Emer Kinsella on “Jungle,” “Faith,” Hack Music LA and More

Emer 2

Ever since she moved to Los Angeles last year, I have been following the career of Emer Kinsella with great interest. She is a composer and experimental violinist who has scored everything from films and radio plays to a brilliant site-specific concert that can be sampled on YouTube. I first interviewed Kinsella last year in Chicago, where she was attending my alma mater, Columbia College. I was fascinated by her stories of growing up in Ireland prior to her education in London, Vienna and the United States. There was no doubt in my mind that she would flourish upon arriving in LA, and I couldn’t help picturing her as one of the stalled commuters tap-dancing on their cars in the opening of “La La Land.”

During the following conversation, Kinsella provides me with the scoop on her latest projects, including Molly Pelavin’s documentary, “Faith,” and Greg McLean’s drama, “Jungle,” starring Daniel Radcliffe.

What has the move to LA been like for you, creatively and personally?

It has been an adventure and a challenge at the same time, but I’ve really enjoyed becoming involved with the community in LA and meeting new people. A lot of great things have been happening. I’ve been able to explore my compositional voice more and try out new things. Columbia College Chicago provided a solid foundation of people who I could reach out to at the beginning, as I started becoming involved in the LA scene. The Alliance for Women Film Composers was also expanding around the time I got here, and it has given me many opportunities to meet different creatives who are coming together to support females in the industry. I’ve run into a number of filmmakers from Chicago as well at film festivals here.

One of your first big assignments was completing the music preparation for Oscar-nominated composer Mark Isham (“A River Runs Through It,” “The Majestic”) on last year’s action movie, “Mechanic: Resurrection.”

I joined Mark’s team as they prepared for the recording session. I got to be around Mark at his studio and was part of a team helping to get all the parts of the score ready for the players to perform and record. That was a great first entry point into working on a big film. I am a fan of Mark’s scores in general, and this one used strings in a very effective way. It made dramatic use of a traditional ensemble while mixing it with synths and other elements.

How did you get involved in Soundtrack Cologne’s European Talent Competition?

Soundtrack Cologne is one of the largest film music conferences in Europe. It brings people from all over to attend panels, workshops and screenings. After finding out about the competition, I sent in an application to the contest, which was based out of Germany. Every participant had to write a score to the same unreleased short film. The movie was animated and centered on the idea of being alone and isolated while trying to reach out and connect to others. I really liked the concept, and was able to connect with it musically. I submitted my score and found out shortly afterward that I had been selected as one of the 13 finalists. There was a public screening of all the finalists’ work at this year’s Soundtrack Cologne festival last month and I was delighted to receive the runner-up award.

There’s an effective subtlety to your scores for the Power 50 interview videos with honoree Don Lemon from CNN and OUT Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Aaron Hicklin.

I set out to convey intimate emotions through string textures in the Power 50 videos. It was similar to the work I’ve done in documentaries. The subjects were sharing stories that were raw and personal, which is the sort of material that I enjoy working with. Through the music, one can enhance elements in their stories with intensity as well as sensitivity. Sometimes I like my scores to reflect the dramatic arc of a given narrative, and make it even more heightened, but it all depends on the project. In this case, I wanted to leave enough space to support the dialogue and allow for the emotional intensity to come primarily out of the words, all the while keeping in line with director Larin Sullivan’s vision.

I loved your contributions to the score for Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper’s great documentary, “T-Rex.” What was it like being the main composer for Molly Pelavin’s upcoming documentary, “Faith,” which follows a Kenyan American revisiting her native country? 

This was the second feature-length film that I’ve scored myself, and it was finished just recently. I spoke with Molly about what she envisioned for the music, and looked at themes that were apparent throughout the film. Her subject, named Faith, currently lives in New York. The film follows her on a journey back to Kenya, where she reunites with family members, while introducing her American wife and son to a culture that is not accepting of same sex marriage. There were so many different layers to the story, and it was interesting to develop those layers with the music. It was more of an ambient score layered with solo violin and cello, and I worked through different variations of the score until I arrived at the final version.

I wanted to provide a certain space around the characters that would allow their stories to flow and merge and develop over time, while moving with them throughout the film. When you’re making a documentary, you get to be a part of what’s happening in real life at that moment. The score must support whatever happens to be captured on camera. For this project, I didn’t specifically attempt to reflect music from a particular culture. The score was based more on the emotions of a given scene, and I often like to fuse different elements that aren’t typically heard together, while avoiding anything that would sound too obvious or stereotypical. If anything, the music serves as a bridge between the cultures.

