They Shoot, He Scores

Tom Phillips '74
Tom Phillips '74

Tom Phillips ’74 started playing piano and composing music when he was 4. This pleased his parents, who believed music would be a wonderful hobby once he became a busy physician.

Fast-forward to his Brandeis years, when the pre-med student quickly abandoned chemistry in favor of English. “That turned out to be one of the smartest decisions I ever made,” Phillips says now. “As an English major at Brandeis, I learned to think,” an important step for any composer developing his chops.

His parents, meanwhile, weren’t very happy, particularly when, after college, Phillips and his wife spent several years in a traveling band, performing Top 40 hits at Ramada Inns and Sheratons.

“My mother’s fear was I’d be a 50-year-old playing nightclubs — or worse, weddings,” says Phillips.
Then, in 1980, he got his first composing job, scoring “Summer Solstice,” a TV movie starring Henry Fonda. “My parents decided I had a future,” says Phillips, who started believing he had a future, too.

These days, Phillips, 60, is an in-demand composer, scoring music for television, film and video, and managing what most would consider a grueling schedule. Up at 3:30 a.m., he runs six or seven miles outside (all year round) with the aid of a headlamp, then lifts weights at a nearby gym. Back by 7:30, he spends the day in his home studio, an electronic nest of computers, sound mixers, control surfaces, keyboards, speakers and racks of assorted gear tucked into a corner of his living room in Westborough, Mass.

Phillips’ scores are as eclectic in tone, melody and instrumentation as his subjects, which include luminescent jellyfish, antiques, dinosaurs, Eleanor Roosevelt, frogs and the birth control pill. He’s scored music for HBO, AMC, Lifetime and the National Geographic Channel.

If you’re a public television fan, you’ve heard Phillips’ music countless times. He composed the theme to “Antiques Roadshow” as well as scores for most of the PBS prime-time lineup, including “The American Experience,” “Nova,” “Nature” and “Frontline.”

Last year, New York’s American Museum of Natural History mounted an exhibition called “Creatures of Light,” which explored bioluminescence in jellies and other fish. To give visitors a rich auditory experience along with the amazing visuals, the museum turned to Phillips, asking him to create its largest music project ever. He wrote and recorded what he calls “an evolving classical symphony.”

In January, “The American Experience” broadcast a three-part series on the development of the abolitionist movement between 1825 and 1865. Phillips spent six months creating the music for “The Abolitionists,” which focused on five leaders of the movement during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

“My goal is to always support the film I’m scoring,” he explains. But that’s much more than just writing pretty tunes. Phillips immerses himself in the characters on the screen. “When I scored ‘The Abolitionists,’ I was writing music for Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.”

— Laura Gardner, P’12