Lasse Elkjaer is a Los Angeles based Danish composer and orchestrator, who was recently shortlisted for a Robert Award nomination by the Danish Film Academy, for his orchestral score to the very first Danish Halloween feature film, “Forsvundet til Halloween” (2021). Elkjaer gained special recognition for his award-winning score for the horror short film Sticks (2018), a gothic scare ride where Elkjaer worked with Hollywood cellist Tina Guo, whose solo cello can be heard on scores by Hans Zimmer, such as Inception (2010) and The Lion King (2019).
Elkjaer started his professional career in Denmark and won his first prestigious award (Berlingske Tidene’s talent competition) at the age of 21 for Composition and Performance. While studying at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, South Danish Conservatory of Music, Elkjaer started collaborating with five-time Emmy winning composer Jacob Groth, (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) (2009). When working with Jacob Groth, Elkjaer was hired to do orchestrations on the feature film Dead Man Down (2013) starring Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, and TV productions Modus (2015-17) and Unforgettable (2013-16). During this time, Elkjaer also worked as an arranger and guitarist for several theatre productions.
Was writing music for film something that you always wanted to do?
Writing music was a key element of my music lessons from day one. I grew up being extremely fascinated by movies, and as a child, film scores were part of a driving force inspiring me to pick up instruments. But it wasn’t until my early 20s, when I got my first serious composition and orchestration lessons, that I fully understood that it was the music in movies that I had been falling in love with. Before then, I just enjoyed playing instruments. At first, I was focusing primarily on becoming a rock guitarist, but you can say that I got a bit side-tracked along the way!
Forsvundet til Halloween, is one of your recent assignments, and it’s also a landmark production being the first Danish Halloween movie. How did you become involved in the project?
I’ve known the director for about 10 years, and before I moved to Los Angeles, I saw one of his short movies at a film festival, which made an impression on me. We’ve been in touch ever since. We’ve also grown up with the same movies, and we share a mutual love for genre movies. So, when he signed up to do this feature film, it felt right to join forces.
The score for the movie is very rich in thematic material and has a lush symphonic style. What orchestra did you have for the score and how many players were there?
I recorded with the Budapest Art Orchestra, and I have been working with them on and off for the last 12 years. I discussed the size of the orchestra with composer Bruce Broughton, one of my former professors. I then decided on a 52- piece orchestra, with an emphasis on solo instruments in the wood section, a bit less brass than originally planned, and plenty of strings.
There are gentle nods to the scoring style of Hollywood composers within the score such as Williams, Goldsmith and Silvestri. What composers would you say have influenced you or inspired you in your approach on scoring movies?
Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Ten Commandments (1956) was a revelation for me as a child, so my ears have always been in his direction. Jerry Goldsmith has always been so terrifyingly good – just listen to his score for Alien (1979)! John Williams and Ennio Morricone are without a doubt a huge influence on me, but Basil Poledouris’s compositional style might have something that moves me in an extra special way. Both his scores for Conan The Barbarian (1982) and The Blue Lagoon (1980) are incredible stand-out scores to me! Michael Kamen has probably written some of the best action music in my opinion, and John Berry just nails it every time with his melodic content. In Denmark we had Bent Fabricius Bjerre, whom I always looked up to, especially because of his theme for the Danish TV-series Matador (1978-1979), which I believe is one of the most memorable melodies committed to picture by a Danish composer.
John Corigliano’s score for Altered States (1980) also got my attention, and James Horner also must be mentioned! His score for Willow (1988) is still one of my favourite fantasy scores! Bruce Broughton, whom I met at USC in Los Angeles, is an incredibly solid composer, and his scores have always been around in the household I grew up in.
Christopher Young has taught me the most about reading the scene from a theoretical, film scoring point of view. I worked for him a lot, and his approaches to film scoring have definitely rubbed off on me.
Did the director of the movie have any specific ideas or requests regarding the direction in which the music should go or a particular style, and was there a temp track on the movie when you first went to see it?
Months before the film got shot, we talked about the score and about the overall vision in general. I also feel the script was pretty good at giving it away. Some of the initial ideas maybe changed a bit during the editing, but I had a good idea of our direction from the start! I was able to see very rough footage without temp music during the filming of the movie, and then I wrote a couple of the themes based on that material. When I saw the first cut, then a temp track was implemented.
