Grammy Nominee Eric Alexandrakis: On “Psychogenic Fugue” and Scoring for Film & TV

Eric Alexandrakis is becoming well-known in the world of film and television as a master of sound for his unique approach to film scoring. With a newfound 2019 GRAMMY® nomination for Best Spoken Word Album (I.V. Catatonia: 20 Years as a Two-Time Cancer Survivor), his innovative approach to music is garnering plenty of attention. 

Alexandrakis isn’t a newcomer. His film “Psychogenic Fugue” starring John Malkovich, directed by Sandro Miller made the Cannes Lions Shortlist in 2017. Psychogenic Fugue (2017) also opened the Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena this November and is taking the world by storm. There’s an undeniable visual draw to Malkovich’s various iterations of Lynch’s characters. 

Imitation, re-creation, or commentary?

It’s fascinating to watch Malkovich seamlessly step into so many personalities against Eric Alexandrakis’ score, which punctuates the highs and lows of each scene. Together, the film begs the question: is imitation truly the highest form of flattery?

In an early vignette, Malkovich appears swaying on the stage in a white dress and facial prosthesis. The soundscape evokes remembrances of a carnival and then turns dark, as a pipe organ’s vibrato amps up — sounding much like a funeral service. Malkovich begins to lip-synch “in heaven, everything is fine,” (Alan Spiet, 1977). It’s an unsettling recreation of Lady in the Radiator, but it’s meant to be. This isn’t a feel-good film, but it’s brilliant nonetheless. 

Like the original, the scene is shot in black and white. The defining characteristics are almost identical, down to the floral sash perched on the left side of Malkovich’s dress. In fact, the only notable change is the singer’s voice. In the old version, she had a slight southern drawl, but keeping in step with the zeitgeist, that’s gone now. She sounds a bit like Halsey. 

The Lady in the Radiator is singing about heaven, but viewers unfamiliar with Lynch’s work can’t help but wonder if she is actually in hell. Is that radiator dust that hardened on her face? Maybe heaven is just a state of mind where nothing bothers you? Yet, if things that should bother you don’t — isn’t that a kind of hell? 

Transcendence and post-surrealism 

John Malkovich is both unsettling and calculated in his genius. The film has transcendent qualities, which reach far beyond the realm of performance art and well into metaphysics. Similar to much of David Lynch’s personal focus on transcendental meditation, the viewer is forced to question the reality portrayed on the screen against the backdrop of his or her own life. Eric Alexandrakis does this with sound.

While some might describe Lynch’s films as surrealist, they also utilize a healthy dose of post- surrealism. Arguably, there is wide representation of what most film and art critics dub the unconscious (Voorhies, 2004). Both Lynch and Alexandrakis create wonder and explore analogy, and thus make the viewer aware of his or her own deconstruction of the viewing process. Wonder is a defining characteristic of post-surrealism, according to Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson (Kinkel, 2019). 

David Lynch arguably uses these devices first discussed at length by Helen Lundeberg. More specifically, both Lynch and Alexandrakis draw from what is often referred to in art literature as New Classicism ( Fort, 2017). Lynch’s aesthetic undoubtedly draws focus towards the viewers’ experience of analogy as well as the sequence in which images are presented. More importantly, Lynch’s films force the viewer to confront the conceptual and perceptual, simultaneously. Somehow, Alexandrakis manages to do this with sound.   

Appropriately, Psychogenic Fugue (2017) was created to support the David Lynch Foundation. It makes the viewer wonder through subtle and direct cinematographic nuances. Behind this new work, at its underbelly, is the use of film as a tool for transcendence: film impersonating film. In fact, Psychogenic Fugue (2017) began in many ways as a re-exploration (or re-invention) of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  

It is no surprise that Eric Alexandrakis would be attached to this groundbreaking project. In 2018, Alexandrakis co-writing with Pennan Brae, became a Gold Award Winner at the Queen Palm International Film Festival. In 2019, he nabbed a nomination for Best Song at the Solaris Film Festival. Yet, when it comes to the success of Psychogenic Fugue (2017), Alexandrakis’ forward momentum seems to be a combination of tremendous readiness, meticulous planning, deep talent, and an ability to truly take in his surroundings on a level that many people do not. 

Making the man behind the movie

Photo credit: Eric Alexandrakis, album cover

Much of Eric’s life reads like a log-line to a popular film. His grandfather was killed by Nazis and his father went on to found the University of Crete. Eric has battled Hodgkins two times, so he knows what it’s like to put everything on the line. His songs are reflective, abstract and narrative, at times. His work is like an audible tableau.

