Interview with Ryan Amon
8Dio Artist Spotlight. Interview with Ryan Amon. Questions by Troels Folmann. August 2013.
Tell us a little bit about your musical background- and influences?
I grew up playing classical piano and saxophone from an early age. Around the time I went to college, I had switched out the saxophone for a guitar and began using songwriting as a creative outlet – almost like keeping a musical journal. I was one of those kids that would get scolded by my piano teacher for not practicing, mostly because I would rather experiment and come up with my own ideas than practice the classics. Learning the classical compositions gave me a huge springboard into composition though, and I’m grateful my teacher made me stick with it. I was actually a biology and art student in college before finally changing my course around the age of 21 and attending the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota. That is where I first learned about the computer technology that makes it possible to hear the full orchestra laid out in a composition as we hear it in our heads, and I was hooked. I remember my first true listening experience to a soundtrack came with Michael Kamen’s score to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I had a special love for the French horn back in high school because not only did my brother play the instrument, but as a saxophone player in the concert band, we are seated right next to them. I would constantly be looking at their music and how it related to mine, as well as peaking over the stands in front of me to see what the flutes and clarinets were doing at the same time. The French horn melodies in Prince of Thieves are great, and that instrument remains one of my favorite. I grew up listening to rock and pop music mostly, although once I got into soundtracks, I started collecting them and forcing my friends to listen to them. They must have thought I was nuts. Musically, I think my influences are constantly changing. I’m a big fan of Thomas Newman and John Powell lately, and have also discovered Abel Korzeniowski recently. Some of my all time favorite composers to listen to are John Barry (his work from Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves), Ennio Morricone (The Mission is probably my favorite score), and John Williams’ emotively ‘darker’ scores, such as Born on the Fourth of July and Schindler’s List.
What made you decide to get into trailer music? You were doing (reality) TV music initially, is that correct?
Yes, my first foot in the door was ghost writing for reality television. My interest was always solely in film music and the storytelling process, although I feel very grateful to have had mentors along the way in different areas of the industry. I wanted to try out trailer music because I was looking for a challenge at the time and it seemed a logical step in the right direction of being able to write epic and dramatic music. Initially some of my early trailer music was being rejected by library companies because it ‘sounded too much like film music’, which made me smile a bit because I guess I can’t hide that side of me even when I try to. I had to find that structure they were looking for and be careful not to deviate from it too much. This became a bit of a challenge after a while because I wanted to experiment a bit more and try different instruments and sounds. I finally decided to do my own project where I was able to experiment with blending more exotic instruments (or at least exotic to the Western music world) with a traditional orchestra. I called this personal project “City of the Fallen”. Some editors found it interesting and wanted to hear more, so I decided to release 5 albums, and finally a public compilation called “Divinus“. The third “City of the Fallen” album “Revelations” ended up being closest to where my musical voice in film was beginning I think. It is still very much grounded in the advertising world because of underlying repetition and rhythm, but it was another step in the direction I would like to explore in the future.
Let’s talk a bit about your score for “Elysium”. It’s amazing to see a trailer music composer do music for a big budget film, so again congratulations. I remember you talking about your wish to do music for film in an interview early last year. How did director Neill Blomkamp find out about you and your music?
Thanks so much – it was a huge blessing that I am forever grateful to Neill for. Hopefully we’ll see these kind of risks taken a lot more in the near future. I was living in Santa Cruz, Bolivia at the time, which also happens to be the city I started up “City of the Fallen”. My wife and almost her whole family live there, so I picked up my studio and shipped it down to South America to become a ‘camba’. One day, completely out of the blue, I received an email from Neill Blomkamp. The embarrassing part is that I had to google him, because I didn’t recognize the name at first. It was literally one sentence with a youtube link. The sentence simply read “Is this you?”. I clicked on the link and found a fan-posted track of one of my older trailer music songs. I laugh about it now because I really thought it was a prank that some friends were playing on me. But in the infinitely small case it wasn’t a prank, I wanted to be sure to respond, so I let ‘him’ know that indeed it was my track. I think it must have been few days later where I received a follow-up email from Neill’s assistant wanted to set up a Skype call, and then I realized that it wasn’t a prank.