How many times do you like to sit and watch a movie before you start to formulate any solid ideas regarding thematic material or where the music will be placed to best support a film? Maybe use Sticks as an example?
With Sticks, we also had a gameplan months before the shoot, and I did the spotting already at the script stage. So, when I saw the first and final cut, I felt familiar with the material and already then I had solid ideas. There was no temp music to deal with, so I was able to do my thing, and then the director and I kept discussing the music, which I call “massaging the score,” till we felt it was right! Typically, I watch the movie once and always without temp music, just enjoying it, not thinking much about music. On the second run, I usually start to sketch very loosely, not spending too much time on it, just so I can sink my teeth a bit into it. From then on, I have a pretty strong notion of details.
I know that you conduct, but do you conduct all your film scores or are there times when this is not possible, and you supervise from the recording booth and have a conductor?
I usually collaborate with a conductor! Even though I prefer to be in front of the orchestra, most of the time, I have to be in the booth to catch the small details behind the speakers. We typically have to record a rather large amount of music in a very short amount of time, most likely with pre-recorded elements, and then what’s coming out of the speakers is what counts. But I’m out with the musicians, if there are cues that call for something very specific. During the pandemic, it was all remote sessions! I got a feed sent (Audiomovers) to my studio, and we took care of all communication via zoom.
Orchestration is something that many composers say is an important part of the composing process. Do you like to do all your own orchestrations or is this due to deadlines etc. not always possible?
I always end up doing all my own orchestrations. To save time, I use people to input my midi into notation software. I credit them as orchestrators! It happens that I ask them to do additional fillings, like doubling a contrabass line to the bass clarinet, usually something simple like that. Before downbeat, I go through all scores, and make sure everything is as it should be. If they add something, it’s “on cue,” so I am easily able to spot it. If I find that further adjustments should be done, then I do not hesitate to go pen and paper, and have them do those corrections, or they send me the notation file, and then I do the adjustments myself. Currently I feel I’m able to save the most amount of time, and get to the clearest musical point fastest, by doing my own orchestrations. I’m open to suggestions though!
Are you from a family that is in any way musical, and what would you say is the earliest memory of music that you have?
I would not consider my entire family musical. When I was about 4 years old, my mom’s sister taught herself and me very briefly to play the keyboard. That’s where I got started. She quit playing after a week or so, but I kept going and was the one who ignited the music spark in my family. So, I spent time in my childhood playing instruments with my sisters, which spread to my cousins, where we later on ended up doing musicals together. I do not think any of them are doing music anymore! My earliest memory of music was a television theme, which must have been a Danish kids show. I recall it as a melancholic instrumental, with a guitar playing a melody, harmonized in thirds, Brian May style! I’ve tried to google it so many times, but I have never been able to find it!
Can you tell us something about your musical education?
My first lessons in music were classical violin and piano, but when I picked up the guitar at 12, I just became much better at that instrument, so it was in that direction that I went. Back then, when you studied music in Denmark, it was either classical music or Jazz, so I ended up spending a great deal of time studying Jazz guitar/theory, but always combined it with my passion for classic composition and orchestration. I have a master’s degree in Film Composition from the South Danish Conservatory, and straight after completing that, I went to Los Angeles to study Screen Scoring at the University of Southern California. It was during my Master’s degree in Denmark, that I met Danish film composer Jacob Groth and then gradually I started to work for him. At USC I studied under many incredible composers, such as Bruce Broughton, Christopher Young, and Garry Schyman, and I was mentored by Michael Gorfaine, Partner and co-owner of the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
Music in film has many purposes! One of its purposes can be to help make the story move forward in a specific tempo, make it speed up, slow down, and even stand still. Another purpose can be to emphasize a stylistic choice, maybe based on location, year, or genre! Manipulation of emotions in some form, will always be its biggest aim, but in the very end, its main purpose in film will always be to tell a story!
How much time did you have to score Forsvundet til Halloween, and when a score of yours is being released do you have any input into what cues will be released to represent the score?
