Peter Nashel is the shape shifting musical monarch behind the gripping award season darling, I, Tonya, Netflix's 13th century historical epic, Marco Polo, TV Land's millennial smash series, Younger, and many more. He is the co-founder of DuoTone Audio, a group specializing in the creation of bespoke award-winning music and audio solutions for a wide range of media. After cultivating a rich foundation in classical and jazz at Manhattan School of Music and Eastman School of Music, Peter entered the advertising music racket, which morphed into a diversity of opportunities in film scoring. Up next, he will be lending his talents to Bill Holderman's Book Club, starring an array of silver screen sirens including Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen,and Diane Keaton, and the dramatic thriller, The Nigerian Prince. In our in-depth discussion, Peter reveals the logic behind his over the top musical treatment for I, Tonya and the nuances of creative collaboration.
You are an incredibly versatile composer, having worked on everything from riveting historical dramas to controversial biopics. Can you tell us about your musical background? What were your most dominant artistic impulses at this time in your life?
As a kid, I started off on the classical saxophone and studied it all through high school. It was not a big part of the general repertoire, but I was lucky to have a really amazing teacher by the name of Paul Cohen, who I believe still teaches at Manhattan School of Music. I was devoted to it and studied with various highly skilled Broadway players. After that, I was completely bitten by the jazz bug and went down a bebop rabbit hole. I went from classical alto to both jazz tenor and alto saxophone as well. In the summertime, I went to study at Eastman School. I did a year at Tanglewood. When I got to college, I was fortunate enough to meet Kenny Barron and his brother, Bill Barron. Kenny is a great jazz pianist and Bill is a legendary tenor saxophonist, who could be described as a contemporary of John Coltrane. He played with The Heath Brothers and all those Philly jazz saxophone titans while teaching at Wesleyan. Learning from him really opened my ears and turned me on to thinking about music in different ways. He was such a fantastic teacher and a warm spirit.
While in college, I took a year off and came down to The Manhattan School. That was honestly my first experience of seeing people who had completely devoted their lives to music. At that point, I was still pursuing a liberal arts education and music was a big part of that, but not the only focus. I wasn’t training professionally. During that year, I saw the level of commitment and I was happy to be around these people. I was excited to be immersed in music… listening to it, thinking about it, studying it, and familiarizing myself with what everyone was passionate about. That changed my life.
After that, I came down to the city and played in a number of bands, including a merengue band and a very experimental jazz ensemble. I laugh when I think back to what my parents must have thought about coming to see me play free jazz after four years of college. The goal was to play live to get my chops up so I could be a doubler, someone who could play multiple instruments proficiently. As you know, musicians who make it on Broadway are highly, highly skilled players. Being a doubler is a way of gaining economy because if you have 19 or 21 musicians in the pit, who have multiple musical strengths, you can sound like a much bigger ensemble.
A real life changing moment came about when I did a session for tomandandy, a commercial music production company. To be honest, I didn’t even know those things existed. It was an incredible experience to see how things worked. I watched what they were doing and starting learning how my music fit into the framework. That inspired me to teach myself MIDI and develop my skills of working in a studio with my good friend, Jack Livesey. After a year of paying close attention, we started VHS recording to see what music was being used on them. Of course, this was at a time when it was very uncool to license your music for an ad. It was prior to Moby’s album, Play. Using your music for marketing was equated with selling out. Then somewhere in the flurry of Napster, record companies panicking, and the gigantic cultural shift, it started to become a very coveted and lucrative thing for artists to do. We felt like we had found our niche, the guys who could make music that sounded like any contemporary band. Whether it was The Beastie Boys, The Cranberries, whatever indie rock or grunge was out there, even hip-hop beats, we did it.
We found a home by working for tomandandy. On any given day, we were shifting between Latin or jazz or pop or hip-hop, sometimes, a mashup of multiple genres. That led to us collaborating with all kinds of people around the city, which was a truly fantastic time for the music business in New York. We were getting paid quite well to freelance and it was basically what we loved to do anyway. That was when the seed was planted and musical versatility was activated in me. I think writing music for advertising is particularly cool because they are always looking for strange, interesting, and cutting-edge things. Of course, it’s not pervasive because not every ad you watch is some electrifying musical tour de force, but we gained the experience of working with lots of clients to collage pieces of music together. My studio partner and I worked really hard and quite happily as session musicians while doing club dates for several years. It was a really fruitful period of time.
