Sergei Stern is a classically trained composer with a rock band background, the composer conductor has an intense interest in the use of electronic music, but also writes rich and affecting symphonic scores for both TV and Cinema. He has scored more than a dozen motion pictures and worked on nearly 100 short films, his music can also be heard in various TV shows and he has also scored video games. His credits include The Envelope (2017) and Queen of Spades 2: Through the Looking Glass (2019) and AK-47 Kalashnikov. He is a composer who I am sure we will be hearing a lot more of.
My thanks to the composer for his time and patience and for answering my many questions so fully. JM.
Can I begin with asking was film music always something that you looked at to becoming a career?
I got into actual film scoring pretty late. First, back in my childhood, I’ve been a pretty good classical pianist. Then I got a bit tired of all that and decided that I want to become a rock star, so I wrote songs, started a rock band, and performed. My first paid musical job was a ringtone arranger and producer and my second one was a songwriter – I wrote songs for artists who just started their careers. Then I felt I was missing classical music, so I did my four years bachelor’s degree in music composition. During that time, I had a pleasure of scoring mobile video games – that was the first job where I wrote music to visuals. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I applied to Columbia College Chicago, since I realized that combining movies and orchestral music could be a dream job, but I still didn’t know how to actually score films. I got accepted to Columbia and that is where my film scoring experience started, back in 2011.
What musical education did you have and were there any instruments that you focused upon more whilst you were studying?
I have seven years of a Russian piano school, four years of Bachelor’s degree in Music Composition, two years of Master’s degree in Music Composition for Screen and two years of a musical theatre education.
As a child were you aware of music at home and are any of your family musical in any way?
My mother is a violin and piano teacher and my father had a rock band back in his college years. Music always has been part of our home culture.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
I think the main purpose of music in film is to trigger something in us, humans, that could not be triggered in any other way than music.
Your latest score is for Dark Web cicada 3301. This has some brilliant orchestration within it, and is filled with a tense and edgy atmosphere, but also has to it a more calming style and sound, and even some easy listening type cues. Did you have any specific instructions from the filmmakers about the score and what percentage of the score was performed by live instruments, and did you perform on the score at all?
Thanks! My main direction was to create a score that has a big, orchestral sound with lots of action for most of the scenes. Alan, the director, is a musician himself and has a great music taste. He had a great reference material already set up for the light, non-orchestral cues and these references were my main guide for those scenes. I tried to come up with something new, of course, and tie up the entire soundtrack into something cohesive, homogeneous although we had at least four different musical styles in our soundtrack. I would say around 30% of it was played by live instruments. I recorded a great violin and cello players for most of the orchestral cues and I played guitar, bass, my hardware synthesizer, some pipes and small percussion for non-orchestral cues myself. I find it much more difficult to do music with non-live instruments since I still have to perform each part with my keyboard and the emotion of the performance of each instrument, I use in my score is dependent on me and me only. I love that challenge!
How many times do you like to see a potential project before you begin to formulate any ideas about style, sound and where music should be placed?
I always ask to read the script first, if I’m fortunate to be hired in the developing stage of the film, as I enjoy getting into the project entirely so I am consumed by it mentally and emotionally, and I’m also curious to see how the script would be portrayed by the director later. I also love to be on set to meet the crew and cast, see the director working, get into the mood of the film creation. I am fascinated by all aspects of filmmaking and I always try to find an excuse to escape my studio to meet people and to breath some air. Nevertheless, all the above usually has a little contribution into the final tone I would use for the soundtrack or almost any music decision I would make later. I find that the final decision for the music tone, music placement etc. is best done after I get the final cut, honestly.
I loved the score for Kalashnikov or AK 47, how did you become involved on the movie, and what size orchestra did you have for the score?
I had worked with Konstantin Buslov, the director and producer of Kalashnikov, before – I had scored Envelope and Queen of Spades 2: Through the Looking Glass movies that he had produced, and he was generous enough to invite me to score this film as well. We used a 40 piece strings orchestra for Kalashnikov, recorded in Moscow.
Do you conduct at all, and if so, do you like to conduct all your film scores, or is this sometimes not possible?
I do conduct. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to travel to Moscow to conduct the Kalashnikov score. We had a brilliant conductor, Alexey Sobolev, who knew the musicians well and had a direct communication with me during the recording. I’d love to conduct some of my work in the future but having a professional conductor is always great when the opportunity and availability are there.
Kalashnikov or AK 47 has some sweeping and dramatically lush sounding cues, plus there are as many emotive interludes, do you orchestrate all your own music, and do you feel that orchestration is an extension of the composing process?
Yes, I always orchestrate my pieces. I feel the orchestration is an essential part of building my sound and I just love to do it.
What composers or artists would you say have influenced you in the way that you create music and add it to film?
As far as classical music, I loved playing Bach while I was a piano school student back in my childhood – he was my favorite composer back then and stays one my favorites still. Later I got into Romantic composers, especially French and Russian ones, and during my college years I got into 20th century composers. Now I listen mostly to Baroque – these guys can really move me. Besides academic music, I enjoy probably all the music styles there are in existence. I find it fascinating to get deep into a particular style of music – getting to know it and come up with something of my own in that style.
Where are you based? And do you have a preference for any particular studio or recording stage when recording a score for a movie or TV project?
I am based in Los Angeles. So far, I’ve been fortunate to record in Capitol Records, Skywalkers Sound studio, The Village, a few studios in Chicago and Mosfilm Music Studios in Moscow. I enjoyed all of them since each has it’s own, unique flavor. I would love to experience as much studios in the world as possible.
You have scored movies and television shows plus worked on several shorts, and Documentaries, is the composing and scoring process the same for all, or does it varying depending on the size of project and of course the budget?
I find the emotional process is very similar among all of them. The differences for me are more technical and organizational if live players or singers are involved.
You have scored various genres of film, comedy, war, horror etc, would you say that there is a particular genre that is harder to work on than others?
Comedy is probably the trickiest as humour is such a fluent thing which changes so fast with time, geography, culture, age.
The Chosen Path is one of your most recent scores, will there be a soundtrack CD release or maybe a digital release, and when a score of yours is to be issued onto a recording do you have any input into what cues will make it onto the release?
Yes, we definitely will release this soundtrack. We are in negotiations with a certain label right now for the digital release as well as a CD release. We will talk with the director about the cues that would make it onto the release.
Are you working on anything at this time?
I’m working on three projects right now. A dramedy TV show called Instalife, a martial arts TV show called Dan Show.