them performed and recorded by Greek singers. Through some wonderful connections I made during the production, I was introduced to lyricist Maria Papadaki, and through her, reached out to the three famous Greek recording artists who ended up performing the four songs on the CD (three solos and a duet). I feel it was a beautiful bonus to the soundtrack and really brought out an additional facet of this Greek-inspired music. Maria’s lyrics are gorgeous and the singer’s interpretation is beautiful.
When it came to putting the soundtrack together, what was the process that you went through to put what most would consider the right amount of music for it?
Together with Stefaniah McGowan, the amazing executive soundtrack producer and Sony Classical, we went through all the music written for the film, including multiple versions of cues and music that ended up on the cutting room floor. It is interesting to go back sometimes and rediscover how much music was written and recorded that never ended up being used in the film. Sony wanted to find a way to weave together some of the cues to create longer tracks. It was not hard to do because there was a unifying sound to it all and things just seemed to flow pretty naturally in and out of one another. We made sure to create a track order that kept to a general order of things as they appeared in the film, yet had a nice flow for the listener who might be listening to the album out of the film’s context. So we were balancing between the instrumentals and the songs, the darker cues and the more upbeat ones, the longer cues and shorter ones. The four songs, we decided, would be the last four tracks. In the end, we all pretty much narrowed it down to something very similar. That’s when we knew we’d nailed it. The album was then beautifully mastered by David Glasser at the Grammy-studded Airshow Mastering in Boulder, Colorado.
Who is releasing the soundtrack and when will it be released?
The soundtrack is released by Sony Classical. It was released internationally on March 30th, 2012, in conjunction with the US theatrical release of the film a few weeks ago.
How did you get started in music?
I started playing the piano when I was about seven. From the time I can remember, I was really interested in “putting things together.” I started seriously wanting to compose during my early teens. I had some great teachers who beat some good old-fashioned education into me. At the same time, I was always very interested in studio recording and production. I had my first little “studio” when I was 13 (quite strange for the ’80s, now that I think of it…). So you can say I was really into Mahler and Shostakovich while listening to really well produced pop music at the same time! Sometimes, I think in some way, I’m still trying to bring these two worlds together every day.
What has been the toughest job you’ve had to do as a composer?
It is really hard to say. Each project, each piece I write, each film, pose interesting and exciting challenges. It is always different – there’s always a scene that’s hard to crack, or a nearly impossible deadline to beat, or a strange instrumentation to orchestrate to. It keeps us on our toes as creative people, which is very energizing.
Was it your dream to become a composer for films?
Writing music for films was always something I wanted to do. I am a great believer in the power of limitations and how they heighten creativity and bring about real creative choices. Any writing is really creating under constraints. If you write for an instrument, say, a violin, you are working with four strings, four fingers, a bow. There are limitations for the instrument and limitations for how the player can use that instrument technically and idiomatically, and that is what makes writing for the instrument interesting.
Writing music for film brings about a framework of constraints that we as composers need to work within and for me, that is what makes that medium so fascinating to work in and to see others work in. While supporting the narrative and feel of the film and the scene (which is the first priority), we have to take into consideration the wishes of the director and producers, the instrumentation that was chosen or that we have available at our disposal; we have to make sure the music is perfectly timed to the film cut and the action. Then, there are production timing constraints. It is like a very intricate weave of decisions under constraints, like a huge puzzle that we need to solve and all the pieces need to perfectly (or optimally) fit. Sometimes, I watch scenes that I or others scored, and it is really strange and magical to see all these things fall into place that way.
Who is your favorite composer? Soundtrack?
The list of composers and soundtracks I love listening to is very long. I try to listen to a lot of music, film music, concert music and songs. I admire John Williams’ ability to encapsulate a film’s complete essence in a theme and Bernard Herrmann’s approach to scoring. I also enjoy Zimmer’s highly-produced scores and how effective they can be within a film. Great writing, well-crafted and detailed orchestration, beautiful recording – it is always a treat to discover new music made by gifted people.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
There are talks about a film in late summer. Right now, I am heading to Switzerland for a premiere of a large concert piece. It was commissioned by a festival to which I was a named composer-in-residence last year. I have also recently gone back to my songwriting, “with a vengeance.” Writing songs was something that I did much more of in the past and in recent years had placed on the back-burner because of all the film and TV work that was coming in. I am very excited about returning to it. I just came back from the Newport Beach Film Festival where I attended a screening of a very special dramatic feature I scored last year, Son of the Stars. The award-winning film deals with autism through the lens of Chinese modern society. I’m always on the lookout for exciting new scoring projects and I’m really enthused about what is coming this year. Meeting new directors and developing long-lasting creative relationships with them is the most rewarding aspect for me.
