Transcription: 0355 - Gary Chang

Released: April 25, 2021

Note: This transcription was edited by Gary Chang.

Darwin: Okay, today I have the great opportunity to speak with someone I have wanted to talk to for quite a while. Actually I've wanted to talk to for about two decades, really. I first heard of him back when I was working with Grant Richter on the Wiard 300 Synthesizer System, this composer called up and wanted to start working on putting a system together. And he became one of the stalwarts of the Wiard Synthesizer user base. But his name came up in several other interviews and we've finally been able to get hooked up here and I very happy to have a chat with Gary Chang. Hey Gary, how's it going?

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to have this discussion. So I know you from this interaction at Wiard, but I also know you from the incredible body of work that you had. If I look up IMDB they got you listed at like over 80 different projects that you worked on, which is just like an endless number of actual compositions and stuff. Why don't you fill us in a little bit about that body of work and what are some of the highlights of that?

Gary: Well, I've always portrayed myself as “an obscure electronic music composer whose side gig is scoring Hollywood movies and tv shows”. I got into scoring movies by being a session musician in the eighties, which eventually led me to work with Giorgio Moroder. The first job I did with Georgio was The Never Ending Story.

So, as it would go….

The composer asks you, “Here's a piece, here's the arrangement, can you put it together as electronic music?

So you do it and they like it.

Next time you get a call back, it's a similar piece, but this time, the piece is half arranged. “Can you finish the arrangement and do the electronics just like last time?”

And then the next time is “Here's the piece, can you arrange it similarly to the last time and finish it”

And, eventually, it becomes, “Would you write a piece and arrange and produce it like the ones we have been doing?”

Eventually you generate more confidence from the people who you work for. A couple of movies in, I ended up just ghosting the entire movie for Giorgio. I didn't get any credit for it, but Giorgio paid me handsomely and I got to score a big budget Hollywood movie using his studio. I learned a lot about what I set out to eventually do for the next 35 years doing projects like this. The first movie that I actually have a credit on (additional music), is The Breakfast Club. I contributed half an hour of music to that soundtrack. Other movies that I scored, (the ones that everyone knows), include Under Siege and The Island of Dr. Moreau. I scored eight movies for John Frankenheimer. I worked with a number of notable directors….

Peter Grenader , Jill Fraser, Chas Smith and I went to CalArts together. We all studied with Morton Subotnick and during the 1976-77 academic year, the “Who's Who of 20th Century Classical Music” wandering through the halls of CalArts. So, I have an academic background, too. Presently I'm working on a short animated film for a filmmaker named Steven Socki and, Steve and I are CalArt-ians. This is the third movie that we're working on.

Darwin: That's an amazing overview. And I have to say that I was pretty shocked because I knew of some of the work that you had done, but I was really kind of blown away by the size of the list, quite frankly, and just a sense that this ha this represented a tremendous amount of work. Now, one of the things I especially noticed is that there were time periods where you did a phenomenal number of movie scores all in a single year. In doing this were you doing largely electronic scores or were you doing compositions that got orchestrated and performed by an orchestra? How did it work, where you were able to do so many different projects in a single year?

Gary: Actually, they were all kind of all over the place. All of them employed a certain percentage of electronic and certain percentage of acoustic music. The larger the budget, the more orchestral and larger ensembles were used. It's interesting because part of the gift of my career was, I was able to work repeatedly for a number of filmmakers and that made it simple because less “dating”, so to speak.

Darwin: Yeah, no doubt. You probably at some point you ended up with a kind of a shared language so that you could understand each other, right?

Gary: Exactly. They had confidence that I could actually pull it off. I think for every young composer, when you first get a job, they want you because you're different and unique.

For me, about three quarters of the way through virtually every project, the filmmaker would call me up and say, “Hey, I just wanted to ask, can you just do really normal things too?!”

And you have to basically show that “yes, I can, here's one”. But you gotta think that coming from a background where, I've had had masterclasses with people like John Cage and Elliot Carter, when you to say, “Let's go outside…”. Well, I could get pretty far out!

I had a lot of fun doing it though. It was a lot of pressure. To be honest with you it doesn't make me upset that like I'm off the hot seat at this point. There's something wonderful about that. I feel like the pandemic really kind of just brought it home, which is “Geez, not that much has changed here. I've been living and working out of my house for going on 40 years. It's kind of bizarre, maybe I was all set to do this. Right?”

