Composers on the Rise

Paste chats with the musical talents of this year’s Sundance Film Festival

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Now that we tend to watch movies on our computer, logging onto Netflix in bed, or streaming something on our iPad, the musical score doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Hearing the soundtrack to Interstellar through your earbuds isn’t the same as experiencing it in a proper movie theater.

At Sundance, though, you view films for the first time in carefully chosen theatrical spaces. The musical compositions of every film are rightfully showcased. Hearing the score to Whiplash at the Eccles Theatre last year was an experience no audience member could forget.

This year, in the crop of narrative and documentary premieres, a handful of composers stood out. Paste had a chance to chat with every one of them, identifying their background, unique sound, collaborators and passions.

There’s Dustin O’Halloran, Keegan DeWitt, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, Heather McIntosh and Dan Romer. All artists have dipped their toes into a wide range of genres, working with some of the most exciting directors, DPs and casts around. Here’s a bit about them, their projects and what makes them exciting, inspiring composers on the rise.


Dustin O’Halloran

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His Partitur: O’Halloran has quite an impressive portfolio so far, ranging from Sundance Grand Jury award winner Like Crazy to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette to the most talked-about TV show this year, Transparent. This year he was back at Sundance with Umrika, a film about brotherhood and the American dream.

His Intro: A self-taught pianist, O’Halloran learned when he was only 7 years old. “I don’t really know what I would do without the piano; it’s been the way I found myself into composing. But as I get deeper [into] composition, I also want to use the piano less and write for other instruments, to explore new colors and sounds.” When asked if there are any instruments he’d like to tackle, he doesn’t name specifics, but loves “that early period where you don’t really understand an instrument and you have to find your way through it, where it’s somehow innocent. I think it’s a really creative time. You use your ears. You experiment. There are no rules. The more you know the instruments, the harder it gets to find surprises. Both have a value.”

His Ensemble: On his evolution as an artist while working with Coppola, O’Halloran explains, “Writing those few pieces for Marie Antoinette was my first time working with film … and it was a special case in the sense that Sofia edits to music. So it was more like writing for myself, as I was not writing to picture. I try to continue to work like that on films when I can … get away from the screen and just focus on the music.” O’Halloran has also worked with Drake Doremus on both Like Crazy and Breathe In. “Drake and I had a really good musical connection from the start. He was listening a lot to my solo piano work when he was working on Like Crazy and contacted me to do the score … so I was already a little bit in the film before I started.” He admits that it was cathartic: “There was a lot of heart in the film, and it was an experience that I also shared with him.” It’s also no surprise O’Halloran had a friendship with Jill Soloway before coming on board Transparent. “She was listening a lot to my music while writing the first episodes…and while on a trip to Berlin she showed me the pilot—she [had] some of my music temped in already. I loved the raw honesty and dark humor of it. It was clear that if it got picked up, I should work on the music … and [I’m] glad it did.”

His Ausdruck: Whether it’s in his film scores or own albums, O’Halloran’s sound is packed with emotion, and if you’ve ever seen Like Crazy you’ll agree it can be heartbreaking. He describes working on love stories as “a slippery slope” but worked with Doremus to “keep it simple and honest … get to the core of the feelings without overstating them.” This is what O’Halloran does so brilliantly. His music illuminates what’s unspoken, whether it be the attraction between Sophie (Felicity Jones) and Keith (Guy Pearce) in Breathe In or the sense of family in Transparent. To O’Halloran, with the Amazon series, “the idea of the music was that no matter what craziness was happening with the characters, the music was a warm bubble that surrounds them, that unconditional love that only comes with family.”

His Appassionato: O’Halloran’s dedication to his music is evident even in his working environment. “I have been living in Berlin for about six years and have [a] really wonderful studio space there that is also a collection of studio spaces with other composers like Johann Johannsson and Hildur Gudnadottir. My studio space is really important to how I work, as I really use the studio as an instrument as well. I have two old upright pianos that I am very fond of and tons of other instruments, analog keyboards, tape machines—recording gear. It’s a haven, and I spend more time there than at home!” When asked about his album, Piano Songs Vol. 2, which is delicate and incredibly moving, he responds: “I wrote and recorded my first two piano solos record[s] when I lived in Italy. It was a really special time for me … I was rediscovering the piano, and experiencing a new country. I had a studio in an old farmhouse in the country and was pretty isolated. I think you can feel that in the music.”

