A Q&A with Composer & Music Editor Mathilde Koechlin

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  1. Congratulations on working on a variety of film and game projects as a composer! Your demos show quite a range of styles. Can you tell us about your background and what made you interested in writing music for media?

    I’ve always been surrounded by music. My parents are not musicians, but they always had music on in our house and from a young age, they told my brothers and me we had to choose an instrument to learn. I chose the piano, fell in love with it and while at home we had blues, rock and folk playing, I was learning about classical music, ragtime and jazz during my lessons. My parents also used to take us to the opera as often as they could so I quickly developed a love for a wide variety of music genres.  

    Funnily enough, I would never practice for my piano lessons and the only time I did it was when my teacher was giving me composition homework. I was fascinated by music theory, how music can be analyzed and brought down to just a few numbers. I’d say I’m pretty much a music geek! I wanted to understand how all the music I love was made and how it worked. I remember distinctly discovering, for the first time, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and was entirely blown away at how that music told the story with such levels of depth and darkness. That cemented my connection with music.  

    I started performing live when I was just ten years old, being part of different bands and even starting a band with my brothers. Then I came to London to study music, doing a BA in production and piano performance at London Centre of Contemporary Music. I learned so much but quickly realized I wasn’t interested in producing other people’s music or being a performer. This is when I stumbled across a course there called Introduction to Film Scoring and something clicked. That was it, that was what I had been missing! Composing music to tell a story on screen made so much sense to me. I then applied for the MA in film composing at the National Film and Television School, got in and never looked back!  

    I’ve since then worked on a variety of projects. This is another thing I love about being a film composer:  every project means new music, new genres, new discoveries and I love the fact that I am learning new things about music every single time. Working across a wide range of styles keeps me motivated, focused and curious. I wouldn’t do it any other way. I like being pushed outside of my comfort zone and discovering where music will take me.

  2. You recently scored the short film Skate where the protagonist Thea learns to deal with her loneliness and social anxiety through skateboarding. Can you tell us about the emotional journey you captured with that score and what your approach was to finding the right sound palette for this project?  

    Skate was a very special project to work on. The relationship with the director and producer was so smooth; we were all on the same page and their trust in my work allowed me to really take my time while searching for the right sound palette. I was engaged in the story, I felt for the main character and I was very concerned about sharing the right emotions. With Thea having social anxiety but ultimately finding her own strength, new friendships and being able to do what she loves, I had to make sure the release at the end was satisfying. I found a theme for it I was happy with, and knowing where I was going musically and where I would leave the audience was extremely useful to build the rest of the score. I then worked my way backwards, composing the cues for a panic attack, for a heart to heart conversation between Thea and her best friend and then for the opening. It had to feel like Thea’s been through a lot and that the release at the end was deserved and that she earned it.  

    Music-wise I kept thinking of a wave kind of sound, thinking of anxiety showing its head here and there but also the doubts Thea had about herself. So, I started playing around with synths sound and found this detuned synth that felt warm enough to work for the ending but detuned enough to feel like something is off for all the other scenes where anxiety is the lead. Playing around with the envelopes, I shaped it so that it would act as a wave and then I started exploring what could be added to this. I wanted to have the feeling that Thea is flying when she finally feels confident and so I also added these high arpeggios on the piano, with a bit of delay to add some sparkle and dreamy vibes.  

    On top of this I had some bendy lead synths coming in and out, accentuating the dream aspect of the cue. To finalize everything, I needed to have something down to earth, something visceral that would connect all the dreamy vibes to reality and make us feel even closer to Thea. I then added a few low percussions, something low in timbre, bubbling underneath everything in order to give us the feeling of the strength she was finding and how grounded she was becoming.  

    The process of finding the right sound palette took a long time, with a lot of trials and error but it was overall really satisfying. I felt so engaged with the story and I really wanted to give justice to Thea’s emotions. Ultimately, it has been extremely rewarding. 

  3. You’ve also worked as music editor on a number of projects. Can you tell us more about your work as music editor on the Hulu series The Veil? 

    I was fairly new to the job of music editor when I was asked to work as one, so I had to quickly learn a whole new set of skills, discovering new things on the go and making sure everything was working as planned. I am so happy I took that chance!  

    For The Veil, I would receive the episodes with temp music, create a cue sheet, updating it with each new cut, and then replace the temp music with the composer’s sketches. But the really nice part of it was the creative freedom I had as to what to place where. I’ve been very privileged to work with the composer of The Veil, Jon Opstad, on another Netflix series, Bodies, which allowed us to develop a very nice trustworthy relationship. I love his music and he has been a mentor to me so, having the chance to work together and to learn from him has been an incredible experience  

    On The Veil, once we had a discussion about the themes and to whom they were related, I was free to be as creative as I wanted with his music, transforming his sketches, muting instruments, cutting parts of a cue and mixing different cues together. I would then send sketches for the new temp back to him for approval, work on some changes and then move on to the next episode. I had so much fun doing it and I learned so much in the process.  

