george clinton at work
Former Chattanoogan George S. Clinton is back in town for the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural Southeast Film Music Symposium. (The “S” is your convenient way to distinguish this George Clinton from the George Clinton who’s famous for funk.)
George S. Clinton is known for composing the scores for the three Austin Powers movies, as well as a dozen or so others. He was responsible for all the music, except for that kitschy trill that became synonymous with the cheeky spy. According to Clinton, that little set of notes was actually a melody written by Quincy Jones in 1962 called “Soul Bossa Nova.” It was also the theme song for a Friday night quiz show Mike Myers grew up listening to in Canada.
“By the time they hired me to do the music, that theme was already there as the silly Austin Powers theme,” Clinton said. “My job was to take that and make it into movie music and also add my own theme—the adventurous Austin Powers, the romantic Austin Powers, all those other things.”
After growing up in Chattanooga, Clinton received degrees in music and drama at MTSU while working as a session musician in Nashville. He headed to Los Angeles in 1969 to become a rock star. He played in bands and recorded albums for about 10 years. He scored his first film for Cheech & Chong after they saw his band play in a club. Last year he became the chair of the Film Scoring Department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
According to Clinton, who serves as artistic adviser for the symposium, similar events are rare in the U.S. but common in Europe. During the three-day event, Clinton will talk about the process of composing a film score using examples from his own work. He will also direct the CSO in a performance of his “Austin Powers Suite” based on the scores for all three movies.
The symposium will also include “The Matrix Live,” a showing of the iconic film with the score performed live by the Chattanooga Symphony under the direction of Don Davis, who composed it. There will also be a screening of “These Amazing Shadows,” an award-winning documentary about the National Film Registry, as well as panels and open performance rehearsals.
The creative process for Clinton begins when he receives a near-finished copy of the film, a “work print” that hasn’t gotten a final edit and doesn’t have all the effects added yet. He immerses himself in the film, starts to develop his ideas, has a few discussions with the director.
“Then we have a spotting session, where we choose spots in the film where music needs to help tell the story,” he said. “That’s the first real creative meeting with director and composer. We’ll talk about what kind of music should it be at a certain spot: scary, happy, whatever. Then I go away and I come up with my themes.”
Clinton develops a musical identity for each character at the piano, then shifts to the computer where he writes music in tandem with the movie images, “So I can know where to use which theme, if it should be a happy version of the theme or sad, or big or not so big, and really get into the actual storytelling.”
For the Austin Powers movies, rather than composing a musical signature that represented each character, Clinton asked himself what kind of music the characters would want to hear: “What kind of music would Austin Powers like to hear right now, while he’s doing his detective thing or spy thing? What kind of music would Doctor Evil want to hear while doing his evil thing?”
For the transition from film score to 12-minute concert suite, Clinton had to rethink those themes for a different setting. The concert version has to be short enough to fit on an orchestra program with other pieces, and it needs to be fun for the orchestra to play and fun for the audience to hear.
“Film music is a very practical music,” he said. “It’s not like music that’s designed to be heard in concert. It serves the purpose of helping the director tell the story. That’s really the only purpose it has.”
After going back and forth with the director, the creative process culminates in a “scoring session” where Clinton conducts an 80-piece orchestra playing the score.
“That’s my favorite part of process, that moment where I’m conducting it and hearing it played by this amazing group of musicians,” he said. “That’s why the suite is going to be so much fun. Once the film score is recorded, you don’t ever get to hear it live again unless it’s performed by a symphony.”
Southeast Film Music Symposium
$150 • March 1-3 • The Tivoli Theatre • 709 Broad St. • (423) 267-8583 • chattanoogasymphony.org