Name: Mark Korven
Occupation: Film Music Composer
Current Release: The Lighthouse OST on Sacred Bones
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Mark Korven, visit his informative website for more information on his work.
When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started composing music when I was in jazz school in my very early 20’s. I had no idea what I was doing, and was oblivious to who I might have been stealing from. I was listing a lot to early Genesis / King Crimson, and also jazz fusion like Chick Corea and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
The Beatles. It’s a cliche, but they were on the Ed Sullivan show an that was it for me. Shivers up the spine.
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?
Oh yes, I stole from everyone, as I said. As far as developing my own voice, what may have helped is that I sort of sucked as a music student. Try as I might, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around counterpoint or traditional harmonic theory. Also, traditional and predictable harmony held no interest for me. So I just stumbled through on my own. This probably – quite accidentally - led to a more unique approach.
What were your main compositional challenges when starting out as a film composer and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning, the problem yet again, was that I had no idea what I was doing. Anything I discovered, such as how to get a bigger orchestral sound, I stumbled across. I learned everything the hard way. Nowadays, I don’t worry so much about trying to keep up compositionally with others. I’m quite content to stumble through on my own and hopefully come across those happy accidents.
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?
Good question, and one that I would have varying responses to, depending on when you asked me. I used to say that music was solely to support what was going on on the screen. But with Robert Eggers, he has a totally different approach. He never really learned about traditional relationships with a film composer (The Witch was his first film) and I don’t think he really cared about it. I think he saw the music score as another character in the story, which especially in The Witch, it certainly was. So this has been a bit of an influence on me.
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?
Regarding one’s creative convictions, I did come to believe that it was all about serving the director’s vision only, and you put your own creative vision aside. But now I’m starting to feel differently. If the composer is just a servant, you’re not really getting his best work, are you? Composer’s can have great skill, talent, film awareness, and they bring a lot to the table creatively. That should be supported and milked in order to make a better film. So the composer should have their own vision and should push for that. Sometimes they might actually have a better idea than the director. So nowadays I think the composer’s job is to serve the film, not necessarily the director.
What was your first studio like?
My first set up was a cassette 4 track and a $400 Korg synth. I wrote my first film score with those. I had no gear, no money. But I did have access to a grand piano downtown and I recorded the main themes on that. I found out quickly that for some reason, the director hated piano. Not an auspicious start.
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?
I’m running Logic Pro on a Mac and my library has become so large over the years, that I have no idea what’s in it anymore. Which can actually be a big of a problem. The Kontakt sampler is always my go to piece of software. To keep sane and not be too trapped in technology, I have to make noises on my apprehension engine. Or guitar. Or drums. Anything tactile, just so that I can ground myself again.
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?
Machines excel at predictability, and humans excel at unpredictabilty. For example, in the Lighthouse, I play some accordion. But I don’t even play accordion. I like the idea of it sounding like it was played by someone who didn’t know what they were doing!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in yourapproach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I’m pretty much a lone wolf compositionally speaking. Usually the only people I actually collaborate with are directors. And of course when I bring in musicians who specialize in improvisation. I like to let players go, let them come up with ideas, and then gently guide them towards what might fit better in the score.
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?
No … no fixed schedule at all. I just do whatever needs to be done that day. I have a basement studio. That’s business. When I go upstairs, that’s all family. There’s no blending … I think my kids are kind of freaked out by what I do!
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a soundtrack or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Well, these days I often start by reacting to the temp score. Because everything these days arrives with a temp score on it. It’s unfortunate it’s that way, but it’s the way of the world now. Then you have to find out whether or not the filmmakers have fallen in love with it or not. My first goal is alway do better than the temp score, so you can get it out of their minds as quickly as possible.
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?
I like to start very “broad brush strokes”. Coming up with a general palette of sounds. I write a lot in the beginning, just to see what the director reacts to. Then it becomes more and more refined. In the end we’re arguing about subtleties.
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?
The ideal state of mine is akin to turning on a water tap. Just letting water flow out of the faucet and never stopping it. No editing, no evaluation. Creativity is a flow, and is not meant to start and stop. You save that for another day. Then you put on your editor’s hat, and weed out the bad from the good.
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 commonly ride that fine line. A film I worked on last year had myself and the sound designer stepping on each other’s toes all of the time. It’s modern textural scoring. It’s blending sometimes a little too well with sound design. I do like to get some idea ahead of the time what the sound department is doing though. Just so I know how much work I need to do, how melodic I need to be, or what ranges I need to stay out of.