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Faculty Spotlight

February 8, 2016

February 8, 2016 — A Professor in Film & Video, John Avarese is a classically-trained pianist who has composed more than 3,000 commissioned scores for film, television and documentaries. He’s designed and mixed sound for these and hundreds of other projects. His work ranges from such theatrical films as My Dog Tulip to recent scoring for  surround-sound planetarium features, including the Benedict Cumberbatch-narrated Solar Superstorms and Supervolcanoes, and Dynamic Earth, narrated by Liam Neeson. In this Q&A we chat with him about the role of technology in composing, the several classes he created and teaches for the Film & Video program, and work he admires. 


What classes do you teach in the Film & Video Program?

FMVD 120 - Basic Sound for Film and Video
FMVD 315 - Audio Post Production
FMVD 226-  Intermediate Sound
FMVD 206 - Audio Production and Post (for Digital Media majors)
FMVD 317 - Directing the Score
HNRS 301 - Hearing the Movies

(These are all classes that I created).


How long have you been teaching at Drexel? 

3 years as an adjunct, then 8 years as full time faculty.


What kind of training do you have as a musician?

I started piano at age 4 and studied it through college, took eight years of clarinet and a couple of school years at bassoon, then taught myself sax and flute. However, I’m primarily a piano/keyboard player. The eighties brought a lot of synthesizer programming. While my training is classical in nature, I performed in a variety of bands over the years and became the person writing horn arrangements. These days I am less of a performer and more of a composer, and the process of writing occurs through playing and improvising and recording.


How does your classical training influence your professional work? 

My training has given me the ability to be a good player. This confidence in playing ability gives me the freedom to trust myself and just react to the film while I'm recording. It's a very improvisational process.

While today's technology allows one who is not the best instrumentalist to create quality music, computer error correction has made music a bit sterile. While I embrace the technology, I try as much as possible to play live into the machines and not just enter data.


What is your creative approach to composing a score?

Much like how I teach my Directing the Score class, the process is all about how the audience is supposed to feel. It's all about emotions rather than which instruments to play. So I put myself in the audience and make myself feel a certain emotion (based on the director's guidance).

In a couple of rare projects for features that I’ve scored, I wrote the scene before I found out what happened next. This way I had the perspective of the viewer experiencing the film for the first time, and I could go along with those feelings without the possibility of giving away the story.


What is it like to create a surround sound score for a planetarium features? 

All of the planetarium projects are the most fun to work on. Since it takes a long time to realize the visuals, I am able to start early by just writing interesting music with broad definitions of emotions. Here I am looking for unusual sound combinations and I probably write three times the music that is necessary. Then when I get a roughly edited show, I edit these 'swatches' of music to see what works with the story line. Once I get a patchwork made, the next part is turning the pieces into a consistent, deliberate composition. Then a celebrity voice is hired to narrate the show, which finishes the sound track.


What are your current and upcoming projects?

I just finished branding a large financial corporation, which is an interesting project. Think about it—what does a multi-national financial company sound like musically? I write 19 short pieces of music and presented them to the marketing team as a Rorschach test. That was unusual for me.

There is another planetarium show scheduled to be completed in the spring titled Faster Than Light. Next month I start on a feature film that has five sequels scheduled, and I've already written 15 minutes of music for it. There's a feature drama about a female death row warden starring Alfre Woodard also starting this spring. Right now I'm scoring some medical 3D animated videos, and finishing a high profile video for a university just west of us.


Do you have a favorite film score?

There are many, however Thomas Newman's The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorites. He creates the right emotion and gets the most feeling out of the least amount of notes, and it has the cinematic Americana sound that I seem to be attracted to. I love almost everything he does. And who doesn't like Finding Nemo? That’s also his.