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Robert J. KralRob Kral (angel composer) - Miraclestv.com Interview Part I
Monday 15 December 2003
The fans of Miracles and Angel get up close and personal with music composer Robert J. Kral in Part One of this special two-part feature.
Rob Kral has been a great supporter of "Miracles" and a joy to work with in getting this feature published. Fans of his music will find this question and answer session interesting, humorous and refreshing.
1. Kathy: How did you get started in this line of work? How did you train, and what was your first job?
Well, it’s been a long and difficult road. I wanted to create moods and atmospheres and started hearing music in my head at about age 14. At 15, I forced myself to write music for full orchestra, because I already knew that the best job for me would be film music—creating moods and atmospheres for the audience. Of course, to do that, I’d need to learn to orchestrate, so I dove into the deep end and taught myself. The very difficult thing for young composers is the inability to hear your final work since orchestras do not come cheap! They are also busy with the classics and aren’t usually interested in new material, as I found with our local Symphony.
I decided to get a bachelor’s degree of Music at Adelaide University. It wasn’t exactly film music training, but it was the best next step. Luckily, Tristram Carey, a film composer from the UK, was teaching part of the degree, so I began some of my training with him. The University was not very encouraging of this career and was more interested in Academic styles (read contemporary, atonal music). I adapted swiftly to this by making sure everything I wrote had "wrong notes" in it and they loved it. Actually, it is fairer to say they did teach me a lot about atonal* music and I did begin to hear it "properly." The lack of encouragement at University was difficult, however, whereas encouragement in High School was, well, high. That was a very good thing, because in Australia, unlike the States, kids decide their careers in Year 10, choose their subjects for year 11 and by the final high school year they are concentrating only on their "major," which doesn’t happen in America until further into University!
So, the pressure is on at age 16 to decide. Anyway, after the degree I was, of course, unemployed, and found small music projects for video production companies. They got bigger as they went along, plus I worked in the sound departments of the South Australian Film Corporation and Channel Nine where I learned live mixing and more about sound recording. I was extremely fortunate to get both those jobs through word of mouth; a total answer to prayer, literally. These helped me to raise money to come to the States to study film scoring at USC, which is mighty expensive!
My first gig in the States was writing for another composer who was a teacher at USC. This is how I met Chris Beck, who was also writing on this show, and most of my work in the States stems from knowing Chris initially.
*Atonal refers to music that lacks a tonal center or has no dominant tone or diatonic scale associated with it. Atonal music is often considered disconcerting by those who are accustomed to "traditional" harmonies.
2. Rekka: What was the first instrument that you played, and how old were you when you became interested in music? Were you a "good" music student, or were you forced to practice from time to time?
My first instrument love was the drums! I remember being about four and seeing a drummer in a band and thinking that was amazingly cool. I started learning at five, but swiftly changed to the piano, because we’d watched a Liberace special on TV and I thought that was really cool too! I was a fairly good student, but progress was slow. I didn’t know at the time, but then a High School music teacher and Piano trainer at our Church met me and realized I was way behind in my abilities considering the years I had put in. It came down to the fact that the first few teachers I’d had over the first six or seven years weren’t so great. This new teacher crash-coursed me into 7th grade piano — boy was it tough.
I don’t know if you could have called me a good student. I am sure that teacher thought otherwise! I saw the progress other students made and they flew past me. I wasn’t too bad, but not great, and the 7th grade exam terrified me (I never took it). I tried very hard and practiced a lot, but it seems performance was not my talent. Once the tunes came to my head, that’s all I wanted to do (well, more than play someone else’s music anyway).
Yes, I was forced to practice a lot. Toward the end (I was about 16), it just got to the point where playing difficult pieces was a chore. I wanted to create music, not learn the robotics of playing other people’s music. I guess my Liberace inspiration wore off. I had something far more exciting to pursue as far as I could tell.
3. AlvaFan: Which instrument/s do you prefer to compose on, if any?
I compose on a keyboard because piano is my background, and it’s usually the best instrument to use for composition. However, the percussion training (I went back to learning percussion in University, so I am not talking about the drums when I was 5!) comes in extremely handy and I also learned violin for a few years (talk about forced into practicing with THAT instrument! I hated it). The knowledge gained by playing even a little of other instruments comes in very handy for orchestral work. I then also taught myself a little guitar, and I use that if guitar stuff is needed. In fact, if you write guitar music on the piano, it turns out all wrong a lot of the time. Guitar is one instrument where it is best I use that instead of piano if I’m writing for it.
