"The Melodies Write Themselves": Jonathan Shanes on the Importance of Sonic Texture | Making Music for Films & TV

In previous interviews we've run with film and TV composers, we've posed many of the same questions to them, whether they work in commercials, dramas, feature films, or some mix of media—with the intent of figuring out all the different avenues that exist for musicians hoping to break into the world of media composition.

Some got their start in rock bands or producing recording artists, others found connections through their schools, and one landed a dream job through family connections only to lose it immediately and be forced to worked his way back. Those we've featured in the series—like Tim K and Carlos Villalobos, as well as similar features with Nathan Barr and Mad Max: Fury Road composer Junkie XL—each shared their unique compositional techniques, approaches to instrumentation, or ways of developing a theme.

Below, we talk to Jonathan Shanes, who has worked on shows and movies like Sense8, Miles, Babylon Berlin, Breaking In, and many more TV, film, and theater projects. He stresses how composition has changed in recent decades—how directors are more hands-on than ever with decisions and instrumentation, how traditional definitions of themes and orchestration are evolving, and how important it is to add your individual voice to any project you take on.

For more information on Jonathan, check out his personal website here, his IMDB page, or the website for Rising In Love, a musical he’s currently composing.

How'd you start playing music, and how did you get your start in film composing?

Well, my start in music goes a while back. My aunt's a concert pianist, so I grew up playing classical piano, ended up doing voice and piano in college, left school to play in a great rock 'n' roll band from Chicago—Family of Souls—for those Chicago folks who still remember us. Band broke up. I decided to go to Columbia College Chicago and get my degree in composition. And I saw a sign on the wall that said: "Semester in LA Film Scoring Program, taught by Andy Hill." I thought, That sounds really fascinating, I should look into that. And I did.

There was an application process. I was lucky enough to get selected and I went up there with seven other students from Chicago. We spent, I think, five weeks at CBS Studios Radford in one of those fantastic little bungalows, hunkering down and learning the ins and outs of film scoring from really some of the busiest composers, conductors, programmers, orchestrators, and music preparationists in Los Angeles. And it's all thanks to Andy's incredible prowess as a program director.

From there, Andy took a liking to my music and he heard that Johnny Klimek was looking for an assistant and recommended me. I went, met with Johnny. We got along—great guy and we hit it off—and I've been with him ever since, actually.

I'm one of those really lucky few. It's an unusual story for someone to move to Los Angeles with a gig kind of waiting for them, especially a gig like working for an incredible composer like Johnny Klimek.

How has creating music for yourself or producing for other recording artists informed how you create music for films?

Well, as soon as you step foot in LA, you're stepping foot in a highly collaborative environment. That means, really, a next-level sort of willingness to set your ego aside and serve projects and serve leaders of projects. So that will naturally very much effect your approach to any given project, because right off the bat, you're working with others to pick absolutely everything—from timbre to instrumentation to harmonic approach, etc.

So, I think it's kind of an apples to oranges situation. There is writing for one's self and there is writing for a project. There are certain similarities in that they both draw from the well of inner inspiration, a lifetime of experience, every heartache you've ever experienced, every moment of joy—they all come across. If you're a good composer, they all come out, whether you're writing for yourself or whether you're involved in a collaborative environment. Regardless, your inner voice should be heard.

Can you talk more about how your formal education has informed your media composition?

I spoke about the experience of getting here through my education, but really, I think the question is more what everybody wants to know: Do you have to get an education to be successful in music?

Everyone knows about the stories of successful composers who learn to read music on the job, who didn't originally do music, but as they became more successful, started to pick it up and perhaps now have more prowess than they did when they were younger. And then there are other composers like John Williams and many others who are just incredible masters of the orchestra and have encyclopedic knowledge of romantic classical music and can recall harmonies and textures of a hundred years of geniuses at any moment.

Jonathan Shanes (Photo via Astrolab Photography)

And I think at the end of the day, what I tend to tell people is that every path is different and in general, does it matter? I'll give you a big no.

However, in what capacity does one succeed in Los Angeles? Well, typically one doesn't show up and immediately be hailed as an original voice to be given a team to flesh out their incredible, original vision. Typically, people come out as support for others who have already proven for themselves that they can exist as standalone artists. And they hire support and you come out and support and you learn the trade, you learn the craft. For me, I felt there's a certain romantic attachment to that idea.

