If you've got an experience, Bruce Broughton can set it to music. The Los Angeles-based composer has done work for video games and theme parks, as well as more traditional television shows and films. He's racked up 10 Emmys in the process and a 1985 Oscar nomination for scoring the Western Silverado.
But this fall, Broughton will be tuning up something entirely different: University of North Texas' music students. After a visit to campus earlier this year, new music dean John Richmond asked Broughton to return as a composer in residence at the university.
Broughton will spend a total of one month at UNT this year, offering his expertise in applied music to students eager for instruction on pursuing careers outside of concert music. Broughton chatted with us over the phone this week from his home in LA. He talked about his wide-ranging career and what he wants to contribute to UNT.
Dallas Observer: I was told that after you visited UNT last year, faculty and students insisted you come back. How did you end up taking this position?
Broughton: I was strong-armed. I know the dean and before he was in Texas, he was in Nebraska and we had had some associations then. But he was interested in having me come and see the school.
The music department is so large, there's a variety of things they offer, which is unusual. There's a lot of depth in the music school in terms of programs. And the other thing I noticed is that the faculty are all energized and they work well together. In a phrase, they like each other. They interact. And I've found this not always to be the case in universities. Sometimes one school doesn't really work so well with another school even though they have similar interests.
So the reason I was there and the reason I'm going on to this composer in residence thing is that, though they have a really huge variety of things they offer, one thing that I think I can probably help them with is that one area of what you might call applied music, in that I've spent many, many years as a freelance composer, writing all sorts of music in all sorts of media. And I think I can be a little bit of the glue between some of these things that the university offers but hasn't put into a program.
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There's all sorts of composition — music composition. There's serious music composition, there's songwriting, there's music for films, music for video, music for plays, all that kind of stuff. And usually, at a university, they will basically focus on one sort of music. A lot of universities will deal with concert music.
There are some universities that have film music programs, but they're generally led by people who don't have any film music experience, so it's largely theoretical. In my particular case, it's not theoretical. I know how to do it. I've been doing it for 34 years.
When I spoke with Dean Richmond in April, he mentioned your experience composing for video games and suggested that might be an opportunity for collaboration between departments. Is that something you plan on working on at UNT?
Actually, to be honest with you, I think that that program that they have now is on the edge of coming up with something different. They have programs, which you don't find in a lot of universities, of inventing music and visuals pretty much at the same time. Having one not being relying on the other, but having them be sort of symbiotic.
I think that you will probably find in the next five, 10 years, 15 years, that what is commonly thought of right now as audio-visual, which is basically film, television and video games, is going to be much more widespread. I think the opportunities for composing and for work in that area are going to be much greater than what they are today. So I would say that that thing that Dean Richmond is talking about, yes. If I can help on that, that's great.
But I think that the medium itself of audio-visual material is going to be very, very, very, very different now that the technology is starting to emerge. I mean, one of the frustrations of the Academy of Motion Picture [Arts and Sciences], the motion picture academy, is that people don't see enough of their work on the big screen.
These guys make movies for 50-foot images in dark rooms. But often, they're looked at on a handheld device, on a phone, which is really frustrating to them. But now you're getting some guys who are getting aware of that and they're starting to make films, they're starting to make entertainment or programs that can be actually seen on a 3-by-5 screen. And we're talking inches, not feet.
When I began working in television, we only worked in monaural. We didn't even have left and right. We just had center channel, and when stereo came out, that was a big deal. Well, now, people have home systems. They don't have these little 2-inch speakers and a TV set with rabbit ears. They have these home systems where they get really major sound on major productions.
And as all this stuff starts to take off technologically, I think it's going to offer an awful lot of opportunities, not only in traditional music-making, but also in the areas of sound design and music as drama, music as storytelling, music sometimes as pure sound. Manipulation of pure sound. And I think that, without being hyperbolic, I think that UNT actually is in a good position to be one of the front-runners of that because they have so many different things going on that are running through this area.
Was I correct in reading you'll be on campus for one-week periods at four different times throughout the year? What is the arrangement, exactly?
Yeah, that's the plan right now that I have four visits. ... We're trying to set up the time schedule now ... to visit with students, give talks, seminars, give personal help, maybe do occasional lessons and all that kind of stuff. I think that the first one that we do, which will probably be in October, will be the most telling thing because we'll get to see basically what the need is and what the opportunity is and where it makes the most sense to put our attention.
You composed the music for the show Dallas, probably North Texas' most famous television export. Has that in any way shaped your opinion of this area? Do you have any special affection for North Texas because of that experience?
Nope. No. To tell you the truth, my only actual connection to Dallas and Texas is that my cousin ... I have a cousin who used to live across the street from the place that was used as the Southfork mansion.
Other than that, I really ... I don't know. I mean, I've been to Texas several times and I like the place and I find the place really interesting, but no. I was in Denton for the first time when I was there a couple months ago and found it a nice place. Very, very different from where I live. But it was the university that really got my attention.
And you call Los Angeles home?
I'm in Los Angeles, yeah.
Do you have a favorite project that you've worked on? Homeward Bound was one of my favorite movies as a kid, so that's up there for me.
No, I don't. But apropos Homeward Bound, I did an awful lot of films that kids saw. I did Homeward Bound. I did Rescuers Down Under, Baby's Day Out. Things like that. And a lot of people have told me, people probably in their 30s, who said that these films were really influential to them as kids. And I've had more than one person tell me that because of my score to blah blah film, they wanted to become a film composer.
Well, I've heard this, frankly, all over the world, and in that particular case, it may or may not be my favorite film. It may not be my favorite score, but I have to pay attention to the fact that it had an impact, either as a musical experience or as an emotional experience or something from their childhood.
