Interview with Joseph Trapanese

By • June 24, 2014

Listen to such pulsing wavelengths as Fall on Your Sword’s “Another Earth,” Nathan Johnson’s “Looper,” Nima Fakhara’s “The Signal” or Steven Price’s Oscar-winning “Gravity,” and you’ll pick up loud and clear on the burgeoning film scoring genre I prefer to call “alt. sci-fi.” It’s a plane of electro-orchestral existence where traditional symphonic melody (or at least the spirit of it) gets fused with an acoustical rock and roll vibe that can veer from psychedelia to grunge. Organic samples of everything from scraped metal to car engines are warped into new, unearthly entities, joining with electronic percussion and atmospheres that can be as simplistically lo-fi as John Carpenter’s “Dark Star” as they are the height of Reznor- Ross “Social Network” gearhead complexity. Musical content boldly announces itself just as quickly as it can morph into sound effects, all neo-experimental elements combining to create a surreal sound that transports a youth-friendly movie audience into an aural experience caught between pop’s outer limits and whatever’s left standing of the traditional film scoring style.

Simply put for those with the imagination to appreciate this new soundtrack form, it’s the coolest music to hit the genre since the Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream beat became the in-thing during the 80s with the likes of “Tron” and “Legend,” a decade that also included the far squarer symphonic likes of John Williams’ “E.T the Extra-Terrestrial.” Now apply said musical form, advance it thirty years into the found-footage multiplex age, and you’ll have received the call of “Earth to Echo,” wherein a bunch of suburban kids do their best to help an adorably Bubbo-appearing alien phone home – their adventures on earth recorded via camera phone and computer. It’s the kind of warm, “Super 8” throwback that filmmakers weaned on “E.T.” can’t help but make as they pay tribute to their creative inspiration, but in a whole new retro way – particularly when it comes to Joseph Trapanese’s thoroughly fun, alt. sci-fi score that firmly establishes him as a solo voice in the genre, and film music in particular.

As a young artist steeped in both classical, rock and electronic scoring, Trapanese has most often served as a musical wingman for pop-alt. musicians who are the first media spotlight draws – collaborating with Moby on “The Bourne Legacy” song “Extreme Ways,” assisting on “American Idol” darling Kelly Clarkson’s album “Wrapped in Red” and doing percussively ultra-violent beat downs with Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda for “The Raid: Redemption.” But Trapanese’s telltale impact of bringing both electronic and orchestral worlds together was soundly heard when he jumped onto the game grid with Daft Punk for 2010’s “Tron Legacy,” a booming, Wagner-by-way-of Wendy Carlos score that signaled alt. sci-fi’s arrival. Next teaming with M83’s Anthony Gonzalez for “Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion,” Trapanese got an official co-scoring credit, amping up big budget orchestral excitement while retaining a futuristic synth signature that truly sung during any number of dazzling musical set pieces.

But it’s with director Dave Green’s “Earth to Echo” that Trapanese truly gets to shine with the major solo stuff that’s been no surprise to anyone in the know all along. What’s unexpected for Trapanese’s fans is that “Echo’s” approach is perhaps more Williams than Carlos-Carpenter, as a warmly melodic orchestral sound takes the lead among invigorating electro-beats. It’s full of emotional symphonic movement that bicycle-riding kid named Elliot would appreciate, a nicely thematic score that proudly, and un-insultingly announces itself as hip kid’s stuff (in a way as different as imaginable from Trapanese’s throttling return to “The Raid’s” gleeful body count arena). Both mystery, magic and rambunctious authority-defying chases are in the air throughout this call to “Echo,” whether represented through JW-friendly strings, or cool, hyper-electronic beats that might make you think its young heroes were zipping about in light cycles.

Now firmly in the pole position of carving out his own film scoring identity after years of orchestrating and co-composing (with the car racing videogame score for “The Crew” yet to come), Joseph Trapanese reflects on a style that represents a bold new future for movie soundtracks, one firmly rooted in both rave and rock clubs as it is the concert stage.


