A Q&A with Composer and Orchestrator Amit May Cohen

  1. How did you first get into music? What’s your story, and how did you end up doing what you’re doing now?

    Music was always an important factor in my household while growing up in Israel. My mother is a big fan of 70’s and 80’s rock and classical music, and would often blast music on our speakers. I spent many days at my grandparents’ home, where my grandma would sing songs in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Hebrew on a daily basis. I was encouraged to attend music classes from a young age, and by the age of 6 started taking private piano lessons, and soon after I also added alto saxophone and jazz guitar.

    My obsession with film music started after I watched the movie Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki. I started writing short passages on the piano and would ask my mother what feelings they provoke in her. Attending Berklee College of Music to study film scoring seemed like the natural next step. That was where I met composer George S. Clinton who also gave me my start in Hollywood.

  2. ZOMBIES: The Re-Animated Series, an expansion of the wildly popular ZOMBIES movie franchise, is set to debut Friday, June 28. What was it like to revisit this world after working on the previous films in the franchise? 

    The ZOMBIES movies have a special place in my heart as I got to work on them with my mentor George S. Clinton, and the wonderful team at Disney Channel. To me they represent my growth from working as an assistant to being a co-composer, and eventually the composer of the series.

    Revisiting the world and characters in an animated form is a very rewarding and exciting opportunity as it allows me to “re-invent” the sound while also still living in the same world. I made sure to maintain a familiar palette that fans of the franchise can recognize, but I also take it to new and wild places based on what happens in each episode. I love pushing the musical envelope with exciting instruments, effects, a variety of musical genres, and the endless creative possibilities that animation offers.

    My favorite thing is the opportunity to create themes for all the characters that didn’t get themes in the movies, and all the new characters that the show introduces.

  3. In addition to your composing career, you’ve also worked on many high profile projects as an orchestrator. How has that influenced your career path and the way you approach composing music?

    My work as an orchestrator was a very important experience for my growth as a composer. I was exposed to many composers’ and lead orchestrators’ workflows, composing styles, techniques, and preferences. Every project had a different size orchestra, size of room, location, union rules, etc. All of those are important factors to consider prior to notating the music because they will affect both the recording process and the finished product. I also had opportunities to sit in on sessions and observe how musicians bring a score to life.

    The skills and knowledge I gained while working on large scale projects definitely made me reevaluate my own approach to scoring, as I started to get my own composing gigs. I’d highly recommend any up and coming composer who’s interested in orchestral music, to dip their toes into orchestration under mentorship of good team leaders, as it’ll be a great learning experience.

  4. Are there any composers, past or present, whose work you deeply admire and who have perhaps influenced your own musical journey?

    My influences always change but my biggest admiration has always been to composers Joe Hisaishi and Danny Elfman. Their ability to create a unique world and recognizable sound has always struck me. 

    Lately, while working on a minimalistic dark drama album, I’ve been exploring the music of Hildur Guðnadóttir, Adam Taylor, and Johan Johansson.

  5. Your debut EP Volatility wonderfully showcases your usage of unique sounds and textures.  Can you tell us what inspired the project and how you went about creating it?

    After attending the Sundance Music & Sound Design Lab in 2018, I knew I wanted to release a concept album but couldn’t figure out the creative direction for it. The lab set me off to a new journey of exploring my artistic sound and sensibility, and I felt a strong urge to pursue it. It took several years of trial and error, with many changing concepts until I landed on what is now “Volatility”. I already knew I wanted to blend sound design with music, create something evocative and introspective, and take the listener on a short but deep journey. The concept that ended up sticking was a simple question I imposed on myself: “what type of music would I like a director to ask me to write right now?”

    Once I figured out the direction, the album sort of wrote itself pretty quickly. The project was mostly done in the box with the exception of recording a string quartet and a clarinet. All the guitars and violin fx were recorded by me. I also forced myself to use synth plugins I wasn’t familiar with as a personal challenge.

    My favorite track of the album is the final track, Lucid Dream, which celebrates the journey we took and brings us back to an introspective place. It ends with what sounds like a reversed version of the first track, Awakening, blending into white noise, and slowly descending into nothing.

  6. What’s next for you? Are there any projects or goals you’re particularly excited about?

    At the moment I’m still working on the remaining episodes of Zombies: The Re-Animated Series. Prior to working on the show, I built a percussion instrument inspired by the Apprehension Engine that I decided to feature in an album that should come out some time this year. I’d like to improve and expand my instrument building skills, and create a new album with whatever the next instrument might be!

    Interview by Michael Van Bodegom Smith.

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Amit May Cohen

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