Exclusive Interview with Composer Christopher North
Christopher North is a prodigious composer and we will hear about him more and more. His suave music scores have heightened films (including Grammy Nominated), television series, plays, dance performances and various ensembles. Variety defined him as a “Notable Asset,” and that his films are “well served by a fine soundtrack,” whereas the LA Times underlined how his “Music naturally fills the film.”
The Brooklynite multi-instrumental musician, originally from Texas, has released 18 albums (with 7 more soundtracks slated for 2018) and scored over 50 films distributed worldwide. Many are the accolades he has gathered from around the globe, and these include Slamdance, Hamptons, Soho, Big Apple, Houston, Newport Beach, Milan, Coney Island, and a special mention at DOC NYC.
Maestro North is also a Sundance Composer / Fellow, attending the 2015 Sundance Institute & Skywalker Sound’s Music and Sound Design Lab for Documentary Film at Skywalker Ranch. The eclectic songwriter is not confined to one music genre alone, as he ranges from eclectic rock to funk, folk, ambient tracks and chamber music. His expertise is also shared with fledgeling and aspiring musicians, through his lessons at the 92nd Street Y. He picked up the baton from various teachers (including his bass professor, Orin O’Brien), and is today a mentor to those who want to learn about Bass, Film Scoring, Music Theory, Ear Training, Ukulele, Harmonica, Guitar and the Mystery of Songwriting. Additionally he has held master classes on film scoring at Steiner Studios Brooklyn College, Pratt’s school for Digital Arts and Animation, Stephen F. Austin and a Maximizing Creativity Chat at AES.
His collaborations with prestigious ensembles, movie productions, television shows, stage performances and even video games, is incommensurable. So it is best to hear his story from his words, in this exclusive interview:
At what age did you realize music would have been your life? Was there a particular episode?
There was an evening in 8th grade hanging out with a talented guitarist classmate (in high school bands) and he was playing along with songs on the radio, improvising on top of them. This spontaneous music making blew my mind. From that evening I knew music would be my life. Funny though, I’ve got a picture of my Grandfather playing saxophone for me, and clearly, I was entranced and thrilled, and another picture of me in saggy diapers next to a piano, smiling with hands out reaching out for the sound.
What was your first composition for?
I started with piano in 1st grade, commencing making some stuff up, well, noodling around, fairly soon after. But truly, my first complete songs and instrumental pieces were on electric guitar, bass and voice, recorded into a Tascam four track.
Which music score, among the ones you composed, do you hold dearest?
The simplest and likely best answer is “the one I’m working on now.” That said, I will forever cherish my Eavesdrop Suite for Orchestra, my conducting debut, and I’m still flying high from recent scores (A New High, Cut Shoot Kill, Two Trains Runnin’) for which I played all the instruments, challenging films to score, and a lonely process, but very rewarding.
Your Eavesdrop Suite celebrates the 20 years you have spent as a New Yorker, the style seems to range from Stravinsky to Gershwin, what inspired your “tone painting”?
Mmm, it seems New Yorkers don’t admit this any more but — I Love NYC, despite all in it’s aggravations. More specifically, I love the city’s diversity and the daily contact and connection with so many different people. The suite follows Eavesdropping of various kinds — intentional, unintentional and imagined.
Which musicians that you worked with, had a major impact on you?
So many, it hurts to have to leave so much out… I grew up on songs by the Beatles, Prince, David Bowie, the Police and Stevie Wonder. My favorite composers are Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Beethoven. Hearing John Williams score to Star Wars affected me so deeply. Later films scored by Elfman, Herrmann and Morricone would do the same. I would include my mentors at BMI Workshops including Sundance Lab. Recently though, I have to say lots of conductors — be it those I worked with while singing in the Choir with the NY Phil or those I’ve met in conducting workshops, including the America Treasure Composer David Amram (also a Fearless Multi-instrumental Improviser, still composing and gigging at 87).
How have the BMI Workshops and Sundance Lab helped you in your profession as a composer?
They have lifted me up and inspired me, opened my mind and raised my game. They created a same space for me to try things, for example, I had composed some more “out there” chamber music, prior to scoring films but hadn’t figured out how to use it for my film scores. At “Scoring for the Screen,” Rick Baitz encouraged me to use this language in my suspense scoring. It was at Sundance Lab that for the first time I had an orchestrator, a producer, an engineer, a mixer, etc. Amazing to have a team doings tasks that I had done all myself prior. Also, it is great to have Sundance Fellow credentials, that along with my Slamdance Alumni badge gets me into just about everything in Park City.