    Another big part of working as a music editor was creating Pro Tools files for the recording sessions and mixing sessions. I also helped the music supervisor with the source music, synching it to new cuts and preparing the files for the sound team. Towards the end of the project I was also going to the dub reviews and the mix sessions, which were incredibly interesting. I was a beginner but felt part of a team, of the bigger picture and this was an amazing feeling. It was a lot of work, long days, but I’ve learned so much and I would do it again anytime.  

  4. How does working as a music editor influence your own composition work? With it being a different creative role, do you feel it’s affected you as a composer? 

    Music editing has definitely changed my approach to my composing. I’m now braver, more creative and so much more confident in experimentation, trying something out of what had been my usual comfort zone. It’s so much more exhilarating and rewarding now. I used to be extremely proud when I would finish a cue, I wouldn’t dare to touch it again and I was scared that I would ruin it doing so. Working with somebody else’s music, cutting it, transposing it, doubling it and doing so many other changes, allowed me to be way less precious about my own music. I now automatically apply a lot of what I was doing as a music editor to my own music. I am not scared anymore to play around with the structure of a new cue, changing it completely, replacing instruments, and trying new timings. It has been extremely liberating.  

    I also became faster at making creative decisions. While working as a music editor I would usually have a week to replace the temp of an episode, knowing that the sketches I would do would have to sound extremely good: as good as though they were going directly to the director and producer. So this forced me to brainstorm ideas faster and to try different things quickly. I sketched a lot of scenes in a very short time and it developed my reading of a film as a composer.  

    I learned that being organized could truly save your life when working in an industry where deadlines can be very tight. The more organized I would be, the more time I would have to focus on the creative side of the job and so I try now to apply these ideas to any composing projects I get: like keeping the cue sheets updated, or the importance of how you name and organize your files.  

    I also learned so much by simply having access to the music of other composers, seeing how they would write their music, organize their files, read a scene. I learned so much more than I thought I would.  Overall working as a music editor made me a better composer, more creative, more efficient and more confident about trying new things.  

  5. If you could work on any project at all, what would your dream project be and why? What would be your favorite music style to write? 

    This is a hard one. I can tell you what I would love to work on today, but it might not be the same tomorrow! I’ve always loved writing quirky music and I would love to work on a project that allows me to experiment with different genres, mixing different styles and instruments, while also being very effective emotionally. I really like the series format. I think it allows the music to grow and evolves in a longer period of time than a feature, which also allows a deeper exploration of all the different themes. Working with a team of people that are all respectful of each other and who believe in the story they’re working on it’s a must.  

    I’ve always been a fan of Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone and Joe Hisaishi, which is a varied combo of composers, but working on a Tim Burton film, a Western or an animation would be a dream. I like changing style, changing musical world, it keeps me on my toes and motivated to discover more.  

  6. What have been some of your favorite projects to work on to date and why? And do you have any upcoming projects or releases we should keep an eye out for? 

    Some of my favorite projects to work on include two short documentaries, Sagebrush Gold and Blue Mind. I had an amazing relationship with both directors. We had so much respect for each other and the trust they had in me allowed me to create a soundtrack with confidence. I also strongly believed in the stories they wanted to share and if I am emotionally engaged on a personal level then the work becomes even more meaningful. I feel like I need this emotional aspect to truly give the best of my energy to a project. I strongly believe you need to love what you do if you want other people to love it as well.  

    For Sagebrush Gold, I got to go back to my love of folk and blues music, using mainly guitars for the score, and it was pure joy to write music for the amazing landscapes the director had shot. I wanted the audience to be there with the contributors, to feel what they were feeling and to become more engaged with the topic of climate change.  

    For Blue Mind the director told me the score had to feel like it was coming from a Pixar film. She wanted to have this warm, emotional journey with the music. The film is about social anxiety, suicide and how blue spaces affect our emotions and overall health. I wanted to share this story; to inform people of what could help, and to be able to write a warm, hugging, score was extremely satisfying. 

    Another project I especially enjoyed composing for was a short animation called Zuman. This one was special as I was able to dive into my quirky vibes while writing the score. It is a story where the world are inverted, where the animals go to the zoo the see a human born in captivity, who then realizes he’s craving a companion. The range of emotions I was covering with the music was really wide. I had a lot of fun going quirky for one cue and more emotional for another.  

    At the moment, I am working on a short silent film, which is another adventure as I am diving back into ragtime music and stride piano, watching a lot of shorts from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The score is piano only, which is also a nice way for me to practice more than I usually would. I am once again learning so many things and I am very excited about it coming out.  

    I am also planning a few releases for music I’ve written to date. I’m doing a selection and will soon be able to share it. Music has a meaning only when it’s shared.

    Check out the AWFC directory for Mathilde Koechlin

    Interview by Kati Falk-Flores

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