Arturo Cardelús - Composer & Pianist

Arturo Cardelús is a composer and pianist originally from Madrid, Spain, who now resides in Los Angeles, California. He focused on piano performance at The Royal Academy of Music in London, Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Conservatorio Superior de Música in Salamanca, and Conservatorio Profesional in Guadalajara before studying composition and film scoring at the Berklee College of Music, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the composition department’s highest award.

V: I listened to your score for “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” (which will be available to watch internationally in 2019, but is available to listen to now on Spotify by clicking on the underlined title) and I was wondering if you listened to other scores for inspiration or was that strictly you?

A: I try not to… I try to listen to classical composers and the people that made music a hundred years ago. I try not to listen to other soundtracks because then we end up sounding the same. It’s easy to end up copying what others are doing. Even if you don’t want to, it starts getting in your ears.

V: Absolutely, and that stuff isn’t public domain yet like classical. Your other animation, “In a Heartbeat” went viral a while ago… Do you do a lot of animations?

A: Yes, so it’s a genre I didn’t care much for because of how close the music [matches] the scene, changing the tempo every ten seconds and changing instrumentation… key changes every five seconds and sometimes it’s exhausting! In In a Heartbeat, I think we had ten different cues in four minutes… But now, I enjoy it a lot and it’s become my favorite genre.

V: Is animation your main genre that you’ve become known for now?

A: Yes! Now, I get approached to do animations more often and I’m happy to do it.

V: Oh, good! “In a Heartbeat” sounded level with Pixar— it was very lush and textural, it had a lot happening and it was just so good, I loved it. 

A: Thank you! We did sooo many versions of that… It was the longest four minutes of my life (laughter)! When I first accepted the job, I figured “Oh, it’s four minutes. I can do this in a week” but no… We did so many versions.

V: Do you usually work with orchestras on projects or are you some kind of midi-wizard?

A: On 99% of the projects I’ve done, I aim to have live musicians. When the budget is small, we might use only four or five instruments but I just… I hate midi. Unless you want to do something electronic, then I love it, but I don’t like when you’re trying to emulate the sound of an orchestra… It just never works. I know people that are genius virtuosos of the computer and it still sounds like midi. I can always hear it. One thing that I do a lot is have a real orchestra in the foreground. We had an orchestra in Abbey Road with really great musicians but it was a very small orchestra of 21 players. And in the background is the midi, but you can’t hear that it is. It adds a lot.

V: For “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles”, is the choir made up of real singers? I was thinking they either had to be real or some crazy samples were being used.

A: Yes, they’re real! It was a forty-five piece choir from The Royal Academy of Music. Before I went to Berklee, I studied at The Royal Academy so I have a friend who’s a professor there and he has a choir, which was great, because our budget wasn’t that big but I wanted to have a big choir. We were able to make the score a part of his class so they were practicing our score for a while. When they came to the studio, they were ready to record so we didn’t use up much time and it was good for cost.

V: I’ve always wondered about that. When working with live musicians, does rehearsal time happen before you go to record? Do they receive the music before? How does that usually work?

A: Usually you try to work with insanely genius people that will sight-read because generally you don’t have time to rehearse. So for Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, they all were sight-reading. Our harpist played on the score for The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and our pianist— I did some of it— but the other pianist played on the score for The Shape of Water (2017), and the cello soloist played on the score for Atonement (2007) and Interstellar (2014). So the musicians were amazing, which made it easy.

Recording “Sherwin and Johnathan” for  In a Heartbeat . Photo courtesy of  Arturo’s Facebook Page .

Recording “Sherwin and Johnathan” for In a Heartbeat. Photo courtesy of Arturo’s Facebook Page.

V: What are the upcoming projects that you have that you’re allowed to talk about?

A: There’s an animation by the same writer who wrote The Princess and the Frog (2009)— he’s done a lot of things for Pixar. It’s a really cute project. I also have a Spanish documentary, Yo Galgo (2018) and a project that I’m particularly excited about— It’s a movie, a thriller, so a genre that I’ve never done before. My plan is to not listen to any thriller soundtracks so that I can come up with something different. I plan to ask the director to not use temp tracks. That’s another problem. When they edit, they have a temp track. Once you see a sequence with music, especially for the editor, when the music works with the picture, it’s really hard to ignore and forget it. It gets into your DNA and you’re done.

V: Yes 100%, how do you deal with temp tracks? Do you get to speak with the editor and make requests on that?

A: I can, I always ask, they never listen to me (laughs), but I ask! One of my projects now is temping with my music which makes things easier, but then I’ll repeat myself because it’s things I’ve already done and they want me to do them again. Temp tracks are a very difficult subject for every composer.

V: What are ways to get around temp tracks when the director and/or editor have already set into it? Or what do you do in the beginning before that can happen?

A: Lately, I’ve been doing one thing and it works: the editor uses a temp track because it helps the editing process and makes everything faster. I tell them to edit with a temp track, but then send me a copy without it. Then, I try what I feel in every scene. If we get stuck on a scene, and they really hate what I’m sending, and sometimes it happens… Week one and two go by and they just don’t like it, then I will ask to hear the temp track. Sometimes it works great because I end up sending something they didn’t expect, something they weren’t thinking of for the scene, and they love it. Other times, it’s just impossible and then I have to listen to the temp track and I do something close to it.

