Mark Snow's status as one of today's most innovative and successful film and television composers is only the latest element of a far-reaching and eclectic career in music. While Snow is perhaps best known for his theme and scores for The X-Files and Millennium, this Juilliard-trained musician's career has encompassed lush orchestral scoring, album production, classical performance, and five years as a co-founder of the legendary New York Rock N' Roll Ensemble (a band he formed in the late '60s with Juilliard roommate Michael Kamen, himself a much in-demand producer, studio musician, conductor, arranger, and film and television composer). He's been nominated for six Emmy awards — in five different categories — and has worked on many motion pictures, as well as virtually every type of dramatic television program in existence. His best-known work also includes The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, An American Story, and Something About Amelia.
The Brooklyn, New York native began studying piano at the age of ten, then moved on to both drums and oboe. Four years at Juilliard followed, where he studied with jazz arranger Hall Overton and oboist Melvin Kaplan, as well as 12-tone composer George Tremblay and composer Earl Hagan (best known for the theme of The Andy Griffith Show).
Yet at the same time, Snow found himself bitten by the rock n' roll bug. He found the perfect outlet for his wide-ranging talents and interests in the New York Rock N' Roll Ensemble, which he formed with Kamen to perform both innovative pop and purely classical music (Snow played both drums and oboe — although not at the same time! — in that band).
Snow left the band in 1973 and, after a brief period in record production, moved to Los Angeles in 1974 and began working as a film and television composer. His early successes in the field included episodes of the award-winning series Family, and the theme and episodic scores for the long-running Hart To Hart. Other work included Cagney and Lacey, Baghdad Cafe, and Crazy Like A Fox, as well as many TV movies and mini-series.
Snow's home studio, featuring a mind-boggling array of the latest electronic equipment, enables him to "audition" an entire score for producers and directors — and his very friendly dogs — in the comfort of his own backyard. It's there that we find Mark working on the opening scenes of the latest episode of Millennium. The show opens with a meltdown-type situation at a Russian nuclear reactor, and then cuts to a scene outside the plant, where a man is murdered by a character who, it is implied, caused the meltdown.
"I don't have a clue of what this show is about," he laughs, "but it's something about Chernobyl — now how that relates to Millennium, I'm sure I'll find out soon enough. This is very different for Millennium: the music calls for an obvious Russian flavor, and this chorus sound, with the right harmonies, seems to be the thing that makes it not too hokey — just oohs and ahhs, no [does amusing impersonation of Russian choir] or balalaikas or anything. [Gestures at keyboard.] This is the Synclavier, which is my primary instrument, and this is a digital recording, uh, thing, and I just go part by part and layer the music, and just really work with the picture. I have spotting notes here that are just where the cue starts and stops, so it's just sketching out the piece, filling in everything."
The music heightens in volume and intensity with the action, then calms as the scene fades out, and segues into the show's theme...
All of this equipment seems to play a pretty large role in your work. How was your method different before technology set in?
I always had a piano. I remember having an office where I had a black and white TV, a video cassette machine — those things were monstrous clunky dinosaurs back then — and the spotting notes that were like: every two seconds, plink... dialogue... ARGH! Writing it out, writing it out... that's just the way it was done.
But now, it's a whole other process. I remember in '85 or '86, when home studios weren't all that common for this kind of work, my accountant said, "Let's get you the best instrument there is." I said, "I think it's the Synclavier, but it costs a fortune!" And he said, "Beg, borrow, or steal, we have to get it." And I think it's probably the single best investment I ever made — I've still got the same one, although there have been all kinds of upgrades in the software.
Do you find that the technology can take up as much time as the music?
Not for me — I won't let it! I have learned as much as I want to — as much as I have to — and just that. But it took a good three years to really get into the sound and the feel of electronic sounds.
Your career has had some pretty severe directional changes: you went from Juilliard to an esoteric rock band [The New York Rock N' Roll Ensemble] to film and television composing. First, what caused the shift to rock?
The Beatles ... I was 15 or 16, and they were a major eye-opener. I was at Juilliard at the time, playing the oboe, and it looked like that's what I was going to do with my life. My father was a drummer, and as a kid I used to play around with his drums, so I gradually got to be a good rock n' roll drummer.
Plus, when I was in high school, I was the best oboe player in New York City, and I went to Juilliard thinking I was so cool. When I auditioned, everyone was warming up waiting for their turn — which is unnerving in itself — and they were all so good that I got badly psyched out. I just barely [passed the audition] — and I started to rethink the whole thing, that maybe it wasn't for me. And also, being in an orchestra, part of this huge thing, I felt so swallowed up by it.
