If you were born before 1995, it’s likely that you spent a lot of your free time indulging in a literal game of cat-and-mouse, with the beloved cartoon Tom & Jerry. The charming back-and-forth battle of your childhood is returning soon to Cartoon Network to capture an all-new generation, scored by enterprising composer Vivek Maddala. We cornered him for a chat, and herewith, are excerpts:
By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu
How does it feel being tapped to create music for a ‘reboot’ of a classic such as ‘Tom & Jerry’?
Vivek Maddala: I’m honored to be working on such an iconic show—and, notably, one that has such a rich musical pedigree. The original 1940s Tom and Jerry cartoons were beautifully drawn and conceived, and the Scott Bradley music scores were marvelously written and executed. Over the subsequent generations of the show, it developed a reputation for having the main characters engage in intense violence.
But this new show draws inspiration from the original show where the rivalry between Tom and Jerry is more comedic. Also, not infrequently, the two pair up to pursue a common goal or solve a problem. So it’s pure fun, with moments of real sweetness.
You’ve mostly done music for feature films. Is there a different approach for episodic animation?
VM: With television, the schedules are relentless, so I have to work very fast and there’s little time to breathe in between episodes. There’s usually less space to brainstorm or experiment, compared to when I work on a feature film. But on the other side of the coin, I’ve found that I can have more opportunity to cultivate recurring themes and develop them through the season, or even inter-seasonally.
While episodic TV represents a shorter form than a feature-length film, in aggregate the show provides a larger canvas on which to paint musical pictures.
Where did you get inspiration for the music on ‘Tom & Jerry’?
VM: Early on, the show’s director, Darrell Van Citters, expressed an interest in having the music continue the tradition of Scott Bradley. So I spent some time studying his old scores and his approach.
Bradley had a keen sense of story, humor, irony, timing, and drama. I’ve been trying to preserve that, while expanding the range of expression and having all the music I write sound like me, and reflect my musical voice and vision. Ultimately, the inspiration comes from the stories and the way the animation is drawn/rendered.
My goal is to add emotional depth to what are literally two-dimensional characters, so that the audience becomes more invested in them and really cares what happens. As with any music score for visual media, the key is to draw the audience into the story and the characters and the situations they’re experiencing. But with Tom & Jerry, there’s an added dimension because the music doesn’t simply affect and reflect the characters—it functions as a primary character itself.
How closely do you work with the animators, as there’s no dialogue in this incarnation of ‘Tom & Jerry’?
VM: Actually, there is dialogue in this new version. The main characters never speak, but most of the ancillary characters do. I had expected to work closely with the animators and the director before starting the show, but for the most part they send me final animation and I have carte blanche on the music.
On occasion I’ll get some notes from the director, but at this point it has become pretty rare. Interestingly, Warner Bros. has yet to give me any notes (knock on wood!).
As of today, we’re some 30 episodes into the show (now on my second season) and I have a good sense of what he wants to hear and I think he trusts my judgment. There’s one notable deviation from this, however: Sometimes the director asks me to pre-score a scene before it’s animated; or they need a song written that will be performed by an on-screen character. In this case, there’s quite a bit of interaction as the music will directly affect what the animators do and what the voice-over talent will do. The interaction is exciting, so I try to invite it when appropriate.
You began to show strong interest in music from age 3. How did your parents react to that?
VM: I came from a very academic background (my father was a university professor, quite acclaimed in his field), so there was always an assumption that I would establish a career in a more traditional math/science-related profession. My parents encouraged my musical leanings, but I think they assumed music would remain a leisurely pursuit.
For some reason, I always had music pouring out of me, even as a small child. I continually had a tune in my head, or was tapping out complex rhythms on any surface I could find, even when I was supposed to be doing something else. So I think it was inevitable that I had to focus my life on making music, despite pressures and expectations to do something else.
What are the main differences between working on music for live-action, and animation?
VM: Most of the live-action scoring I’ve done has been for independent films, usually serious dramas or documentaries. In those contexts, it’s necessary for the composer to exercise restraint and carefully calibrate how much to say musically. It’s important to know when you shouldn’t comment on something, or how to do it subtly.
Modern audiences are very sensitive to being manipulated by music, so I try very hard to integrate my music in the film so that it feels like it’s cut from the same cloth. There are times when I want a strong melody or musical gesture to be noticed by the audience, but only insofar as it advances the creative vision of the director.
Much of the time, the goal is for the music to function while the audience is unaware they’re even hearing it. With Tom & Jerry, the music is pretty much always playing melody and counterpoint, and the notion of subtlety goes out the window. I’m stringing every visual action with musical phrasing, and every emotion expressed by the characters gets overt amplification by soaring strings, brass, and woodwinds.
The goal here is to magnify the direct slapstick humor, while adding layers of foreshadowing, satire, and allegory to make the animation richer. So in many ways, the dramatic feature films and documentaries I’ve scored represent the opposite end of the film score continuum relative to Tom & Jerry.
After Tom & Jerry, would you work on more animation projects?
VM: I’d love to work on more animation projects. Ideally, given my background in feature films, I’d love to do animated features. But television is great, too. The regular pace can actually be an asset.
You studied Electrical Engineering in university. At what point did you decide to be a composer, and what process did you follow?
VM: I chose to be a composer long before I entered engineering school. I had been writing music since I was around 7 years old, and it was a huge part of my life throughout my childhood and teen years. When I was 8, I saw Hitchcock’s North by Northwest on television, and was captivated by Bernard Herrmann’s score; that’s when I realized film scoring had to be in my future.
At age 15, I studied jazz performance at the Berklee College of Music. But at the same time, I led a kind of dual existence because I also had a strong background in math, science, literature, and history—and cultural expectations insinuated I should follow a more conventional path. So at age 16, I entered Georgia Tech, where as an undergrad, I majored in Electrical Engineering (and got a minor in Economics, while playing in the university jazz band and pursuing many other musical diversions).
In graduate school, I studied engineering and applied physics, and worked as an electrical engineer a large Fortune 500 company. All the while, I wanted to focus on music, but the trappings of bourgeois customs proved to be a consistent impediment. Finally, in 2000 I entered a national film scoring competition, and I won the grand prize—which gave me the opportunity to score a silent feature film restoration for TCM/Warners, which was then followed by five more film score commissions from them. In 2008 I was given a film scoring fellowship by the Sundance Institute, which then led to my scoring several independent features. My colleague, Dan Blessinger (a marvelous recording/mix engineer and musician/songwriter), who I met while working on the TCM features, recommended me for the Tom & Jerry gig, and that’s what brought me here.
In essence, I’ve followed a fairly circuitous route to realize my goals as a composer, and it’s not one I’d recommend to others, by the way. But we each take our own path, and it helps make us who we are.
Follow Abdulkareem Baba Aminu on Twitter: @Kareem_Real