Interview with Brian Kirk
Tell us a little bit about your musical background- and influences?
I started playing piano at a young age and began experimenting and creating music in a home studio as a teenager. In college, I studied theory and did a lot of composing, mostly focusing on writing jazz charts for the university big band and various combos. I also played a lot of jazz piano around town (Salem, Oregon). It was during this time that I really started to develop a passion for film music. Some of the artists who have really inspired me over the years include Prince, Keith Jarrett, John Williams, Thomas Newman, Dave Brubeck, the Beatles, Bobby McFerrin and James Newton Howard.
What’s it like to work on the same TV show for so many years, especially since NCIS was officially renewed for an 11th season recently? Do you feel your themes have become more refined and how difficult is it to introduce new motifs and themes into the music?
One of the great pleasures of working on NCIS is that I’ve been able to develop and elaborate on themes over a long period of time. I’ve always been a melody-first composer and I’m thankful that I work on a show that embraces melodies and themes. As far as the overall sound of the show is concerned, it’s always been electronic-based at it’s core. That being said, the sound and feel of the score has changed pretty dramatically over the years. I attribute this to a continual push by the producers, my collaborators and myself to introduce new motifs, themes and instrumentation. Trying to keep the score fresh yet familiar has probably been one of the most challenging and satisfying aspects of working on the show for such a long run.
What made you decide to add that electronic music beat to the NCIS Main Theme? Was that specifically requested?
I actually did not compose the theme for the show. I have, though, always tried to include the theme in the score when appropriate. I’ve always felt that the the melody of the theme song belongs to Gibbs (Mark Harmon’s character), and I’ll often incorporate it when he faces a defining moment.
How do you normally go about scoring a project? Do you normally have a sketch pad of melody ideas or chord progressions that are readily available or is it generally on the fly writing?
I always start with selecting a template that’s continually getting updated as the sound of the show evolves. I’ll usually leave some midi parts from older cues in the template session to have some extra ammunition to work with. I don’t have a specific method other than doing what’s right for a specific scene. Depending on the scene, it might be more important to first establish a pulse or groove or to first establish a progression or motif. I also take inspiration from the overall structure of a season of NCIS. The writers and producers do a wonderful job of mixing things up during the course of 24 episodes, where you’ll have a tense, dramatic episode followed by a lighter episode, which might be followed by a multi-episode story arc. I try to make sure that there is some definition in the score between the different episodes by changing up the styles and instrumentation.
Of all the projects you’ve worked on so far, which is your favorite and why?
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on a wide variety of projects as a composer, as well as serving many different roles from music editor to music supervisor. In some cases all of the above. Every project has presented unique opportunities and challenges.
What changes do you foresee in the world of Movie/TV Music within the next 10 years?
It’s interesting that over the last 10-15 years, world/ethnic instruments and musical styles have become completely integrated into the world of film and television music. What was once foreign is now very familiar and I’d expect this trend to continue. I think that we’re working in a very interesting time right now with such a massively broad spectrum of styles to pull from. I’d expect that composers will continue to search all corners of the world to find that next unique sound to incorporate into their scores and the envelope will continue to get pushed further.
Midi orchestration generally requires a lot of resources. What are the specs of your system?
I run Logic on a 12-core system and trigger a second 4-core. I have an extensive collection of plugins and effects and have created my own channel strip setting catalogue. I’m in the process of updating my studio and will be switching over to all solid state drives.
How important is it to get the live players into your studio, to interact with them and allow for some “happenstance” to occur? What’s your most notable memory there?
I’ve actually never used a live musician on NCIS either than myself or my colleagues, Greg and Jeff Burns (playing piano, guitar, percussion). It’s a complete 180 from the work I did before NCIS, which was done mainly with live musicians. I have many great memories from some of my earlier projects and miss working with what was an interesting cast of characters. I once had to write for musical saw for a cable feature and had a lot of fun producing that score.
What are your most used 8DIO instruments and why?
I have gotten a lot of use out of Bazantar, Plucked and Bowed Piano, and the Epic Taiko Ensemble. I’ve also recently started using the Adagio Violins and Cellos and love the biting, natural feel of these libraries.
This season featured a multi-episode story arc involving a rogue Israeli Mossad officer and I wanted to create an intriguing and evocative sound for him. The Bazantar library gave me a great, inspiring collection of sounds to work with and after tweaking the performances, I came up with something that felt pretty fresh and effective. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface with your amazing collection of libraries and can’t wait to explore further.
What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?
I do a whole lot of sitting during the television season. So when the summer rolls around I tend to find myself doing things that involve being upright. I like to workout a lot and do some swimming and boating and generally spend as much time around water as I can.
Any last words of wisdom you would like to share with upcoming composers- and musicians?
I think that while it’s important to listen to and study score soundtracks, it’s more important to focus on how that music was used against picture. The sooner you can switch your approach from what sounds great on it’s own to what best serves the picture, the more prepared you’ll be when that first break comes along. Also, be open-minded with taking jobs that might not be exactly what you’ve had your heart set on. So much of what we do is based on building relationships and building confidence and every project, no matter big or small, will give you some of both.
Brian Kirk uses the following 8Dio products:
Adagio Basses, Adagio Cellos Vol.1, Adagio Violins Vol.1, Bazantar, Bowed Piano, Epic Taiko Ensemble, Hybrid Tools Vol. 1, Plucked Grand Piano, Requiem Professional, Rhythmic Aura Vol.1