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March 14, 2002 Networking pays off for fledgling sound-track composers



Scott Freeman, Andrew Johnston

Scott Freeman (left) and Andrew Johnston compose music for film.

Photo by Liam Maloney

by Austin Webb

Andrew Johnston listens intently to the perky theme from Ducktales, a 1990s spinoff of the Donald Duck cartoons. He’s clearly enraptured by the jingle’s pristine backing vocals and tightly-scored horn sections.

A second-year music student, he has more than a fan’s casual interest. He and philosophy student Scott Freeman have a new business: composing music for films.

For Johnston, 24, the idea has been in the works for almost two years. He was finishing a degree in philosophy at Carleton University and working on various Ottawa-area musical projects when he discovered the classic scores of Ennio Morricone and John Barry. Barry’s swanky James Bond soundtracks made a big impression: “Barry was so amazing at putting his own distinctive stamp into the music.”

Johnston moved to Montreal and enrolled in Concordia’s music program, where he’s studying jazz guitar and electro-acoustic composition. About three months ago, he enlisted Freeman — another Ottawa expatriate and his roommate — and the two of them put up posters around Concordia’s film and communications departments in search of collaborators.

The first taker was Natasha Mekhail, a graduate student in journalism who wanted music for a short documentary she was making about the medical marijuana controversy. “We discussed some of the ideas and shots for the film and I wrote some things that I thought might match,” Johnston said. The result was three short compositions for guitar and synthesizer, written and recorded by Johnston in his bedroom studio.

Said Mekhail: “Andrew had an understanding of what kind of music I wanted, and when I added it, it came out beautifully.”

Johnston and Freeman have upped the ante with their current project, a full soundtrack for first-year film student Van Royko’s short film, The Weight of the City.

They called on Angus McLachlin, an old musical cohort. On a weekend visit to Montreal, he watched a silent copy of Royko’s film, then returned to Ottawa to compose and record a string quartet which he sent back to Johnston for editing via the Internet. Freeman, a multi-instrumentalist with several ongoing projects of his own, added a skittering percussion track to the piece. This kind of collaboration between friends is both an attraction and a tremendous asset for the young composers.

“It’s a really cool network we have going,” Freeman said.

Concordia Music Professor Kevin Austin agrees that this kind of personal relationship between collaborators is vital, especially in today’s media industry. “The difficulty is to become known,” said Austin, who has had both Johnston and Freeman as students in his popular electro-acoustics class. “In time, they’ll build up a body of work and be able to go a little further afield.”

Johnston has already made contacts through an unexpected source. Three nights a week he works the phones at Concordia’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Affairs, where a surprising number of the Concordia graduates he talks to turn out to be working in film, television and electronic media.

Austin said these kinds of contacts, especially those from in the electronic world, will be crucial. “In about five years, there’s going to be more media work than films.” Since sound files generally download faster than video, Austin sees huge commercial potential in providing music that will hook Web-surfers to a site while they wait for its images to come up.

Working long hours between school and other musical projects, Freeman and Johnston are finishing the ambitious soundtrack for Royko’s film. They’re also putting together Radiation Music’s first demo CD, which they hope to send off to Johnston’s first round of Alumni Affairs contacts by April.

To reach Radiation Music, contact andrewjohnston@sympatico.ca.