What was the impetus for the creation of your company, DuoTone?
After freelancing for other companies, Jack and I started this business in the mid ‘90s. When we realized we had a couple of real fans in the business, we thought it made sense to set up our own shop. At that time, our expectations were modest. We weren’t thinking about taking over the world of commercial music. We just thought, “Wow, some of these people really enjoy working with us and that’s mutual. What we’re doing is very cool and creative. Let’s take the next step.” What we had previously done had made us more money that we ever thought we'd have, so we formed this little company, built a humble studio, and it really grew from there. The goal was to have our own facility with a live room, a recording booth or two, and share it with two writers rooms.
In the beginning, we just did our own projects simultaneously to maintain our facility, but over the years, it has evolved into lots of different opportunities. We’re still going strong. I spend most of my time in New York. Our facility in SoHo has five rooms for recording and mixing. I typically write out of my studio in Brooklyn. Now, we also have studios in L.A., located inside a great place called Swing House in Atwater Village, which is a fantastic and one of a kind airplane-hanger sized space with sound stages, rehearsal rooms, and production suites. We’re so grateful for it. If something requires me to come to the West Coast, you’ll never hear any complaints from me. I am a huge fan of L.A. and always half wonder why I don’t just move. My assistant lives there full time, so when I’m in town, I kick him out and make him work from home. For a lot of projects, it’s important to be local, especially for the initial episodes of a television show. The whole team has to feel confident with the direction, but once that’s established, you can be in Atlanta, New York, Boston, it doesn’t matter as long as the work is getting done and everyone sees eye to eye on the quality.
How did you enter the world of film composing?
Around 2000 or so, I was invited by an old college roommate of mine to visit the set of a movie that he was producing. I went to the set and met the directors. It was a lot of people’s first go around with making a feature. I ended up writing a piece of music that got the directors very excited. They invited me to score the rest of the film. It showed at Sundance and that opened up a completely new world for me. It was really pivotal for my career and led me to my first manager, Robert Urband. He is a legend, who has represented film composers, such as Alexandre Desplat, Elmer Bernstein, and Michael Kamen among others. He opened up a lot of doors for me in film and television composing work.
Congratulations on the success of I, Tonya. Your score provides momentum, dramatic tension, and at times, a humorous touch to the re-telling of one of the biggest scandals in sports history. How did you become a part of the team and what were the first conversations regarding the musical direction of the film?
I became involved with I, Tonya through the music supervisor, Susan Jacobs. Sue and I are old friends. We go way back. She had called me up and said, "You know, I have a film that's pretty hard to define. I don't know exactly what type of a film to say that it is, but if you're available to take a look at it, I'll have them send a link.” I was delighted to hear from her and agreed to take a look. From the very first minute of the film, I was drawn in by the energy. The director, Craig Gillespie had such a “take no prisoners” approach to making this film. It was so plainly obvious to me it was going to be a success. I remember watching the scene where Margot stares in the mirror, applying makeup by herself. She puts rouge on and starts to spread it around. She starts crying and smiling at the same time. I thought “Oh my god - she’s going to win an Academy Award for this”. I was right there with her. Allison Janney’s portrayal was also sensational. It was beautifully edited by Tatiana S. Riegel, who is just a force of nature with such a fine eye for the storytelling. She is someone who is significantly responsible for the brilliance of the film. When you laugh at times, when you cringe, it is because of the way it’s been so expertly assembled. Tatiana’s work keeps your attention for every second while jumping back and forth between all the characters and stories with a lot of precision.
I called right back right away and said, "I would love to be considered for this.” After that, I had a conversation with Craig and we were on the same page in terms of what role the score should play. It’s not a movie that would benefit from 78 minutes of score and I think we both knew that instantaneously. The cut that was sent to me featured some but not all of the tracks Sue had sourced for the project. She curated so much material and it’s those songs that really drive the sound of the movie. That was immediately clear to me while watching through the first time and was reinforced in discussions with Sue, Craig, and Tatiana.
