Creating Music For A Historical Drama: An Interview With Dane B. Frazier

Dane Bryant Frazier composed the orchestral score for the 2016 Civil War film "Union Bound"
Dane Bryant Frazier composed the orchestral score for the 2016 Civil War film “Union Bound”

Have you ever tried to watch a movie that has no soundtrack? Plots and conflicts may be perfect and paired with dialogue that is realistic, but the film will probably lack the emotional context. Music has a way playing with human emotions, giving us a sense of thrill, satisfaction, or sadness. It sets the mood for a scene in real life or a film, giving us clues of how we should feel at certain points.

The 2016 Civil War film Union Bound masters the challenge of using music to enhance the storyline and draws inspiration from 19th Century music. Dane Bryant Frazier – the composer for the orchestral section of the Union Bound soundtrack – created a beautiful score to support a story of American heroism.

Union Bound is the story of a soldier’s escape from Confederate prison and his journey back north. Along the way, he encounters conflicts of survival, trust, and the universal quest for freedom. “He went to war to the free the slaves, and was freed by them” is a compelling summary of the storyline which is based on the primary source journal of Union soldier, Joseph Hoover. (For more details about the film, please refer to Emerging Civil War’s movie review).

Movies with historical settings have special challenges to use music that enhances the storyline and also seems appropriate for the time period. Dane recognized these difficulties as he approached the soundtrack project, and found some of his composing inspiration in music from the period. Rather than blending popular Civil War songs into the score (a technique which has been done in many films), Dane looked at the classical music from the 1860’s and copied its style and chord structure. He is especially proud of the Concerto which is used during the dinner scene at the Southern woman’s home. Efforts to keep an authentic sound prompted the use of instruments available during the war era (or their modern equivalent).

Establishing musical themes for characters is an important aspect of film scoring. For example, think about Darth Vader’s march in Star Wars (composed by John Williams); that’s very iconic music, and as soon as it begins, an audience knows the man in the dark mask and cape is going to appear. Not all character musical themes are as recognizably iconic as Vader’s March, but most movies have themes for main characters. Union Bound is not an exception to that rule. Joseph Hoover – the Union soldier who is trying to escape – has a theme, which is also used for the Main Theme of the soundtrack.

Dane described the experience of crafting the theme this way: “I knew it needed to be very melodic. Very powerful in the sense that it impacts you, makes you feel like there’s power, and also very emotional. That is how I see it for Joseph; a bold, powerful, emotional, tough, and courageous man.”[i]

Similar to the historical character, Dane is boldly pursuing his dreams and goals. Music has been part of his life from a young age. He learned about musical beat and rhythm with drums and started playing guitar to “make music where there was a melody.”[ii] Dane’s grandparents gave him a keyboard when he was fifteen, and his musical experimentations and composing officially began. Inspired by Lincoln (2012) and other historical movies, Dane had always hoped his first soundtrack would be for a historical piece. Union Bound was Dane’s first official soundtrack, but his not first composing efforts. Interested in filming and creating short movies at home, he wrote “scores” for these projects. Dane also spent time exploring the emotional power of music, writing new music to pair with well-known movie scenes, just to gain experience. Admitting it is difficult to have a favorite instrument, he concluded, “…if I had to choose, it would have to be the piano. You can just do so much with the piano and evoke so many emotions with it. There are 88 keys just sitting there waiting to be played in hundreds of different patterns.”[iii]

Though not a particular history buff, Dane enjoyed the complexity of good historical movies and was intrigued by the composition of their scores. Union Bound’s soundtrack was a dream-come-true project. In December 2014, Union Bound’s film editor Jack Eagen contacted Dane, asking if he would be interested to work on the orchestral score. Responding professionally, Dane expressed his interest and spent two weeks putting together an eight minute music clip to match the video clip he had seen. Time went by, then the report from the film-makers: they really liked what they heard. Dane started composing – fragments, lines, and sheets of music – working non-stop for about three days. He sent six pieces to the editor and producer. They were enthusiastic, describing one of the pieces as “gold.”[iv] From February to July 2015, Dane composed music and worked closely with the music supervisor – Craig Brandwynne – ensuring the musical timing was matching the film action. They had planned to record the music with the North Carolina Symphony, but time constraints forced to create the final score with an orchestral computer program. Admitting that doesn’t come close to the energy of working with real musicians, Dane hopes to conduct an orchestra on future scores.

Tank Jones portrays Jim Young, an African American man searching for the realities of freedom

Dane recalled the first time he saw the film with the orchestral score he had written. “It was really exciting to be there in a theater where my music was being played. It was exciting encouraging, a bit weird, and just surreal. It was hard to focus on the actual film, if I’m honest, because I was just listening to the music and making sure it was correct. I definitely did have thoughts though, where I knew I could have done better than I did and I still believe that now. But that’s not unnatural for me.”[v] His favorite part in the film is Jim’s resolve and departure in the woods. (We can’t say more or we’d have to insert a spoiler alert!)

New musical projects are in the works. Dane is working on another piece and hopes to work with 80-90 musicians to create a masterpiece similar to Through The Journey. Other projects are also in progress, but an appropriately mysteriousness surrounds them, leaving us anxious to read about (and hear!) the new music. Currently, Dane is pursuing a college degree in Web Technologies, admitting that it’s good to have a steady job ahead while waiting for his musical career to soar. He has been considering attending Julliard for further music training in the future. To follow Dane’s adventures and musically successes, please join him on social media: Facebook or Twitter

Through the orchestral soundtrack of Union Bound, Dane Bryant Frazier has created a brilliant composition which helps bring history to life on the big screen. The delicate emotion and courageous power interpreted through the music illuminates the story from journal pages written over 150 years ago. Hopefully, Dane will continue to use his talent to support many fine stories in the years to come. Looking to the future, he commented, “I accept that there will be tough times in this business just like any job, but it is what I have a passion for and there’s nothing else that gives me the same feeling as composing music.”[vi]

Union Bound[i] Professional Interview with Dane Bryant Frazier by Sarah Kay Bierle, May 2016.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] YouTube interview clip, used with permission.

[v] Professional Interview with Dane Bryant Frazier by Sarah Kay Bierle, May 2016.

[vi] Ibid.

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