Tracksounds Interview

My Interview with Richard Buxton

Cinematic Freedom: An Interview with Kristian Sensini

Kristian Sensini is an Italian film composer, who specializes in animation, drama, fantasy, and documentaries. Kristian studied at the Conservatorio Statale di Musica “Gioachino Rossini”. Kristian joined Tracksounds to discuss his diverse musical background, his time working with a master of orchestration, and being selected as Latvia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2015 Academy Awards.

Interview by Richard Buxton.

RB – How did you first become involved in film scoring?

Kristian Sensini – When I was young I had a big vinyl collection of themes from TV series and cartoons of the early eighties, and I remember I was especially interested in the music of Scott Bradley and Carl Stalling – every time I watched cartoons I would record the music from the TV speakers, I still have the cassette tapes somewhere. So I guess it was a matter of time, I’m really keen on movies, and people always told me that my music had a “cinematic” taste. Let’s say that one of the purposes of my compositions is – and always has been– to tell a story.

RB – You have a wide-ranging musical experience, having been a member of several rock bands and the DAMS Jazz orchestra, as well as being one of Italy’s foremost Jazz Flutists. How has you varied background helped you in your scoring career?

KS – I’m a curious person by nature, and I’m always interested in exploring new musical territories: this helped me a lot to immerse myself in various projects. In the show business there’s this tendency to classify a composer by genre, like this one is for horror movies, this other one for thrillers and so on. I try to get involved in different projects because it’s exciting to experience what your creativity can do in a new setting. I’ve studied both classical composition and jazz and I’ve always had a passion for classic rock, and these influences are mixed in my musical subconscious and led me to find my unique voice as composer. Also, the improvisation aspect of jazz music is really helpful when you have a short deadline and you just can’t wait for the inspiration to come: improvising melodies in front of different audiences night after night has been an amazing training over the years. By the way, I’ve never composed a “jazzy” score but it is a perspective I’ve used in all of my classical scores.

RB – What is something that you enjoy about film scoring that can’t be found anywhere else in music?

KS – The strange mix of freedom and respect for the tradition. In film scoring you can really push the limits of experimentation in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration and the audience accepts this, it’s really open to new things. In pop, rock and jazz music this aspect appears to be lost, everything is so mainstream now, in my opinion. On the other hand, film music respects hundreds of years of classical tradition and is played by real musicians or… well it should!

RB – Can you describe your studio setup?

KS – It’s really simple, I use a Windows based workstation (with double monitors) where I load both my Daw (I’ve been a Cubase User for 20 years now) and my sample libraries, most of them are Native Instruments, 8dio, Sonokinetik and I’ve been fascinated by the Spitfire ones more recently. I try to involve real musicians as much as I can (and as much as the movie budget allows it), and when I choose sample-based instruments I write music in a way that goes beyond the limits of real ones: I don’t want to fake an orchestra (it would be silly), it’s another way to express my ideas.
I have a NordStage 2 as master Keyboard, sometimes I use some of his internal presets too, they sound better than a lot of Vst out there. Add to this setup a lot of acoustic instruments that I usually play myself (really bad, but that’s a lot of fun) and there it is.

RB – One of your latest projects is the Latvian film Rocks In My Pockets. How did you find yourself joining the project?

KS – By chance, as it always happens in our business. I was interested in writing music for an animation feature and I wrote dozens of emails to animators and directors I appreciate; one of them (Bill Plympton) gave my email address to Signe Baumane (the director of Rocks In My Pockets) because she actually was in post–production and was searching for a composer to take care of the music of her first feature movie.

RB – How did you approach the score? What were your immediate thoughts and ideas as you began work on the project?

KS – My first idea was to keep the score really intimate with a really small orchestration, because there’s a voiceover from the very beginning until the very end of the movie. So I assembled a palette of sounds that could be intimate and could express at the same time all the various feelings of this movie. My main choice was the cello, an instrument I love, along with piano and flute (which I’ve personally recorded in the score). I’ve then added a clarinet and a kokle (a string instrument of the Latvian musical tradition where part of the movie is set) to give a sort of ethnic flavor to some specific cues. This palette of instruments was my starting point in order to compose the first cues, following the chronological order of the movie, as I wanted to follow the same journey of the audience.

