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Spring 2003

Vol. 03 No. 2


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North Dakota makes music for "The Simpsons"

It's a big night at the Warner Brothers' Studio in Burbank, Calif. The Eastwood Scoring Stage sound booth is packed with onlookers, from 20-something interns to a baby dressed in a tuxedo. The tables are heaped with enough food to make Homer Simpson sing: pies and cold cuts and crudites and even Butterfingers.

Everyone seems to be snapping pictures.

A 36-member orchestra runs through musical cues, as a clip from the Fox juggernaut "The Simpsons" frolics on a large screen behind them.

Tonight, they're recording the score for the landmark 300th episode of the show, the most successful TV sitcom in history.

"Simpsons'" creator Matt Groening has dropped by, as has Dan Castallaneta, the actor who produces the voice of Homer Simpson, America's favorite buffoon. Castallaneta takes a turn at the microphone to address the crowd.

"Do you guys know 'Funky Town'?" he booms in his Homer-iest voice.

Onlookers and musicians burst into laughter, but one man there may relish the quip more than anyone.

As "The Simpsons'" composer, Alf Clausen not only knows "Funky Town," he could arrange it for 21 bagpipes and one kazoo. After all, his duties have ranged from writing a take-off of Iron Butterfly's endless "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" for church organ to arranging an Italian tarantella for obscure East Indian instruments. Clausen — whose 13 years with the show has required producing a panoply of music for weekly consumption — has proven to be as creative as he is prolific.

All Homer antics aside, Clausen is the ringleader tonight. Dressed in a black shirt and gray trousers, he is short and stout, with cherubic cheeks and trademark owl's-eye glasses. He looks like he'd be right at home in a "Simpsons" cartoon.

But he's really just Alf, a North Dakota boy who is living his dream. He's a man who excels at the delicate task of writing music that no one notices. And he's a survivor who has lasted 36 years in a notoriously tough and fickle business.

Take that, Homer.

The musicians clip precisely through "cues," snippets of music that define a key emotion or scene. Tonight's cues range from glossy, glissando-wrapped melodies to a ditty reminiscent of Mary Tyler Moore's theme song.

Clausen listens to comments from the sound engineers through his headphones, then relays them to the players.

Clausen and company miss nothing, even as the music races by in seemingly flawless fragments.

"There's a clam (musician par-lance for mistake) in the middle of the trumpet section," they'll tell Clausen, or "Did Gayle hold back a little that time?" The short, fully orchestrated cues require a laser-like precision on everyone's part, and the experienced union musicians, some with Clausen since his showbiz beginnings, are up to task. They rarely need more than two takes to get it right.

Thirty-odd cues must be recorded tonight, but the mood is festive.

Perhaps it's because Clausen and crew have tapped this dance so often. Perhaps it's the chemistry between people who really enjoy being there. Whatever the case, the atmosphere is upbeat.

Before the night's first break, Clausen summons Groening to speak to the crowd. He praises the show's creator for using live musicians — a whole orchestra of them, at that — in a day when many producers opt for much cheaper computerized music.

the music on the simpsons really helps anchor the crazy animation and the crazy writing and the crazy voices - groening

Groening, in turn, pays homage to Clausen and his team. "The music on 'The Simpsons' really helps anchor the crazy animation and the crazy writing and the crazy voices," he says. "Really, that emotional core is what has kept this show alive all these seasons."

Then it's on to the break, where a purple layer cake and champagne await. Cameras flash as Clausen is photographed arm-in-arm with colleagues and friends. Although several more hours of recording await, he looks relaxed and happy.

He seems right at home.

His real home is about 30 minutes from urban commotion, in an affluent community of new houses and horse stables built amid the arid beauty of canyons. The Clausen residence is roomy but not ostentatious: a new gray two-story affair with dark-red brick trim, a backyard pool, a guest-house-turned-music studio and a kitchen equipped with marble countertops and Viking appliances. "They better be good," Clausen quips, referring to their Nordic names.

As the composer relaxes in the living room a day after his recording session, he talks about how he and wife Sally use the kitchen to turn out lefse. Clausen is proud of his heritage. Like any good Lutheran boy, he met Sally in church. A wooden carving that spells "Uff-dah," the Norwegian word for all things beyond words, rests by his studio keyboard.

His Scandinavian roots even intertwine with work. One clip from the 300th-episode scoring session shows Bart eyeing the mashed-potato bust of Homer he's built and, accompanied by Clausen's jabbing "Pyscho"-style score, flattening the spuds with his fork. The name of the cue: "Mashed Potatoes Become Lefse."

Seems you can take the boy out of lutefisk land, but you can't, well, you know.