The film explores issues of identity and the concept of home that are similar to the themes of another project you recently scored, the Austrian radio play, “Do You Speak to Me,” by Iraqi born author and longtime collaborator, Susanne Ayoub. It was broadcast on the Radio Oe1 program, “Nachtbilder.”

There are unique similarities between both projects, and although my scores for them are quite different, I do gravitate towards stories about people who have moved away from home and are in an unknown environment. My own experience of making a new home for myself in different countries has helped me connect more intrinsically with the musical dialogue and expose the underlying emotional layers. You have the opportunity to reveal more about the characters through the music. I have cultivated a global perspective after moving from country to country, and restarting my life in different places, so I think I subconsciously connect with that experience in my work. That perspective does serve as an advantage on this sort of project.

I’m curious to hear about Karl Harpur’s short film, “Whadd’ya Say?”, which you scored and was screened last month at the Irish Screen America film festival.

I attended the festival last year as a guest, so it was really cool to present my score in one of the short films selected for this year. They had a Q&A with everyone involved in the films, and I had the opportunity to join the filmmakers on the stage and be actively involved in the conversation. The film is lighthearted and romantic, which is a departure from the types of projects I normally work on. It’s about two friends who are having a conversation, which culminates in the man revealing his unexpressed love for the woman. The audience is left hanging at the end, not knowing whether she’ll say yes or no. I enjoy creating tension in my music, and in this case, the tension had a more uplifting, hopeful quality. It was great to score a film with Irish talent, particularly actors such as Caroline Morahan, a former talk show host on Irish TV, who I watched often as a teenager during my last years living in Ireland, and Damian O’ Hare, who has appeared in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” This is another great aspect of living and working in LA, being surrounded by talented people from all over the world.

What was it like collaborating with one of your composer role models, Johnny Klimek, on the Wachowski series, “Sense8,” and Greg McLean’s survival drama, “Jungle”?

I began working with Johnny and his team shortly after arriving in LA, and they just happened to be in the process of working on the film “Jungle.” Johnny was looking to infuse violin textures into the score and asked me to contribute my skills to the film and later to “Sense8.” I worked with the footage and any of the elements he gave me. Then I explored the world of the scene through violin improvisation and adding effects, just like I would in my own projects. At times, I really became lost in the main character’s inner core of survival and anguish. I connected with the agony and violence of his battles with nature, and it hit me on a raw level, which I tried to convey through my violin and through audio manipulation.

It was great to have a well-known figure like Daniel in one of the first films I’ve worked on since moving to LA. It’s such a different role from anything he’s done before, especially Harry Potter. The themes Johnny created for “Sense8” were mysterious and suspenseful and I was able to contribute atmospheric layers to the melodies he created. I was already a big fan of the show’s first season, so it was amazing to be a part of the second season. The series had a lot of intense music that matched the intensity of the visuals, so there was always something exciting happening.

Tell me about your new project involving music and virtual reality, as well as how you became involved in the LA Philharmonic initiative, Hack Music LA, scheduled for Oct. 7th and 8th?

I’ve been collaborating with writer/director Karen Dee Carpenter on a VR Opera “Muse of the Underworld,” and I became aware of the LA Phil doing VR simulations of video art. They posted about Hack Music LA, a two-day event that brings in creative artists from all over—VR developers, game developers, composers and musicians—to create a project that can utilize music while finding new ways of bringing audiences to new media. I applied and was chosen as a selected participant. The LA Phil will choose two projects developed by the teams involved and then see how they evolve afterward. I think VR definitely has a lot of potential to access audiences in different ways. With the VR Opera project, we are aiming to stage it in a way similar to the site-specific performances that I did in Vienna. We’re placing it in an outdoor location where music is coming at the audience from all directions and immersing them in the experience both visually and musically, while engaging them in an emotional experience.

VR gives you endless directional possibilities for the music, while enabling it to inform the viewer about where to look and what part of the story to experience at any given moment. It struck me as an interesting coincidence while working on the project that my company name, Emersion Music, so readily aligns itself with the qualities of immersion in VR. I figured it was a sign that I was meant to do this. [laughs] As for future projects, I’m about to start writing the score for a 20-minute narrative film about Asian-American high school students torn between academia and their assimilation with neighborhood gangs, and that will be finished toward the end of October. Releasing music videos and developing alternative performance music projects are also on the horizon.

“Jungle” will be released in the U.S. on October 20th. For more information on Emer Kinsella, visit her official site.

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