We Create Music Blog
May 08, 2015

Film Music Friday: Scoring New York

What it's like to be a film/TV composer in the Big Apple

By Rachel Perkins with Etan Rosenbloom and Jeff Jernigan

New York is known as an epicenter of finance and fashion, jazz and punk rock. Initially you might not consider it a composer haven. However, some of the godfathers (and godmothers!) of film and TV music are based on the East Coast, and we’ve heard talk of an elusive sound and underground community growing 3000 miles away from LA.

What are the challenges of making a living as a composer for visual media in NYC? Is it tough to find work far away from the film and TV capital of Hollywood? Or is it easier to create career momentum in an environment less saturated with other aspiring composers? To find out, we spoke with Danny Bensi, Ian Hultquist and Simon Taufique - three up-and-coming ASCAP composers who’ve spent time living and working in the Big Apple. They revealed the magic behind the curtain of the New York composer scene and sound.

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How has living and working in NYC been a benefit to your career? Has it been a liability in any way?

Danny Bensi

Danny Bensi

Danny Bensi: The musicians I’ve met in New York and the friends I’ve made have all deeply contributed to my music career and artistic growth. We’re all within five minutes of each other it seems. It’s both inspiring and daunting! The city is bustling with things to do and see at any given moment - and it doesn’t take long to find some kind of inspiration for whatever you’re working on. On the flip side, New York keeps you on a razor’s edge: it’s expensive, extremely demanding, and gobbles up your time.

Ian Hultquist: I was in such a transient state of being on and off tour while I lived in NYC, that it was hard for me to really ground myself in any sort of film music community there. I was lucky enough to find my first few jobs through friends, and even my wife who was attending grad school at NYU at the time. The majority of the commercial work I was doing was all based out of LA. However, I think there was something unique about me being the "guy in the band, who lives in NY" at the time, that perhaps drew interest towards my writing.

Simon Taufique: It's hard to live here as a musician or filmmaker and not be influenced and inspired by the people, architecture, dirt, rumbles and smells of NYC. If I wasn't in a city with as diverse and challenging a culture, community and environment as New York's, I wouldn't have pursued as many creative experiments and musical chances. I also probably wouldn't have met as many filmmakers willing to encourage me to take those risks. Speaking just about the music, I'm constantly borrowing from the music that's heard on the streets, performed on the stages and in the subways. There's also a wealth of daring filmmakers at the film programs of NYU, Columbia and The New School, to name a few. On a more personal note, I see the Empire State Building every day as I walk up Broadway to my studio, so it's impossible to not feel completely jazzed about being here!

Ian Hultquist

Ian Hultquist

Ian, you made your name as a member of the band Passion Pit. How did you make the decision to move into composing?

IH: It was kind of inevitable for me. The band took off the second we graduated, so I didn't have time to think about scoring for the first couple of years, but I knew I wanted to find my way back to it eventually. It wasn't an easy transition, and it took quite a bit of patience. A lot of people assumed my music would sound a certain way because of where I was coming from. I can't tell how you many creative briefs I got asking if I could make something sound like a certain song or record, but I guess that comes with the territory.

Did you go to school to become a composer? Do you think music education programs are feeding into the uniqueness of the NYC composer scene?

DB: I didn’t go to school to become a composer. I fell into it and realized that there was a wealth of knowledge and experience inside of me - the vast majority of which I owe to my teachers and schools. I’m not sure about the education programs in New York because I didn’t grow up here - but I think the city inherently gives a uniqueness to the composer scene.

IH: I did! I actually majored in Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music. Their teaching basically told us that the only way to become a film composer was to move to LA and become someone's assistant ASAP. And I think that actually might have caused a diversion of wanting to live in LA for me. It took a long time for my wife and I to warm up (no pun) to the idea of moving out there.

ST: If there were film composer programs available at the time, I would have jumped at the chance. Instead, I double majored in Political Science & Economics in undergrad and dug into Music Technology at NYU in grad school. Little did I know that messing with test tones and electrical hums would lead to a future in film music! The music education programs that encourage students to dive into the deep well of music that's all around us in NYC will most definitely feed the uniqueness of NYC's composer scene.

Simon Taufique

Simon Taufique

Simon, you split your time between producing and film scoring. Have you found that one side is more creatively or financially fulfilling? 

