Clichés and the Art of Music Composition: An Interview with Ed, Edd n Eddy Composer Patric Caird

Patric Caird is an award-winning composer from Canada working in film and television now for nearly three decades. He’s written music for over 400 programs across genres —from cartoons to Hallmark to the theatre — and currently scores the Netflix horror drama series The Order.

In our interview below he discusses the process of working on some of these projects, the art of interpretation, collaboration, finding success as an artist, the boundaries between cliché and success, and much more.

“Interpreting other people’s music, taking someone else’s melodic line — what is the difference? I don’t see a difference. I think they’re the same thing. I think writing is interpreting music, and expressing it. Hopefully you put the same amount of care and attention into writing as you would into playing someone else’s music.”

Andrew Cheek: You have extensive experience writing music for television and for film — from Ed, Edd n Eddy on Cartoon Network, to horror films, to recently scoring the Netflix series The Order — how has this aspect of pairing music to visuals and to a storyline shaped your approach to musical composition as a whole?

Patric Caird: To be honest, I seldom sit around and just write music unless I have a show to do it to. It’s not that I never do it, but it’s rare. So I’m pretty task based in my writing. I spend a fair bit of time studying and a fair bit of time watching other people’s work — television and film stuff. Then, a lot of time writing music, producing it, making it for TV and whatever shows I’m doing. And then in my down time it might seem strange, but I don’t think a plumber goes plumbing in their off time. I spend that time, honestly, studying. Which is actually what I’m doing here in Nashville right now.

Andrew: Are there certain instruments you find work better for different genres and media — from cartoons to documentaries/etc.?

Patric: Yes. When you think about cartoons, I know my mind goes to Carl Stalling [who did the Looney Toons], The Flintstones also, you know… and what I did on Ed, Edd n Eddy was a jazz-horn kind of sound. So that classic jazz orchestra seems like a cartoon sound. But then there’s John Kricfalusi who did The Ren & Stimpy Show and came up with that ‘other’ sound for cartoons. Alf Clausen on The Simpsons did some great stuff. But those examples are against types.

A lot of times people will say “Well, we don’t want any of the clichés” and then you find sometimes the clichés are there because they work. It’s more a question of reinventing them or disguising them. There are certain tropes that actually are effective still to this day. I’d love to invent a new trope.

For the horror stuff, I have a lot of latitude in that. My collaborators in the horror genre generally are pretty adventurous. You can go from orchestral to synths, etc.

I just finished a synth score actually for Karen Lam’s new movie which is called The Curse of Willow Song, which will be coming out soon. And it’s very dark and synth-y and drone-y and we had a lot of fun doing that.

Documentaries, they build their own voice, their own palette. I’ve done a bunch of stuff in the documentary world where I used voices — singing. I did a show called The Boys of Buchenwald years ago that was a story about the orphans from the death camps. I scored it with male choir — bases and baritones — singing various Yiddish and Hebrew words, and then a boy soprano singing a wordless melody over the top of it.

So you know, that’s what was suggested by that documentary for me when I wrote it, by watching the show (with these disembodied spirits, etcetera). So, there seems to be a lot more latitude in documentary-ville.

Andrew: Yeah. And everything you compose is going to be dictated at least somewhat by the visual that it’s pairing with or the storyline.

Patric: Absolutely.

Andrew: Do you ever write lyrics for music?

Patric: Yeah! There’s a funny story, I’ll tell you. I also do Hallmark movies, and I love the Hallmark movies because no one’s getting killed or eviscerated and, there’s a certain comfort, I think, in writing pleasant-sounding music. And I get a lot of joy from it. I’ll write a melody for our heroine, and sometimes a counter melody for our love interest, and then apply it liberally throughout the show.

Patric Caird, photo by Michael Becker Photography.

I just finished one [Hallmark movie] and it had several different names I think it ended up being called Paris, Wine, and Romance. It was shot in Paris, and the actors were fantastic. Anyways so I get this job, I watched the movie and I start thinking of what theme I want for our starlet, our heroine. I came up with this little French waltz that I thought was really good. Normally, I like to keep the theme short — I think the average concentration span doesn’t care what happens after the first half-dozen notes. And, I think you can really say a lot in those first notes, in that first phrase. Sometimes you want to add to it, depending on the complexity, but in this case a whole song just came out.

That night I was in L.A., we had these horrific wind storms, and my house is in Laurel Canyon at the top of a hill and when the wind blows through there it shakes the entire house. I couldn’t sleep, and I had just written this melody. So I’m lying in bed with this melody going through my head and I wound up writing words to it. Which is not normal for a Hallmark movie, you know. I thought the words were quite beautiful and actually a little bit clever.

