Larry Groupe credits UCSD for his music education His breakthrough came with director Rod Lurie When film composer Larry Groupe was a graduate composition student at UCSD during the 1980s, his mentors included Robert Erickson, Ed Harkins, Bernard Rands, visiting composer Toru Takemitsu, and others known for experimental music. And while Hollywood movie scores tend toward the mainstream, Groupe says his experiences at UCSD provided valuable education.
"I use what I learned at UCSD all the time, as much as I use my background in traditional music," says Groupe, who has scored more than a dozen feature films including the 2007 "Resurrecting the Champ" starring Samuel L. Jackson, as well as "The Contender," "Deterrence," "The Nazi," "Man About Town," and "Love Lies Bleeding," and television programs such as "The Mind of the Married Man," "Capital City," "Line of Fire," and "Commander in Chief."
"Color and timbre - those were big with Erickson, who gave a fantastic course on timbre. He was known for composing really rich and beautiful works. As a composer, I might be asked to write 16th century vocal, followed by Stockhausen, or something contemporary like Kronos Quartet. Drawing from UCSD definitely gives me resources that help me do what I do - such as notating unconventional instrumental techniques."
Since graduating with a masters in composition in 1983, Groupe has worked his way up the Hollywood food chain. Among his earliest jobs were music for the films "Dead Girls Don't Tango" (1992), Raven's Blood (1997), and "Shaking All Over" (1998). But it's his collaboration with director Lurie that has given Groupe a high profile showcase for his music and provided consistent work.
"We met when I had read one of his scripts for a film that was never made," Groupe says. "But I wrote three themes for it and he really liked them. He then asked me to score a 20 -minute short film "4 second delay" about Watergate and Deep Throat's identity being leaked over a shock radio show. The film won several awards overseas which led to his and my first feature film "Deterrence".
Early in 2008, Groupe is at work on musical themes for Lurie's next feature film, a remake of "Straw Dogs," the violent 1971 seat-grabber starring Dustin Hoffman and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It's already generating white noise in the blogosphere, mainly from Peckinpah fans questioning the wisdom of re-doing a classic. For Groupe, each collaboration with Lurie brings greater creative latitude.
"Because he's a director I've worked with over and over, we're in a situation where I see his script early on, before they shoot, which is rare for composers. I read it and start writing themes, sometimes I'll ask Rod what he's looking for. I get the first cut of the film, assembled with music, so I can see whether the themes are working, and usually they're pretty right on."
For "Resurrecting the Champ," Lurie's primary themes were for characters played by Jackson and Hartnett. "Sam's theme is heroic, yet tragic," Groupe says. "I wrote more of a father/son theme for Josh." As Lurie's ambitions and budgets have grown, Nash has the resources to hire an orchestra if his score requires one. Music for "Resurrecting the Champ," for instance, was recorded by 34 musicians, including a "modest-size" string section, a "handful" of soloists, piano, trumpet, French horn, clarinet. "The piano carried the father/son theme," Groupe explains. "The trumpet and French horn became Sam's theme. The clarinet carried the overall theme of the film. Originally Rod thought he wanted a bluesy theme, and I tried some harmonica, but that didn't fly: the trumpet lent itself more to the cinema."
Groupe often composes themes with specific players in mind. In this case, Mike Bogart, trumpeter for the funk band Tower of Power, was responsible for performing Jackson's theme. Jackson plays a boxer, and Bogart was a boxer in school. "Theoretically that has no bearing on his playing," Groupe says, "but it probably helped him because he saw the scenes and he understood the mood."
The advent of affordable digital equipment allows composers and musicians to produce sophisticated recordings in home studios such as Groupe's. Soundtracks can be created by one person using a keyboard to add various parts in synthesized form - but Groupe is not among the many Hollywood composers who use digital sounds in lieu of traditional instruments. "When you want strings or trumpets or French horns, these sounds can never be duplicated by a computer," he says. "Computers can sound really good, but you're missing the nuances of real musicians. The sounds rise and fall, they become more brilliant and intense. Digital sounds are only one color, and they only go louder or softer. They lack the element of human expression, the color of a sound changing, when things are a little off, not quite perfect. You want to hear that, you want to hear things organically, including the imperfections - not out of tune, but slight variations each person brings to the music."
Even as a kid, Groupe showed promise, or at least creativity and an independent spirit. "I took piano lessons from age 5 to 21, and I had a different teacher every year because I would always change the chords or melody of the repertoire. Teachers were aghast this irreverence. During high school my music teacher urged me to start writing down my late night piano improvisations. I did, and I loved the process. He then played me Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and that was it: a light bulb went on and I wanted to write orchestral music as a living. I focused on composition from junior high school straight through to grad school at UCSD. Then off to Hollywood."
Before connecting with Lurie, Groupe penned music for a variety of low-budget direct-to-DVD films. "The worst was 'The Wraith,'" he says, "about a Batman type superhero played by Charlie Sheen. You just can't make a superhero film without money, even a bad one." Groupe particularly enjoys working on small independent films. "I prefer 'B' movies because they are usually artistic efforts where your input is valued. There are some good big-budget films but those usually go to John Williams."
Williams, by the way, is one of Groupe's heroes. "He's number one for me, and not just for 'Star Wars'. He has many exceptional scores. My most recent favorite was 'Catch Me If You Can'." Groupe also admires film composer James Newton Howard ("The Sixth Sense," "Blood Diamond," "Michael Clayton," "I Am Legend") as well as Bernard Hermann's music for the original "Cape Fear" and Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," and Philip Glass's for the 2006 "Notes on a Scandal".
In between films, Nash works on many other projects. A highly visible - make that audible - endeavor is his theme music for presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign. Nash has also collaborated with the rock band Yes and composed commissioned pieces for the San Diego Symphony and other classical groups.
With several films under his baton, Groupe is asked which prominent directors he'd most like to work with one day. "Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino," he says. "Have you seen Tarantino's 'Death Proof'?," he asks in reference to the 2007 blood-and-guts thriller.