My score comes in about halfway through the film. It’s mostly about dramatizing the incident and adding more layers of emotion to the skating scenes. We had to dig deep to come across the musical language to make the score work most effectively from a tonal perspective. I attribute our quick decision making to the fact that we didn’t have a lot of time to mess around. They were already in the final stages of post-production, so luckily, all of our ideas meshed from the beginning. Musically, our aim was to take an intense and epic classical approach, which would highlight the instances of comedy. Sometimes, seeing something absurd alongside an overly dramatic score can bring out the humor. It became the musical lock and key that we responded to the most. At times, it was so over the top like an homage to Bernard Herrmann!
The idea was to combine two smaller string sections to play in unison to create a bigger sound and at times, play at odds with each other. We mixed programmed sounds with live sessions, picking out details that met our criteria. We wanted the score to feel like the competition between Nancy and Tonya and then Tonya and the world as it turned out. The piano changes between a two-handed part and at times, a four-handed part. It married the mechanistic feel of the piano with a patternistic feel of the writing, which really spoke to the precision, energy, and elegance of the skating. When all was said and done, experiencing that music set to picture felt so right. I have to give props to my long time engineer, Lawrence Manchester, who I’ve collaborated with for many years, as well as Brian Deming, my right-hand man. Their work was instrumental.
What was your initial impression of I, Tonya and the characters?
It’s stated right at the very beginning of the film that the script is based on the interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly. It’s pointing to an idea like the Rashomon effect, where two people can go through the same series of events and step away from it with polar opposite, wildly contradicting takes on what happened. It makes the movie almost like a mockumentary. It treads on that line between very high and at times, disturbing drama. I, Tonya is dark humor to the core. I don’t think the film is trying to claim that it’s showing the definitive account of what happened. It has so much stark contrast and explores the nature of truth vs. fake news. I remember reading about this incident in my life and I thought Tonya Harding was the one who attacked Nancy Kerrigan. I think that’s what most people thought at the end of the day, but then we learn about the conspiracy involving Shane Stant and Shawn Eckhardt. From a distant perspective, you might believe the movie was taking all this creative license and at times, it was, but when you watch the clips at the very end, you realize who all these people really were, who Tonya’s mom really was. It’s mind blowing. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Tonya is a very intriguing subject, watching her rebel and do her greatest work brought a range of emotions out of people. There is a pathology in this story. There is no denying the power of negative energy and the desire to rise above it to accomplish something good. It is on full display in the film, a central theme. I also think I, Tonya speaks to the larger issue of gender. That’s what the film is about to me. As viewers, we’re looking straight at how Tonya was treated and her experiences as a young girl, growing up and taking abuse from all sides. She was so young. I just think about where my head was at when I was at that age. I didn’t know anything about anything. Imagine being an elite athlete, who is bucking the system at every turn and accomplishing things based on sheer physical prowess. To stand that tall and then have a scandal of this magnitude hit you, I don’t think I would have been able to deal with that.
Gillooly is a classic example of someone who puts on a good face in public. At first, you believe he is the only one with his head screwed on straight. His character points to the fact that we are all many people in one body. His frustration, his anger, the sense of love that he didn't feel like he was getting in return from her, and his need for power and control drove who he was around Tonya. Whenever he felt like he was losing grip on her, he lashed out in a violent way. The physical abuse is incredibly visceral. When you see the head slamming and the hitting, you see this highly dysfunctional relationship that feels inescapable and harsh. It’s difficult to watch. The first time I saw the film with a full audience, people were recoiling and gasping in the theater. It’s hard knowing that they divorce and get back together for her sake.
The beauty of this film is that it reveals all of these nuances and doesn’t come off preachy. It explores heavy themes yet it still feels entertaining to watch. You engage with the story and you don’t feel like you’re being compelled to think one way or another. Instead, it brings about an emotional reaction, which is a true mark of success. You watch these characters reveal their humanity and you learn that people are complex creatures, who are capable of hiding so much. It’s never cut and dried. It was gratifying to be involved in something so honest that went on to receive widespread recognition.