Some deeper, more substantial characteristics might be attributed to his background as well.

"Alf is one of the nicest people in the business," says Judy Arndt Johnson, who, as a cellist in Clausen's orchestra from Grand Forks, N.D., actually understood his lefse reference. "He handles the dynamics of the group with humor, diplomacy and a keen awareness of the stresses the individual player faces during a recording session.

"He also makes the sessions fun, with a family feeling to our relationships and the occasional inside joke."

When Johnson's comments are repeated to him later, Clausen smiles.

"It's my North Dakota heritage," he says. "Absolutely. My parents taught me values, and they treated people pretty well. They had nice friends and I had good friends in school, and the work ethic gets taught to you the proper way."

Which brings up another point.

Although the recording session is behind him, Clausen has little time to kick back. He's on a rigorous production schedule, four shows in four weeks, and has just six days to complete the music for next Friday's recording session.

Clausen is used to the pace. He's had a long career in television — at one point, he composed music for two shows simultaneously — and there's little doubt he'll meet his deadline.

Clausen's energy and drive, combined with an encyclopedic music background and a discipline not surprising in one who studied to be an engineer, have helped him become a rarity, a Hollywood success.

It's a long way from those traumatic early "concerts" in Jamestown, N.D., where a mortified Alf, then 5, was coaxed to wear short outfits and sing Norwegian songs for the good ladies of the local homemakers' clubs.

The performances were the brainchild of his mother, a Stutsman County home extension agent. "I'm surprised it didn't ruin me forever," Clausen says. "Oh, I hated it."

He recovered sufficiently to take up the French horn and choir in junior high and high school. At home, he was influenced by the new, raw power of rock 'n' roll, and listened to Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers and the King.

Although Clausen loved music, he still wasn't sure what he wanted to do after high school. Drawing on the results of his college entrance exams, he majored in mechanical engineering at NDSU. He was good at it, too, making the honor roll and winning scholarships. But then what he jokingly calls "an epiphany" hit, and his life was forever changed.

It was the summer before his junior year when Clausen traveled to New York City to visit his cousin, Harold Heiberg, a professional musician and dialect coach for opera singers. Heiberg and his wife, Eva, went all out to entertain their country cousin, taking him to great restaurants and the original runs of Broadway hits like "West Side Story" and "The Music Man."

During an outing to the Randall's Island Jazz Festival on Long Island, Clausen was wowed by a trumpet phenom. Clausen turned to the young man beside him. "Boy this trumpet player is really something," Clausen said. "Who is this?"

"Oh man, you've got to pay attention to this guy," he responded. "It's Miles Davis."

Not only that, it was Miles Davis' Kind of Blue Band, featuring jazz giants like John Coltrane and Bill Evans.

It was love at first sound.

"I came back to North Dakota a changed man forever," Clausen says. "I said to myself: I don't know how to get involved in this, but I just loved what I had experienced and somehow I have to figure this out."

it is a strange existence to strive for the perfection of not being noticed - clausen

After his New York summer, Clausen lasted less than a quarter in engineering. When his adviser informed him he had earned another $500 scholarship, Clausen had to say, "Well, thank you very much, but I quit."

From that point on, Clausen was driven to do whatever he could musically. He played French horn for the F-M Symphony and NDSU's Gold Star Marching Band. "I had that mouthpiece stuck to my mouth in freezing cold weather during those football games," he says.

When his friends started playing weekend gigs with Paul Hanson's orchestra, Clausen quickly realized the French horn wasn't his rite of entry into a dance band. So, with a crash course from then-NDSU band director Bill Euren, he learned how to play string bass.

His first try-out with the orchestra was at Johnson's Barn, a popular dance hall in Arthur, N.D. "By the end of the night, my fingers were bleeding. They were wrapped in tape. I had no calluses," Clausen says. "But he hired me."

Now an avid jazz fan, Clausen also took up baritone sax to play in the Statesmen, the official North Dakota State stage band.

He graduated from NDSU with a music degree in 1963, again not knowing what to do. A plan to pursue a master's at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, fell flat when his instructor told Clausen he might be better suited to writing than playing French horn professionally.

The statement was infuriating, if prophetic. Back at NDSU, Clausen had taken a correspondence course in music arrangement and composition from Boston's Berklee College of Music. Clausen found the field so fascinating that, upon completing the course, he asked his Berklee instructor how he could learn more. The answer, naturally, was to come to Berklee.

Clausen packed up his Volkswagen bug, threw his string bass over the seat backs and headed to Boston.

"It was the smartest thing I ever did," Clausen says.

