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May 7, 2007
Alf Clausen Scores High with The Simpsons
Composer conducts the animated series into its 400th episode by Jon Burlingame
CENTURY CITY, Calif., May 4—It's 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon at the Newman Scoring Stage on the 20th Century-Fox lot, and composer Alf Clausen has just ascended the podium to address the 32 musicians in the orchestra.
"Welcome to the 400th episode of The Simpsons," he says, "a watershed moment. It's been an amazing ride and I have all of you to thank for the success of it. You're responsible for the success of this whole run. It's a great team effort, and it's not over yet – We should make some music, I guess!"
And with that, he gave the downbeat for cue 1M3 for episode JABF15, "You Kent Always Say What You Want," scheduled to air May 20 on the Fox network. After a brief rehearsal, he called for a "take" – a first recording of the six-second piece. It was Take 24,279 since the first Simpsons recording session in 1989, according to music editor Chris Ledesma, who has kept meticulous track of every piece of Simpsons music ever recorded.
Over the next three hours, Clausen would record 20 cues, from three seconds to 37 seconds in length. He donned headphones in order to hear comments from Ledesma, engineer Rick Riccio and orchestrators Del Hake and Scott Clausen (Alf's son, composer for Disney's Cory in the House) who were listening carefully and reviewing scores in the glassed-in booth a few yards behind him.
And in order to ensure proper synchronization of music to picture, he conducted while watching a TV monitor that showed a combination of finished color animation and incomplete, black-and-white animatics.
As always with Clausen's Simpsons music, the range of styles was extraordinary, from the faux "news theme" of Kent Brockman's "Smartline" program to the circus-like "Itchy & Scratchy" music and some very tender underscore for the quieter, more emotional moments for the Simpsons clan.
Clausen's special touch with The Simpsons – which has won him two Emmys and another 18 nominations since 1992 – involves authenticity when evoking the tone and color of all kinds of music. For a rendition of the old Midnight Cowboy movie theme, he brought in top harmonica player Tommy Morgan, who has often performed the original in concerts and recordings with its composer John Barry.
The 400th episode of the series was an event marked both by a celebratory cake for the musicians and by the presentation of a plaque to Clausen by American Federation of Musicians Local 47 president Hal Espinosa. "It's nice to know there are writers and producers who insist on live music," Espinosa said, referring to the fact that most TV series are now scored with electronic music.
Addressing the issue of traditional orchestral music in television – an increasingly rare commodity – Fox Music President Robert Kraft talked about "the three-dimensionality of human beings playing" that deepened the viewing experience. "The music is a character in the show, and it adds character. Orchestras tell stories, and Alf tells stories in all these episodes with orchestral music. I don't think it could be any other way," he said.
Although it will be the 400th episode of the series, it was actually Clausen's 382nd original score for the show (he joined on episode 4 of the second season). "It's been a wonderful ride," he said after the session. "We work so hard on this show, and have our noses buried in stuff every week, that we really don't understand the impact that the show has had on American popular culture."
Clausen's success with The Simpsons stems from his original interview with creator Matt Groening, who told him that the show was "not a cartoon, but a drama where the characters are drawn," and that he wanted the music to reflect that. Clausen, who had scored many hours of other shows from Moonlighting to ALF ("no relation," he's quick to say), understood the mandate and has had the job ever since. "That's why the score is different on The Simpsons than the usual animated show, because we score the drama of the characters."
The score for the 400th episode was a little shorter than most – often he writes 30 or 35 cues per episode, and he must do so in a matter of days. Asked how scoring The Simpsons has changed him as a composer, he replied: "It has honed my skill at absorbing what it is about a piece of music that connects with the public. It's one thing to say you can master a style; it's another thing to be able to figure out what it is about that style that connects with the audience and makes them remember it. I think that I've gotten a handle on that."
In addition to Clausen's two CD collections of Simpsons songs and scores, the composer recently released his own jazz album, Swing Can Really Hang You Up the Most, featuring an all-star big band of top Hollywood musicians.
©2007 Jon Burlingame