I liken it to the year 1300 and it's an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is a very old notion, and a very valuable one. I enjoyed the idea of it and for me, it worked out well. I think for a lot of people, that's the direction to go. That being said, if you are willing to go that direction, it's probably good to have as many skills as possible. And the more time you spend in school, the more skills you're going to have.

I feel that sometimes people think about school as, Well, this person has a piece of paper, and I don't have a piece of paper, so what difference does it make? School isn't about the piece of paper. It's useful in some fields, but much less so in music.

School is great because you get to spend four years studying music and honing your craft and honing your mind and your ability to learn quickly, which is probably the most important skill you can have out here. And those are all really honed in a school environment, especially university, higher-level education. That's why they call it higher-level education. So, I'm a big proponent of education. But at the end of the day, is it going to make or break anyone's career? Absolutely not.

There's something to be said for the collaborative process you learn in school as well.

For sure. I didn't believe then [when first arriving in LA] and I don't believe now that Los Angeles is a competitive city—I don't believe in competition in the arts business as a concept. I think it's an illusion. Everyone occasionally feels envious when they struggle for a long time and see others on the stage at the Oscars saying, "Oh my God. Finally, all of my dreams came true. Finally, all of my hard work paid off. Finally, all of the people who told me I was crazy—ha, you're wrong." And we all see that and naturally say, "Oh, I'm excited for my moment for that," but the idea that they're there and you are not—no, that's an illusion.

So what do you consider to be the most essential skill sets, soft and hard, to have?

I found for me that my ability to transcribe, my ability to hear complex cluster chords and pull them apart, my ability to disseminate complicated rhythms and other musical structures very quickly—those have served me incredibly well. Thank you for sharpening these skills, Philip Seward—Columbia College Chicago shoutout.

I'll tell you, transcription—or the ability to understand and disseminate harmonic structure and rhythmic structures in music—has been an essential part of my ability to support composers and work out here for a lot of reasons, some better than others.

But, on the other hand, I know other composers who have done well who don't have that skill really and they're doing just fine, you know? It's a particular skill set that some people have and some don't. For me, I feel it's a great skill set to have and to develop.

Jonathan Shanes - "Sunday Morning" from Breaking In

Let's see. Here's a really important one that I didn't see in your other interviews, and I feel it's extremely important and timely as well. The ability to manage your own health while working long hours and difficult situations, unusual times, unusual sleeping patterns, spikes in emotional states—constant spikes in emotional states, just because of the nature of pursuing one's dream in Hollywood and all that. There's going to be a bit of roller coaster and you can't avoid that. So, managing your personal health, physical health, and your mental health while pursuing your career is absolutely tantamount to you succeeding long-term in Los Angeles.

Things like: Learn how to cook. Learn how to shop inexpensively and locally and cook for yourself, so you're not eating out all the time. Huge. So, so big. You want to survive in LA? Learn how to cook. You want to survive in LA? Clean your place. Stay on top of your sleeping schedule as best you can. There's a lot of wonderful hiking around here. You can head outside of Glendale, like 10 minutes away, there are waterfalls. We're in a desert. You know? And then you head out to the ocean, take a stroll on the beach.

These are really difficult things to actually do. It's much easier to say to do those things than to actually do them. When weeks go by and months go by and you're in the trenches and you're just trying to keep your head above water, you tell yourself, "Well I don't have time to go to the beach today. I don't have time to cook myself a home-cooked meal today. I'm just going to go get McDonald's because I don't have time for those things." And what you'll learn pretty soon is that you'll wish you made time for these things, because you won't be able to keep up with the stress and the schedule of what it is to work as an artist in Los Angeles.

What's the strangest request a director or a film or TV producer has given you when describing the kind of music that they want?

I thought about that question. Because when I first came to LA and I studied under Andy, I actually remember very well—like it was yesterday—Andy would tell us stories. I think these stories might even exist in On The Track, but there are old stories, funny stories about, for example, a director who will tell a composer, "Make this more green."

Jonathan Shanes (Photo via Subliminal Stories)

Or of course the classic one—it might as well be a meme—which is, "No minor chords." Because the director's watching a scene and he's like, "What is this right here? It's not really working." The composer's like, "What, here? It's an A minor and a trumpet." "That. What is that?" "What? The A minor here?" He's like, "Yeah, yeah. No more of that. I don't want that in my movie. No more minor chords."