I.V. Catatonia: 20 Years as a Two-Time Cancer Survivor, for which Alexandrakis received a 2019 GRAMMY® nomination, isn’t necessarily an uplifting (though he intends it to be one). The soundscape is filled with elements that evoke visceral, colorful, and often unpleasant emotions. Yet, nothing about the project is uninspired or trite. In Psychogenic Fugue (2017) Alexandrakis uses the medium of sound to amplify the truths that lay beyond the illusory elements of film.    

Eric vs Hodgkins

Alexandrakis mentions, when reminiscing about his first battle with cancer, that while he didn’t have pain, initially — he also didn’t have health insurance. Thus, the album also addresses socially relevant issues.

Eric’s treatment was punctuated by the love and care of family and friends. However, he notes, “my greatest companion was music…especially the 4-track recorder I recorded the music on. I never asked ‘why me’, and I still don’t…why anyone?”  

Photo Credit: Heather Jackson
Eric Alexandrakis mixing at The Blasting Room Studios

There is much that goes along with being sick. Beyond the cost of treatments lies an innate need to find meaning and purpose in seemingly random hardship. While many films give viewers a resolution to their misfortune (usually true love), David Lynch’s films don’t always do that. In fact, post-surrealist movies (which are making a comeback), toy with the somewhat nihilistic notion that there may be no point to anything. Viewers must construct meanings for these films, just as they must construct purpose for their own lives. 

Some of Eric’s audio for his latest album was extracted from a “microcassette recorder in my shirt pocket,”as he puts it. There was no special process of washing the sound. Eric does, however, have a favorite microphone: “Well, the best mic is of course a [Neumann] u87, but believe it or not, I use [Shure] SM57’s, SM58’s mostly. I generally get asked to do things for my sound, rather than something else, so I can use whatever I want, which is a nice luxury, and don’t have to spend loads on a lot of gear. I’m very minimalistic.”  

Early Eric

Photo Credit: Unknown. Young Eric Alexandrakis pictured.

Eric Alexandrakis attended the University of Miami where he double-majored in Public Relations and English Literature. He also received a Masters degree in Music Business. But how does that translate into a career behind the sound of the silver screen?

“In sixth grade I was the lead in the play and played every instrument in the band and was in the chorus,” Alexandrakis explains. He also began playing classical piano at the age of six. 

“My earliest memory is in my crib hearing Wendy Carlos playing Bach,” Alexandrakis recalls. 

Music and imagery formed an innate symbiotic relationship within Alexandrakis from almost the beginning. “I’m very much a creative character and interested in pretty much everything. I’m always looking for answers and I’m always open to questions,” Alexandrakis quips.  

Photo Credit: Claudie Miller
Sandro Miller, John Malkovich, Eric Alexandrakis

Bright ideas

“Psychogenic Fugue went through several iterations before the final product. I approached the David Lynch Foundation with a concept [which included Sandro, John and I] for their 10 year anniversary. It began with John dressed as David Lynch performing one of David’s songs live, then as a music video, and then as a dream scenario with John playing David’s characters. When we got the green light, Sandro and I did a crash refresh on all of David’s films within one week.” Alexandrakis notes.

“I did the score, but we also had a few pieces from Angelo Badalamenti, The Flaming Lips, and a few others as well,” Alexandrakis mentions. Badalamenti is well known for composing the Twin Peaks (1990) soundtrack. “I just love how Sandro directed it, and of course John’s incredible performances.”

“Psychogenic Fugue was shot in Chicago…I made the music the way I thought a modern Lynch film would go, but with my own twist. On the first day of shooting I was waiting at a baggage claim and it was making a crunchy rusty sound, which I recorded on my phone and used in the end credits,” Alexandrakis comments. 

Who is David Lynch?

David Lynch is a three-time Academy Award nominee. He’s best known for making surrealist films like Blue Velvet (1986), Eraserhead (1977), Mulholland Drive (2001) and the early 90s Twin Peaks series. More importantly, Lynch is widely acclaimed for filling his films with characters that seem almost like caricatures at times. 

Lynch frequently explores themes like violence set against the backdrop of the mundane. Yet, his work is more than a study of contrasts. In many cases, Lynch arguably seeks to redefine what we see as beauty, which in turn means that he simultaneously reshapes society through his work. Alexandrakis does the same.

