The Reality Behind Ah2: Jeff Lippencott And Mark Williams
Mark Williams (left) and Jeff Lippencott (right) have made a career out of reality at Ah2 Music. (photo credit: Zan Passante)
BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor
Happenstance led Jeff Lippencott and Mark Williams to a fertile reality television career. The composers goal was to embark in a film scoring career when reality mastermind Mark Burnett sidetracked them.
“Mark had been working at (commercial production company) Machinehead. His last project there was for a new Mark Burnett show called ‘Boarding House: North Shore’,” said Lippencott. “Burnett loved the theme and wanted another project scored. Machinehead asked Mark if he’d write it, so we asked if it could be under Ah2. They were willing to do this to keep Burnett happy. ‘The Apprentice’ is what followed. We accidentally got into it – at the time we just needed to feed our families.”
Happenstance also created the lasting partnership between Lippencott and Williams. Working in the Nashville music scene, both men had the desire to have a greater focus on composing. They discovered each other on a LA-based online composers group. After a lunch meeting, they discovered they had complimentary scoring styles; however Williams soon relocated to L.A.. Within a few years, Lippencott moved west, and before long they created their music shingle, Ah2. The company’s first big project, “The Apprentice,” opened the doors to over ten years of scoring reality shows.
Due to the spontaneous nature of reality programming, there is no script that Lippencott and Williams start with. Instead, their early decision making is based on the concept of the show. As the show evolves they are able to incorporate elements of the talents’ personalities, as well as influences such as locations. They have a wide palette of instruments to choose from, and fit the instrumentation to the tones of a show. For instance, the home chef cooking competition “MasterChef” – featuring celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich – contains dark, heavy tones, strong base and instrumentation. “Shark Tank” – where an entrepreneur pitches to five self-multi-millionaires – utilizes the same instruments, however its register is higher, lighter and resides in the upper registers. Unlike most composers who start with a piano or specific instrument when defining the sound of the score, Lippencott and Williams start with sounds and build the score around exploration.
“We write in the blind; there is no script and no dailies. We take the concept and ask ourselves, ’What does that sound like?’ We are writing music before the show is shot,” said Williams. “Most people dismiss composing for reality because they think it is just writing cues. What we are doing is more akin to writing classical music, where the music creates the picture, instead of supporting it.”
As they work on the score, the producers and network weigh in, determining if the sound and direction matches their vision. Some series, like “Shark Tank,” “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Hotel Hell” allow for consistent revisions to highlight new contestants and situations. Other series, such as “Extreme Weight Loss”, “America’s Next Top Model” and “The Apprentice” follow the same group of characters as they’re placed in unique situations or compete in diverse challenges, allowing for the exploration of complex musical themes that follow the characteristics of the contestants while incorporating moods and tones of the situations. In some cases, the concept of the show evolves over its time on the air, allowing for a musical overhaul. Such was the case with “The Biggest Loser.” Initially the show’s goal was to watch the physical transformation of individuals through the instruction of coaches. No one involved with the show expected the emotional transformation that accompanied the journey
“As the show progressed, the heart-warming, emotional transformation really became a big part of their journey,” said Lippencott. “We focused on the piano, the strings, and played to the emotion of the journey and less about the hard-core training.”
Their most recent project, ABC’s upcoming reality series “The Quest,” has allowed them to employ many elements of their musical toolbox. Produced by members of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Amazing Race,” the competition is set in a castle in Vienna and will incorporate aspects of production design, motion capture, animatronics and prosthetics within the arena of the competition.
“They wanted a really cinematic score, something that introduced a gothic, period reality,” said Williams. “We used a live orchestra and choir, which is unique for a realty program.”
Having prepared music for more than thirty reality shows, Lippencott and Williams have accumulated a wealth of unused music. For every score they record over 100 minutes of music, not all of which is utilized. The pair decided to present this music as a catalogue available on the Ah2 site. Split into dedicated volumes, the music is available for producers and others who are in need of a selection on a tight time crunch. When required, Ah2 will act as a composer for a score required in two weeks or less, adjusting a producer’s desired selection and adjusting it to the needs of their project.
Lippencott and Williams are thankful for the opportunities they have had in the reality genre, and the collaborations they have been able to make with esteemed producers including Mark Burnett and Gordon Ramsay. They hope to be able to focus on more narrative projects in the future, such as the score they created for the 2013 feature “Grace Unplugged.”
“We were fortunate last year to work on a film for Lionsgate and write large, epic sounds, and we’d love to be involved with big features and action movies,” said Lippencott. “We’re also happy working in the reality medium, there are new shows and concepts popping up all the time. We are very fortunate.”
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