The key to creating unforgettable sonic branding for advertisers is that it has to be honest, you cannot sell to salesmen. One of the great things about working with advertising people is that they have a good nose for bullshit and if you’re not really intuitive, or not into the culture of the product, they will know it. Once you get into a crème de la crème commercial, like these gorgeously animated commercials we’ve done for United Airlines, you know that you’ve got to be as good as legendary John Williams is in what he does. ——Liz Myers, award-winning commercial composer
Earlier this year on my way to New York from LA, I was watching a screener of the multiple Academy Award winning movie, The Revenant, in the United Airlines’ lounge area. From the moment I’d woken up, I’d been listening to music — from the radio at home, to music on my phone, to listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s resonant score for The Revenant.
I thought of how music provides the soundtrack to our lives. How much it pervades our life, and how even the quality of commercial music has progressed. Gone are the days of mindless “Muzak” on elevators or in malls.
Sitting in that lounge, I thought back to when it all changed. And coincidentally, I was reminded of those great United Airlines animated commercials which began airing a couple of years after 9/11, and which featured very heartfelt music scoring and beautiful animation. One was called ‘A Life,’ which told a story of a man’s life in sixty seconds, and ended with the tagline, “It’s Time To Fly.” I recognized Robert Redford’s sonorous voice-over but wondered who did the very affecting music, so I sought out the anonymous composers who were behind it.
Let me introduce you to Liz Myers, who’s part of the LA-based Trivers-Myers Music team, a prodigiously talented tandem who’ve produced gold and platinum records, iconic TV themes and award-winning scores for films and commercials.
A classically trained pianist and composer with a Masters Degree in Music, gracious and well-traveled Myers studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in France. She then dramatically kicked off her award-winning, multi-layered career as the musical director of the Broadway show Grease — where she met her partner, John Trivers.
Of the United campaign for A Life, which premiered on the Academy Awards and won about every award possible, including the Clio for Best Music Adaptation, she explains:
The agency wanted to use animation, because it wasn’t about real people but about the aspirations of all people. And you can do things with animation that you can’t do with live action, creating an environment where everyone relates to it and is drawn in. We were the composers on this, and the arrangers of Rhapsody in Blue. ‘A Life’ was mostly me playing the piano solo. We also composed the music for ‘Heart,’ another touching animated work: A woman has to travel and she leaves a cutout heart with her husband. While musicians Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock recorded it, for us it was about honestly telling both those metaphorical narratives through music.
Stuart D'Rozario, CEO of BD’D agency, adds, "Liz Myers's exquisite, thoughtful, and appropriate arrangements brought to life these intimate animated stories."
While one can instantly recognize Sakamoto’s style in The Revenant, Myers similarly says about their own style:
With our music, we’re known as organic composers — or anti-jingle — because we actually play the instruments and tell the story. Like a silent movie has a pianist scoring the film, we do that from start to finish. It’s not just dots, it’s actually music. Often we turn off the film and make sure that our music stands on its own. Our strong suit is that it’s melodic and could be sung. And because I’m deeply classically trained, we’re also able to get a really powerful sound that’s organic, even from ninety piece orchestra.
Myers and Trivers’ first collaborative commercial effort began with Apple Macintosh in 1984. Soon they were helping to create corporate identities for international clients such as American Express, Verizon, Qwest, Nissan, Chrysler, Wells Fargo, Mastercard and United Airlines. She also co-wrote the theme for the CBS Evening News.
Myers loves to interpret ideas for clients who really care about their image, and that’s exemplified in an ongoing Cedars-Sinai radio commercial:
Because cleanliness is a number one theme in hospitals, they wanted the music to sound really fresh. So we came up with this marimba-like sound that was almost watery. It was challenging and fun to do.
Another beautiful ongoing project that’s elevated by their music is the gorgeous animation, As the River Flows, created for the River Otter Ecology Project by Little Fluffy Clouds of San Francisco. It features beautifully haunting music composed by Trivers-Myers and voice-over by Peter Coyote. In October, this film featured in several film festivals and was a finalist for Best Animation at the Wildlife VAASA Festival in Finland.
Myers also has a secret agenda regarding women composers. She calls this “the Year of Woman” in part because “Hillary Clinton has brought about this acceptance of a woman running things and we’re all going to be okay, and hopefully even better than okay.” But also because Myers teaches an ongoing course “Composition for Commercials” at UCLA Extension (in January) and she enthuses:
There is a problem in classical music today, that women’s compositions do not get programmed. Not at all. I’ve been a real proponent for female composers, and hope people become more aware of the bias and give them more opportunities.
Myers quips that “anonymous composers like myself often have more airplay than the Metropolitan Opera,” but she sees benefits:
I don’t think you could say my music is obviously written by a woman. But women are somewhat more keyed into emotions, which may make them better composers. Music makes you feel something. But a lot of creators use male names to break through walls, like JK Rowling. And, music by its very nature is already neutral and that’s what’s fabulous about anonymity.