Thank you so much Daniel for your time and I hope to hear your name more often in the future!
Thank you for talking with me!
Thanks to Greg O’Connor-Read for setting up this interview which was a lot of fun to write! I’m truly indebt to you.
Here’s the soundtrack presss release for the album:
The Trouble With Bliss Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, composed and arranged by Daniel Alcheh, is now available worldwide at iTunes®, Amazon MP3 and other digital music sites through Sony Classical. The album features traditional and contemporary Greek instrumental music as well as original songs performed by celebrated Greek artists Sofia Papazoglou, Vasilis Lekkas and Pantelis Thalassinos, with lyrics by prolific songwriter Maria Papadaki. Winner of Best Picture at the San Diego Film Festival, recently released comedy-drama The Trouble With Bliss is adapted from the critically acclaimed novel East Fifth Bliss by Douglas Light and stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels), Peter Fonda (Easy Rider), Brie Larson (21 Jump Street), Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Brad William Henke (Justified). The film is now showing in select theaters and available on iTunes and Video On Demand.
About Daniel Alcheh
Daniel Alcheh (www.DanielAlcheh.com) is an award-winning Hollywood-based composer and orchestrator. He most recently scored The Trouble With Bliss, which features a star-studded cast including Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Brie Larson (21 Jump Street, United States of Tara), Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels) and Peter Fonda (Easy Rider). His score for the award-winning horror-comedy The Man Who Collected Food was named “The Discovery of 2011” by AmericanMusicPreservation.com and selected among the “Top 10 Film Scores of 2011” by industry insider AintItCoolNews.com. Other recent feature films and television programs include the feature documentary Together In Guangzhou (the official 2010 Asian Olympic Games film); HDNet’s comedy series, Svetlana, and the feature drama Son of Stars. Alcheh’s music has been widely licensed and can be heard on The National Geographic Channel, PBS, BET and The History Channel.
A versatile composer and prolific songwriter, Alcheh began playing the piano at age seven, and was seriously pursuing the path of a composer by his teens. He became one of the youngest-ever members of the Israeli Composers League where he served as a board member and panel judge, and was awarded the league’s Klon Prize for Composition.He received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in composition at The Music Academy at Tel-Aviv University, completing his thesis as a visiting scholar at Chicago’s Northwestern University, by invitation of the Music Technology Department. While still a student, Alcheh began his career in film music as a soundtrack producer for Dover Kosashvili’s feature Late Marriage, one of Entertainment Weekly‘s Ten Best Films of 2002 and Newsweek‘s Top 15 Films of 2002.
In 2002, Alcheh’s virtuoso violin-solo piece, Nocturne and Aubade, was the obligatory contemporary piece for competitors to perform at the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition. That same year, the Israel Festival in Jerusalem opened with his piece Trains for percussion, string quartet and electronics, a piece that was commissioned by Ziv Eitan, one of Israel’s leading percussion soloists. A month later, Alcheh appeared as a guest composer at The 22nd Asian Composers League Festival in Seoul, Korea, where his String Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello was a prizewinner. Also in 2002, his ballet piece No Exit was choreographed in Germany and performed to high acclaim throughout Europe and the Middle East. While in Chicago, The Israeli Piano Duo commissioned him to write his demanding Dying Pianos for piano duo and recorded sound. The piece would premiere in Tel-Aviv the following year.
Alcheh is currently working on several American and European commissions for 2012. He was recently named composer-in-residence in the Concerti in San Martino festival in Switzerland, where a new septet will premiere in May, along with the Beethoven septet op. 20.
For more information on Daniel Alcheh, visit: http://www.danielalcheh.com
For management contact: http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Stef Angel Music Group, 310.388.5880