Was there a point early in your career where you felt pop-electronica was a more viable future than one rooted in classical music? Or have you always tried to combine them in one way or another?

It was never really that deliberate or specific. The real focus for me has always been viable, living, relevant music. It is first about making music that evokes emotion and thought in an audience; once the objectives have been established for the music as it relates to the story one can evaluate what tools will be most effective. For me I grew up programming synthesizers as well as playing in youth orchestras and the school band, so my language has always been some sort of hybrid.

When you look at films like “Earth to Echo” and “Super 8,” do you think they show a conscious effort by filmmakers to get back to what they loved about 80s genre cinema? If so, what did that era mean to you, especially when it came to “E.T?”

From my perspective creativity and taste move in cycles. Part of the trend you point out is perhaps nostalgia: our director Dave and I are in the same generation and we grew up watching “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Stand By Me,” etc. I think another strong part of it is a reaction by young filmmakers against the bloated special effects driven spectacle. Classic films have provocative stories and driven characters, and amongst a crowded cinema of spectacle-driven films rather than story-driven films, “Earth to Echo” is refreshing.

Beyond its throwback appeal, what do you think makes “Earth to Echo” stand out in the found footage genre?

I think “Earth To Echo” may be the first family-friendly found-footage film! This was an interesting challenge, most found footage films have been horror films, and are purported to be made by long dead victims of grisly events. With “Earth To Echo” we have a found footage film made by young teens that are very much still alive at the end of our film (sorry for the spoiler!). We can imagine them growing up and hypothesize about how this event has changed them. And yet one more thing to mention: I think we all have read stories about how Spielberg and Giacchino got their starts, filming movies in their backyards with their friends. Our director Dave Green started this same way, and I like to imagine the kids in “Earth To Echo” perhaps growing up to do the same.

What do you think of music’s place in the “found footage” genre, especially as so many of these movies don’t use music to create the sense of “you-are-there” reality?

You’ve brought up a point I’ve thought about quite a bit, and I’m not sure if I have found the right answer yet. But when it came down to the nuts and bolts of storytelling, the filmmakers behind “Earth To Echo” found that we really needed music to bring the proper depth of emotion to the film. In the found footage films of the past, it’s really all about trauma and jump-scares. I don’t think any of us remember the background or development of the characters from “The Blair Witch Project” or “Paranormal Activity”. To clarify: I’m not being derogatory against those films, I enjoyed them both and they have a very valid place in the echelon of filmmaking. But on “Earth To Echo” we had a very different and far more broad range of emotions to convey, along with a much more intricate story and a completely different demographic. Music is able to make the highs more rewarding and the lows more profound.

After doing so many hard-edged scores, was it relief to do a kid-friendly movie like “Earth To Echo?”

I would use the words “different challenge” rather than “relief.” This is what I love about being a film composer. We are thrown into brand new environments and have to filter so many new variables (taste of the filmmakers, story, budget and resources, temp music, related films, backstory, etc.) through our brain. The end result is a combination of all of these variables filtered through our own background and taste. And each experience makes us better prepared for the next time we have to combine all these complicated factors.

There’s a fun, retro quality to “Echo’s” synth component that has a distinct 80s feel. Was that intentional, especially having worked on “Tron Legacy?” And do you think that score in particular set you up to do “Earth to Echo?”

I can attribute a great amount of both professional and personal growth to the two years I spend on “Tron: Legacy” as well as to Daft Punk’s Guillaume Emmanuel and Thomas Bangalter. There is a bit of them in everything I have done since, and without their mentorship and guidance I wouldn’t be the composer I am today. Like their effort for “Tron: Legacy,” I made a distinct effort at the very beginning of “Earth To Echo” to create a unique electronic palette that would compliment the orchestra. Dave and I often discussed how we wanted the orchestra to evoke the spirit of the classic film music of our childhood, but we also felt it was important to use the tools at hand to create a score that represents the youth of our characters and unique story.


How did you musically want to represent Echo’s powers, as well as its mystery?