4. Vicki: What kind of music do you listen to most often? What is your favorite "driving-in-the-car" music?
I just love film music. I also listen to the radio to try to keep somewhat current with the latest music, bands, etc. I must admit, though, I am a fan of Queen and love to listen to them from time to time. There are many, many new [bands] I’ve loved too. The problem with radio these days is that they RARELY tell you what the song was and who the band was. I also love ELO’s "TIME" album. The synth instrumentation throughout that is amazingly rich. Right now, I am on a James Bond soundtrack craze and listen to old Bond music in the car! What I listen to chops and changes; I love variety.
5. MiraclesTV: Were you ever in a band?
I was in a Christian Rock band back in Australia. We played at the beach in summer. Those were some of the best times of my life. Perhaps when I retire, I might get back into song writing, but I haven’t written songs in a long while.
6. 1chameleon: Rob, [has] being an Australian helped you in the industry by giving you a different view of the world [as opposed to] the American way of thinking?
It hasn’t helped in terms of work, but there is a very different way of thinking that might be called Australian as opposed to American. America generally is very individualistic. [The] "I take care of ME" kind of attitude comes up constantly. Australia is much more communal, or community-oriented if you will. My wife and I have a theory about this that really makes sense. In America, the pioneers conquered the land. They "Won the West." In Australia, a lot of our explorers just died in the desert. The land beat us to death. Because of this, "mateship" was born. In Australia, generally everyone is looking out for each other, helping out, making experiences pleasant, the "G’day Mate" approach. There is a very real sense that we need each other, whereas, at least in LA, it’s much more total competition and people stick to themselves. In Oz, you always feel you might see someone again, even strangers. In the States, there’s a sense that you won’t.
That might all sound a little bizarre, but practically every traveler we’ve met has had the same experience when coming to America. The media here constantly reminds us that America is "the best country in the world," and doesn’t report on world news like other countries do. It’s as if we don’t need the rest of the world. In Oz, we know we need the rest of the world, and that it’s out there and we need to know about it.
7. MiraclesTV: Was it hard for an Australian to break into the business?
It’s hard for anyone to break in...
Someone from overseas has a difficult time breaking in here in LA because of immigration challenges. Doing it by the book is extremely difficult, and requires lots of time, money, and credentials. An American has a hard time breaking in also, but doesn’t have the other stuff to worry about on top of it. My story involves lots and lots of small steps, one leading to the next and to the next. It’s one of those things [where] you can’t have it all right away. Slowly, you take the gradual steps towards your goal.
8. Overuser: Love the music Rob—you’ve added so much to the "Miracles" experience. Could you perhaps share with us the technical side of your writing process (where you start, what equipment you use - keyboards, PCs, software, etc)?
Thanks for the compliments! "Miracles" was an absolute joy to write, and I miss it still.
The technical side? Well, I could write a book, but I’ll be brief I think! We have a meeting each week called the "spotting session" where we spot where the music will go (and where it won’t) in the episode and talk about the direction of the music, watching the videotape. I then have about five days to write and record the score, then I put it onto a video so the producers can watch it and request any changes. I then do a final multi-track music mix and that goes to the sound stage to be mixed with the dialog and sound effects. As that mix is happening, we’ve already "spotted" the next episode and I am off and running.
I use a Mac running Digital Performer, which drives 4 PCs that have GigaStudio installed. I am about to add three more of these amazing units. GigaStudio revolutionized sampling by doing away with memory limitations and even midi channel limitations. This means one machine can do what about 10 could do before. The sound libraries are incredibly realistic, and provide the sounds for strings, brass, choirs, etc. It’s like playing any electronic keyboard, but I have up to 300 tracks I can instantly layer, and each track contains sounds of the highest realism and quality.
All this is locked to a digital version of the video, so wherever the music is, the video is playing instantly right there with it, and vice versa.
At 15, I wrote that orchestral piece for the first time mentioned earlier, but couldn’t hear it with an orchestra. The amazing thing is that [with today’s technology] I can hear my music almost instantly and record it the same day.
9. TVwriter23: What was your inspiration when working on the music for "Miracles?"
The inspiration was the show itself! What a fantastic show! When I first saw the pilot, my jaw dropped. I got the chills a few times! I knew I was destined to write the music for it, but also knew that because the quality was so high, they might choose a bigger name to do it. Which is what happened, but eventually it all worked out in my favor. When I FINALLY was chosen to do the pilot (they were working with other composers first), I couldn’t believe I was doing it. It was a total dream.
