How did you first get into film composing?

I’ve been a musician for most of my life, playing one instrument or another since the 4th grade. I always liked film music, even from when I was a kid. My first memory of film music is the original Godzilla. and that music just stuck with me. I loved monster movies and horror, and I still do, but I remember that music.To me it was scary and sad at the same time. Such a huge component of the film. 

I did not go to school for music and was pretty much self taught from my teenage years on. But I started trying to learn as much as I could on my own. I got books and dove in to learn everything I could about orchestration and arrangement. I would go to the open rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic and sit there with the score and follow along. Eventually, I started writing my own  “cinematic” music at home. I even played a solo show once at a rock club.

Film Composer Ray Nissen Headshot

Are there any musicians or film scores that influenced your film composing career?

There’s definitely composers and certain scores that I love and always come back to. I’m a big fan of the Golden Age composers — my favorites are probably Bernard Hermann and Elmer Bernstein. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ is still my favorite film score of all time. As for contemporary composers, I would say Ryuichi Sakamoto, Gabriel Yared and Abel Korzeniowski.

What is your film composing process?

My composing process generally starts with sitting down at the keyboard and messing about, which is probably true of most composers. Something will hopefully fall out like a chord progression or a line. I usually don’t set out to try to write something in a particular mood. Whatever happens, happens!

With film composing, it’s not about what I want or what I feel. You have to talk to the directors, writers or editors and find out what they are after. That’s the job. What I’ve really tried to do is to make as much impact as I can in a short amount of time. What’s been a big influence on me over the past several years is television music. I think some of the best music is coming out of television now. I love a good opening theme. Creating something impactful in less than two minutes. I love that.

So most of the work that I do now for myself, I try to keep under two minutes. I gotta hook someone’s attention in a short time because people’s attention spans are pretty short. In my mind, I’m trying to keep you from hitting that “skip intro” button on your remote!

” I try to make as much impact as I can in a short amount of time.”

– Ray Nissen | Film Composer

What has been your favorite music collaboration so far?

The collaborations that have been successful are the ones where filmmakers have a real sense of what they’re trying to achieve with music, even if they don’t know how you’re gonna get there.

Most filmmakers have a pretty complete vision of their project, but sometimes the music can be an afterthought. So, it does really help when a filmmaker has an idea of music’s place in the film.

Outside of film work, I’ve been very fortunate to work on a number of recordings as an arranger, whether strings, brass or orchestral. I’ve got more talented friends than any man has a right to and I’m grateful if they call me to collaborate! And stepping away from the DAW and into the studio with real players is always the best.

What are your career goals as music composer?

I was going hard trying to crack into composing about 20 years ago. As any composer will tell you, it’s a tough nut to crack. I was living in New York, and had some friends in the industry who made introductions for me in Los Angeles, but I couldn’t get past the gate. I managed to get some smaller composing projects in New York which was great experience.

The past two years through the pandemic has been the most creatively fertile period of my life. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I think back to 25 years ago when I was really trying to crack in, and I don’t think I was good enough. Do I think I’m good enough now? Yeah, I do. But it’s probably harder now than it was then! But you learn a lot over time and hone your craft and you get better. And you never stop.

I’m certainly not quitting! I’ll keep composing even if it’s not for film. As any artist would say, you do it because you have to — you can’t not do it!

Full Audio Transcript

Can you talk to me about how you first got into composing or music? 

So I’ve been a musician for most of my life. Now, when I think about it, Since like the fourth grade, when they came around and were like, Hey, who wants to play an instrument?, I started with the drums and, you know, I stayed with the drums until I was like 13, but then there was summer music school and every summer it was a different instrument.

I was like, let me try the clarinet. I’m gonna try the violin. I’m gonna try piano. And then at 13 I started playing guitar and that kind of changed everything because then that’s all I wanted to do was play guitar. I started doing that through my teenage years and then got into bands. 

And then probably like 18 or 19 was when I discovered synthesizers. And this was the early eighties. So things were pretty new and exciting at that point. And I really got into that stuff and sequencers. And then I was still in the band and it was like, I’m gonna play guitar, but I’m also gonna play keys and we’re gonna have a sequencer and there’s gonna be a click track and we’re gonna have all this stuff.

And then my drummer hated me, but it was a lot of fun. And that’s when I really got into writing more and more. I was never a lyricist. It was always about just writing music and trying to write songs for the band and stuff. The more I did that, the more I wanted to write other stuff. And I always liked film music, even from when I was a kid, my first memory of film music is the original Godzilla and that music just stuck with me as a kid. As a kid, I loved monster movies and horrors, and I still do, but I remember that music.

