“A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians,” rock maven Frank Zappa once said, rather uncharitably about those who write music.
George Burt, a composer recently transplanted to Sonoma from Los Angeles, probably wouldn’t mind Zappa’s summation of the craft and is just as likely to agree with him as is to laugh. A veteran film composer and educator, the affable Burt moved to Sonoma with his wife six months ago and continues to compose, having recently completed a symphony and an octet dubbed “The Mystery Hour.”
As with many in his profession, Burt’s musical odyssey began as a child seated in front of a piano. The instrument was not Burt’s native passion as a six year-old but his tutelage proved mercifully brief.
“My mother said ‘Well, you don’t have to practice anymore.’ I said ‘How come?’ She said ‘Your piano teacher, Mrs. Miller – she died.’ Actually, she hung herself. I was six years old and could imagine her in her sensible shoes, grey stockings kind of swaying back and forth. I felt bad, but not too bad, I went back to playing with my little cars – I was six and happy I didn’t have to practice,” Burt recounts drolly.
Later, musician neighbors presented Burt with a saxophone, which he mastered, eventually leading to “what seemed a thousand shows” performed between his adolescence and early thirties.
In was in high school, however, that Burt discovered parallel thirds, the rudiments of harmony, which would spur his early forays into composition. Impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel likewise piqued his interest. But it was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that galvanized Burt’s burgeoning passion for composition and in many ways set the aesthetic course he still follows.
“I thought immediately that I was on the wrong track and I’ve been in trouble ever since,” laughs Burt, who paid his tuition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music working as a deckhand in the Merchant Marines and touring with bands as a “doubler” or a multi-instrumentalist (woodwinds are his specialty). Eventually, Burt ventured to Los Angeles with the hope of studying with lauded Austrian composer Arnold Shoenberg, a notion that evaporated when Burt learned that the maestro had died the very day he had arrived (Burt would later earn degrees in music from Mills College, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley where he studied with influential composer Roger Sessions).
Burt eventually found himself working in the screen trade – his first score was for a low-rent horror flick that screen that he sneaked to the drive-in to see, for fear of being publicly associated with the film. The experience, however, proved edifying to the composer who would ultimately work with filmmaking legend Robert Altman, for whom he scored Fool For Love, based on the Sam Shepard play of the same title and Secret Honor, a one-man drama depicting President Nixon in the throes of a stream-of-conscious confessional. Throughout, the various permutations of his career, Burt’s creative process has remained essentially the same:
“Some people work very fast and write the first thing that comes to their mind — and often it sounds like that, but that’s how they work. Others write two notes and then erase one. That’s being a little too careful,” the composer explains. “For me I just kind of sketch. It’s kind of like discovery. When I get an idea I just hope that it develops into an extended piece. I work out of curiosity in way to see what I can do with it and see what ideas it leads to. That’s the interesting part.”
There’s an adage popular among filmmakers that an effective score is one that is essentially “unheard” by the audience. Burt concurs, inasmuch as the score should serve the film not itself, but suggests not enough due is paid what scores actually accomplish.
“Mentors say you don’t want to write anything that’s too noticeable otherwise it gets in the way of the film and so forth. My argument is that if you take the music away, you really notice its absence. Therefore you have noticed its presence,” says Burt who wrote The Art of Film Music, a tome widely used in universities.
“Suppose you had a shot of New York and you wanted to express the fact that a character was lonely. You could use xylophones and horns, you could have no music at all – which might be the best thing. Or you could have solo flute and will probably identify with the sense of loneliness,” says Burt. “Take a little cottage in the bottom of a canyon, it’s eight o’clock at night, smokes coming out the chimney. You can imagine several things going in that cottage. It could be a family happily putting the children to bed or someone could have just killed somebody. You could make that distinction right off with the right kind of music.”