The heroine’s name was Isabella, and the words were like “Isabella, can’t you tell you’ve cast a spell on me” that kind of rhyming couplet thing… Then the hook was “How are we to know, fate would finally show, that love has a ring to it, Isabella.” Now, obviously we didn’t get to put it in the movie — the movie was already made…

That’s a long answer to your question but yes, I do write words.

Andrew: How did you get started composing and playing music? What was the draw?

Patric: Well, I was a jazz saxophone player and as such I played a lot of Rock n’ Roll and R&B. That kept me out on the road quite a bit — I was lucky, I was in a good band and we toured a lot and every summer’s jazz season you go out and play all of the different jazz festivals. I was writing tunes for the various jazz bands I was in and that was cool. In a way, improvising is like composing in real time on your feet in front of an audience.

So, I got more interested in song structure and writing things for specific groups I was working in, and then I had a family and the first year that my son was with us I was on the road for 180 days. I missed some of the big milestones and realized that, sure I was making a decent living but I wasn’t actually going to participate in raising my family.

I looked around, and I had also done quite a bit of recording work as a session player and a little bit of producing, because the jazz people… in those days not everyone knew what a recording studio was and they didn’t have a laptop with Garage Band on it or anything — studios were quite imposing and threatening to a lot of artists so I would help them in the studio. [Because of that], I had some familiarity with the technology side of things.

Still from Ed, Edd n Eddy. (Source.)

I was living in a housing co-op with my two kids and one of the other people living there was Danny Antonucci who is the creator of The Eds. And he had two kids. He was making his own work but also working at an animation place in Vancouver called International Rocketship run by a guy named Marv Newland, most famous for his short film Bambi Meets Godzilla. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s a classic.

Andrew: It’s a nice name! I haven’t seen it though.

Patric: It’s worth looking up. It’s two minutes, you’re going to love it. Anyways, I always loved cartoons (again, back to Carl Stalling) and so here I’m hanging out with this animator and we got along great, we were good friends and had kids about the same age, and I started doing small bits of music and even sound effects for some of these animated things that they were doing at International Rocketship.

That’s how I sort of shifted my focus over away from playing. I was still playing, but I focused more on solving the mysteries of making music for drama. For picture. From cartoons, into documentaries, from documentaries into long-form dramatic stuff. And then, series movies.

I still, I write for a theatre company in Toronto — or, I did for a few years — and really enjoyed that. We did a version of Peter and the Wolf where we played a twenty minute suite (of the Peter and the Wolf suite) and then I surrounded that with about 50 minutes of original music played live on deck with the dancers and the actors. It was really cool.

The Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf is what it is. And my music was very different from that in that it was more based in modern minimalism and Max Richter, and you know, Arvo Pärt and that more modern sound. But using the same ensemble.

Andrew: Especially as a musician, and with your background being originally in playing the saxophone, what do you see as the relationship between writing music and interpreting and playing another’s?

Patric: It’s funny because I’m here in Nashville taking a course with a composing ninja, music ninja, named Marianne Ploger. She studied with Nadia Boulanger, who is sort of the mother hen of 20th century American composers. Aaron Copland studied with her, Phil Glass did, and so did Quincy Jones. She’s sort of like, the source. I think Leonard Bernstein hung out with her but I don’t know that he studied with her.

Andrew: Oh I didn’t know that. I didn’t know they were connected, Leonard and Nadia.

Patric: Yeah. She knew him and he knew her. And Stravinsky of course hung out with her. But anyways, this person I’m studying with is amazing and I’m just having my mind blown. The reason I’m thinking about your question in this context is that she’s very much about interpretation. Melodic interpretation. She has tools and skills for analysis.

Patric Caird, photo by Michael Becker Photography.

So, yes. The differences between interpreting and playing. You know, I honestly do very little interpreting of other people’s music to tell the truth. When I was a player, a lot of that was jazz. When you’re in a horn section in a blues band you just play your beeps and your bops and then you get a 12 bar solo every now and then. Though, it seems to me like interpreting other people’s music, taking someone else’s melodic line — what is the difference? I don’t see a difference. I think they’re the same thing. I think writing is interpreting music, and expressing it. Hopefully you put the same amount of care and attention into writing as you would into playing someone else’s music.

Andrew: Yes. And I guess one difference would be — and I never thought of them as being so similar but the way you put it makes sense — one difference is that you’re being more attentive to the will of the composer when you’re interpreting something. Though in a similar sense when you’re writing you’re being attentive to your own will, as you are the composer. You have more agency and more freedom when you’re writing something original. But even still it’s collaborative.

