You’re an in-demand Australian/Irish composer for film, television, advertising, gaming and the concert hall. What drew you into composing, and how did you start your career?
My family has a rich musical heritage and so music was always a big part of my life from a young age. As a teenager, I remember in particular being enthralled by the film The Piano and was blown away by the music. The score by Michael Nyman was so deeply moving and I knew then that music was something that I would love to do, but I really had no idea what that would look like or how I would get there. Following secondary school I seriously considered going on to study composition however I was also very interested in the health sciences. My parents practical advice was to “get a real job first” and pursue music at a later time, and that is what I ended up doing – I went on to become an osteopath! This career path allowed me to choose my own hours whilst still pursuing music on the side. I moved from Australia to Ireland and whilst practicing as an osteopath I went on to complete an MPhil in Music and Media Technology at Trinity College Dublin. I continued to play piano bar gigs for parties, weddings, clubs which was great training for musical improvisation. After playing at a friends wedding I was asked by a guest in attendance to score his first short film, and as I had learned some of the technology and compositional skills needed for this I was able to score a few of his films – so you never know where your first gig might come from!
Although I had developed music technology and compositional skills I still didn’t have real scoring experience. At that time Screen Skills Ireland were having LA composers come to Ireland to give master classes and this is where I met Garry Schyman and Christopher Young who both encouraged me to come to LA. As I continued my music education, I was very fortunate to receive a Fulbright Scholarship during my PhD to attend the UCLA Extension Film Scoring Program where I really learned the craft! I had such a wonderful time living and learning in LA, not only did I attend the UCLA program but I also worked on a few large orchestral projects in Sony and Fox which were wonderful experiences.
So my compositional journey was never actually planned with a clear trajectory, I really just pursued any opportunities that came my way to study, perform and learn, even those that I was unsure about and didn’t know where they would lead. This non-linear path together with all the experiences and skills I have learned have contributed to where I am today.
Can you talk about the role of musical education in building one’s career, and how are you involved with the Summer Program at Screen Composer Academy, as well as the MA for Film Scoring at Pulse College?
Education was integral in my career to develop the necessary skill base to be a screen composer and it also provided funding opportunities to avail of for my LA and UCLA experience. I was able to work and network with some amazing orchestrators and composers and my education provided the foundation, experiences and opportunities needed. However, of course this is not the only way as many people have film scoring careers without doing degrees in the area, for example by learning from working with other established composers.
Having a masters and PhD (in composition and music technology from Trinity College Dublin) has also opened up lecturing opportunities in Ireland and abroad. I so enjoy the opportunity to give back to the composer community and encourage emerging composers, especially female composers in their careers. This in part has inspired my colleague Vasilis Milesis and I to recently form the Screen Composer Academy as a resource for aspiring composers. We run a summer course as a way of giving composers a solid foundational ground in scoring for the screen as well as recording sessions they can use as part of their portfolios. The program also helps them connect with professionals in the field that they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. I’m also a part of the faculty of the MA Scoring for Film, TV and Interactive Media in Pulse College which is starting this September, so it is all a bit busy but I do love continuing to be a part of music education – it keeps me on my toes!
You’re working with orchestras quite a lot, particularly with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra that recently recorded your score for The Hunger documentary, narrated by Liam Neeson. What’s your main takeaway from working with an orchestra?
I absolutely love working with orchestras and I have been extremely lucky to work with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on projects both for scoring for the screen and concert music. They are a wonderful group and I am grateful for every musician, I still get emotional every time I hear an orchestra playing my music as they breath life into the score.
There is always something new to learn from every project and especially for larger ensembles and orchestras. It can be quite daunting doing a series or feature score that has many cues and many players. Therefore one of the key takeaways I would have to say is endeavor to be organized. From the very beginning, I use a working document that has all the musical themes/ideas, variations used for each cue, who’s playing what, who’s not playing, if there are tempo changes, pre-records and then closer to the session a shared team document with who’s doing the parts, when they are sent, who has checked and re-checked them etc.. This way any issues are found early and not on the recording day. My training in LA has been integral to developing this process.
Another takeaway is to avoid the temptation to use every instrument all the time. When you first get your hands on an orchestra it is just so exciting that it is hard sometimes to pull back and use only what you need, when you need it. I find that having maximum three to four ideas in a piece is enough and to orchestrate them simply and clearly with sonic space for each to come through. Nuanced, at times subtle and clear scores always sound better on the day.
You’re currently scoring a few documentary projects, both series and features. What’s your approach to scoring documentaries, and is it different from scoring narrative films?
When I have scored documentaries, I tend to start writing the music beforehand as sometimes I will get a draft script from the director, even if they are just ideas or themes. I then create mock-ups that I send to the director and editor during the editing phase. Sometimes these pieces end up in some form in the final score, which is very helpful if there is a short post-production time, especially as documentaries can have a lot of music. So the documentaries can sometimes feel more like a sound track with pieces of contrasting music.
With narrative films, there tends to be more of a thread throughout the score – more of an underscore, that is a little more connected and nuanced and generally I have found less music is needed. I find it more difficult to write music for a narrative film before seeing the visuals as these can really dictate the sound palette of a score. So what I might have in my head from reading the script can be different from what I actually receive, hence I usually only do a few ideas before the picture lock and really start writing when I see the picture.
What have been some of the highlights of your career so far, and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Receiving the Fulbright scholarship and spending time in LA was a significant moment in time, it marked the beginning of my life as a screen composer. To be able to study at UCLA and work in the industry at a professional level was invaluable. The experience gave me not only many important skills but also the confidence to keep pursuing a compositional career. I also made so many wonderful lifelong friends in LA that it really is my second home now!
Another highlight would be having my music performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra for the documentary The Hunger. It was such an honour to score such an important event in Irish history and to work with the national orchestra, I felt very fortunate to have had that experience.
Looking forward, I hope to continue working on meaningful projects with wonderful creative people! For me, working with a creative team and being given the opportunity to explore my own compositional voice is very exciting and fulfilling.
Interview by Nami Melumad
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