Laura Karpman is a bold, incandescent musical talent, who has contributed her gift to numerous critically acclaimed projects, such as Mozart in The Jungle, Inventing Tomorrow, The Beguiled, Paris Can Wait, Underground, and many others. After receiving extensive training at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, Laura returned to her native Los Angeles to break into the field of film composing. Since then, her stunning scores have garnered four Emmy Awards. In addition to her artistry, Laura is a founding member and the former president of The Alliance for Women Film Composers. In May of this year, she was honored with the BMI Champion Award for her advocacy on behalf of women in music for media. She is also the very first female to have been elected for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors. In our varied discussion, Laura reveals how she encountered the art of scoring and speaks on what female composers need to conquer next.
I understand that you completed both your masters and doctorate from Juilliard in concert music under the direction of Milton Babbitt and received mentorship from the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Is it true that Quincy Jones also studied under her?
Yes, he did, as did Aaron Copland and lots of other people. By the time I got there, she was quite old, but she was a great teacher of composers in the 20th century. I had a couple of lessons with her. Piazzolla also studied with her. Everyone went to Fontainebleau!. For me, it was a significant experience, not only to even sit in the room with this woman who had the famous Cocteau sketch of Stravinsky on her piano, but also to meet and work with lots of women composers there. They taught traditional French composition, which had more to do with learning counterpoint and ear training.
Can you tell us about the early beginnings of your enriching musical education that prepared you for the world of film scoring?
It's so funny! I think about it a lot because I never dreamed about being a film composer. I grew up out here in LA, though I left when I was a teenager for boarding school on the East Coast, then went off to college and graduate school. I was always fascinated by the intersection of music and drama. When I was in college, I read plays and I wanted to score plays. I was a singer, so I was very interested in opera. I don't know why it never occurred to me to be a film composer. I actually wanted to be a professor and then my teacher at Juilliard recommended me to the Sundance Institute. It turned my world upside down. I really got excited about the possibility of combining music with visuals. Also, at that point, I got really excited by the technology because I'd never really seen computers and music work together in any substantial way. I felt it was the whole future of everything.
We were excited to learn that you were musically involved in the fourth season of Amazon's Mozart In The Jungle. As we learned from Frankie Pine and Mandi Collier, there is a lot of licensed classical music that appears throughout the show. Can you tell us about the musical support you provided? How do you feel about the show's exposure of classical music traditions to audiences young and old through a dramatic lens?
Well, it was actually one of my absolute favorite things that I've done in a while. I had a workshop in opera here in Los Angeles with Yuval Sharon, who runs The Industry. He said, "Listen, Mozart in the Jungle is looking for somebody to do something really unusual and I recommended you." Then they called. There's basically a character on the show who's kind of like the Leonard Bernstein type. He's conducted the orchestra for a long time and is now starting this new orchestra. He’s trying to accomplish two things. He's trying to breathe new air into pieces of 19th century classical music and he's also trying to think about technology, imagining different ways to do things. He’s trying to be experimental. So, I got to “be” him musically.
I created these three kinds of composition/arrangements for his new orchestra, The Queens Symphony. They wanted to transform pieces of classical music, like Beethoven’s "Egmont Overture", and Liszt’s "Prometheus Suite", they wanted to re-invent them. For example, the character, Thomas, is driving through a traffic jam in Queens and suddenly, he gets an idea for what to do with the "Egmont Overture". So, I came up with “his” idea. There’s a motorcycle that's got a trombone valve on it, so it can change pitch. There are traffic cones with tuba mouthpieces in them to make all kinds of noise. We were able to build instruments using all these hubcaps and car parts, doing super-cool things. I did three of these arrangements for them and it was just a great gig.
You scored Laura Nix's documentary, Inventing Tomorrow, which follows the process of bright young minds developing their innovative environmentalist solutions for The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. What initially attracted you to this project?
Laura is a really incredible filmmaker, and I was recommended to her by Tabitha Jackson who runs the Sundance Documentary Lab, where I mentor. The great thing about Laura is she's very musically literate, and she wanted this hybrid orchestral score. We wound up doing a youth choir here in Los Angeles, and we did a small orchestra. For the end credits, I was able to set the periodic table of elements as text, because it relates to the science theme of the film. Musically, it was an absolutely beautiful project to work on.
How does your musical approach shift when working on documentaries?
