Was music always something that you wanted to follow as a career, or did it come later for you, do you come from a family background that is musical as in are your parents or any siblings etc musical?
Yes, being a composer was always what I wanted to do with my life. I started piano lessons when I was four years old; my parents had a piano and my older brother was already studying and providing me with a lot of inspiration. I was very lucky to have parents that made sure I never gave up my musical studies because even though I always wanted to be a composer, I was a bit rebellious and wanted to study music my own way. In fact, that is why I gravitated toward composing rather than working to become a pianist: I wanted to write my own music much more than I wanted to play other people’s music. I took private piano lessons my whole life and studied saxophone, marimba, conducting, voice, music theory, and composition.
I was not particularly religious growing up, but I did have religious institutions in my life, and they were largely responsible for my music education. I attended a private school that was affiliated with the Moravians, which provided a very community-oriented experience that was centred around music. I was lucky to have access to countless music courses ranging from individual conducting lessons, to madrigal singers, to orchestra and choir. I used to worship classical composers and I still have these composer trading cards that I collected as a child. I didn’t know that my lifelong pursuit of music composition would turn into film scoring, though – that wasn’t on the radar back then – I just wanted to be like my idols, the titans of Western polyphony.
When you are seeing a movie for the first time with a view to scoring it, how many times do you like to see it and how long does it take before you start to formulate any ideas about where the music should be placed and what style of music you think the project requires?
Depending on the project, I might not get to see the movie in its entirety when I start my work. Of course, the dream is to start my work when the director is just starting to think about the project. I have had the opportunity to do that on a few films – I was lucky enough to receive the script and start sketching early on – and those were incredibly rewarding projects. However, since that is not always the stage at which I am brought into a project, I’ve done everything from going scene by scene (as scenes become available) to working on a fully edited film in one shot. In the case of the latest film, Snakehead, I was brought in at the very end, once it was fully edited, and it only took me one viewing to know exactly where I wanted to go with it.
So I started scoring the opening scene without overthinking it because I like to record freshly inspired ideas that reflect my initial reaction as an audience member before I go back later and get deeper into the score. So, for example, with Snakehead, the first scene is very melancholy and transcendent (on the soundtrack the cue is called “We All Have a Past”), and that came to me from just watching the first four minutes and composing to picture without any consideration as to what would happen in the rest of the film. Then, after the director heard that and loved the direction of it, I revised it to start including themes that would be meaningful later in the film. I tend to favor this approach, but it certainly depends on the specifics of the post-production schedule.
Do you ever get a script to look at before starting work on a movie, or is this something that is not helpful because this can change so much in pre-production etc?
While it can certainly change in any stage of production, getting the script earlier is really helpful because the more time you have to create art, the more time you can spend exploring. When a director includes you that early on, they are generally directors who really value the role of music in the film and respect the artistry of the composer. So, I find that when a director brings me on that early, they want to have a dialogue and explore some unique approaches to music together. It is a really wonderful thing, and while it isn’t always possible to do take this route, it is taken as a great compliment when it does happen.
What musical education did you receive and where did you study?
My musical education started very early and my parents were very supportive. I mentioned my pre-collegiate years earlier, but for my first year of university, I went to the University of New Hampshire to study with the late John Rogers who was pioneering counterpoint on computers. I was really interested in counterpoint, and it was all that I really wanted to study. But because my musical education was extensive before I went to college, I placed out of the undergraduate music program at UNH, and I explored other options. I found that Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, had begun offering a combination BA/MA program for music, which allowed students to get their master’s degrees concurrently with their undergraduate degrees. So, I was one of the first students in the US to achieve a joint BA/MA in music in four years. I received my undergraduate degree in music theory and my graduate degree in music composition. However, I do want to mention that a large part of my education was actually received in the field. I think that is true of many vocations, but in film scoring and music production, the recording studio taught me as much as reading counterpoint treatises.
2021 has been a very busy year for you. As well as the release of Snakehead, I see you have worked on The Card Counter and Laser Candy, as well as Raul Paul’s drag race all-stars—can you tell us something about the score for Laser Candy, and how you became involved on the score for this movie?
Absolutely! Laser Candy has just been renamed A.I. Love You and will be on Netflix in the coming months. I am incredibly excited about the film, not just because it is on Netflix and will have a broad global reach, but also because it is a really fun and sweet movie. It is a sci-fi rom-com, which is a rather unexplored sub-genre, and I was happy to utilize a lot of musical styles that I don’t usually get to work into feature films. I was actually brought onboard to do the film by one of the producers who I have worked with on a number of commercials and pilots, Heawon Chung. He is a brilliant cinematographer and also one of the hardest-working cross-continental producers I know.
He introduced me to the visionary director of A.I. Love You, Stephan Zlotescu, and the rest was history. Although, as I am saying this, we are still finalizing deliverables for the Chinese theatrical run, so I guess it isn’t history just yet! Perhaps the most interesting part about this whole post-production process has been that they are in Thailand and I am in Los Angeles, and the whole film is in Thai, which I don’t speak. It wasn’t until some of the most recent versions of the film that all of the subtitles were included, so it was really great to score it based more on the actors’ body language and the film’s visual narrative than just on the dialogue.
Snakehead is a very atmospheric score, it encompasses so many styles and includes a variation of sounds and colors, did you have specific instructions about what type of music the movie required from the director, and was there a temp track on the movie when you first viewed it, if so, do you find this a useful tool or something that can at times be distracting because the director is used to hearing it?
There was a temp score, but it was there for the initial screen tests to see if the film was working. When I got the job, the director told me not to pay attention to the temp score, except for a few select scenes.