One of the first ideas I set on paper for “Earth To Echo” was a chord progression and ostinato that brought forth both the great strength and mystique of our character Echo. It was a simple motion that went from F major to Db major, and together with the ostinato it provided the foundation for the climax of the film. On top of this motion I added a minor third motion that then moved up a half step and came down a perfect fourth; this is the simple melodic ‘hook’ for Echo, and I could vary it by placing it in minor keys, or by re-harmonizing, stretching, compacting, or just plain breaking apart.

Do you think going for a purely orchestral Williams-esque approach would have made the film too musically old-fashioned?

As part of the process of exploration, I wrote a few early “Earth To Echo” cues employing only the orchestra. Dave and I agreed that they felt too removed from our characters and story. What is great about the orchestra is that the sound palette is so broad that it can easily represent a wide range of emotions and depth. Yet it is so recognizable that it truly is timeless; when arranged for properly, the orchestra conveys a classic quality like nothing else. That being said, the possibilities of electronic sound are equally tremendous and broad; we would be remiss to ignore the range of color that modern synths and musical sound design can provide, especially in a story where our alien seems to be some organic-robot hybrid that uses modern phone technology to communicate with other lifeforms.

Many composers have enabled more famous rock and roll “composers” while always remaining in the background, even though they in fact essentially composed the scores. When you’re in that position, do you view yourself as a teacher to musicians who’d otherwise have no idea about film composing? And what was your trick to getting yourself in the spotlight?

There is no trick to being put into the spotlight. And my goal has never been to be in the spotlight, which is one of the great things about being a film composer. We are relatively anonymous in the grand scheme of things while also putting forth bold artistic ideas. I consider myself fortunate to make a living producing relevant and needed music, which has always been the primary goal.

I’ve been very careful about the artists I work with; it is a truly collaborative effort from day one. They are all fine composers and music producers in their own right and I’m just lucky to be in the room.

How do you think your programming, arranging, orchestrating and conducting work on every film from “Rendition” to “Beethoven’s Big Break” and “Percy Jackson” set you up for bigger composing breaks?

I’ve learned incredibly useful things on each of the projects you mention. Mark Kilian, Paul Hepker, Robert Folk, and Christophe Beck have each taught me a great amount and I’m indebted to them all. There is no substitute for working with great people on great projects, and every project I have done since then can be traced back to this early work. Hopefully I have paid back their generosity with my minor contributions on these projects but there is really no way to place a value on the career they have nurtured. I’m truly grateful for their support, and the skills I learned through them are put to use each and every day on the work that I do.

What would you say the biggest difference between working with Daft Punk and M83 was? And are the public image affectations out the door once you’re in the studio?

Both Daft Punk and M83 have unique artist personas and relationships with the public. But once we enter the studio the focus is on the story we’ve been tasked to tell. It is important to leave behind anything that may obfuscate the creative process. And it is equally important to share the skills and knowledge that may be beneficial to the process. The sole agenda is to convey the emotion needed by the film. Only when the team understands this can progress be made. The greatest difference between these projects was the timeframe and logistics involved, which are never easy regardless of budget or deadlines.

Your work for the “Tron Uprising” show was equal to, if not even better, than the “Tron Legacy” score. Do you think the animated realm gave you the opportunity to push your solo ideas even further?

Building the “Tron” environment in live action requires great physical and monetary resources; while animation is no easy feat, it is far easier to build scenarios that would be impossible to create using live actors and blue screen. Furthermore, one full season of television allows many hours of character development and fosters intertwining story lines; a film can only provide 80-120 minutes of time without feeling lugubrious. While “Tron: Legacy” was a feat that we are all very proud of, the animated world of “Tron: Uprising” was perhaps a more interesting space in which to explore the Grid. The animated series allowed me the special opportunity to further develop the sound established by Daft Punk while also exploring new thematic and stylistic ideas.

Were you surprised that you got the opportunity to score some “Wonder Woman” cartoon shorts?

