As a teenager living in suburban Chicago, I was completely oblivious to the fact the city created house music. When I saw the opening scene to Blade, however, the now iconic and oft-imitated “Confusion Dub” by Pump Panel was a jolt. For over 20 years, that scene has remained my reference point for the ultimate club experience. It was also one of my first memories of hearing and enjoying an actual “techno” track.
Words by Gregory Markus
Film was my gateway into electronic music. It was easier and cheaper to rent a film from Blockbuster than to go to a big-box music store. I’d look up the soundtracks later and then pirate the songs I liked on a friend’s computer. At the same time though, I became just as obsessed with the scores themselves. As pretentious as I pretended to be, I could never really “get” classical music. But in my eyes, scores were accessible symphonies and therefore if I listened to music played by symphonies I could finally say that I liked “classical” music. But the two musical worlds remained disparate to me: classical scores and contemporary soundtracks. But then something changed in the early 2000s. Artists whose albums I was listening to were no longer relegated to soundtracks, they were doing the actual scores.
For instance, in 2007, when Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood scored There Will Be Blood. I can still remember the hype around it. I remember walking out of the theater with my then best friend and all we talked about was the music. How its intensity and sparse repetitiveness was unlike anything we’d heard before in a film. An artist we loved was doing a Hollywood film. We felt a validation. As if film scoring was the highest plateau a musician could reach and the possibility of scoring a film (still my dream job) became just that much more realistic.
"As pretentious as I pretended to be, I could never really “get” classical music. But in my eyes, scores were accessible symphonies and therefore if I listened to music played by symphonies I could finally say that I liked “classical” music."
Then, in 2010, Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and composer Atticus Ross won the Academy Award for their The Social Network score. All of a sudden musicians around the world felt validated and inspired. Trent Reznor, the guy from that band your parents didn’t want you listening to just got the most prestigious film award for music he wrote. It wasn’t for Best Original Song, but for the whole score. It was synthy and minimal, intense and gentle, it was unique and it was a score that matched the times. With that piece of music, the wall firmly held up by the exceptionally talented but also stuffy old-white man roster of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, and Alan Silvestri seemingly began to crack.
And those cracks have got bigger. Many have claimed the 2010s to be a golden age of film music. Seeing your peers or idols breakthrough has sparked even more inspiration for electronic and experimental musicians around the world. This article dives into the world of film scoring in The Netherlands with regards to the independent electronic and experimental scene and how some are navigating a film industry that does not seem ready to welcome composers from outside the norm just yet.
The road to the golden age
Of course there had been numerous landmark film scores that broke the mould and paved the way for countless composers and directors willing to stray from the pack. Blade Runner, Tron, Terminator were all iconic synthesizer films that remain inspirations for many electronic musicians. The back-to-back iconic Hustle & Flow (which won Three-Six-Mafia an Academy Award) and Outkast’s Idlewild brought 21st century rap front-and-center, carrying on in the vein of the 90's rich history of films like Don’t Be a Menace, Belly, Friday and more. Not to mention independent films that notoriously have had more unique music or soundtracks capable of cementing songs into the cinematic lexicon like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, famously scored by Air.
But something happened after 2010 when Reznor and Ross broke the mould. Names that were well known in independent electronic and experimental music began appearing more and more. Johann Johannsson being the first with back-to-back Academy Award nominations (2014, 2015). He reportedly skipped the awards show so that he could attend Unsound Festival in Krakow. After that it was Mica Levi aka Micachu in 2016. Her nomination was another landmark for a female to receive the nomination in what was, and still is, a white, male dominated industry. And in 2019, Hildur Guðnadóttir dominated the composers’ world with Chernobyl and her Academy Award for Joker, which made her the first woman to win the category since its creation in 2000, and the third to win ever.
In the past 10 years, electronic and experimental music mainstays became regular film composers for large productions, no longer sequestered to small budget, independent or foreign cinema. To name just a few, Oneohtrix Point Never, Max Richter, Ben Frost, Yair Elazer Glotman, The Haxan Cloak, Colin Stetson, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Fatima Al Qadiri, Anne Meredith, Alva Noto, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, even popular music standouts, Daft Punk, M83, Skrillex and Jon Hopkins entered the mix at one point.