A temp score can definitely be a useful tool in communicating musically, since words are often not exacting enough when talking abstractly about music. It is often easier for me to listen to a piece of temp music and extract the instrumentation and the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language that the director is reacting to, rather than to have the director try to explain what kind of music they are looking for.
In that way, for Snakehead, the temp score provided instructions on what type of musical palette could be appropriate and allowed me to use that palette to develop something unique to replace the temp score. That being said, in most films I work on that have temp scores, there are usually one or two scenes where the director has become very attached to the temp, and in those cases, I stick close to it while still utilizing new language and themes we have developed along the way. In Snakehead, there were three themes (the protagonist, antagonist, and Chinatown) we had developed, and once we had those, the whole score pretty much wrote itself.
You have scored shorts, TV shows as well as motion pictures, is there a difference between them as in the scoring process and the way in which you approach each of them?
I would say the most unique format is TV because of the deadlines involved. A film, regardless of whether it’s a short or a feature, will be one contained piece of work, whereas one TV show could function more like several different 45-minute films. For some of the TV programs I have worked on, because of deadlines, I was sometimes composing music away from picture. In these instances, I would compose a large receptacle of music for the editors to pull from. Basically, in these situations, the editing is happening so close to airing that there isn’t enough time for a composer to do anything directly to picture.
The other main difference I have found is that the hierarchy is often a little different. In films, I am usually working closely with the director, but with serial projects, there can be a lot of different directors and the creative direction I am getting is from a showrunner or producer instead of the director of each episode.
You utilize both synthetic and symphonic components within your scores which works wonderfully, how do you figure out your musical ideas, via computer or do you sit at piano/keyboard and compose and work out your ideas?
I tend to think through ideas first, meaning I will close my eyes and write music in my head. Once I know what instruments I need, I either play them manually or pull up their digital versions. For Snakehead, I programmed a lot of the orchestral elements, then replayed the instruments that I could play myself in the studio.
The electronic elements are a bit more complicated: sometimes I use analogue synthesizers, sometimes I use virtual/software synthesizers, and perhaps what I am best known for is recording samples of instruments and creating my own digital synthesizers from those recordings. In the case of Snakehead, I recorded textural bowing sounds from the cello and programmed synthesizers with those recordings as the source material, then added these newly-created synth sounds to the orchestral elements.
Do you conduct at all, or is this something you find is better done by another so you may supervise the recording sessions, also do you orchestrate all your scores or again is this something that is not always possible because of schedules?
For me, orchestration is half of the composition. I cannot disaggregate the texture from the theme, so I do not have other orchestrators who work on my music. As for the recording sessions, for most scores, I am less traditional in that I record as I compose. With Snakehead, as I composed it, I was running back and forth from the live room to the control room recording elements as I was writing them.
Are you actively involved on the compilation of any soundtrack release when a record label wants to release one of your scores or is this out of your control?
I am actively involved. I’ve only released a number of them because either I wasn’t happy with the label’s direction, or because of the nature of my contract for composing the music. I do have a backlog of soundtracks coming out soon though, so I am excited about that. I think some will be on labels other than the label I co-own, Mirrortone Records.
Do you think that you have been either influenced or inspired by any composers or artists and are there any film music composers that you find particularly interesting or innovative?
Absolutely—I am inspired by most film composers! There have really been very few that I didn’t love, especially because I know what it takes to do what they do, and how challenging it can be to create a work that brings the director’s vision to life. I won’t get too much further into it than that; I really respect and value anyone who is able to deal with composing music for others, so wouldn’t want to single out specific film composers.
Many composers seem to have a sound or style, but you can fashion any style of music for your scores and tailor it to the subject. By this I mean you have a wide musical repertoire, All Hail Beth, for example, has lilting themes, poignant pieces and alongside these there are upbeat and catchy tracks, do you think its important to try and stay fresh and original and not conform to certain attitudes such as, Ok! this is a western so it has to sound like Morricone, Steiner, or Copeland?
Thank you kindly. I’d say my biggest compositional selling point is that I am versatile. I came up scoring commercials and producing pop songs for reality TV stars, but my education is traditional/Western/classical, so a lot of my clients are looking for me to be able to wear any musical hat they need for a given scene. I think I am less concerned with staying fresh than I am with making the director happy. Sometimes I do make a strong case for a new direction if they are looking to do something very close to an overused concept, but at the end of the day, I am really hoping to help the director or producer’s vision come to life, whether that means paying homage to a known concept or finding something new. In the end, the marriage between the music and the film will always be unique and will take any musical forms in a new direction — you never end up with something exactly like anything that came before it.
What is your routine when you are scoring a motion picture, by this I mean do you have a set way in which you record a score or write it, maybe starting with the opening credits and working through to the end titles, or do you like to establish a central theme so that you can then create the remainder of the score around this?
When I get brought on early, during the script stage, I tend to sketch overtures. The overture serves as an exploration of a broader musical language, including themes, that I think might be worthy of sharing with the director. I used to love the idea of just sketching themes, but most people don’t want to hear a singular tune, they want to hear a complete recorded and produced piece of music. When I am working with a film that’s near completion, I will often work in a linear fashion from start to finish, though it isn’t unheard of that I’ll go to the most important scene to develop language and then go back to work linearly after that.
Have you given any concerts of your music for film and TV, if not is this something that you might consider in the future?
I have not but I would absolutely love to. Because of the nature of doing a lot of electronic-orchestral hybrid scores, I think it could be a really unique concert-going experience.
What are you working on at present?
Right now I am wrapping up A.I. Love You since a new scene was just added (even after we announced the film!). After that, I have a new feature that I just got brought onto but can’t say the name quite yet, and a comedy series that will be coming to Amazon early next year.