When love and music collide, it all makes sense. In this episode, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum joins Tara Joseph as they talk about finding a love who speaks the same language as you and working and living together. Nora is a Grammy Award-winning composer. Today, she shares her musical process and the joy of working and living with her wife who’s also a composer. Get to know some of the projects Nora has worked on and how her creative juices flowed through after being given a lot of room to play in. Tune in and see through the eyes of an award-winning composer as she explores her love for music and her creative journey.
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When Love and Music Collide: Working And Living Together With Your Love
I love having successful women onto the show and our guest is a real treat. Let’s welcome Grammy Award-winning composer, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum. Nora, how are you?
Tara, I’m doing great. Thank you for having me on your show.
It’s an absolute pleasure. I always like to ask people first, where are you and tell us a little bit about what you’re up to?
I’m up to so much. I’m busy and that’s wonderful. It’s a strange time with COVID. I’m working on a score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I’m co-scoring with Laura Karpman, my wife who was also a composer. We’re trying to raise a kid during COVID, which is difficult, but we also feel blessed that we’re healthy and everyone’s doing well.
It does sound like you’ve got your hands full, but that’s often the best way to be.
As musicians, the more that we can keep making music, no matter what the circumstances, it’s total happiness.
One thing that I must touch on is that you mentioned that you’re working with your wife on a project together, which is fabulous because this show is called For Love and Music as you know, and it’s called that because those are the two reasons I moved to LA. One is for the love, I married my wife and two, for music. I love it when all of that collides with a guest and it all makes sense.
That’s everything. It’s not more complicated than that.
Does it work well when you’re always working together and living together? What’s that like?
It does and we’re in lockdown so there’s no escaping. It works great. We joke that our biggest fights are about metrics and music like meters, notation, and things like that. When you find your love and your love also speaks the same language as you in terms of music, and you get to do that together. We are blessed to be busy. Laura scored Lovecraft Country, which premiered on HBO. Between that and Don’t Look Deeper, and all of these projects and life in general. Keeping yourself busy and also keeping it fresh and the relationship is a good thing. It’s all good. We definitely have that in sync.
You mentioned Don’t Look Deeper, which is currently playing on Quibi. I have watched the first four episodes and what a great storyline. Your music helps take us on the journey. It’s fantastic. I’m loving it.
It was a fun project to work on. I’m such a huge fan of Catherine Hardwicke’s work. She has a unique perspective. It’s feminist and yet quirky, weird and different. She also gave me so much room to play and have fun and try things. The score reflected that joy and at the same time playful experimentation.
At what point did you get involved? Do you see the entirety of all of the scripts first? How did it work?
I read it as a script and as a continuous movie. It’s a giant script that was long and that’s the point that I got involved in. It was amazing too. It’s a pre-production.
How long does it take for you to work on something like that?
It’s a bit tricky to answer that question because it is both fast and slow at the same time. Many of the ideas came quickly and a lot of the collaborations came quickly, but the process of the cuts is being refined into what they are now. I’m feeling it as a whole too. I would score themes and then individual episodes, but then it also had to work as an entirety so that you could hypothetically binge-watch all fourteen episodes. It took quite a while. It was many months long but I’m glad it was because it’s nice to have time like that.Be open-minded and at the same time, be bold. Click To Tweet
I love Quibi and quick bites. I love the up to ten-minute length episodes. Was that a different process for you working on something that was split into all of these different sections rather than working on one of the movies that you’ve done in the past?
Not, really. I kept joking that you don’t have to be on Quibi. You can turn the screen on its side and it looks different, which works and is cool. I know it’s a huge challenge for the filmmakers from a visual perspective trying to think like that. I’ve always joked that the music should change when you play it horizontally or vertically. That would be so cool. Working in that episodic chunks didn’t affect me that much. I had a sense that it had to be that you could have a very satisfying musical experience watching one episode or watching them as a whole. I was aware of that and I was also aware of getting out from this episodic point of view that it should be able to continue or stand on its own, but I didn’t think about it that way. Catherine is a big picture and a big story person too. Much of this is about pushing the story, supporting the characters or supporting these real identity questions that are all over this piece too in connection with other people and family and identity. That was at the heart of everything more than these quick little nuggets of episodic content.
