Rarely a score is the product of only the person who composed it. Hardcore filmmusic enthusiasts are very aware of the people who add important touches to the orchestra or sometimes even create the whole symphonic sound from scratch. For decades Jerry Goldsmith relied on his orchestrator Arthur Morton, and who would Danny Elfman be without Steve Bartek? One of the most profilic orchestrators working in Hollywood today is Kevin Kliesch. Composers like John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, John Ottman, James Horner, Ed Shearmur, Christophe Beck and many others owe a lot to his talent, skills and passionate love for filmmusic. But Kliesch is also a composer himself who enjoys a challenge. In our lengthy interview he talks about his work on Disney’s „Tangled“, the process of orchestration, current trends in filmmusic and his score for Mike Le Han’s highly anticipated fantasy short „Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room“.
screen/read: Thanks for taking the time, I guess you’re quite busy. You’re doing a lot of orchestration, a lot of films, about 10 this year if I counted correctly.
Kevin Kliesch: That’s right, it’s been a good year so far. I just finished „Tangled“, the latest Disney film. I started back on that late March and it took about five months to get the whole thing completed. It’s about 67 minutes of score in the movie and we had a lot of time, which we’re rarely given on a film. Usually we have about three weeks or four weeks to score a movie. It depends on the project, but for this one in particular I got the most amount of time I ever had to work on a movie. The last record was „Enchanted“ where we had four months, I think. It’s been five this time cause the animation took a bit longer. We had 86 players to do the score, and actually we finished early which is always good. And it just turned out really great.
screen/read: Three weeks for a score is not really much time.
Kevin Kliesch: No, not at all. In fact it’s more common nowadays due to shorter post-production schedules and the tools that allow us to go quicker. Unfortunately the producers know that we can deliver quicker, which is not always good for us. It means more pressure.
screen/read: You’re in the business for about 15 years now, which is quite some time. How did it all start? How did you get into film composing or into composing in general?
Kevin Kliesch: I went to Berklee College of Music and I majored in film scoring and also music synthesis as it was a dual major. At that point I just decided I wanted to write music for film and orchestrate as well and make a serious run for a career. So it started back then when I got out here to L.A., which was in fact 1996.
screen/read: When you were much younger, like a child maybe, and watched movies, where you aware of the fact that there was music in them at all? And did you perceive it in a special way?
Kevin Kliesch: Absolutely. It probably all started back in 1977 when I saw „Star Wars“ for the first time. For a lot of us that made us prick up our ears and say, „Wow, you can actually do this kind of thing“. And that led to other scores that I greatly appreciated and „Tron“ was one of them. Wendy Carlos, who did that score, melded the orchestra with the electronics for one of the very first times. That got me and was another big turning point for me. I totally wore out that LP (laughs). And I also remember when „Beverly Hills Cop“ came out, back in 1984, and the single „Axel F“ by Harold Faltermeyer. That was a big influence on me as well because it got me into all that electronic music scene, which was happening at the same time when MIDI came out. So, yeah, I was always into films and the accompanying scores and I guess it just took hold of me and became what I wanted to do.
screen/read: Would you say there are certain composers apart from the ones you already mentioned that you would say influenced you the most? Maybe from of the Golden Ages of Hollywood?
Kevin Kliesch: I wasn’t really into the older generation, Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann, I did not really watch many of their movies or listen to their scores. We studied them certainly in college but I was always more intrigued by the current generation composers and actually people like James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith and how they used electronics as a fifth section of the orchestra.
screen/read: Later you worked with Horner yourself, and it must have been interesting to see how he handles the process of orchestration. How is it anyway, how do people approach you and what do you get from them? And how much freedom is there?
Kevin Kliesch: It depends on the movie and the composer. I’ve gotten everything from fully orchestrated mock-ups where I don’t have to do a thing, to features like „Tangled“ where the composer Alan Menken wrote everything on piano and gave it to me and let me choose my own orchestrational direction. I’ve had everything in between as well. Obviously I much prefer the latter version where I just get the piano and I am allowed some creative freedom on how I wanna shape the score. In the former circumstances you’re not given much freedom if any at all. But that makes the job a little bit easier because I don’t have to make any of the decisions involved in the orchestration. However, it’s certainly not very creative for me.
screen/read: I guess when you have that much of freedom it’s the closest to composing yourself.