It was kind of terrifying, kind of sad, and just how important it was to the movie. And that really was an early huge influence for me. And it stuck with me throughout. So I kind of kept doing the band thing, but on the side I was writing my own stuff, instrumental pieces, you know, that were kind of cinematic, but I wasn’t really thinking about film music so much, but once I got away from the band life, I really focused on that more and I’m self taught and I realized I needed to try to educate myself a little better.

I wasn’t going to jump into music school at that point. I didn’t, but I started trying to learn as much as I could. And I would take CLA if I could audit a course at a college. And I did that at Mania, in Manhattan to learn orchestration. And I took the Scott Smalley class out in Los Angeles, and I got books and read books and dove in and wanted to learn everything I could about orchestration. I would go to the open rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic and sit there with the score and follow along and just looking back now, it’s like, I wish I just went to music school, but you know, I would’ve learned all this a little easier, but it was a fun way to, to dive into it.

And there’s always more to learn and I’m still doing. And then eventually I met some people along the way and I got hooked up with one guy who was a friend who was an editor and worked at A&E and he was doing some stuff for different websites and creating web content.

They need new music. So I started getting in, doing a bit of music that way. And then a friend of a friend told somebody, Hey, I know a guy who’s making a short film and needs some music and somebody else did that. So I got a couple of short films that way. And that’s how I got into it.

Unfortunately for me, it’s not been a steady stream of film projects, which is common, but that’s how I got into it.

Would love to learn more about your background in terms of your primary instrument, synthesizer and guitar?

Yeah, I would never call myself a piano player. I’ve been a keyboard player and, and a bunch of bands and I played bass as well. But I would say the guitar, although most of my composing doesn’t have any guitar in it. Occasionally I would use it, but it’s, I’m more interested in writing for the orchestra and smaller ensembles, that sort of thing.

Do you have any sort of musical influences or film scores that really influenced you in your composing career thus far? 

There’s definitely composers and certain scores that I love and always come back to. I’m still a big fan of some of the golden age composers. I love Miklós Rózsa and Alfred Newman, but my favorites are probably Bernard Hermann and Elmer Bernstein. To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite film score.

I mean, everybody looks at John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and John Barry, so I really like them as well.

I’d love to understand how you go about writing a particular piece of music, whether it’s your own music for yourself, for your bands, like you’ve done previously in your career, as well as learn about how you score for film and in media and what that process looks like?

It generally starts with sitting down at the keyboard and messing about. Something will hopefully fall out, you know, a chord progression, a line or something and I’ll follow it from there. That’s if I’m just writing for myself, I usually don’t set out to try to write something scary, something happier, something sad, or when it just tends to just come when it comes, it frustrates the hell outta my wife, because when she listens to stuff, she’s like, where did this come from? What was your inspiration for this? It’s like, I don’t know, it was just there. And that’s how, what comes out, comes out. When I’ve had to work on film or other media stuff, I really try to talk to directors or anybody involved and find out, What are you looking for? What are you after? What’s the story about? 

Even if it’s a five minute short film, like, okay, what’s it about, what do we want to try to achieve? I’d always love to be able to do motif writing if I could. And you can’t always get that across in a short little project, but if I can and hopefully, you know, some directors I’ve worked with are like, I don’t know what a clarinet is. You do what you want. And then just. I’ll tell you if I like it or not. And other people are much more, well, okay here, let me play this for you. I like something like this, which is great, you know, cuz then you know where their head’s at and you can try to give them what they want.

Do you have any examples of a collaboration with a filmmaker or video producer that worked extremely well and why did it work so well you think?

I think the ones that have been successful are they don’t have to be musicians and they don’t even have to understand what you’re doing. But when they have a sense of what they’re trying to achieve, what they’re hoping the music will achieve, even if they don’t know how you’re gonna get there, if it’s gonna be one instrument or a giant orchestra, a vibe, a mood or something.

And it certainly helps if they’ve heard something, and it’s like, I really like this, I can’t use this, but something like this, as long as they don’t want you to copy that entirely. You don’t do that, but if that’s the kind of vibe you’re going for, then that sets you up forever. I literally had a director say to me, I don’t know what a clarinet is. Cause I was asking them like, well, I’m thinking about using a clarinet for this part, and she was like, I don’t know what that is. So that’s kind of frustrating cuz you would like a little something.