For I, Tonya, the licensed music sourced by Emmy-winning music supervisor, Susan Jacobs plays a significant role in the overall nostalgic feel and storytelling of the film. What was your working dynamic like with Susan? Did these choices impact your approach to the score?
Sue is such a seasoned vet and performed two roles with incredible accuracy. The first being the selection, procuring, and licensing of the soundtrack and the other being that she is a really skilled translator between myself, the composer and other key people involved with the film. Frankly, I was surprised when I listened to the songs for the first time because there are so many choices that made you think, “Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed this would fit. It’s not a period piece.”, but that’s the genius of Sue’s work. Of course, you can tell when you’re in the late ‘80s or in the early 90’s yet overall, the music felt timeless. She was able to find a way to have those songs speak so deeply within the film.
The score was a completely separate and distinct undertaking. We spotted the film and I was curious to see if we could bring in score earlier, considering what role it could play. It became pretty apparent early on what spots really needed score and what the most important sections were for me to take on. My work started at the incident. I wrote a piece away from the picture and it helped me create the sound world to draw from. I was able to solidify the palette I was working in and it established some of the thematic ideas that I would continually make and develop further.
For Marco Polo, you transported your audience to 13th century China and Mongolia. What was the creative process like?
Oh, my god. We used to joke that the music of Marco Polo never stopped. I think it was fine, but it was funny at the time. Sometimes, you read interviews with composers and they say, “There’s too much music.”, but somehow, people don’t want to hear the composer tell them there is too much music in the show as if it’s a sign of laziness, trying to get out of doing more work. That’s silly, but at the same time, I think it speaks to the fact that creating film and TV music is a collaborative affair. You're part of a team that's telling stories.
The process would begin by dealing directly with the editor, who was putting together each episode, so they would become part of the conversation. Then Dan, Patrick, a few of the executive producers, and of course, John Fusco, the creator of the show, would be there non-stop. My collaborator, Eric and I created the musical point of view for the show in our own little bubble. Occasionally, we’d get feedback about wanting to hear a little more or less of this or that, but it was coming from a very small group that we worked with closely. I have to give a big shout out to Jim Black, the music supervisor on Marco Polo. He was my connection to this project.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about your music. It's about how your music is working to help tell this story, either reinforcing something you’re seeing on screen or explaining something that you know is there, but not evident from the words coming out of an actor’s mouth or what you’re experiencing visually. That’s the power of score and Marco Polo is a prime example of that. The show featured a lot of exposition, tons of battle sequences, horse riding, and many dramatic moments that benefitted from underscore. It was such an amazing production to be involved in and I am so proud to say I was a part of it.
Can you tell us about how you came to know about and include such a range of traditional stringed and percussive instruments in the Marco Polo score?
There were a couple meaningful creative decisions we made very early on. We agreed that the score wouldn’t have an entirely historically accurate sound. Frankly, the story takes place in the 13th century, so nobody really knows what they were up to musically because the first recording did not come into existence until hundreds and hundreds of years after the fact. We wanted to incorporate ancient musical traditions, which would represent Mongolian and Chinese cultures from that era, but we didn’t want for the score to feel pedantic or overworked. We only acted as ethnomusicologists to identify the essential instruments to capture a feeling. For example, we thought it was necessary to bring in sounds from the horse head fiddle, the morin khuur, and the erhu. It would be a conscious choice to add some duduk to a selection of other sounds to score Marco traveling along the silk road.
It was very important to us to bring in some unbelievable multi-instrumentalists. Their performances elevated the caliber of the score and doubled the emotional impact. We had this man, Jiggy come to the studio with his morin khuur and an interpreter. The outcome was astonishing. I also called up an old teacher of mine, Dave Weiss, who is an incredible flautist and wind instrument expert. He’s been a part of The Lion King on Broadway since it started and he’s just a master. He showed up with several duffle bags of flutes and it was almost an embarrassment. He made suggestions and played all different types of flutes for us. At the core of it, our intention was to create a score that sounded like an exciting epic. If the viewer closed their eyes, it would feel like a giant historical drama akin to Game of Thrones or Outlander, but set in the time of Kublai Khan, communicating the history surrounding it. We let it come naturally. We didn’t want to slavishly attempt to recreate the music.
