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coverpic flag US - Massachusetts - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 20 - 06/10/98

Mason Daring

Though Mason Daring's extensive work on almost forty films, including the Oscar-nominated Lone Star, TV's acclaimed miniseries From The Earth To The Moon and the highly anticipated The Opposite Of Sex, would make anyone think of him as a cinematic veteran, not a ripple of recognition floats through the crowd at a Boston-area cafe on a particularly busy night. Indeed, the role he plays in film is not that of weather-beaten leading man, but in a role behind the camera you're supposed to notice only as you would notice underlined text. His particular talent is that of music, helping compose and select the music that best fleshes out the action on screen.

Daring's talents and melodic abilites weren't always used in such a manner. His "checkered background" includes stints as an entertainment lawyer and a director of commercials, and some time paying dues as one-half of a folk duo. "I worked my way through college and law school playing guitar. And I started playing with Jeannie Stahl, and we did fairly well. We played all around the Eastern Seaboard, Chicago, the midwest, and we got fairly well-known...but we were never pop enough to break through the pop barrier, and I was too pop to be comfortable with traditional folk."

The narrative structure of folk music and lyrics informed his work as a film composer, to an extent. "Folk music is story telling, but it doesn't always work combined with movies. The problem with music videos is, when you have a video, that's what you're hearing. Pretty boring! Sometimes you want what you're hearing to be an abstract ... But to have a realistic song and seeing what's happening in front of you as what you're hearing. And a lot of times, folk music doesn't work well in a movie. That's what the movie's doing, and you don't need the words. It is a narrative, and that's the magic. People go to concerts, as they have all around the world for centuries, to hear someone sing a song about something because they want to see the movie in their head while they hear it. They go to movies beacuse it's not their mind's eye any more -- they can use their eyes and see somebody else's mind's eye. They're two sides of the same coin."

Daring's best-known work has been with director John Sayles, with whom he's collaborated since Sayles' first film, Return Of The Seacaucus Seven. Interestingly, Sayles provided Daring with his ticket out of practicing law. "I was his lawyer for the first film, Return of the Seacaucus Seven. We ended up getting along very well, and he really enjoyed a few albums I had out. He went really slowly because he hadn't earned the money to finish it, and a year after cutting it, he called me and asked me if I would score it. It was a $700 music budget. The movie did fairly well, and when his second movie came out, he asked me if I'd do the music and be his lawyer. I said, 'well, no, I don't want to be a lawyer any more, but I'll do the music.'"

How does working with a director like Sayles inform the music created for a film? "The reason you really want to develop a long-term relationship is because it's easier. You don't have to figure out what people mean. You just get a sense of what they're looking for, you know what they want music to do in their film and it makes your job a lot easier. Takes a lot of the stress out, because you have a common ground you've established. ... You really understand how they work, and that's what it's all about."

The creative process involved in scoring a film starts, obviously, with choosing the film. "I wish I could be that sanguine about it!" Daring laughs when asked how he decides which films to score. "Generally it's a business of relationships, and ... the people you work with. Did you meet the director? Did you like them? Do they like you? If you hit it off it's probably going to be a fine job. Every now and then it might go south, but I've had very few bad experiences. It's the people you work with more than the product, because you don't really know what it's going to turn out like."

After that comes the work. "You get the film, you spot it, you figure where the music is going to stop and start exactly, to the frame. Once you know what kind of music it's going to be, then you'll try to temp it, try to write a sketch at least to the director. And you go through several of those - it depends on the director, it depends on how attuned you are. ... You temp everything and you really try to do it according to that. Sometimes you don't have quite as much time. I did an ABC-TV movie last October and I can't tell you how brutal that was. It was a tough one. Two weeks. When you're working for two weeks, you're working at a speed you just can't believe. Try to do forty cues in two weeks -- you'll get pretty ruined. You use the computer a lot, you use that to find your tempo maps. (Those) are an important part of finding a cue, where you decide how much you're going to hit in terms of cues. Let's say you've got a two-minute cue where somebody gets off a bus, they walk through a door, they see somebody they love, the kiss them, then they have an argument, and then they walk away. All inside two minutes. What things are you going to do around that? Are you going to change the music? You better, it doesn't sound like you're going to get away with one piece of music for that. ... You have to change your music at certain moments. So a tempo map will tell you how to do that. How many beats you're going to play at what tempo, then you change your beats, you go into 4/4, you go into 3/4 -- it's very involved. ..."

