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Interview with Television composers Ah2, Lippencott and Williams

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11/5/2013 Interview with Television composers Ah2, Lippencott and Williams
For the past 11 years, Emmy Award-nominated composers Jeff Lippencott and Mark T. Williams have made an indelible mark on reality television.

Through music, they’ve helped create the sound for dozens of reality TV shows – many of them still around to capture the attention and hearts of viewers around the world.

Collectively known as Ah2, Lippencott and Williams are still at it. This year, the duo are scoring music to these hit series: “Shark Tank” (ABC), “MasterChef Junior” (FOX), “The Apprentice” (NBC), “Celebrity Apprentice” (NBC), “MasterChef” (FOX), “The Biggest Loser” (NBC), and “Extreme Weight Loss” (ABC).

Soon, their work will also be heard on “The Quest,” ABC’s upcoming reality adventure series created from the minds that produced New Line Cinema’s “The Lord of the Rings” and CBS’ “The Amazing Race.”

Recently, Lippencott made his foray into film by scoring the music to “Grace Unplugged,” a faith based drama that follows an 18-year-old who dreams of becoming a pop star. The film stars AJ Michalka, James Denton, and Kevin Pollack and was released Oct. 4, 2013 by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.

Monsters and Critics: Let’s first talk about your musical backgrounds. How did you two become composers?

Lippencott: I was a music composition major in college. When I graduated, I immediately got married and moved to Nashville. I made my way through the ranks there, first as a copyist, then as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor. I wound up doing a lot of record work with Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Amy Grant and a whole bunch of artists and labels.

Toward my late 30s, my wife and I decided it was time to go after the dream, which was to come to Los Angeles so that I could pursue scoring music for films and television. After 16 years in Nashville, we took our kids and moved to L.A.. We didn’t know a soul in LA, except for Mark, who I met once in Nashville. But, we continued to keep in touch before my family and I moved to the west coast.

Williams: As a kid, I always wanted to be a musician. I had learned to play the trumpet when I was 7 years old, and eventually took classical piano lessons after meeting some guys that scored for different TV shows and film. That was when I started to write, compose and produce music. It was pretty bad, but I was slowly learning, and I was paying attention to composers, mainly television composers at the time. “The A-Team” “Magnum, P.I.” were a big deal, so [composer] Michael Post was definitely an influence, and Alan Silvestri, who composed CHiPs.

Those were shows I grew up watching, and I was always curious about who was behind the music and asked how they did that. I found my way meeting various composers on the East Coast, and they were gracious enough to have me over to their studios and I learned from them. I studied at Belmont University in Nashville, but I realized I needed to keep moving west to continue my musical endeavors. In January 2000, my wife and I moved to California. We took the risk, and we’re very happy that we did.

M&C: How did you two meet and when did you both decide to work together?

Lippencott: We met on a listserv for composers in the late nineties. We were both in Nashville trying to find a way into television and film. We went out to lunch, struck up a friendship and stayed in contact even when Mark moved to LA.

Williams: Our first big collaboration was when I was hired by “The 700 Club” to create a theme package. They wanted something big and orchestral, and that was Jeff’s world. He agreed to help, and it was a successful project. The cool thing is, after 11 years, our work still plays every night. In 2003, we decided to become a composing team.

M&C: What’s the story behind the name, Ah2?

Lippencott: Being an orchestra guy, I was used to a lot of the shorthand you put in orchestral scores. (a2) means, only these two people play. I didn’t want to call ourselves A2 because people would look at it and say A2. Phonetically, it’s pronounced Ah2.

M&C: When did things start to take off for you two?

Lippencott: Things happened so quickly after we decided to form Ah2. Mark was working at Machine Head, a sound design studio, composing music for commercial advertising. Shortly after leaving for Ah2, he received a call asking for his help scoring an extra theme for a reality show premiering on the WB. Mark obliged and scored the theme. A week later, Machine Head called back and said the producer, Mark Burnett, wanted him to score the rest of the show. While his former boss didn’t want to take on the project, Mark [T. Williams] got the go-ahead to compose the music as Ah2.

We met Burnett again at the Hollywood premiere of “EcoChallenge,” an adventure race show he was producing. He told us he wanted us to be involved on some of his shows, and he called us back the next day. One thing led to another, and soon we were scoring the number one show, “The Apprentice”.

M&C: So basically, both of you fell into reality TV?

Lippencott: We absolutely did fall into it. I moved out here to do movies, and Mark thought he’d be doing scripted television shows. But reality TV was right at the explosion point. “American Idol” just hit the air, “The Apprentice” was blowing up, and “Survivor” was really starting to catch its wave. We caught the wave and just surfed it in. To that point, you could count on one hand how many reality shows there were in 2003. Now, there are hundreds of reality shows across the dozens and dozens of networks. We were very, very fortunate to meet Mark Burnett and to be in the position where he appreciated the music that we wrote. He brought us along for the ride.

M&C: How is scoring reality TV different from composing music for scripted TV or film?

