A Q&A with LA based composer and pianist Gabrielle Helfer

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  1. Every composer has a different creative process when emotionally connecting to a film. Can you tell us more about your process?

    When I receive picture lock, I watch the film solely as an audience member, not as a film composer. I try my hardest to not think about the spotting, the instrumentation I’ll be using, or anything else music related. I do this so I can have a deeply genuine connection to the story and the characters, and it gives me a chance to relate to what I’m seeing on screen, instead of obsessing over the music. Once I feel a connection, I sit down at the piano and start writing a main theme that I feel embodies the overall feeling the film gave me. I think of the main theme as the root of a giant sequoia tree, with the other themes and variations stemming from the root of the tree.

  2. You have studied with some incredible musicians such as Pulitzer Prize-nominated composer Leo Eylar and two-time Emmy-award winner Hummie Mann. What were the biggest lessons you learned from them and what have you gained from your education that you couldn’t have gained otherwise?

    I could write a dissertation on the many lessons Hummie and Leo have taught me, both educationally and personally. But if I had to choose the biggest lesson Leo taught me, it would be to take chances. Leo continuously challenged me to live outside my comfort zone both in my writing, and in my life. He encouraged me to explore the world, and to explore the boundaries within myself. Hummie taught me to trust my own worth as a composer. By being such an incredible cheerleader, he reminded me that through music, I have something important to say. He inspired me to be fearlessly confident in myself and the music I write.

    Confidence is something seismic that education has done for me. In music school you are constantly performing, you are constantly practicing to be better, and you are constantly around insanely talented students and professors. It’s an infectious environment that pushes you to be better. Education also allowed me to meet people like Leo and Hummie, who completely changed my life for the better. Having one on one time with them was absolutely priceless, and learning from their brilliance is something I’m so grateful for.

  3. How do you go with developing and cultivating relationships with filmmakers and other collaborators?

    For me, it’s all about friendship. At the end of the day, we express ourselves differently, but we all love the same thing, which is telling stories. I love when I meet a filmmaker and I get to know them for the person they are, rather than for the work they’re doing or will do. If I connect with someone on a personal level, I know working together to tell a story is going to be a very fulfilling experience. Making sure to check in on them, just as I would a friend, is very important in keeping the relationship. It’s important to show people that you care.

  4. What was your favorite film you have scored so far? Why?

    I scored my first feature film in the Summer of 2020, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The director is someone I had worked with many times in the past, so we have a very comfortable, clear, and open vision for the music. With all the calamitous energy in the world due to covid, music was yet again a floatation device I used to escape from the tragedy I was seeing every day on the news. There is an adventurous element to scoring your first feature- it is both intimidating and adrenaline inducing, as well as validating, since you accomplished something that required a firm goodbye to your comfort zone.

  5. What are your future goals?

    My goal in life is to be happy, and nothing makes me happier than music and the people I love. My goal is to continue to work on projects that inspire people to be more empathetic, and projects that challenge the way we think.

    Interview by Esin Aydingoz

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