Composer for Films, TV Shares His Insight in UCLA Extension Course

<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

Creating music for film and television has developed into a long and varied career for composer Charles Bernstein, who has capitalized on some eclectic musical tastes.

Even in high school, he was listening to everything from symphonies to pop to jazz to Broadway musicals. “I loved Beethoven as much as I loved Charlie Parker or Peter, Paul & Mary,” he said. “If it was good, I loved it.”

These days, Bernstein is as likely to be heard working with Latin-flavored rhythms for a TV miniseries set in Central America or creating strange, synthetic sounds for some twisted horror film as he is to be working on a traditional symphonic score. The Emmy Award-winning composer is looking to share some insight into his profession through a six-week course at UCLA Extension titled “Bringing the Power of Music to Film.”

The Wednesday night class is one of a handful of courses on film scoring offered in UCLA Extension’s summer session. All offer varying degrees of technical information. And yet, the Bernstein class is designed not just for would-be composers, but also for directors, producers and others seeking to understand the nuances of the field.


Bernstein said that for film composers, communicating with a project’s director and producer is often “as important as writing the music.”

“I’m usually in the middle of an assignment when I’m teaching,” he “It’s an overview,” he added. “But we do get down to the nuts and bolts as well. I discuss exactly what to do to get into the mood of the film, and what their concerns are once they get onto the dubbing stage, and procedures for rehearsing an orchestra and recording.”

Bernstein, who first taught this course last summer, discovered that many students were most interested in learning how to break into the business. But the composer said there is no single way of breaking into the field.

“It’s a very finite number of people who are working in the field and a finite number of jobs available per year,” he said. “It is difficult to break into, but not necessarily more so than other fields in the film industry.”


In the last two decades, Bernstein has provided the music for such popular films as Burt Reynolds’ “Gator,” the vampire spoof “Love at First Bite” and the horror saga “Nightmare On Elm Street,” as well as such television movies as “Sadat” and “Drug Wars.” But when he was first looking to work in film scoring in the late-1960s and early ‘70s--before some veteran film composers established programs at the university level--instruction was hard to come by, Bernstein said.

There were a couple of books that “weren’t much help,” he said. “I kind of learned by taking a metronome, a stopwatch, doing a little mathematics and flying by the seat of my pants.”

His earliest work was for documentaries, educational films and “anything on film I could get hold of,” he said. He made the jump to feature films with 1973’s “White Lightning,” a Reynolds picture set in the South and requiring a soundtrack filled with bluegrass and other forms of rural country music.

“It was not an area I was that familiar with, but I immersed myself in the music, hunted up a mandolin and Dobro player, put some hot stuff together and got the job,” he said.


More recently, Bernstein is often focused on the latest computer and synthetic technology available to composers. He’s invested heavily with time and money into the growing genre, which has already joined what the composer calls his eclectic “palette of colors.”

“It combines live and synthesized in an amazing new way. It’s just astonishing new stuff.”

“Bringing the Power of Music to Film,” a course offered by UCLA Extension and taught by composer Charles Bernstein, begins July 8. The class meets at 7 p.m. Wednesdays. Tuition is $225. Call (310) 825-9064.

LOCAL PERFORMANCES: The Los Angeles Music Theatre Company’s performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” continues through June 7 at Caldwell Hall Theater, 11640 Hesby St., North Hollywood. Starring soprano Jane Williams, the opera is performed 8 p.m. Fridays, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sundays. Tickets are $5, $7 and $9. For information, call (213) 934-0309.


And the music of Britten, Elgar and Walton is performed by the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra and the UCLA Choral Union at 8 tonight in UCLA’s Royce Hall. The performance is conducted by Daniel Hege and Donn Weiss. Tickets are $5, $3 for students. Call (310) 825-9261.