A Q&A with Composer Katya Richardson

  1. The Last Repair Shop a documentary you co-composed was recently nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Documentary Short Film. It was also nominated for Best Original Score by the Critics Choice Documentary Awards and the Hollywood Music in Media Awards. It has been called a Love letter to our city (LA).” This is huge! What has this journey been like for you?  

    Thank you so much! It’s been an extremely exciting and humbling journey and a lot of firsts. It’s my first film on a streaming service and my first soundtrack release on Spotify too; I would have never imagined that my work would be recognized in this way. I’m still pinching myself! 

    In a place as diverse as LA, I like to think that the very reasons people come here are the same reasons that unite us—this is a city of dreams and ambitions. As a musician and LA native, I appreciate that The Last Repair Shop is not only an ode to music education, but as you said, it’s a love letter to the city of LA. Each subject in the documentary has a unique background with different hurdles, ambitions, and paths that led them to music, and to ultimately converge at a repair shop in the heart of Los Angeles. Despite their differences, they all share an unyielding sense of hope and a humanity that we can all relate to.

    Scoring a film about music was a dream project for me. Seeing the kids in the film talk about the profound connection they found with their instruments made me relate to my own musical journey when I first started learning piano. It made the process of scoring quite personal. It felt like a chance to finally say “thank you!” to all the mentors and unsung heroes who have molded, guided, and supported me on my musical path. Truly every step of this project has been a gift—getting the exciting call from Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, working with live musicians, nerding out over hearing the Fox Searchlight theme before the film, getting to interact with the film’s subjects, and now an Oscar nom! It has been deeply gratifying. This film was a labor of love and a culmination of extraordinary efforts. Witnessing the emotional impact it has had on audiences has been absolutely amazing.

  2. The Last Repair Shop was co-composed with Kris Bowers. What was the collaboration process like? How was the creative process different from scoring solo projects or being an additional composer?

    Working with Kris Bowers was easily the highlight of my career so far. I’ve looked up to his music for years, so getting to collaborate on a project together was a dream come true. I first heard of Kris and Ben’s work together from a short they co-directed called A Concerto is a Conversation. I’ve been a huge fan ever since and was excited to discover that they were co-directing another film. Ben and I have collaborated on a few other shorts for Breakwater Studios such as MINK! and The Best Chef in the World. This was my first time working with Kris. 

    Apart from working with Kris’ themes, the process was very similar to scoring my own projects. We had two and a half weeks to write and record over a half-hour of music. Because of the tight deadline, there wasn’t much time for back and forth in the way that a new collaboration demands, so Kris instilled a lot of trust in me from the start, which meant so much! He wrote gorgeous themes for each of our four subjects in the form of piano sketches, along with the incredible orchestral sequence in the end credits. Kris’ melodies became the backbone of my score and provided a jumping-off point for me to explore my own motifs and thematic material. When it came to feedback, Kris made it a point to have discussions from a directorial perspective rather than a musical one; I appreciated how much freedom he gave me in that process. However, because he is also an incredible composer, his notes were always detailed and specific to musical elements. It was like a mini masterclass in scoring! I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from Kris on this project.

  3. You are currently arranging music for this year’s Academy Awards. This is your second time arranging music for the Oscars. Can you take us through the process of arranging for this awards show? 

    As a film composer, it’s really exciting to be on the arranging team because I get to arrange the scores from all the nominated films this year. The lead arranger sends me audio clips from soundtracks and I transcribe them to create 8 or 16 bar loops. Even if the score itself isn’t nominated, if the movie wins in a category like Costume Design, for example, the score from that film will play. But as you can imagine, most (if not all) pieces I work on won’t get played if the film doesn’t win, but that gamble is what makes it fun! This year is particularly special too because The Last Repair Shop is nominated for Best Short Documentary, which is very meta!

  4. In addition to composing for film and media, you have collaborated with several dance ensembles. How did you get involved with writing for dance? How is the process different from composing for film? 

    It’s been an unexpected journey! In middle school, I dreamed of being a dancer and took ballet classes 5 days a week. Some of the earliest music I remember being moved by were ballet scores, like Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. But despite the music bug taking over in high school, my appreciation for movement has remained a constant, and I’m so happy to have found my way back to dance in this way. 