Those are classic stories. However, I feel those are now moot. The reason those are moot is because of the nature of the mock-ups and nature of technology and the nature of hearing everything quite fleshed out, and the ability to change things quickly, the ability for people working outside of the music team—directors, cinematographers, editors, producers—to have a pretty solid understanding of the inner workings of the scores, because they spend so much time sitting next to a composer really looking at the DAW.

I can't tell you how much time I've spent sitting in a little room with a director of a huge film, a massive film, and they're sitting next to you and you have your Logic song open and they're like, "OK, now mute that." OK... "Well, I like that. I like that a little louder. Hey, stretch that out."

I think these days, due to the nature of deliverability, I can just throw stems up on the internet and they can download them. I will say this also about the question: There shouldn't ever be a strange request. Whatever a director wants, however he feels like expressing it in the moment sounds good to me. A director should feel totally free to express himself in any which way he wants to, and a composer should really always be ready and open to make sense of whatever they say.

What's your studio setup like? What instruments are you currently composing with, favorite scoring software, DAWs, music libraries, etc.?

I love playing acoustic instruments, but when it comes to scoring 12 hours a day, six days a week, you can do most of that in your DAW. My setup for the most part—although I have access of course to acoustic instruments, I have musicians and such—but in terms of my day-to-day activities, I'm spending my time doing everything virtual, or just about everything virtual. Even if I'm bringing in a recording, it's still spending the majority of my time editing them at that point.

My situation is in Logic. I am in Logic simply because—well, actually, I think it was Andy Hill who picked Logic for us and then when I met Johnny, he said, "I use Logic." So, I said, Oh. And the next day Johnny said to me, "How are you with Logic?" And I said, "You know, good, but I could be better." He said, "OK, great. Well, get better."

So I immediately went on Amazon and I got David Nahmani's book, the Apple Certification for Logic, and I immediately memorized the book and became certified in Logic. So, for those people who use Logic, I highly recommend getting Apple certified. For those people who use Cubase, Pro Tools, DP [Digital Performer], Ableton [Live], etc.—while there may not be official certification processes currently in existence—find a book and do it. I know it's fun to mess around. Study that shit, because you'll find yourself not only with the ability to do things you didn't know you were able to do before, but you'll be able to support people who use this stuff for a living.

Sorry, long winded. I use Finale for my music engraving. I should also know Sibelius. I've lost gigs because I never made time to learn Sibelius. My Pro Tools skills are, you know, I can use Pro Tools, but it's not my main DAW. Typically, that's something I more associate with recording, which I'll hire out for. For virtual instruments, like everybody, Kontakt.

Jonathan Shanes - "Kina" From Jungle

What kind of virtual libraries do you like?

Spitfire is a go-to. I’ve been getting into Sonokinetic as well. Spectrasonics is still a staple, and I use u-he a lot. New developers are always getting in the game too, like this great guitarist I’m always recording called AcousticLabs.

Any time that I'm going to use things like Absynth or Stylus or Spectrasonics or Massive, I'm going to drastically affect the sound of each through EQs and other filters to make sure they're not stock, because I don't enjoy stock synths terribly. I try to avoid stock synth sounds by dramatically altering their EQ to the point where they're new instruments. I have a few go-to EQ things that I do that I feel are actually partly responsible for my unique voice as a composer.

Let's see, what else do I use? Maverick is fun for the piano—it's a go-to also. Here's a big one: 8Dio—of course, everyone uses 8Dio, but it's a big part of what I do. The CAGE [orchestral] library that 8Dio makes... There's a bunch of that stuff that I use.

I spent a long time designing my own virtual instruments—surround sound, orchestral, and other virtual instruments—in [Logic's] EXS24 sampler, as well as for Stylus, Kontakt, and others. But mainly I built a massive library of original EXS24 samples, which I really love.

And these days I'm using Berlin Series Woodwinds and they’re fantastic. What I love about Berlin winds is their dynamic range with the mod-wheel—they really fly from pianissimo to fortissimo.

What does your general process look like? Do you come up with thematic concept and for character plot arcs and build from there, or what does that look like for you?