There are a lot of things that I did that I like a lot. I used to really enjoy Dallas because all the things that we worked on, all the people, rather, I worked with were just really great and the show itself was just great fun. It was just ... you would sit there and you'd look at these things and people would be saying these horrible things to each other and we'd sit there and laugh and go, "Oh, how did that come up?" Or, "Who wrote that line?" And all that kind of stuff.
One of the great things about doing a television series is that you form attachments with people that you really can't form so well on a motion picture. On motion pictures, they're mostly one-offs, and you might see somebody again on another movie three years down the line. I did most of the episodes for the show Quincy. We all got to be really great friends, and it was sort of like being at home all the time.
You're working on this stuff, you can call up people, you can ask their opinion. If you did something they didn't like, they'd tell you. It was not a big deal. You didn't have to think that your life was over, your career was in the toilet or anything. It was a wonderful, creative congregation. Those are the things that I really think about more than this show or that show, because I have shows that I like but I don't know whether anybody else likes them. And some shows that don't mean so much to me are somebody else's great masterpiece. So who knows?
Is the process of composing for an adult versus a kid audience different?
It's actually a similar approach because the whole point of having music in a film or having music in any audio-visual, in any visual medium, is to help tell the story. To help to explain something. If the filmmakers didn't have to have music in the movies, believe me, music would be gone immediately. But they did it to help tell their story.
One of the things that music does, and I'm talking about a film that's really well made, one where the actors are good, the director knows what he's doing, the shots are set up, it's lit well and blah blah blah. But very often, you'll get into a scene where something still can be pushed out. It could be a thing of romance. It could be a sinister situation. It could be an insecurity. It could be something about to happen, some undercurrent of nervousness or anxiety. Something that moves the drama forward to the next step. And these are the kinds of things that music can do. It does it very subliminally.
For instance, one of the big difference between film music ... and in that I mean film music, video music, music for TV, all that kind of stuff, that kind of music ... is that it's basically accompaniment. You have the picture. The picture is the solo voice and the music comes in and helps to accompany that voice, that story, whatever is being told.
So if you're working for kids, the film has already been geared toward a certain age level or a certain audience. And in that, you play the role of an actor who's taking on a role in the show, except that your part now is going to be somewhat invisible and you're going to start to manipulate this and manipulate that and change this and modify this in order to help strengthen that story. It doesn't matter whether the audience is 60 years old or 10 years old.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you're working on now? I read something about a project with Seth MacFarlane.
I did the show with Seth. It was a new show called The Orville, where I did the pilot and the main title. I'm working right now on a concert piece for a string quartet and orchestra, which is really miserably hard to write, for a performance in February. And I've got other things sort of like that.
As far as commercial things, I've never, ever known very far ahead what was going to happen. With Seth, I had done a TV show, and then several months earlier, I had done an album with him, which we have yet to mix. So that's going to appear probably in the next year as being something new and, in fact, it was done probably about a year ago.
So these things are always hopping on. Commercial projects just come up. You might know about them a couple of months ahead of time, or you might not. Somebody can call you up and say, "I need you right away." Or, "Are you available in March?" That kind of stuff, and then by the time you get to March, they're not ready until May. My life has always been like that. Hopping from one project to another.
Is there a kind of project that doesn't interest you?
I wouldn't want to do a zombie film. I find them dumb. I don't like films that are stupid, and I would rather not work on them. I mean, maybe some people think, "Well, you know, the movie you did there was kind of stupid." It had something in it that interested me, but there are some kinds of films that I wouldn't be particularly interested in contributing to.
There's a lot of stuff I like. I like drama. I like comedy. I like animation. I really like animation. I like theme parks. Theme parks are really awesome because theme parks are completely different. Every show you get is not related to anything you've ever done before. You're coming up with completely new problems, new solutions, new creative ideas and new ways of being able to solve problems.
I just like to work on something that's interesting and with people who are creative and who like to take you on as partners, rather than the guy who's going to mess up his film. And there are those people.
Is there anything else you'd like for readers to know?
No, I'm really focused on the UNT thing. When you're teaching directly, you have an impact on people, and I don't want to sound too hokey about this, but that's important to me. I'll just leave you with one story.
When I was studying, years ago, when I was about 19 or 20, I was working on a piece and my teacher was a crusty guy and wasn't great with compliments. He was looking at my piece and he put his finger on a certain spot and he says, "Now right here, you didn't know what to do, did you?" And it was like a voice from heaven. I'd been found out.
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"How could you tell? How could you ... ?" So 20 years later, I'm giving a lesson to somebody who's a pretty good composer, and I saw the same spot. I put my finger on a certain spot and I said, "Now right here, you didn't know what to do, did you?" And he went through the same thing I went through. "How can you tell? That's amazing. How could you tell that I ... ?"
OK. So years later, 20 years later again, I'm going to a university nearby — I think it was Long Beach. And a student came to pick me up and shows me where I was supposed to go and she said, "Oh, you know I study with so-and-so," meaning this former student I'd had. And he said, "He told me that story about you pointing out what he didn't know." And I said, "Oh really? He remembered that story?" He says, "Yeah, he's done that to me."
So there's three generations of information settling on somebody. My teacher did it to me. I didn't know what the heck he was talking about. I found out. I did it to somebody else or I gave it to somebody else, and he gave it to somebody else, who presumably will give it to somebody else. Because it sets your focus in a certain way.
How can that be so obvious that anybody can see that, when to me it's an extraordinary mystery? You know? So as you refine yourself and as you refine your life and you refine your creative ideas, if you can pass those things on to people and be of some help, you're actually doing a big service. That's the sort of thing I'm looking for here at UNT and I think I can find.