Lamont alum behind the boards for composer John Williams’ movie scores
Come Oscar night, Robert Wolff will be watching the best original score category very closely. That’s because Wolff (BM ’83), read more…
Come Oscar night, Robert Wolff will be watching the best original score category very closely. That’s because Wolff (BM ’83), a Lamont School of Music alumnus, did editing duties on John Williams’ music for “Lincoln,” an Oscar contender for best score.
“Lincoln” is Wolff’s latest outing as part of the famed composer’s team. Once the recording sessions for a given film are completed, Wolff uses session notes, comments made during the sessions and his own ear to select the best of the finished takes and assemble them into a complete “performance” that is then fit to the visuals.
“John Williams wants the individual pieces that he’s written for the film all to make sense as a piece of music on their own without the picture,” Wolff says. “What he wants is the best performance in terms of intonation and phrasing, and obviously he wants it together and in tune. The best compliment I get from him is when he turns around and says, ‘Oh I’d take that performance any night of the week.’”
Wolff was at Orchestra Hall in Chicago for the recording of the “Lincoln” score; he also was present for the recordings of Williams’ scores to films such as “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War of the Worlds.” It’s when the music is added, he says, that a film can come to life for a director. A live orchestra, playing the score as its conductor watches the film on a huge screen, often gives a filmmaker the first real glimpse of his soon-to-be-completed work.
“That’s where all the magic is,” Wolff says. “The best example I can think of is the first film score I worked on, which was ‘Schindler’s List’ with Itzhak Perlman in Boston with the Boston Symphony. Itzhak had come in before the session, and John sat down at the piano and they ran through some of the cues. They were not looking at the picture as they rehearsed, and to me it sounded a little pedestrian. When they sat down with the orchestra the next morning and performed it with picture, it was just jaw-droppingly beautiful. For those sessions I was up on stage, and just watching that whole thing come together was really quite astounding.”
An oboe performance major during his time at Lamont, Wolff originally got into recording as a part-time job at a Denver studio while he was a student. He went full time after graduation and eventually ended up in the big leagues — three years at Atlantic Records, followed by 13 years at Sony Classical. Now a freelancer based in Los Angeles, Wolff works with the Pacific Symphony and the Boston Pops, in addition to his work with film composers such as Williams, Mark Isham and John Debney.
Wolff also works on a contract basis for WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) Records, making high-quality digital transfers of analog recordings by artists as varied as Ray Charles, Fleetwood Mac and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
“WEA wants to have all this material in various locations for insurance and safety,” he says, “and a lot of these analog tapes are getting to the point where they’re not going to be able to be played too many more times. The goal is to minimize the circulation of the fragile masters while maximizing their preservation. Given the growing scarcity of good analog machines, it is often easier and safer to send very precise digital transfers than analog tapes. While many engineers would prefer the original sources, it’s sometimes not possible or prudent to make them available.”
Though he hasn’t picked up an oboe or a saxophone in about 30 years, Wolff says he still puts his Lamont schooling to good use.
“I really take my hat off to [former Lamont director] Joe Docksey, who was the wind ensemble director when I was a student and as director of the school became a driving force behind what Lamont is today,” he says. “I often say that it was what I learned from him and from [past Lamont director] Vince LaGuardia in conducting class about reading scores and trying to figure out what was important—those are skills I still use all the time.”