Composer Kenneth Lampl has recently scored the Horror movie Sissy, As soon as I heard the opening bars of the first track on the soundtrack I was hooked, it’s a score that is available digitally and one that every film music collector should listen to at least twenty times. But that’s my opinion. The composer has written such an atmospheric and beguiling soundtrack for the movie, and I was pleased that he was able to answer a few questions for MMI.
Kenneth Lampl received his D.M.A. in composition from the Juilliard School of Music and studied film scoring with John Williams at the Tanglewood Music Festival.
His first international recognition came with the winning of the Prix Ravel in composition at the American Conservatory in Fontainbleau, France. Many awards soon followed including nine ASCAP Composer Awards, three New Jersey State Council for the Arts Fellowships, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Awards to Young Composers, the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University, the Gretchanov Memorial Prize in Composition from the Juilliard School and fellowships from the foundations of Henry Mancini, George Gershwin, and Richard Rogers. With over twenty symphonic compositions to date, his music has been performed by such musical organizations as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony, the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, the Delaware Symphony, the Greenville Symphony, the Juilliard Orchestra, the Jupiter Symphony and the Absolute Ensemble. (taken from IMBd)
Can I begin with your score for Sissy, which I loved so much and played it on loop, how did you become involved on the movie?
I had done two previous films with the producer Lisa Shaunessy and Arcadia Films. The first was The Furies which was my first film in Australia. It was a crazy slasher film which wound up being the most streamed film on Shudder in 2019. While we were still in post on The Furies Lisa introduced be to her husband Seth who was writing and directing a cool sci-fi 2067. We had a great time on 2067 and Lisa invited me to dinner with Kane and Hannah the directors of Sissy.
Did the director or the producers of the film have any set ideas or suggestions about how the music should sound as there are a few references to Morricone and maybe a handful of other Italian composers within the score. The Chemist for example has a kind of style that Morricone employed on Tie me up tie me down, and the track entitled The Rock I thought straight away The Heretic, was this something that you set out to do as a homage to Italian film music and Morricone, or did they just happen?
Yes, Hannah and Kane were very specific about wanting some of the score to be in the Italian Giallo style. The original temp track was a combination of classic Giallo style cues and some more modern horror/thriller/drama tracks which pushed the film into more of a hip, horror comedy genre. I was fascinated by how the vintage parts of the score played against the picture and I ventured out into a more Hitchcock/Herrmann and psycho Disney direction with the intention of having most of the score be a homage. This began to make sense with the Sissy character who lives in her own fantasy world apart from reality. We all responded to that approach, and I went further down the rabbit hole.
Sissy is released digitally by Movie score Media, were you involved in selecting the music that would represent the score, and is everything from your score on that recording?
I was just thrilled that Mikael at Movie Score Media was interested in putting out the soundtrack. I sent him the music that I thought best represented the film and would make an interesting listening experience. He combined a few tracks and changed the order a bit which I think works better than my original.
Will there be a CD release of Sissy, as I know many collectors still love to have a physical copy?
I’m not sure but there was some talk about the possibility of a vinyl pressing down the road.
Was writing for film something that you set out to do as a career as I understand that you studied with John Williams?
Studying with John was one of the most profound and life changing experiences of my life. There were only 6 of us at the Tanglewood Music Festival and we had film composition seminars and private lessons. At the time I had finished my doctoral degree at the Juilliard School and was making my way in the world as a classical composer. I always loved the orchestra and going to the movies, but I hadn’t really considered putting the two together until I met John.
Are you from a family background that is musical as in did your parents play any instruments and what are your earliest memories of any kind of music?
My father played the accordion and a bit of piano, and my mother sang. There was always music playing in the house which ranged from Jewish music, Fiddler on the Roof, Herb Alpert to Tchaikovsky and Louis Armstrong. My parents bought me a record player when I was 3 or 4 years old and I used to sit and listen to children’s songs, Peter and Wolf, and the Nutcracker. I started playing saxophone in school and when I was around 12 my mother brought me to the local library to see a jazz group. When the sax player started improvising, I was fascinated by the idea that I was witnessing music being created right in the moment. Until that point, I had never considered where it all came from or that someone actually wrote it. I did become a professional jazz saxophonist touring with the drummer Chico Hamilton and eventually improvisation gave way to composition.
I think your first scoring job was for a short 6 Miles of 8 Feet, how did you get involved on the music for this?
