Barbara Cohen, Intro to Scoring for Film and Visual Media

Imagine the opening credits of a movie. The musical score begins with plucky strings, light drums, and a bouncy glockenspiel. What genre of film are you about to see? Judging by the music alone, you’d be smart to bet on a comedy.

“There are musical and sonic expectations for all kinds of genres of film,” says Barbara Cohen, who teaches MacPhail’s Intro to Scoring for Film and Visual Media. “Strings are often what you hear for romance. And horror films have very tense chords, followed by explosions of sound for the jump scares.”

Cohen ought to know. She lived in Los Angeles for 23 years—many of them spent scoring music for film, TV and commercials. “If you live in LA, and you’re a musician, you will end up scoring films,” she jokes. “It’ll just kind of suck you in.”

Barbara looking off to the right

Cohen grew up in Minnesota, where she studied flute at MacPhail from ages 9 to 18. (“It was in a beautiful old building then, with music pouring out of the walls,” she says.) As a young singer- songwriter, Cohen started out in roots-rock bands, playing mandolin, guitar and flute. Her band Farm Accident, on the independent record label Red House Records, grew in popularity with their rowdy roots rock. Featured on NPR’s Mountain Stage, they were invited to perform at many prestigious music festivals including the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

In Cohen’s next band, Little Lizard, she merged cello (with MacPhail’s own cellist, Jaqueline Ultan), fretless bass and World percussion. The band received national recognition for its disc, Black Lake, and won wave reviews in publications such as CMJ.

A series of awards followed. Cohen received a 1995 Fellowship Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board for artistry and composition. In 1997, she was named both artist and songwriter of the year by the Minnesota Music Awards.

Next, she teamed up with her childhood friend and techno musician, Paul Robb, of Information Society. Together they formed the trip hop band, Brother Sun Sister Moon. They released their disc The Great Game independently and won a cult following and rave reviews. Virgin Records signed Brother Sun Sister Moon in 1997, and the two moved to Los Angeles and recorded their next work, Luminous.

That disc’s sophisticated trip hop caught the attention of the electronic music duo, Orbital. The two groups went on to do a four-way collaboration called “Way Out,” which was included on Orbital’s big beat-techno classic, Middle of Nowhere. Cohen also joined forces with another electronic music duo, the French outfit, Air. She leant her ethereal vocals to their hit song “Radian,” off their recording 10,000 Hz Legend. Later, Cohen returned to her simpler, storytelling roots with a solo work called California (2004). Reviewers took note of her gorgeous vocals and songwriting.

Eventually, she transitioned into scoring films, teaching music courses, and writing curriculum at the Musicians Institute. Among her specialties were Film & Television Scoring and Production, Recording for the Vocalist, and individual instruction for Songwriting and Voice.

A little over a year ago, Cohen returned to Minneapolis. “I wanted to be closer to my folks in the middle of Covid,” she says. That’s when the EMRA Program Director Michael Cain lured her back to MacPhail—the musical stomping grounds of her childhood. But this time, she’d be on the faculty.

“When I was a kid, MacPhail had this quaint concert hall,” Cohen says. “Now it has this six-story, state of the art, modern building! It’s so impressive!”

Her intro to scoring class at MacPhail will be like the one she taught in LA, but open to a wider range of ages—junior high all the way through adulthood.

“The first part is an overview of the craft,” she says. “Composing for TV and film is like a massive puzzle to solve. There are a lot of different variables and different ways to approach it. Eventually, each student gets a film clip, and they go off and score it. Then they share it with the class and me.”

Central to this task is a digital audio workstation, or DAW—which is music production software used for recording on a computer.

“You don’t have to be a concert pianist to write your music,” she says. “You can record live instruments—voice, guitar, bass, piano—directly into it with a microphone or a DI (direct input). Or you can use it more like one giant instrument and play with all kinds of sounds—looped, sampled or synthesized instruments. You can bring in a bank of synthesizers, drum kits, or World instruments like sitar. Once you’ve got your arrangement down, you can add in effects like delays and reverbs. You can mix the whole session using all kinds of professional mixing effects. Essentially, anything you can imagine musically, you can probably write or record using a DAW.”

Cohen recently composed the score for a short film called Blood and Glory, which was directed by Satinder Kaur and shown at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a wrenching story about two female veterans who become homeless after serving their country. The film depicts the indignities and stress that stem from trying to survive, living on the streets of LA.

When Cohen set out to compose the music, she was keenly aware that film scores are often gender-oriented. For a film about women, people might expect lighter and higher tones, the sounds of woodwinds and violins. Films about heroism, on the other hand, often star men. The sonic components of war movies are often brassy instruments like French horns or trumpets. Big, manly, masculine sounds.
Cohen bucked the norm.

“I wanted to give these women the dignity of brass instruments,” Cohen says. “I wanted to show who they were, serving in the war. In a sense, they were still at war. So, the featured instrument is the French horn.” She also added a snare drum—another instrument often associated with war or heroism.

In the end, the film leaves the women at a heartbreaking moment.

“I wanted the final piece of music to feel full of pathos, but also to honor them,” she says. “It’s still very sad, but it gives them a heroic send off to their lives.”

Cohen’s other projects range from the PBS documentary, The Judge and the General to the HBO feature, Habana Eva and the score for the MTV’s Pedro. She also arranged the music for documentaries such as The Lost Dream and Al Jazeera America’s Words of Witness. Highlights of her work can be found at Barbara Cohen Music.

“A lot of it is pretty dark,” Cohen says. “I have done a few comedies.”

Cohen is joining MacPhail’s electronic music recording arts program at an exciting moment: It’s new, it’s growing, and it has an impressive stable of professional musicians on staff—including Cohen herself.

“Electronic music recording arts is a lot like learning an instrument,” she says. “But the instrument is the computer, and with it, you can play an entire orchestra.”

What might a student do with it?

“Whatever you can imagine, you can start to create,” Cohen says. “You can transition to a whole other world.”

Intro to Scoring for Film & TV

Registration opens December 1.

Spring Semester, beginning February 8

EMRA Instructor – Barbara Cohen  Have you always wanted to explore writing music for film & television? This class looks at the tools and techniques used to score music to picture (or visual media), along with focusing on the emerging composer’s development in the craft of dramatic underscore. Students will get the chance to write music for several film clips, along with weekly lectures and in-class feedback from the instructor.

For students ages 16 and up  

Students must have access to:  

Film clips will be provided  The class will meet remotely (via ZOOM), once a week, for an hour and a half (1.5 hour), for 10 weeks, Tuesdays starting February 8 – Tuesday, April 19 with no classes for Tuesday, April 5th, so students don’t miss that class during their spring break, April 1-8).

Published on Date: Nov 23, 2021
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