10. Miracles Fan: What’s your own personal favorite episode of "Miracles?"
The pilot without question. It looks stunning, the writing is first rate and extremely clever, and the acting is superb. It’s unlike any hour of TV I’ve ever seen before. My next favorite for continuing the story is "Hand of God." I also really like "Saint Debbie," and think that it is also a "perfect" episode. "Little Miss Lost" wins out for chills factor (that GIRL!), and there is a scene in "Mother’s Daughter" which is both beautiful and simultaneously gut wrenching (takes place on a lake of ice).
11. Luckee: "The Ferguson Syndrome" was so emotionally moving. Was this episode a big challenge musically?
Yes it was! There are a few different styles going on: the Spanish guitar, the atonal creepy stuff (I played the violin myself to get those effects!), etc. Everyone loved the temp score, so I had a big challenge to go up against it. [They were] used to that temp and loved the pilot, so I knew I was handling everyone’s delicate baby that they had already reared for many months.
But it all came together in so many ways. It would take a very special show to get me to handle a violin again, but this one did it. I also played guitar in the boy’s bedroom scene. I felt like a part of my destiny had arrived as I put the music together and performed it.
Compositionally, there were interesting challenges. David liked the idea that sometimes we’d have a dark moment in the dialogue on screen, but the music was allowed to play against it. For example, when Tommy talks to Paul about the train dream, and Tommy mentions the Darkness, it’s incredibly spooky and eerie, but a synth string line plays major chords. David Greenwalt really liked this type of stuff and it worked great. It’s scary, but grand because of the major ("happier") chords playing. Then I sneak in a harp line very slowly, the chords are still major, but the harp is minor. Gradually the harp gets louder over time and the strings die out. The major material gets taken over by the sad, sinister minor stuff.
I did a lot of tricks like that, and I’ve never done them before in this way. David liked to have moments that go against the grain, and this opened up a big new palette for me.
12. MiraclesTV: What was your first reaction when "Miracles" was cancelled?
I really was, of course, shocked. There had been some talk of the possibility of course, so in some ways you could see it coming. It is important for all overseas viewers to know why and how it happened. ABC wanted a smash hit opening night. The ratings were good for a new show, but not the stellar results they had hoped for. From some talk I have heard, right away they lost interest. Instead of further promoting this new baby, they neglected it. "Joe Millionaire’s" two-part finale aired over two weeks, and ABC (amongst other networks also) changed their programming, not wanting to compete against it. "Miracles" was postponed and not advertised for two weeks. Then the war broke out, and it was postponed another two weeks. In the end, for a total of five weeks it was postponed, but with no advertising and no mention to the public about when it would reappear. Even fans thought it might have been cancelled. Fans of the show didn’t even know when it was on. So when it finally came on again, again with no advertising, the rating was extremely low. The following morning it was cancelled.
So you can see that, by the way it was handled, it didn’t have a chance. It confirmed for me the insanity of the ratings alone being relied upon to tell a network what to air and what to cancel. Here in the States, we all have favorite shows that were cancelled prematurely. The tragedy is that it is not uncommon.
13. Crashnburn: Do you have a favorite story related to your work on "Miracles"? A favorite Richard Hatem or David Greenwalt story perhaps?
I remember Richard hearing an idea I had for the main title. He politely, but hilariously, said he’d keep it in mind if he ever does a "cop show."
I don’t have a lot of stories, I guess, because I only saw them for one meeting per episode, although there were a few extra meetings before I officially got the job. There was a high degree of fun in those meetings which I’d not experienced on other shows. David and Richard were like Beavis and Butthead! Amongst all the creativity and artistry and talent of these two guys put together, there was also a healthy dose of mucking about! It was as if these two had known each other since school — well, especially college perhaps! The atmosphere over there was great.
14. MiraclesTV: When writing music for an episode of "Miracles" or "Angel," how many times do you typically have to view the episode to compose for it?
Well, I don’t count, but my guess is hundreds of times. The music is mostly midi, meaning what you hear is mostly me playing the instruments and multi-tracking. This is all off a keyboard of course; I don’t REALLY know how to play the tuba. Anyway, because of this, each track is played individually and the layers are built up very slowly, meaning with each pass I am watching it again. I watch these scenes, and sections of these scenes, over and over and over, all day, every day.
