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Film music moves from background to center stage at Kilbourn Hall event

Matt Wittmeyer
Matt Wittmeyer Photography
Beal Institute Director Mark Watters, left, will direct “Visual Music 4.0: An Evening of World-Premiere Film and Music Collaborations" at the Eastman School of Music.

When Disney’s animation studios tell you, “I want the music to be green,” what does that sound like?

That’s the kind of challenge often faced by Mark Watters, director of the Eastman School of Music’s Beal Institute for Film Music and Contemporary Media. “Visual Music 4.0: An Evening of World-Premiere Film and Music Collaborations,” presents a few answers to elusive directorial decrees that sometimes call for green music.

It’s an evening of live music played to film at 8 p.m. Saturday at Eastman’s Kilbourn Hall. It will also be offered as a livestream at

“Everyone will have an opinion after they hear it,” Watters says of the soundtrack demands placed by filmmakers. “But they are not real good at telling you what it is they want. And that’s where it’s frustrating, because there’s rarely a scene where there is only one way to do it.”

Watters has been the music director of two Olympic games, and his television work has won six Emmys. He has been a guest conductor for prestigious orchestras such as the Boston Pops, and has ventured into pop music with Trisha Yearwood, Carrie Underwood, Beyoncé, Mary Jo Blige and John Legend.

Saturday’s program will be performed by a 30-piece section of the student-run Empire Film and Media Ensemble. The show will include Eastman alumnus Jeff Beal’s music for “Go For the Moon,” a celebration in 2019 of the Apollo space program, with the original video that projected an image of the Saturn rocket onto the Washington Monument. “At one point it takes off,” Watters says.

A still shot of a visual projection of Apollo 13 on the Washington Monument
Photo provided
The show will include Eastman alumnus Jeff Beal's music for “Go For the Moon,” a celebration in 2019 of the Apollo space program, with the original video that projected an image of the Saturn rocket onto the Washington Monument.

“Elemental Forces” by another Eastman grad, Dave Rivello, is a collaboration with video of the Rochester dance troupe BIODANCE. And there will be two scores by Watters: “Alice’s Little Parade,” a silent Disney short from 1925 that was originally presented without music, and his suite from “Coraline.”

Watters’ “Coraline” is illustrative of where soundtrack music has gone in recent years. The novel by Neil Gaiman was made into an animated film. And then, it became a video game. But the film soundtrack, which Watters did not write, “did not have the energy the game needed,” Watters said. So he was commissioned to write the soundtrack for the video game.

Video game music is not a bad gig: “The budgets are some of the biggest soundtrack budgets being done,” Watters says. “It’s not unusual to have an 80-piece orchestra perform a big game score.”

In fact, Watters considers “Coraline” to be one of his best compositions ever. “One of the few projects I’ve done in my career where I was allowed to sound like me,” he says.

Were he left to his own devices, Watters says, “I probably would write in a more, oh for lack of a better word, sophisticated style? I would probably be a little more adventurous harmonically. I’d be willing to take a few more chances than I would when I’m being asked to sound like somebody else.”

Of course, it depends on who that somebody else is.

“If I were asked to sound like a composer I really detest, that would be a problem.”

The soundtrack composer works in a world, Watters says, where, “The music should never be the star, the music is always serving the visual.”

“Some of the best film music is music the audience is not even aware that it is listening to.”

The soundtrack composer must be a team player. “When you are composing for the concert stage,” Watters says, “you are really serving only yourself.”

The soundtrack writer’s rules are: The music cannot be too busy. There can be no brass section obscuring dialogue.

Oh, some soundtrack composers have gotten away with orchestral murder. John Williams’s famous fanfare for “Star Wars” is a bit over the top; even Williams has admitted so. But it was Williams’ work that inspired Watters to pursue the profession. I was so enamored with his music,” Watters says, “I just wanted to do what he did.”

And he would go on to do just that: Watters joined Williams to co-conduct the 2002 Academy Awards. Watters places Williams -- “the LeBron James of the film community,” he says -- in the soundtrack triumvirate that includes Ennio Morricone, perhaps best known for the eerie whistle and chant of the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Also in that group: Jerry Goldsmith. He did the scores for “The Omen” and “Chinatown.” And… “The Satan Bug.”

“Jerry was not as good about choosing his projects as John has been,” Watters says. “Jerry wrote some great scores for some very mediocre movies that have not stood the test of time. Unfortunately.”

The music can rise above its surroundings. Such as George Maharis trying to prevent an evil millionaire, who has already destroyed a small Florida town, from unleashing the stolen Satan Bug pathogen on the rest of the world.

“There are times you work for people that are inspiring,” Watters says he warns his students. “And then people that are not.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.