His Bravura: O’Halloran becomes entrenched in his work, a quality that is evident in his journey writing for Umrika. “When the director, Prashant [Nair], approached me to do the score, he asked if I would come to India. He said the only way I could really understand how to score his film was to have an experience there. I ended up spending a month there … doing musical research, recording with traditional Indian musicians and making field recordings. We decided not to use any Indian instruments, though, but to take the experience and put it through my own musical language. It had a huge effect on the score, and I definitely could not have done the music the same without the trip there.”

On his Sundance experience: “I think my first Sundance trip with Like Crazy will always be the most memorable. It premiered so quickly after I finished the score…and it was a strange feeling. I kind [of] wrote the score in my own bubble and it was like a diary…so to all of us sudden be there with 1,400 people listening was a bit of a shock…but winning the Grand Jury prize was the biggest surprise!”


Keegan DeWitt

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His Partitur: DeWitt came on the composing scene with Aaron Katz’s Quiet City in 2007 and has since gone on to Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner, the HBO documentary Life According to Sam, Land Ho! and Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth. This year at Sundance, he had two films, Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected and Brett Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams.

His Intro: DeWitt started off in film school, then studied acting at the Atlantic Theater Company, but always made music on the side. “I was recording shitty demos. Instead of keeping a diary, I was recording songs. At some point, Chad and Aaron Katz both took interest and had this black bucket of my demos, which I’m sure are really embarrassing now. We were just young, excited artists at that point. It started when Dance Party, USA got into South by [Southwest] and [Aaron] pulled me in and recruited me.

His Ensemble: DeWitt knew most of his collaborators personally before composing for them. “Aaron and I went to high school together, and then he introduced me to Chad who introduced me to Alex. We’re all really good friends and really motivated by how different our careers are. With Chad, he is so awesomely patient and great at telling stories not like a lot of stories I know. Aaron has his own specific voice and with Alex, I start on a project with [him] and just know we’re going to go full in on it, no apologies. We just get to create our definitive thing and let people perceive as they will.”

His Ausdruck: DeWitt’s sound has vacillated between operatic influences for This is Martin Bonner to Miles Davis-inspired jazz for Listen Up Philip. “With Listen Up Philip, it was literally all improvised by jazz musicians based on constructs that I gave them in a studio in one day. Alex [Ross Perry] is a super intelligent person. My first project with him was like, ‘Here’s your budget and it’s super limited and it’s got to be based on all these classical jazz things.’ I recruited the five best jazz improvisers in Nashville and recorded it to tape. [Queen of Earth] has a lot more orchestral elements. I built a lot of it in the box in terms of computer stuff and then I did strategic layering over the top with organic instruments to make sure that it felt good. I run them through a tape machine to give it that feeling of breath and life and grit.”

His Appassionato: “My first impulse when I see a great movie is It doesn’t need music at all. The silence can be more compelling. The score should be the subtext or subconscious that you don’t even feel is there. If it is, it’s acknowledging something that’s unsaid.” DeWitt also enjoys working on low-budget films and with boundaries. “I feel like I continue to get to work with these great filmmakers. I figure out how to use these great limitations I have.” He also appreciates his time with more simple films, not trying to achieve a bombastic score or spectacular plot twist. This can be seen in his work on Unexpected. “I already appreciated Kris [Swanberg] as a person, and it was really nice because my daughter is a year and a half. I resonated with Kris’ point of view. I’ve had a couple moments where I’m emotionally moved by my own score. There’s a sequence in Unexpected and [Samantha] gets an ultrasound for the first time and she sees the heartbeat. Then there’s this really tender sex scene, and I cried at the combination of our stuff! I felt so grateful for Kris in that moment; [it’s] the perfect blend of male and female perspective.

His Bravura: In DeWitt’s work, he not only couples music with film, but does so by understanding it on psychological levels. Regarding Queen of Earth: “There’s this dark undercurrent deep underground that’s going on with these people. I tried to key into that Polanski-ish shade, and with Elizabeth Moss, it’s never just simple in bold letters, it’s You can’t tell if she’s crazy or the people around her have made her crazy or if everybody’s crazy. The world is a complicated place. Because it’s about women, as much as I was raised with two sisters and I have a daughter, it’s still a joy in that way to work with something I couldn’t possibly act like I know what the f**k I’m talking about. You’re feeling your way through the darkness of it and figuring out that line of what Elizabeth’s doing.”