I recall having a bit less than three months to write and record the score, and maybe a bit under two months with the final cut. For this release, I took care of the editing and order of the tracks myself and did a lot of experimenting in Pro Tools to create something I would consider a cohesive listening experience.
Track 22 is a short suite of edits that had landed on the cutting floor, and the very last two are what I consider bonus tracks. They’re mixed and mastered by a different person, and compositionally also stick out a bit. I recall buying Japanese imported CDs back in the day, and they always had a couple of additional bonus tracks at the very end of the track list. So, to humour myself a bit, I consider these tracks my Japanese bonus tracks.
How much music did you write in total for Forsvundet til Halloween and is it all on the soundtrack release?
I wrote 52 minutes of music that is in the movie, and then the soundtrack release runs for 46min 58sec in total. So, there are about 5 minutes, probably drones and stingers, that got left out and did not make the release. There are also about 20 minutes of thematic material that I created before watching the first cut, which never got used. 7 minutes of it is a fun little suite I did after one of our earliest meetings. And then there are also a couple of cues that never made it in the movie. For example, I did 3 versions of the main title before we landed on the one that’s in the movie. We can always use those leftovers for the sequel!
Movie music has altered a lot in recent years, some say not for the good, but that’s a matter of opinion. There is increased use of electronics and also the drone like soundscape approach, which is atmospheric but very rarely thematic. Do you think that it is important to include themes within scores and certain characters to have their own musical identity?
It really depends on many factors. There are truly movies which by their nature reject music with a strong thematic approach to it. It’s like water on oil; it just does not stick. Why? That’s usually a long and deep conversation with the director and after that, the producers! Everything can have a thematic and musical identity, if not in a melodic sense, then within its atmospheric and dronie colour. If something comes up more than once in a movie, then we start to build on a thematic idea. Three could be a good number to establish something thematic. The use of drones and atmospheric material created only to cut budget and time, or riding on a brief wave of popularism, will most likely become redundant and forgotten over time. If there’s a deeper story-driven purpose to it, then it’s fair game! So, thematic material and its musical identities in scores can sound in many ways, but the obvious danger will of course always be lacking understanding of these, both from the composer and director’s side! Melodies and thematic material will never be redundant, and especially not in feature films. It’s all about how you balance everything out! And remember, trends come and go!
Do you work to a set routine when scoring a picture, or do you approach each project differently, is it always the main theme first and build the remainder of the score around this or maybe you work on smaller themes and sections before establishing a core sound?
To take it from the top, I first make sure to do my prep work, like gathering as much information as possible. It helps to understand what I’m dealing with and usually gives plenty of leads towards the musical colours! Then it’s about watching the project with no temp music, and just let my intuition speak. I make some notes, and then watch it with the temp music. At that point, I have a strong overview, I am able to organize my cues in categories, I have a notion of the core sound, and I understand what section is best to work on. If possible, I like to attack a larger and rather challenging chunk first. If the style dictates a strong main theme, then it could be an idea to start with that first, especially if such a theme has to be repeated or built upon elsewhere. I do not shy away from doing simple piano sketches in my sequencer, before I orchestrate. Then it’s fast to move on to another section with similar thematic material, compare, develop, adjust, and hopefully create something coherent. With Forsvundet til Halloween, I made sure the director approved the opening sequence, before I moved on. That’s where I felt I had most of my meat and potatoes! Then I jumped to the action music sequences, because I knew they would be time consuming. But everything is fluid until we record, mix and deliver.
Do you have a preference regarding where you record your film scores as in a favourite studio?
I’ve been working with the Budapest Art Orchestra for several years, so I feel very confident in using them. They’re incredible sight readers and when recording remotely, communication is flawless!
You have worked with a few other composers such as Christopher Young, Christopher Lennertz, and Jacob Groth. How did you become involved with these composers and in what capacity did you collaborate with them?
Jacob Growth was one of my professors at the Conservatory where I took my Master’s in Film Scoring in Denmark. I did orchestrations on a string of his projects, and later some music programming.
