A Q&A with Composer Joëlle Nager

  1. Born in Switzerland, you developed an interest in piano and composition from a very young age, participating in workshops, concerts, and masterclasses. What sparked your passion for music, and what were some of your early achievements in the field?

    My passion for music started when I realized that I was no longer playing the notes in front of me. With six years I started to take music lessons but neither I nor my family would have guessed that this would turn into my passion and profession. I started to notice it when I went to school – although interested in all subjects, having several sports and language classes after school – I spent all my breaks in the piano room, writing down the melodies I had in my head during the classes. I knew that I wanted to pursue the arts – crafting notes from a blank paper. 

    Coming home I trained for competitions that led to my first achievements, winning several prizes at the Swiss Youth Competition in piano and composition. Next to high school I was taken up in the Talent Promotion Program in Composition of the Basel Conservatoire and my final project at high school, a film score, received the highest grade. During that time, I started to attend masterclasses where my compositions were performed. I was very happy that right after high school I entered the Bachelor’s Degree for Screen Scoring in London by solely submitting my compositions, and received right afterwards the Scholarship for Outstanding Talent at the Berklee College of Music for my Master’s Degree.

  2. Where do you find your inspiration, and how do you begin a new piece or a new cue? 

    The source of my inspiration is life. In my point of view, the biggest story of all is life – every single day in itself contains so many chapters leading to several subchapters. I get inspired by my environment, all the little and big things that happen around me or around others. Be it when waiting for a bus, while playing tennis or by the simplest act of walking and breathing the fresh air. 

    All emotions are contained within life – I let them flow in my music. Be it visions, hopes, struggles – I translate them into notes.

    Of course, whilst composing for a movie, I am influenced by the story, characters, edits, colours, lighting – and the communication with the director and the team of the movie is crucial for the inspiration. Not seldomly, I already have the melody in my head whilst the director describes the scene.

    In case there is a determined instrument constellation, this builds another pivotal key that influences me: one must write its music idiomatically to it, so that live musicians are able to perform it. Choosing instruments can let creativity blossom by itself and especially orchestras with their wide range in colours allow the imagination to paint like on a canvas.

  3. You’re lucky to have recorded ‘Snail and the Whale’ at Air Studios, with one of the world’s best orchestras- the London Symphony. Can you talk about that experience, how did you become involved with this project, and what was your creative process like?

    I always loved most to compose for full orchestras and this project affirmed my passion. It was part of the final project at Berklee, and my creative process was completed within a weekend – once I get inspired, I write down the notes very quickly. I first composed the main theme, whilst knowing exactly how I will be orchestrating it, adding subthemes and ornamentations. Being able to use a full orchestra allowed me to compose in a playful manner by employing each instrument to colour the animation. 

    Working with the orchestra was a fabulous experience, they were all wonderful musicians enjoying the session, so everyone was in a good mood!

  4. Your score for your debut film, EGO,  has been awarded twice the Best Original Score Awards. Why do you think audiences and jury connect with this film and its score? / How did you approach this score?

    I think that in this particular score, tension and release were very important tools as it was a thriller movie. This allowed the audience to be misled but also to connect at the same time while the music guided the audience through the unfolding movie. 

    I approached the score by starting with real instruments that gradually progress to electronic sounds – fitting the narrative of first being seemingly a normal hike trip until the audience realizes that everything goes the wrong way. Starting with flowing but mysterious strings, the score ends in a chaos of synths, reflecting the journey of the protagonist.

  5. You were recently selected by the Swiss Music Right Organization (SUISA) to compose the music for their 100-jubilee concert, performed by the Hilaris Chamber Orchestra at the Murten Classics Festival. Such a huge honor! What were some of the challenges this project presented? 

    Thank you so much! Challenging was the new instrument constellation – strings, percussion, piano and harp – I have never before composed music for such an instrument constellation, so it was really exciting to be creative with these instruments, which I adored! Working with a conductor was also a new experience as before I was always conducting myself. Overall, it was a wonderful experience, the orchestra was very joyful and we all had a pleasant time. The audience was very happy and fascinated, too!

  6. Having recorded music with the London Symphony, Budapest Art Orchestra and the Valencian Community Orchestra, you have a lot of orchestral experience under your belt! What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from working with orchestras, and what are some of your tips for running a smooth scoring session? 

    Thank you! When working with an orchestra it is important to have a clear and loud voice and of course, to know the piece very well, preferably by heart. Questions can arise, and it is deciding to have an answer to them.

    Being aware of time is key in recording sessions. Time flies instantly, therefore preparing one’s session in advance is pivotal. Going through the score and highlighting passages that might require more time than other parts, as well as structuring one’s session is crucial for being as efficient as possible. Triple-checking all parts is inevitable. Having a good producer as a pair of second ears is very helpful, be it when one conducts or is in the booth – four ears capture more things than two. If technical issues arise, be it that the click is not heard or microphones are not working, it is important to address these issues as quickly as possible so that the session can run smoothly and without any interruptions.

  7. After completing Berklee College of Music’s Master’s degree, you moved to Los Angeles. What drove your decision to move, and how do you like it so far?

    I received two simultaneous internships! I was always wondering how the music industry in Los Angeles looks like and I am very inspired by it. Interning with two different composers shows me the versatility of a composer’s life. Moving to a new continent is of course challenging in itself, as you mentioned, it is very far from my home. But the film music industry is incredible here and being able to compose in such a fascinating film music environment fulfills my heart with joy.

  8. What is your dream gig, and what are you looking forward to in 2024?  

    My dream is to work within animation – I adore the cute stories full of hope – it is like a little other world within the existing one. To be able to underscore these characters in their journey is a dream for me.


    Interview by Nami Melumad 

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Joëlle Nager

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