A Q&A with CBS' The Unicorn and Disney Channel's Sydney to the Max Composer, Rebecca Kneubuhl

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  1. Judging by your credits, you have a strong footing in children’s entertainment at the highest level. Is this something you particularly enjoy and if so, why? What are other musical avenues you’d like to pursue but haven’t had the chance yet?

     

    I’m not sure if this is something particular to composers in general, but my IMDB page isn’t the best reflection of who I am as a composer. At least, not all of who I am. Sometimes I worked on things for which I wasn’t credited on screen, and sometimes those have been darker dramas or procedural shows, or just very different from my more visible credits. That said, I listen to and am influenced by or curious about a very broad range of music. I get just as much joy from Palestrina, Tallis or Tavener, as I do George Crumb, Penderecki, Arvo Pärt, The Punch Brothers, Kendrick Lamar or Esquivel. I could keep typing. I like a number of things about working on animated shows, or kids/family shows. Animation is hard, and I’ve learned something from every project. Comedy is fun, because comedy! And since I am a mom of three kids, I am grateful to television work as it allows me to have a somewhat predictable schedule from week to week. Outside of television, I actually would love to write more concert music. I also understand that the opportunities that have come my way over the years paint a picture on my credit list that isn’t fully reflective of what or how I write, or what I would do with projects that are different from what I’ve done before. I’d love to score a horror show or a super bleak documentary or a historical period drama or … this is my problem! I just love music deeply, I see every job as a potential for something positive, and I don’t take any of it for granted for one second.

  2. You have been an avid participant and organizer of the University High School mentorship program. Can you tell us more about your involvement and what this means to you?

    The program is really the brainchild of Micah Byers, who was the head of the instrumental music program at University High School, a large public LAUSD school near where I live. We collaborated to pair working composers with students who were interested in composition, or who were standout student arrangers for his orchestral and band classes. The mentor composers met with the students monthly, guiding them through creating both arrangements and original pieces for string quartet, each semester culminating in a recording session at a studio with professional musicians. There they learned some basic conducting and participated in the process of recording, engineering and producing. Last year we did something similar but with a wind ensemble. And then the world shut down. I sincerely hope the program can be restarted because it was such a great experience, both for the kids (I hope) and for me personally. Some of the students are now pursuing music degrees in college. It makes me so happy because they initially had doubts, and then decided to go for it. It was amazing to watch their confidence grow over the year. And in some ways my lack of experience organizing anything like this was a net positive; when you are writing the rules from scratch, there’s no one to tell you that you can’t do something. Anyone can be a voice of encouragement to someone else, regardless of their level of experience, talent or position in their career. Before this program, I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable saying those things – I would have thought “What right do I have giving anyone advice about anything?” But being able to tell a 15-year-old quiet, smart, nervous female composer “You can do this” doesn’t require any magic level of authority, just kindness. And we can all do that.

  3. What has been your career highlight so far? Any special moments or projects you’d like to talk about?

    This is not about a “career high” per se, but an old story from when I was just starting out. I was ridiculously happy the day I was hired by sitcom-composer-extraordinaire Jonathan Wolff. He gave me my first actual job in music and was a true mentor. I will never forget my first real writing assignment, which was to do a parody version of the telephone song from Bye Bye Birdie. I think it was for “Married…With Children”? My memory is that I worked on it for hours, mocked up a demo, then the next day the script changed, so new demo, then another script change…then finally we get to the table read – I am just a nervous small-town girl who can’t believe there are all the actors. We played the song on a boom box and everyone laughed. Then the next day they cut the song from the script. Welcome to TV! The reason that has stayed with me all these years is that it was a) the first time I didn’t feel like a total imposter and b) a great early lesson that if something isn’t working, don’t get too attached.

  4. What advice do you have for aspiring composers? Any special pointers for young girls?

    I have been thinking about what I wish someone had told me when I was very young. It’s a good question. I did not start writing music until I got to college. So, I always felt a bit behind. I transferred from a small liberal arts college in the northwest to USC. When I got there, I really felt like I was from another planet. I grew up in a very small town, with limited resources, and in contrast everyone at USC seemed to have something resembling a home studio with samplers, computers, briefcases with their manuscript pads and conducting batons. My first professor there even made fun of my staff paper at my first lesson. He said it was for babies. I felt like the little kid with ill-fitting consignment store clothes. My view of the professional music world was that it was a terrifying place. It took me a while to learn that isn’t true. So, I would say in terms of advice to aspiring composers who are young girls – don’t be afraid to take up space, ask a lot of questions, jump in with both feet and learn as you go, because no one else knows what they’re doing either. I wasted a lot of time being nervous about everything. Be brave!

  5. Are there any upcoming projects you can talk about? What do you look forward to the most in your future?

    What am I MOST looking forward to? The end of covid, so everyone can get back to making live music and theater, and dance and sing again! But aside from that, I just finished a pilot for HBO Max, and I’m also working on “The Unicorn” on CBS which is super fun, and season 3 of “Sydney to the Max” on Disney Channel. After that, I look forward to hopefully finding the perfect horror indie documentary historical period drama!

    Interview by Anne-Kathrin Dern

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