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Alf Clausen

Simpsons Maestro

Andrián Pertout speaks to composer Alf Clausen from Northridge, California about his beginnings, the road to ‘Moonlighting’, and the current ‘Simpsons’ phenomenon.

After graduating from Berklee School of Music in Boston, Emmy award-winning composer Alf Clausen initiates his celebrated musical career as a french hornist and bassist, working as a live and studio musician in both combo and orchestral settings.  A move to Los Angeles eventually lands him the job as musical director of ‘The Donny and Marie Show’, which is then followed-up by ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Variety Hour’.  So far eluded by the great Hollywood dream, Alf decides to work as an orchestrator for established screen composers, and in time is employed by William Goldstein, Lalo Schifrin, Elmer Bernstein and Lee Holdridge.  In 1985, he is then hired as composer for ‘Moonlighting’, and in 1990, ‘The Simpsons’ completes the picture, culminating in what is today a mammoth collection of awards, including two Emmy awards, nineteen Emmy nominations, an Annie award and nomination, Grammy and CLIO nominations, plus seven ASCAP Popular Awards for Music Composition, not to mention an Honorary Doctorate of Music Degree by the Berklee College of Music.  Some of Alf Clausen’s other composing credits include films such as ‘Ferris Beuller’s Day Off’, ‘Dragnet’ and ‘Weird Science’, as well as material contributed to the bands of Buddy Rich, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Ray Charles, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton & Denny Christianson, and much, much more.  ‘The Simpsons’, which incidentally is TVs longest running animated prime-time series, represents a decade of his musical greatness, and has so far featured the artistry of Bette Midler, James Brown, Ringo Starr, Aerosmith, the Ramones, Tom Jones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul and Linda McCartney, Cypress Hill, Smashing Pumpkins and legendary cult band Spinal Tap, among many.

Tell me about life before the Simpsons, the early years.  What kind of musical training did you undergo to acquire the skills of an all-round musician?

AC: “Well, I have an interesting background, and it’s a long story obviously, but I’ll try to make it as quick as possible.  I started out as a french horn player, and I grew up in the concert band mode, playing all the really good concert band literature.  I also sang in a really good high school choir that sang a lot of the classic concert choir literature.  When I went to college I also picked up the acoustic bass along the way, and ended up as a jazz bass player.  So through all of those early years I ended up working quite a bit as a jazz and commercial bass player, and as a french hornist.  I went to college in North Dakota, and graduated from North Dakota State University in Fargo – everybody knows where Fargo is now – and then went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.  I went through Berklee’s entire program, taught there part time while I was going to school, taught there full time after I graduated, gigged around Boston as a bass player for all the years that I was there, and did some recording sessions on french horn.  I then moved out to Los Angeles in 1967, and worked for quite a few years playing bass six nights a week in clubs, while I was trying to get my writing career off the ground during the day.  I also did some session work, did some rehearsal band work on french horn during the day, wrote for some rehearsal bands, and played in community orchestras.  So my basic influences were quite wide, all the way from working as a jazz bass player to a symphony horn player.  And so I had the orchestral background, and I had the small group rhythm section background so to speak.  But even when I was in high school, when I was getting my training as a french horn player, my real love was the early R&B music, with Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Elvis, all those early R&B artists.  So you can start to see that my background fills in with all sorts of interesting influences.”

How did you initially spark-up a career as a screen composer?

AC: “When I came to Los Angeles, I kicked around working for all sorts of different idioms, I worked as a jingle composer for a while, I wrote arrangements for Las Vegas singers, and little by little ended up working in television variety.  It was very, very prevalent when I first moved out to Los Angeles.  One thing led to another and I eventually ended up as the music director of ‘The Donny and Marie Show’ on ABC.  That was my first big time network job, and after that I was the musical director of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Variety Hour’ Series on CBS for a year.  And that was really an interesting job, in that the company was a repertory company made up of unknown actors at the time, who had never done television before.  One of them was Michael Keaton, one was David Letterman, and then there was Dick Shawn and Mary Tyler Moore.  And that was really fun, I have tapes of all these people in my library dancing around in bunny suits and all that kind of stuff.