Holland’s voice in Hollywood
If there’s one person carrying the flag for Dutch musicians abroad it’s Thomas Holkenborg aka Junkie XL. From the outset, Holkenborg’s film work coincided with his own album productions with two LPs and a handful of singles in the 90s. Holkenborg had already scored two Dutch films by 2000 with The Delivery (1999) and Siberia (1998). At the same time his music was already getting syncs in films and video games as well, popping up in Blade, The Beach and the Need for Speed: High Stakes video game. In the early 2000s Holkenborg continued releasing his own productions including the massive remix “A Little Less Conversation” while working on some of the biggest Dutch films of the aughts; De Gelukkige Huisvrouw, New Kids Turbo and De Heineken Ontvoering. He officially relocated to L.A. in 2003 and at the same time began to grow within Hollywood. He eventually met perhaps the world's biggest film score composer, Hans Zimmer, who he assisted with several Dreamworks animated films; the Madagascar films, Kung Fu Panda, and Megamind. It was through Zimmer that Holkenborg broke through in Hollywood, getting his first major job, 300: Rise of an Empire in 2014. That was followed the next year with the incredible Mad Max: Fury Road. Holkenborg has grown a bewildering catalogue of work in the past five years, making him the go-to guy for massive modern action movies.
Also worth pondering is the masterpiece that never was. Dutch electronic music pioneer and composer Dick Raaijmakers turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to score 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps if Raaijmakers had accepted Kubrick’s offer, the director would’ve given up his affinity for the now iconic temp-music and The Netherlands would boast the score for one of the most important films ever made.
Arguably the biggest influence for the upswell in unconventional composer choices, aside from their brilliant and unique voices, are the content wars which by the early-2010s were in full swing. Netflix expanded into Europe and Asia and other streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus and Apple TV+ were all gearing up to give Netflix a run for its money. It’s not just about TV series though. The rise of these platforms provide new distribution deals, opportunities for co-productions, brand partnerships and more. They bring a freedom from traditional distribution and syndication that were stifling the industry. Streaming has created more space (and money) for diverse voices from directors to writers, actors and actresses and musicians and music supervisors.
However, The Netherlands is lagging behind with the content wars. The first original international series for Netflix only came out this year (as opposed to Spain’s 18 Netflix productions) and the national on-demand service, Videoland, focuses more on reality and documentary programs than narrative driven or genre productions.
"Streaming has created more space (and money) for diverse voices from directors to writers, actors and actresses and musicians and music supervisors."
A struggling industry
Simply put, the Dutch film and television industry is struggling. This should come as no shock. Doubts about the capacity within the Dutch film industry have been known for a while. A 2018 survey of 282 members of Dutch Directors Guild illustrated a bleak picture from those directly involved in it. In one respondent’s words there’s “too many romcoms, no original scripts, bad dialogue, the average of the average, one big compromise, not daring, no individuality except for rare exceptions….A revolution is necessary”.
Boasting only a handful of internationally acclaimed films in the past two-decades, Dutch-Hollywood collaborations lack the memorable hits of the likes of Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Showgirls, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers). The Netherlands’ big hope in Hollywood now is Martin Koolhaven, whose 2017 Hollywood debut Brimstone (scored by Holkenborg) was met with mixed reviews, failing to rival the contributions from international directors around the world.
The first major Dutch contribution for international audiences via Netflix, Ares, a horror thriller about student societies that attempted to tackle issues of colonialism through the experiences of a Dutch-Surinamese girl, was a critical failure. The promising premise was penned by an all white writers group, Winchester McFly, that boasts only one female writer. The music by Danish composer Jesper Ankarfeldt and Dutch musician Djurre de Haan is an effective but blatant mimicry of Colin Stetson’s Hereditary score. Ares’ staleness, unoriginality and poor execution didn't fare well against horror-thriller series like The Terror (Amazon), Lovecraft Country (HBO), Dark (Netflix), The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix), which are all modern masterpieces. Once again this reflects the struggling Dutch film and TV industry at large, and its incapacity to keep up with its European neighbors.
An unhealthy film industry doesn’t spell good fortune for a growing talent pool of progressive electronic and experimental musicians hoping to make the jump to television and film. While major and independent studios in other countries are increasingly taking creative risks with contemporary electronic and experimental musicians serving as composers, the Dutch film industry has yet to catch up with the times.