ST: As a composer who's been a longtime fan of Brian Eno's approach to music-making through creative limitations, producing has really benefited from my life as a composer...and vice-versa! The composing inspires me to think outside the box as a producer, which stimulates totally new ideas as a composer (eg: getting inspired by visiting the locations, chatting with the DP or screenwriter or cast).

I got into producing by being an "overly-involved" composer, bugging my filmmakers with suggestions about festivals, distribution strategies, and wacky marketing ideas. I initially thought producing would only exercise my business instincts (I once founded and ran a tech startup). Boy was I wrong! Some of the best producers are often the ones with the most creative solutions for making a film under seemingly impossible restrictions.

Who are some of the pillars of the NYC film music community that you personally look up to?

DB: Howard Shore, John Corigliano, Josh Ralph and Jay Israelson.

IH: There are a handful of composers that I've come to know over the years who either have lived, still live, or work in and out of NY. Nathan Johnson, Ryan Lott (Son Lux) and Ryan Miller (Guster) have all provided quite a bit of inspiration for me in getting started. There are also guys like Dan Romer, Nathan Larson and Danny Bensi & Saunders Jurriaans, and of course the Fall on Your Sword team. It's interesting to note though, that almost all of those composers come from either a band background or have had to use commercial production work as a springboard into film scoring.

ST: Carter Burwell, for remaining wildly original and maintaining a distinctive New York edge, even in the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters. Elliot Goldenthal, for commanding both the concert hall and the big screen with grace and ease. And Wendy Carlos, who I often see in the neighborhood, and for fear of appearing like a stalker, I haven't yet expressed my gratitude to her for the breakthrough work she did in analog synthesis that's immeasurably broadened the sonic palette of film music.

Is there a distinct sound coming from NYC composers? How would you describe it?

DB: I don’t keep too much track of what others are doing, there’s so little time for that. I would describe what I do as layers of textures which go together in a gritty, beautiful way: unlikely pairings, hidden, almost unnoticed beauty, and intricate color palettes. But it’s not done over-strenuously - there is a lightness of hand. A laissez-faire approach perhaps.

IH: I feel like a lot of the scores that I hear coming from composers working exclusively in NY tend to center around smaller arrangements. Not that that is a bad thing, you can do a lot with very little! However, you don't often get someone doing a large Hans Zimmer-type orchestra blast that often. Perhaps it has to do with the lack of space everyone is working in!

Simon, as a Brit by birth, do you have a sense of how the film industry outside the US thinks of the LA/NYC film and film music divide?

ST: I've been exposed to British filmmakers who have have been highly suspicious (and wrongly I might add) of the LA film music scene, which they assumed was restricted to a specific sound or filmmaking style. On the flip side, these filmmakers would have a favorable opinion of NYC composers, sometimes as a halo effect of New York's artistic and outsider history.

Do you have a sense of the difference between the composer communities in NYC and LA? Aside from weather?

IH: As I met more and more people from the scoring world, they are were all either based or moving towards living in Los Angeles. I strongly felt a greater sense of community and collaborative spirit emanating from the West Coast than I did while living in Brooklyn. Granted a lot of that had to do with my personal experience and my constantly shifting schedule, but it was enough to start getting my attention.

ST: I find NYC composers are gurus of self-sufficiency and independence. They're a pretty serious and talented group of people to work with. They're also kind of like hermits, at least the ones I know. I host a monthly filmmaker salon called Squalor NYC that's made up of about 1000 filmmakers. Even though it's always a really fun night out, convincing my composer buddies to leave the comfort of their studios to meet some great filmmakers is harder than you think. On a recent trip to LA, a composer buddy drove an hour to hang out with some filmmakers I invited to my film's LA opening. Maybe it's just him or maybe not…

Danny, you’ve worked on so many films that have done well at film festivals. How did you get so plugged into the festival community?

DB: Well we’re not actually that connected to the film festival community. We try to get all access passes or at least free lift tickets from Sundance every year, but to no avail! It’s really the caliber of films we work on which make it into the festivals. Good producers and filmmakers know other good producers and filmmakers. We get hired and trusted based on their word-of-mouth recommendations.

Do you think there’s a bias against composers based outside of LA? If so how do you tackle that problem?