Williams: In reality TV, we’re not dealing with a script that we get in advance. We’re dealing with concepts that are yet to be seen until it is shot. Because every character that is cast really colors the show, that in turn, colors the music, and what we do. “MasterChef” is obviously a different tone than “MasterChef Junior.” Gordon Ramsey is quite a passionate individual, and we love working with him on his shows. We also work on “Hotel Hell”, but it’s nice to see the side of Gordon Ramsey where he has fun. He definitely has a heart in “MasterChef Junior.” There is a lighter feel considering you’re dealing with 8 to 13-year-old kids, who are unbelievably gifted in the kitchen. And, if I could only come close to cooking something like they do, my wife would be very happy. (Laughs)

M&C: Both of you have worked on very different projects alongside top producers and directors such as Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Donald Trump, Ben Silverman, and Martha Stewart, to name a few. How do you both determine the themes of these shows?

Williams: Our creative process usually starts with getting a call from the show’s executive producers. We sit down, talk about the process, and whatever the concept or format of the show is going to be. Every single project has a different set of executive producers, and often times, we’re working with a large group. We make sure that everybody is on the same page; they understand the music side and we understand what their vision is. It’s definitely a process, and again, that varies from series to series. Some are a lot more in-depth than others obviously. We’ve been given the opportunity to record with an 80-piece live orchestra before, and we’ve also had to work with a minimal amount of musicians.

M&C: How do you two work together as a team?

Williams: Jeff and I divide and conquer for sure. We’re always composing. From the beginning, we’ve picked up on and respected each other’s musical sensibilities. I feel like we’re also complimentary in musical styles. We could go into a show, get the creative brief, come back, work together in the same room, and really understand the direction and tone we want to go in. And then we divide the work up, go in and start working separately. Later, we put the music and the cues together, and it just works basically into one score. Each of us brings our own signature to the music we write, but we’re conscientious of keeping everything tonally in the same place the creators want it to be.

Plus, we have great orchestrators, mixers and collaborators that help us ensure we deliver great music that is on point with what the producers and creators envision. The team effort also ensures we are on time. That’s the biggest point Mark Burnett made to us early on. ‘Deliver the great music I want, and don’t ever miss a deadline.’ That’s been a key philosophy at Ah2.

M&C: How do you manage a full slate of shows each season?

Lippencott: It doesn’t all happen at once. “The Biggest Loser” happens in October. “Hotel Hell” could start in November or December, and “The Quest” could start in February. We don’t have set seasons anymore so it really helps us because we can layer shows throughout the year. Besides, we have a large studio facility in Valencia. We have six recording rooms, and they are filled with people working.

M&C: So with all of this going on, is this where “Grace Unplugged” comes in? Is Ah2 branching out into films and scripted shows?

Lippencott: We love reality. It’s been good to us. We’ve liked being a part of it, and we still are a part of it. That being said, we’re composers, and we are always looking for new ways to create, and we are always looking for new outlets for creativity. We want to expand into film, and “Grace Unplugged” was one of those opportunities we’ve been looking for. If a video game project came along, and it was the right project, we would be happy to do something like that.

M&C: Jeff, you scored the music for “Grace Unplugged.” How did you get involved with the film?

Lippencott: My pastor knows the producer [Russ Rice (“No Greater Love”)] and the director Brad Silverman, of this movie. They were looking at a couple of composers, and when I met them, I said: ‘Look, no pressure. Why don’t you give me a couple of the most difficult scenes to take on musically and give me a shot. If you like what I do, great. If not, no problem.

They sent me the scenes, and I scored them. Brad came over, and fortunately, he fell in love at first listen, and we were off to the races. Scoring the film was a wonderful journey. I enjoyed the personal one-on-one interaction with him because he knew what he wanted and it was my job to give it to him. Plus, I got to record with a small orchestra in Seattle. The movie is doing pretty well.
M&C: What were the filmmakers looking for?

Williams: “Grace Unplugged” is a song-based movie about a girl wanting to become a pop star, so it was important that the score conveyed the conflict and emotion of the story without stepping on the importance of the song material. Enhancing the story-telling with the music – accompanied by a nice size strings section with some woodwind and French horn elements – was key in my mind and the mind of the director.

M&C: Were there any challenges?

Lippencott: I think not over-writing was the challenge. It was once said to me that ‘Some of the best music you write will be the music that you don't write.’ The normal tendency would be to try push the emotion. In the end, I just needed to let the actors and scenes tell the story without having the music over manipulate the audience. I was very happy with how the whole project turned out, including the music. I’m so glad that they chose me to compose the music, and I’m hoping to work with them soon on a few of their upcoming projects.

M&C: Do you have any advice for people interested in composing music for reality TV?

Lippencott: If you have that innate ability in you to create great music and you really work hard on honing your craft, hopefully, you will be ready when the opportunity arrives. It took me 18-19 years to find my career in film and television. I really struggled and worked. So, you have to put in the time, and you have to be patient. You don’t become a great composer overnight.

- See more at: http://www.monstersandcritics.com/smallscreen/features/article_1718875.php/Interview-with-Television-composers-Ah2-Lippencott-and-Williams#sthash.ru8pDDc3.dpuf
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