You have heard Thomas Bergersen’s music. Just a sliver of it, but that was enough. Enough to give you goosebumps. Enough to understand the intensity of a vast space odyssey to save the human race. Enough to convince you to spend an evening and $14 on a film that grossed $675 million worldwide.
That music you heard was the song “Final Frontier,” featured prominently in Interstellar‘s third and final trailer, which has 16 million views on Youtube. It backs — and helps create, really — two and a half minutes of intense emotion, encapsulating Christopher Nolan’s three-hour space epic in one hundredth of the time. It goes by fast. But its drumstick-clacking tempo, spindly electronica arpeggios and simple, soaring five-tone piano melody leave an impression. It’d be easy to mistake it as the Oscar-nominated score for the film composed by Hans Zimmer — not in style, per se, but in ability to jar the moment loose and keep it floating around in your head, stirring up your perceptions just like the galaxy-spanning movie does. Zimmer and Nolan handpicked Bergersen’s music for the trailer.
This is all to say that the 35-year-old Norwegian makes a hell of a trailer score. He’s doing it at the right time: in 2014 the average marketing budget for a Hollywood film approached $200 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. In a recent report, Variety pegged the average budget for a trailer between $5,000 and $2 million. Their social value is understood: film fans trade trailers like sports fans trade highlight reels.
Yet Bergersen — the co-founder of a production company, Two Steps From Hell, that has scored trailers for Interstellar, Star Trek, The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men and Lincoln — does not consider himself a trailer music composer, and strongly dislikes being lumped into a specific genre. Bergesen didn’t write “Final Frontier” for Two Steps From Hell to be used in a film trailer, but simply as one track on his own album, Sun, which he insists was not created to be shopped for trailers. “My focus has always been on creating good music,” Bergersen wrote in an email. “Whether the music works in a movie, a trailer, a video game, in someone’s home video, or on someone’s headphones in the gym, it really doesn’t matter to me.”
Bergersen is part of a segment of musicians that interact and intersect with films, but also refuse to be defined by the silver screen, or to make the kind of music some professionals term “trailer fuel.” (Other members of this film-music-boundaries-pushing movement include Adam Young, a.k.a. the artist Owl City, who recently announced he’d be releasing a string of scores for films about historic moments that don’t exist). It’s evident in his music and his answers that Bergersen values the classical style and immense power of music written for film; it’s also evident that he doesn’t believe his music should be defined by any one film, or by any films at all, or even by the film music genre. We asked him to share his passion with us, and break down what makes his music powerful, note by note.
Editor’s Note: The following responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you get your start in composing?
A: I’ve always thought of the world as a color palette. It’s right there for you to create and be creative with if you have that drive. I could never perform existing music and be content. I have this need to modify it and inject my own ideas into it… Composition was just a natural path for someone who was creative and musically inclined.
Q: Who and what are your other largest musical influences?
A: There are too many greats to list. I am inspired by everything from Mozart to Katy Perry. Genre really doesn’t matter to me. Gustav Mahler will always have a special place in my heart, though, because when I was about ten years old I discovered his fifth symphony and something just clicked. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a composer for real.
Q: How would you describe the “epic genre” of music to someone who’s not in the know? Why do you like writing music for this genre?
A: Epic is larger than life. Humans love pushing the limits of the grandiose. Look at the skyscrapers of Dubai. These are products of men with larger-than-life dreams and mindsets, where “sufficient” is not in the vocabulary. To me, epic music is the same. It needs not be loud, or powerful, but it has to make me feel more…
I honestly strongly dislike the whole “genre” concept. It limits music to the confines of formats and structures for the purpose of classifying music, and it attaches a general identity to it so that people who are not capable of critical thinking can surrender to the masses and let themselves be railroaded. When I started composing the music I naturally gravitated towards, there was no such thing as “epic music.” It’s a label that has been attached as of late to orchestral music that has a big sound, inspired by classical music and film scores. It’s a very shallow term, really, and I wouldn’t say it applies to my music. If anything, I’d prefer “emotional music.”
I’ll use every tool in my bag to make things work in the most unlikely ways, because why not?