Kevin Kliesch: It is, it really is. With the tools available today, you can’t just play a piano demo against the picture because directors won’t really understand how it’s going to sound when you get to the orchestra. Part of my job on „Tangled“ was to do all of the mock-ups or synthestrations. That means I took Alan’s piano demos and then turned them into a virtual orchestra to give the directors [Nathan Greno and Byron Howard] an idea of what the score would sound like. For an orchestrator it is quite unusual to do both the mock-ups and the orchestration because number one, there’s not a lot of time to do both, and number two, a lot of orchestrators here in Hollywood don’t really have full-blown studios, because they’re not composers. I take pride in being able to get my mock-ups to a point where people really can’t tell the difference between synthestrations and the live orchestra. I pay a lot of attention to detail of how the various samples are going to sound, making them seem as close to a live orchestra as possible.
screen/read: Which is what you did on „Dracula: Ascension“, which sounds like a huge orchestra, but I think it’s not, it’s just synthesizers, is that true?
Kevin Kliesch: Yes, it’s true.
screen/read: Totally unbelievable, cause it sounds very realistic.
Kevin Kliesch: I guess I did my job the right way then if you don’t hear it (laughs).
screen/read: There have been times when composers like Maurice Jarre did electronic scores that were just as expensive as orchestral ones, but today it’s totally different. Does it still happen often that composers are approached to mock up an orchestra just in order to save money?
Kevin Kliesch: Yeah, it’s still happening and it will continue to happen because the tools keep getting better and better. And the sounds themselves keep getting better. I mean, „Dracula: Ascension“ was in 2003, and today I’m using so much better samples than were available back then.
screen/read: It’s interesting to see how far technology is by now in mocking up a real orchestra but I guess for a composer it’s much more interesting to have the real thing.
Kevin Kliesch: Oh my god, yeah. As much as the sounds have evolved over time and gotten generally better it’s still nothing against the real orchestra.
screen/read: You’re playing quite a lot of instruments yourself.
Kevin Kliesch: Yes, I do. My main instrument is piano. I started on trumpet and now I play all the brass and all the woodwind instruments as well.
screen/read: I guess that will give you a much better feeling for what the orchestra will sound like when you’re doing an orchestration.
Kevin Kliesch: That’s right, it gives me a very valueable insight into how the instruments will actually perform when we get to the live orchestra in termns of what they can and cannot do.
screen/read: Do you conduct yourself when you’re doing a recording?
Kevin Kliesch: When I work as an orchestrator, no, I don’t. I sit in the booth with the composer. I feel like I can be of greater assistance to him that way rather than concentrating on beat patterns and cueing the members of the orchestra. If I’m conducting I feel like I cannot pay as much attention to the musicality, I have to concentrate on the mechanics.
screen/read: You have a very close working relationship with John Powell and Christophe Beck for whom you did all the orchestration in recent years. After such a long time of collaboration I guess there’s no need for too much communication as you already know in advance what to do.
Kevin Kliesch: Exactly. In the beginning, when I first started working with him, he was testing out a lot of different orchestrators and then eventually settled on me. Today I pretty much just know what he’s up to.
screen/read: Let’s talk about Mike Le Han’s fantasy short film „Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room“ which you are scoring right now. How did the two of you get together, how did it all come about?
Kevin Kliesch: Well, he found one of my pieces on the website of the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) in Austria. It’s a site where you can buy orchestral samples, the ones that I use to compose, like strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion. So anyway, there was this piece that I actually wrote about nine or ten years ago, and I decided to mock it up using the Vienna Symphonic Library and I passed it along to the company’s founder and he put it on the website. Now Mike happened to stumble across it. At that time he was thinking about doing some work on an earlier short film project called „Jacob Black” and so he just reached out to me and said, „Would you be interested in scoring this little short that I have?“ And as I am always looking for new projects to score and new directors to form a relationship with I told him, „Yeah, I’d love to“, and that’s how it all came about. The piece that you can hear on the „Jacob Black“ website, that’s the one I had on VSL. So he just got to find me by accident. A very happy accident infact.
That’s pretty much how I got to work on „Mrs Peppercorn“. The score is just over 20 minutes long with the end credits. I’ve just finished it and Mike couldn’t be happier.
screen/read: How did you approach the score? Did you start from scratch, did you discuss certain approaches or did you react to the temp tack that Mike used?
Kevin Kliesch: Well, he did have a temp track in there, but I felt it wasn’t quite the right approach to take and I have been talking every day through iChat about what direction we should go. He didn’t have much in terms of music to pick from to do the right temp scores, so I went off on my own and I did what I thought was more appropriate for the tone of the film which he in turn really, really appreciated and loved the end result.
screen/read: It will be very interesting to hear which direction you took, especially as it is such an unusual case of a short film. Is it a rare thing that you get into film projects of young aspiring directors who have high production values as Mike has?