These shorts were created by the tremendously creative Robert Valley, character designer of “Tron: Uprising,” The Gorillas, Beatles Rock Band; I could go on and on. I was truly lucky that Charlie Bean (the director of “Tron: Uprising”) felt that I was worthy to contribute to Robert’s work and gave a strong recommendation. If you have a moment to watch the shorts, they have a great classic vibe to them while being relevant and modern; it was a great experience.

The fighter pod canyon chase in “Oblivion” has got to be one of the most exhilarating action cues I’ve heard in year. What’s the trick to creating one climax after the other with such breakneck rhythms?

“Canyon Battle” was the result of a great amount of planning and preparation. Joe Kosinski was very clear about what he wanted; propulsion and power was tantamount. We carefully sketched out a tempo and key map that consistently pushed forward. The time signatures used gave each level of the battle a new feeling. Finally, the musical themes and motives of the film were folded into the arrangement. This was carefully planned through a detailed piano sketch. The best way to attack a challenge like “Canyon Battle” is to break it down into manageable components so that one can have full and deliberate control.

Another standout cue in “Oblivion” is the extensive flashback cue where Tom Cruise’s astronaut remembers his fateful flight into the space pyramid. Could you talk about writing this sequence?

Thank you. It was a difficult seven-minute sequence that had to move between love, mystery, and determination. Like the “Canyon Battle” we spoke about above, it was thoroughly planned and sketched, and careful attention was paid to each turn of emotion. I’m proud of this sequence and Joe Kosinski’s filmmaking here. It’s a rewarding moment for the audience to experience the emotion of Jack’s revelation.

It seems unbelievable that the beautiful song in “Oblivion” didn’t get nominated, while something like “Alone, But Not Alone” did. What do you think that whole situation shows about the Academy song nominating process?

First of all, I am honored to call Bruce Broughton a close friend and mentor. I really can’t comment on the situation around the song you mentioned because I am quite uneducated about the politics of The Academy. What I do know is that he wrote a touching song and it served a great purpose to both the film and film music in general; we need more simple and direct emotion.

On that note, a friend once told me that awards mean nothing and you should win as many of them as you can. Getting recognized with an award is a wonderful thing, but that is not why I am here. I love what I do and sitting amongst a room of people captivated by the story I am helping to tell is reward enough.

Could you talk about “Echo’s” song “World’s Away?” How important is it for a title track to be based on the theme from the film, as opposed to its own, dropped-in entity?

I think an educated audience can smell inauthenticity like a great white shark can smell a drop of blood a mile away. A great amount of time is spent on all my projects absorbing and understanding the thematic elements. When I brought in Dia Frampton to co-write this song with me, I made sure she completely understood the film from a subjective viewpoint. Because of this, she absolutely nailed the lyrics and melody, creating a song that both stands on its own apart from the film as well as reinforces the film’s themes and ideas. I’m honored that Dia and I could work together on “Earth To Echo.”

How important is it for you to keep melody as part of your musical equation?

A lot of people talk about lack of melody in modern film scoring, which leaves us with an easy musical tool to exploit. It’s great to be puttering along in a cue that perhaps is a simple ostinato and some chords, and suddenly intensify the drama and surprise the audience with a melodic idea. Great melodies are going to be around as long as there are great stories to tell. Lack of any melodic content usually indicates a lack of story.

Do you think that scores like “Gravity,” “Oblivion” and “Earth to Echo” represent a new school of “alt. sci-fi” soundtracks?

It is very hard for me to objectively answer this question from the unique position I have on the inside of these films (except for ‘Gravity’ which I was only involved with as conductor of a live concert suite version). My intention has always been to convey the ideas of the filmmakers in a bold and distinct way, and perhaps we’ve been able to achieve that here and there. After saying that however I’m reminded of all the giant shoulders we are standing on; Hermann, Goldsmith, Williams, Zimmer, etc. It is an amazing time to be a film composer because the vocabulary is so diverse and there is a great need for interesting music.