Q: Clearly you are a master at creating an intense and “epic” sound. But those are abstract things. Can you use “Final Frontier,” the song from the Interstellar trailer, to explain some more concrete examples of your techniques and style?
A: “Final frontier” is actually a vocal track originally called “I’ll Do Anything” that I never released. I wanted to see how far I could go with a very, very simple melody, sitting on top of a very chaotic and complex foundation of orchestral and electronic elements. I don’t think there’s a particular style to it, and I never think in terms of style when I compose. It comes out the way it comes out because of uninhibited creative choices along the way. I never think, “No way, can’t have a guitar here, it wouldn’t fit the style!” Or, “The violins would never be heard under these loud brass instruments — let’s ditch them.” I’ll use every tool in my bag to make things work in the most unlikely ways, because why not?
Q: What about another one of your favorite tracks off Sun — could you break it down for us?
A: Every track is different. For example, the first track on Sun, “Before Time” started out as an experiment with my electric violin where I mic’d the violin as well as running the line-out through a wah pedal. I wrote the whole piece in a 60 bpm tempo (60 ticks in a minute — like a clock) to reflect passing of time. Every piece I do is full of these “invisible” details. They are not necessarily meant to be recognized by the listener, but nevertheless exist in the parallel world of music that I attempt to create. One thing always leads to another. Composition to me is like a constantly evolving organism that mutates, divides, collapses and expands. Every single little detail added or removed impacts the piece, changes the path, the identity and the purpose of the music. It’s an adventure every time.
Q: Any favorite trailers of all time? What inspires your music at your music production company?
A: I don’t really watch movie trailers, or too many movies, for that matter. Believe it or not I still haven’t seen Star Wars, or Avatar, or Schindler’s List.
In trailers I find that way too often the music is all over the place with way too many different pieces of music strung together into an incoherent mess. There have been a good amount of trailers lately that have utilized one piece of music throughout, and I always find those to be the most impressive.
Q: Any reason foreign languages (like Latin, for instance) tend to be used in your genre? Do they have a more “epic” sound than English?
A: For me it’s because I am using the voice as an instrument and syllables, vowels and consonants are details of expression. The moment people pick up on actual lyrics of meaning, their focus has shifted away from the musical body and their brain is trying to understand what’s being said rather than just enjoying an exotic carpet of intricately woven sound.
I think I stopped caring about what people do and enjoy a long time ago. If something works for someone, but not for me, I’m happy for them, and I’ll just move on.
Q: There’s a feeling that some of the techniques used in trailers and films like Inception have become a trope and are too often reused to create the “epic” sound expected of trailers and big moments. (The quote I’m thinking of is Hans Zimmer’s complaint about the BRAAAM! sound in Inception: “Oh, it’s horrible! This is a perfect example of where it all goes wrong. That music became the blueprint for all action movies.”) Do you think this is a problem in the trailer/film composing industry?
A: I think I stopped caring about what people do and enjoy a long time ago. If something works for someone, but not for me, I’m happy for them, and I’ll just move on. I try to ignore the fact that I’m working in a narrow-minded industry, and just focus on what I like to do and how I want things to sound — sometimes they follow suit, most of the time they don’t. If a braaam happens to sound good at some point, I’ll throw that in too. I don’t get caught up in trends.
I’m just kind of drifting along at my own pace with my own ideas and thoughts. If you really start analyzing human sheep mentality and how it affects every single crevice of all creative industries, you’ll quickly lose your mind, and probably your inspiration as well. So instead I just let it all go, and focus on whatever is around me that’s unique and beautiful.
Q: Is there any sense of boundaries being pushed in the trailer music industry? Do you see any trends that might become popularized in the future in terms of style, tone, voicing, etc.?
A: I don’t really follow the trailer music industry. I’m sure it will progress and evolve just like every other genre inevitably does. If anything, I believe the orchestral sound will be replaced by electronic, equivalent elements that offer similar expression but perhaps more power and flexibility. The new generation has less of an understanding of orchestral tradition and thus are not necessarily hampered by old-school thinking and inherent limitations — these people will find new and exciting ways to produce music using orchestral sounding elements.