That’s not to say there haven’t been little victories. Some mainstays in the electronic music scene have made notable inroads in the past five years. For instance, Palmbomen won the Golden Calf (Dutch Academy Awards) in 2015 for best music for the film Prins. Bas Bron (aka Fatima Yamaha) scored the 2019 short film HEINA and his regular collaborator Rimer Veeman (Rimer London, one half of Lamellen) has scored several short films and documentaries over the past five years. But these examples are islands in an ocean filled by professionally trained composers and sound designers.
If you thought the music industry was tough...
Film scoring and composing is a profession. It’s a global machine filled with incredible talents. These are individuals who understand the business side of the industry, who have 8.000EUR iMacs loaded with thousands of Euros worth of Kontakt libraries, they can read and write sheet music and understand orchestral voicings, they have customized Cubase templates and every other tool, synth or studio appliance that professional composers are expected to have. They are professionally hired guns who can put their own creative wishes aside, mimic temp-music (placeholder music that editors use to cut early drafts of a film), listen to and quickly incorporate feedback from producers and directors and pitch music at the drop of a hat. Many of them have received a professional education or training program.
The Netherlands bolsters several composing for moving image academic tracks that churn out these kinds of talents. ArtEz, Amsterdam University for the Arts, SAE Institute Amsterdam and several other conservatories offer film scoring Bachelors or Masters degrees. They not only teach music theory but more importantly; the business aspect of the industry and the collaboration dynamics that come along with it.
Composing for any studio production is not a cakewalk. It’s a notoriously bureaucratic and hierarchical process that involves constant dialogue with the director, producers, sound designers and the dreaded studio executives. Scoring someone else's film is about helping them (the director) fulfill their goal and ensuring that the studio makes (or at least doesn’t lose) money. As a composer you exist in service of the director. A far cry from the usual hermetic workflow electronic musicians are used to. It is a job that can have limited creative freedom with grueling hours and panic-inducingly short deadlines. An unpaid pitch opportunity can come in with a deadline 24 hours later. If you miss the message or miss the deadline it’s on to the next; because there are certainly plenty more composers in line. Even worse, the industry demands a lot of unpaid work from artists to even get a job. Not to mention the work that goes into the music making, review and editing process. And while it can be a very lucrative industry, the overhead costs can add up quickly, leaving only a small profit for the composer.
And for all the beautiful stories of symbiotic relationships between composers and directors like Fincher and Ross/Reznor, Nolan and Zimmer, Soderbergh and Martinez that inspire artists, instances when the composer is brought on early and can develop a unique voice are rare. It’s more likely they’ll be brought in while the film is being edited and will wind up copying the temp music.
We romanticize big break stories like director Ari Aster listening to Colin Stetson while writing Hereditary and then deciding to have Stetson do the score, or listening to The Haxan Cloak while writing Midsommar and inviting Bobby Krilic (The Haxan Cloak) to do the score for that film. But without crushing artists’ dreams, these Cinderella stories should be tempered with realism.
All hope is not lost for aspiring composers in the Dutch electronic music scene. As mentioned above, some have already begun to have success and more resources and collaborations are springing up that will support musicians looking to make the transition. We’ll explore some alternative routes below that artists can follow to help find their way to where they hope to be.
Syncs (when music is “synced” to moving images) are an integral part of getting your name out there as an artist. It illustrates how your music can work with external images, it gets your music on the desks of music supervisors and can be a gateway to original composition work. Amsterdam label Music From Memory’s sync and licensing opportunities have grown with the label's increased popularity. Most notable perhaps was Gigi Masin’s sync on Netflix series Master of None (which also featured Amsterdam based Suzanne Kraft) plus syncs on High Fidelity (Hulu), Easy (Netflix) and Gaussian Curve had a sync on High Maintenance (HBO). Boris van der Hoff who handles publishing for the label says following the increased visibility of the label; “We are at the point where music supervisors and directors ask us to put them on our promo mailout list. This way we are informing them directly when new music comes out.” Knekelhuis Records has also had success with syncs in Rockstar Games and with several commercial brands.
