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Beyond the stage: With Sean Beeson

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: July 6, 2015, 2:49 PM IST
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So you thought a random musician is one who sits up early in the morning exploring his vocal or instrumental genius from a lower to an upper note of musical alphabets, unkempt and indifferent otherwise about a materialistic world that exists beyond his melodious reigns? Or you might have stopped beyond a point while wondering about the narrow career scopes one has if he tries to adopt music as a career. Or you may just not have thought at all about any of these, because music was never any more than a passing hobby or a pleasant break for you! But for some, it is both the beginning and end of the world! Here’s welcoming in my portfolio of blogs, a musician who sits composing in another part of the world, travelling more than half of the year, and still finds time to accommodate my random request of exploring the unknown from the life of an artist! Half this blog is what he wrote back in response to my endless questions; rest is what I understood of him…and I know I have got him right! Starting this column with a basic introduction, for those who didn’t hear about him earlier.

Sean Beeson’s music can be heard on film & television, and across many videogame platforms. His music has been featured in film trailers, including Disney’s 'Alice in Wonderland' (Johnny Depp & Tim Burton), the 2007 musical film 'Hairspray' with John Travolta, as well as television shows on Fox & NBC. Based in Ohio, United States, Beeson also writes music for concerts and stage shows, including works for chamber ensemble, symphonic band, and orchestra. Soloists currently performing his music include Grammy award winning percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, British pianist Philip Smith, and four-time world champion snare drummer Jeff Queen. In 2011, Beeson was commissioned by BalletMet Columbus to score the world premier of “Illuminated Tapestry” with choreographer Jimmy Orrante. His efforts were offered a testimony by The Columbus Dispatch which wrote, “Beeson’s score makes this ballet both captivating and emotionally charged” (2012). Sean has taught media composition at Capital University (Ohio), and speaks at lectures and conferences, including the Philadelphia GameXpo, Game Developer's Conference, Yale's Game Audio Symposium, and at the University of Texas.

It was his natural interest and ease with instruments that brought Sean close to music. Before he thought much about his options, music had become so overpowering in his life that career or livelihood or lifestyle didn’t have any other language left! “In many ways, music found me,” he says. “I was always interested in the mechanics behind musical instruments and just found myself sitting at piano composing original pieces before I even knew what I was playing. My creativity preceded my abilities as a musician. Love, happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, depression, and joy – all these emotions are part of the creative process, and like most teenagers, I experienced them too. Music has since remained the outlet through which I am able to express or control these emotions!”

Driven more by a natural instinct of thematically representing life through an audio medium, Sean thanks technology as the only partner to his musical sensibilities. Many themes come directly from the tip of his tongue already improvised, may be because he doesn’t necessarily sit to create them on demand but his brain emotes more musically than otherwise! There can't be a formula to project love or fear or anxiety. “It is a creative impulse that motivates my writing and composing, but it’s my technical training that guides it,” says Sean. “Half of what I do fails miserably. The other half I manage to massage into something that is palatable. Technology transforms these ideas from my brain into something tangible, so that you hear exactly what I mean! Without technology, my creativity would be much restricted.”

But isn’t technology blamed often for enhancing the audio effect and impairing the contribution of artists considerably? Beeson seems to have an entirely different understanding with technology and I get to learn an attitude that defines and presents art more openly! It is called flexibility. As someone who was born as an artist/composer into the technology, he has no problems using it! In fact, it is the only friend who helps him realize his creative visions. He agrees that technology can get in the way of creativity, but he believes that the villain here is not technology but a half-knowledge about its impact and a myopic approach of using it without being sure of what you are aiming at the end! You have to be sorted in your brain about what you want. That is when you use technology rather than the technology using you! Those who embrace technology find a way to make it work with their art. Sean explains this. “Sometimes I have to compromise my vision in order to achieve a result, but as a freelance composer, that is something I deal with on a daily basis. Skills and training should never be overlooked though!”

