Name: Laura Karpman
Current Releases: Why We Hate / Sitara: Let Girl’s Dream
Recommendations: Education by Tara Westover / the art of Cara Romero
Website/Contact: Laura Karpman has a website where you can learn more about her music www.laurakarpman.com
When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
It’s been a strange journey. I was always obsessed with drama – soap operas, classical opera and plays. I loved movies too – but I saw myself as an east coast intellectual, until I became one, and then couldn’t wait to get back to LA. I started writing music for film at the first iteration of the Sundance labs, encouraged there by Shirley Walker, Robert Redford, Dave Grusin, and David Raksin. I love what I do – the daily music-making of it.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Great question. I started composing when I was really young - 7 years old. Then, I couldn’t tell the difference between something I wrote and something I heard. As a young composer studying concert music, I emulated all the time. I wanted to write a waltz like Ravel’s La Valse, or play the piano like Oscar Petersen, sing like Ella Fitzgerald, and write woodwinds like Stravinsky. Once, as an undergrad, I dreamed I wrote one of the Britten String Quartets!
At 28 years old, I wrote a first piece that felt like me called Matisse and Jazz, based on Matisse’s paper cut-outs and his writings accompanying it. When I started composing for film, a couple of years later, my film music and concert music were stylistically different. Now, not so much. Copying is necessary and good. And then it must be abandoned!
What were your main compositional challenges when starting out as a film composer and how have they changed over time?
Being simple and getting to the musical point quickly. I came from the New York new music world, where there was infinite time to unfold ideas. Not so true when I was composing music for television. It’s amazing what a simple piano melody can do. I so appreciate that now, and it was VERY hard to get to then.
What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, meeting the expectations of the director?
The two goals of meeting my needs as an artist and meeting the needs of a film must be one goal. It’s hard to do sometimes, but always possible. The importance of film music - well, look at a film without music. That will tell you everything. I love that we composers have a secret relationship with an audience. For some reason that continues to mystify me, audiences expect and accept score. And I am honored to provide it.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
Forever, I had a small room in the back of a duplex, and I occupied the upstairs. I have had the good fortune to live on the beach for years, and I always sacrificed more room for being at home and with a crook of my neck, an ocean view. About two years ago, I was finally able to take over the downstairs of the duplex, and my wife Nora Kroll Rosenbaum (another VERY fine composer) and I have built a gorgeous toe to sand studio. The most important pieces of gear – you will hate this answer, the ocean and my collection of instruments. And Soundtoys and Serato pitch and time – and many many others!
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I love technology in spite of my previous answer. It’s what really brought me to film music. I have been astonished with all the changes over the years. I love recording, I love that I can compose with recording and that my process of how I use and manipulate sound changes all the time. I still use a pencil and paper for major themes, but that just my process. All compositional processes are valid.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Another great question. I don’t like to have my tools compose for me – even a pad. I will change it. I am very invested in my own authorship, Sometimes too much so.
BUT… I do love, even in concert music, selecting a section and pasting and transposing and then altering. What a time saver! I just wish sequencers and music notation worked better together. I am anxiously awaiting that day.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I love collaborating. I frequently co –score with Raphael Saadiq. I also love writing with Nora, my wife and for songwriting, Taura Stinson and Rita Wilson. This is done in so many ways – most often in the room together, and sometimes, with schedules and travel, file sharing. I am recording more and more musicians remotely. It’s better for the environment, and these are people I frequently collaborate with, so they know my music.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
OK – let me take you through two recent days and you will get an idea. Saturday, my son plays soccer, so first thing in the morning we went to his game and got rained on – when we got home, I worked on a song which is part of a song cycle for Kansas City Opera, and watched him, from my studio, as he played with friends on the beach.
Right now, I am on a plane heading for New York, where I will be mentoring for the Tribeca/Chanel Female Through Her Lens program tomorrow. When I land, I will have a meeting with a producer for a Broadway musical I am starting, and later in the evening, I will be recording a singer I love in my hotel room. Back in LA, right now, Nora is recording a string quartet for two different film projects for me. And an Academy conference call when I land.
MY LIFE IS INSANE!
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a soundtrack or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Why We Hate is out on Decca Records, and it was simply an amazing project to work on. It is a six-part series about the anatomy of hate, created by Steven Spielberg and Alex Gibney. The music is maximal, orchestral and explores every aspect of the human condition, the darkest and the most hopeful and resilient. It was an astonishing project to work on, and pushed me very hard.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don’t have the time for a state of mind. I wish I did. At this point its about doing. Creating. All day, everyday.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of film music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I think there is little difference. Sometimes I have used sound, sirens, singing, footsteps in my work, for both film and concert music. It all depends on how it is handled.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
For me, smell and sound are related – I don’t quite know why - maybe it’s something that’s so there, and yet elusive all at once.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Yes – all my concert music is very political and issue oriented. Let me use a piece I composed for the LA Phil, All American as an example. I had been thinking a lot about the pervasive invisibility of women composers in music history. We tend to believe that there were very few, if any, women composers in past centuries, and that we are now a product of the advancement of women in all professions. But I’ve begun to think that maybe there were women composers, lots of them, and that their works have been unrecognized, un-amplified. Before I began composing, I set out looking for patriotic songs by American women composers. Much to my own surprise, I found not one or two, but hundreds. I took three of these songs and used them as thematic material in what has become a very American anthem called “All American” – the italics being significant. I used the very patriotic melodies of Mildred Hill (the composer of the best known song in the English language, “Happy Birthday”), in her song “March on, Brave Lads, March on!”, Emily Wood Bower’s “Your Country Needs You” and Anita Owen’s “’
Neath The Flag Of The Red, White And Blue.”
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of soundtracks still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what film music could be beyond its current form?
I think we will get to interactivity in a way that will actually work. That will be interesting!