From unmet dreams of being a drummer to leading composer: the story of Christopher Young
"I fell madly in love with film music and there was no going away once I fell in love with it."
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From writing music for Hellraiser, Swordfish, Copycat, The Man Who Knew Too Little, Entrapment, and Species, to The Hurricane, The Grudge, Spider-Man 3, Norma Jean & Marilyn, and The Shipping News, the Golden Globe-nominated composer Christopher Young has a jaw-dropping number of features in almost every possible genre. Being one of the most successful composers in film music today, he was recently awarded BMI's prestigious Richard Kirk Career Achievement Award (past recipients include Danny Elfman, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith).

Christopher has taught film scoring for over ten years, a two-term past president of The Film Music Society and the president of the Madrid Film Music Festival in Spain, and is currently teaching at USC Thornton School of Music Screen Scoring program.

Christopher Young didn't plan on becoming a film composer from the start. "At the time, I was a drummer, and I often humorously said that I'm upset with God for not making me Ringo Starr because I wanted to be one of the Beatles so badly," he recalls. Starting to play music at the age of seven, the more time he spent behind the drum set, the more he became interested in jazz. "I [went] to Berklee for a summer, and it was a life changer — I got the chance to study with Alan Dawson, Dave Brubeck's second drummer," the composer continues. However, after the program ended, the instrumentalist told Christopher that he didn't see much future as a drummer for the young musician.

Feeling depressed and being on Boylston street, which is where Berklee is located, he noticed a freeway crossover: "not that I was going to jump or anything like that", but it was a bad day and the question of what he's going to do next couldn't leave him. Around the same time, the composer started thinking of not just rhythmic ideas, but also melodic and harmonic ones, and decided to give arranging a try. "I was in a jazz band, so I could arrange, write, and voice choirs," he explains. "After I got into writing, I was [trying to] figure out what [my] voice was, and there seemed to be a consistency in everything I was doing — I was trying to capture this sense of mystery, the darker invisible world of nighttime, and all that wonderful intangible stuff."
Christopher happened to walk into a record store in his hometown of New Jersey, and the Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann caught his eye. Initially buying the record because of its captivating cover, he fell in love with Herrmann's music from the first opening notes of his Journey to the Center of the Earth suite. "It was through that that I discovered that movies actually do have music, and I hadn't noticed that before," the composer says. "I became obsessed with wanting to know as much as I could about film music."

In the 70s, there were almost no film scoring classes. Young describes how there were only a few schools, mostly Berklee, USC, and UCLA, that offered a class or two. "If you were serious about film music, it's not like you could go and get a degree in it like you can now: it certainly wasn't considered something serious enough to merit as a major," he elucidates. Because of that, the composer had to learn more about the art on his own, the book Music for the Movies by Tony Thomas being his first, as Chris puts it, bible.

That was also the time where DVDs and cable TV weren't invented, which meant that people couldn't watch a film multiple times. "You had to go to the movie theatre to watch [a movie] when it came out, record the audio, take the audio home, and study the audio on its own, trying to remember the movie," Christopher tells me. Collecting and listening to records has become an obsession, but it was yet another way to learn more about film music at the same time.

Wanting to pursue film music as his career, the composer made the decision to move to Los Angeles in 1980. "I came out to UCLA to study composition at a graduate course level, but my real interest was to … study with David Raksin, a faculty member and [the composer who] who wrote the music to Laura," he says. Raksin would become his greatest mentor. Although rejected when applying to USC and UCLA the first time, Christopher chose to study at North Texas State University for a year to "make up for the lost time", get more experience, and re-apply. While he was rejected by USC again, he received an acceptance letter from UCLA.

Even though now you can get not only an undergraduate degree in fim scoring, but also a master's and even a PhD, Young mentions that there is still that attitude that film music is "this bastard form of music making that really didn't deserve attention", and that aspiring to be a film composer meant settling on second best. "When I was at UCLA, the composition department didn't like it at all that I announced that my perspective was that I wanted to be a film composer," he remembers. "My heart at that time was set on film music, whereas Henri Lazarof, [the head of the composition department at the time], was repeatedly telling me that he didn't think I had any talent, and [only] in Raksin's class he did finally come around to say that he thought I had talent."

On the other hand, now people from all over the world come to USC to study in the renowned Screen Scoring program, and the number of schools around the globe taking film music very seriously continues to grow. "The amount of people who come out here has increased for sure: many more want to get involved in writing for the visual media," the composer notes. With that comes greater competition, and, in Christopher's words, while it's always been bad and there has never been a time where you didn't feel like you have to constantly hustle, there are more composers now than ever before.

However, there has been a significant uptick in the amount of opportunities in the field. "There are more places to apply your talents as a composer for the visual media — the whole game scene … [which is] a whole new venue; there are composers who make a living writing music for libraries; now that there's cable TV, there are thousands more shows than there were in the 80s," Young elaborates.
With that being said, it is still incredibly challenging to land a job. "The job that 99% of all composers get or seek out when they [graduate from USC's Screen Scoring program is] to work as assistant to an established composer," Christopher says. "When I moved out, 95 percent of all film and TV music was written for and recorded with live musicians, [whereas] now everyone has a home studio where all the scores are synthed." Live scores are still done, but he states that it is an exception rather than a rule.

Because of that, everyone with a studio needs assistance with facilitating technical problems and short issues with running a studio taken care of. Therefore, Christopher strongly encourages young musicians to not turn their backs on this possibility. "That's where most everyone starts, certainly everyone who finishes the USC program," the composer shares. "The advantage of course is that you learn a hell of a lot because you're getting hands on training with someone who is actually working on a real life project, which is unlike an academic environment where it's not real."

Los Angeles being a metropolitan city, it is vital to build and foster connections. "The entertainment business in general is about not what you know but who you know," Young admits. "When I look back on my career and the careers of a lot of composers, the contacts that they made when they were students at their school [and] the young directors that they worked with … remembered the composer."

During the time when Christopher was doing his graduate degree, established composers didn't have assistance, and the only way for him was making contact with young directors, editors, and cinematographers. To do that, you have to be, as he says, a hustler. "If you can talk someone into thinking you're the next Stravinsky — fantastic — [but] you have to be extraverted and be able to sell yourself," he believes. When Young was starting out, he was able to pick up the phone and call people, but getting older, it's become a struggle: "I know I'm not getting as many calls as I used to get, and if I want the calls to start coming in, I need to do the work; I need to be hustling myself because agents don't do it.. you are kind of on your own."

That takes a lot of patience and commitment, and too often young composers expect fast results. "Your first year out here, you just have to survive it," he advises. "Don't expect miracles to happen your first year. Too many students who want to be the next John Williams or Hans Zimmer, and they think it has to all happen in the first year here, and it can get very depressing if your objectives aren't practical."

Perhaps the most crucial advice is to not let ambiguity win. "If [you] have this passion inside, if it's alive, if it's on fire, and if [you] want to be a part of the Los Angeles scene — the center of film scoring on the planet — then try to embrace that and not let all the negative voices in [your] head and the endless lists of reasons of why you wouldn't be smart enough to do it talk [you] out of it," Christopher suggests. It is much better to try to do something you love doing and discover that it's not what you expected it to be rather than to never try it and be haunted by it.

"I had never written a single film music [score] before I moved to LA: I didn't know what I was doing, I knew I was madly in love with it; I had orchestras in my head by I had never written for one; I didn't know anyone in [the city]. I came out here cold turkey!" he exclaims. "When I moved here, there was nothing in my music at that moment that showed that I really was going to become a successful film composer. I moved out because of this insatiable love that I had for film music that guided me."
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