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Music Students Score for Film with Seasoned Major Movie Composer

Ever wonder how music for film scores is put together? You should have been in the McNally Smith College of Music auditorium recently when a 27-piece orchestra recorded four McNally Smith student film compositions.

Using the cinematic images from the highly acclaimed Planet Earth film, 10 McNally Smith string students, plus many professional local Twin Cities’ musicians and students from neighboring colleges, joined in the endeavor to put audio to video. According to Sean McMahon, who helped conduct the session and is part of the music college’s illustrious Composition Faculty, select scenes were chosen from the movie and the “soundtrack” was recorded while projecting the film images onto a large screen in the music college’s auditorium.

McMahon is no stranger to the art. He has worked in various roles on film scores for major motion pictures including Spider-Man 3 and Dreamgirls, and most recently composed the score for The Grudge 3. Originally from Toronto, he lived and worked in Los Angeles for six years prior to joining the McNally Smith faculty. While in Los Angeles, much of his work on film scores was under the direction of prominent Hollywood composer Christopher Young, whom McMahon first met while completing post-graduate work in Film Music at the University of Southern California.

In addition to Spider-Man 3, McMahon’s work for Young included orchestrations for the film Ghost Rider (where he also played guitar) and the DreamWorks picture The Uninvited. He was in charge of score coordination for Beauty Shop, and many other projects. He also worked with successful film composer John Ottman, orchestrating such films as Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer and The Invasion.

During the recent weekend session, current McNally Smith student Adam Conrad was the only student to conduct his own piece and synchronized the music to fit the movie. “That is very challenging to do!” notes McMahon.

Ryan McNally and Todd Smith, two McNally Smith grads, helped with recording the event. The orchestra also played student pieces by Michael Holloway (“his piece was very ‘Hollywood-esque’”, McMahon noted; Sam Sparling “(who felt some trepidation going into the session but actually was applauded by the orchestra for his work”); and a lovely piece by Scott Place (“a kind of gypsy waltz for solo violin”).

“It went exceedingly well!” McMahon said of the overall exercise. “The professional string players that sat in got an opportunity to do something they normally could do only in LA or New York, and our own student composers received a nice copy of their pieces that they can take with them when they graduate. Most are going to end up looking for work in the entertainment industry so it’s a huge perk to have this, especially since so many composition students at other music colleges are often forced to rely on synthesized strings for projects like this.”

McMahon said as a former student at another music school that there were never the large rooms like the McNally auditorium to record sound to image. “It’s usually only smaller rooms for doing this and thus you can’t deliver the sound that we got in the much larger space like we got here. The way we did it was the way it’s done in Los Angeles, and it was a great experience for everyone involved. Even the professional players who joined our students really loved it!”

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