I also heard that Blomkamp had you compose much of the music before seeing anything of the film, is that correct? What directions did he give you? Was it easier, again coming from a trailer music background, to not score to picture but to what is in your head, in your imagination?
That’s true. The initial idea was for me to start writing musical ideas based on the descriptions of darkness and light. I believe he was looking for a sound or mood that would be his backdrop for earth and the Elysium space station. It was a lot of experimentation before we found a sound palette that resonated with his vision of the film. Initially I started working on orchestral ideas and themes, but as they were filming and the production progressed it became more apparent to us to take a different path, still utilizing organic sounds but approaching it from a non-traditional standpoint. We eventually found that it was going to be a melding of organic synthesis and orchestral instrumentation that seemed to work in the world he created. I think having a background in trailer music, where we are writing music by imagining what could be happening, definitely helped me with the approach that was taken, although it was also a challenge to not see the visuals at first. I’m such a visual person, that many times I feel like a picture or pacing of a moving picture scene can tell me what to write. The color schemes and camera angles help me musically as well. The great thing about Neill, is that even when he doesn’t quite know what sound he is looking for at first, he always knows what he wants. And he was very involved with parts of the sonic palette we used, including the chattering of colobus monkeys with baboons. Scoring away from picture also can prevent the use of hitting too many reactions, of ‘mickey mousing’ the scene. We can throw different musical ideas at the screen and see what sticks and what doesn’t, and why. When it is all said and done the final edit should be what the filmmakers want and what works best for the world they created and the story they are telling, so making sure that everyone is happy at the end of the day is really important to film composition. There’s really no room for ego when you are serving a much greater purpose.
How do you normally go about scoring a project? Do you have a specific routine?
I think normally when a composer scores a project, they’ll sit down with the director and have a spotting session where they will talk about the music’s role and purpose in the storytelling process. Neill approached this film quite a bit differently. Because of this, my routine is still being discovered for future projects, although I do like the idea of working on a variety of material without any inhibitions at first. Maybe only 5% of it will actually work, but it opens up the gateway of experimentation. Each project is different, which keeps it fun, but I think working out thematic elements in the beginning can take a lot of pressure off later. Then we have our palette of colors – the sounds or themes we can come back to in identifying characters and locations.
Midi orchestration generally requires a lot of resources. What are the specs of your system?
I try to keep things as simple as possible. I work on a 2.8 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon Power Mac G5, with MOTU outboard gear for digital conversion. I have a Studiologic SL-990xp as my 88-key weighted midi keyboard. Having a mod wheel on the keyboard that I can manipulate while I’m playing is important to have, but other than that I’m just using it as a controller. I keep a lot of different sample libraries on both internal and external hard drives. I’m not really a gear person, and actually prefer to sit at a piano with pencil and paper when the project warrants it.
With most sample libraries being available publicly, how difficult is it as a trailer composer to create a unique sound? And what would you consider makes your sound stand out?
That’s a really interesting question. With today’s technology, all composers basically have the same colors to paint with. I guess it becomes how we combine those colors that can create a unique sound. Some composers love to experiment and create their own sound libraries, which I think is great if you have the time and equipment to do so. I also think that there are some amazing sound libraries out there available to us all that also can create a really unique and beautiful music landscape by implementing them. I think it comes down to what works best for the film. Personally, if I find a sound that resonates with me and inspires me, I like to use it as one of my paint colors. In terms of my own sound, I think I would have to say that it comes from the way I look at the world. I remember times when I would be hiking and see the sun filter through the tree canopy and think, “I wonder what that would sound like”. Or the rain falling through the trees. Those of us without hearing problems know what it sounds like in the natural world, but what would it sound like using musical instruments? Because to me they are all frequencies which can translate to colors. Even a rock sitting on the side of the road has a vibration to it, which means it is sending out a frequency. It’s fascinating. There is a deep spiritual connection in creation that really inspires and influences my voice as a composer.