So it does really help when someone has an idea. I’m happy to give somebody a couple of things to pick from. I don’t want to give them one thing and then be like, okay, back to the drawing board. I’d rather give them a few ideas and see if they’d want cherry pick from a couple, making sure we’re going in the right direction. 

In your experience so far working with directors and filmmakers, what the percentage is as far as like, this is the vibe I want and here’s a few reference tracks? Or has conveyed the type of mood or tone that or vibe that they want. And is it for a particular scene or the whole film? 

In my experience, I’ve not gotten as much as I would, like I would say it’s, it’s definitely the minority, especially if someone will give you an actual clip or a reference piece of music. I would love to get that more. But even just the general sense of what they’re after, or at least, like I said, what they want the music to achieve. Whether they just want it to sit quietly in the back and maybe not interfere, or if they really wanted to kind of push emotions forward.

So given your experience and being a multi-instrumentalist, what makes you in your words sort of stand out or have a unique sound, compared to some of the other musicians, other composers, like what’s unique about the way that you write music?

I think that, especially over the past couple of years, what I’ve really tried to do is to make as much impact as I can in a short amount of time by impact. I don’t mean, you know, volume or intensity, but just emotionally with the music.

And I will say for the record, I bristle at the word epic, epic music is, is great, but it’s not. It’s not what I’m interested in writing at all. I get it, you know, it’s cool when it’s done really well. And there’s a lot of people who do that really well. That’s just not, for me. What’s been a big influence on me over the past several years is television music.

And I think some of the best work is coming out of television now. And I love a good opening theme. Creating something impactful in less than two minutes. I love that. So most of the work that I do now, I really try to keep it under two minutes, say what I gotta say and try to hook someone’s attention in a short time, because people’s attention spans are short.

So especially when there’s no visual going on, you know, you just want them to listen to a piece of music. You’re not gonna sit there for five minutes, you know, or seven minutes or 10 minutes, as much as I might wanna explore something and really go out there right now. I’m really interested in trying to, in my mind, my fantasy, I’m trying to keep you from hitting the skip intro button.

Never hit the skip intro button. Let the music play, even though you hear it every time you’re watching it, let it play. Composition really is just, from the viewer’s perspective, I think so much we can get in our own heads with the minutiae of creating a piece of music, but it’s important to kind of put that front and center.

So do you have any upcoming projects, anything that you’re excited about sharing? 

No film composing projects. What has been happening a lot, really since the pandemic started was that a lot of people decided to make records. Everybody was getting into their home studio and recording.

So I got to do some arranging for people which I do really like doing string arranging and brass arranging either for real players or for me to do virtually. So there’s been a bunch of that and there’s maybe another record that’s coming, but I’m not sure when I also sometimes work in theater doing music for plays, but I think the next one that I’m doing in that regard is not until next year I just found out about it. So I’ve done that before. I love doing that. Talk about short music. That’s even shorter, like 30 seconds, but that’s a great challenge, you know, trying not to interfere, but just a little something you can get in there. Yeah, that sounds interesting.

What are your career goals? What are your composing goals?

At this point in your career, to be honest, like maybe 20 years ago, 25 years ago, I really was like going hard at it, trying to crack into composing.

It’s a tough nut to crack, and I was living in New York, so it’s not like I was totally removed. I had some friends in the industry who made introductions for me, but couldn’t really get past the gate. I managed to get some stuff in New York, which was good.

That’s always the goal for any musician, any artist you want to do, what you love professionally. If I can’t, I’m gonna do it anyway the past two years or so, like through the pandemic’s been the most creatively fertile period of my life, like I wrote and wrote and wrote. A ton and it’s sort of like, okay, what am I gonna do with this?

And I think back to 25 years ago when I was really trying to crack in, I don’t think I was good enough. Do I think I’m good enough now? Yeah, I do. You learn a lot, you know, over that time and you just hone your craft to get better and better. So I may have been working harder for it then, but I don’t think I was ready for it or good enough now I feel like.

But I will keep trying to do it professionally, even if it’s not the only profession I have. I have a day job or a mortgage but I’m gonna keep writing. Whenever I can, I play a lot of musical theater gigs, so I’ll play in pit bands and stuff, and I love doing that. It’s great to play. It really focuses you. It makes you a better reader, cuz I’m not the best site reader. So having to work from charts is great. But yeah, I’ll do that as long as I am physically able.

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