What was your work flow like in collaboration with Eric Hachikian? Did you two ever take a crack at Mongolian throat singing?
Eric has always been a right-hand man of mine to help conduct studio sessions, assist with copying, and help with orchestration. He’s just an all-around impressive musician and talented composer. For Marco Polo, I initially believed that we would be working with a live orchestra each week. Once I realized that wasn’t the plan of action, it became obvious to me that another composer would need to be there to help out with the sheer volume of music that was required. This was another project where it all came together very last minute. They were mixing two hours of it on a dub stage and had no music for the show. Going into this, it was like DEFCON A mode. We would look at the show, spot it, and identify different themes for different characters. This is Marco's story, this is Kublai's story for this moment, this is Yusuf's story in this episode, and this is what Khutulun needs right now. Whoever the character was, we would divide the show up within their storylines and then break off and write.
Eric and I developed a palette of sounds that we shared amongst ourselves, which restricted us to a certain degree and helped us forge a distinctive sound for the show. It was pretty intense because we’d have 44 minutes of music to knock out in four days. So, we’d split it up, go into our caves to write, and emerge when it was ready. My assistant, Brian Deming is a phenomenal asset and musician in his own right. He helped with programming and he would mix the shows every week, even mastering in some instances and then we’d deliver that to the stage.
Jim Black, the music supervisor, was lucky enough to be on set while they were filming and created studio recordings with Mongolian throat singers. They created an incredible mini sound kit for us to pull from and then augment with some other sample libraries. It was astonishing to learn that such a thing existed for purchase.
In your opinion, what new possibilities have eventuated from the implementation of cutting-edge technology in the field of composing? What difference do these tools make to your approach?
This question raises an interesting conversation about the current state of film scoring. It’s not like a lot of other art forms. When scores mature, they fracture. You have the old school, the new guard, and people doing different combinations of things, drawing inspiration from all kinds of places. It’s not what it once was. Film scoring is no longer constrained to art that’s imitative of 19th-century romantic classical music. That’s still a part of the equation and in many instances, it’s some of the best music that you’re hearing today. However, I believe technology has made my career possible because it’s brought so many things right to my fingertips. It’s changed workflow. The sound libraries available are mind-blowing. I’m always curious and interested in how other composers work because there are still guys who sit at a piano with a metronome and sheet paper, writing to a click, beginning at a certain time code, and doing everything in a very traditional way and there are other guys that have studios that belong on The Starship Enterprise. I am amazed by the depth of the technology available and what people are able to create by manipulating it in various ways.
Over time, I’m finding that I fall somewhere in between traditional and technologic. I want the technology to be my ally, but at the end of the day, I still enjoy conceiving things a little bit away from the studio as much as possible and then coming back and using the tools to realize the idea. There’s no denying the impact of being able to take a cue, save as, and work off the same sound palette or rhythm track, especially when creating a musical universe for an ongoing television series. It’s incredibly helpful to have your original concepts accessible and able to be tweaked or embellished upon. I often find that it’s better to begin a new score without writing to picture immediately. My work on I, Tonya was no different. I watched the film, meditated on it, and the ideas came organically, then I saw it through with technology. There is something magical that happens when you take your musical ideas, spot them to picture and watch it all come alive.
What are the most meaningful insights you’ve gained about the process of creating thematic material from the start of your career until now?
I think I was a little late to the game in understanding the power of a theme and telling a story with the help of other people. I think it has a lot to do with my entry to writing music to picture was the competitive world of advertising. It took awhile to come around to the idea that people having ideas about my music weren’t criticizing me but instead, aiming to elevate the project. I feel like composers and creators alike suffer from being the most insecure megalomaniacs that have ever lived. Everything you create makes you feel either completely worthless or like a genius god. When someone critiques your work, it’s hard not to take it personally.
