Robert Kraft '76 talks about his dream to be a songwriter, about his Hollywood career and about Score, the documentary he produced about the music behind films. It will be screened Nov. 8 at the Carpenter Center.
By Gareth Anderson '19
Robert Kraft ’76 calls himself “one of the lucky ones.” He knew he wanted to work in songwriting early on, and he never stepped off that path, even when he served as President of Fox Music, where he oversaw music for hundreds of TV shows and films (including Titanic, Avatar and Slumdog Millionaire). We spoke recently on the phone, and he told me that “If there is an eighth-note on a Fox film or entertainment product, I either paid for it, picked the person who wrote it, or fired the person who didn’t write it and should have.” Kraft shared his insights about the music business, film scoring and his film Score: A Film Music Documentary, which will be screened at 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Carpenter Center. Kraft will be onsite, and will talk about the film with the audience and with Ingrid Monson of the Music Department. The event is free and open to the public. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
I’m just one of the lucky ones. I wanted to be a songwriter since I was 10 years old. I thought I wanted to major in music at Harvard; but I wanted to major in pop music and jazz. I ended up in VES. I finished up at Harvard in ’76 and went to New York City to start to write to songs. Many of my classmates were anxious about what they wanted to do next after Harvard, but I had a vivid moment in junior year walking out of Lamont Library when I realized “I don’t have to worry” and that I want to be a songwriter. At Harvard, I wrote songs on any common-room piano in Dunster or Eliot House. Songwriting has been the core of my life, even until this morning.
How did you manage to crack the music industry?
When I was trying to get a break, it wasn’t a matter of uploading a song to Soundcloud, but actually getting a record-deal on a record label. In New York, my sole strategy was to be the very best songwriter. I started a band, I wrote a musical that was optioned, and I wrote songs and gigged as much as I could. It was quite random, in retrospect. I had no connections or guidance compared to now, my bandmates were from the classified ads.
How difficult is it to become involved in the music industry now?
I do think it’s harder now: The cultural importance of music in culture has shifted. The access to tools and an audience is so enormous that it is hard to decipher who has talent. Will Arianne Grande be huge in five years? What about Gucci Mane? Take those headliners and then think about the people on the small-print on a Coachella poster, or someone with 1,100 followers on Soundcloud. It’s a different world; it’s a different game.
How did you work with Matt Schrader in creating Score?
I had the advantage of going into this film having worked with great composers. I spent two decades as head of music for Fox, putting music into 300 movies. I can’t even list the innumerable aspects of that job that were just wonderful, educational and creative – but I also got a chance to get to my heroes. I had a Rolodex of people who he could talk to. I could call up James Cameron and ask him about his work with James Horner. I could call Quincy Jones. I was able to do the things that were joyful to me, and exciting for the movie. I never predicted at that moment that Matt would create such an incredible well-made movie and documentary, and hey, it opened at #1 on iTunes when it was released. A year later, the film is still going strong.
Did being involved with the production of this film teach you anything new about the craft of film scoring?
Score taught me more about the history of film scoring. Matt is very particular about presenting two parallel tracks in the film: the history of film composing, placed against the process of actually composing for the film. The film begins with the Wurlitzer organ and King Kong, and the early history is presented alongside modern composers picking where to set a film, to the final process of mixing a final score.
Do you have any favourite young composers?
Harvard produced two of my favorite current composers: Justin Hurwitz and Nicholas Britell. I’m super proud of them. They are great composers. Justin working with Damien Chazelle has been an organic growth for him. Nick has really made his way in this industry, and is aligned with Barry Jenkins, who directed Moonlight. Two Harvard students, following in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein and Carter Burwell.
If you could have audience members have one take-away from Score at this screening, what would it be?
The take-away would be that the next time you go see a movie, I hope you consider hearing the movie as well. Movies are such a visual medium, but after seeing Score, you will realize that you are being manipulated by not only the visual and the dialogue, but the music as well.
What do you recommend as the next step for young film composers?
There is no easy way. If you want to be a composer, a baseball player, a politician or the king of solar heating, it’s all the same answer: You totally focus, you do nothing else, you try to be the best and you don’t let anyone get in your way of your final destination.
Robert Kraft's visit was made possible by generous support from the Melvoin Family Fund administered by the Office for the Arts.