Oh, and then a fun fact: DeWitt is still in a stellar rock band, Wild Cub. “The band is its own complex world for a multitude of reasons. To be in a rock band, you have to be willing to travel and also be like a suspended 15-year-old person in your mind. It’s hard for me because I enjoy the fact that I get to do both, but I’m weary of drawing that line between Oh, he’s in a band who scores movies. People instantly think that the music that I do for films is instrumental music, like pop music. It’s definitely not that for me. Theoretically, I guess I could be more successful as a composer if I had a specific sound and at the end of the day I feel like I’ve come to some sort of peace. I hope the scores I have completed so far are these definitive unique collaborations with really interesting, really different people in terms of directors.”


Heather McIntosh

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Her Partitur: McIntosh burst onto the scene with her unnerving score for Craig Zobel’s indie hit Compliance in 2012. She returned to Sundance this year with Zobel’s next feature, Z for Zachariah, one of the most anticipated premieres in the lineup. She’s also worked as a composer on films like The Rambler, Black Box, Faults and the documentary, Vessel.

Her Intro: McIntosh studied the cello in college and “also composition with a focus in electronic music composition.” She worked in a video store in Athens, Ga., for years and attributes her film music training to her time there. “I studied classically in college and got the rest of it from the video store.”

Her Ensemble: McIntosh found a great collaborative launching pad with Zobel and reveals, “We have a lot of mutual friends; we can’t exactly remember when we became friends, but we’ve been friends for a long time! I also played cello on recordings with Of Montreal for a long time, and their drummer at the time went to high school with Craig. We hit it off, talking about film. From then on, we were trying to think of a project to work on. Somewhere down the line Compliance happened, and I started digging in.”

Her Ausdruck: McIntosh comes from an indie rock background, which isn’t necessarily as evident in her sound as it is in her process and capability. “You kind of make your own projects at home on your own recording setup. So much of it is just being economical and working with the parameters you set. I know how to make studio-quality records on my own budget and construct.” With The Rambler she describes the specific qualities she added to the score. “I was sort of brought in to add sort of a more orchestral element to the mix. They had already created this awesome bizarre universe, and I got to sort of bring in this psychedelic orchestral aspect. I think that the string writing definitely helped it live all together and create an extra level of this surreal universe.” With Z for Zachariah, McIntosh explains how her sound evolved. “When we first started working on the project, we were using all these giant organs all the way through; we had this vision. Now it’s kind of the opposite. We realized at some point it didn’t reflect the world they lived in. It’s an intimate story. There’s a different kind of intimacy when you’re dealing with the last two or three people in the world.” McIntosh and Zobel ended up rethinking the score. “It’s a much more small chamber piece. It’s not as bombastic.”

Her Appassionato: McIntosh is clearly as passionate about the process of scoring a film as she is the product. “The thing I love about it, in the very earliest stage right after I have those first talks about what the director is hoping to make, I love researching, figuring out our language together. [I love] rebuilding my Netflix queue and finding stuff I haven’t found in a long time. A lot of directors, by the time they get to me, there’s a script and a lookbook for financiers. Those are great references for me to jump into the process. I love diving into that universe, and it’s not necessarily exhausting because I love collaborating, bringing what I can to the project. I’m one puzzle piece of this whole thing.”

Her Bravura: For the Z for Zachariah score, McIntosh was able to collect sounds from across the country. “I have a pretty transportable studio. I have the basics that I can carry around, a set up that’s digital.” This allowed her to record the incredible pedal organ sounds used in the film as well as choral ensembles from various locations. “My whole setup is transportable, and I do have a work space in my home; it’s very cozy. I’ve got the piano in one room and the closet for my amps or for recording things loud.”

Oh, and then a fun fact: She toured with Lil Wayne.


Dan Romer

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His Partitur: Romer’s unforgettable score for Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is what first caught ears and eyes at Sundance in 2012. Since then, he has composed for the documentary Tomorrow We Disappear and was back at Sundance this year with Finders Keepers and Joe Swanberg’s awaited Digging for Fire. Up next, he’s got the quirky Walter starring William H. Macy, Andrew J. West and Virginia Madsen.