Patric: Yeah, and that’s an important detail in writing for television and film, or picture, media, whatever they’re calling it now. It is a collaboration. I can have my first response to a scene and write something for it, and the director or producer or whomever my collaborator is, may go “This is good but can we focus more on this part of the scene?” or “Can we bring this out more? I’d like to feel something different…” So, my job is not to prove myself, right? My job is to solve problems and to bring an emotional life to a film, to a picture.

So I welcome those challenges to go “Okay, I’ll reinterpret this” and how can I find this emotion or this feeling that this other person is trying to feel, musically? How can I manipulate the elements to evoke that feeling. Sometimes, to be honest, Andrew, people have already temp music in there that they love and you realize that there’s nothing you’re going to write that sounds different from the temp music that they’re going to like. So then you just resign yourself to doing something more like what was temped in there. Unless you can make a compelling case for changing it. That’s not often but it does happen.

Andrew: I know what you mean.

Patric: What’s your background?

Andrew: I’m a writer. My parents are actually both classical pianists, and I play the violin, so I have a background in music but it’s not my profession. I’ve written for people before where it’s that same thing you mentioned — my initial draft is more in my style or what I prefer creatively and then when they go through and make or suggest edits I realize that their preference can be different from mine. And so I adjust. It’s not necessarily a sacrifice as it is learning a different technique. It’s a different nature of collaboration.

Patric: Yeah. Yeah. And when you add a deadline to that a certain critical mass can build up. [Laughs.]

But it’s tossing it back and forth. That can be quite pleasant, really.

Andrew: Musical composition to me, that pure creative aspect, even though it is similar to the interpretive arts, it seems very necessary to musicianship I think and unlocks something deep within ourselves. But it can be kind of daunting. With a whole blank slate. Especially if you are not pairing the music with anything else.

With that in mind, what would you tell someone who wants to compose but doesn’t know where to begin?

Patric: You just ignited in me something I’ve read recently that I saved. It’s a quote from Jerry Goldsmith. Let me find it for you.

Jerry says: “You never think that you’ve done anything important enough. Even after all those years you think it’s all crap. You think you faked your way through it and you’re still waiting for them to find out the real story. (You know, the imposter syndrome.) Week after week on television, I’d expect to get my walking papers. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no talent for it and I thought I should be threading pipe, be a plumber or something. It’s those insecurities that don’t go away that make us artists so nuts. It’s a scary thing when you wake up every morning and have to face a blank piece of paper. And it’s not like you’re an accountant with a bunch of numbers to add up. It’s fear, and it’s very frightening. I used to tell my students that it’s the scariest thing you’ve got to go through. The walk to the piano to sit down and wonder what’s going to happen.”

I just think that’s so totally heavy coming from Jerry Goldsmith.

Andrew: Yeah. I think that’s accurate, what he says. And I guess as you work on something you can build up frameworks or structures and you begin to have material to work off of based off of what you’ve already done. Somewhat.

Patric: Yeah. It’s true, especially in a series. Like when you get onto a show that has multiple episodes. You kind of crack the code, you figure out what this thing is, and then you start to get into the nuance and you get to build from there and you get to shape it. You get opportunities to take your invention and try it over here, now let’s try it over here, let’s see how it responds when we do this to it. You know what I’m saying? It’s kind of fun, and experimental and can take you to some really surprising places that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of to begin with.

For example in The Order, the Netflix series I’m writing for, we started with one idea and then over the course of the ten episodes we found that the score kind of wanted to focus more on one element rather than other elements, if that makes sense. There was this large palette of stuff, and as the show developed the stuff that felt right for the show we did more of, and the music that didn’t feel so right for the show we did less of.

Andrew: It reminds me of what you were saying earlier about a melody you were working on for a Hallmark movie where you’d take bits and pieces of it and use it throughout and… maybe not fragment it, but just how that melody can be reintroduced in a later scene but this time with, you know, more strings in the background or with a jazz twist. And that relates to storytelling, too. And how the story is patterned or characters’ development.

Patric: The first [musical] interval of my heroine, the first time that our love interest sees her, I like to play that interval. Not the melody, just the first interval. And attach them that way. Later on, when their love story starts to perk up I’ll add more notes to it. And finally at the end of it when he’s looking at her and his eyes are all dreamy and she’s smiling back and they’re about to kiss I’ll play the full melody.

I find it, I guess perversely satisfying to go back and go “Oh how clever is that? There’s that opening third.”

Andrew: Well it’s intentional.

Patric: I think subconsciously people respond to that. I hope that it brings an emotional intelligence and depth to what could otherwise just be another silly story.

Andrew: Yes. Even if viewers aren’t noticing that directly and saying “Oh that note was from earlier” that technique holds things together. And does something subconsciously.

Patric: I hope I have enough craft that it doesn’t seem like a neon sign going “Love Theme Note!” [Laughs.]

Want to keep reading? Awesome! Check out my previous interview here.

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.