Tell us a little bit further about the project you’re working on now.
Right now is The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1919. It’s the perfect thing to work on during COVID because there is no production team around. It’s a film that was done a long time ago and Universal is re-scoring a lot of these wonderful old silent films and restoring them and adding music.
Are you working on the original?
Yeah. How many years is that?
I thought you were working on a remake of it.
It’s 101 years old and it’s so cool. I did another silent film for Universal last year. Silent films are radical and weird. They’re their own weird thing because you can’t stop having music. There are no sound effects. There’s nothing. You approach scoring silent films differently. It’s the same in terms of telling a story, but you’re also doing the heavy lifting of sound effects in the music also. It’s interesting and fun.
I’d never thought of that. It must be quite a different process to get from A to B to Z.
There are tons of music too. You have to not exhaust the listener either. Especially a story like that which is intense, you have to sustain it throughout. On the other hand, in terms of Don’t Look Deeper, they’re strangely connected. In Don’t Look Deeper, you’re talking about the main character who discovered early on that she’s a machine. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you’re talking about not villainizing anyone. You’re talking about looking at Quasimodo as maybe he’s a hero. Maybe he’s a victim, and Esmeralda, who is she? Where does she come from? What’s her real story?
There are all these parallels about looking deeper into ourselves, and then who do we connect with and why? In Don’t Look Deeper, the score is about the relationship of organic to inorganic. The whole score features sounds that are acoustic instruments, orchestral instruments, but it’s all mixed with electronic instruments and synthetic instruments. You never quite know what you’re listening to. That’s how the score works for that show. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is very orchestral and has a lot of big sounds. There’s also this sense of not always knowing where you are, that somehow the instrumentation morphs to reflect these deeper identity questions. It’s something that I’m interested in. The more that you can change your palette to reflect a unique story for each project you work on, it keeps you going. It’s fun and it’s good.
You must have been a musical child. Is composing something you always wanted to do from the get-go?
I come from a family of musicians. They’re not professional musicians, they’re all amateur musicians. It was a house that always had live music going on in it. There was always this sense of improvisation and play and chamber music. Real classical music is my background. When I was in seventh grade, maybe thirteen or something like that, my parents gave me a composition lesson with a proper composer. It’s funny because I grew up in a feminist house. My parents were both scientists. My mother has taught not only psychology but also women’s studies. It’s a feminist house. Even though I was steeped-in in feeling powerful as a female and a young girl, it never dawned on me.
I believe it was because I had no role models. I had Beethoven or Brahms. It literally didn’t occur to me. Being a concert pianist never quite fit either. They got me a composition lesson when I was thirteen with this woman, Karen Tarlow. All of a sudden, I was in her studio and she was a composer. It was a revelation. It was like, “You can do this. This is a thing that people do.” From then on, I was a composer. I went and studied. I went to everything I could get my fingers on. I studied and slept with my first orchestra piece under my pillow. I went to Juilliard for undergraduate and graduate degrees. I’ve studied composition with great people.
How many instruments do you play?
I play the piano and then I fake a lot of instruments like a bad fake.
Going to Juilliard, that’s probably the premier place in the world. How was that experience?
It was wonderful. I studied with Sam Adler and Milton Babbitt, two wildly different composers but both wonderful, generous, and thoughtful people. The conservatory is interesting because as a young person, I often say, “I wish I had gotten a liberal arts education.” On the other hand, I had such hardcore classical music training. I feel privileged about that. It was wonderful. While I was at Juilliard, I also co-founded a group called Vision Into Art with another composer named Paola Prestini. She’s at National Sawdust now in New York. We started this multimedia performing arts group while we were there. It was an interdisciplinary organization that was all about putting on live performances. We would commission filmmakers to create films that went with the music. We would commission spoken word and dance and all kinds of stuff. I laugh a lot because I often think that it was like backward film scoring. In film scoring, you’re often given a story or a script or a film to score. In my past, not knowing that that’s what I was looking for. We were commissioning films to go with the music. It was upside-down film music. That was fun.
You’ve been on a creative journey to this point. When I’m looking at your bio, you’ve worked on big animation projects for DreamWorks’ Bird Karma.