"Eventually you have to get around to the real recording, you actually have to work, and you make it work perfectly. And when that's done, you mix it. And then you submit it. And then it gets mixed into the movie, and you go in for the dubbing. Go to the last day of the mix, talk about any changes you have to make, and make last-minute changes. Really try to refine it and refine it, and get to be as good as you can. Don't forget, once it's in the movie, it's there forever."

Proving to be as savvy a businessman as he is a composer, Daring started a record label to produce and distribute his soundtracks. "I started [Daring Records] ... because I was playing folk music with Jeannie Stahl and I wanted to put out our own record. At the same time I wanted to release Lianna and Brother From Another Planet. ... I started it for my own soundtracks, and then I became interested in some of the artists who were playing on my soundtracks. There's Billy Novick, who's a great clarinet player, plays with Guy Van Dusen, who was a slide guitarist. Guys like Butch Thompson, who was on the Prarie Home Companion show, he was the bandleader for years and years. He's one of the foremost Jelly Roll Morton stylist, a great stride pianist. I started with Butch and I started with Billy, and then I went on to Duke Levine, and he's a great guitar player, done three allbums with me. He plays with Mary-Chapin Carpenter. And he plays all over my stuff - he's the lead guitarist on Lone Star and Passion Fish. I use this as an outlet for some of my scores as well, and then it just got out of control. One of my jazz artists was doing ten albums a year! It caught up with me eventually and I found I couldn't sell as many albums as I needed to, and I really slowed down. That's because the record situation has changed in America. Now I'm going online and sell (the records) on the net, and see if I'll increase my artists or not. I've released thirty or forty titles out, and three years ago I put out an album called It's What We Do, it's a sampler, one cut from every kind of music. I sell the sampler for $5, and people buy that, and then they call back and get lots of stuff. There's a guy named Frankie, who's a cool singer, who sells a lot on the web, and then there's Jeannie Stahl, who's a great singer. ... It became the tail wagging the dog. I never set out to run a record company, I don't care for that. And I'm not all that interested in producing records - I've produced a lot of records in my day. I used to really be into pop production, and I own a recording studio, but the studio's really just for me. And I find producing records sometimes a bit precoius now. The thrill is is gone for me. I would rather just write music. The record company is something that's run by a few guys who work for me, and we'll see what happens in a couple of weeks."

The conversation with Daring is peppered with anecdotes about the films he's worked on and the great people he's worked with. While he might come off as someone who thinks highly of himself, he's quick to praise those talents he's worked with, and to note his luck in the field of music composition - a vocation of which there are few success stories. "Most people that have written music have done so by benevolence of some sort. Bach, Beethoven -- they by and large wrote music because they got grants from royalty. They got a comission. If you're a modern composer, you (still) get a comission, you get it from the NEA, or the NEH ... with me, it's a little different. I get a job. They give me a film and say, 'write this'. I get paid money to write music. Now I have to make some compromises and I have to write music to fit the film. There's a lot of business problems and a lot of stress, but it's really me. I get paid to write music. Nobody does. That's a bizarre profession. It's really silly sometimes, but it's great, great fun, and I enjoy it. Writing this past winter for From the Earth to the Moon and The Blouseman was the most fun I've ever had."

Where might you next hear Daring's film scores? Two films for which he has provided music, The Opposite of Sex and The Blouseman, are set for American release this summer, and he's headed off to Alaska to work on John Sayles' next film, Limbo. While Daring has an obvious passion for his job, some of his greatest loves are off-set. "I'm forty-eight, and I'm not sure I want to spend all my time (working on movies). I work a lot, and I want to work a little less. You spend all your time trying to have a name, and I'm not famous, but I find it a bit easier to get work than I used to. I'm not sure I want to walk away from that, but part of me would like to ride motorcycles and go fishing for a living."

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