The Audio Life of Composer Geoff Zanelli


By Mary L. Holden
November 12, 2012

When we are literally four months into life, our ears work. Even before we are born, sound is our first gift from the world outside. In some people, recognition of that gift develops into an interesting career.

Geoff Zanelli is one of those people. He composes music for movies (The Odd Life of Timothy Green and all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), TV miniseries (Into the West and The Pacific), bands (Mest, Story of the Year) and singers (Robbie Williams, Pink, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell). Zanelli won an Emmy for Spielberg’s Into the West in 2006 and a nomination for The Pacific in 2010.

A self-described late bloomer, Zanelli first picked up a guitar when he was a sophomore in high school. The guitar had been abandoned by his brother in the attic. It didn’t have strings—his mother found him using glue to fix the broken strings and then had the instrument properly repaired. Three years later, he was awarded a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Yet, Zanelli said that even going back as early as the age of two, he cannot recall a time when he did not hear music in his head. In addition to his innate appreciation of sound, he said, “my father was nearly deaf, so I had an early consciousness about the ability to hear and I’m positive that it influenced my career as a musician.”

Now the father of a 3-year-old daughter, Zanelli remarked that fatherhood has been an important influence on his career. An influence that coincided with an opportunity from Disney to score a film about parenthood.

In August, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a fantasy-drama film, was released in theaters. (It will be out on DVD in December.) The story involves a childless couple that inherits an unusual child, who arrives after a storm from out of the vegetable garden on their property. Branches and leaves appear on his shins.

Zanelli said the film “is about what children will teach you if you let them … and that’s what is happening to me right now. Being a dad helped me write the score. If this had come along five years earlier, I wouldn’t have had the same perspective.” He said he was inspired to “capture the look in [his daughter’s] eyes when she hears the music.”

Zanelli wrote the score for the film in collaboration with the movie’s writer and director, Peter Hedges. “It took four or five months of weekly meetings, which is fairly long, but Peter was very open to ideas and allowed me to play him any unusual musical experiment I could come up with,” he noted. On one track, the music is supplemented by humming; in another, pencils are used for percussion. Author and musician worked so well together that in one scene (where the boy makes a soul connection with a girl) Hedges was inspired to go back and shoot more film to live up to the music Zanelli wrote.

Music is an important part of the story landscape in movies and TV shows. Sometimes it plays in the background; sometimes it is as powerful as the graphic it matches. Zanelli said he was challenged by writing the music for TV and talked about the difference between a miniseries and a film score. “In each story there is a theme that has to be seen in the big picture. The beginning notes have to thread through all the way to the end. Music for a two-hour film and a 10-hour miniseries requires different architecture: creating music for the film is like building a home, and creating music for a miniseries—a 10-hour movie—is like building a museum!”

By the way, had Zanelli not gone into music, he would have liked “to become an architect.”

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