DB: I don’t really think there is a bias as far as musical approach is concerned. In terms of getting hired, it depends many times on where the post-production of a movie is taking place…and where the director is (as well as his/her team). I think most post-production for studio films is done in LA. So naturally they’re going to hire composers who are there and have established connections to musicians and their teams. Sometimes, a director in LA will be looking for something specific though - and will be willing to hire us in New York to get it. We’re grateful when they do - and hope it continues to grow!

IH: I wouldn't necessarily call it a bias, but there is something to be said about the power of sitting in the room with someone face to face, that working remotely can't provide. I did a lot of projects either from our apartment in NY or even hotels or tour buses, which all worked out fine. However, when I signed on to do Ivory Tower, it showed how much unique creativity can come from sitting in a room with someone and working together. Their post-production was all based out of NY, so that was one example of my living there giving me the upper hand!

ST: That bias definitely exists among filmmakers who don't know some of the most amazing scores were a result of remotely collaborating with composers outside of LA, like There Will Be Blood, or Gone Girl, citing just two of many examples. There's also a misconception that serious film composers only work in LA. The truth is that serious film music is being created wherever great music is being made. That includes NYC, Iceland, Mumbai, Dublin, Adelaide and all points in between.

Ian, you recently moved from NYC to LA. What inspired the transition? Was it a long time coming?

IH: Between living in Boston & NYC, my wife and I had been on the East Coast for about 10 years. I was in a transitional state, where I felt ready to leave the road and pursue scoring full time. We both knew we wanted more space, a studio that consisted of more than the corners of our living room, and so on. It's funny, because for years we would hate on LA and couldn't understand why anyone would want to live here - until we made the effort to get to know it. I find it to be a fascinating city now. Of course there are still parts that I will always avoid, but we have found so many amazing people and places here in the past year, I can only imagine while we'll find next.

NYC is a world center for so many other art forms - opera, ballet, theatre, etc. Has that afforded creative or professional opportunities to you that you might not have elsewhere?

DB: Yes, we had the opportunity to work several times with the girls from CocoRosie for example, or the dancers at the American Ballet Theater, or performing live music for fashion shows and fashion/art installations. We’ve collaborated and performed at the MoMA, and for charities, etc. It’s all right here in proximity, all very last minute, and all very incredible to work on - especially with the city as your backdrop.

IH: I think being exposed to so many different mediums at once provided me with a lot of creative inspiration. I don't know if any of that necessarily fueled my scoring work, but as a general lover of the arts and the creative spirit - it was a dream come true to live in the epicenter of that for a while.

ST: Absolutely! I've had unforgettable experiences working in theatre on experimental sound design and helping friends with their museum installations. I've also had great opportunities to compose for ballet as well as exciting music for tech startups looking to integrate cinematic music into their apps and games.

What’s it like finding musicians, contractors and studios to record your film music in NYC?

DB: There’s a pretty great network of musicians here in New York. We always ask our go-to musicians for contact info of other players. It’s amazing how fast we can find excellent players in this city. Apart from recording at Pulse Studios in Manhattan, we record at Gary’s Electric in Greenpoint. The owners are old friends and poured their heart into creating a unique and wonderful recording studio.

IH: I only held one real scoring session in NY, and it was all thanks to calling in a lot of favors! I actually had a friend from Boston, Clayton Matthews, pull together about 10 string players for me in the matter of a few hours. I was also extremely lucky to have Chris Zane allow me to use his recording studio for the day. Aside from that one instance, most of my contracting work would be done via e-mail. For example, I would have friends in Chicago recording woodwinds and brass in their apartment, and sending the files over to me so I could then edit and mix them into my sessions.

ST: Not only is it a breeze finding people to work with in NYC, I often find people who've worked on the most incredible films, recordings and sessions I could've ever imagined. Case in point, I took over my last studio from legendary drummer, Omar Hakim. It was sandwiched between [studio spaces used by] folks like Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Syd Butler of Les Savy Fav, Grammy-winning drummer Steven Wolf and vocal virtuoso Bobby McFerrin. I met the singers Ben Scheuer and Jamie Lidell when I sold them mics I posted on Craigslist. Only in NYC!

