Los Angeles film composer Daniel Sebastian joins us for delicious donuts at RING Tofu Baked Donuts in Canoga Park, CA to chat about how he got his start, his favorite filmmakers and compositions, and the growing popularity of modernized classical music.
So to introduce yourself a little bit, you are a composer as opposed to the standard ‘crooner’ that we usually have chat with us. What had gotten you interested in doing compositions as your form of artistry?
Daniel Sebastian: I would say that it started off in my sophomore year of high school. I don’t remember why, but I was begging my mom to buy me this notation program where you can write music and it plays back to you. Just with cheap instrument sounds, nothing too fancy.
You’ve gotta start somewhere right!
Daniel: Exactly! *laughs* But it was really fun and I loved it. A year later, my high school band director asked me to write a drum cadence for the drum line that they could play before football games, and I thought that was super cool being asked to write something that would be performed publicly.
That is super cool! I mean, even just in the school setting if they still continue to play that composition that you wrote then that’s a success in and of itself.
Daniel: Now I’m wondering if they even still play it. *laughs*
You’ll just have to go back to your school to find out. *laughs*
Daniel: I’ll actually have to go to alumni night one of these days. *laughs* But yeah, that’s how it really started. I wanted to keep doing it and write a little more sophisticated pieces and start writing for orchestra and investing in some good equipment.
And who are your personal influences in regards to your compositions? What inspires you?
Daniel: With the film music that I like to do at least, it’s based around classical music a lot. I would say some of my biggest influences are classical composers like Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff. But I also really like indie artists like Patrick Watson, I think his music is really cinematic in a way with a lot of heart in it. Some of his style sneaks into my work sometimes. It’s not super obvious, but I like to listen to him when I need some inspiration.
And the cool thing about compositions is that it evokes a feeling that you don’t even realize is being evoked when you’re listening to it.
Daniel: Yeah exactly! A lot of it is subconscious and super effective in film especially.
If you could choose three filmmakers to collaborate with or do the score for their film, who would they be?
Daniel: Wow! So despite it being scary as hell, I would love to work with Steven Spielberg. And I mean ‘scary’ as in being successful and awesome. I love all his films! They always have an adventure feel to them and are really fun, so in turn, they call for a really fun, adventure-like score. Guillermo Del Toro is another one. I really like how he goes into that magical fantasy realm, which could be fun to experiment with melodies for. He calls for a very specific type of music in his films. Let’s see, who else? I love Peter Jackson too. He’s an epic film kind of guy from The Lord of the Rings, and King Kong. Yeah, I would pick those three for sure.
And you picked a good blend of directions to go into. If you had your choice of three genres to do a composition for, which ones would you choose?
Daniel: From my experience in composing for film, the most I had were for adventure, going back to that Steven Spielberg thing. It’s always so fun to be able to go all out with a full orchestra and have them do all of this crazy stuff. So adventure would be the first one, and then drama would be another one. You can get really into the character development when you write for drama and showcase their feelings and intentions. And then I would choose horror as my third, because you really get to be able to experiment with a lot of different types of sounds that are unconventional.
Nice! And what are a few of your favorite scores and compositions?
Daniel: One of my favorite scores of all time is E.T. by John Williams. Not only is it really fun, but it captures the spirit of youth, in which a lot of times John Williams composes within those themes and motifs in a way that evokes that part of everyone’s childhood. Another one would be an experimental film called Under The Skin. That one was done by Mica Levi and it stars Scarlett Johansson as like this alien that comes to Earth to eat humans. *laughs* It’s really weird, but the score was really experimental in the sense that it got to play around with all these different sorts of sounds. She really went all out with that score and made tons of weird textures and soundscapes. And then another favorite score of mine would probably be Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis’ last movie. That score was done by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone has heard of Radiohead at least once in their life whether they realize it or not. *both laugh*
Daniel: Right! They’re so awesome, and Jonny contributes so much to that band. Not only does he have great ideas of what to do when writing, but he’s also classically trained and knows his music theory. He was really able to showcase that a lot on Phantom Thread I think. Daniel Day Lewis did a really good job in it too.
Yeah! And if you could compose any film at this very moment in time, what type of movie would it be?
Daniel: Right now I’m very much in the mindset of horror because I’m about to score a horror short film. So yeah, definitely right now would have to be horror. *laughs*
And with Halloween coming up too!
Daniel: Oh yeah that’s true! I didn’t even think of that. That’s probably why they planned the release to be during that time. Everything makes sense! *laughs* I’m definitely feeling experimental right now because of it.
And who are a few of your favorite composers and why do you think they’re amazing?
Daniel: I would say Alexandre Desplat is one of them. His music is great to listen to because it very much takes you to another world. He does a lot of Guillermo Del Toro’s movies, and does a really good job at creating the sound that Guillermo demands to be show in his films. Also James Newton Howard, who did The Hunger Games. Not only is he really good at writing classical music, but he’s really good at applying it to film in a way where it doesn’t interrupt the story that’s supposed to be portrayed in the scene all while still having his orchestra play in cool and unique ways. I also say John Williams, because he’s always really fun to listen to from Indiana Jones to Star Wars to Jaws, just stories that everyone loves.
Yeah, everyone knows at least one John Williams song because he’s so iconic.
Daniel: Of course. Harry Potter too!
Yes! Such great movies! Now you’ve released a few Disney composition covers of your own. What are your top three Disney movies score-wise or story-wise?
Daniel: Ah man! Not just the animated ones right?
Any Disney movie! There’s so many to choose from!