At Juilliard, I was really fortunate to have gone to school with the film composer Theodore Shapiro. (I actually played on some of his student scores!) Teddy was already having a good deal of success and he suggested that I go to the NYU Film School and meet film students which was how he got his start. I took his advice and went to NYU and met with the graduate directing class. One of the students, Ben Tomlin, the director/writer of 6 Miles of 8 Feet was looking for composer. I wrote the score and got some friends at Juilliard to play. The film actually went to Sundance and won a Student Academy Award. I score a lot of NYU student films in the beginning.
2067 is another great score, you share a credit for the music with Kirsten Axelholm, was this a collaboration as in you wrote together or did you contribute separately to the score?
Kirsten is a terrific musician who I met in Denmark. We’ve done a few collaborations on films and choral music. I’ve also done a few films with Darren Tate who is an amazing EDM artist based in London.
Going back to Sissy, what size orchestra did you have for the score, and what percentage of the music was realized by either samples or electronic instrumentation?
We used a chamber string orchestra (8-6-4-3-1) and a single wind player Ashley Jarmack to record all the wind parts. All the recordings were done remotely, the strings in Macedonia with FAMES and Ashley in LA. As far as sample libraries, electronics and live musicians the score is always a mixture of them all.
Sissy and 2067 are both theme led scores, do you think it is important for a film score to contain strong thematic properties, and what is your opinion of the trend that is currently being utilized to score whole sequences with drone like soundscapes?
In many ways the Sissy score is anachronistic, it’s a throwback to an earlier thematically based style of composition and 2067 is certainly a Hollywood blockbuster style film needing recognizable themes. I’m a big fan of lots of different kinds of scoring from the textural to the thematic and even the Sissy score has quite a bit of ambient scoring but what you remember are the tunes.
Do you like to orchestrate your own film scores if you have sufficient time to do so, and is orchestration an important part of the composing process?
I do orchestrate myself for two reasons. First, I love the orchestra and love orchestration and second, it’s faster for me just to notate the score myself than it would be to explain to an orchestrator how to decipher the MIDI. I think as composers we all bring a unique skill set to the table and we also can rely on collaborators in areas that are not our main strengths. I would say it’s just as common to have an orchestrator as to have a synth programmer or score mix engineer. It all comes down to time, budget and skill set.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
One of the most profound things John Williams said is that music is the unconscious of the film. As a student of psychology as well as music, I relate to that way of seeing the role of music. It colors and shapes the context by which we see.
Is there a set way in which you like to approach scoring a picture, I mean by this do you start with the opening theme, or a theme that will be the core piece for the score and then build the remainder of the score upon this?
I prefer to start working with the director before the film is shot. That way the music becomes part of the filming, editing and acting process. I tend to think of music thematically, so I’ll generally go to the piano and start composing there before I think of the timbre and orchestration. I’m also a classical composer and think in terms of large structures of organizing themes.
How many times do you like to see a film before you begin to formulate any ideas about the style of music or where music should be placed to best serve the film?
I rely on the first viewing or discussion and go right to work from there. I’m a firm believer in running with the first impulse because the danger in art is overthinking or trying to be clever instead of instinctive.
What composers or artists would you say have had an influence upon you in the way that you write and also in the way you place music in a movie?
In film music my two biggest influences are John Williams and Hans Zimmer who I think have both paved the way for everything we see in modern film scoring and the way film scoring is approached on a technical level. In modern classical music I’m very inspired by the music of Arvo Part and Max Richter. At the core though its Tchaikovsky all the way for me. He is the beginning and end of composition for me.
Do you perform on your film scores, and do you conduct or is it at times better to have a conductor so you may hear the session and monitor if the music is working?
I have done a lot of conducting and I am a trained conductor as well. If I record live then I prefer to conduct because I like working with musicians, I can make changes faster and you feel like part of the performing process. Now I do most of my recordings remotely which is also fine because the Macedonian recording orchestra I use, FAMES, has a terrific conductor Oleg Kondratenko.
You have recently scored Dark Haven, which is a horror/thriller, can you tell us about this as in is it an orchestral score and about any other new assignments that you are involved with as I see that there are a few titles you are working on in post-production?
Right now I’m working on scores to a thriller Dark Haven (which was shot twice, once for the US market and another for the Indian market) and a documentary Ice Maiden which is about the first Australian woman to sail solo around Antarctica. I’m also excited about working with director/writer Aaron McCann and Monster Pictures on his new film Jones