What triggered you to become a teacher and how do you feel millennial students approach music today as opposed to when you were training?
I have to admit there was a time when I first started teaching that half my motivation was additional income doing something related to music, with the rest being love of music and wanting to share it, as well as having an insatiable desire to learn more. I’ve been fearless in latter regard. Some say “the best way to learn something is to teach it,” so there’s been a few times I’ve been presented with a teaching opportunity, and even if I didn’t feel fully qualified, I knew I’d do whatever it took to stay a few weeks ahead of the students. Learned a lot that way. But these days, with teaching just two or so days a week, I cherish those days because it gets me out of my studio, sharing what I know and love (mostly bass, songwriting and film scoring). As far as my interaction with and teaching millennials, learning by YouTube videos is an amazing resource — they have such fluidity and technical speed — but there are sometimes holes in their approach that require a different kind of learning platform, slower, via books, manuals, etc and more focused self guided trial and error. Back in the day, we didn’t have choice, and it takes a certain kind of discipline to continue the slow way when you know when someone’s else solution via a Google search or YouTube video is just a click away.
You embrace all music genres, according to what your collaborations require, but do you have a favorite one?
Whatever helps to tell the story is my favorite genre, and sometimes that needs to be so flexible and immediately so. Film scoring is one of the only kinds of music professions that demand a chameleon-like creative, and somehow retain one’s voice throughout. There are times when I love using just pen and paper or notation program to orchestrate what will be played by live musicians (whether it’s classical or jazz or via extended technique’s weird noise or somewhere in between). Other times it’s me alone with my digital workstation, a couple of mics and all the instruments out, laying down one track after the other, or on the floor with a bunch of effect pedals. I like music and projects that push me, trying to do new things, make sounds that have not been done before.
In your opinion how has the digital world changed music composition?
Mostly for the best. In terms of creation and production, it’s truly amazing what one can do with a fairly affordable set up, as well as collaborate with shared files with projects and team members all over. That said, as it always has, it takes a certain kind of creative drive to go beyond “presets” in digital sound programs and dig into ways of making new sounds or thinking outside the box when so much in the programs suggests a certain way of working. In which case, knowing analog methods really informs how to push what’s possible. Lastly, filmmakers used to have to lock picture sooner in the process but these days will keep on tweaking the edit. I used to say most of my “heavy lifting starts with a locked picture” but these days, I have to figure out and record most of the score without the luxury of a locked picture. Lastly, it’s amazing to work with directors and editors all over, and Skype calls can approach a certain flow with some intimacy. But it’s a troubling reality that I see some of my out of town directors on Skype more than actually meeting in town directors.
You said that your greatest creation is your son Xavier, does he share your musical inclination?
Some. We play piano together and have touched on a bit of ukulele, harmonica and recorder as well. We recently went to an African drumming workshop. He likes The Beatles, Queen, The Everly Brothers and Beethoven and any video game music. But his main thing is Legos and creating tiny clay characters, sometimes incorporating them into short films made on an iPad. Related, he loves Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, so, I may have a stop time animator on my hands.
Where shall we hear you next?
I’m working on a short (essentially a silent film with score as only sound) about a paint store, and a feature documentary on Pot Legalization in Colorado. I have several others, mostly narrative features, in the pipeline for the rest of the year, including films at the script stage, filming soon or on into the fall, with one of those looking to be my first big orchestral score. A couple of films including Shorts Earn the Season, The Last Call and feature Docs Capturing the Flag and Cracked Up from last year will be in festivals and others will distributed, including Two Trains Runnin’ and Flag Football.
Could there possibly be something that you haven’t done yet and dream of accomplishing?
A Feature Film with a big orchestral score and a “composed and conducted by” credit. I’ve got sketches and plans for several Symphonies and hope to compose an Opera. I’ve also got some filmmaking ambitions, including, more immediately some short form documentaries, and someday, I will write and direct a film.
OtherSidePictures A New High | Clip: Mt. Hood (2015)
Michael Walker‘s CUT SHOOT KILL (2017)
Slamdance Spotlight on Bible Quiz (2013)
Matthew Miele‘s Everything’s Jake (2010)
Short Film (music and sound design by CN)
Matthew D’Abate‘s S&M (2011)
Push play at http://www.christophernorth.com
CN On Itunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/christopher-north/id828496791
Music for Dance https://vimeo.com/channels/939003