An Interview with Jeff Rona

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the creative and esoteric possibilities with Max. We’ve all had that surprise of watching the sun come up while putting the finishing touches of some cool new esoteric patch that will rock your world. There’s a satisfaction and pride that come with such creatively monumental projects. But, sometimes it’s the little things that bring long-term gratification. One simple solution, that solves a nagging problem, can open the flow.

It’s easy to forget that Max, like a good Swiss Army knife, can be a practical tool for solving the prosaic problems as well. You know, all those little, routinely mundane tasks that make you mutter under your breath “there’s got to be a better way…”

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing film composer, Jeff Rona since the late eighties and it has been a pleasure to see his career evolve. [ed: Hard work and talent pays off kids!] He has an extensive background of sound design with Max, from his innovative musical laptop performance use in the mid-90′s to his complex algorithmic rhythm and texture devices used in top Hollywood productions. But I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the practical applications that Jeff has built with Max to solve some basic workflow annoyances in his studio.


I know you grew up in LA. Did you study music when you were young?

I played flute in school and in bands, but by college I was actually studying fine art. I was interested in being a photographer, as was my family’s vocation coming out of Hungary. My father and uncle were both photographers. My other uncle was a painter and sculptor and very successful, and I grew up really steeped in visual arts, but always loving music.

I was always fascinated with sound. By the time I was barely a teenager, I was finding little amplifiers and circuits and playing with them and getting them to make weird squelching, squeaking noises and finding that utterly delightful.

When I was in college, two things had happened that had an impact on my view about electronics and technology and music. I’d been working a lot with dancers. I was writing a lot of music for a couple of different dance companies, so I was attending concerts at different theaters around L.A.

I was at a concert and I overheard a guy behind me talking about music and computers, and this is still in the early β€˜80s. Anyway, he turned out to literally be a rocket scientist, from the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratories. He developed some of the most sophisticated computer data analysis systems in the world, but his hobby was getting home computers to improvise music.

So, I turned around and introduced myself, and we became friends for many, many, many years. And he was developing a computer system to improvise, using a desktop computer. When this was virtually impossible, when nothing commercial existed that was anything like this.

I worked with him in the development of a sophisticated real time computer-music language. And that got me introduced to all kinds of interesting people. I spoke at the very first TED conference and created a music system for the conference center that reacted to people’s movements through the area. I ended up spending a few days as a visitor at IRCAM, when David Wessel and Miller Puckette were still there, and Max was still just this code at the time. That’s also where I met David Zicarelli for the first time.

Where did you go to school?

A small university here in Los Angeles called Cal State University at Northridge. I was studying art, and I was studying a lot of music. I was studying composition, conducting, some electronic music classes, and film.

One of the professors there got a grant to get a serial number β€˜1’ of something simply called β€œThe Dartmouth Project.” The Dartmouth Project was a non-real time computer-music system based on FM synthesis and a custom algorithmic music language. It was an experimental one of a kind machine, from a group of professors and grad students and Dartmouth who were developing several digital music systems, and I was the first outsider to use it.

They eventually spun it off into a business that they called New England Digital, which eventually became the Synclavier.

So I was kind of between the rocket scientist from JPL, this new system, and an analog music lab based on a pair of EMS Putneys. I just got steeped in the idea of building systems, building my own experimental music tools, while I was starting to compose music for dance companies, art-gallery installations, and collaborating with choreographers and visual artists, with everything from tape loops and synthesizers, to fully digital systems.

This was all intensely interesting to me. I got really sucked into it. I had an accidental meeting with somebody from Roland in 1982 who said, β€œLook, we’re looking for somebody to write software for some of our new, secret projects. Would you like the job?”

I’m not a real computer programmer. I never was. I was just working in these high-level kinds of custom music systems, where other people were doing all the low-level hard coding work. But I took the job. I lied, I took the job, and I learned how to code really fast.

Is that how you got involved with the development on the MIDI standard?

It is. I ended up being the one engineer from all the synthesizer companies who had time to help the engineers who had gotten MIDI started in their labs. What started as about ten people sitting around a table turned into a worldwide-accepted music protocol and true phenomenon. I created software and instrument design at Roland for four years, and continued to help foster MIDI for three more years.

But in the meantime, my love and passion became creating music. That led me to quitting Roland and working as a synthesizer and drum-machine programmer on a lot of different records, but mainly I was doing synth programming for film composers. Without realizing it, that became my music school on how to score films.

I was working with a number of LA-based composers including Basil Poledouris, Chris Young, Mark Isham and a quite a few others. Eventually, I met Hans Zimmer, and then he and I ended up having a lengthy and very close working relationship for eight or nine years.

Hans introduced me to directors, and I started scoring projects on my own β€” I’d been ghostwriting so much for several composers for years. I did a bit with Hans, but also he introduced me to many of the projects that got me started scoring for film and television. Mark Isham was also very helpful in me finding my own projects, after I was helping him as a co-writer and as a programmer on some of his work.

You worked with Ridley Scott as well, didn’t you?

As a writer, I wrote the score for White Squall for Ridley. Which was a big hit overseas. Not so big in the U.S.

Coincidentally, I just started a movie this month for the screenwriter of White Squall. He’s doing a terrific movie called The Phantom, with Ed Harris. I think it’s a very cool movie. I’m just getting started on that. It’s a very electronic score. Very unlike the White Squall score, which was mainly symphonic.

I worked with Ridley and with Hans on Black Hawk Down as well.

Didn’t you work on Gladiator?

I did work on Gladiator. A little bit. I worked on Mission Impossible 2 and Toys with Barry Levinson. I did Homicide: Life on the Street as the sole composer for his television series. I did Chicago Hope and Profiler.

In fact I did a whole lot of TV for several years, including documentaries, and TV movies. Then I took a break to do other things β€” films and a few video game scores. I just finished a project that’ll be out later this year called The Ropes, working with Vin Diesel’s production company and Fox. I did another Fox series last year called Persons Unknown, which ran for one exciting season. [Laughs]

An Interview with Jeff Rona

Mar 7, 2012 at 6:25am

Great interview! Love the intimate look at the setup and the practical applications that Jeff has managed to mold Max to. I think film scoring programs could benefit in teaching students how to utilize Max in this way. Great job.

Apr 4, 2012 at 12:38pm

Noice Jeff!! Great to see your mug again… :0


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