He Scores TV's Home Runs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Snuffy." It sounds like somebody you go bowling with on Wednesday nights. Or the cable repairman who didn't show up in time for you to see the last episode of "The Sopranos."

But former hot guitarist with the '70s Texas power rock group Stray Dog, former backup band member for Chaka Khan, Donna Summer and Eric Burdon, and currently the hottest composer in television?

Yep--a guy named Snuffy. Actually, William Garrett "Snuffy" Walden--the guy responsible for the music for "The West Wing," for which he won an Emmy, "Felicity," "Once and Again," "Providence" and six or seven other shows.

Walden is not sure he'd go with "hottest," exactly.

"Busiest, maybe," says Walden over lunch at a restaurant not far from his west San Fernando Valley studio. Then, laughing, he adds, "Believe me, it's not really something I ever anticipated doing--music for TV. And I think the only reason I got the first chance was because they wanted to see what a guy with a name like 'Snuffy' looked like."

That chance came in 1987. Producer Scott Winant was working with the producing team of Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz on the creation of the TV drama "thirtysomething."

"We had a very strong idea of what we wanted," recalls Herskovitz. "We'd heard a group called the Penguin Cafe Orchestra--a very particular kind of ironic, funny sound that we thought fit very well with the sort of wry way we were looking at life with 'thirtysomething.' Not specifically as music we wanted but as a direction in which to go."

They were not, however, having much luck finding a composer. And Walden did not, initially, appear to be a likely choice.

"The rap on Snuffy when we first met him," continues Herskovitz, "was that he was a great guitar player but had no clue as to what composing was about. Scott, however, put one over on us. He met with Snuffy, talked about what we were looking for, then [Snuffy] and Stewart Levin came up with a couple of music cues on spec. We listened, and it was the only music we heard that seemed to get what we had in mind. So we just said . . . 'We have a first-time director, a first-time editor, why not have a first-time composer?' "

Walden wound up writing the theme and the background music for the pilot and all the episodes.

"I still wasn't really sure what it all meant or where it would lead," he says, "but I could see the handwriting on the wall when it came to touring as a sideman. I kept envisioning Holiday Inns at the age of 60."

Writing, however, doesn't exactly describe what he does. In fact, Walden doesn't read music. He's worked at it long enough now that he can find his way through a written score--but slowly and without the sort of confident facility that would be required to crank out the large quantities of music he must produce every week for his numerous shows. His background, after all, was that of a rock 'n' roll guitarist, learning music by ear and interacting with other players, assembling pieces live and on the run.

So how does he compose all that music? Pretty much the same way. It all began with Walden's initial assignment to create the demo cues for "thirtysomething."

"I just played live guitar to the film clip until I'd get something that seemed right," says Walden. "I'd kind of get it so it really fit well, and then I'd overdub something onto it."

The layering technique--which involved combining different sorts of guitar sounds--worked well enough to get him started with the show. But then Walden's education as a television music composer really began.

"Once I got started on the show," he recalls, "Ed and Marshall went over every cue. But in the process, I learned how to do music from the scriptwriter's point of view. And it's because of those years that I . . . can be as quick as I am today."

Although Walden still retains the same basic approach to composing, he does so today in a much more sophisticated fashion. Using a cadre of players, as well as his own basic guitar work, he operates in one of several well-equipped studios.

His process--in the early stages--is not all that different from the traditional method of television scoring. "We'll look at the film," he explains, "the producers will say they want music here or there. I'll agree with them or maybe suggest something else, and we eventually come to an agreement about where to spot the music. Then I have to go away and write it.

"But the way I write involves playing to picture. In the early years, I had an engineer with me all the time. He'd roll film, and I'd just play until something happened."

In addition to his regulars--players familiar with his working techniques--the technology of sampling has advanced so that it provides an extremely diverse range of tones and colors.

"Snuffy writes film scores for television," says Aaron Sorkin, creator and one of the executive producers of "The West Wing." "He's who we go to when we want to put a lump in your throat."

Walden has had a long history of doing precisely that. He was born in Louisiana, raised in Texas and was a double major (premed and math) in college in the '60s before dropping out to devote himself full time to rock 'n' roll guitar playing. Working with Stray Dog, a Texas power trio whose few albums still retain a cult status, he experienced the highs and lows of the life in the mid-level of the rock music world.

"I was never one of those guitar god types," he says, "although I do remember a white leather outfit I wore when we were opening for Emerson, Lake & Palmer. [But] I was a good emotional player, I was always the color guy in bands I played with . . . I could make sounds and colors and ambient emotional stuff."

Even so, a career as a television composer would have been unlikely had he attempted it a decade earlier, when the industry was dominated by trained composers writing for studio musicians. Instead, Walden surfaced in the late '80s, at a time when a sea change was in the works. There was the rise to power of the '60s generation in the entertainment world, with a musical perception very different from that of the producers, directors and composers of previous decades.

"When I first started working with Ed and Marshall," says Walden, "I was working with guys who were in college at the same time I was. The '60s had a strong influence on people my age, and the baby boomers were becoming the market."

And the dramatic technological advances in what was possible in the recording studio made it possible for an individual musician to place music against picture, try a variety of sounds, melodies and rhythms, and easily alter them to adapt to the flow of the scene.

Other Composers Have Adopted His Techniques

"By playing something along with the picture, you can tell right away if something's going to work, and you can change it on the spot," says Walden. "So in that sense, it can be a very quick, very efficient way to work." Since "thirtysomething," numerous other composers have begun to use similar techniques.

"The best you can say about a lot of TV composers is that they're versatile," says Bruce Helford, who produces "Norm" and "The Drew Carey Show" with Walden music.

Despite the demands TV makes on his time, Walden has returned to playing a guitar in a band. This time, it's his, and he leads it in a new recording, "Music by . . . W.G. Snuffy Walden" (Windham Hill).

Oh, and the name Snuffy? He got it as a kid growing up in the Texas town of Hallsville, where Walden lived just down the road from a "snuff" (tobacco) manufacturing plant.

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