Michael A. Levine (Composer - 'Cold Case')
'Turning Up The Heat!'
Michael A. Levine is currently best known as the composer for the hit series Cold Case, and recently for the CBS drama Close To Home. But did you know that he also wrote the music for the well-loved (and loathed...see below) Kit Kat "Gimme A Break" jingle?
Michael had a career he describes as "pathologically eclectic". Born in Tokyo, raised in the Midwest, schooled in Canada (McGill Univ.), Wisconsin (UW), and Boston (Berklee College of Music), Michael moved to New York City where his first job was playing violin on the streets.
In 1995, Michael moved away from jingles and embarked on a new career when director Keith Thomson asked him to score a short film called Cupidity. Shot in a day on leftover film stock, the no-budget comedy became an award-winning hit after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Besides his TV and independent film work, Levine has served as support composer for Hans Zimmer (Shark Tale, Matchstick Men), Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek 2, Veronica Guerin), and Cliff Martinez (Wonderland, Wicker Park).
Michael is also working with William Phillip Mckinley on mounting a production of Orpheus Electronica, a multi-media techno-opera which sets the myth of Orpheus in an underground dance party. Mckinley directed the Broadway hit musical The Boy From Oz, starring Hugh Jackman, and was also director of the Ringling Bros. Circus.
Taking it from the top and what were your musical influences growing up and how many still factor into your compositions today? Michael A. Levine] "My parents had enormously eclectic tastes. They started bringing me to classical concerts early on, plus they had many film soundtracks and broadway musical recordings. But they also exposed me to Balinese gamelan, koto and shakuhachi music when we lived in Japan, plus shenai and sitar from India. Gospel-tinged civil rights anthems, Irish folk, and Tom Lehrer. Blues, R &B, and C & W. Avant-garde music like Harry Partch. You name it, we listened to it. My sister was the pop and jazz maven, turning me on to The Beatles, Dylan, and John Coltrane. It's all still rattling around in there."
For the Average Joe who may not have heard of you and was thinking of buying some of your previous soundtrack works, which one would you yourself advise them to listen to? "Hah! That's an easy one - Adrift in Manhattan. Like Cold Case, it's on the Lakeshore label. It's an incredibly intimate score I wrote and recorded in five days for a beautiful little Sundance film and, imho, some of my best work."
For your work on the TV series 'Cold Case,' how different is it to compose work for an ongoing series as opposed to a one-off piece of film work? "To oversimplify, films are about pictures and TV is about dialog. But they are both about telling a story, so the musical objective is the same: help tell the story in a way that nothing else can."
Is it also true that you had a small part on an episode of 'Cold Case' where you played a violin-playing 'Wilkommen'?! "Yes, and I also play an evil Russian piano accompanist on season six's Triple Threat. (mwah ha ha HA!)."
Please tell us more about your musical weapon of choice - the tenor violin - and how it differs musically from other instruments of the same ilk re: musical compositions "Like most contemporary composers, my principal instrument is the computer. But I get around well enough to pass for competent on a number of instruments, given enough punch-ins. I have been known to play the violin and tenor violin on Hans Zimmer's movies (i.e. Batman: Dark Knight). The tenor violin is an octave lower than a standard violin - making it lower than a viola and higher than a cello - and has a an odd quasi-folky timbre. I often use it in emotional passages in Cold Case. I also play guitar, mandolin, and harmonica. These colors come in handy when you need something organic in a hurry (or cheap)."
Indeed, how easy (or hard) is it to constantly create a new, vibrant, wanted-by-the-public sound that both builds on and surpasses the musical wonderment's/accomplishments/arrangements that preceded it within the industry? "Wow! Does the public want my sound? I have never been the trendy or cool guy. My music is just whatever I do in my own tragically unhip way. I am abjectly grateful to the producers of Cold Case for not chucking me out on my ear."
Is it easier to work with such collaborators as Harry Gregson Williams and Hans Zimmer or is working alone more relaxing, less stressful, more comfortable? "Let's be clear: I worked for Harry and Hans, who are both geniuses. It's a lot less stressful to be the hired gun than the guy who has to figure out what the producer meant when he said, "make it less sucky." The closest I came to collaborating with a genius was with Cliff Martinez on Wicker Park, where I feel like I made significant contributions to the thematic material. But it was still very much a Cliff score, not a Michael and Cliff score."
Do you think you'll ever receive your 'credit' for "Orchestrator"? Indeed, would receiving such 'credit' for it now after all these years change anything in your life?! "Hmm...I'm not sure what this means. Am I missing out on some goody I should be demanding? When I'm not credited as a "composer" or "additional music" I usually get an "arranger" credit, which is just fine with me. There are many great traditional orchestrators, but these days the title often means midi transcriber - something I'm not very good at."
Please tell us more about how it all came about that you were asked to do the Kit-Kat advert. And are you shocked just how much of an earworm "Gimmie A Break" has since turned out to be? "Advert - how veddy British! (We Americans - who say "ad" - think it's cute when British people talk English). Gimme a Break was the throwaway campaign from the ad agency. They already had the campaign they knew they wanted - and had spent a fortune developing - called "Kit Kat Krazy". They needed a cannon-fodder alternative and assigned a junior copy writer named Ken Shuldman to write a jingle with some musician they could get for cheap (that would be me). He came up with the line "Gimme a Break" which I thought was pretty dubious. Then it kept smoking "Kit Kat Krazy" in focus groups and on-air tests until the agency and client finally gave in and went with it."
"The very first time I ever played the song was for Ken. I said, "Look, I'm a bad guitarist, but it feels better than the piano for this. I really think this is working - tell me what you think after I sing it for you." Then I ran it down. When I was done, Ken said, "You're right. You really are a bad guitarist." Neither of us had a clue it would become the blight that it has."
What classic film score would you love to rearrange today in your own style if you were given the chance? "I wouldn't touch a hair on the head of any of the greats. But I sure wish I had written "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Dr. Zhivago", or "The Mission." The problem when I start listing my favorite scores is that ten more immediately spring to mind. (Mancini? Rota? Williams? Goldsmith? Tom Newman? Hans? Harry? James N-H?...and on and on). I think a more interesting question is what are your favorite underrated scores? You know, the ones everyone should know, but don't. I'd include Michael Nyman's "Gattaca", Cliff Martinez's "Solaris", Jon Brion's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", and Michael Andrews' "Donnie Darko."
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, Exclusive Magazine love Penguins ... do you?! "Of course. Penguins pal around with terrorists - how can you not love that?!"
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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