By Mary L. Holden
Published in the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine
Seeing is believing for most people, but for composer Trevor Morris, seeing is hearing. He writes music for pictures—pictures that move.
Televised historical fiction: “The Tudors,” “Pillars of the Earth,” and “The Borgias” helped Morris score his career, but he’s also written music for the computer games “Sim City” and “Need for Speed.” If you’ve seen movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Last Samurai,” “Something’s Gotta Give” or “The Immortals,” then you’re starting to get a picture of who is the man behind the music. The sound of his music—which he describes as “violent yet elegant, grand yet personal”—is perfectly matched to each part of the story. “I produce to the picture,” he said.
Morris is a Canadian by birth. His love for music first happened while he was sitting on the lap of his grandmother, Kaye, as she played “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the piano. He claims his skill for composing is self-taught, but he was encouraged by teachers at the schools he attended. When Morris was 13, the principal of his grade school, St. Mary’s School for the Arts, recognized “something” in Morris and paid him $50 to write a score for piano, and a four-part choir in honor of a 1983 visit by Pope John Paul. The lyrics for that score were based on the book Beloved Young People, written by that pope.
After he graduated from high school Morris chose to pursue learning about recording arts by attending Fanshawe College’s Music Industry Arts program, Canada’s most prestigious school for recording and production.
In 2007, Morris won his first Primetime Emmy award: Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music for “The Tudors,” a cable television show spanning four seasons that chronicled the life of King Henry VIII. For other television shows, Morris has since collected five nominations and four wins through the Emmy, ASCAP and Gemini Awards organizations for music that backs up historical fiction stories.
Of the violent elegance of his work, Morris said, “I view myself as a musical storyteller. I react to the visual source of the story then hear the melody. For scoring ‘The Tudors,’ I learned that King Henry was a very violent man who performed beheadings, yet he also had a persona that suited the polished image of royalty. Such disagreement enters the music and makes the story, and my music, better.”
With success in manifesting music to help tell stories from history, Morris has “connected the dots.” He did not specifically study history before he wrote the scores for these shows—he produced the music according to the way he felt when he looked at the pictures. He doesn’t have any particular outside influences but says he enjoys “medical music. I was a big fan of the television show ‘ER’!”
He said, “My work with ‘The Tudors’ led to ‘Pillars of the Earth,’ which led to writing the score for ‘The Immortals.’” His theory that this music needed to be “personal yet grand” is demonstrated in the way he recorded the “personal” phrases in “The Immortals.”
Sonically, personal scenes of close human interaction require a “close-in microphone in a very small room,” he said. “For example, in the first meeting of the gods on Mount Olympus in ‘The Immortals,’ the sound you hear is a ukulele. I wanted to use notes from a small wooden instrument of the Earth. Then I took a risk and had the sound of the choir come in behind the ukulele when that personal scene turned into the grand.”
To supplement his skills in engineering sound recordings, Morris built a state-of-the-art scoring studio in Santa Monica. He calls it “an artist’s space where I write music and have a mixing room.” The studio includes a wine cellar—Morris is also a certified Level 1 sommelier and is part of a wine production company in Toronto.
There are as many layers to Trevor Morris as there are levels of the history he’s put music to. He adores his family—wife, Zoe (who he credits as his favorite adviser and Morris said “she is the ultimate audience member!”), and children, Josie Kaye, age 2, and Jackson, age 1. He does his best to understand his talent but says, “I am constantly insecure. I question it, find my way through self-doubt and try to get to the heart of the matter. The ability to write music comes easily, and I do recognize it as a gift, but I am amazed by it.”
Those who attended a benefit speech Morris gave in November at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles were amazed, too. After the lecture, he took his talent from the private realm to the public by composing a score live, in front of the audience, and then having it played by an orchestra as soon as it was written. That demonstration was something for the history books. “Composing on the spot is rare! I think it was the first time it’s ever been done,” Morris said.
Perhaps if he finishes matching music to stories written in the realm of the past, Morris will write music for stories written about visions of the future of humanity. Watch, and listen.