L.A.’s Power Keyboard Couple

Every morning, like any typical married couple, they wake up, drink their coffee, read the paper, and go to work.
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By Richard Leiter

Susan Marder and Rich Ruttenberg on Soundtrack Success

Every morning, like any typical married couple, they wake up, drink their coffee, read the paper, and go to work. Susan Marder sits down at the Yamaha C7 to compose a network TV theme or score, and Rich Ruttenberg heads off to the studio to play keyboards on The Simpsons or the latest Toy Story movie. Later, they’ll have dinner, rent a movie, work on their latest CD, and go to sleep. The next day they start the same old grind all over again.

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Grind? Clearly, Susan and Rich are living the dream, working with the best talent in the country, and making high-level music all day. They got there by working incredibly hard and taking a leap of faith.

Rich Ruttenberg studied music at the University of Indiana and played clubs in Chicago before he took that leap and moved to Los Angeles, a familiar showbiz career story. A devastatingly capable player—he transcribes Charlie Parker solos in all keys the way some people do Sudoku —he made himself invaluable on scoring sessions.

“The last thing any composer wants to hear is, ‘This is unplayable,’” Rich says. “So no matter what they require . . . you can do it. Sight-read any ridiculous part? Sure! Pull up a patch of three blind Dobro-ists playing underwater? Got it right here!” Susan echoes that sentiment: “When a producer asks for something, no matter how much you disagree, just do it. If it’s wrong, they’ll recognize it, and you’ll catch it in the rewrite.”

Susan Marder made the leap to Los Angeles a few years later. Although she demures, she’s no slouch as a player herself. You can hear her cool grooves and irresistible voicings on her new CD, Talk to Somebody, which features first-call players such as Abe Laboriel and Dean Parks and falls somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Donald Fagen in style and savvy. You can also just turn on TNT’s Saving Grace or Lifetime’s Any Day Now.

What do Susan and Rich enjoy most about their respective gigs? “For me, it’s seeing the film and just having the music come out of me,” says Susan. “It’s amazing. I may not be great at some other things, but I’m never at a loss for ideas.” For Rich, “It’s getting to play with all these legendary musicians: people like Mark Isham, Larry Bunker, and Jerry Hey. For years in the big scoring sessions, I’d sit behind this violinist who we all called Izzy. One day he wasn’t there. He’d retired. Somebody said to me, ‘Do you know who Izzy was? He used to be Stravinsky’s concertmaster.’ There’s no feeling in the world like sharing the room with these people who are way deeper than you ever knew.”

How to Score at Scoring

Want to make it in the competitive world of film and TV music? Start by following the rules that Susan and Rich have learned from experience.

1. The correct response to any client’s request is “Yes.”

2. Never work in the same room at the same time as your partner, until the final mix.

3. While viewing the rough cut with the director or producer, always smile.

4. When playing a session on someone else’s dime, resist the urge, with every fiber of your being, to ask for another take.

5. If something is funny, don’t try to write “funny” music.

6. If something really is physically unplayable, secretly edit it down and play that. Chances are, it’ll be covered up anyway.

7. If you work with your life partner, keep your studio face on. Your loved one needs a top producer/keyboardist/composer at that moment, not a spouse.

8. Watch TV to check out the competition.

*Click here for transcriptions of Susan and Rich's motifs, with audio examples.