It doesn't. Different people will tell you different things about this. I've gotten into heated discussions with dear colleagues of mine who have a very different philosophy than I do, but I think it's all about character, not about genre. We need to support those characters in the same way, whether it's true, or an interview of a live person, or a scripted drama. It's the same sort of gesture. It's the same impetus. It serves the same purpose.
You and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum created the musical environment for Half The Picture, a documentary on the dismal percentage of active and successful female directors in Hollywood. As a staunch supporter of women's equality in the entertainment industry, what did it mean to you to be a part of this project and create this score with another female composer?
Well, I really felt strongly that I needed to do it. It was a really low-budget project, but I just felt that I was the right person, and with Nora, of course, to do this very important film. The film is an important historical document, because basically, Amy Adrion, who's the director, just interviewed the top women in the industry and had them tell their stories. They're all of our stories. It's not just directors. It's composers. It's cinematographers. It's every woman who's in the business has the same story. It was a no-brainer for me to participate in it because I wanted to bring my expertise to that particular film and do what I could to make it just complete. It is a film with these fantastic interviews one after another- with Jill Soloway, Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons.
You were the first woman to be elected to the music branch of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors and you are the founder and served as the president of the Alliance of Women Film Composers. As a trailblazer for women in film music, what progress still needs to be made?
Very specifically, we need to start working on the top box office films. We need to break through a certain ceiling. For most female composers, if we're working in feature films, they are under $20 million and we are not on films that have an over $20 million budget. So, our big glass ceiling is that budget point. We need to start seeing women doing network and top cable television shows. We're starting to have a little bit of progress and movement on that. I think it's been a really good pilot season for a lot of it this year and we'll see how that translates next year.
I think right now, what I'm seeing is that the TV networks are stepping up and they're looking for diversity, which is great. At the Academy, we're actively seeking new members, women, and people of color. We have new programs, which we'll announce pretty soon, that'll help connect women more effectively. There's been this kind of myth that there aren't any women composers and it's just untrue. What is true is that we haven't been on the bigger projects and that's what's got to change. It's going to take men championing women. It's going to take maybe some of the bigger male composers coming out and saying, "Hey, you know what, I'm going to step aside on this one. I think a woman would be great, or I'd love to co-compose this with a woman or executive produce." So, I think that that's part of what we're looking for, too. What we need are really wonderful male allies.
What has been your greatest achievement in creating this community of profoundly talented females in film music?
I think the greatest achievement is creating the community itself. I think just making friends and creating a sense of camaraderie. I think that that's something that the film music world could benefit more from. Along with my fellow governors at the Academy, Michael Giacchino and Charles Bernstein, we thought about how to create more of a sense of community. We had a really phenomenal concert at Disney Hall as a part of Oscar Week. I think we all felt really good about the diversity that the concert showed, and the fine music that was performed. We just need to be out there having each other's backs.
Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, your two-time Grammy winning multimedia opera, Ask Your Mama builds a palatial musical treatment around the potent poetry of the iconic Langston Hughes. What was the core motivation of this project and what did the collaboration process entail with The Roots and Jessye Norman?
The poem is really an astonishing piece of American poetry. It's Langston Hughes' longest and most complicated poem. One of the remarkable things about it is that on the right-hand margins of the poem, Hughes says exactly how the music should sound, which is just like eye candy for a composer. For me, coming from being a media composer, it was a fabulous opportunity to realize this great poet's vision just as I've realized directors' visions. Jessye Norman, who's one of the greatest operatic voices who's ever lived, signed on and helped me shepherd it through, and then The Roots came on, as well as the great jazz singer Nnenna Freelon. We did it at Carnegie Hall and then Hollywood Bowl, the Apollo Theater. We just did it in Chicago a few months ago at Symphony Hall. So, it's had a nice life as well as the recording. It's just a major piece of American poetry that begged to be set to music by the author himself.
How did you first fall in love with opera?
I was a singer when I was a kid. I grew up singing opera and jazz, so I did them both. It kind of came naturally to me, but I think it loops back into film scoring because opera's kind of like live film in a funny way. It feels within my wheelhouse in terms of drama and multimedia.
Underground revolved around the lives of slaves and abolitionists in the days of the Underground Railroad yet the musical treatment fused elements of traditional action scores with hip-hop and contemporary music. This is not the first opportunity you've had to collaborate with Raphael Saadiq. Can you describe how you conceptualized and worked alongside the two of them?