His Intro: “I started playing guitar when I was 7. I got obsessed with The Who. I learned how to play every song from Tommy on the guitar!” Romer went on to start bands in junior high and high school and studied classical voice at LaGuardia in New York City. “I was introduced to Bach chorales at that time. It taught me so much about arranging and composing, at the same time being around so much gospel choir music. In college I got my undergrad in pop arranging and production, and I was studying to get a master’s in pop songwriting but I didn’t graduate because I failed film scoring!” Romer was busy working on his short film Death to the Tinman with Benh Zeitlin and offered to turn it in for credit, to no avail. He then started to produce music on his own in a basement in Park Slope. He recorded some of Ingrid Michaelson’s records there.

His Ensemble: Death to the Tinman went on to win honorable mention at the Sundance Short Filmmaking Awards in 2007, but Romer and the director Ray Tintori go way back. “I met Ray when I was 7 years old at P.S. 21 in Park Slope. We were best friends. We always knew in the back of our minds we would work together when we got older.” Romer met Benh Zeitlin when he was around 20, and they worked together composing Death to the Tinman. After traveling to Sundance together, Zeitlin asked Romer to come on board his own short, Glory at Sea, and then eventually they went on to do Beasts of the Southern Wild. Romer collaborated intensely with Tomorrow We Disappear editor Adam Weber, as well. “We ended up scoring that film three times. There was the first edit and that was completely different from anything else. It was a learning experience for both of us. Adam is just an incredible collaborator and was very hands on with the music.” Romer even allowed his co-composer for Finders Keepers, Osei Essed, to live in his house.

His Ausdruck: Romer’s score for Beasts of the Southern Wild exemplifies his unique sound. “We temp scored the entire thing with just strings, horn, percussion and piano. When it came time to record the score, we tried banjo and some things with accordion and guitar, percussion, more ragtag-y percussion. Benh and I don’t use any electronics in our score. It’s all organic instruments. Benh and I would rather have a really crappy sounding string section than a beautiful fake one. You can hear the musicians breathing, the creaking, and the scratching.” Romer explains that they focused on scoring the film from Hushpuppy’s perspective. “Whenever we tried to score a scene from the audience’s point of view, or another character, it fell flat.” The use of bells in the score gives the film a lullaby ambiance, which Romer specifies further: “I think the bells, that sound specifically, illustrates the particles of the universe floating around and her figuring out the interworking of the universe.”

His Appassionato: “I get really excited about new directors that I’ve never heard of before that do amazing things. A film that I’m really excited about is The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger. The filmmaker, Michael Lukk Litwak, contacted Romer after Beasts came out. “He was like, I know this is a long shot but I’d love if you’d watch my film and talk to me about music. We’ve become dear friends. We have a relationship where whenever he needs music he calls me and I do it for him as quick as possible.”

His Bravura: When Romer isn’t scoring a film, or even while he is, he is also a Grammy-nominated music producer. When we spoke, it was just days before he would attend the awards show with a nomination for Christina Aguilera’s “Say Something.” When asked about how his work in the pop world influences his work as a composer, he explains, “They’re two totally different art forms. Pop music is so much about maximums. It’s about, ‘How sad can I make this song, how dance-y?’ Film scores are so much about hitting specific, concise emotions.” He also works on multiple projects at a time, admitting, “I think it’s important to say that I’m pretty used to just working till it’s done, working 16-hour days if I have to, which comes from opening my own production business as a 22-year-old.”

On his Sundance experience: Digging for Fire premiered at Eccles and Romer gushes, “That theater’s audio system is on fire! It’s so different seeing a film that you worked on there. I actually can’t remember if Beasts was that loud. Digging for Fire was very loud. I went in to check my audio on the soundstage and in Eccles it was bombastic low ends. Low end is a utility. You use low end for very specific things. When there’s a lot more low end, certain pieces of music take on different meaning.”


Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum

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Her Partitur: Rosenbaum has been working in score coordinating and music production for years on narrative films like Black Nativity and documentaries like The Butch Factor and Something Ventured. Just last year, she participated in the Sundance Music and Sound Design Feature Lab at Skywalker Ranch, where she met her future collaborator on Stockholm, PA, filmmaker Nikole Beckwith.

