A Q&A with Composer Julie Bernstein

  1. Your journey from studying classical piano to becoming an Emmy Award-winning composer is fascinating. How did your early experiences with music shape your approach to composition, especially in the context of scoring for television and film?

    Music was ingrained in me from day one. My family was always either listening to or playing music. Family gatherings culminated in singing around the piano. My parents were European (Czeckoslovakian and German) and grew up surrounded by classical music. My father and his friends went to the opera the way American teenagers go to hear bands. The radio in our house was set to the classical station and seemed to always be on unless we were listening to an album or someone was practicing their instrument. My parents were very enthusiastic about American” musicals and took me and my sisters to see what now are considered classics from the golden age”. I was steeped in all kinds of great music, and Ive no doubt this enhanced my natural affinity and ability, and ultimately influenced me in my desire to compose.

    I began classical piano lessons at a very early age, around five. I played by ear before I learned to read music, and I wrote little piano pieces before I had any idea of how to notate music. Fortunately, my mother could write them down, so I still have them! 

    Probably the first time I thought seriously about film music was when I saw the movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Bernard Herrmanns score had a profound effect on me. The emotional depth that he was able to capture in his music and the way it enhanced the story was what made me realize the importance of music in film. 

    I fell in love with Leonard Bernsteins music in West Side Story and Candide, and became a huge Sondheim fan in later years. As a teen, I would improvise an accompaniment on the piano while my mother, an actress, recited long-form poems like The Owl and the Pussycat. Illustrating her words with music was basically my first experience creating underscore.

    The classical music I heard growing up (Brahms, Prokofiev, all the classics) coupled with the music I played on the piano (Bach, Barber, Bartok, Chopin, etc.) and then the symphonic music I studied in college and beyond, along with Jazz and 20th-century modern composers (Stravinsky and so many others) — all of these have given me a strong sense of harmony, melody and structure. Growing up I related especially to music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and later to Stravinsky, all serious composers with a sense of humor. At some point in college, it occurred to me that it might be possible to work and maybe even make a living as a professional composer by scoring cartoons. It was a fleeting thought which I only remembered years later when I started writing on the original Animaniacs!  

  2. You’ve been involved in creating music for iconic animated series like Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and Freakazoid. What were some of the unique challenges and joys of composing for animation, particularly when it came to balancing humor, narrative, and musicality? 

    Scoring animation has been an amazing gift. Its given me the opportunity to write music in many different styles and genres and to express a wide array of emotions. With all the quick changes in cartoons, a major challenge is to write a score thats musical while jumping from one mood or style to another. Ive had the incredibly good fortune to write for live orchestra. 

    The cartoons Ive worked on require lots of hits and particular musical gestures. Its a challenge to find the right tempo and set up the score completely before putting down a single note, but it makes a big difference in the writing process. With all the hits and meter changes, making the music flow and sound inevitable is one of the hardest parts of scoring cartoons. 

    Pinky and the Brain has many poignant moments, so Ive been able to pour my heart out — for about 20 seconds at a time! The Animaniacs (Yakko, Wakko & Dot) are a different flavor, but just as much of a joy to write for. The important thing is figuring out beforehand where the hits are, where the changes happen, and setting up the score accordingly. Scoring Freakazoid was great because 1) it was crazy and so funny, and (b) we used lots of brass, more like writing for a big band. As with the other Warner Brothers shows, we recorded the score on the Eastwood stage. 

    Another complete blast was scoring an animated short for The Boys franchise. A lot of what was happening on screen was both cute and gory at the same time. The music sometimes played against what was actually happening in the story. In each scene, a decision had to be made whether to play the sweetness of the baby or the gory violence that the baby (accidentally) engaged in.

  3. Collaborating with your husband, Steven, on projects like Make Way for Noddy and Animaniacs must bring its own set of dynamics to the creative process. Can you share some insights into how you navigate artistic collaboration, especially when working on such beloved and recognizable properties? 

    Steve and I have a similar background in music. We both studied classical composition and then film scoring, and we both play the piano and sing. We also both love language and enjoy lyric-writing, especially the clever or funny kind. (We spend probably too much time coming up with clever cue titles.) Weve collaborated on songs (music and lyrics) for some of the shows weve scored.

    We ordinarily write separately when collaborating on the same show. For example, when scoring the reboot of Animaniacs, we spotted the episodes together, dividing each episode into minute or minute-and-a-half cues. Then we’d disappear into our individual writing spaces to work on our own cue. We alternated cues, always asking the other person how they ended their cue, so as to know how to begin the next one, allowing all the cues to be woven together seamlessly. This is generally how we work when we both are on a show. 

    There have been times when we’ve actually written together, side by side at the keyboard. We didnt originally intend to, but on Baby Looney Tunes we ended up writing together. We quickly realized each others strengths and were able to divide (tasks) and conquer. We found that certain decisions can be made much more quickly when working together. Its very helpful to have someone say Yeah, thats great” and be able to move on instead of wondering if what you wrote is right and fretting about it, spending time that you dont really have. Steve and I have been able to figure out what works and what doesnt, when it comes to collaboration. And were still married!

