Paul Haslinger has a great resume. At 51 years old, the Austrian-born composer and producer can list both Vienna’s Academy of Music and the University of Vienna under Previous Education and slot Tangerine Dream as Previous Employer of five years, during which he recorded 15 albums and participated in four international tours. Needless to say, we won’t be filing this one away anytime soon — not at all.
With the Dream, Haslinger was introduced to the world of film composition, working on soundtracks to cult films like the Los Angeles nuclear thriller Miracle Mile and the vampyric masterpiece Near Dark, and he’s since continued working in Tinseltown where he’s presided over 30 major film scores. More recently, Haslinger’s scored the incredible first season of AMC’s new ’80s set drama, Halt and Catch Fire, in addition to Idris Elba’s forthcoming psychological thriller, No Good Deed.
Last month, composer Joe Trapanese explained film composition as a way to “reinforce the deeper meaning of what’s being acted out on screen.” With Haslinger, Consequence of Sound decided to go deeper into said process and along the way touched upon past scores, video games, and the work of today’s musicians-turned-composers like Arcade Fire or Trent Reznor. Take a read below and don’t miss out on all-new episodes of Halt and Catch Fire each Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. EST.
Halt and Catch Fire is set in the Silicon Prairie of Texas around 1983 during the personal computer revolution. Having worked on music during this era, do you recall this time when you’re working on the show?
Well, it’s a benefit to be an eyewitness and live through it. When I joined Tangerine Dream, I was the kid with the computers, so I’ve been part of the inception of the first phase of a band that’s gonna change everything. To work on a show about the idea of changing everything was a perfect fit. I thought it would be a great project, and it turned out to be.
You get a second perspective looking back and seeing how that generation or phase was all about changing the world. But it did it differently than how people thought it would be. You get some humor and accidental comedy out of that, and you get some perspective when commenting about it, especially musically.
[The music] is not fully serious; it’s always with a wink. I think that’s how a show like this should be done. You do it with perspective and in the context of a show in 2013/2014 — you find the gems in it. It’s a combination of aspects and not a glorification of the ’80s.
Did you dust off any old equipment for composing?
It’s a mixture of virtual instruments and sampled stuff from original instruments. I always do custom sounds for each project, and this one was a combination of dusting off and combining typical analog and digital sounds from that era and my own sound design. It’s a moody show and it seemed like it was perfect for a moody atmosphere. We all had the same approach to music on it, and there was very little argument I could remember. Everyone had a natural feel and idea for the music.
But the real honest answer is that it’s not so much the actual devices; it’s more to know what to do musically with them. If you know what to do, you can do it with an iPad, and it can sound right. If you don’t know what to do, it doesn’t matter what you use; it still won’t sound right. It doesn’t really make a difference as long as I can apply the scrutiny to the sound to make sure it sounds right.
I’ll admit that Trentemøller’s “Still on Fire” goes brilliantly with the show’s ruby red opening titles. I was wondering, though, if you were originally commissioned to do the theme song?
There was a discussion and I did write something, but the current trend is to use the main title as a counterpoint. I see the point and I didn’t see the point in doing anything different.
Did you have any insight into that choice? Does that trend bother you?
I know the music supervisor well. [Thomas Golubić[ did a good job with his previous shows, so I always trust his instincts with the songs. But I’ve seen the executives change big symphony scores to bands with guitars quite a bit. [The trend] keeps changing, and, eventually, it will hopefully even the playing field for film music in general.
If it’s a particular kind of movie, the old approach still works, but a lot of projects now have a musical identity crisis, and they need to find a new voice. The Social Network was a big one, and it won an Academy Award for that score. I think we’ll hear more interesting music overall.
Golubić’s done an excellent job with the soundtrack choices. I love how he used The Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven” in the pilot and later expanded into something modern like Sin Cos Tan’s “Sooner Than Now” in “Landfall”. I imagine there’s a strict curatorial process behind the scenes, but do you know what songs are gonna be chosen?
The work with the songs start before the scores, so I have the benefit of having a few song choices. I get most of the songs and get an idea of what the songs will do. One of my ways to get into Hollywood was precisely the fact that I could go through transitions between songs and scores. These early scores I did were all exercises in negotiating the song and score seamlessly. I can translate what they’re going after into production and writing. I always care about sound, and I want to have fun with it.
I imagine a score for something dark and dreary like No Good Deed isn’t exactly as fun.
Well, it’s a psychological thriller and more of a scary movie, so it’s a stylized approach — it’s a genre film for sure.
What’s your favorite style in film?
Part of being a film composer is you like the fact that you don’t know what’s around the corner. It makes things a lot more interesting. Staying in one particular style is less interesting. You can do different things, and you won’t be pigeonholed if you manage your career carefully. I’m looking to keep it interesting and to keep doing different things. There’s always a chance to do something a little different and to push it further, and if I see a project that doesn’t offer that, I turn it down. It keeps life interesting.