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Danny Bensi is an internationally-raised musician who studied the cello and received a music degree from Northwestern. For several years, Danny played cello in the instrumental, cinematic rock band Priestbird, which toured extensively in North America and Europe. They were invited to open for reputable bands including Pearl Jam. In 2010, Danny and his bandmate Saunder Jurriaans were approached to score their first feature movie Two Gates of Sleep (directed by Alistair Banks Griffin) which premiered in Cannes. The film demanded a unique orchestral score that quickly garnered the attention of other directors. From Johnny Greenwood-esque avant-garde classical music to sweeping orchestral scores, the composer duo has since scored an array of award-winning, edgy films and documentaries including Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin), Simon Killer (dir. Antonio Campos), The One I Love (dir. Charlie McDowell), Bluebird (dir. Lance Edmands) and Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve), which won the award for Best Musical Score at the Canadian Screen Awards and is rated as one of the best scores of 2014 by Indiewire. Sundance 2015 had five films scored by Danny and Saunder: Last Days in the Desert (dir. Rodrigo Garcia), James White (dir. Josh Monde), Nasty Baby (dir. Sebastian Silva), Wolfpack (dir. Crystal Moselle) and Rabbit (dir. Laure De Clermont Tonnerre). Current projects include Franny (dir. Andrew Renzi). Visit Danny online at www.stenfertcharles.com.

Ian Hultquist is a composer and musician currently living in Los Angeles. His career began when he heard the first few notes of John Williams’s Jurassic Park score in 1993, and has continued on from that moment, with a few detours along the way. Hultquist studied film scoring at Berklee College of Music, where he married his love of electronic and rock music with his love of film, and began to develop his unique composing style. He also met his wife and fellow composer, Sofia, and became one of the founding members of the band Passion Pit. The band’s meteoric rise would take Hultquist to sold-out crowds around the world, but it wasn’t until 2011, during the band’s first real break from touring in almost four years, that Hultquist was able to fully return to scoring for film. He began with work on numerous commercials and short films; a mutual friend introduced Hultquist to the acclaimed filmmaker Andrew Rossi, who gave him his first full-length scoring credit with the documentary Ivory Tower. Around the same time, Hultquist met actor David Dastmalchian who was hard at work finishing the screenplay for the movie Animals, for which Hultquist would provide the haunting and pensive score. After trips to Sundance and SXSW with Ivory Tower and Animals, Hultquist officially left Passion Pit. His film and TV work includes commercials for brands like Samsung and Honda, the recently released Battlefield Hardline 360 trailer, and films including The Diabolical (2015 SXSW selection) and the documentary Thought Crimes (2015 Tribeca Film Festival selection). His upcoming films also include Memoria and Burning Bodhi. Find Ian online at ianhultquist.com.

Simon Taufique has been a secret weapon for a new generation of indie filmmakers. He is an award-winning composer, film producer, Sundance Lab finalist and film festival programmer. Along the way, whispers of recognition have appeared in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, NME, Spin Magazine and IndieWire for his work with Julian Casablancas and filmmakers Mary Harron, Anja Marquardt, Hossein Keshavarz and Student Academy Award winner Dennis Lee. Thanks to a brief detour founding a celebrated tech start-up (greenbutton.com) during the dot-com boom, Simon found himself at the frontlines of music’s transformation by the digital revolution. His new perspective led him to study techniques of virtual collaboration, advanced synthesis and non-linear recording at NYU’s music technology graduate program. Before long, Simon was applying those lessons by composing for award-winning indie projects and being chosen to co-compose for the Julia Roberts-produced film, Jesus Henry Christ with guitar virtuoso David Torn. Simon is now being asked to work with filmmakers as both a composer and producer. He recently became a partner in the NY/LA film fund, Atomic Features, which has several projects gearing up for production in 2015-16, with Simon on board to produce and score. His most recent project wearing both hats was the Berlin Film Festival winner She’s Lost Control. Some of Simon’s upcoming projects include Asher and a film adaptation of acclaimed novel Purple America, written by Rick Moody. Simon also accepted an invitation to join the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Programming Committee, building on his work as Program Director and Jury Chair at the South Asian International Film Festival. Simon also hosts a popular filmmaker salon made up of nearly a thousand active filmmakers that meet at monthly events. More info: www.musiquetaufique.com