    My first collaboration came through USC, as part of the inaugural Composers and Choreographers Showcase. Around the same time, a London-based choreographer named Charlotte Edmonds found my music through SoundCloud. She asked to repurpose a track for a piece she was developing. We’ve since worked on 5 projects together! Those projects led to other opportunities, and now, dance has become a core aspect of my work. It has been an incredible source of inspiration, particularly because it’s allowed me to travel and collaborate with people from all over the world. I’ve been really lucky to have had premieres at incredible dance venues like The Royal Opera House in London and collaborate with ensembles like the Norwegian National Ballet.

    I’ve found many parallels between dance and film music. Dance is also visual and narrative, and you have to think about things like pacing and thematic material. But dance can be much more experimental, partially because the process is far slower and the creative teams are smaller. In film, there are time constraints and we often have to sacrifice our own preferences for the sake of the project. In dance, compromise exists too of course, but there’s room for me to comment on everything from concept to choreography, or even lighting and costume. That space for discourse is extremely creatively fulfilling.

  5. You have a passion for fusing acoustic and electronic music. What are some of your favorite ways of mixing these elements? 

    Funnily enough, I came into college writing avant-garde music. Id always admired John Williams and Bernard Herrmann but never considered scoring a viable career option. I didnt see many women pursuing it, which in all honesty, discouraged me. I went on to study Classical Composition at USC, but halfway through school, fell in love with film scoring and electronic music. Now, most of my musical interests stem from melding stage and screen. I enjoy experimenting within film with unconventional orchestration or approaching concert works through a cinematic lens, and every project is an opportunity to challenge myself to create something new. 

    I like developing custom audio loops and manipulating recordings. In my most recent ballet, VORTEX, I primarily used an upright piano and synths to create the soundtrack: those were the parameters the choreographer and I set for ourselves. At times I kept the piano recognizable, while in other instances, I used the body of the instrument or slowed down the audio to create electronic effects. It was an incredible practice in limiting myself to one instrument and exploring all the available tools. Fusing soundworlds, rather than adhering to a certain genre, is what inspires me most.

  6. You’ve worked with some incredible composers including Danny Elfman and Rob Simonsen. What has been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from working with other composers? 

    That’s a great question. It’s hard to quantify because all composers are so different in their musical styles, studio setups, rituals, and writing processes. It’s been incredible to observe their practices and I’m so grateful to have worked with each of them. My biggest takeaways are that being gracious and kind goes a long way, and that there is no “right” path in music. I know it sounds cliché, but I admire that each of these composers has built their career by simply being themselves. I still remember the first time I watched PeeWee’s Big Adventure as a kid and was totally blown away by Danny Elfman’s circus-like score. It was the first time I noticed the music in a film! It’s one of his early scores, and yet, he still approaches music in the same amazing way. 

    They’ve each taught me that if we hold on to our unique experiences and backgrounds and create music genuine to us, there is space for all of us to create and be heard. Right out of college, I had a lot of anxiety about being pigeonholed or needing to write in a myriad of styles, as I’m sure many of us have experienced at some point. I didn’t like that it made me unsure of what my voice actually was. But filmmakers approach Bowers, Elfman or Simonsen because they want to work with them for who they are as people and musicians. That lesson has been invaluable in grounding myself and the music I make.

  7. What does the rest of 2024 hold for you? Can you tell us anything about this year’s upcoming projects? 

    I’m excited to share that I’ll be working on my second feature film next month. It’s a satirical doc about a small town in Maine facing an ecological disaster. The score is inspired by Italian film soundtracks of the 1960s, which happens to be one of my favorite eras of music! Composers like Nino Rota or Armando Trovajoli have influenced a lot of the harmonic language I find myself drawn to and I’m excited that the directors are so encouraging of a hyper-stylized score too. In addition to the feature, I’ve also scored a few shorts that have been selected for major film festivals. I can’t wait to attend my first film festival with a project and connect with fellow creatives.

    Interview by Jocelyn Scofield

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Katya Richardson.

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