Her Intro: Kroll-Rosenbaum came from a musical family and started learning the piano at only 5. “My parents filled our house with chamber music, so that act of playing, listening, being a part of live music was a significant part of our home culture.” She went on to study composition at Juilliard, earning both her undergrad and graduate degrees. “I feel very lucky to have had the chance to study with great composers, including Samuel Adler and Milton Babbitt.” She also grew up singing in choruses and admits, “Mostly, I am, at my core, a musician. The speed of my bloodstream emanates from a kind of meta—looking in on—classical and contemporary music. And this is all storytelling.”

Her Ensemble: Kroll-Rosenbaum has worked on big budget films and indies, which means big teams and small ones. She does point out, “No, it’s not different from a musical perspective. There are lots of cooks in all kitchens, and you have to be excited to roll up your sleeves and cook.” Which is exactly what she did upon meeting Beckwith at the Sundance labs. “Nikole and I got paired up to work on a few key scenes from her film.” Kroll-Rosenbaum read the script beforehand and sketched a “harmonic language,” the material speaking to her. “Nikole and I quickly found that we had a very synergistic back-and-forth that was exciting and energizing.” Kroll-Rosenbaum is also married to composer Laura Karpman. “I’ve worked with her on numerous projects both as compositional collaborators and also as her booth reader, doing score prep, game audio implementation and beyond. Any opportunity that a composer has to study this art form is a launching pad, be it creative, technical or professional.”

Her Ausdruck: The score for Stockholm, PA walks the fine line between delicate and disturbing, possessing elements of both a thriller and drama. “The starting point was the harmony. With two central chords, the music evades resolution, or resolves while in motion. So there is this feeling of hope that is superimposed on stasis.” Kroll-Rosenbaum, Beckwith and Saoirse Ronan, who plays Leia in the film, discussed the atypical evolution of the character. “She is who she is, and that fundamentally doesn’t change. I took musical direction from Leia, from her glances, from her inner life and eventual outward exploration. The score explodes this one central harmonic pattern.” In terms of her work to come, Kroll-Rosenbaum explains, “I’ve thought a lot about taking a cultural vernacular—a sonic language of electronica—and superimposing that sound onto acoustic instruments. And then there are instruments that are rarely used in scoring that I would love to explore.”

Her Appassionato: “I have a large collection of hats. Producing and creating scores involves all facets of music making and I enjoy it all. I am very detail-oriented and being able to participate in and manage the flow of a score from creative spark to recorded sound bite is totally satisfying.” Kroll-Rosenbaum is also a huge admirer of concert music, believing that it’s “the precursor to film.” Some of her favorite musical storytellers “include Brahms. Reich. Andriessen. Bernstein. Babbitt. Sondheim. Rodgers. Corigliano. Gubaidulina. Prokofiev. Copland. Britten.” When asked to describe her influencers, the lists go on and it’s quite an eclectic bunch, too. She lists Bernard Hermann, Questlove and even “Woody Allen’s use of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé in Love and Death.”

Her Bravura: Unlike many psychological thriller and horror film scores today that try to manipulate the audience into and out of terror and also the main character’s psyche, Kroll-Rosenbaum steered clear of that for Stockholm, PA. “The score is not about pushing the listener into anything more than what we know to be the truth told on the screen. Although it is in some ways easier to lead or illuminate an expansive reality of vistas, horizons, dreams deferred, the score for Stockholm lights up when Leia is in motion and follows her gaze as she looks for meaning or questions what she knows to be a truth.” Kroll-Rosenbaum describes in more detail how she still created a score full of tension and movement: “There are these waves of sound. They happen in scales—the smallest being chamber music that goes with Leia’s breath, the largest being a wall of orchestral sound that is perceived as a feeling more than heard.” She also points out, “Oddly, suspense or tension has a lot to do with unyielding patience.”

On her Sundance experience: “I went to hear and see Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? the night before Stockholm premiered, and I had a really emotional response to hearing the High Priestess of Soul play that room. It was ravishing to be listening in on—looking in on—the intimate details of this great musician’s life in the same space where Stockholm was about to play.” When thinking about her premiere at Eccles she confesses, “To be present at the moment when Stockholm went from being in the hands and ears of just a small group of people to suddenly being heard and seen by a much larger public, that instant was really breathtaking.”


Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.

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