Looking back, do you see your time with Tangerine Dream as a training camp of sorts? After all, you came in right as they finished Legend and went ahead to score two cult classics in Miracle Mile and Near Dark.
Well, your whole life is a training camp. So, it was just one stage in my training camp. I was only 23 when I joined the band. I was just so happy to be touring and to be having fun. I had all of these instruments I could never afford; it was a dream come true, no pun. It was a big switch, but the real switch in terms of discovering the world was when I moved to LA and took off the glasses you have when you’re in a band — you see so many more things. Those years were very informative for me, starting over in LA and forming new musical friendships.
Have you ever been picked up for an odd credential?
No, I can’t think of any. Usually, it’s just a chain reaction of sorts, and somebody saw a movie somewhere, and the name was mentioned, and then they trace it back.
Was Miracle Mile one of the first soundtracks you put together?
We did quite a few movies in those five years, and some are remembered and some are forgotten. History picks the cherries and the rest fall into dust. That movie was a great project because it got us together with [director Steve De Jarnatt], and we’re still good friends. It’s a good memory and it turned out well as a film. The movie became a cult favorite, and tons of money was made from the DVD release, but the way it was structured, [De Jarnatt] made no money on the DVD. That’s just how Hollywood works sometimes.
Was that the first time you were informed that you could do these soundtracks?
No, I never knew that before. It came easy. It was always fun to put sound up against pictures. I had a natural interest in film, and it was a completely natural fit. I never had any doubts or concerns in making music for a film. I came to LA on a record deal, and it sustained me through the ’90s. I started to discover some work after a while. I discovered people were using film music to do something they could never do before. You get away with some stuff in film music that you wouldn’t get in a commercial setting. So, I was pretty happy to move over into that field.
Do you ever want to make your own music again?
Sure. Music is still the core of what I do; I just apply what I do to film. There’s a scheduling thing and there’s not much else you can do when you have a TV show with weekly delivery. Our time is a time with too many options in general, with 50,000 sounds, and any of them could be right. It’s the same for projects you can do on your own, and you know so much about production options and possibilities, so to pick one is very difficult. It’s a good thing about film: you never have to ask for the identity of the project because it’s given. I just need to find the music to compliment the identity. You put yourself in the service of that project. It’s an amazing enabling factor.
Do ever get so involved that you just don’t want to touch it when you’re done?
No, it’s more along the lines of having too many options. I think that’s happening with music releases; there’s less money but more demand. There’s an immense amount of music, and I think it’s been put out to quickly. I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want to add another thing to the huge avalanche of music. There are too many things being released that haven’t found a voice or position.
What albums have you been listening to?
Pretty much everything and anything. I always go back to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II and think, Wow, that’s a moment. There’s a real craft and skill in the way [Richard D. James] puts together songs. Max Richter’s recent release in which he reconstructed Vivaldi is an interesting combination, and it incorporated some Philip Glass. It’s very atmospheric, and I listened to it on a flight; it’s perfect travel music. I also listen to my friend Christian Fennesz, which is more abstract ambient.
This past month, we ran a weekly poll asking our readers to choose the greatest composer of all time. The final round came down to Philip Glass, John Williams, and Ennio Morricone. Who would you pick?
Morricone without a doubt.
Speaking of which, what are some of your favorite scores of the past?
I love the score to Her. I thought it was very well done. I also loved a score that Mogwai did for Les Revenants. Enter the Void was a few years ago, but it was spectacular. Looper had a great score; Nathan Johnson always does wacky stuff. [Pause] I’m forgetting a lot of things. There are a lot of scores that are really nice and interesting, but the movie doesn’t live up to it.
You mentioned Her and that goes back to what we discussed earlier about musicians coming in as composers. Does it ever bother you that younger musicians are getting Oscar recognition over more veteran composers like yourself?
No, it’s about perspective. There’s a lot of things going on in Hollywood, but whenever new voices become part of [the scene] and contribute something, it’s always a good thing. It changes perceptions and established standards — it’s something positive for me. If you’re relatively well established … I don’t feel threatened; it opens the door to inspiration for future works.
The people who come in with this all have movies, and they have sensibilities and musical ideas for these films in the same way musicians had after World War II with the pop and rock music development, who in a classical sense didn’t know what they were doing. They had ideas but lacked skills, and they just did it.
A little bit of that spirit is finally finding its way into film. It doesn’t have to be a big sound with fanfares and trumpets; it can be just a mandolin and a detuned piano. This freedom to just go and say, “I’m forgetting the conventions” is expanding with the influx of these people from band backgrounds. The more of these instances are for the better; I want it to change and evolve.
I researched Mozart’s last year of music, and you realize that some of these mechanisms and arguments are about the old-fashioned and the new. In the big perspective, they all look pretty funny. This back-and-forth between old and new has been going on for thousands of years and will keep going on. Some people won’t want to change, but [music] will change no matter what. That’s the balance we’re always dealing with. It’s never gonna completely change or completely stick.