It’s now playing in Walmart parking lots, in outdoor movie theaters. Isn’t that crazy? They’re doing drive-in movies in Walmart parking lots. I have never thought ever that I would ever work on anything that’s playing in a Walmart parking lot.
It’s brilliant. That’s the best thing to come out of COVID. Talking of COVID, how has your lockdown been? As a composer, you’re used to being on your own.
It’s been strangely normal in many ways. The hardest part of it has been reading the news, being terrified in various parts of it, feeling bad for people who don’t have the resources that I have, and then also having a kid in COVID. Having a kid who’s bright, joyful, smart, missing his friends, and trying to maintain his future and forward-looking childhood.
How old is he?
He’ll be ten.
That’s a critical age.
It’s hard. It has its challenges but at the same time, we’re used to having a studio at home. We’re used to not going out every single day and all of those things. I’m not a crazy social person either. People who get completely fed by meeting a new person every single day. Those people are having a whole other set of challenges but it’s a weird time. How are you doing in COVID?
It’s a little similar insofar as we both work from home. That hasn’t changed. That’s not a surprise. That hasn’t changed our lives dramatically. We’re social like the person you were describing who needs to meet a new person every day. I do notice one odd occasion when I go out and I do something that feels normal. We’ve been and sat outside at a couple of restaurants. You realize what you remember as normal and what you’re missing. Even when you’re sitting outside at a restaurant, you’ve got your mask on. You’re taking it off and putting it back on. It’s not exactly the same at all. I feel that our lives have completely changed, but probably not as much as 99% of the population out there.
It is bizarre and also the feeling of not being afraid of other people, but feeling that you have to avoid other people that you might normally say hello to or any of those things.
Having no physical contact with anyone, and the mask, no mask. It’s like, wear a mask. I saw Jennifer Aniston posted #WearADamnMask.
We live at the beach in Playa Del Rey. It’s been insane and I understand everyone feels like they’ve been locked up and all of these things, but people are not wearing masks. People are partying and it’s difficult.
It’s tough. Hopefully, we will all come out of this healthy on the other side. The vaccine will come soon.
There’s been a lot of good though too. This idea that we are all interconnected all over the world. That is such a powerful and beautiful idea. If it took this terrible thing, not that that’s good but it’s an important idea and a small thing, but it’s a big thing. Laura and I, with our good friend Lisa Liu, who’s a violinist, an engineer, Brad Haehnel who’s wonderful, and a conductor, Marin. We started the Unison Orchestra, which is this amazing online orchestra of players from the greatest orchestras all over the world. Everyone who’s not working because all of these great orchestras are not in session. They’re not rehearsing and performing. We’ve figured it out to have people recording in their houses all over the world and they have a violin section, a woodwind section, and a brass section. It sounds amazing. It’s been great.Find your unique voice and don't be afraid to fail. Click To Tweet
How do I find it? Where do I go to?
Unison Orchestra, go online. There’s a website with all of our social media. There’s been a lot of great press about it. Lovecraft Country that Laura scored was completely recorded remotely with an online orchestra. It’s amazing because it’s not about individual players. It’s still about sections. We have section leaders and all of those things
How many members are there?
There are 30 people in it but it gets bigger. It can shrink too but that’s our minimum.
That is brilliant. I’m excited to look at that.
That’s been a real magic thing out of COVID. That never would have happened. We have people all over recording and that’s been fabulous.
I look forward to the readers checking that out because I certainly am. I introduced you as a Grammy winner, which you are. Tell us a little bit about that.
That also connects back to Laura because that is for engineering, not composing, on her album, Ask Your Mama which is this epic poem by Langston Hughes. Laura was commissioned by the late and our good friend, Jessye Norman for Carnegie Hall, The Roots and big orchestra to set Hughes’s epic poem to an orchestra. It’s an incredible opera. It goes through all these different spaces and times, and it has samples from all over. That was a beautiful journey and amazing to participate in. Awards are wonderful but it’s always about the work and the work is something I’m proud of working on. I’m proud of what that took and the piece of my life that is in that.
Congratulations on the Grammy. It’s not every day that anyone wins a Grammy.
