¡Ay Caramba! Interview with “The Simpsons” composer Alf Clausen

“This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen since Halley’s comet collided with the moon.” The Bridge Recording studio in Glendale greeted Alf Clausen and the Local 47 orchestra to “The Simpsons”  500th scoring session with giant golden celebratory balloons adorning the entrance. Alf posed beneath them holding the Certificate of Honor presented to him by Local 47 President Vince Trombetta on behalf of the musicians union. photo by Linda Rapka

‘The Simpsons’ orchestra and Alf Clausen celebrate 500 episodes

by Linda Rapka

“The Simpsons” celebrated a landmark achievement in television history last month, airing its 500th episode Feb. 19.

The momentous scoring session took place Feb. 3 at the Bridge Recording studio in Glendale, which greeted the musicians with giant golden celebratory balloons spelling out “500” on either side of the entrance.

Since the first show aired in 1989, the animated series quickly achieved critical acclaim and worldwide adoration. Now in its 23rd season, it holds the title for longest-running situation comedy ever on TV.

At creator Matt Groening’s insistence, every weekly episode since the show’s inception features an orchestra of around 35 live musicians — an aspect of television becoming more of an anomaly as series aim to cut costs by replacing living musicians with synthesizers. Critics and fans alike widely attribute the music as a huge factor in the show’s great success. The orchestra, comprised entirely of Local 47 union musicians, has recorded nearly 15,000 individual pieces of music and more than 28,000 takes over the course of the series, the most music ever composed for a primetime series.

Composer Alf Clausen has composed 483 of the 500 “Simpsons” scores, starting with the first “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episode in 1990. He has received two Emmy awards and 21 additional nominations for his work on the show, winning for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Music and Lyrics two years in a row. Having received seven other Emmy nods for work on other shows, totaling 30 overall, Clausen has received more nominations than any other musician.

For the past 23 years, Clausen has composed a new score for every episode, writing during the week and recording on a Friday. The limited timeframe often proves challenging; Clausen was once required to write 57 musical cues in one week. For episodes featuring original songs, the musical production takes much longer — up to seven or eight months — recording once before the animators complete the scene and again with a full orchestra.

With “The Simpsons” currently signed on to create new episodes for another two years, it looks like the history-making is far from over for both the series and the composer. Alf Clausen reflects on his 22 years (and counting!) working on the most beloved animated series in television history.

 

Harpist Gayle Levant, who has worked with Alf for the past twenty-something years, presented Alf and the orchestra with a special cake, complete with an image of “Simpsons Alf.” photo by Linda Rapka

Is it true you almost didn’t take “The Simpsons” gig?
“That’s true. I had just finished composing the scores for all four seasons of ABC’s ‘Moonlighting,’ and I was more interested in pursuing my composing career in long-form drama and feature films. In my first ‘Simpsons’ interview, creator Matt Groening told me, ‘We don’t look upon our show as being a cartoon, but as a drama where the characters are drawn. We’d like it scored that way. Can you do that?’ His interesting outlook was enough to convince me to take the job.”

How long did you initially expect the show would last? Did you ever think you’d be able to say you’ve scored 500 episodes?
“I had no expectations at first. When the series started in 1989, the ultimate quest of the day was to shoot for 100 episodes, the usual qualifier to move a television series into syndication. I guess we topped that!”

Having done the same show nearly every week for the past 22 years, do you ever have a hard time keeping things interesting or inspiring for yourself?
“It’s a challenge. I constantly strive to keep things musically interesting. I think the fans appreciate that. The thrill of having my scores recorded by a 35-piece orchestra made up of the best players in the world is usually enough to keep me inspired.”

Working together week in, week out for so long, I imagine a strong level of camaraderie has developed between you and the orchestra.
“We’re like a big family, having fun together at our weekly reunion. The family is sometimes dysfunctional (laughs), but any conflicts get settled quite quickly. We enjoy each other’s company, and that vibe is reflected in the quality of the orchestra’s performance on each episode.”

At the 500th session, you took time to make special mention of some musicians with whom you’ve worked for decades. In what other capacities have you worked together?
“Trombonist Bob Payne, trumpet player Gary Grant and recently retired percussionist Jules Greenberg were all part of my ‘Donny & Marie Show’ band in 1976. They have been an integral part of every show I’ve recorded since then. Many other members of my ‘Simpsons’ orchestra have worked for me for over 25 years.”

Are you game for 500 more?
“D’oh!”

Originally published by Professional Musicians, Local 47 Overture, March 2012

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