V: Since we shouldn’t expect anyone to be music-oriented, what way of communicating have you found that works to figure out what it is that they like?

A: First of all, we should stay away from music terms. No talking about instruments, no talking about key signature… Just talk about the storytelling and drama. You also have to adapt really fast and try to understand their words. For instance, I had a project where cellos kept being brought up and I was very confused because I already had cellos. One day I realized that pizzicato is what was meant. I didn’t correct him, but from that point on I only wrote with pizzicato and everyone was happy.

V: How did you figure out what was meant in that scenario?

A: When I send a cue, and they’re telling you what they like and don’t like, you try to get as specific as you can. Like “In this second, in this moment, do you like this, do you not?” And you go through it to the smallest detail. By doing that, you’ll understand what they’re talking about.

V: Going back through your career, were your classical compositions your first introduction to composing?

A: I started as a classical pianist, and then I switched to composition and my first pieces were classical. I still do a lot of classical, and I’m actually working on a classical piece right now.

V: Is that being composed to be performed at a concert?

A: Yes, this one is for the Berlin Philharmonic. They have a soloist ensemble with a solo violin and a string quintet, and they’ll be playing this piece in Japan in December.

V: Are composing for concerts not as common anymore?

A: Not for film composers, no, but I do it. I want to do both, film and classical, but if I had to choose one… I’d say classical.

V: They’re very different styles, but I understand that. When you first started composing for films, what were some obstacles that you ran into that you have advice for now if you could pass that on to your past self?

A: You don’t have to come to LA, but when you start looking for work, the main problem is finding projects and credits. When you’re in that stage of your career, you have to try to get into anything, any project. Because you never know. I’ve done projects where I thought the whole thing was a disaster and then it ended up becoming a big thing. So you have to stay very open and try to get as much work as possible. Another thing… Composers like to hang out with each other because we talk about music and we have a good time and we understand each other, but, one common mistake is to have so many composer friends, and no director or editor friends or people-on-the-other-side friends because composers aren’t going to hire you. They can, but what you really want is to be hired by a director. So focus more on directors, producers, editors…

V: Are you very hands-on with your projects in terms of being in the same place as the people you’re working with?

A: My amazing orchestrator lives in Boston, Amparo Edo Biol. She’s the Assistant Chair of Contemporary Writing and Production at Berklee. The people who help me are all over the world.

V: That’s cool, so you don’t need to be right there with them. You can get it all done just by communicating online. My last and final question: I know that you’re a pianist, do you have a favorite piano that you’ve played?

A: Yes! One of my pieces, Grace, I had a Shigeru Kawai that I used for the recording and it was amazing.

V: I can imagine, and you prefer that over the European brands?

A: Yeah, I liked that piano a lot. I’m about to premiere a new piece and I’ll have the same piano, they brought me the same one.

Arturo is on Instagram @arturo_cardelus, Facebook, and Spotify. I thank him for his time and his wisdom, and I look forward to what beautiful music he composes next!

Shirley Song - Composer

Shirley Song is an LA-based composer originally from Sydney, Australia. Shirley was presented with the Alf Clausen Award in 2016, and was the resident composer for numerous theatre productions. Her concert music has been performed in venues across Sydney, including the Sydney Opera House, Seymour Center, and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. At the time of writing, she works closely with award-winning composer Jeff Danna (The Good Dinosaur, Storks, The Boondock Saints), and her current project is composing additional music for Oscar-Winning Director Guillermo Del Toro’s Tales of Arcadia: 3 Below— a new animation series by Dreamworks and Netflix.

V: What was your first composing gig?

S: My first "legit" composing gig didn't really happen till I graduated from my composition degree back in Australia. I started out writing music for theatre productions. That was sort of my first taste of writing music to drama.

V: Can you describe your current project with Guillermo Del Toro?

S: I'm currently writing music for the Netflix series, 3 Below, the sequel to Trollhunters. The animation is absolutely stunning! We work with a real orchestra for this as well so it's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. They're twenty minutes per episode and like many animations, have back-to-back, wall-to-wall music. There's a lot of space for writing creatively and Jeff Danna's been an incredible mentor.

V: What is it like to work on big budget projects? What is typically the order of tasks for projects like this?

S: I have yet to work on a reeaaaalllyyyy big budgeted project with the Dannas (like The Good Dinosaur or Storks), but we have a couple of big exciting projects lined up for next year. I only started with Jeff last year in March of 2017. So far, the projects I've been a part of include Netflix mini-series Alias Grace, and the Oscar-nominated animated film The Breadwinner. A lot of work goes into these feature films and Mychael and Jeff Danna start writing the themes before picture is even locked. Then comes spotting and the writing continues! Once cues are written, they're sent to the director for approval. Then comes recording time, so prior to recording, we'll need to make sure all cues are prepped and sent out to the orchestrator, session stems are bounced for the engineer and then all stems are bounced out dry for the mix stage.