Was it your first band?
Yes - my only band! I was in it for five years, and I got the full Spinal Tap deal! Everything in that movie was what our band was like: there was the English girlfriend coming in and screwing things up, there was the management fighting with the record company, all the asinine, egomaniacal B.S. We didn't have all the props and smoke that they did (laughs), but everything else was pretty similar!
What was the band like?
It was primarily based around a bunch of us playing weird instruments. Kamen and I were roommates at Juilliard, we were best friends in high school and Juilliard, and in the band we both played oboe; he was also a keyboard player and I was also the drummer. The bass player [Dorian Rudnytsky] was a cellist and he was also from Juilliard, and two guitar players [Brian Corrigan and Clifford Nivison]. We played a Halloween dance, and literally two weeks later we got signed to Atlantic Records because they thought we could be a real cult thing. Ahmet Ertegun said, "You guys are gonna be bigger than the Rascals!" (laughs). Of course we never even came close.
It was an interesting idea — going from playing kick-ass rock n' roll, and then switching instruments and playing this all-acoustic baroque music — and people went nuts when we played live, but it did not translate to records: there was no really great singer, and the songs were just too eclectic. But it was a great visual thing, and on the strength of that we were together for five years. We played every major college venue — the Fillmores East and West, the Avalon Ballroom — and we opened up for Sly and The Family Stone, the Turtles, Janis Joplin, so it was fun. But after five years, I'd had it. The college kids just came for a good time, and as long as you played loud they'd go "YEAH!" It just got repetitious and boring and not fun.
And what got you into film and television from there?
I'd always had a thing about movie music, hearing it and thinking, "That's like the stuff I really like," because it was like Stravinsky, Ravel, the modern composers. There was one score in particular: Jerry Goldsmith's Planet Of The Apes, which was so atonal and avant-garde and non-melodic. For me it was just terribly exciting, and that got me into it. Glynn, my wife, said, "Let's go to California, my family can introduce you to producers and directors," and that's what happened: my wife's sister is Tyne Daly, her brother is Tim Daly, their father was James Daly, they introduced me to people, and six months after I landed, I got my first episodic show: The Rookies. I didn't do the theme — Elmer Bernstein, of all people, did it, and it was pretty hokey, too! It was an Aaron Spelling show, so I did a lot of work for him, then Doug Kramer came in with The Love Boat and Dynasty and all that.
Well, I kept doing [scores] this one way, which I thought was the right way, and which I thought they all liked. Well, Kramer didn't like it at all, and he said "Get rid of [Snow], this is terrible!" So they did. At first it felt awful, but looking back, it was the best thing that ever could have happened to me, because then I realized that there are more than 8500 ways to do a score. Once you're locked into one way all the time, it's a disaster. And I know composers today who just predictably do the same thing, and it really pigeonholes them, and that's something I wanted to get away from.
Then I heard these scores where sounds became part of the music, and technology started to become a part of it — although none of this stuff [gestures at equipment] was invented at the time — and it just opened my eyes: there are millions of ways to write a score, and be effective at the same time. This was in the late '70s. I listen now to things I did before — like the Hart To Hart theme — and it's painful! This wah-wah guitar, fours on the bass drum and a disco beat...
But isn't that what your employers wanted?
That's what was happening at the time. I think a lot of people don't believe that I'm the same guy who did that and The X-Files and Millennium. I'm very lucky that The X-Files came along, because even though I had the equipment and the studio, I think I was pegged into more of a traditional role, and luckily for me, it's grown from that.
Aren't you often forced into a situation where you're just giving people what they want and not challenging yourself artistically?
That's a great question. If you can do both, you're very lucky. Mostly, you're right, it was about doing the job, and a lot of that music doesn't sound very impressive by itself, without the pictures. Things like the theme from Out of Africa or Cinema Paradiso or Patton or Star Wars sound amazing on their own. There's a lot of underscore that composers can really relate to, but producers and directors just react to [how a piece of music] will work for their project.
Do you feel that The X-Files was a breakthrough creatively as well as commercially?
Absolutely. It was [due to] working with people like Chris Carter, who, although he had very limited experience with underscore music, knows what he likes. When we did the theme, he came over with stacks of CDS: classical, alternative, minimal, everything. He would take each one apart and say, "I love this guitar sound, I love this percussion figure, I love this sustained note here," so I went off and wrote four themes, and for each one he'd say, "I love this! It just needs..." Finally, after the fourth one, I said, "Let's just start from scratch and see what happens."