    Im not even sure how we did it, but we once collaborated on a performance piece, a commission to honor a member of the L.A. Phil. It helps that we have a similar aesthetic and understanding of music. When it comes to our individual writing projects, Id say that our styles are less similar. But when working on a cartoon or show that has a recognizable style, like Animaniacs and its offshoots, we are both able to write in the particular groove.

  4. Your work spans a wide range of genres and formats, from scoring animated series to writing choral works and performing as a singer. How do you approach the versatility required to excel in these different aspects of music creation, and do you find yourself drawn more to one style or medium over another?

    In addition to cartoons, some of my favorite projects have been writing string quartet arrangements for singers. I’ve had the great honor of working with jazz singer Tierney Sutton and the Turtle Island String Quartet, as well as opera singer Natalie Dessay and the Paris Mozart Orchestra. I find writing for string quartets or string orchestras very much like choral writing, another of my favorites. I enjoy working on a variety of projects and have had the pleasure of scoring a number of independent films. 

    Writing music is such a mysterious process. Im always amazed at how a picture can suggest music, and somehow ideas keep coming and the music grows. Before Ive written a note, I have the feeling that I wont be able to come up with anything. But once I start writing, the music just seems to become inevitable.

  5. From your orchestral arrangements to your choral compositions, your music seems to resonate with a wide range of audiences. What principles or values do you prioritize in your compositions to ensure that they connect emotionally and intellectually with listeners from diverse backgrounds?

    One can only hope that ones art moves people emotionally and intellectually. With underscore, the goal is to become part of the overall effect of the story. If the audience is moved, thats a success. They may not even be completely aware of the music. As a collaborator, its imperative to write music that serves the picture/story. 

    Whether Im scoring to picture or not, I write with the same intention and intensity. Im a perfectionist, so I revise and revise until I really like what Ive written. It helps to have structure. When writing an arrangement, the song is the structure. When writing to picture, thats a very specific structure. If its freestyle, then Ill set up my own structure. Stylistic choice might be dictated by the particular project and instrumentation. Whatever it is Im writing, I hope to make you feel something.

  6. Winning multiple Emmy Awards and being nominated for numerous others, including the Annie Awards, is a remarkable achievement. Can you share some memorable moments or milestones from your career that have shaped your perspective on success and fulfillment as a composer?

    Im very proud of my nominations (Emmys, Annies, HMMA) and feel so lucky to have won a number of Emmys. It’s extremely exciting to be nominated. Its not so much fun to lose. The goal is to feel like a winner, no matter how it goes. Thats not easy, but I think its necessary.

    Fulfillment comes from the actual writing, whether or not its for money and regardless of being nominated for an award. It may sound corny, but hard work is its own reward. I think success has to be measured by ones personal barometer. So much is dependent on being in the right place at the right time. 

    I dont deny that being nominated at different times throughout my years in animation has been extremely validating. I feel extraordinarily fortunate.

  7. As someone who has contributed to the music of beloved characters like Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo, what do you believe makes music such an integral part of the storytelling experience in animation, and how do you approach capturing the essence of these characters through your compositions?

    Underscore is like a character in its own right, particularly in cartoons. The music adds a third dimension to a 2-dimensional art. It helps to make the animation come alive. Music adds an atmosphere, an ambience, that cant be captured by a drawing alone. So many times when Ive watched a work print with just dialogue, it may be funny or moving or exciting, but theres something missing. Thats where music comes in. It completes the world of the story. 

    Individual themes for characters can be very useful, especially if a particular character returns often. Having their own theme will make them instantly recognizable, and as a composer you then have material to develop. Not that the audience will necessarily be aware of the themes, but I do think writing thematically can make for a more successful score.

    Well-known characters like Bugs Bunny, Yakko, Wakko and Dot or Pinky and the Brain, all of these have some sort of theme. A theme can be a melody or even just a particular instrumental color. The Brain, for instance, is characterized by the bassoon. This distinguishes him, musically, from other characters. Its not something that anyone watching would necessarily notice, but it gives the story consistency. Subconsciously, repetition leads to recognizability.

  8. I know you are passionate about education and are offering opportunities for young composers to learn from you. Looking ahead, what are some projects or collaborations that you’re excited about?

    Collaborating with talented artists, writers, actors, and directors, and knowing the significance of your role in the outcome of the finished product, is a great source of pride.

    The best way to learn to compose music is to compose music! Theres nothing more exciting and elucidating than hearing aloud what youve written. Composition is solitary and interior, and it only becomes a full experience by being heard.

    Im so happy to be able to pass on my experience to younger and emerging composers, and I look forward to sharing what Ive learned about scoring to picture. Steve and I are teaching 4-day animation courses at colleges and universities including Pepperdine University and Cal State Fresno, as well as the Hollywood Music Workshop in Austria.

    Interview by Jocelyn Scofield.

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Julie Bernstein

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