Where did your composition journey start or what inspired you to become a composer?
I was a classical guitarist doing my undergrad degree in theory when I developed a serious hand injury and realized I had to find a new avenue if I wanted to have a future in music. I had always been interested in composition and this was the fire I needed to pursue it seriously. Happily, I turned out to be a better composer than a player; combined with my love of storytelling, collaboration and my natural leanings toward melodic writing, composing for media turned out to be a really good fit.
You have a degree in composition from the University of Toronto and another degree in film scoring from the University of Southern California. What’s your favorite film or TV project that you’ve worked on to date?
There are several projects that are my favourites for different reasons. I have particularly fond memories of composing additional music for a retro musical series called “Getting Along Famously” early in my career. It was an opportunity to get out of my classical lane and compose jazzy light music in the vein of Mancini and David Rose which I enjoyed immensely. My other favourites are “Little Miss Jihad” and “To the New Girl”. The former because it really let me play to my strengths as a melodic writer. The latter because it was a sublime script, the performances were brilliant and the producer being a fan of my music was easy to work with. Additionally, the project was a challenge; the script consists of ten monologues so it was a tour de force in the delicate balance of writing under dialogue.
Not only have you written for film and TV, but you’ve written for a number of contemporary classical projects for soloists, chamber groups, ballets, and orchestra. What’s your favorite non-film project that you’ve worked on so far and do you have anything coming up?
I have a couple that are near and dear to my heart. Early in my career I composed a three movement work for violin and piano purely because it seemed to be an essential right of passage in my development. The work was eventually premiered by violinist Moshe Hammer and through the years has been championed by several performers especially the first movement ‘Danza’ which was aptly characterized by one violinist as ‘serpentine cabaret’. It’s very gratifying that a work that came from pure artistic expression and was composed with no agenda other than personal growth has resonated with so many performers and continues to live on.
The second project is an orchestral arrangement of my setting of Willow Song from Shakespeare’s Otello for the Guelph Symphony Orchestra. The song had been a prize winner in a songwriting competition held in honour of the Stratford Festival of Canada’s 50th anniversary. The Guelph Symphony subsequently did a Shakespeare celebration concert and commissioned me to arrange my original piano & vocal setting for them. They performed it brilliantly with soprano Rosalind Pickett. It is my biggest regret that I don’t have a good recording of that performance.
As a sidebar, there is one other project that wasn’t a collaboration but was a real joy for me. The National Ballet of Canada selected some of my music for one of their aspiring choreographer workshops. It was such a thrill to attend the final performance and see these dancers who are at the top of their artistic achievement dancing to my music. One of the performers was principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez who retired this year. I remember attending rehearsal and wondering who that incredible dancer was. Despite having seen Sonia dance many times, with her hair loose rather than in the customary ballet chignon I hadn’t recognized her. Her grace was nothing short of transcendent.
I do have a few things coming up, a short opera as well as a work for string trio and clarinet and possibly a choral work. The diversity of the ensembles is really exciting and I am looking forward to working purely with live players which doesn’t happen nearly often enough.
You’ve had some live score performance projects! Can you tell us more about those? Did you think about those projects very differently when writing the music?
I had very little experience when I was asked to compose original scores for two silent films (a Charlie Chaplin and a Charlie Chase) to be performed live in concert by a five piece chamber group. The overriding concern was technical — how to move between tempi as easily as possible keeping in mind that for most of the players it was their first time playing to a click track and rehearsal time was limited to two sessions. Additionally, the ensemble didn’t have a conductor. The films were 25 minutes each with wall-to-wall music, so I added a lot of rehearsal letters in the score that I announced in the click as a voice over so that if disaster struck the players could come back together. Good thing too because the percussionist lost the click in his headphones at one point and it was those announced rehearsal letters that saved the day once the click kicked back in.
When you’re starting on a new project, what’s your creative process like from beginning to end?
I try to find out from the filmmaker or producer what music they like and if they have a vision for their score. Sometimes there is a temp which can be helpful or it may be really inappropriate (I remember laughing out loud at a horror film murder scene because the temp was so unexpectedly over the top); right or wrong the temp will at least provide me with some insight into the vision for the tone of the project. After the initial spotting session, I spend some time listening to music and exploring the palette/building a template. I will put together a cue list to see what themes are needed, where they can be reused and how they need to develop within the arc of the project as well as a schedule of minutes of music to be composed per day. If I am working with a collaborator, I will assess which cues are going to the other person. Sometimes I throw preexisting music up against scenes to see what they can handle and to provide myself with different perspectives; this approach is really helpful when the filmmakers have no temp and they are providing little to no input. During this time thematic material will usually start to germinate and I will eventually start sending ideas, themes or scenes scored to picture for feedback. Once everyone is in agreement with the direction, we are up-and-running with cues being regularly submitted for approval/feedback until the project is finished. If the budget allows, I will have some live players and then it’s off to the mix and delivery of the score.
What inspires you when writing music for a dance project? Do you/how do you approach that differently than writing for film?
This question takes me back to when I was commissioned by a chamber group and we settled on doing a ballet. I love ballet so I was thrilled about the project and had come up with a basic storyline when the choreographer had to back out. The clock was ticking so I had to start composing without a collaborator. Luckily a choreographer was found who was passionate about the project and had her own dance company so all ended well, but it was a less than auspicious beginning. So in answer to your question as to what inspires me — a deadline.
How my approach differs from writing for film: In this particular case, unlike a film where I would be taking the filmmaker’s lead, I found myself acting as both the storyteller and the composer with the choreographer taking her lead from me. As for similarities, I would liken attendance at rehearsal to doing a cue playback with all the attendant feedback and the real possibility that you are going to have to make changes to accommodate the evolving vision. Also, since I provided an electronic version of the score for rehearsals, I did notice an unexpected case of ‘temp love’ on the part of the choreographer when it came to adjusting to working with live players.
Is there any advice you’d give younger composers or that you would have liked to share with your past self?
Great question. What is the word count limit for my answer? LOL. Don’t wait for the elusive feeling of being 100% ready for a project, job, etc. I think this is particularly relevant to women. I recently read an article that said men will apply for a job when they have 60% of the qualifications while women tend to apply only when they have 100%. Confidence is the product of experience which you can only accrue from doing the work and learning that you can deal with any challenges that come up. I’m not recommending being inauthentic and taking on work that you are not suited for, but rather keeping in mind that feeling uncomfortable is a part of growth and if there is an area where you are weak you can always get help. I collaborate with another composer occasionally and I have found that doing so can make the creative process not only more enjoyable but it can also result in a more interesting score; additionally the input and support that we give each other is invaluable.
I would also say try not to restrict yourself to only media projects. If you have the time and the inclination consider doing theatre, concert music, song writing and any other medium that presents itself. Keep an open mind and go where you are wanted. Additionally, write music that is not attached to an external project, record it and release it. Having watched many of my media composer colleagues burn out or be crushed by rejection, self-directed projects can be a lifeline and it may just boost your media career to be seen as an artist in your own right. Write the score for the project that you wish you had. It may just turn out to be the calling card that you need for your next gig.
Interview by Kati Falk-Flores
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