So I put my hand on the keyboard. There was an echo-delay machine on, and this arpeggio went off and he said, "That's cool." He's really into sustains and organic, atmospheric-sounding stuff, so I came up with a simple melody... now what? I went through every sound in the room and finally came up with this whistle, and I thought, "This is The Andy Griffith Show of the '90s or something!" And he dug it — although it was way off from the original ideas we had. The first bunch of themes were sort of hard and bangy — much more what you'd expect from a scary show — and I thought maybe it would be more effective to be subtle and have a lighter touch.
We went over to Fox and played it for a room full of executives, and they didn't know what to think. And much to his credit, Chris said, "Well, that's our theme. Hope you all like it — I've got to go to a meeting." In retrospect it was great, but at the time it was nerve-wracking: I was sitting there with all these guys and they're going, "Well, it's nice... it's nice..." They were completely unsure. And then a month later, after we'd gotten this great response, they all said, "I KNEW it was great!" [laughs]
I think The X-Files music has changed through the years. I look at some of the early shows and it's really fun to see how it's grown. It was very atmospheric at first, and it still is, but it's much more melodic, more Mahler, or sort of impressionist — I know that sounds a little pretentious — and [the producers] are just going right with it. That's why this collaboration is so great: every little left or right turn I make, they're right with it.
What are some other breakthroughs you feel you've had in your career?
Hm... there was a mini-series — with a very long title — I did four or five years ago called The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. It was a pure orchestral score with no electronics, and there were some really great melodic pieces and lovely violin solos. I think when people heard that, they started thinking of me on a more elevated level. Up until then it was mostly TV movies — some were well-known, others not, but it was enough to have people interested in using me for TV movies.
It's hard to get into feature [film] work, and the longer you're in TV the harder it gets, but my work with The X-Files and Chris Carter and Millennium has been so satisfying and so much fun, it's like doing a mini-movie every week, the quality of these shows is so excellent. So it's taken my frustration at not doing movies from an 8 out of 10 to maybe a 2 or a 3.
Are you still frustrated at not doing features?
Not as much, because I love this, and the quality control is so much better. For every episode a group of men come over — whether it's Chris and the writer and the producer/director or some combination. And it's mostly like a party, but every once in awhile, "Can you hit that harder?" "Sure." "I don't think we need that there." "Fine, it's out." Very minimal changes, but it gives them a chance to get out of the studio, and talk about the cuts for the show as well.
How much time do you have to score each show?
Anywhere from three to six days — remember, The X-Files is about 38 minutes of music per show. It's do-able, I've gotten a method of working that fits right in with the schedule. I don't work well at night. I can get up at 6:00 or 7:00 and jump right into it, cut out at 4:00 or 5:00, and that's a good day... a long day, but a good one.
You must have to write volumes of suspenseful music.
Yes, but I keep on learning, every day there are a million new ways to do it. There are so many approaches: you don't have to telegraph what's going to happen, you can just let on a little bit, and arc it up every bar or so. Like this show [of Millennium]: at the beginning it's completely simple, but I know there's gonna be sound all over the place — bells and whistles and people and stairs and [bangs on table] — so I don't want to be too busy. And then, when it cuts to the outside for the first time, there's going to be less noise, so I can open up the music more, and make it more melodic.
And then you have to segue into the theme, right?
Yes — no! I'm glad you said that, because this was one of the few times, just by accident, that the key of the last note of the underscore before the theme was the same key as the theme. But a lot of the time it's just odd relationships, and that's not bad, because when the theme kicks in, it's like "Woah!" — a real kick. The beginnings of shows like these are usually a killing of some sort [laughs, then carries on sing-song in an amazingly accurate approximation of the rhythm of a scary television show]: Like there's a beautiful young woman, riding a horse at night, and she rides into the stable, then she hears something, and the horse whinnies, and she starts poking around, then she goes into another stable, and there's a dead horse, and she's terrified, then you see feet, and the feet come closer, and it's some bad guy, and he's got a knife — cut to the outside of the barn, pull back, scream, music underneath. They often seem to have a similar rhythm — they start off placid or benign, and everything's fine, and then you have to cleverly ooze into weirdness.
What are most difficult emotions to convey musically?
Umm... [long pause] vacillation! [laughter] Probably confusion, subtle confusion.