Once he found his niche, nothing could stop him. While shoehorning a four-year course into two and a half years, Clausen played French horn and string bass for school and community groups, taught part time, wrote arrangements for singers and did whatever brought home a little cash.

"I used to copy big-band arrangements for Berklee Press in ink for $5 a score," Clausen says, laughing. "Now I think, man, I was nuts."

Ironically, Clausen also wound up teaching the same correspondence course that had hooked him on composing.

After receiving his master's and teaching for a year, Clausen and then-wife, Judy, started looking westward. Boston was expensive and, due to the glut of music students, offered a low wage scale for musicians.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, seemed like a great place to raise a family.

The timing was right. In 1967, many of the big television shows, like "Carol Burnett" and "The Tonight Show," were moving westward as well.

There was work for everyone, including Clausen.

Clausen may have lived in LA decades before anyone played "Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon," but he discovered early on the power of connections.

After moving to the West Coast, a former student from his Berklee correspondence course gave Clausen a lead on a bass-playing gig with a lounge trio. Clausen devoted nights to working as a musician and days to trying to launch his composing career.

One day, he received a panicky call from a friend who was a rehearsal pianist on a TV variety show. The man needed an arrangement for a solo artist slated to appear on the show, and the music director was occupied with something else. Could Clausen do it?

"How much time do I have?" Clausen asked.

"Well, we're recording it tomorrow at 8 a.m.," the friend said.

Clausen labored over an arrangement all night, sent it via messenger to be copied at 4 a.m. and went to bed.

At 11 a.m., his phone rang. It was Tommy Oliver, the show's music director, and he loved what Clausen had done. Would he be interested in joining "The Donny & Marie Show"?

You bet he would.

He worked as an arranger for one season. Then Oliver left the show, and Clausen became the music director for its third season. The ABC series was at its peak, featuring lavish production numbers, bejeweled costumes and flavor-of-the-day guest stars like Andy Gibb.

Clausen wrote or supervised all arrangements, worked with the show's choreographer and conducted a 13-member orchestra — some of whom are still with him.

He found the wholesome brother-sister duo to be "fabulous, real quick studies, and the best people at lip synch I've ever seen."

Eventually, however, the Osmonds moved the show to Provo, Utah, closer to the family's Mormon roots. For a while, Clausen endured a grueling plane commute to Utah each week. But when the family decided to keep the production there for good, he had to move on.

Clausen didn't stay idle long. Through one of "Donny & Marie's" producers, he became music director for a new CBS variety show starring Mary Tyler Moore.

The series was short-lived, although it featured future showbiz names like David Letterman, Michael Keaton and Swoosie Kurtz. "I have tapes of Michael Keaton and David Letterman prancing around in bunny costumes," he says, chuckling. "Great blackmail material."

By now, TV variety shows were fizzling, and Clausen had tired of the grind of working on them.

He set his sights on the next logical step: feature films. It wasn't an easy transition. "LA being the funny town that it is, you get really, really typecast," he says. "They wouldn't hire me to work in the film business, because I came from the tape television business. According to that, you don't know your craft."

Clausen found himself starting over, orchestrating for established film composers. The experience proved fortuitous. As Clausen polished his skills, he met important composers like Elmer Bernstein, Lalo Schifrin and Lee Holdridge. He and Holdridge became friends. In fact, it was Holdridge who made sure Clausen orchestrated the pilot for a witty new ABC vehicle called "Moonlighting."

With Holdridge's help, Clausen soon became the composer for one of the most popular shows on television.

Never one to shirk hard work, Clausen took on another project — titled, oddly enough, "Alf" — while composing for "Moonlighting."

The work was intense, sometimes exhausting, but Clausen embraced it. "The curse of this industry is the idea that you're never going to work again," he says. "When you're self-employed and you don't know where your next check is coming from, you get this thing like, 'Well, if I get an offer, I'd better take it, because I may not get an offer next week.'"

Unfortunately, Clausen's fears almost became fact. When both shows ended, he found his career at an unprecedented standstill.

For four years, he had been busy and productive, working on two highly successful shows. Now, for seven months straight, he couldn't get work. He feared he was washed up.

Connections would again save the day. In desperation, Clausen called his long-time friend Jules Greenberg, a percussionist with plenty of industry contacts, and asked him to pass along any job leads.

A couple of weeks later, Greenberg called to say his nephew was working on an animated TV show called "The Simpsons." The creators were starting their second season, and they wanted to change composers.

Clausen walked into his first interview with Simpsons creator Groening without having seen an episode. But Groening gave him the perfect direction. He said he wanted a composer who would score the show not as a cartoon, but as a drama in which the characters were drawn.

