Composer Tom Phillips Knows the Score

September 24, 2021

Composer and FC member Tom Phillips recently chatted with Michael Azevedo on the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast, Making Media Now. Tom’s credits include well over 500 films for national broadcast networks, such as PBS, ABC, CBS national geographic channel Discovery Channel and HBO. He’s amassed an impressive list of industry awards. His scores are regularly heard on national broadcast television, including the Antiques Roadshow theme and programs for American Experience and Nova. 

This excerpt of the Making Media Now (MMN) podcast conversation has been edited for clarity. You can listen to the entire conversation wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already…it’s free!

MMN: When did music come into your life? And when you first caught the music bug, what were your musical ambitions?

Tom: Well, I first started taking piano lessons and when I was four. I grew up in New York, on Long Island. So I’ve been playing since I was four. So the big question is a, well, why aren’t you a better? (Laughing). But it was a classical piano teacher who stressed theory and he had played with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in New York, and  he actually played cello with them. When I would bring him things to learn, other than a classical music, he would literally just tear it up. I remember bringing him a Beatles song and he tore it up. His idea of a jazz was Gershwin! He was really focused on the classics: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart.

And then when I got to college, I was an English major intending to be prelaw. The whole time I was playing in rock bands when I was in college. And it was like an original music band. I was writing the songs for the band. Always playing keyboard, always.

And, actually, I started writing music when I was like five years old.

MMN: How old were you when you learned to read music?

Tom: Oh, that was a right away. I mean, if you’re going to play classical music at four years old!  I was playing “Peter and the Wolf,” which is not exactly a Bach piece, but, you know, you have to read the notes.

MMN: And then you’re in college and continuing to play?

Tom: Then I dropped out of college early because I met my wife while I was in college and she played a guitar and we decided to go on the road with a rock and roll band. And so I just left college. My parents love that.

It was the early 70s when I left college. We traveled all around the south and the Midwest with a large band. With 6, 7, 8 piece bands, and I had to arrange all the parts for those bands, you know, write out the parts for those people. 

MMN: What kind of music were you performing? 

Tom: Well, it was contemporary music that had kind of a showy aspects. We were playing hotels and they expected, like if you played five sets, they expected one set to be like a, a show, a quasi-Las Vegas type of thing. So I had to write those, too.

MMN: How long did that band stay together? 

Tom: Well, we had different bands and we kind of decided to move back to Massachusetts at the end of ’77. And I went around to studios and found work as a session player, playing keyboards and then arranging parts for the acts that they had come into the studios to record.

This was also like the height of the disco era. People used a lot of strings and horns and so they needed somebody who could arrange for those instruments. So I wrote out the string parts and the horn parts. This is also of the height of the cocaine era, too. So while the engineer and producer were snorting cocaine, I’m just kind of watching to see how you run a session. And I would ultimately run the sessions because they were somewhat incapacitated. 

And then I started to get my own projects. The first things I did were for WCVB, channel 5, which at the time had a pretty large local production facility. We probably did 20 films there. I don’t know if you remember a film called “Summer Solstice” with Henry Fonda. It was an ABC movie of the week and Channel % produced it. And they shot it on Cape Cod. I scored that whole film.

MMN: Do you, as a musician, think there’s a particular personality type that works better as a composer of music for film and television?

TOM: Well, you know, strangely enough, I don’t really classify myself as a musician. I mean, I’m a good musician, but I don’t, I’m a composer. I don’t really worry about how difficult something is to play, because actually I’m playing into a computer. I just have to hear what I want it to sound like. So I just play. And if it doesn’t quite sound, if I don’t have the chops to actually make it sound like I want it to sound, I just take my mouse and move everything around or keep overdubbing until it sounds correct. 

MMN: If I’m watching a film and the credits come up and it says music by Tom Phillips, can I make the assumption that you both wrote that music, music you’re playing it? 

TOM: I’m playing it unless there are a live instruments that are credited. For example, I work a lot for American Experience and live instruments are used often in those scores. So if there was a violin or a cello or a flute or an oboe clarinet, I don’t play those.

MMN: Who makes the decision to have a live music as opposed to something that already exists or something created digitally. 

TOM: Well, there are two things: One is budget because musicians cost money. And the other thing is that if you’re doing a film score for American Experience, it makes completely no sense to have a sample instrument play a violin part when it has to be a real violin. You know, samples can only do so much.

MMN: At what point in the process are you, or you in conjunction with a director or the producer, making those decisions? Is this a during production pre-production? Is it all post-production 

TOM: It’s as soon as I get a cut, which sometimes is just an assembly cut, sometimes a rough cut. For example, the film on Marian Anderson that I scored for American Experience, the producer, wanted a music to be all classical in nature and to seamlessly be able to blend in with her recordings. So we discussed that ahead of time. So I, I kind of knew when I’m writing the score, what direction to go in. And also it’s Marian Anderson, you know, why would you put something contemporary behind it?

MMN: Is there any such thing as a typical turnaround built in to allow you to compose a score?

TOM: Never enough! The amount of time available is the amount of time it takes to do it. How’s that for an answer?

MMN: That sounds like a man who’s worked in production for years! Do you begin writing always on the keyboard? 

TOM: Yes. Because I’m a piano player. So that’s sort of the spine of everything. And then I have so many sounds that, you know, I’ll start writing and then I’ll say, okay, let me grab a cello or let me grab an oboe. Or if it’s more contemporary based, I might try a sound that is just like a synthetic sound to see how this works.

MMN: In addition to composing music for films and TV, have you done much in the space of multimedia or museum work?

TOM: A lot of museum work. I did plenty of projects for the American Museum of Modern History inn New York. We did something called a bioluminescence. It was called Creatures of Light. And it was a great project. They had eight rooms, which were all connected and only had a curtain hanging between them. So the music score I had to write was for each room. One of them dealt with things that are underwater. One had music like  Vivaldi, very classical and then other things had to be very electronic. And I’ve also worked for the Museum of Science quite a bit here in Boston. 

Another company I work for is called Monadnock Media. They’re out in Hadley, MA. They mostly do a museum shows. So we did the Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri. I finished that last year. And they did the Choctaw Indian Museum, which is actually in Mississippi because that’s where the Choctaw originally came from.  And so it’s a lot of museum work.