Another entry pathway is for musicians to establish strong collaborations with filmmakers early on. Maartje Glas, the General Manager at Buma Music in Motion which oversees film, TV and video game music work in The Netherlands advises, “to network a lot. Find talented filmmakers and connect with them. If you start working early in both your careers, you still might be working together when you are big and happening. Look at the collabs between director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman or in Holland director Mees Peijnenburg and composer Ella van der Woude.” Buma Music in Motion also offers several networking and pitch sessions throughout the year that artists can apply to and start making connections and practice pitching.
One such healthy collaboration is bubbling in The Netherlands between Ricky Cherim (Meetsystem) and filmmaker/playwright Sarah Blok. Cherim did the music for the 2017 short film Het hele verhaal which was written by Blok and directed by Cherim’s older brother Teddy. Cherim and Blok would go on to collaborate for Blok’s directorial debut Nobu (2018). On the growing collaboration Cherim says, “Sarah has a very good music taste, so when she gave me directions for the first film, I felt confident to just make music as I normally would. On the second we could go a bit deeper into a sound for the whole piece and experiment in the mix studio. In the future I assume we will delve into that process even more and figure out ways to make coherent and expansive pieces that fit the images as well as our musical aspirations”.
Look towards your community
Looking outside the film and TV world is another way to get experience and build a portfolio. Skate films are well established musical vessels featuring iconic soundtracks that expose new audiences to fresh music, just ask Spike Jonze. POP Trading Company, a Dutch skate focused street style clothing brand are providing notable opportunities to electronic music mainstays like Young Marco, BEA1991, Karel and Max Abysmal. Peter Kolks from POP expresses, “We have always worked with people close to us, as it feels more personal, it feels true to who we are, it's our friends, you know? So when it comes to music; we share a studio with Karel, we skate with Max Abysmal and we knew Bea before she was BEA1991. So it just basically feels that if we put out content which in a lot of cases revolves around Amsterdam and Benelux we want to work with music that feels like an extension of that Amsterdam or Dutch sound. It has become part of our identity in a way.”
Initiatives can come from the music scene itself. For instance, Zohar’s music being used for the recent FIBER 2020 festival promo video and Dekmantel tapping Rimer London and Palmbomen for their Patta collaborations.
Lastly, we have the commissioned film score projects and in The Netherlands there are plenty. These initiatives invite producers to compose music for pre-existing films. RE:VIVE, the initiative that I run at The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision has commissioned near to 30 new scores for archival films. Done in collaboration with multiple partners (Eye Filmmuseum, The Rest is Noise, Nous’klaer Records and of course, Dekmantel Festival). RE:VIVE wants to give opportunities to artists curious about exploring the act of composing for moving images. RE:VIVE is not alone. Eye Filmmuseum has been doing Cinema Concerts for years and has an extensive Eye on Sound program. Cinesonic commissioned live performances of new scores for years, Roffa mon Amour has commissioned several new scores and Dutch legend Legowelt has made live scores for iconic films including 2001: A Space Odyssey commissioned by Grauzone Festival. All these projects provide ample opportunities for experimentation but they lack the intensity and scrutiny that professional scoring jobs require. Nevertheless, they’re still exciting and most importantly, let artists develop their compositional chops.
Will The Netherlands electronic music scene be a hotbed for film composition talent in the years to come? There’s certainly no shortage of ambition. But the olive branch from the film sector could be extended further. With commercial music production houses firmly gripping the industry and deep rosters of talented professional composers, the independent electronic music scene will have to remain creative. International syncs raising artist profiles, short films and documentaries, fashion shows, the odd skate film, brand promo spots or archival film scores are all great starts.
The Netherlands was able to define its music scene by its festivals, iconic record stores and influential labels. What’s needed now is for that same unique, grassroots infrastructure to blossom into an independent film industry to match. An industry which gives creative space for local filmmakers and musicians alike to cement their legacy in the new age of scoring. With no shortage of film festivals and independent cinemas, there needs to be more money and support for filmmakers, money that can give creative freedom coupled with an infrastructure for audience engagement.
Progressive music in films usually occurs as the genre’s popularity arc is ascending, eventually peaking with omnipresent mainstream appeal and then fading out with the next trend. Post-rock, indie and rap’s dominance of the 2000s gave way to synth driven music of the 2010s. So a word to the Dutch film industry: look to the underground. That’s where the next wave is forming and this time you might be able to catch it.
Photo by Bart Heemskerk