Darwin: You were well-prepared. You dropped a couple of hints about your background, but one of the things I like doing in my podcast is really digging into people's background and learning more about how they got to be the artists that they are. One of the things when we first looked up our zoom call, you're in your studio, surrounded by amazing synthesis technology. It's clear that with your background is sort of a session synthesis that you have a lot of facility with the technology of it, but you also have the musical chops to pull off this huge variety of tasks that's necessary to score a movie. I'm wondering where you're coming from, that all of these things sort of like fit the Gary Chang mold. What was your background that drew you in the music? What's the background that drew you into technology? How did those things mesh? Was it in CalArts? Was it in place long before then? And who are some of the people that really lit up the landscape for you and helped you become the artists that you are?

Gary: Well, first of all my mom and dad. My mom and dad met in Boston. She was a student at The New England Conservatory of Music. She was the mezzo soprano, and my father was getting his ScD. at MIT. This might reveal where my background comes from. My mom was a musician who sang and had musical friends when we were growing up. We listened to music all the time.

My father was a mining engineer. After MIT, his first job was at the university of Minnesota, which is why I was born in Minneapolis. My father was a hi-fi buff and he built his first stereo system in the fifties. So there's little Gary downstairs in the basement, hanging out with his dad, who was soldering up a storm. And it sort of like, maybe it's the solder fumes or something that led me down this path of technology.

That's one thing that happened. The second thing is I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and when I applied to colleges, of course I got into Carnegie Mellon University, but I didn't want to stay in Pittsburgh. I ended up going to Tufts University in Boston for my first year of college.

I'll be honest with you - I absolutely hated it. I really didn't like it. As a matter of fact, in January of that year I auditioned for Carnegie Mellon, got in, and planned to transfer the following fall. The interesting thing about this circumstance is that it gave me the spring semester where essentially I took conducting and piano lessons and modern dance and just really kind of fucked off that spring!

So, during that spring, I'm in one of the student lounges in a quadrangle one afternoon, playing the piano. And a gentleman came in and sat down and listened for a moment. After a while we got into a conversation and we talked about music and eventually my opinion of Boston came out and I said, I hated living there, because it's just a city of screaming children, you go to a concert and you can't hear the music because everyone's in the audience yelling. He listened, considering what I was saying.

Then, he said, “What are you doing Friday?”

I said, Nothing!”

and he said, “Well look, I'm going to take out to dinner and I wanted to show you MY Boston”.

So I went out and we had a really nice dinner. After dinner, we walked up Boylston Street to the Jazz Workshop.

We stood in line and I said to him, “I hope you realize I'm 18 years old, I can't get in”. (At the time the drinking age in Boston was 21).

So the gentleman pulls out his driver's license; at the time, the Massachusetts Driver's Licenses didn't have pictures on them…. He said, “Look, five-eight, black hair, Brown eyes… Here - use my drivers license for ID!”

I'm kind of uptight, thinking that I'm going to get thrown out of here, but they let me in! And there it is. I walk into The Jazz Workshop that evening there is the Herbie Hancock Sextet. And there's Herbie with his Rhodes and a wahwah pedal and the Echoplex and all this stuff. This place is like church; it was packed and everyone loved the hell out of music. And of course I did too; I even got a chance to actually speak to Herbie during a break and got to ask him about the structure of the music and all this kind of stuff. Anyway, after the end of the evening, I was just completely blown away….

Then I said, “Well, thank you, man. I really appreciate it. Here's your driver's license back”.

And then he said, “Oh, no, just keep it. I'll get another!”

That spring, with that Driver’s License, I saw Herbie's band again, 5 nights at a time. I saw that band play on 2 album tours, first the Mwandishi set, and then, later that spring, I saw the Crossing set. Five days, three sets a night through all of that. It was amazing. Similarly, I saw Miles, (Miles with Keith Jarrett!) I saw Return to Forever, and Weather Report. It completely changed my thinking about what music was. Part of it was because of the humans, these guys were such cool people who were actually making a living. These guys were actually dressed well, they were playing amazing music, and they're were having fun. They were getting paid to do something that was amazing. It wasn't this frumpy academic or classical music path. It was something different. So when I got to Carnegie Mellon, the interesting thing about that is Carnegie Mellon was like, “Well, that's really great, but deal with that later - right now this is a conservatory - you're going to learn harmony, counterpoint; you're going to learn the basics.”

So I was completely resigned to that. I thought, well, okay, if this is what it takes, then I'll do it.

In the spring of 73, Paul Dvorak, (who is a professor emeritas at North Texas state), was a PhD in composition student at Carnegie Mellon. He came into the composers forum one afternoon and said, “Hey, Carnegie Mellon just scored an artificial intelligence grant that only at this point, MIT and Stanford have had. So the first thing they did was they went and they bought the Bell Laboratories library of software, and in it included music software. So, is there anyone who's interested in this?”