Since part of your roots as a composer are in the world of trailer music, which traditionally is more sample library heavy, how did you find the transition from being sample heavy to using live orchestral elements in your score? Did you keep samples a strong party of Elysium?
One of the great things about Neill’s vision for the film is the raw, gritty reality of future earth, which was filmed in this enormous dump outside of Mexico City. That kind of visual really allowed for a lot of experimentation, so I wasn’t afraid to use the sounds of sample libraries, as long as they helped tell the story and remained organic in nature. If there was a sound or combination of sounds that made the listener wonder what instrument it was or where it came from, then we knew we were on the right track. These are the sounds that resonated the most with Neill, along with heavy doses of percussion. The music is very aggressive at times. I like incorporating sample libraries in the right projects because they can simply do things that human musicians can’t, such has having 24 horn players blasting at the same time to create a massive wall of sound, where you end up getting a negative return if you try to put 24 live horn players in a studio and achieve the same result. The flip side of that is trying to emulate a dramatic, pastoral string cue with samples. No matter how much time and skill you put into it, it’s never quite the same because that style of music is so human and so intimate. Those were my favorite tracks to listen to on the recording stage, and when we widened them with a bit of atmospheric synthesis in the background, it really created a fusion of human and machine, reminding us of the transhumanism in the film.
What are your most used 8DIO instruments and why?
8DIO has such a great variety of instruments and sounds to choose from. I actually have a list of samples I have been wanting to experiment with, including the Wrenchenspiel and Mandolin Solo. I really gravitate towards the Hybrid Tools libraries because of the abrasive and percussive nature of the some of the material. Love the tuned percussion and Metal Bowls as well. The great thing about 8DIO is that there are so many well recorded ‘non-traditional’ instruments that really inspire a lot of creative ideas.
What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?
I love watching movies. If I could I would go to the cinema everyday – it’s like my second home. I also love reading and being out in nature. I find that activities like hiking, kayaking, and just sitting in the woods help me be more in tune with my creative side. And because of my belief that the world was created by a loving God, I feel recharged when I’m surrounded by that creation. More recently, I’ve been really enjoying spending time at home with my wife and 2 year old daughter, Kenya. It’s amazing how much joy can come from our kids and our investment of time in their lives. They see the world as maybe we all should – no fear – just a belief that we will be taken care of. I often think about how different the world might be if we never lost that sense of awe and wonder children have in such great abundance.
What’s next for Ryan Amon? I’m sure we’ll see you compose for another movie. Any plans/offers?
Well, I’m definitely looking forward to the future with hope and a new sense of direction, and hopefully people will like Elysium and it will be a springboard to work on more films. There are a couple projects brewing, which I’m not allowed to talk about yet, but I feel a peace and gratitude regarding this new path of film music.
Any last words of wisdom you would like to share with upcoming composers- and musicians?
Being relatively new to the film music world, what I think about most is the chance for new composers to have their own unique voices heard. Many times as composers we are being trained and taught how to emulate other composers, which has always felt to be a step in the wrong direction in my humble opinion. I would encourage composers to experiment, to break the rules. As artists, we each have our own unique voice that nobody else has, and I think we should seek it out and embrace it. I feel like it is an ongoing process – finding of our own voice. Having said that, I also think that we are servants. We are hired to serve the vision of the filmmakers, and it can feel like a wrestling match at times to get our voice heard, but in the end I feel like our goal is to serve the vision of the film. And I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of that collaborative storytelling process.
Ryan Amon uses the following 8Dio products:
Adagio Violins Vol.1, Berimbau, Free Radicals, Hybrid Tools Vol. 2, Mandolin Solo, Metal Bowls, Overtone Flute, Requiem Professional, Wrenchenspiel, Epic Taiko Ensemble, Epic Small Percussion, Forgotten Voices: “Francesca”