One of the most important insights I’ve learned over time is that it’s not about me, it’s about the good of the project. It’s a process and sometimes, your collaborators don’t understand you right away. You also learn that people need to be led to water in order to understand your ideas at times. Patience and clear communication will always be very effective. When working within the context of film or TV, once people have signed on and they’ve made a commitment, you’re a unit, a group of people striving to make something great that will excite the viewers.
Another tip is to be kind to people no matter who they are or what their title is. It goes back to the industry saying, “You never know who’s on their way up and who’s on their way out”. You can never predict what will occur. That tiny, low budget indie film you worked on… Well, let’s say it blows up overnight and because you were a fun collaborator with good manners, the producer and director are asking you to be involved in their next picture. I can’t stress it enough. Build good relationships because people will want to continue them.
Composers are constantly challenged by the need to create magic within a designated time frame. Have you ever been stumped? What are some of your methods to get the creative juices flowing when you’re working on a deadline?
You know, I do get stumped occasionally and I believe it’s because we, as composers, are simultaneously developing a craft along with the art. You have a tool kit that you come to rely on. It’s what relates to your sound and your point of view. I think the most challenging part of any project is finding out what the right take on the score is. You need to determine, how comedic, how dark, how dramatic it should be. What type of pacing or space does it need? When you start to wrestle with all these craft-oriented questions, you often get stuck.
My assistant of many years, Brian Deming is so helpful to me. He makes suggestions of what I should listen to for inspiration and remembers ideas or starts I created in the past that would otherwise be forgotten or lost in my own mind. Even with someone like that on my side, you can still find yourself feeling like you’re on a desert island or in front of the jury for your Ph.D. You’re sitting in a chair and you have to perform right then and there or else. That’s pretty much how I get through it. You don’t have time to waste.
Generally, once you start working on a project, it’s because people have heard your music and believe your sound or your approach fits with the direction they are thinking of going in. They usually have a belief that you will come through, even if it’s not the first or second try before honing in on the right sound. I don’t feel I’ve ever been stumped to the point that I didn’t know how to write the music for a specific project. Usually, you get eliminated from the candidate pool before that happens. I think the longer you do this job, the easier it gets to switch on. You build up your confidence, but I’m sure now that I’ve said this I’ve jinxed myself and I won’t be able to come up with any good musical ideas for the next three weeks.
How do you know when a cue is finished? When is enough, enough?
Sometimes, the time’s up. A lot of the time, when I’ve worked on a cue, put it away, and then come back to it to continue writing, it’s turned out better in the end. I think the ultimate test is when you play something in the room and people nod their heads in agreement, you should leave the cue alone. That’s the bellwether. You have to feel confident about the decisions you make. It’s okay to be minimal and not have a parade of things going on in your music. You're not being judged based on how complex it is, you're being judged by how effective it is. That’s what you need to listen for. Is it done or does it need more sound? Does it need more tinkering? Does it need extra rhythmic hits? Is it lacking energy? You have to think abstractly.
I prefer to work with filmmakers who do not speak the language of music because I find that it’s easier to respond to someone throwing out what feeling they are looking for and articulating it in a way that doesn’t directly advise the creative process. I put those concepts in my hopper and I can get it to work because it’s inspiring to hear people explain what they want to hear musically in plain English, simply using decorative adjectives. Great things happen when feedback is given through storytelling because the music still lives separately from the words. The minute someone starts nitpicking about pan flutes or wanting a different type of snare drum is when things take a turn towards being less successful.
You know the saying, “The best score’s a score you didn’t notice in the film, but if it was absent, the film wouldn’t work”. I think that’s actually the highest compliment that a film composer can get. Of course, it’s a bit different when we’re discussing main title themes. Look at John Williams, who has created epic themes that were just as popular as the movies themselves. Those melodies are iconic. Then if you take a listen to his incidental music that’s additionally written into the score, you come to the realization that it is not meant to be remembered on its own. It’s meant to be experienced during the moment it happens. It’s there to guide you through the film, but not pull you away from the bigger picture. It’s there to tell the listener what to feel and underlines the ideas that need to be emphasized. If you pay attention to the story you’re telling and put the time in, your music will see itself to the finish line.
What is your DAW of choice? Has it your approach to writing changed over time?