Two of us raised our hands.

You have to remember, this is 1972, right? We could literally live at the computer center for the $10,000 of computer time that Computer Science gave the 3 of us to use! For the next three years, we messed around with this, and it was kind of a strange thing. It was Stanford Score and Music 10, and basically going over to the computer center and with the text editor, writing some scripts and then sending them down to queue, then running across the campus to another room that had a PDP-9 in it, (a hybrid digital/analog computer). We could take the digital analog converters and plug them into an amplifier and hear BZZZWHOPPP - literally hear five seconds of noise and go, okay, that's what we did. That's the funny thing is that was my background in technology. CMU had an ARP 2,600 there too. (I played the 2600 with the orchestra for Paul’s Doctoral Recital!)

All the while, I am simultaneously channeling my, Keith Jarrett, Joseph Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, dragging around a Rhodes piano with wahwah and Echoplex, making space noises. Add then, the 2600 to do interesting different gigs and stuff like that around Pittsburgh. All while getting my bachelor's degree in music composition. So that's kind of the funny thing, it wasn't CalArts that widened my perception initially. It was something else. It was that semester in Boston made realize. Where I saw Patrick Gleason and others - people I've known for years.

That's why I say I'm kind of like Forest Gump. How did I end up meeting these people? Then a few years later I'm standing there having conversations with Jacob Druckman or Morton Feldman, and then later on like as in pop music, I got to work with my heroes. I got to work with Weather Report. I spend a day editing a piece of music with Jaco.

Darwin: Unreal. How did you make the move from the East coast to the West coast? What made that transition? Was it to go to CalArts or did you head that direction anyway?

Gary: Well, it all dawned on me that there are a wider horizons other than Pittsburgh, no offense to my Pittsburgh friends, but the interesting thing is Richard Corrigan, the first president of CalArts was an ex-Dean of the Fine Arts College at Carnegie Mellon University. He moved from Carnegie Mellon to NYU, where he started the first multimedia art program, which included Subotnick and Nam June Paik. And all of these people wandered out to California to CalArts when CalArts was created, right? One could go to the Carnegie Mellon Library and find the CalArts catalogs. There was some sort of bizarre link to it. Aesthetically, CalArts, was a new music satellite. And, I cut my teeth with Mort, basically helping him do his projects. We did the Game Room and we did the first Ghost pieces and stuff like that. Just helping him technically, it was an amazing experience. And I have a lot of gratitude towards Mort what I learned from him.

Darwin: Yeah. Well, it sounds like an amazing experience. And, I know so many people who've gone through the Cal art systems in many generational passes, but it always seems like it's a place where groups of people kind of come together and become sort of a generation of artists. They kind of clump together at CalArts and then expand out. Right?

Gary: The funny thing about it though, Wayne Slauson, (then the Dean of Music at the University of Pittsburgh) said this when I met him in 1977 after I had went to CalArts, “You know, all of you guys from CalArts are so different. I can't for the life of me codify what you guys are or what you do. It's so diverse.”

And that's really the interesting mystique of CalArts. But it's not everything - I don't sit there and drift back, or wax romantically about my experience at CalArts. You know, it's just another one of those things. I loved my experience as a professional as well. I've had a lot of fun doing what I've done in my life.

So, growing up with a musician and engineer, then using a fake id to talk to Herbie Hancock in the club when I'm 18. And then the next thing is when I'm 21, having a masterclasses with The Twentieth Century Classical Masters. And then a few years later, I'm in a recording studio with Robbie Robertson or Giorgio Moroder. And, part of the bizarre aspect of it for me is, well, does being Chinese American have anything to do with it? You know, maybe it does because I don't really fit any of the molds. You know what I'm saying? Like when I walked into the Record Plant back in the seventies, you hardly ever saw any Asian people involved in the music and the music business. So I think it's interesting because on one side of it, I was involved with technology, so I could just kind of ride my stereotype.

Darwin: Yeah. That makes sense. So the way that you started getting into session work then was it simply because both through Carnegie Mellon and your interactions at CalArts, especially working with Morton, which is gonna like be a masterclass in synthesis techniques, is it just that you had enough facility that you could kind of go into this new world and help people realize their dreams? Was that how you made your entre?