Lynch, Malkovich, Sandro and Alexandrakis all seem to share a singular commonality — they are essentialists, making art for art’s sake. As David Lynch says in the documentary film, The Art of Life (2017), “I think that when you do something, the past can conjure those ideas, like the past colors them.“ 

Alexandrakis has created the musical equivalent of Lynch’s reflections of vast dreamscapes with surrealist flares. His work is both a recreation of the world as it is and the world as we would prefer it to be. Alexandrakis’ endless curiosity translates to scoring that is vibrant, yet mysterious and jarring. He often seems to leave the audience with unanswered questions, challenging them to find their own resolution.  

Scoring for film & TV

Alexandrakis has a unique approach to scoring for film and television. More than simply drawing from music theory, he garners inspiration from everything: abstract art, the sounds of everyday life, each experience and every person he encounters. His environment is an endless source of experimentation and wonder.

Like famous composer David Glass notes, “A new language requires a new technique. If what you’re saying doesn’t require a new language, then what you’re saying probably isn’t new.” Alexandrakis offers the film world a type of scoring we’ve never heard before.

Grit and determination

Generally speaking, scoring for film and television can be quite demanding. While film editors often have a predetermined timeline for splicing and rearranging cuts, musicians who score movies must often do so in just a month or two. Special consideration must be made when working on a series of commissions. 

When you’re making music for film, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one, as a musician, you’re no longer the leading lady. It’s your job to accentuate the pace and emotional highs and lows of the movie. Your music exists to assist people in feeling whatever the film’s images are meant to evoke. Some of your main characters might have a melody or tune that is specific to them. Maybe you’ll play it (with a little variation), every time they appear on screen. Generally speaking, this means you’ll need access to — and the ability to play — more than just one or two instruments.

Film Scoring Basics    

You’ll need to build central melodies for the film and then use different variations of them throughout the movie. Additionally, you’ll need to map out the film and take copious notes on areas that need great emphasis. You’ll collaborate with the director (and sometimes producers) to make sure that your final product matches their vision of how the film should look and sound. When a movement doesn’t fit what’s on the screen, it will need to be shelved (or maybe even trashed). 

One of the most important things to remember when scoring for film and TV, is to timestamp your notes. When does an important scene start and end? When does the climax begin? Are there jump-scares or fake-outs that build tension? You’ll need to write pieces within the very precise time constraints of these events.

Another great technique involves marking out the plot points of the film and creating musical accompaniment that moves in a simultaneous arc. You’ll need to have things like tempo and key signatures at the forefront of your mind. If you’re not a music aficionado, you’ll need to find someone who is — as well as a large library of royalty-free music to draw from. A word to the wise: Always give credit to creators, and check the upload source. In other words, make sure you aren’t violating any copyright laws.   

Final considerations

Eric Alexandrakis has a few words for young filmmakers and music students. “Strive to be extraordinary,” he says. “Everyone thinks they are, but are they really…Also, digest everything in every art form, learn the business so that you can sign your own agreements, get everything in writing, practice your craft every day, don’t settle down with a family until you are established because you can’t have two spouses, don’t fully trust anyone until they earn that trust, make friends with lawyers, and have a focus, and an incremental plan.”

In closing, for Alexandrakis, music for film and TV is more than simply adding a bit of emotional color to a moment or two. “Music isn’t just a paintbrush, but it can be a character. Like when you hear John Williams in Star Wars…they are themes, but they are also a personality/presence you feel within the action,” Alexandrakis notes.

Regardless of if you are a video creator with a flair for the musical or not, life happens against some kind of soundtrack — the sound of a lover’s footsteps as he walks away for the last time, an infant’s first cry, even the sound of a wooden baseball bat smacking a ball when your boy makes his first home run. As we live our lives, sounds are experienced simultaneously with images, and film both explores and imitates this curious aspect of daily life. 

Fredrick Nietzsche was correct when he famously noted that, “without music, life would be a mistake.” Film and music are forever interconnected. So, when you’re creating your masterpiece, don’t forget the score.  

Julian Kelly
Julian Kelly
Julian Kelly is an aficionado of all things Videomaker and fine art. She first began her career as a professional musical theatre performer in the production Dreamgirls and has toured nationally with numerous shows. Her song "Falling Leaves" was Grammy balloted in 2018, but failed to receive a nomination. Julian segued into film after starring in the Pindar Films movie “The Devil’s Courthouse,” as Amber. Parlaying this into a career behind the camera, Julian then directed and produced the documentary film “Almost Family”. She is a prolific author and has written for Backstage and Actor Tips. She currently owns and operates Elevation Prints from her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland and sometimes writes horror novels under the pseudonym Alex Cooper, just to shake things up.

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