A Day in the Life of a Composer
Posted on: Oct 13, 2022
This interview was originally published in July 2020.
As a community, industry members are continuing to work toward the best and safest steps forward as productions begin to restart. The effects of COVID-19 on the industry have broadly affected the various roles found within it. Composers, for example, have had to adapt the way in which they work, and their profession as a whole is the one we’re covering in this installment of A Day in the Life. Jeff Garber is known for his work on projects like The CW series Nancy Drew and Netflix’s Virgin River. The composer shared with us a window into his world, as well as his take on how the novel coronavirus has impacted the work of composing.
Before we get to the pandemic, can you start by giving us an overview of what the job of a composer normally entails?
Well, it depends on when in the editing process you like to score the project. Some composers like to start scoring on one of the earlier cuts, but I like to begin after the producers have kind of signed off on everything, which is usually closest to a locked cut. That way, I’m not having to rewrite anything, especially when I’m doing a brand new score each week. So before COVID-19, I would get that cut and then go watch the episode with the show’s producers, at which point they could tell me their ideas. Then I’d come home and usually have about six days to finish scoring the episode from my home studio. I’d send it in and then take any notes, which are often just minor adjustments.
Can you talk a little bit about your process in general?
I’m very cerebral with it and don’t like to pre-write for anything. I like to just put my fingers right on the keys as I watch the episode, and the first thing that comes out is usually what sticks. Since I’m watching it for the very first time, there’s this cool simpatico thing that happens between the footage and my fingers. The music sort of floats around and then just lands on the keyboard. It’s weird, like some sort of voodoo magic.
It definitely paints a picture of how composition is truly a form of art! So how has your daily schedule changed since COVID-19 started? It seems like you were ahead of the game when it comes to working remotely since you already had a home studio.
I joke that I’ve been in quarantine for the past four or five years because I’ve been working remotely for a while now. My at-home work schedule would begin at 8 a.m. and go until about 4 p.m., with maybe a coffee or snack break in there. But I’d pretty much work straight through those hours, and then I’d take a break when my kids come home. I’d make them dinner, put them down to sleep, hang out with my wife, and then go back downstairs to my studio at about 8 p.m. Sometimes I’d only need to spend another hour or two working, but other times I’d finish up around midnight. Some days as a composer can just be really long, so I will say that this time has allowed me to rest.
My schedule at the moment mostly consists of gardening and taking trips to the hardware store so that I can work on some home projects. When COVID-19 initially shut things down, I was able to work from home to tie up my end of things on Virgin River since it had already wrapped on filming season two. But we did lose the last few episodes of Nancy Drew because of it. What’s nice, though, is that both of those shows shoot in Vancouver, so I think I’m one of the lucky people that might get back to work sooner rather than later.
That’s great! And how do you see yourself working with producers when production resumes on those shows?
We’ll definitely be meeting remotely. In fact, we already did it on the last couple episodes of Virgin River. We watched them together via Zoom, and then they gave me their notes over Zoom, it as well.
I’m glad to hear how you all have already established ways to be safe and collaborate remotely. And now I have to ask what may be the most difficult question of this interview. As a composer, can you narrow down your favorite scores of all time to a tight top five?
Yes. I’m a huge Thomas Newman fan so I always include The Shawshank Redemption score on that list, and it’d probably be at the very top. I also love his score for Less Than Zero, which was the first time in my life I’d ever heard anything that amazing. Newman’s score for American Beauty makes my top five, too. And then to switch things up, I would also include on that list the Interstellar and Mad Max: Fury Road scores, as well.
Garber’s words remind us that even though the industry is still recovering from the effects of COVID-19, it continues moving forward and adapting the way productions happen in order to keep everyone safe. As the composer shared, aspects of his work did change, such as needing to meet with producers virtually instead of in person. Composing scores remotely required no learning curve for Garber, though, since he’d already been working out of a home studio. And for those interested in pursuing a career in composing, especially considering the job’s work-from-home capabilities, Garber gave one last key insight. “The composer life is kind of lonely, but it’s fulfilling,” he noted. “It’s a lot of work so you have to love it.”
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