John Legend was one of the executive producers, so he came on early, and we discussed the vibe that the writers and the creative engine wanted. They basically wanted music that didn't necessarily nod to the period but could. Raphael Saadiq is a great R&B artist and songwriter, and he and I had worked together on a lot of different projects. It was kind of a natural gig for the two of us to do, because we both come from different musical worlds, but we join our talents together nicely.
How do you generally begin your creative process? While working on a score, what are the indispensable instruments and technical tools you must have at your disposal?
Well, the piano is number one. My brain is number two, just walking and thinking. Sometimes, I come up with the best ideas away from the studio. Music paper and also my computer comes in handy. So, those are kind of the essential tools, but I think mostly the piano and the brain. They're the most useful.
What is the DAW you work with?
I actually work in Pro Tools because I record all the time. I'm sitting in my studio right now surrounded by every imaginable kind of musical instrument. The rule is of the house is, if you can play it and you can make a sound out of it, you can bring it in the house.
How do you know when something is truly complete?
That's a great question. It's funny because I think there are all these layers of being finished. I have thought things were finished when they weren't, and I have thought things were unfinished when they were. I have a pretty good sense of that. With concert music and film music, sometimes when it gets on its feet, you make changes.
In your opinion, who are the people creating some of the most inspiring and high quality work right now?
I like a lot of stuff. I think when I’m actively composing a lot, I don't set out to listen to music really in the same way. I think one of the most exciting artists who's working now is Kendrick Lamar and the people who are producing him. I think that's a cool fusion of hip-hop and jazz. In terms of film scoring, there's a lot of good work being made out there in a lot of different genres. I liked Get Out. I liked Tamar-Kali's score for Mudbound. I loved Mandy Hoffman's score for The Lovers. I loved Teddy Shapiro's score for Captain Underpants. I thought that was a super-clever score. I enjoyed Michael Giacchino's score for War of Planet of the Apes. I thought the Dunkirk score was very cool for Hans Zimmer. In classical music, Caroline Shaw is someone that I'm listening to, and she was one of the people featured in Mozart in the Jungle. Terence Blanchard has a new opera that I'm really looking forward to hearing with Kasi Lemmons, who's a brilliant director that I've worked with in the past.
As an instructor at USC Thornton School of Music, how is the academic experience different for your students today than it was for you when you were coming up?
I teach five private students. They bring me their classwork and stuff that they're working on. I work with people in the film scoring program. I never officially studied film scoring. I was studying composition, so I would be bringing in pieces of music for my teacher to look at. But I don't think it's all that different. Maybe the bigger difference is that we talk about technology and I might make a suggestion on how to use processing and how to change the timbre of something organically through signal processing of various kinds.
What are the most imperative and valuable skills for an aspiring composer to cultivate as a young adult?
It's endless! I think definitely just listening to and studying music. It also includes learning to read well, ear training, making sure that you really can hear intervals well, because that really helps you on a scoring stage. It is also useful to study the music of great classical and great film composers and how those intersect, where they do, where they don't. I think it's really important to study and understand the basic tenets of drama. You've got to be able to communicate with filmmakers with intelligence and understanding of what they're putting into their projects. I think those are the big skills.
If you could host a dinner party for five of your musical influences, dead or alive, who would you choose to invite and why?
Langston Hughes, for sure. Probably Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. Also, Nadia Boulanger, because even though I knew her, I would still love to pick her brain. Lastly, maybe somebody like Margaret Bonds.
You have a range of incredible projects on the horizon, including "Set It Up", a comedy starring Zoey Deutch and Lucy Liu, "Every Act of Life", a documentary on Tony-winning playwright, and "Green Days By The River", a coming of age story set in 1950's Trinidad. Going forward, what can we expect from you musically?
I've got three pilots with Raphael [Saadiq]. I can't really reveal what they are, but they're all great. I've got a musical in China with a collaborator. I love working with a Chinese artist named Sa Dingding. I have an opera piece for the soprano Debbie Voight, which I'm really looking forward to. There’s also an awesome, romantic comedy called Set it Up. I guess they might do a theatrical release for it in the summer, but it's a fabulous thing and Claire Scanlon is making her feature directorial debut. She's one of the real go-to comedy directors and she just did a great job. We had a riot on that film. Other than that, I’m just finishing up a couple of documentaries, and there are many possibilities that I can't really discuss, but it's always a rich life around here.
Stream Set It Up on Netflix starting June 15th, 2018 to hear Laura's score.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Editing | Kavitha Goldowitz
Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Laura Karpman and White Bear PR.