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Symphony conductor is making movie music

kiesling_23323.jpgTuesday, June 9, 2009
By Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane
Staff Writer

Bruce Kiesling has waited months to hear this music live.  He had composed it on computer, using sampled sounds of orchestral instruments to simulate the real thing.

“But it doesn’t hold a candle to the beauty, vitality and musicality that live musicians bring to it,” he says.

Now, here he is, on the film scoring stage at the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, conducting a 34-piece orchestra as it plays his compositions for recording.

“That was good,” Kiesling says as musicians finish a small piece. “Let’s do it one more time to be sure.”

This music will become the score for “Wesley,” a feature film about John and Charles Wesley and the founding of the Methodist movement.

Audiences have seen Kiesling conduct the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, its youth orchestra and the Choral Society of Greensboro.  Offstage, Kiesling, 36, has added a new dimension to his career: film music composer.

Kiesling boosted his credentials, which include a doctorate in orchestral conducting, by earning a master’s degree in film music composition in 2008 at the School of the Arts.

The school is one of few nationwide with a master’s program in the field. It’s led by David McHugh, whose composing credits include the films “Mystic Pizza” and “Moscow on the Hudson.”

Kiesling serves as resident conductor of the Greensboro Symphony, leading its education and gospel concerts. His composing gigs combine his love of film music, collaborative projects and storytelling.

“As a musician, music is the tool that I use to tell the story,” he says.  “I would never want to abandon conducting for this, but it was always my hope to combine both.”

His credits now list original music for about 25 movies, including “Wesley” and five other feature-length films.

One short film “Cadence” won best picture and best score in last year’s 48-Hour Film Project in Greensboro. A School of the Arts student film “1915” was a finalist in this year’s student Academy Awards competition.

Although films featuring his music have appeared in festivals, none has been distributed commercially in theaters yet. But he hopes that “Wesley” and others will be.

So does John Jackman of Foundery Pictures in Lewisville, who is the producer and director of “Wesley.” Jackman, senior pastor of Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, has spent five years and more than $1 million in investors’ money to bring the biopic to the screen.

He filmed it in Old Salem and Bethabara Park, with a cast that starred local actors Burgess Jenkins and R. Keith Harris as the Wesley brothers and screen veterans Kevin McCarthy and June Lockhart.

Churches around the South plan to sponsor showings in late summer and early fall, with the hope that it attracts a distributor’s attention.

Jackman was impressed with Kiesling’s credentials, and as he listens from the recording booth, he likes what he hears.

“Everyone who has stopped in has been overwhelmed by the quality of the music and the authentic feel of it,” Jackman says.  Charles Wesley was a prolific writer of hymns. But the old English folk tunes that accompanied his words were often hard to sing, and few survive in common use, Jackman says.

Hymns such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” are now sung to tunes composed in the 19th century.

“Wesley” takes place in the 1730s and 1740s, so Kiesling composed new music in the style of the period.  When the action is in England, audiences will hear the influence of Baroque and early classical music.  When it’s in America, the music becomes more folk-influenced, using solo violin, guitar and hammer dulcimer.

“Wesley” is Kiesling’s largest film project to date.  He has composed about 100 minutes of music for this two-hour film.

Composers often wait for a rough cut of the film before they write much of the music. They need to know each scene and its length so that music fits precisely.

Movie music plays in short snippets, often less than 30 seconds. “Wesley” contains 72 such “music cues.”  Some films, such as “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” have such dramatic music that it almost becomes a character in the film.

The music of “Wesley” has a few big gestures, too. But movie music — even when it’s big — shouldn’t take viewers out of the story, Kiesling says.

“It should feel like a part of the film,” he says. “It is going to sneak in and help along the pace of a certain scene or the emotion of a certain scene and then fade out so you barely notice.

“Your job is not to write great music,” he says. “Your job is to write a great score for that film. Sometimes you have a chance to do both.”

The process begins at Kiesling’s home office, where three computers and a television screen are running at once.  The TV shows the movie “Wesley.”  His laptop runs the Sibelius music notation program in which he composes, edits and prints musical scores.

He imports those files into two computers running Logic Pro, a music sequencing program. Logic uses sampled sounds of orchestral instruments to create a mock-up of the finished score that sounds surprisingly realistic.

The two computers running Logic are connected to the TV. With Logic, he can synchronize the music exactly with the scene that it accompanies.

If the director wants changes, he can make them.  Then it’s time to record the real deal.

Since May, Kiesling and musicians have recorded “Wesley” music in seven three-hour sessions. They gathered for the last major recording session with sound engineer Evan Richey last week in Winston-Salem.

Kiesling hired many musicians from the Greensboro Symphony. As he conducts and they play, they listen on headphones to a “click track” — clicking sounds like a metronome that dictate the pace of the music, to synchronize it with the movie.

After a few weeks of sound mixing, “Wesley” will have its score.

“Wow!” Kiesling says during a break. “It really does sound good.”

 Listen to Kiesling and a sample of music from “Wesley”

Warning: Link May Expire

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 373-5204 or

Accompanying Photos
Jerry Wolford (News & Record)
Photo Caption: Bruce Kiesling conducts a movie score.