Gary: Not really, well, here's the thing. You gotta think, first of all, when I got out of grad school I was broke just like everybody else. But one thing I managed to do was I managed to manipulate my situation to own and build my Serge Modular system. And that's the next group of people that probably to discuss in my career that are important is Serge and the group of people that's surrounded Serge Modular Music at Serge’s lab in Hollywood - Serge Tcherepnin, Jill Fraser, Kevin Braheny, Darrel Johansen, Peter Grenader, Scot Gresham Lancaster and Ann Graham. It's interesting because, it's hard to figure out what are you going to do with your life? You just got out of school and you feel like, I've accomplished this and this and this, but you go out and you show your wares around.

And for me half of them were saying, “it's not good enough”.

I’m thinking, “I spent six months writing this piece!”

They are thinking, “Brahms spent 17 years writing this first symphony”

Half of the people would say that, and the other half would say, “This is fantastic. Let's go in the studio tomorrow and make 10 of them”.

So it's sort of like, oh, I get it, I don't have the chops here either way!

So part of it for me was I was broke, and then, I needed to figure out how to do all this stuff. I set out and I tried to study, tried to figure out how to interface with people because, I had just spent six years in academia learning all this other stuff, not listening to the radio or anything. So the amazing thing that happened was I found a brochure at a studio that someone had brought in. It was for the Fairlight CMI. Gordy Hormel had just bought the Fairlight distribution for the U S and he opened an office at the Village Recorder. I marched down there with my resume and I got the job as the Product Specialist. And it's an interesting thing because this is where I got to show how it worked - not just around town road, but at all the trade shows. We did the NAMM Show, AES and the Computer Music Conventions.

Suddenly, the Fairlight job enabled “pauper Gary” to afford to get around and the meet everyone involved. After 2 years, I left Fairlight and started doing session work for people who owned the CMI. And one of those people was Patrick Williams is a film composer who did a lot of stuff, but probably, you know him for the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant - a bunch of things like that. But Pat was a great serious composer – among his many achievements, he arranged for Sinatra. And I found that working for people like this was amazing. On the soundstage with the A team of LA recording musicians was both amazing and, honestly, I was the worst. I'll be the first one to say, not a great reader, but I learned so much, once again, it's like being the journeymen. Eventually I'm going to try to be a composer, I need to know all about this. And there's no better way than standing right in the middle of it. After working for a few years in the studio scene, eventually I met Giorgio Moroder and got to work with him and led to my work and The Breakfast Club and my first credit there. And from that point on I start working on my own.

Darwin: Yeah. Now the interesting thing is that, you're starting this was at a kind of a peculiar timeframe because it was well before the computerization of a lot of this stuff, the technology you literally surfed all of the technology changes practically that we've seen in modern music in the process of doing scoring. Right?

Gary: Absolutely. I mean, think about the whole concept of automation, right? Subotnick is a pioneer, his player piano technique – taking oscillators and recording fluctuations of volume on audio tape, and then playing the recording back through envelope detectors, which would convert the fluctuations back into voltages. And then, Don [Buchla] created the 10 channel fixed filter bank so that basically Mort could put 10 oscillators on one track and play them back through the filter to get all 10 individual control voltages for panning, etc. When the Fairlight came to town, we spent months working on a proper way to synchronize it so that we could put a guide track on a two-inch tape machine, and then we could do multiple passes and sync. Something that is commonplace today. But like I said, this is back in the days when, if we didn't do it, no one's going to do it.

Darwin: I think it's an important thing because yeah, realistically, now, if you're working to film, you'll just kind of like dump a mini version of the film onto your DAW and work right along with the picture. I mean I was involved sort of like on the tail end of that, where there was like synchronization with tape machines and stuff, it was an extraordinary headache, but I was doing it on this tiny world. You were doing it in these huge systems. I can't even imagine the technology and the stress involved in doing sync. It's just is mind boggling given how our technology is today.

Gary: Well, it is pretty amazing, the whole idea of the fact that you're doing a feature film back in the day. They shot film, synchronized by the 60hz to from a transformer that they plugged into the wall. And basically everything's referenced to this 60 cycle tone. After the film and audio is recorded synchronized to that, then it's transferred to video for editing by basically changing the speed 1% in order to cleanly fit into video. Instead of it being 24 frames per second, it's 29.96 frames per second. And you do the entire post production in a different speed than the movie. And when finally the mix an negative is completed, the audio is pulled down in speed to synchronize with the 24 frames a second. It's like totally insanity and its like, when HD came out, wow, what a game changer. Suddenly we don't have to go nuts anymore.

On projects that involved prerecorded music that was played back on the stage, the music had to be recorded at the video-transferred speed, and then slowed down for the shoot, or else the filmed performances would not match the music masters after transferring to video. Anyway, yes, it was totally insane, but you're right. My career went all the way from sprockets to a hard drive.

