On a good day, Nan Schwartz Mishkin will squeeze three minutes of music out of eight hours of work and still make it home in time for dinner.
On an off day, the notes don’t come so easily, and the thirtysomething composer sits in her San Fernando Valley studio until they do.
The music Mishkin slaves over will never be heard on mainstream radio, and isn’t likely to wind up on a CD player anytime soon. But for avid television viewers, life without the Nan Mishkins of the world would be a whole lot quieter.
Mishkin’s subtle touch of blues follows Carroll O’Connor around the sleepy south in “In the Heat of the Night,” the series for which she received her sixth Emmy nomination. Her more classical scores have played on “Cagney and Lacy” and “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” not to mention dramatic themes for several television movies.
Mishkin has developed a reputation as a no-nonsense composer and a musician-friendly conductor, according to colleague Jim Di) Pasquale, who composed the music for series such as “Hawaii Five-O” and “Lou Grant.”
“Some of the other women (composers) are a little bit more docile,” he said. “Nan’s not docile. She knows what needs to be done, and her attitude is ‘Get out of my way and let me do it.’ ”
Mishkin’s confidence--justifiable after her Emmy nominations--was long in developing.
Her father, the late Wilbur Schwartz, played lead clarinet with Glenn Miller and was a well-established studio musician. Her mother, Peggy Clark, was a variety show singer with Tommy Dorsey’s “Sentimentalists” and is still active in commercials.
“I grew up around the business,” Mishkin explained in a recent interview at the Studio City bungalow where she works. “But I was intimidated by (her parents’) success and certainly didn’t consider composing as a career--because there were no women doing it.” (By industry estimates, today there are less than 10 women in the field of more than 400 television and film composers.)
So intimidated was Mishkin that she traded piano studies for a career in television production. It took a nasty skiing accident in 1975 that left her immobile for nine months to compel her to make a change. In her boredom, she turned to writing and arranging, and gained the courage to admit she wanted to try composing full time.
Soon after her leg healed, she started ghostwriting for Mike Post and orchestrating for other composers. But the work came slowly--and reluctantly.
“There was a certain feeling that it was probably not a woman’s job,” said Di Pasquale. Indeed, Mishkin first landed “The Devlin Connection” when the main composer had her score an episode secretly, only to wow over producers who had previously questioned her abilities.
Nancy Knudsen, a senior director at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, calls her a “groundbreaker” for other women in the business. Yet Mishkin, who cites jazzman Dave Grusin as one of her influences, shrugs off the compliment:
“It’s not something that has been my goal, to be a pioneer. When I looked around for (female) role models, there weren’t any. So I just had to become my own.”
As Mishkin pushed harder, she broke through more barriers. She was the first woman nominated for a composing Emmy in 1983. Work on other series and sought-after made-for-TV-movies followed, and she was tapped for “In the Heat of the Night” at its inception in 1988.
Being a television composer offers a unique work life. “They lock themselves in a room and no one hears it until the episode. It’s a very high-pressure, solitary thing,” explains Knudsen.
Like any job, composing has its rituals. Mishkin spends five days writing the eight-to-15 minutes of music for each episode of “In the Heat of the Night,” and has the routine down to a science.
She works closely with the show’s producer and music editor to “spot” segments in each episode that will require musical accompaniment.
“Some places are sort of obvious, like when there is a car driving and no dialogue. There are others where emotionally, they want (musical) support . . . like a romantic scene,” she explained.
Mishkin sketches a general plan for the music scene by scene, “cue by cue,” and then writes parts for each instrument in the orchestra. A recording session with studio musicians rounds out the weeklong process of marrying the music to the monitor.
After some 80 episodes, Mishkin has established a trademark “Southern sound” for “In the Heat of the Night,” complete with the scat singing that actually draws its own fan mail.
Pointing to a computer and synthesizer, which can mimic any instrument, Mishkin reflected on the technology now available to her. Although the new tools make her life easier and may be the way of the future, she is just as much a fan of the old-fashioned way:
“It’s a way of getting a sense of what the music is going to sound like. But there’s no replacement for the human sounds.”
Mishkin prefers the “filmic approach” to composing, “where the music is not just wallpaper. I always want to write the music so it will have a life of its own.”
She would like to make the crossover into composing for feature films, which might give her the shelf life--and the recognition--she seeks.
So she scours trade publications and ventures into new waters, like arranging the recently released CD “Body Heat: Jazz at the Movies” (Discovery). She maintains contacts with producers, directors--anyone who might be looking for a composer. When the big screen calls, she’ll be ready. But until then, she’ll stick with television:
“It’s really exciting to write something on Monday and hear it on Friday. That’s the high of it. That’s why I do it.”