Daniel: Ok ok! I have to say, I got really into Pirates of the Caribbean while I was arranging the music for it for my music video. I wasn’t really a fan of it at first, or I just never really paid attention to it until I made myself watch the movies and got really into it. Not only just with the music, but with the stories and the characters too. Peter Pan too, I mean, who doesn’t love Peter Pan? It’s got adventure, fantasy, and a story about childhood.
That’s why it’s one of the most popular rides at Disneyland.
Daniel: It is? I didn’t know that!
Yeah! But they don’t have a Fastpass for it.
Daniel: Oh my gosh really!
Yup! You’ve gotta get there early to ride it. Or at least wait for the parades. *laughs*
Daniel: Oh Disneyland! *laughs* And for my last one I would have to say The Incredibles. I absolutely love the score for that one by Michael Giacchino. Oh! I should’ve mentioned him before! I don’t know why I didn’t think of him! He’s a really really great film composer who’s done a lot of Pixar films, and he just did such an incredible job on The Incredibles. *laughs*
Yeah, all the Pixar films definitely do a good job at pulling at the heartstrings. I mean, you’ve got Up who has its first five minutes or so as just all score.
Daniel: Yeah. It was really moving. I think he won the Oscar for that.
I’m pretty sure he did too. So art and music have many different categories, with composing as one of them. In terms of the pre-, during, and post-recording process, would you say that composing is just as extensive as someone who goes into the studio to sing a song?
Daniel: Yeah definitely. I’d say in some cases it’s more extensive, especially when it comes to film composing since you also have to keep in mind the tone of the film. But in terms of just composing a piece of music, they’re very similar. Usually when I write I like to write on paper first, which would be the pre-recording phase. I’ll write at the piano if I have time, then I’ll ask a violin player or something to come in to add more depth to it. That ends up becoming really extensive because you have to pretty much record a different track for every part of the orchestra depending on what you’re writing. And when it comes to virtual instruments, not only do you have to record the part but you also have to make it sound real. You have to make it sound human, which can be a bit challenging with the automation and compression and the EQs and things like that. As for the recording process, there’s always the mixing and mastering portion that’s pretty similar in that sense.
And kind of going back to the whole virtual instrumentation process, especially with modern music and EDM being very successful right now. Would you agree that EDM in and of itself is another form of composition?
Daniel: Oh definitely! I’d say any art form where you combine all these sounds and mash them together can be considered a ‘composition’ in my opinion. There’s a few weird contemporary composers from the 1940s and 50s that would just get all this junk together, hit it, and then call it a ‘composition.’ There’s this guy named John Cage who just had a piano player sit there for four minutes and twenty seconds not doing anything, and that’s called a composition. *laughs* But the story with that one was that the piece was made by the audience and their background noise. I mean, even just the sound around you could be considered a ‘composition.’ That’s super way out there. *laughs* But still, EDM is absolutely a modern form of composition.
Would you ever consider a career in EDM?
Daniel: With the experience I have now, no. I don’t know anything about it and I have no idea how to go about composing an EDM song. *laughs* But if I had the skills, definitely. I’d be all about it!
Modern composition artists like Lindsey Stirling, and even The Piano Guys still get recognized and praised even for doing covers of popular songs. Do you feel that modern society has kind of opened up to past that pop music scale and go back to a classical base?
Daniel: Definitely. I think their way of modernizing classical music is a great way to open that style up to the public. Not everyone wants to sit through a three hour opera.
It definitely takes a very special person. *laughs*
Daniel: Exactly! *laughs* But I feel that pop culture is just so saturated now. You see so much of it, especially through social media, that when you see something that strays away from it it can be really refreshing whether or not you had already been listening to classical music. It can be really cool so see a person just go at it on the piano or even Lindsey Stirling dancing while playing her violin. It’s not something that you see a lot of and it seems to be getting more and more popular. But I still think it’s a necessary breath of fresh air that music listeners might need.
And kind of going into the social media aspect, you’ve utilized YouTube and your social media accounts to promote your work. Would you say that YouTube and social media in general are huge power players in how artists are being discovered?
Daniel: I’d say YouTube in particular already had its day. It think it still plays a part in it, but not as much as how Instagram is now or the Musical.ly app. Social media in general definitely does play an important role as to how you get yourself noticed.
Yeah. And we were connected via Instagram, more social media. *laughs*
Daniel: Yeah! *laughs*
Do you feel like social media’s prominent role in modern marketing makes it easier or harder for artists to branch out a reach a new audience?
Daniel: I want to say that it’s made it easy, but I’m also inclined to say that it’s made it harder as well. Easy is my actual answer, but it does get hard because since everyone has access to it, that means every artist has access to social media. So while it is easier to market yourself now, it gets harder and harder to stand out from everyone else that’s doing it. You have to think of your own way of stand out from all the other people who are marketing themselves in similar ways.
Agreed. And to end us off, what exciting things should we be looking forward to from you in the near future? I know you said you were working on a horror film.
Daniel: Yeah there’s that one. I also had a filmmaker from England contact me through Instagram, again with that social media talk. *laughs* But I’ll be writing for her short drama.
Daniel: Thank you! Yeah, the story is really great and I’m really excited that she reached out to me. It’s going to be a lot of fun writing music for her characters. I also just recently had a meeting with two really awesome guys that have bright futures ahead of them, and they had asked me to write music for their television pilot that should be coming out on Amazon Prime soon.
Cool! We’ll have to look out for it!
Daniel: Yes! It’ll be great!
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