Kevin Kliesch: No, the answer is no. You don’t find that too often. Some of the effects that he’s come up with are stunning. They are on par with anything you’d see in a big Hollywood blockbuster, and everybody has donated their time for free on this movie, so it’s just amazing to find such high quality work at this level.
screen/read: Comparing your approach here to big budget productions in Hollywood and how music is approached there: Would you share the opinion of quite a few composers that memorable tunes are not very much wanted in current productions anymore, and that films have less catchy tunes than they used to in the 70’s or 80’s?
Kevin Kliesch: Yes, absolutely. It’s a fact that technology has taken over the process of scoring, and the access to all of these new sounds that are coming out has dramatically changed the tone of how composers are asked to score a film now. There’s much less emphasis on melody and much more emphasis on texture. There are many scores with a lot of textures and a lot of held notes and they don’t have the musicality that film scores once had. You know, any composer would like to write a melody that can be remembered forever. I recently got a comment from one of the players on „Tangled“ who said to me, „It’s such a pleasure to go back to performing music that actually has a shape to it, melody and harmony and themes.“ Which was nice to hear, and a great compliment for the composer, Alan Menken.
On „Peppercorn“ I’m doing a little bit of a hybrid. I’m doing the melodic approach and I’m also doing a lot of texture based stuff as well. It’s a very dark film that doesn’t really call for too many themes. Mike has stressed to me that he wants everything to have a moody dark kind of sound texture that doesn’t carry a lot of melody. Especially the opening scene that’s approved right now, I don’t believe there’s melody in it at all. So it’s a pounding dark score but it’s not melodic.
screen/read: As it’s a short movie there’s not much space for developing themes anyway.
Kevin Kliesch: You’re right. There would be a theme for the little girl character Eloise and you can infer that in the Magical Reading Room there’s quite a bit of magic going on, so I’m going to do some big Hollywood type melodic sounds for that as well.
screen/read: Let’s do some speculation. If you could chose to score any movie that has already been done, would there be any that came to mind?
Kevin Kliesch: Any science fiction film from the late 80’s or the early 90’s. „Total Recall“ by Jerry Goldsmith is one of my favorite film scores ever. I listen to it over and over, and it’s unbelievable. And some of the „Star Trek“ stuff in the 90’s and late 80’s that he did, the themes and all the textures he came up with – he was a true master. And even all the John Williams stuff, like „Minority Report“. So I really would love to do a science fiction film one day.
On the other hand I feel comfortable in any genre. Over the course of my career I’ve been asked to orchestrate on many, many movies as you can see from my imdb resume. And as an orchestrator you pick up a lot of techniques to get things done. I’m a huge fan of film music obviously and I have quite a large collection of soundtracks that I’ve learned a lot from about how to apply certain techniques to a certain genre. So I feel comfortable in anything, comedy, drama, science fiction, horror, animation – which I’ve done a lot of. So there’s really not a genre I don’t think I can seriously give a shot and come up with something interesting.
screen/read: In case you got a science fiction film offered and the whole thing would scream for a 100% electronic score, would you go for it or still do the orchestral stuff?
Kevin Kliesch: It really depends on what the producers want. But if I was free to chose I’d chose a hybrid. You know, the way Jerry Goldsmith did when he treated the electronics as a fifth section of the orchestra. John Powell or Harry Gregson-Williams compose like that today. And I love doing that as well. I couldn’t imagine doing just a straight orchestral score without throwing in at least some textures and percussion and stuff like that. Just to make it stand out.
screen/read: These days there are more live performances of film music, although restricted to certain composers and scores, like „The Lord of the Rings“. Do you think there’s a chance that the awareness of filmmusic will increase by that?
Kevin Kliesch: Yeah, that’s a great outlet to introduce the younger generation to filmmusic. Most symphony orchestras, at least here in the States, are running out of money, a lot of them cancel the season and lay off their musicians. So when we actually have something like that it can actually bring back attention to not only the genre of filmmusic but live orchestral music in general, and that’s always a good thing.
screen/read: So if you got the chance to do a live concert of scores you’ve been in involved with, would that be something you’d be aiming at?
Kevin Kliesch: I never really gave it a thought to be honest. I don’t think I’m at the point of my career yet but if there was enough interest in a score I had written and people wanted to hear it, I’d certainly do it. You know, the experience of going to a live orchestra is exponentially greater than listening to your CD player – see, that’s dating me right now (laughs). Today it’s rather an iPod.
screen/read: Kevin, thank you for taking the time. It was very nice talking to you.
Kevin Kliesch: Same here. Thanks for taking the interview.
[images from Tangled © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved]
[images from Mrs Peppercorn © Black Lake Films Limited]
[photo Kevin Kliesch by Bettie Robertson]