While the animation world may be anchored by its visuals, it is through musical prowess that a work becomes a masterpiece. None know this as fully, or have excelled with such finesse, than Ego Plum - the masterful composer behind the hit series ‘Harvey Beaks’. After sculpting one of the most iconic soundtracks of our time and sealing ‘Harvey’ as an instant classic, Plum has turned his sights on his greatest achievement yet - the musical Special, Harvey Beaks “It’s Christmas You Dorks!”. Utilizing an orchestra of 52 musicians and 24-piece choir, Plum has woven a tapestry of sound that captures the heart of Disney classics but with a modern flair that only Plum could reach. With the Holidays fast approaching, there is no better way to celebrate great joy an artistry than with Plum’s latest creation and all the charm that comes with ‘Harvey Beaks’.
The soundscape for ‘Harvey Beaks’ has a very unique and intriguing atmosphere, was it one that was difficult to create or did you find it quite quickly?
- Thank you. When I originally tested for the show, I was given some artwork and a creative brief about the world and the characters. I remember I was already working on a series for Disney Television which gave me a little bit of confidence in the way I approached my Harvey demo. I ignored a lot of what was in the creative brief - not out of disrespect but because I felt like I could take a risk and do what I thought would work for the show; even if it was unusual.
- The next day, I wrote a piece of music and submitted it to Nickelodeon. That original 60 second demo, virtually unchanged, became the theme song to Harvey Beaks. That one minute of music set the tonality for the next few years to come.
- To go back to the question, the tone and direction came to me in one day, but I’ve been refining it and expanding on it for nearly 100 episodes now.
The utilisation of a live orchestra in your compositions gives such a beautiful quality to the music - was using this more traditional method something that was planned from the beginning?
- Thank you! This was not planned from the beginning. Early on, I wrote a proposal to the network and the producers stating my case for having an orchestra on our show. It is an important tradition in animation that seems to only exist for the giant animation properties such as 'The Simpsons', and 'Family Guy'. It took several months but eventually they agreed and I'm so glad they did.
- I am extremely proud to be part of the first Nicktoon to utilize an orchestra and choir, and I hope this is a tradition that can continue throughout the animation industry and not just for me and Nickelodeon.
Have you found there has been a shift in the way music is recorded for television and film between live orchestras and more technology-driven recordings?
- The shift to samples and synthesizers in the 90's seemed more like a bi-product of capitalistic forces than a creative choice by artists. That is not to say that there hasn't been some beautiful electronic scores in Film & Television. The music of "Aeon Flux" by Drew Neumann, or "Social Network" by Trent Reznor, or the original "Tron" by Wendy Carlos stand out in my mind. But economics and turn-around time are a big part in shows having to use settle for "less."
- This is why I’m eternally grateful to Nickelodeon for the massive risk and expenditure they made on the Harvey Beaks score. This is not to be taken lightly. For this Christmas special alone, I've ended up being musically responsible for a team of almost 100 people, if you consider all the musicians, soloists, singers, engineers, copyists, assistants, mixers, orchestrators, conductors, and so on involved in making this happen. So yes, there has been a shift, but I am glad I am part of the movement to shift things BACK.
The latest Christmas Special, "It's Christmas You Dorks!" has a particularly rich score and one that is so central to the story as it is dialogue free, was this a daunting task or welcome challenge?
- It was both. It was absolutely frightening and the artistic challenge I’ve been waiting for my entire life. It feels like the culmination of my entire career in this one episode, frankly. It is a truly rare and special treat to see a "silent" cartoon on a television network in this day and age. And doing it completely with an orchestra and choir, in the tradition started with Disney's Fantasia 75 years ago makes it even more special for all of us on team Harvey.
There is a great wealth of magic in the sound of this episode, one reminiscent of classic Christmas tales and beloved Disney films, were there any main influences you looked to when creating the sound?
- Thank you, once again! There were a ton of influences for this episode.
- In the "Red Shoes" segment, I was going for a golden-age Disney sound that you would hear in "Peter Pan," or "Cinderella." This was made possible by the beautiful voices of the Northwest Sinfonia Chorale which we recorded up in Seattle, Washington. For this same segment, I was trying for a Grand Waltz in the manner of Kachaturian or Strauss.
- For all the stop-motion interstitials, it was all Tchaikovsky and Elfman. Danny Elfman has essentially cornered the market on the sound of Christmas ever since 'Edward Scissorhands' and 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having the man that orchestrated those scores (Steve Bartek) on my team to help bring my version of Christmas to life.
How would you describe the overall atmosphere you were looking to create in ‘It's Christmas, You Dorks’?
- I was looking to write very playful and traditional music for this score. There were no electronic elements. For instance, the "Snow Fort" segment is where I tried to channel the cold Russian Winter by way of Sergei Prokofiev or Rimsky-Korsakov.
- I'm not a student of classical music, I’m a student of Beatles-esque pop for melody and old punk rock for energy and friction, so you'll hear a lot of that in my scores. Even if i'm writing for an orchestra, I feel like I’m always trying to write a McCartney/Lennon song.