“When I finished that stint as a musical director on the variety shows, variety kind of dried up, but I was kind of getting tired of variety anyway, and really wanted to be involved in the film business, but had a difficult time getting my own jobs.  So I ended up starting at the bottom, and working as an orchestrator for many of the name composers in Los Angeles.  I started working for Will Goldstein first, I did a couple of pictures with him, and then ended up working on the ‘Fame’ series over at MGM for about a year and a half.  After that I worked for Lalo Schifrin, Elmer Bernstein a little bit, Lee Holdridge.  I did a lot of things with Lee Holdridge, and Lee and I became very close friends.  And Lee was an extremely benevolent sort who liked to make job opportunities happen for the people who worked for him, who he believed in.  One thing led to another and I ended up orchestrating a pilot for a series on ABC.  And his intent was to introduce me to the executive producer, and have me take over the series once he had done the theme and the pilot.  ABC picked the show up and they hired me as the composer, and it was 'Moonlighting'.  And so for four years I was the composer of ‘Moonlighting’, and at the same did this little furry creature show on NBC called ‘Alf’.  And so it was really 'Moonlighting' that put my composing career on the map.  It was very creative musically, and had wonderful challenges, which I rose to the occasion for, for the most part.  So people really sat up and took notice at that point, and I think that’s probably what really got my career going as a composer.”

What were your first reactions to the Simpsons concept when it was introduced to you in 1990?  What do these cartoon characters (or should I say people) mean to you today?

AC: “It was very interesting for me because I didn’t do the first thirteen episodes, I was called in at the beginning of the second season.  My very first Simpsons episode was the very first ‘Treehouse of Horror’, number one, the Halloween show, and so I didn’t have any concept about what this was.  I hadn’t seen the first thirteen episodes, and so I went in for the meeting and kind of laid low and played it as it came.  But the thing that I noticed right away was that the writing and the acting was just so absolutely first rate, and it was so unbelievably funny.  So I thought, ‘This is very interesting, there should be a big future for this show if the quality of the episodes stays up where it is now.’  And it certainly has, this is the eleventh season for the show, and it’s still funny after all these years.  And when I first started the series, Matt Groening and the producers told me that they didn’t look upon the show as a cartoon, but as a drama where the characters are drawn.  And that’s really what has come to pass, the characters are all like people we know in everyday life, the same kind of emotions, the same highs, the same lows, the same joys, the same sadnesses, and all of that that goes with it.  And that has been kind of the focus of my scoring concept for the series.  You will notice that the underscore music for the Simpsons is very different than a typical cartoon, and that’s very intentional because I am now scoring it as a drama with all of the human emotions that go with it.”

How would you describe the role of music in ‘The Simpsons’ television series?

AC: “Music is a very major player at this point.  Not only from the standpoint of the underscore, but especially from the standpoint of the original songs.  We draw from all sorts of influences and it seems that the songs have become a way of advancing the plot points, sometimes more quickly than the script can, which is very interesting.  And I don’t think that there’s another show on television that features music as heavily as ‘The Simpsons’ does.”

Music orchestrated for a 35-piece orchestra in a television series is certainly not the norm.  What is involved in the delivery of thirty or more music cues within a four- to five-day turnaround?  Could you take us through the various processes that culminate in a finished product?

AC: “We usually do what’s called a ‘music spotting’ session on Friday afternoon, where the executive producer, I, a couple of the other producers and my music editor get together and figure out what spots in an episode are to contain music, and what the style of each one of these music cues is going to be, start times, stop times, etcetera.  And once that’s done my music editor prepares a list of all of these music cues with the start times, the stop times and a little paragraph summation of each.  And those are referred to as ‘spotting notes’.  I use the spotting notes as an organizational device to figure out exactly what the instrumentation of my orchestra’s going to be for the week, if there’s any speciality-style cue that I have to deal with, where I have to call in a tuba player, a harmonica player, or an accordion player, etcetera.  And then once he furnishes me with the spotting notes I send the list of players I want to my music contractor, who puts the calls out to the musicians for the following Friday.  My music editor then starts sending me what are called ‘timing notes’, which break down the individual scenes involving music into seconds and hundreds of seconds, where all of the dialogue lines are, all of the pieces of action, all of the cuts, etcetera.  I then proceed to compose my cues, based on those timing notes.  And I compose very strictly to time, I use a computer program called ‘The Auricle Time Processor’, which generates clicks and streamers for the orchestra to hear and see, based on these exact precise timings.  And we can really actually get them down to a hundredth of a second.  So I start working on either Sunday or Monday, depending on how many cues I have for the week, and start at about nine o’clock in the morning and work till about eleven o’clock every night, for four or five days in a row.  We get to the next Friday, and on Friday afternoon I drive into the studio to spot the next episode for the next week.  And then that Friday night I record all of the music that I just composed that week with the thirty-five players.”