The Christopher Lennertz gig was through one of my colleagues and good friends in Los Angeles. My friend needed to bring together a team for an assignment, and I was able to join. Christopher Young I met during my stay at USC. After my studies, I started interning at his studio, and eventually grew to become his Lead Assistant. I was also very involved as a Teaching Assistant, assisting Chris when he taught USC classes in Los Angeles and the ones in Europe.
You have scored various types of movies and worked on features as well as shorts etc. Is there a difference between writing for a feature of 90 mins plus and a short that runs for less than 30 mins, or is the process basically the same when you are preparing the score?
I would say that it’s two very different animals, where I feel the feature film format has a more natural flow to it, scoring wise! In features, you’re usually able to develop your material in a more cohesive way, where in the short format, you really have to push the art of restrictions and balance. Possibly, these elements have helped encourage drones and ambient scores to their current popularity, because one needs to be ultra-efficient when dealing with such short amounts of storytelling. In any case, my process for writing a score for a short movie is usually quite different from a feature.
When you sit and spot a movie for the first time, are you also conscious of scenes that will probably work better without music?
Very much! If you first look for all the scenes which in all honesty do not need music, then it’s easier to hold back, and not overwrite as a composer. If you identify those moments with the director, and justify why they should not have music, then you’re usually off to a good start.
You also write for the concert hall. Is composing music for live performances in front of an audience less restricting?
Because in films there are FX explosions etc and also you have to be conscious of dialogue. So, I suppose what I am asking is can you be more expressive when composing for the concert hall? Composing for films is an art of constant compromise! Not only because of what’s happening on the big screen sound-wise and visually, but also because you must be ready to collaborate with and understand your director’s vision. Down the line you might even have to consider producer notes, and possibly much more! But the satisfaction to be part of such a big collaboration, usually outweighs the downsides. In the concert hall, you obviously do not have to deal with such elements, or hopefully not. This gives you much more freedom, and possibly it adds multiple additional layers and complexity to your music, for which there usually is not room when writing a film score. So yes, I’m definitely able to express myself in quite a different way when writing for the concert hall, and some would even say, in a more personal and intimate way!
You worked on the series ClassDojo Big Ideas, which has 12 episodes, when scoring a series such as this do you recycle any themes from earlier episodes into later ones?
Yes, that became a part of the scoring style the team and I agreed on! It’s a kids animation series, and most of the characters have a theme, including their emotions. The overall concept of the series is to teach kids how to deal with said emotions. When doing short animation episodes, the music quickly becomes very active and to some degree fragmented, then it’s especially handy to have a grab bag of themes to keep going back to so the music is not all over the place. One single storyline was split up into three smaller episodes. So, my goal was to create an overall musical thematic sense for the overall storyline of those episodes, and then have the characters’ theme, including their emotions, appear when needed. I also tried my best to find elements that could tie all of the 12 episodes together in their entirety, to ensure it all felt under one umbrella in the end!
How do you work out your musical ideas, do you sit at the piano or keyboard or as a guitarist maybe work them out on guitar, or do you utilize a more contemporary way as in computers etc.?
I like to keep it simple in the start and work out my ideas at the piano! If it’s an orchestral theme, then I definitely keep it on the piano until I have all the notes down, and then orchestrate and adjust in the sequencer. The further into the sequencing I get, the more things just happen in the computer! I always have several midi piano instances open in my sequencer, which I continuously keep sketching on. So, I really do not spend too much time playing around with the virtual instruments, especially not when composing for orchestra.
There are of course some virtual instruments that are very inspiring to play around with. But if I stick to the midi piano route, I’m able to sketch and orchestrate the music in a much faster way, move it around and experiment, without it taking too much of my time. Then when I feel I’m at a place where everything pretty much adds up, then I start to add the piano sketch to my virtual instruments and create the mock-up! The mock-up part is another process, where additional compositional tweaks usually happen.
What is next for you?
Right now, I’m working on some of my own music for an album project, while finishing up a short Danish movie, a drama with light sci-fi elements to it. Recently, I’ve been teaching film scoring workshops for composition students at two Conservatories in Denmark, so there might be more of that coming up, and then I have both American and Danish feature film projects in the pipeline, which I am quite excited about!
My thanks to the composer from taking time out of his busy workload to answer my questions.jm.