Do you think electronic gear makes it harder to evoke emotions that might be easier for an orchestra?
A couple of years ago I would have said yes, but now, no. There are a couple of things I've done recently that if I told you came out of this machine — modestly — you'd be impressed. The producers and everyone thought it was an orchestra. But there are different kinds of emotion: this thing I'm talking about is a big Puccini-esque piece with a full-blast John Williams-style emotion. But on the other hand, the small ensembles, the simple little duets and trios, just a string pad and a solo piano and an interesting instrument can have a real honest, emotional feeling.
You've been an ASCAP member for long time.
"Yeah. I switched from BMI at least 25 years ago. I'm very happy — you guys have been great."
Apart from Oscars, Emmys, and ASCAP Awards, are there really any other awards for film and television composers to win?
"Academy Awards, Emmys, and ASCAP Awards — that's really it! You always feel a little funny — I mean, I played a part, but I didn't make The X-Files a hit! The music doesn't make these shows a smash. The Emmys feels a bit more legit because you're being judged by your peers just on the music — it has nothing to do with popularity or how much music was written or anything like that. Having said that, when you put the time in and you do the work and you get an award, it's very gratifying. And the Awards shows are always a blast. [At the ASCAP Film & TV Awards], at least ten people came up to me and "Hi how ya doing? You gave me my first cue for this or that," and that's kinda neat. Because [composers] are so isolated all the time, when you go to these things and people say, "I really love what you're doing with The X-Files, the theme is great," or some big shot will come over and say "Hey, great job," it's wonderful."
What advice would you give to people trying to break in?
"The most important thing is to be yourself. That sounds very cornball, but if you pretend to be what you think they want, it's a horrible mistake. You have to be as comfortable with yourself as humanly possible — that's number one. Then it's about exploiting as many possible little cracks of openings of relationships as you possibly can. Whenever I do classes, the big question is, "How do we get started? How do we get in?" It's just about relationships, and meeting people, and anybody you know who you think maybe can get you an introduction. And when the class is over, "Thank you," they clap, and then BAM! They're all over you! "HERE'S MY TAPE!" But that's exactly what I told them to do, and that's what you have to do.
A lot of times at the beginning, the talent isn't as important as the perseverance. It really isn't. Because this business is literally something that can't be taught in a school. You listen to as many experienced people as you can, you practice, you have classes, you start writing out things, whatever. But until you're in it, and you start hearing and seeing how the music works, that's when you start learning: "That was too busy, that was too loud, I can see how this can be better." At first, I would always over-write: I was trying to impress the composers, impress the musicians — wrong! It's about impressing the people that you work for first of all, and if you can happen to write good music on top of it all, god bless you!
It's important to recognize how well a simple approach — and there are different variations of that word simple — can work. When John Williams does a big, sweeping score, it just transports you and carries you away. On the other hand, a single, sad Irish fiddler playing by himself can be equally potent. I tend to feel more comfortable with the simpler approach, but there are so many ways, so many approaches, and so little time!"
Film and television composers' music is often as recognized — and recognizable — as top ten hits, if not more so. Do you feel that this is seriously recognized as an art form?
"I've been extremely lucky, because The X-Files and Millennium — those shows are a different deal. The X-Files theme was a smash single in Europe — there's a four-minute version of it — and what's fascinating to me about that is, nothing really big happens in the song: it stays in D-minor, there's no singing, drums, or guitars... and it was a smash hit! That's pretty wild."
The music creates the feeling of the show and its ideas.
"Yeah, well, it turns out the Hale-Bopp people were listening to The X-Files a few days before..."
How does that feel?
"Uh, a little spooky!"
One final question: you went to Juilliard with [legendary classical instrumentalists] Itzak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman — were you friends with them?
"Yeah. It's so funny how they've changed. Perlman was always basically the same: just a sweet, nice guy, amazing talent, always smiling. Pinchas Zuckerman, who I think is just a spectacular player, with so much power and emotion and energy and technique — was a real hood! Cigarette, cigar-smoking, pool-playing wise guy — "Get outta my way, I'm the best thing that ever happened!" And now he's turned into a refined gentleman. But he was a real bully, almost. He'd get into fights and get drunk, but it matched his playing, that character, that personality of his was so confrontational and fiery, and that's how he played. It really came out. And he was able to calm his personal life down and keep the fire in the music. Where I don't think Perlman has that real killer instinct, and it reflects in his personality. I think that's very true of people."