Bookpleasures.com welcomes composer and music producer John Keltonic. John has been composing original music for television and films for over 20 years. His credits include NBC, PBS, Discovery Channel, BBC, Learning Channel, and CNN. Some of his projects have won national Emmys and have even been nominated for an Academy Award (Autism Is A World -Best Documentary). A more complete list of his work can be found HERE
Norm: Good day John and thanks for participating in our interview.
What was your training as a composer and music producer for television and film? As a follow up, what was your first project and how did you get it?
John: First of all, thanks for asking me to do this interview – I really appreciate it!
Other than a few years of piano as a kid, I don’t have all that much musical training. I played piano for all the musicals in high school and was in a few bands, but never really considered music as a viable career until I was in college (I majored in psychology). While at college, I became friends on a social basis with a music professor (Dr. Alan Stein) who took a real interest in my work.
He encouraged me in countless different ways, urged me to try different arranging styles, etc. While still in college, the university decided to make a pretty big budget film about the school, and as such asked Dr. Stein to score the film. He said he was a bit “busy”, but told the university he had this student who could score the film. Fast forward a few months, and I’m waving my arms in front of a room full of musicians in a studio, all playing music I’ve written. I was blown away by the experience, to say the least! Thought it might be a good idea to try to do this again…;-)
Norm: Do you do your own mixing and mastering?
John: Rarely. If the budget is restrictive, I may do all the work in my home studio, but if given the chance, I’ll hire an engineer every time. Among my favorite engineers are Bob Dawson (Bias Studios) who did a great job with my PBS work for Ken Burns and Jim Curtis (Omega Studios), who did an outstanding job for my score for the work I did for the NBC Olympic broadcasts.
Norm: What would be your biggest piece of advice for getting work to a young composer in the field?
John: Great question. I guess I’d suggest two things. First do everything you can to learn your craft. Score student films for free, attend conferences, learn music theory – do anything (and everything) you can.
Secondly, be persistent. Establishing yourself in this field could easily take years. Rarely will any composer get that one “big break.” More often, success is built on hundreds – or thousands – of very small breaks. When I decided that I was definitely going to pursue a career as a film composer, I decided I was going to beat my head against that particular wall until something broke. My hope was that it would be the wall, and not my head…;-)
Norm: Do you have an ongoing web-presence and do you attend conferences? As a follow up, how much depends on these traditional approaches and how much is purely from reputation? i.e. do you find yourself doing a lot of self-promotion even after so many years and scores under your belt?
John: I do have a WEBSITE that’s updated regularly. It’s a great way for potential clients to check out my work anonymously. As most of my web visitors would be interested in my work (not my history, the equipment I use, my “philosophy”, etc.), it’s my work that’s predominantly featured on the site. You can search my work by music genre, project type, etc, pretty quickly. I get lots of compliments on how easy the site is to search.
I do attend conferences, but not all that often. Because I’ve been in this biz so long, it’s really my reputation that brings me work. Thankfully;-)
Norm: How do you understand your work as a music composer & producer and from whom and where do you derive your inspiration for score work?
John: Before writing a single note of music, and even before the spotting session, I find it best to sit down with the director and just listen to him or her talk about the film – what they’re trying to say, what they want the audience to understand or believe, and a thousand other similar questions. The director has most likely been living with the film for years before a composer is attached, and so the director’s inclinations, desires, and understanding of the film are paramount. That said, a good director is always open to suggestions and ideas.
And inspiration? It comes from everywhere. Running water, car horns, squeaky gates – you name it.
Norm: What would make you turn down a project? As a follow up, do you ever audition for a score knowing there will be other composers aiming for the same gig?
John: The most common reason that I turn down a film project is because of my schedule. If I can’t devote the time to a score that it deserves, I’ll pass. I’ll also turn down a film if its moral position is different than what my own understanding of right and wrong.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve been involved in cattle call auditions for a composer.
Norm: Do you go through certain processes before you write music for a film and what do you want to achieve with your music?
John: Sure. The process always starts with detailed conversations with the director, followed by a spotting session (deciding where the music goes and doesn’t go in the film, and what the music should be saying (or not saying) in each scene. This is followed by sending the director demos of each cue for feedback. And of course the final step is the final recording/mixing/mastering of the score.
Norm: As a follow up, how do you know what kind of music is appropriate for a film and what is your main goal when aiming to please the client? i.e. if you have a director that changes his mind a lot, do you change your cues with every whim, or do you put your foot down at times?
John: I’ve been a full-time composer for over 20 years, and I’m still learning all the time. There is always more than one musical “solution” to each movie scene, but my goal is to compose music that works perfectly for the director, and me!
Norm: I understand that you are a missionary leader to Uganda, helping feed and minister as well as provide medical supplies to orphans and war victims. What is this all about?
John: That’s true. I’ve been going to Uganda annually since 2000. You can read details HERE
Norm: After your phenomenal success as a composer and producer, what, if anything, remains “undone” for you? What is the one thing you haven’t done, that you are still “itching” to accomplish?”
John: What’s left “undone” is the next score! No matter how many scores I’ve written, the next project will hopefully be completely different. As hard as it is, I’m always trying to stay fresh, not repeat myself, and come up with original musical ideas and ways of scoring. As an example, Recently, one of my clients asked me to score his new 90-minute PBS documentary about the recent uprisings in Egypt (“Egypt: Revolution Interrupted” premiering on PBS late this year_. We decided that musically it would be best to use real Egyptian musicians and musical styles. A great idea. Just one small problem – I’d never worked with Egyptian music or musicians before. Ever. Didn’t even know for sure what Egyptian instruments were. I was – befuddled.
Fast forward a few weeks – I’m in a recording studio with five incredible (and patient) Egyptian musicians. For the first time, I was running a recording session with no written music for the players. Yikes. During the first hour or so, they showed me what their instruments were capable of. For the rest of the session, I described musical moods, hummed melodies, tapped out rhythms, and had them record to tempo click tracks set up for each music cue I’d laid out for the film. After they left, I added other instruments to complete each cue. Even though I’d never scored a film like this before, I loved every minute of the process!
You can hear a short montage from the final score HERE.
And last week, I was working on both an arrangement for blues legend Keb’Mo’ (for the Grammy Museum), and a new film score for the Auschwitz museum. That’s about as much musical accomplishment as I can handle in a week! ;-)
Norm: Where can our audience find out more about you and your work?
John: Probably the best place is my WEBSITE. A local magazine recently ran an article about me, if you’re interested…
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer. John: Can’t think of anything at the moment. If I come up with something, I’ll let you know.
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