What was it like working with Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal, the two composers on “Raid 2” who scored the original “Raid,” but whose music didn’t get used in the film’s release in western territories? And what do you think it was this time that enabled them to get heard?

Fajar and Aria have a very close relationship with Gareth Evans. They scored his first major feature (“Merantau”) and have developed a tight shorthand with him. I was with Gareth once when he was posed the question of which score for “The Raid: Redemption” he preferred: mine and Mike Shinoda’s, or Fajar and Aria’s. His answer was deliberate and immediate: he said some along the lines of, “I really like them both and there were elements of each that outdid the other; the ideal score would be a compilation of the two.” Unfortunately Mike Shinoda was busy with Linkin Park at the time of production, but even so on “The Raid 2″ Gareth was able to achieve his ideal score with this unique collaboration. In Fajar and Aria I found partners who share my same goals of telling a story through music.

When scoring a film with so much lightning-fast movement as “The Raid 2,” does even trying to “hit” the physicality become part of the equation?

Absolutely, the physicality of “The Raid 2″ was a very strong component of our work on the music. However, it is not about the “micro” hits; worrying about hitting little punches here and there would be ridiculous. Gareth and his collaborators plan each fight very carefully and deliberately. To remember the choreography, the motions are very rhythmic; there are distinct beats. Each rehearsal is videotaped and, as part of the preparation for shooting, edited together to form a live pre-viz of the fight. Because of all this fine-tuning, as well as Gareth’s natural editing skill, the action sequences each have an internal rhythm. I spent a lot of time watching the fights with production sound only to experience them in a raw form that would allow me to tune in to the performer’s own internal rhythms.

What kind of charge does the concert stage give you when you’re performing “Oblivion” live at The Hollywood Bowl, or a suite from “Gravity” at the Royce for an audience of Academy score voters? Do you think you’re “representing” the alt. pop artists you compose with? Would you even say you’re a spokesperson for them?

I’m not a spokesperson for the artists I’ve collaborated with it. There is the work we create together and the work we create separately; I cannot represent them just as they would not be able to talk about “Earth to Echo.”

The concert format of music presentation has been part of me ever since my first piano recital. It is important that art continues to live in many different forms, and live performance can be a very special experience if done right. My current focus in that realm, “The Echo Society” (www.theechosociety.com), is about curating a unique concert for our friends and neighborhood. To me, it is about inclusion and exploration rather than the elitism and self-reflexism of most current concert music.

What do you think it’ll take for old-school film score fans to finally stop fearing electronic-heavy soundtracks and start to love them?

We are all products of our environment. If someone is raised or taught to believe that the orchestra is the only form of true film music expression, then they may not appreciate what we are attempting to do in current film music practice. Perhaps a similar reaction would be had by one who listens only to electronic dance music. But if a listener is truly open, they will find artistry in every experience.

Do you think being a “gearhead” in the studio is enough to cut it as a film composer? And is it easy to spot someone creating beats-per-minute and various ambiences versus a musician with real chops to make a contribution to the art? If so, do you think they need to look beyond their latest toys to educate themselves?

People may be gearheads, people may be film composers, and people may even be both; but one does not automatically make you the other. I’ll pose this right back to you: does having “real chops” as a musician but no skill in the studio mean one can cut it as a film composer? We can find one or two examples of this, just as one might be able to find examples of “gearheads” without chops being film composers. But I think we can all agree that the path to success is one usually forged with intelligence and awareness.

How do you think you’re bringing the worlds of “house” music and film music together with scores like “Earth to Echo?” And in the end, how do you think you represent film composing’s future, as well as its past?

I wouldn’t use the word “house” music to describe anything that I’m doing. And it’s truly impossible for me to ascertain the position of what I’m doing in regards to the work of the many far more talented composers that have come before and that will come after. I just hope that my contribution will make people feel something.


“Earth to Echo” lands on our multiplex planet July 2nd. Buy Joseph Trapanese’s soundtrack for EARTH TO ECHO online via the Relativity Music Group on July 1st HERE

Visit Joseph Trapanese’s website HERE

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