Well, it must be taking an artist huge courage to confess that half of what he does fails miserably! But in creative professions like these, success is certainly not a one-time formula which once cracked, remains for life! I wonder how does an artist handle rejections. What about the ego or pride that comes as an after-effect of hard work? What Sean has to say about this reaches the heart. Performance obviously, is the biggest leveller! That’s a personal journey; neither collective nor professional! Failure becomes a big word when you fail yourself. Till the world fails you, you know there’s always a next time! The artist says, “I often feel my soul being touched when I am playing the piano during Mass. Often when a song or hymn ends, I continue to play on, improvising in any direction that I feel like taking the piece at the moment. Sometimes I travel so far away from the original music that I end up creating new stuff, on the spot! As if my fingers are being moved or lifted by some external force; I can just shut my eyes, allowing the body and mind to move in unison. As someone who normally fumbles on the keys, this is an enlightening an uplifting experience”.

I probe further to understand the quality and nuances of that life. What I get to know is absolutely hilarious. For the world where Sean belongs to, it is common to receive a “temp track” when working with clients. This is a piece of music (or pieces) that sound similar to what the score should be for the project. This goes back by a few years, when he was working with a game developer and was asked to compose a piece of music in a very familiar style, light-hearted magical adventure. “They asked if I wanted any source or temp music for reference. I said sure, but we also agreed I could just get started in the meantime as I would be close to the final sound. The next day I delivered the first pass of the piece to the client. They weren't thrilled about it, as it didn't capture more of the exciting emotions they wanted. They then sent me a piece of music, from another composer as reference. They didn't know who the composer was, and asked, can you make it sound more like this? The piece they sent me was my own music. They didn't know; I didn't tell them. Just nailed it in the next pass.” Sitting in two different corners of the world, we laugh together endlessly. I am reminded of a senior colleague, almost double my designation, who bowed down by half his height to wish me “good morning” at an annual meet because he thought I was his new boss!

Sean is one of the most veteran composers for games and has composed for XBOX-360, Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation, and iPhone/Pad, etc. with soundtracks recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, among others! And this is one world I wish to know more about! How does one compose music for games? Is it any different from television or films? Is there any difference in the engagement of the audience here which you are meant to enhance with music? Sean clarifies, “Game music contains a lot of non-linear music, as opposed to non-linear or non-changing music that is often found in linear mediums. Often with game scores, I am asked to compose specific musical conditions and events, as well as broader emotions. Linear media possesses just as many opportunities to score emotions, but does require a different approach to creating the score. Both forms of media can pull any emotion from the viewer, but game scores can be reactive and proactive in nature. Imagine someone who has invested 50 hours into a game and the bond they will have with the score!”

Having travelled a long distance, today the composer and his takers are at a comfortable space with each other. A lot is left to him to be taken over, thus dividing responsibility while working as a team. Sean relaxes as he points out, “Today while composing for television or film, they don’t necessarily need to tell me the music of a scene. Rather, the musical portfolio is sufficiently dependant on me. The further I travelled with my career, the more clients tend to trust my creative judgement! Often I am hired by people who know or exactly what it is they are hiring me for! So they may have creative inputs or feedback, but they usually are very receptive of my ideas and music.”

What are the insecurities in your business, is my last question to the Ohio based composer. “It is hard to say,” he wonders. “Right now the entertainment industry, especially games, is at their peak. They are hot, and people are buying them like there is no tomorrow. Budgets are getting cut, companies are shutting down, contracts are lost, but as a whole, the industry is strong! The outlook I think is positive and is growing towards more independent developing, free from a traditional publishing route, similar to books (ebooks), tv (youtube), music (spotify), and news. Of course, this surge in popularity has greatly increased the number of composers seeking a career in game music. If anything, this over saturation of the industry, if at all there exists one, is a large insecurity!”

Music is a vast industry in itself. There’s no limit to which you can extend your entertainment offering in the music is correct. Thanks to technology and communication, the career prospects through music too have grown beyond the stage where you engage directly with a bunch of audience. And you can simultaneously develop a rapport with an “indirect” audience when you score for games or other entertainment products where music is not what they come for but without it the product stands incomplete and impactless.

Across the ages, music as a form of performing art has always been about some emotions that the artist chooses to articulate to a larger audience; how effectively he manages to transfer those emotions in the brains of his audience and bring them up on the same page as he, determines his greatness! Here’s wishing more success to Sean Beeson in the days to come.
First Published: July 6, 2015, 2:49 PM IST
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