I work in Logic. I’ve been a Logic guy for many, many years. It’s funny because I am starting to change how I work. I used to start a cue, then start a session at bar one, have a click track and map out my click track for the cue. I’d write to that and there would be my cue. I still do that for some things, but sometimes, I will start at bar 68 and write the cue, then be able to hear it with another cue loaded in prior to that in the same session to get a sense of how everything is working together. Depending on the type of music I’m writing, I often opt to remove the click and write with no regard at all to the sequencer, just simply using it as a recording device.
I think the sequencer has to come to represent two or three things for composers and producers. It’s a tape recorder because it records what you do into the machine. It's like an editor because you can sit and slice everything up until you're blue in the face. Lastly, it’s a player piano because you can hit play and then it all plays back. It’s up to you to make things sound music more musical. It’s more organic when you’re not constrained to a click. If the cue deserves or requires additional musicians to play on it, you can either create a count to get them into it or it can just be conducted down. You can always add a click after the fact and capture all the nuance of what you played naturally. That’s what I’ve been doing lately.
What are the instruments you can’t live without? What are your most used analog and digital synths?
I would say the piano would be one. A lot of my music has been without strings or an orchestra. I really gravitate towards more electronic-based music. Piano is the kind of instrument that just speaks across everything. It connects people in a way. Guitar is right up there for me, but I’d be lost without the piano. Then that brings us into different sounds of piano…Tack piano, all these crazy configurations of newer instruments and a range of tunings, prepared piano and the possibilities you can do in and out of a classical format. It would have to be the primary instrument I couldn’t live without.
As far as soft synths go, I'm a big, big fan of the soft synths, so I have a massive Kontakt library. I enjoy the Spectrasonics stuff, but I think it needs to used sparingly because it’s almost too well-produced and you’d end up with an Omnisphere score. It amazes me how precise it is. You hit middle C and it’s incredible how complex it sounds. I like a lot of what EastWest has going on, specifically the play plug-in stuff. Sometimes, it’s almost better to just use a plug-in when you’re working on a lot of cues at the same time because you can just open the session back up and there it is.
In terms of analog, I have a Moog Voyager, which I’m very attached to and the Little Phatty, I tend to use on stuff. There isn’t a lot of synth porn laying around my studio. I don’t have banks of modular synths because most of it is software oriented. However, I have a fantastic Fender Rhodes and the 1966 Wurlitzer, which was given to me by my studio partner. It is pretty beloved. If you’re working on a cue, especially for something that isn’t so long, you can really tell when someone fires up a real instrument because actual musicians move air. Everyone thinks their mini orchestra sounds legendary until they walk into a room and hear a real orchestra play. That’s a pretty quick reminder of what it’s supposed to sound like.
If you could re-score any film in history, what would you choose and why?
Oh, my god. This is like a late night drinking game question. Boy, I gotta be careful here. I would re-score My Dinner with Andre but I can't give you a reason why and I don't even know if it had a score. Watching that film changed my life and expressed the power of cinema to me. I would love to disappear for two months and write the music for that movie. I’d use some insane aleatoric approach like Karlheinz Stockhausen and create the score with crazy electronics. Scoring anything with Wallace Shawn in it would be a dream of mine.
Where are your top places in the world to unwind and recharge?
I go with my family to a very special place on the North Fork of Long Island. It’s a town called Southold, which has a very great little community of people we’re friends with that all share houses in this cluster. It’s a really special place for us to go out and relax during the summer. In the winter, we spend a lot of time in Connecticut, which is a little ski place for the kids. These are the two places that my family and I love to travel to. We’ve been to some really great locations around the world, but to recharge, it can be distracting to be somewhere new because you want to encounter the new culture and explore.
It's incredible what a weekend of not sitting in front of a computer at the studio will do for you. Two days away can make all the difference. This is coming from a person who has spent most of his adult life literally working weekends, nights, and every waking moment. When I was younger, I just couldn't put enough effort into what I was doing and then I realized it was becoming detrimental to some degree. If I stopped working and then came back, I’d get three hours of work done in 15 minutes because I was fresh. I wish I learned that sooner.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Peter Nashel and White Bear PR.