Music composition major Kalysha Chandler and commercial music major Zach Griffin headed up technical aspects of the project, which culminated in the 2019 live screening
The BYU Philharmonic made history when they presented “King Kong Live!” — the School of Music’s first movie in concert — during the Fall 2019 semester, but the performance was just one facet of an extensive ongoing research project centered on the Harold B. Lee Library’s Max Steiner collection and a broader movement to preserve and celebrate movie music.
“We want our students to branch out from classical music and be conversant in a lot of musical styles,” said music theory professor Brent Yorgason, who headed up the ambitious project of transcribing Max Steiner’s beloved “King Kong” score and preparing it for the Philharmonic performance. “Film music is a major musical style that has been overlooked by concert musicians until recently, despite great public interest. We want our performance majors to enjoy and understand this kind of music, our commercial music students to develop the skills they might need to work in the movie music industry and our student composers to be inspired from working with these scores.”
One such student composer — Max Steiner research assistant and ALMA Lab TA Kalysha Chandler — found herself in the thick of a musical labor of love as she coordinated and managed a team of students in translating Steiner’s handwritten score and transcribing it on digital notation software Finale.
“Sometimes trying to interpret the score was a little bit challenging — the handwriting was difficult to decipher,” said Chandler. “It required a bit of musical detective work to figure out exactly what he was going for musically. It was really cool to have taken four years of music theory and to have been able to employ what I had learned to problem-solve. It was a perfect example of a real-world application of a very theoretical knowledge base.”
Throughout her work with the Max Steiner Database project — which, as with “King Kong,” involves the transcription of Steiner’s handwritten sketches to make them available for music scholars to study online — Chandler has developed a deep admiration for the composer and his prolific body of work, which includes the scores for classic films such as “Casablanca” and “Gone with the Wind.”
“He was the father of film scoring and the processes he developed and the musical approach he took to scoring for film is what we still follow today,” said Chandler. “He set up the last 80 years of film music, but there’s not a lot of research or academia on him the same way there is for Mozart or Beethoven. The continuing projects that we’re doing as part of the Max Steiner Database are really important in getting his music out there to the world. It’s so incredible to look at his score that he wrote and just think about the genius that went into it. I rely heavily on tools like Finale, but he didn’t have anything like that — he was handwriting hours and hours of music, and it’s just really incredible.”
After nearly five months of painstaking — and at times tedious — work, Chandler and the student transcription team handed off the score to Yorgason, who made edits and created the parts for the orchestra.
But “King Kong” was far from ready for its live concert debut. Commercial music student Ben Persinger created click tracks, or audio cues to keep the orchestra in sync with the film. From there, fellow commercial music major Zach Griffin was tasked with managing the technical aspects of the audio, video and click tracks for a seamless, balanced performance.
“I spent a lot of time figuring out how to meet the various technical demands of the performance — including getting click tracks into 105 musicians’ ears wirelessly,” said Griffin. “My research didn’t turn up much, so we went through a process of figuring out what would work best for the Philharmonic and this particular performance.”
Griffin attended all rehearsals, working closely with the Philharmonic musicians and director Kory Katseanes to settle on convenient and reliable solutions to prevent the orchestra from losing sync during the film. Griffin created visual cues to accompany Persinger’s audio cues and rented an assisted listening system to ensure that each individual performer could hear the click tracks through an earpiece.
“When it comes to the audio world, you’re working with lots of different equipment and different people, so you have to learn how to organize each element to make it all work together,” said Griffin, who plans to work as a producer or a post-sound engineer. “This was a really good experience for me to be able to take a technical challenge and be able to find technical results for it.”
On the night of the live screening, every performer on the de Jong Concert Hall stage placed their trust in Griffin as he managed the audiovisual elements during the concert itself.
“I felt most nervous at the very beginning of the film when I pushed that button for everything to start,” said Griffin. “I had prepared and I had planned, and I had a primary and backup system, but I was still anxious. Once we were about 10 minutes into the film and it was all working great, I was able to enjoy the concert. It was wonderful. Just being able to hear the film with a real orchestra was outstanding, and I heard a lot of really good responses from the audience.”
Chandler was also able to attend the performance and see the fruits of her hard work and passion.
“I did tear up a little bit when I heard them playing this music I knew so well, that I had spent months working on,” she said. “I was just blown away by how many people it took to put on this concert. It was only an hour and a half, but hundreds of people were involved in the process. I also realized that we helped make Max Steiner’s music accessible for people to hear and play and understand, and that was really rewarding as well.”
Both Chandler and Griffin felt the weight of the event and its significance to the broader music and film communities.
“There are people who flew from outside the country to come see this,” said Griffin. “This was a monumental achievement, especially for Max Steiner and recognizing the pioneering efforts he did for movie scoring. It’s important for us to recognize and celebrate the people that have contributed so much to the things we have today.”