- So as far as “atmosphere,” imagine the Soviet Red Army Choir and Orchestra lead by Carl Stalling attempting to play Beatles tunes, and that's the sound I was going for.
How does the creative process for a special such as this differ to that of a general ‘Harvey Beaks episode? Are you playing to fit the storyboarding or is that created afterwards for such a musically-driven episode?
- This was specifically modeled after Disney's FANTASIA in that I wrote all the music in advance over a year ago. Initially, I was handed the basic premises for all the vignettes and it was my job to turn those into instrumental "musical stories."
- I remembered listening to the Carl Stalling Warner Bros. scores and how extremely vivid those were. You can practically see all the action in your head when you listen to his music. I was striving to reach a fraction of that quality.
- Once all the music was composed, it was the job of the storyboard artists to set the animation to my music and that created its own special challenges for everyone involved. None of us had worked on an episode like this before and it was a great learning process for the entire team.
In what ways do you feel that the music for 'Harvey Beaks' has evolved since it first began?
- I'm not sure. I think I've improved, and refined my approach. But I’ve always strived to make it sound the way it did in my original demo. I hope that a person could watch an early episode or a later one and not tell the difference.
- 'Harvey Beaks' is an example of a show where the vision was very clear to me from the beginning. I wanted to combine huge orchestral elements with tiny casio keyboards and children’s toys. I can’t tell if i’m elevating plastic toy keyboards to the level of an orchestra, or i’m making mockery of orchestral music.
Do you find that you have personally changed in your approach to music and composition since beginning work with the series?
- 'Harvey Beaks', more than anything, has taught me the importance of emotion in composition. Ultimately, I write to feel things. As a composer, I think the most important thing I can contribute to storytelling is to find the “emotional essence" of any scene or situation and play to that. Even instrumentation has become irrelevant to me. If you can find the emotionality of any given moment, you can use a slide whistle and bicycle spokes as your instruments and still propel a narrative in a meaningful way.
Do you believe audiences are becoming more aware of how central a show or film’s score is to the overall experience, or do you feel it is still largely overlooked?
- Audiences and children are more sophisticated today than ever before. When they appreciate the inner workings of a show, they will seek out the musicians or artists they like. Social media has facilitated this from both ends. As an artist and as a fan, there is accessibility today that didn't exist prior to the digital age.
- As a kid, television and movies seemed like a different planet of untouchable people and ideas to me. I would hear melodies in a cartoon that stayed in my head for decades without ever knowing how or where to ever find it. It wasn't until I was an adult in my late 20's that I learned that one of the most popular melodies in over 40 Warner Bros. Looney Tunes was from a song called "Powerhouse" by Raymond Scott. Today, I could have figured that out in 10 seconds. So, I don't think scores are overlooked at all.
- However, from an artistic standpoint the most effective scores are truly the ones that CAN be overlooked. A good score helps by making itself invisible and moving a story forward like a silent wind. Of course, it is wonderful to receive accolades for the music I'm doing but it's important for me to always be aware of the bigger picture and put the vision of the director first, ahead of my music. I am a secondary player by design and by choice.
After fulfilling such a stunning and emotive episode in ‘It's Christmas, You Dorks’, what is your next aim for work with ‘Harvey’?
- I think I may have reached a creative pinnacle with this Christmas special. It really is my single proudest achievement as a composer on a series. I was handed the reigns by Carl Greenblatt to steer this episode and I just hope I didn't crash it. But there are still a lot of great musical moments coming up in 2017 for Harvey Beaks.
- There are so many little things I'm excited about. I recently had Leonard Graves Phillips from the legendary Los Angeles punk band The Dickies come to my studio and sing a tiny part during Harvey's first encounter with a mosh pit. That alone is a bit of a dream come true, considering how many times I would go see the Dickies as a kid.
- One of the most important songs I've written is coming up in an episode called "Rock Bark Rocks." I'm also playing a character on Harvey Beaks! I play a musician that has a really sweet and touching interaction with Harvey and they even sing a song together. I can't wait for audiences to see it. This was interesting because initially I didn't want to do the part, and we reached out to everyone from Frank Black (Pixies) to Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters/Nirvana) to play the part and sing my song but we didn't have any luck. Ultimately, it made the most sense for me to do it and I'm glad I did it.
- We have more orchestral work to do as well. I will be back in Seattle with Steve Bartek early next year for another batch of orchestral sessions. The best may be yet to come.
For the countless fans out there who have been swept away by your work, is there anywhere that they may be able to listen to/download/purchase tracks?
- That is very kind of you to say, thank you. I run a YouTube channel where I share tracks from Harvey Beaks and other projects. Fans are welcome to listen and comment on there. I also have some of my own releases floating around iTunes and different places but there currently no Harvey Beaks music officially released.
- I have been talking to a few record labels about a potential release. Perhaps a limited-edition vinyl with songs and music from the show? Orchestral music release? Incidental music? Best of? There are so many possibilities and I am determined to have something come out. I hope to have a music release coincide with the finale of the show.