Alumnus memories meet the new School of Music

16 June 2015

Chris Bremus is a successful film composer. One important step to this career was his education at the School of Music of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Years later, the 37-year-old has returned to the campus to talk about his time at university, about movies, commercials, and about how lucky he has been.

Chris Bremus stands in front of the School of Music's new building. "Wow!," he says. "If only I had started studying ten years later than I did." The sound of violins emerges from the building's rehearsal rooms while the tones of an oboe add a counterpoint. "That's what I really loved about it back then – there's always something going on, you always hear music."

Back then was seven years ago. In 2008, Bremus graduated from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz with a Bachelor's degree in Jazz and Popular Music – in the very same year that the new building for the School of Music was inaugurated. He still had to practice and study in the building in the Binger Schlag just outside the Gutenberg campus. Bremus majored in guitar.

"We jazz musicians used the basement while classical music got the upper floors," he recalls. "That worked quite well." He peeks through a window of the lower floor of the new School of Music but can't make out anything that looks particularly jazz-related. In the light-filled hall are the two great organs of the School of Music. "Fascinating," says Bremus. "Sadly, I know nothing at all about organs."

Providing a special kind of service

Bremus has come from Berlin on his visit to Mainz. The German capital has been his base as a successful film composer for years. His clients include major German television stations and international film companies while he has also sold his music to leading businesses for use in commercials. "What I am doing is providing a kind of service," he says of his profession. "But, of course, in this connection, there is the question of artistic integrity." This is a subject he will coming back to later this afternoon on campus.

Bremus was born in Speyer so he didn't have that far to go when he decided to study in Mainz, though coming back to JGU is special. "I have not been here for years," he admits. "We actually did not spend much time on campus. We came for parties and to eat in the cafeteria." Actually, that is not completely true. Bremus first got enrolled at JGU for Political Science. "But that was just not my cup of tea." It was his passion for music that lured him away.

"At the School of Music I met people who did what they were doing because they were really passionate about it." Bremus is talking about both students and teachers. The interaction was important to him, the close contact. "There were far fewer students than in other subjects. Everyone knew each other." Guests from other countries brought their own traditions with them. "I came into contact with musical forms of which I would never otherwise have been aware and with people who had a completely different musical background. Then we had our classes and we practiced an awful lot. Everything helped broaden my horizon enormously."

A screen adaptation of Goethe's "Werther"

With his broadened horizon and a Bachelor's degree in his pocket, Bremus departed for the Film Academy in Ludwigsburg. There he studied Film Music and Sound Design. "I suppose I should really have studied something a little more practical, such as business management." Film Music doesn't exactly sound like investing in a steady and secure future income. "However, my parents gave me their full and complete support."

And he soon made contacts in the industry. "I was really very lucky. One of my brother's school friends, Christian Rohde, is a film producer. He hung around our house a lot." As it happened, Rohde was also working as a lecturer in Ludwigsburg. "Give me your demo material," he said. "Maybe I can find something for you." Bremus smiles. "I honestly thought I would never hear from him again." But then Rohde contacted him. In 2008, director Uwe Janson was filming a modern-day adaptation of Goethe's classic Die Leiden des jungen Werther for the 3sat television channel. Bremus was commissioned to compose the score. "There were very few constraints associated with the project so I had quite a bit of freedom."

"I had a lucky start," Bremus stresses modestly. "Everything just started to snowball. I kept getting further recommendations, somebody knew someone who knew somebody else..." But there would have been more to it than just that. When you consider the oeuvre that the 37-year-old has produced to date, the one thing that strikes you is his versatility. For the 2012 film Transpapa he composed an original country song while his music for the 2013 documentary feature Helmut Schmidt – Lebensfragen has a very classical feel.

Thrillers, documentaries, commercials

"I'm excited by the wide range of possibilities. I love to compose film music and have composed for Germany’s most famous crime series Tatort. I like to work for documentaries, but also for ads." Commercials represent a particular challenge. "It's no easy task when you need to get to the point very quickly." The message has to be put across in just a few seconds. "It's all about the message. After all, you're supposed to help to sell the product."

After university, Bremus moved to Berlin. "Germany has two movie meccas: Munich and Berlin. I was already in Berlin, I knew people there, so I stayed in Berlin."

Bremus composes using a keyboard directly onto his computer. Depending on the budget, either a digital soundtrack is used or musicians can be brought in, ideally an entire orchestra. "The whole process usually starts with a teleconference, where I try to find out what the director wants. As you can imagine, it's all very subjective. After the first run-throughs, I'm sometimes told: 'I think this is too sad.' And it is only then that I find out that the director was forced to practice violin as a child and has hated the instrument ever since."

Bremus needs to be able to respond to factors like this. He also needs to appeal to the general public, because their tastes and wishes are a particular concern of TV producers who are also obsessed about their audience figures. "I have to try to meet people's expectations but at the same time I try to make sure that I am not selling myself short. It is important to me that I retain my integrity. I would not want to compose for some cheesy TV soap opera just because it pays, although I must admit that those who do that kind of work often do a really excellent job."

Unconventional bestselling crime novels

Bremus has a full order book. He has, for example, a permanent engagement to produce the score for the German TV thriller series Die Toten vom Bodensee. "Some of my colleagues have more free time than they wish to have, especially at the start of the year when relatively little comes in. For me, things are different." Once again he emphasizes: "I've been lucky."

When asked to give an example of one of his projects that he thinks has been particularly successful, Bremus demurs. "Others need to be the judge of that." Then he talks about a current project. This is Der Metzger, a series produced by the German television station ARD based on the best-selling crime novels of Austrian Thomas Raab. "I like stories that are a bit unconventional," adds Bremus. "This one is set in the mountains. Thus, I've tried to compose Alpine music that is a bit offbeat and not so much reminiscent of the classic rock/folk-based sound of the Austrian singer-songwriter Hubert von Goisern. It's turned into a combination of zither, banjo, and much more. I'm pleased about the result and it was a lot of fun."

For Bremus it’s about time to say goodbye to the Gutenberg campus. He is now off to watch the Bundesliga club Mainz 05 play in the soccer stadium on the far side of the university. "Good friends of mine have season tickets. It's become a bit of a tradition for them to invite me to see a game whenever I'm in Mainz." So it would seem there is no end to the luck of JGU alumnus Chris Bremus.