Engineer of Note
Stephanie Diani
 Engineer of Note
Word of composer Vivek Maddala's talent got out through silent movies.

By Kimberly Link-Wills

Vivek Maddala was developing audio technologies for cinematic applications when he tapped out a tango on his computer keyboard.

Maddala, EE 95, was one of 200 hopefuls to enter the inaugural Young Film Composers Competition in 2000 by writing music for a silent movie clip. Maddala's "Tanguero," composed to accompany a Rudolph Valentino dance sequence in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," won the grand prize, a one-shot deal to write the score for the modern-day release of the 1921 silent film "The Ace of Hearts" on Turner Classic Movies and on a Warner Brothers DVD compilation of Lon Chaney movies.

"I had no way to break into film scoring. It's a very exclusive club," Maddala says. "The Young Film Composers Competition is unusual, if not unique, in that it is a way to recognize someone solely based on the quality of their craft."

In a documentary about the Young Film Composers Competition included on "The Lon Chaney Collection" set of DVDs, lead judge Don Ray trumpets Maddala's "tremendous sense of life" and says Turner Classic Movies was lucky to find him.

Apparently, Turner and Warner Brothers executives agreed. Since acing the competition, Maddala has scored five more silent films, including the latest, director King Vidor's 1924 "Wild Oranges," which debuted on Turner Classic Movies in November.

"A silent film score is more like a ballet in the sense that there's the visual component and then there's the music. A silent film score has to engage the audience and maintain their interest in the movie and sustain a certain amount of energy. It also has to comment on the characters and it has to speak for them. It has to inform the audience as a third-party observer to the story on screen and reveal details that maybe wouldn't be revealed otherwise.

"I was always interested in the way music can heighten the dramatic effect, even when I was in middle school watching 'Miami Vice,' the juxtaposition of this Phil Collins song with this dramatic moment. Music has a lot of power in terms of being able to manipulate people's emotions. In a sense, that's what I do as a film composer. I manipulate people's emotions."

Maddala intended to be both an engineer and a composer all along. "I studied electrical engineering because it seemed like a pretty good marriage of my interest in music from a signal-processing standpoint and my interest in math and physics," he says.

"After college I was working as a hardware design engineer at Tektronix. Then in '97 I got a call from Tom Scholz, the leader of Boston, asking if I was interested in joining the band. The band's manager knew me from some work I had done in the industry. When I was in high school I did a lot of recording at studios in Florida. It varied from TV commercials to a bunch of tracks for an album I wanted to release," he says.

Maddala, a toddler when "More Than a Feeling" hit No. 5 on the Billboard chart in 1976, was 23 when he went on the road with the band out of Boston. "We released the greatest hits record in June of '97, then did a U.S. tour. It was very 'Spinal Tap'-ish. It was crazy how the line between reality and satire was so blurred," he says.

"I was sort of the miscellaneous guy. I did a little bit of Hammond organ, a little bit of guitar. Mainly one of the reasons they hired me was that I was both an engineer and a musician. I actually designed a lot of the stage gear. It was grueling, probably more so because of the, dare I say, 'unique' position that I was in as both a musician and an engineer. I was responsible for every piece of gear on the stage. I had to have the schematics for every piece of gear and understand how it worked and how to fix it. My hours were something like 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. every day. I'd sleep on the tour bus.

"I think it made me a better engineer. One of the cool things about studying engineering at Georgia Tech is it really helps train your mind to think analytically, which is useful in any field, whether it's in engineering or the arts."

©2007 Georgia Tech Alumni Association

A Vintage Career

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