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V: Are there scores you've composed that hold a certain special place in your heart?

S: There are a few scores that hold a certain special place in my heart, and it may not necessarily be the best piece of musical work I've ever written, but [I value] the experience I gained and the significance behind the project. I'm super proud of a score I did for a Project Soar Morocco campaign about empowering young girls in Morocco to "become leaders of today and tomorrow".  I had an incredibly low budget, yet I think the director and I came up with something really uplifting and hopefully inspiring.

There's also a score I co-wrote with a very good friend of mine, Jina An, for a comedy feature that I'm really proud of. It was our first feature film and I wouldn't have wanted to write it with anybody else. Lastly, I'm having an absolute blast working on 3 Below. It's my first score that I've had the opportunity to have a real orchestra play on.

V: Although we don't like to be thought of as female composers, and rather just composers, it just so happens that that's what we represent. Have you noticed any particular obstacles due to this fact? What would you say to a young Shirley Song embarking on composing to advise her on these obstacles?

S: This is such an interesting question. I ask myself this a lot too! And yes, as you said, most days I don't even think or classify myself as an "Asian female composer," and I indeed just view myself as a composer. I just want my music to speak for itself. However, I think we have the luxury to think like this because of all the women and men who have been pushing and are still raising awareness for women equality in Hollywood, closing the gender gap in the film music industry. I think I've been lucky enough so far to have not really experienced obstacles due to how I look or the fact that I'm a woman.  However, subconsciously, I do think I have felt the need to perhaps work harder.

What I would say to the young Shirley Song is to not doubt yourself. Keep doing what you're doing and work hard. Work your butt off so that no one can say "you were just lucky and riding the ‘female empowerment’ wave”. 

Always treat people the way you want to be treated. There's a tendency for a lot of Asians to be a bit more "reserved or shy" (I'm generalising here, but I find that to be the case with me and a few friends of mine), so I want to tell the younger self to speak out more, be bold and confident (not cocky, obviously) and don't be shy when asking for help, advice or getting the next gig/job opportunity. Go get it. Be a go-getter.

Oh, and get yourself educated on sound libraries and how to work a DAW! The younger/earlier the better, Shirley!  

V: Now that we're channeling the younger self, tell me about your path to becoming a composer. Specifically, when you realized it was what you wanted to do, and how your family reacted to your decision.

S: I've been one of those lucky Asians who have had incredibly supportive parents. I would not be here without them. I first started composing back in high school. I went to a musical high school that had an awesome composition department. That was the first time I sort of dabbled with writing music for small chamber ensembles. When it came to university applications, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I was your typical, clueless, happy-go-lucky 16/17 year old. It was my composition teacher at the time who suggested I audition for the composition program at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Long story short, I was accepted and awarded a scholarship. Fast forward four years, I graduated and had a composition degree but had no idea what in the world I was going to do with it. 

As a young kid, I acted a lot in theatre because my grandparents were theatre directors, actors and playwrights, so I've always had a penchant for drama.  So after graduating, I started writing music for theatre and realised that, really, despite how I enjoyed concert music, what I really wanted to do was write music for visuals.  So after freelancing for two years writing on theatre productions and a few short films and promotional videos, I decided that I wanted to learn more about this world and that's when I applied to Berklee.

Berklee played an incredibly important and pivotal role. I worked super hard during my time there and tried to learn as much as I could from all the professors. I remember treating every single film scoring homework and assignment like it was a "real project" and that I would never leave it half-finished. It had to sound as good as it could. I would not be working for Jeff if it wasn't for the recommendation of the head of film scoring, Alison Plante. 

V: Please tell me about your company, Soundesque. What was the mission that it was started on, what are particular proud moments, and do you have a secret future in mind for it?

S: Soundesque was something I started because I wanted to work with friends who have expertise in different fields, not just film scoring. It has always been a long-term sort of goal for me. Right now, I've made it clear that I think it's important that we all work on ourselves: try to build our own individual credits and reputation. So right now, we've taken a bit of a backseat on Soundesque. But give us a few more years (inserts winky emoji.) 

V: I really enjoyed the Battle of Cable Street video which begs me to ask the question: do you have a favorite part of the composing process? I haven't gotten the opportunity to have musicians bring my compositions to life (only digital samples) but it looks magical.

S: Ah, shucks! Thank you! That was for Professor Richard Davis' advanced orchestration class. Live musicians can really bring your music to life! So I guess... the favourite part of the composition process is the recording session? The mixing session? (When the actual composing/writing is all done!)

Shirley’s final words of wisdom: As you may hear from everyone, this industry is hard. LA is really not the place for everyone. You have to be passionate and willing to go that extra mile, put in the extra time and effort.  Good work ethic, a positive attitude and a likeable personality are "hella" important. Learn from your mistakes, grow from [them], and enjoy the ride (or try to anyways)!

Footnotes: Shirley is on instagram @the_song and I highly recommend following her for quality content of composing and canine antics!