"That has stuck with me the whole time," Clausen says. "It has been the driving force for doing the score."

His try-out involved composing 42 cues for the show's first "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween special.

Clausen asked if the cues could be split into two scoring sessions, figuring that special request alone would destroy his chances. But the producers consented, and he got the job.

He initially wrote just the underscore, until the producer who composed the show's songs left the show. Suddenly, Clausen found "songwriter" added to his job description.

It turned out to be the perfect fit.

The breadth of Clausen's musical knowledge formed an ideal backdrop for the show's sly pop-culture references, eccentric characters and screwball situations. On any given week, he might be called on to create a rousing "Music-Man"-style number to sell a monorail scam to Springfield's citizens, or an anthem for the Stonecutters, the town's bizarre secret society.

He occasionally was asked to create music for instruments he scarcely recognized. One episode involved the wedding of perennial Kwik-E-Mart employee Apu and his new wife, Manjula. The animators drew an East Indian wedding band, complete with sitars, Indian drums and shenais, a high-pitched instrument used by snake-charmers.

Not exactly something he could pick up at Guitarland.

To complicate matters further, the writers had Homer approach the East Indian players and request they play Italian celebration music.

Clausen not only had to round up several shenais, he had to find musicians to play them. In the end, the music was recorded using a mixture of real instruments and recorded samples. When the tarantella-by-way-of-Bombay was complete, one of the musicians walked up to him and said, "You know Alf, we want to thank you. You've taken us places we've never been tonight."

The show's penchant for guest stars means Clausen has written music for everyone from Mick Jagger to Bono. He remembers the session with U2's frontman particularly well. The soundbooth was filled with at least 50 people, many from Bono's sizeable entourage.

As the Irish singer crooned his way through a Clausen ditty called "The Garbage Man," the composer found himself telling one of pop's most revered vocalists, "That was pretty good, but it could be better."

Bono — accustomed to doing what was required to get the best take — took it all in stride. But the gasp from his minions was audible. "People were going nuts," Clausen says. "They couldn't believe I was telling Bono what to do."

And so lies the dichotomy of Clausen's duties. On one hand, he writes the songs, often flashy showstoppers using A-list stars. On the other, he's creating the background music, which intertwines so closely with the scene that it's virtually imperceptible.

In such cases, if the music's emotional heart is felt, that very thing Groening wanted from the show's inception, then the music has done its job. Sometimes, if a scene's animation or writing isn't quite up to the show's usual standards, the producers actually call on Clausen's music to save it.

"It's a strange existence to strive for the perfection of not being noticed," Clausen says, laughing.

In fact, he has been noticed, many times. A display case in the Clausens' foyer showcases two Emmy awards, three Annies (the Oscars of the International Animation Society), three International Monitor Awards and numerous trophies from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. His music has garnered a total of 22 Emmy nominations.

people were going nuts. they could not believe i was telling bono what to do - clausen

His work also has been showcased in two popular CDs — "Songs in the Key of Springfield" and "Go Simpsonic With the Simpsons" — plus the recently released "Simpsons Songbook," which Clausen produced and personally proofread from cover to cover.

All this, while following a grinding schedule that includes 24 to 28 episodes per year.

Miraculously, Clausen has avoided burnout. He attributes his productivity to the desperation of creativity by deadline.

"I don't have the luxury of walking in the park and waiting for my muse," Clausen says. "There's no time to second-guess anything. You just have to slam it."

So what on earth will he do when there are no longer deadlines to meet? After all, it's inevitable "The Simpsons" will someday leave town.

He admits he's thought about it. A lot. One can't be involved in a long-lived, hugely successful series without wondering when the gravy train will derail. Especially in a strange land like LA — where today's hot new discovery is tomorrow's has-been, where the culture is so youth-obsessed that Clausen won't share his age in interviews.

Clausen actually would enjoy having more down time to spend with his kids, some of whom are following in his footsteps. He has three children from his first marriage — Karen, an editorial assistant and mom of granddaughter, Charley; Scott, a composer for Nickelodeon's "All That" and the WB's "What I Like About You;" and Kyle, a second-generation Berklee graduate who works as a tech support representative and recordist. He also is close to his stepchildren — Josh, a San Francisco architect, and Emily, a public relations assistant in Beverly Hills.

"We're really proud of them all," he says.

Professionally, Clausen would probably take a break from the demands of television and try his hand at feature films. With the credibility of creating beloved music for a beloved show, he surely should find it easier this time around.

"Maybe this job will end, but my career will not end," Clausen says.

—Tammy Swift

The Simpsons™ and © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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