A former Star Trek composer taught me an interesting technique. Sometimes, I’ll watch it first without thinking of the music, just to get to know the scene. This includes watching it backwards, fast forward, etc. It gets your mind to know the scene inside out and at subconscious levels. I’ll watch a scene knowing I might not score it for a few days, [but] back there in the dark recesses of my mind, it’s being worked on without my conscious awareness.
15. Luckee: Have you ever experienced a sort of musical writer’s block? If so, what do you do to get past it? Also, how do you approach composing for an episode time-wise? Do you tend to take your own time or do you work better under pressure, working closer to deadline?
Writer’s block becomes less of a problem the more I compose in this career. With the sheer amount of work to be done, I’ve gotten used to HAVING to just churn it out even if it is not that inspiring. It sure can happen though, especially if I’m asked to score a scene that I don’t think needs music. Everything in me tells me there shouldn’t be music, so what should I write? That is always the trickiest situation. To get past it, you need to try anything possible: listening to other music, older compositions and cues I might have done and trying tricks like the one mentioned previously (watching the scene without thinking of music on purpose), etc.
I split the work out equally over the various days before the deadline. If I stick to this schedule, I know I can make it, but if I back off from it, it’s just too much of a nightmare. The tightest deadline was for "Darla" on "Angel," 38 minutes in 4 days. You don’t want to let a schedule like that slip. There just isn’t time to procrastinate, which is something I used to suffer from earlier on.
16. MiraclesTV: Does writing music for a show "ruin" the show for you? For instance, can you go back and watch finished "Miracles" or "Angel" episodes and enjoy them as a viewer later on, or is that hard to do?
I always think it’s going to ruin it, but it doesn’t. Sometimes I have felt unhappy with the score on other productions, I am aware of the mistakes and the shortcomings, and that can make it awkward to watch. "Miracles" has a lot less of this factor. In fact, most of it really came out how I wanted it to, and watching it back again is still a thrill. Some "Angel" episodes are like that also. "Darla" (Season 2, episode 7), for example — a fine vintage I must say!
17. Voltaire2003: "Miracles" was so beautifully accomplished—unusually creative and imaginative. As an artist working in the television industry, how do you deal with the "fickleness" of the industry itself—the decisions made about which shows will be given a chance to succeed and which will not, and the eventual impact those decision have on what you will be working on?
It’s a very tough part of the job, or career should I say. Because in many ways it is more than just a job—we really invest in these productions. If the show isn’t that interesting or isn’t that great, the job of the music composer is still to truly believe in it 100%, to live and breathe those scenes so they can be translated into music. We composers are supporting the scenes, and to do that we have to believe it. In the case of "Miracles," this is compounded by the fact it IS a great show! So a premature cancellation is a real slap in the face. It can be very difficult to deal with, as projects like that come up rarely. There is indeed a lot of great material being produced in Hollywood, but I guess it’s mostly by good fortune if you find yourself involved with this. "Miracles" was so rare and special that it made the cancellation a total shock, and yet even fans knew it was "too good to NOT be cancelled."
That’s the saddest part. Hollywood execs are famous and can almost be relied upon to cancel GOOD television shows. Fans were fearing it right from the first episode.
After the fact, all I can say is we all put at least 200% into the show, we all loved it dearly and we all miss it. In the end, it is what it is and we can’t bring it back, but we can safely say we gave it our best shot, we gave it our all. When you talk of being beautifully accomplished, I think particularly of the pilot and of a scene in "Mother’s Daughter" on the lake of ice. There’s nothing else like it around. That’s when the travesty of it all sets in. But it was beyond our control.
So it’s my hope that whatever good comes out of its short-lived production life be nurtured. What I mean is, I hope the relationships formed in the production team that started with "Miracles" might be maintained and grown. They can kill the show, but there’s stuff they can’t touch. They can’t touch the great time we had putting it together, they can’t touch the memories of the fun relationship that formed between Richard and David, they can’t touch what I learned doing the music for this splendid production. All that stuff will go on and continue...
Robert J. Kral
Birthday: July 5, 1967
Birthplace: Medindee, South Australia
Occupation(s): Music Composer
Quotes: A life lived in fear is a life half lived. (Strictly Ballroon- 1992)
Favorite Food: Roast lamb dinners, hot fudge sundaes.
Favorite Book: The Neverending Story
Most influential person in my life: Alison Houghton Kral (my wife!)
What is most important: God, family and friends. And skiing whenever possible!