It’s an exciting time to be working in the film industry. Not just from a business perspective, but from a creative one as well. With more shows and content being produced now more than ever, a plethora of opportunities have arisen for directors, actors, editors and, interestingly enough, musicians as well as composers. From intense cable dramas to animated comedies, from HBO to YouTube Red, all original content needs music. In similarity to how smaller production companies have started using outlets like Netflix to showcase their projects, much of the music for these new shows has been outsourced away from big media conglomerates. One prominent musical architect behind this new influx of media is composer Aisyah Zulkarnain, whose contributions have ranged from award winning films such as James Abrams’ Sentinel to the animated series Yowie. We had a chance to ask the acclaimed score engineer and composer about her most notable soundtracks and learn a little bit about the evolving film industry from an inside source.
What excites you most about composing and crafting soundtracks for film/television? What are your sources of inspiration, given the creatively exhausting nature of your work?
Zulkarnain: I get really excited about experimenting with audio when crafting music, as it allows me to create a unique sound palette for every project. I find inspiration in my everyday experiences – it sounds a little cheesy, but I keep a journal and write a list of the things that excite me throughout the day or have affected me in some way, whether positively or negatively. Reflecting on and recording these experiences at the end of each day helps me develop ideas to incorporate into my compositions.
What type of hands-on work did you perform for the film Ayesha, directed by Ambarien Alqadar? How was this film received by critics, and did it win any accolades or awards?
Zulkarnain: I composed and produced the music for Ayesha and worked closely with Ambarien throughout the whole process, starting from the spotting session all the way to final deliveries of the audio files. The film is about a Muslim family living in America, so when we first met to talk about the film, Ambarien made it clear that she wanted the score to hint at Islamic and Arabic sounds. I incorporated a duduk, an ancient double reed woodwind instrument, and recorded vocals singing in a style that echoes the azaan (the Islamic call to prayers). Part of the production process included working with the vocals to make it sound like the voice was echoing through a vast soundscape. Going back to the previous question, this is an example of creating the sound palette for this project.
The film received the Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Grant in 2013, won the Award of Distinction at the 2017 Canadian and International Short Film Festival, was nominated for Best Ensemble Narrative at the 2018 Queens World Film Festival, and was officially selected for the 2017 Oil Valley Film Festival.
You recently worked as a technical score engineer helping to craft the sounds for the animated series Yowie. Are there any differences between building a soundtrack for a traditional film versus a cartoon?
Zulkarnain: There’s definitely a difference between building a soundtrack for live-action projects and cartoons/animation. The music style can switch on a dime for the latter. For example, the musical styles in Yowie switch depending on the characters in each episode. We created circus music for Boof because he is a goofy and clown-like character, whereas Ditty’s was more over-the-top and tapped into the classical orchestral style because he is such a drama king who loves opera. Also, because the target audience is younger for Yowie, switching the musical style keeps them interested and engaged, which is not really necessary in most live-action scores. Cartoons and animation are also such a different world than live-action, as we can afford to be more dramatic and extravagant since the shows don’t represent real life.
Over the course of your career, what films or projects stand out as being particularly notable, either due to the reception of the project or those you collaborated with?
Zulkarnain: I really enjoyed working on Ayesha and having the opportunity to work with award-winning filmmaker, Ambarien Alqadar. Being a female of color working in the film music industry, where it’s very male-dominated, it felt very empowering to collaborate with a director who is also a female of color working in the film industry. I was recently inspired by film composer Germaine Franco’s speech at the 2018 ASCAP Screen Music Awards, where she talked of the importance of breaking down barriers, not being divided by titles, and creating art together. This instantly reminded me of my collaboration with Ambarien, and I’m grateful that I got to create art with her and her amazing team. I’m also excited about working on the music with Bryce Jacobs for a film that will be releasing soon. It’s still confidential because the project is still in progress, but it’s been great working with such prominent studios such as Legendary Entertainment.
What was your role on the James Abrams film, Sentinel? How do you approach a project like this when envisioning how the music will mesh with the story?
Zulkarnain: I composed and produced the music for Sentinel. I worked on two of James’ previous projects as well, and what I enjoy about working with him is that he not only talks about what the story is portraying, but he also articulates each character’s background and psychology so that the music can reflect what the audience doesn’t see. When I first watched the film’s preliminary cut, I understood what was on the surface of the story, but it wasn’t until James talked me through the film that I saw the underlying emotions of the narrative and its intentions. This led me down the path of crafting the entire score through the perspective of the main character, Damien (Joe Finley). I thought to myself, you can watch the film as many times as you’d like and understand what the plot entails, but the story is really all about Damien and his experiences with the world around him. So, the way I approached the music was to build the score based on Damien’s feelings and interactions with the other characters, and to portray what he is mentally and physically going through.
What advice do you have for aspiring composers when it comes to working with directors and others in the studio? Seems like the job could require some long hours.
Zulkarnain: When working in the film music industry, one of the things I would advise is making sure you take care of yourself, whether mentally or physically. Working long hours in the studio can be really exhausting, and at times stressful, so taking the time to refresh your mind and body will help with plowing through those long hours. In my experience, it also helps when the team is supportive of one another, especially since we work in the studio together all of the time.
Are there any technical skills or personal characteristics that distinguish you from other professionals in the industry?
Zulkarnain: My experience with composition gives me the mindset of the composer, so whether I am producing the music or engineering as part of the team, I am able to tap into the creative process in order to help envision the score. In addition to the many technical abilities that a modern composer and engineer needs to be proficient in, I am able to bring musical expertise that can be channelled into the production of the music.
Can you tell us a little bit about any upcoming projects you are working on with Bryce Jacobs?
Zulkarnain: We’re currently working on a project with Audio Network, a production music library. It’s always fun to work on a variety of different projects, and working with Audio Network on this latest collaboration has been one of these unique and wonderful experiences. There is also another film project on the horizon, but I cannot disclose anything about it at this time.
by Giorgio Chang