RB – In recent years, filmmakers have utilized animation to tell serious and mature stories, where in the past animation has often been seen as a visual medium mainly for younger audiences. In what ways do you think this film’s story could only be told as an animation, and how did it being animated affect your score?

KS – Animation should be considered “just” a medium and not a genre: nowadays people still think “It’s a cartoon, it’s something for kids” (check the animation movies nominated for the Academy Awards in recent years). Probably thanks to the internet now adult animation movies are reaching bigger and more mature audiences but they still have a long way to go. To quote the director’s words: “Animation has a toolbox that live-action films could only dream to have, like using metaphors as shortcuts to deeper meaning of a character’s state of mind or feelings.” When I score an animation project (unless it is a cartoon deliberately intended for a young audience) I tend to forget the medium and focus on the story and on the characters, as it were a real-action film. I think that in the case of Rocks In My Pockets, the changes in tone allowed me to work with a big palette of feelings and write very serious cues and some wittier, even amusing ones.

RB – What are some of the main differences between scoring animated films and live-action films?

KS – The people working on them, definitely. I love the people who work in animation, they tend to be more original and they still consider animation a work of art more than a business. They are very committed professionals, you have to be if you think how many hours of work you need just to complete a short animation movie of 3 minutes.

RB – Rocks In My Pockets was chosen as Latvia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. When working on your score for the film, were you at all aware that it might be in the running for a possible entry into the Academy Awards?

KS – Absolutely not! And I’m happy about this because in this way I worked with no pressures of any kind, with lots of artistic freedom, with the only purpose of delivering the best score I could to help the story unfold. When you work on a movie which has potential Oscar
buzz (even if it is not finished yet…) you have this huge sword of Damocles over your head that really doesn’t benefit creativity, you’re always searching for a way to obtain consent from the potential voters.

RB – Along with this Oscar buzz and a nomination for best score at the Jerry Goldsmith Film Music awards, you must be gaining more exposure as a composer. What are some of your aspirations in film scoring?

KS – To keep working with independent filmmakers, the ones with original projects, the ones that believe that filmmaking is meant to describe our world to future generations. If you work on projects like these, at the end of the day you know you’ve done something that is worth to be shared, and this is the kind of idea which keeps me going when I’m tired after hours and hours of work in the studio.

RB – You recently studied under renowned composer and orchestrator Conrad Pope. What are some things that you learnt from him?

KS – I had the privilege to study with Maestro Pope last summer in Wien at the Hollywood Music Workshop. Pope is a great musician and an amazing teacher, very generous and really devoted to share his art and his experience with the new generation of composers and orchestrators. I’ve got pages and pages of precious suggestions in my notebook, but the ones that influenced me more are the respect for the symphonic tradition, the importance of the written note (yes, we’re talking about pencil and paper) and the idea that when you write music you write something for a musician and not for an instrument. Pope is a great expert of the modern scoring process and all the new technologies but after the short period I studied with him I felt the urgency to write more music in a traditional way. Composers nowadays have to keep the pace with directors and producers who want to hear mockups of the scores, so they need to do everything in a crazy hurry, and they end up becoming more music players than music writers.

RB – Which composers or scores have had a major influence on your scoring career?

KS – John Williams (and his scores for E.T., Star Wars, Indiana Jones) is the one that instilled in me the idea that music in film is something more than a nice background, it is a subtext, a meta-language. Then of course other great Italian composers like Nino Rota, Armando Trovajoli and Ennio Morricone (I’ve studied with him at the National School of Cinema in Rome), not to mention Bernard Hermann.

RB – Can you share any details about any upcoming projects?

KS – I’m working on a couple of new projects but I can’t talk about them right now, the risk of being fired or replaced is always just around the corner in the movie business! I can tell you that, in the meantime, I’m working on a personal project, a series of compositions for a string quartet: I hope I find the time to record them soon, as it is a project I’ve put on hold for too many years now.

This interview took place in January 2015.

Rocks in My Pockets Trailer & Selected Scenes:

The Rocks in my Pockets official score is available for purchase now: