Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Scott Salinas ’97 runs a music production company in Philadelphia.

March 24, 2004:

Scoring it big
Composer Scott Salinas ’97 writes music for films

According to composer/ producer Scott Salinas ’97, the “job of music in a film is to tell the story.” Never was this maxim more clear to him than in June 2002, when, as the youngest person to ever win the Turner Classic Movies Young Film Composers Competition, he was commissioned to score the classic silent film, Laugh Clown Laugh, starring Lon Chaney and Loretta Young. “When I first watched the movie, I had trouble keeping the characters straight,” Salinas admits. “There are actually problems understanding the plot without music and it feels incredibly empty.” Salinas tackled the problem by correlating each character with a musical instrument as well as a distinct theme. Of course, as he acknowledges, this is exactly the challenge a young composer dreams of having: the opportunity to create 74 minutes of what he calls “wall to wall music” that tells a story.

Salinas, who grew up on the island of St. Croix, was a professional musician before he ever set foot on the Princeton campus. A self-taught guitarist, (he began playing at the age of 12), Salinas toured the island with reggae and blues bands and became known as an accomplished sideman. “It was something I did, but I never considered it as a career option,” the soft-spoken artist elaborates. “I went to Princeton with the intention of majoring in economics and then going to law school.” Which was what he told his father (as well as himself) even after he decided to major in music. “I remember saying, ‘You can still be a lawyer and major in music,’” he laughs.

Looking back, Salinas isn’t even sure how he got in to Princeton. “I missed my interview,” he recalls. “The admission office sent my application back because I had left parts of it blank and I forgot to sign it.” Once on campus, he took “a lot of economics courses” as well as his first guitar lesson. He gradually found himself, as he puts it, “steadily sucked into the music department. I really didn’t know what jazz was until Princeton but once I did, I was really into it,” he continues. “To say that it turned my musical world upside down is an understatement. To this day, if you find me listening to something for pure pleasure, it is most likely jazz.”

He joined the Princeton University Jazz Ensemble and also founded Blues Light District, an alternative rock band that was a steady fixture on the campus musical scene. As a music major, Salinas was not only required to learn to play the piano, but also, as he puts it, “to develop a certain level of proficiency fairly quickly.”

Following the lead of many of his professors, including Paul Lansky, whom he calls a “pioneer in the field,” Salinas started composing. He scored a short film for a friend in the film department for his junior paper. “It was all guitar and fairly psychedelic,” he laughs. For his senior thesis he scored two short films, also student created, and was one of four composers for the first Princeton Atelier, creating and producing a 20-minute original chamber opera entitled, Cancer in the Undergrowth, for the Princeton University Chamber Orchestra. Guest performers and speakers at the debut concert included Pulitzer Prize winning author and Princeton professor, Toni Morrison as well as world renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

Salinas credits Princeton with giving him the academic and creative freedom to embrace his passion. “It was at Princeton, that I decided what I wanted to do,” he reflects. “I learned that, musically, anything goes and that is a very useful concept in my work today.” After Princeton, Salinas continued his musical education at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he concentrated in film scoring and honed his jazz guitar skills. In the summer of 2000, Salinas was awarded the Segue Internship award, which included a scholarship for his final semester at Berklee as well as a month-long internship at Segue Music, the largest film music editing company in Hollywood. This exposure to world- renowned composers and directors sealed his fate. “It was my ‘Aha’ moment,” he explains. “Not only did I realize that this was what I wanted to do, I felt it was feasible.”

Since then, life has been a series of successful ventures for this promising talent. Laugh, Clown Laugh with his original score has played several times on the Turner Classic television channel and has recently been released on D.V.D. as part of a Lon Chaney collection. Last summer, Salinas completed a Latin/Hip-Hop score for Latin Dragon, a feature action film with Gary Busy and Lorenzo Lamas, and wrote two tracks for the Miramax film Duplex starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. In between, he also wrote a Middle Eastern influenced original score for the independent film, Forgetting Aphrodite. Salinas, who runs his own music production company in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer Oliver ’96, is currently scoring another classic silent film from the Turner vault, Squaw Man, a western directed by Cecil B. DeMille and the first feature ever made in Hollywood.

Salinas composes with the aid of computer software that enables him to simulate virtually any instrument. “It has truly gotten to the point that you can compose and record an entire orchestral score without live musicians,” he says. While he acknowledges that these advances in technology have, in many ways, made his job easier, he also feels that they have changed the nature of film scoring. “It used to be an incredible challenge to synchronize the frame with the music,” he says. “Now, it’s easy.” As a result, he says, the music has become less a narrative element and more an integral part of the film. “Scores have become more contemplative and less obsessed with documenting every twist and turn,” he says. “It’s more about letting the music play.”

By Kathryn Levy Feldman ’78

Kathryn Levy Feldman is a freelance writer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.