I feel hugely privileged. Being able to work with sound as a composer has been part of my arsenal. It’s a tool that I use. We’ve talked about my background in terms of studying at Juilliard and very much it’s been about pencil on-page. I’m a real notation person. That’s how I think and that’s how I work. At the same time, being able to get your way around a recording studio and manipulate sound and play. Those engineering chops have come together with the notation chops. That for me is the package of what I work with and how I play when I’m scoring something.
It’s fascinating going back to the projects that you’ve worked on in the past, Lenny for HBO and Delicious Little Devil for Universal. There’s so much great stuff.
I feel super privileged and I love everything I do. I worked on docs, animated stuff, silent films, and all these different projects. I do think that part of what you were talking before and you probably have this experience too, when you have a huge range of people you talk to, projects you work on, and different languages that you can exist in, it feeds you. It’s nourishing and it creates that diversity of experience every day.
Do you have a director that you would love to work with who you haven’t as yet? Is there a handful?
There is definitely a handful. Laura and I were talking about it because she was saying Mira Nair for herself. There are many great directors. I’d love to work with Spike Lee one day. I’ll get back to you because there are many incredible filmmakers. More than the specific filmmakers though, it’s the stories that I’m interested in. I’m interested in telling stories and being a part of projects like Don’t Look Deeper. That was a feminist story. Emily Mortimer plays this amazing female scientist. She’s a badass and she’s complicated. She has a complicated relationship with being a mother. That’s all interesting and weird, and Catherine does it in a great way.
One of the things during COVID, I also watched Holes, for example. I loved it. There are all these stories that have not been told. For me as a composer, much of the work that we do is about getting into the psychology of characters and who people are. Much of the content we watch have all been scored from a male perspective. Everything from where the music is coming in, whose point of view it’s playing from, all of these things. It’s funny because I’m working on something that’s old, but it’s interesting to look at it from the point of view of who I am looking at this. What is love? What is the connection? How do we score that? In answer to your question, I’m mostly interested in more than even the person who makes it, the stories and the truth that’s being told. There are many relationships and there are many people who have not been portrayed in the film that I would love to experience.
I’m sure that opportunities will come your way. For any of our readers out there who maybe are aspiring composers of any age, what advice would you give to them?
Study a lot and I don’t mean books. Listen to a lot of music. Listen to things that you don’t think necessarily want to listen to. Be open-minded and at the same time, be bold and try things. Try to find a unique voice. We have an abundance of people who can copy other people. That’s fine, but there are way fewer people who have a unique voice. I do think that what we need more than anything in our culture and our musical culture too is those unique voices. I don’t think there’s one equation for what that means. It doesn’t matter to me if the person or you, the aspiring composer, can’t read music or can read music, or knows something about the range of an oboe or doesn’t or anything. None of that matters. What matters to me is that you do the work of trying to find a unique voice. That is what’s exciting. I would also say don’t be afraid to fail. A big part of my work is trying things, hating them, and throwing them away.
It’s funny because my teacher at Juilliard, Milton Babbitt, we used to talk about how many rounds of revisions different composers would do like Debussy versus Bartok. Bartok famously never revised. That was some wonderful thing. I don’t think so. Revising, taking notes, and making things better is an amazing thing. Having the work and help you find the music. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t know, maybe that’s too conceptual and abstract.
That’s a great answer and helpful. Thank you for being such a wonderful guest. I can’t wait to watch the rest of your show, Don’t Look Deeper. To the readers, to remind you, it’s available now to watch on the fabulous Quibi.
Go watch it and play the music loud. I would like to add one shout out. In the score, I got to collaborate with this amazing singer named Taura Stinson. She is an amazing singer and an amazing songwriter. Her voice is all over the score too. I want to give her a shout out because she’s amazing. I hope you all enjoy seeing this crazy story that Catherine Hardwicke amazingly directed.
When I was watching it, I kept looking at my forearm. I wouldn’t say anymore because it’s a spoiler but it’s brilliant. Thank you.
Thank you. It was wonderful to talk to you.
It’s an absolute pleasure. For all of our readers out there, stay safe and healthy. You’ll be hearing from me again soon. Bye for now.
- Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum
- Unison Orchestra