Darwin: Yeah. That's amazing. Just the history you got to see in the making. What's interesting is, I didn't know this, but we actually have another intersection of people. You mentioned that Paul Dvorak was someone that was involved in Carnegie Mellon. He was a composition teacher for me when I was at North Texas. It's funny how that works, but just bringing him up. How I remember him was as a person who was like really dialed into theory, he loved teaching theory. He loved having people honor theory and all that. And it makes me realize some of the people in your background are these very theory driven, very conventional musicians and composer types, but then all of the influence of CalArts plus all of the influence of the jazz people that you were following were like pulling you in a completely different direction. Where was the balance for you of utilizing the things you learned in theory and composition classes, combining them with the free flow of Herbie's bands or whatever, and combined with sort of the conceptual head rush that comes from talking to John Cage, how do you pull these things all together?

Gary: You know, the hard part about being an artist, especially a commercial artist is the fact that you're going to get a lot of criticism. And then the truth is you just have to do the best you can. So what does that mean? And how does that distill itself down to an aesthetic? The truth is a question is whether or not you can write music that actually gets people to react. I mean, for years, until I met John Frankenheimer, I was writing really cool music and people liked it. But when I met John, he wanted something that was cool, but he didn't really like that kind of music. He wanted me to write music that made people cry.

He would asked me to “be” the movie for a moment. In that regard, first of all, there, aren't just aren't that many people who get to do that, especially in movies done the level of a John Frankenheimer directed film.

Andersonville was a civil war miniseries. (So obviously there's no electronic music instruments on this movie!) And here we are, we're spotting music cues. We are five minutes from the end of the entire thing and John gets up, grabs his coat, and goes, “Okay, there's music for the rest of the movie. There's no dialogue. There's just music. So that's it. I got to go, I'll see you later!”

At first, you think about this and you're like, Holy shit, this is really insane. But the truth is, it's a gift.

Who gets to be yourself in front of millions of people? I have been very, very fortunate to have met the filmmakers I work with and who had confidence enough for me to be Gary. All the various experiences I had with filmmakers would encourage me to wear current fashion. But in the reality of life, eventually you have to be yourself. If you're not, you're making a big mistake. How often do you get a chance to write something that millions of people are going to hear? So it's like, you might as well be you. And that's the funny thing, you know, I know what the next question is, which is how do you know what you is?

You know, the reality is it's about that evolution that enables you to be an educated writer. If everything stayed the same, that's where I see my friends who are a pop artists and how hard it must be to be James Taylor, and play Fire and Rain at the end of every concert for the rest of your life. I'm not saying that there's something wrong with that. That’s a question you ask him in an interview and he'll say, I've been through Fire and Rain with that song! “So I love it and I hate it, and in the end my fans love it. So I'm playing it for them”. So there's a gift - an incredible gift.

Well, there are movies that are huge musical hits that everyone mimics for the rest of your lives, like Shawshank Redemption or something like that. But I think that was the exciting part of my career is like, yeah, I got to be me for a second.

Darwin: Well, Gary, unfortunately our time is up. But, what a beautiful story. I have one last question, for people who want to hear your scoring work, generally speaking, you can go and find and listen to existing scores, but you also talk about your own personal music, the development creations that you've done. Where might people be able to listen to some of those?

Gary: This is the funny thing is I have no problem being an Emily Dickinson in this. I mean, in the end I've led a private life as much as they possibly have been able to. And it's not to say that I don't want to share my reason. I suppose, if you wander around my Facebook page, you'll find some links in some of my posts there to stuff, but I don't really have a huge spot where I just basically showing all that stuff. And I'm sorry about that to whoever's interested in, but as I said it's sort of my music making, I have an analogy here. This might be interesting for this.

Darwin. I have a metaphor for artists and artists are people who like to stand out in the middle of the stream. They stand out in the middle of the water. They're like watching the water rush by. And meanwhile, everyone that's on the shore sits there and says, what the fuck are you doing? And then one day, a fish swims down the stream and into your pocket. And everyone on the shore goes, oh, I get it, you're a fisherman. And then they spend all their time talking to you about fishing for the rest of your life. But the reality is all you really like to do is stand out in the middle of the stream. And I think that's the truth about electronic music. It's about music in general. I'm still fascinated by it. I'm happy to have an excuse to have spent most of my life, and most of my resources on this crazy electronic music thing, it's really been an amazing, fascinating thing, you know?

Darwin: Indeed. Well, thank you so much for having this chat. It was fascinating. And, thank you for sharing all this with us. I am incredibly inspired.

Copyright 2021 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.