What about the orchestration process?  How does all this get notated during the week?

AC: “If it’s an average week and I am feeling full of energy, I end up orchestrating about seventy-five, eighty percent of the episodes myself, for those thirty-five players, on full orchestral scores.  But if it’s a really heavy week, and I have to spend more time just actually composing the music, then I do fine line sketches, fax them to my orchestrator Dell Hake, and he does quite a bit of the orchestration for me.  We have a really good team, and a good process going.  And then of course once the scores are orchestrated they have to be faxed to the music preparation department where all of the individual parts are hand copied or computer copied.  But we have quite a stack of stuff by the time we get there Friday night.  We have an average of thirty cues in an episode, but we’ve had as many as fifty-two cues and a double session for some of the Halloween episodes.”

The latest release of ‘Go Simpsonic with the Simpsons’ features several memorable rearrangements of the Danny Elfman theme.  Do you favour particular orchestration and arrangement platforms or is it all part of the ‘big picture’?

AC: “Each one of those treatments, several of which also appeared on ‘Songs in the Key of Springfield’ were generated by requests from the producers, that kind of reflect back on what has happened in the particular episode.  When I did the Australian version for instance, using the didjeridu and the little outback native kind of a feel, that had to do with the episode ‘Bart Versus Australia’, and so we were kind of trying to tie up the episode with everybody remembering what the episode was about.  And it’s pretty challenging because Danny’s theme wasn’t meant to be recomposed that way, it’s quite different than many of those versions end up being, and I have to compose a lot of new material to keep it in the spirit of what the request has been.  And I’m open to everything, and have to be because of the demands of the series.  I have my favourite musical styles, but for the most part we have such a huge cross section of things that we do on the series that I just have to be open to every possible style.“

Sonic Youth, Sting, Bette Midler, the Ramones, Tony Bennett, Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, Tito Puente and Cypress Hill represent some of the many guest appearances in the series.  How do you generally collaborate with other artists?  How does the show’s multitude of songs come together?

AC: “There is not one set way, each case is a little bit different.  In the case of Aerosmith, I believe the executive producers flew to Boston and recorded Aerosmith there in their hometown.  In the case of Paul McCartney, David Mirkin, one of the executive producers, flew to London and recorded Paul in his own studio.  In the case of Tito Puente, I wrote the music here, we recorded it with my orchestra as demos, and then sent an additional copy of the parts, along with the tape of the music to Tito’s band on the road.  So they got a chance to go over it before they got to Los Angeles for some of their gigs.  They came here to play at the Hollywood Bowl, and we cornered them on a Saturday morning, did a separate section with them, and recorded the music there.  And as far as the songs, the writers are the lyricists, the lyrics appear as part of the script every week, and they’re designed to move the story along.  So I am faxed script pages, which have the lyrics on them, I have consultations on the phone with the various lyric writers to get an idea of what the focus of the song is, and then I compose the song to the lyrics, all the time, it’s not the other way round.”

What will Alf Clausen do in the next millennium?

AC: “(Laughs) Well, assuming that the lights are on and my computer is still working – of course I’m a Macintosh guy, so I don’t have to worry about that (laughs) – I will just keep doing what I do.  There seems to be no end in sight of this series at the moment, the ratings are good, the creative level is high and we keep spitting them out.”

‘Go Simpsonic with the Simpsons: More Original Music from the Television Series’ out on Rhino Music.  For further information visit the Alf Clausen Web Site, the Rhino Records Web Site, or the Twentieth Century Fox Web Site.


'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #68, December 1, 1999


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