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Composer Alf Clausen Brings
The Simpsons to Life with Sibelius
Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart? Who controls the British Crown? Who keeps the metric system down? And who puts the spring in Springfield? If the answers to those questions just started ringing out in your head, you have Alf Clausen to thank.
Since the second season of The Simpsons' seemingly unstoppable 16-year-and-counting run, the veteran film and television composer has provided the musical voice that defines the popular series as much as any drawing or script. And for the past three years, Clausen has relied on Sibelius music composition software to help him channel his high-volume creative output through the show's frenetic production schedule.
"I had the software up and running pretty quickly, and was impressed by the friendliness of the user interface," says Clausen, who had tried other notation software before. "The transition was extremely easy. What I really liked about Sibelius from the first moment was the look of the printed score. It was graceful - easy to conduct from. It just knocked me out."
Years before anyone had ever heard of Homer and Bart, Clausen had already carved out a reputation as one of Hollywood's top scorers, composing music for the television series Alf, several movies-of-the-week and, most significantly, the Bruce Willis- Cybill Shepherd smash Moonlighting. He also contributed additional music to films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Mr. Mom, Splash and Weird Science.
He's been nominated for 18 Emmys, winning two, for his Simpsons work alone. His seven previous nominations included six for Moonlighting. In the ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards, Clausen has helmed The Simpsons to six wins and Moonlighting to one for "Top TV Series."
Composition for The Simpsons comes in two main varieties: the instrumental underscore for each week's episode, and the individual songs that have etched themselves into fans' memories, like Emmy-winners We Put the Spring in Springfield (1997) and You're Checkin' In (1998).
The challenge of the underscore is time. A typical Friday includes both a "spotting session" during which Clausen, the executive producer and a few others decide on the 30-plus cues that week's almost-completed episode will need - and then a recording session, in which a 35-piece orchestra records brand-new music by Clausen that was first requested during the last spotting session only a week earlier.
Clausen says Sibelius helps him get through this process, not least of all by enabling him to generate crisp notation print-outs for his colleagues with the click of a mouse.
"I love the fluency with which I can input my individual notes into the program and can come up with such a professional looking product that is so easily copied by the copying department," he says. "Music copyists are probably the most underrated musicians in the industry, but they're also the most cynical, so they really appreciate a professionally-notated, easy-to-copy score. Many composers' notational skills are not, shall we say, well-honed. The cool thing about Sibelius for me is that the product is so professional from the time it leaves my studio that it leaves no question as to what the notes are."
In addition, he notes, "The feature that I don't think about much until I'm really faced with it is the cutand- paste ability that works exactly like a word processor. It's just a blessing. And one of the reasons that I went to a notation program in the first place was a physical one; my shoulders would constantly hurt because I was writing at the piano, on a desk that would fit on top of my keyboard."
When it comes to writing full songs for The Simpsons, Clausen faces a different challenge, made more complex by the show's frequent use of parody. He often has to create a tune that's instantly recognizable as an homage of the one being spoofed, without copying it so exactly that the finished product violates copyright. Clausen's knack for threading this needle has left many viewers convinced that, for example, Cut Every Corner in the show's 1997 tribute to Mary Poppins really is the original's A Spoonful of Sugar, or that The Garbageman (1998) is really the The Candy Man.
"It's a huge challenge, and fortunately we don't do that a lot," Clausen remarks with a chuckle. "My process is simply breaking down each song's elements. I will take a piece of paper and a pencil and make notes to myself as to what makes that song work the way it does - melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and orchestrationally. I still start from the pencil and paper standpoint and do all of my actual composition with pencil and paper at the piano. Then I orchestrate on Sibelius, because I know I can go back later and easily add instrument parts or make changes for dramatic reasons."
For original songs like We Do (The Stonecutter's Song), of course, Clausen has more latitude with the music, but the lyrics all come first from the scriptwriters. Whether a song is a parody or a completely original piece, Clausen begins by recording a demo with studio singers and a small instrumental combo. That first composite-mix tape goes to the voice actors for use in learning their parts, and a few days later they add their own vocal tracks. The animators use this second composite-mix as a guide for their work. Months later, Clausen will replace the small combo track with a full orchestra, and the song is complete.
Another mind trick Clausen manages to play on fans is that he often makes short-form songs, or even underscore cues only a few bars long, feel like much longer pieces. "We like to joke in our scoring sessions that I can make you feel five ways in 13 seconds, because the emotion on the screen turns on a dime," he says. "My job is to follow what I see on the screen and hear in the dialogue."
As The Simpsons continues through its 16th broadcast season, Clausen is preparing a big-band album of his own for release, tentatively titled Swing Can Really Hang You Up the Most. He's also planning to compile a third CD volume of Simpsons music, to follow up the wildly popular Songs in the Key of Springfield (Rhino Records, 1997) and Go Simpsonic with The Simpsons (Rhino Records, 1999). He says fan e-mails play a big role in determining the contents of each compilation.
And as he works, Clausen - a dedicated pencil-and-paper man whose embrace of computer-based notation is comparatively recent - keeps exploring more of the capabilities Sibelius offers him. "It's amazing to me how much progress has been made," he says. "I'm very impressed."