Jonathan Shanes (Photo via Subliminal Stories)

I think those are sort of outdated questions in a way—not to rip on your questions—because there's been a demystification of the film-scoring process. And that has a lot to do with you [laughs]. In this day of Wikipedia, YouTube tutorials, if people want to know how to do stuff, how things are done, the veil has been lifted off of all kinds of formally secretive, magical situations.

So that information is readily available?

Correct, understanding of course that it's an incredibly collaborative situation when you're serving a project. Typically, when a composer enters a project, they're not the first ones in—in fact they're most likely the last, especially on films. So, at that point everything has been decided. The mood, the genre—they've probably even put in some temporary music to give themselves the feeling that they're looking for, to give test audiences the feeling they're looking for, so they can find the tone and timbre of their film, which is totally fair and understandable.

So when a composer is brought in, the first thing they're going to talk about is going to be those questions you were asking: What kind of colors are we talking about? What kind of instrumentations? At the end of the day, I feel that composition for media can be best discussed in the context of sonic texture. It's less so about harmonic progressions, melodies, and motifs—those are almost like the residual effect of the process. They're not the first things that come, they're the last things that come.

The first thing that comes is the discussion of sonic texture. Is it big or small? Is it aggressive, is it tender? Is it edgy, is it subdued? Is it modern, is it throwback? What sounds are going to remind you of certain things you don't want to be reminded of? What sounds are going to remind you of things you do want to be reminded of? These are all sonic texture questions. Instrumentation and sonic texture are highly related—or orchestration I suppose you could say, but instrumentation is more broad.

I feel like those are really the first things that get decided. And then once those things are decided, in a lot of ways the music begins to write itself. It should, anyway. If a composer has a quality communication with their director or other partner/producer, then they should be able to take a strong direction in terms of sonic texture and general mood and what they're trying to achieve and accomplish, in terms of the music serving the film.

If you have indeed pinpointed that direction successfully—and it helps to have a strong leader that knows what they want—but if you do manage to get that, really a lot of the times the chords just kind of fall out. The melodies write themselves, the instruments pick themselves even, because you've already narrowed down your selection field in terms of conceptual sonic texture.

One more thing: It's 2018 and times have changed. The notion of, what is the motif? What is the melody? What is a theme? Is it a collection of notes over time? I don't necessarily know that it is. Is it possible for just a texture, for a synth pulse, or a single note, or if you really want to get crazy—the sound of a slowed down tire screech—it doesn't really matter.

If it hits the right spot, emotionally and intellectually in the moment, and repeats itself at some point, and it harks back to that and achieves what it needs to achieve, that sounds like a theme to me. And also, the nature of film-scoring in general is you're finding less traditional stuff. Listen to Interstellar and then listen back to the score for Back to the Future. They couldn't be more different.

Jonathan Shanes

Speaking of themes, how do you develop a theme over time? Are there particular compositional techniques—retrograde, inversion, variation—are there things where you know right away you go to and start using just to get more material out of limited motives?

No, and for several reasons. First of all, when it comes to media composition, often times, simple musical statements are the most profound. They're the most effective and the least distracting from the material on the screen. So while you might have a motif that you love and it's working, there's actually a long-running joke in the film-scoring community that the only time you'll get to develop it is in the end credits [laughs]. Because it's the only time you're not competing with the screen.

How much of a battle is it to work with temp music or to create a new piece that accomplishes what the director loved about the placeholder?

In the cases of songs [as compared to scores] it's particularly difficult, because songs have their own cultural significance, and they capture a moment and time, and they have their entire world associated with them. That cannot be recreated—it's impossible. When it comes to score, it's much more doable.

A good composer should be able to crack the toughest nut, when it comes to temp replacement. I feel that while it can be sometimes disheartening and overwhelming to be handed a massive amount of music written and produced by the most talented and provocative artist of our time, in multi-million dollar facilities—yes, it can be very intense and disheartening. On the other hand, it's part of what we do. So, keep your chin up, keep your nose down, keep a good attitude... and I feel it's important to have an original voice.

If you are able to insert, inject, interject, to juxtapose your original voice with the feeling and energy that the temp is giving the director or producer, then you'll find yourself producing new music that accomplishes the goals in terms of the project, while also being absolutely original and not overly derivative.

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