A Q&A with Media Composer and Educator Alison Plante

  1. We heard that you have been collaborating with some directors from our sister organizations such as Film Fatales! Can you tell us more about these projects and reflect on your creative process with women directors?

    I’ve been very pleased to be scoring the important upcoming documentary As Prescribed, which deals with the harm that has come to many patients taking benzodiazepines (a class of anti-anxiety and sleep-aid medication that includes Valium, Xanax, Klonapin, and others in very wide use), whose filmmaker Holly Hardman is a member of Film Fatales and found me when I gave a presentation on film scoring to their Massachusetts chapter. I’ve also been in touch with a few other Film Fatale directors from the joint mixer held last year. Though I’ve enjoyed working with a lot of different media producers, scoring films made by women is something I particularly look forward to because the experience is so often very egalitarian and collaborative. That’s particularly been the case working with Holly, who has been very responsive and imaginative as we explore not only the subject of the documentary but also the specific people she’s profiling, letting me try out some unusual sound choices to represent deep truths about each person. She also doesn’t use temp music, so the spotting and sound of the film have been wide open for us to explore together.

  2. Besides film, you also have notable scoring credits for other art forms and media, including multimedia museum installations for the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution. We would love to know more about your approach when combining music with history and science.

    Though I love scoring narratives as well, the majority of my work has been in educational and documentary media in which the primary goal is to teach and to get at the deeper meaning of various topics, as opposed to be primarily for entertainment. I’ve found that combining this with my role as a teacher of film scoring has been very symbiotic, since understanding more about how people learn – be it learning math, science, history, or music – applies across anything I’m trying to teach. Scoring for museums and other forms of educational media first and foremost means I have to understand the subject being taught, so that I can support it appropriately with music. I need to stay out of the way a lot, but also help guide and direct a viewer’s interest, much as I might structure a lesson in class to maintain students’ attention. Both in the classroom and in educational media it’s really not about whether I, or my music, is flashy or noticeable, but rather it’s about whether my students or viewers are learning what they need to learn. Beyond having an educator’s mindset, I’ve also very much enjoyed being able to work elements of history and science into my scores in a way that might not be noticeable to a casual listener, but has a deep connection to the subject. For example my very first scoring credit was on an educational series for the Annenberg Channel about mathematics, and I used the Fibonacci number sequence as a basis for the main theme. When dealing with a historical subject there’s an opportunity to research period-specific music and employ aspects of that in the score. I also did this in my concert work Trimountaine, which I recorded with the Hollywood Chamber Orchestra during a sabbatical semester, and which was based on the history of Boston – for that piece I used a Colonial fife tune called “Road to Boston” which had a literal tie-in to the subject of one of the movements.

  3. Playing keyboard, various wind instruments and having performed in a Gamelan for years must have had a huge impact on your musicianship! How did each of these different instrument families contribute to your compositional skills?

    As I mentioned above for Trimountaine the use of the fife tune came from my time playing in a fife and drum corps as a child growing up in Concord, Massachusetts (where the “shot heard round the world” started the American Revolution). However, most of my influences from this instrumental background are more subtle. Starting on recorder and playing in renaissance and baroque ensembles as my first musical experience was very formative, and to this day I think and write very melodically and contrapuntally as opposed to harmonically. My time playing Gamelan, which comes from an entirely different musical tradition, helped me look at music in a whole new way with completely different structures and expectations. I also played French horn and piano, so the only instrument family I’ve really missed out on has been strings – a lack I definitely feel sometimes when writing for them.

  4. You are a film scoring professor at one of the most prestigious music schools in the world: Berklee College of Music! Being an educator, what are the biggest differences you notice in the younger generation of composers? What is your advice to these students?

    There are some things that remain the same in each class of students, even after 13 years of teaching at Berklee: their passion for film and game music, and their energy and infectious enthusiasm that makes this job such a joy to do. There are also some differences. First off, when I started at Berklee there were only about 20% women in the Film Scoring department, and we’re now up to 42% as of the latest statistics. That’s an incredible, and crucial change. The faculty is changing as well, though more slowly as new hires are relatively infrequent. When I was hired as Assistant Chair in 2008 I was the only woman in our department meetings (there was one part-time faculty member, the fantastic Ruth Mendelson, but she was only in for one or two classes per semester) and also the only woman in any department leadership position in our division. Combine that with an 80% male student population and I was operating in male-dominated spaces pretty much all the time. Now, I’m one of three full-time faculty who are female, and there are several women and people of color among the Division’s leadership. Another change I’ve seen in the students coming through my classes is a wider view and interest in genres of music, which mirrors the bloom in recent years of a variety of types of music used in film and game scores. We definitely still teach and have a great deal of interest in orchestral scoring, but we’ve added more textural and contemporary influenced projects to our curriculum.

  5. What was your biggest challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?

    Probably my biggest challenge was in my own choice to move back to Boston to pursue my scoring career, rather than going to L.A. I knew when I made the choice that it would be harder to find scoring gigs here, and that I was choosing based more on quality of life (I love New England, and my family is out here) than on career potential. That said, though my scoring options were somewhat limited, constraint breeds creativity, and as I’ve described above being led in the direction of educational and documentary media has been a real positive for me, in addition to becoming involved with Berklee.

    Interview by Esin Aydingoz

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