31 days of gratitude, part 2 of 2

Part 2, which began here, highlighting some of the sources of gratitude in my life:

January 17

Gratitude Day 17: Two writers, a game developer, a VFX genius, an engineer, and a producer / creative kindred soul.

The (unfairly short!) summaries of each person below make this post rather long so I will cut to the chase first: they are all on this list because in the last few years my life has undergone some extremely dramatic transformations, and all of these people made an overt priority of sticking by me. Friends who ride the surf with you, even when things get rough, are actually very rare. And they’ve all proven it in ways I could never overstate my gratitude for. They are people I would do ANYTHING for and, in their own ways, they’ve each shown the same to me.

Michael Gunn is a writer, with whom I’ve shared some really meaningful collaborations but even more endless numbers of soul searching conversations (usually over waffles and eggs at Griddle Cafe or the dearly-departed Mo’s in Burbank). One of the most well-read and insightful people I know, and someone who has helped me navigate life in more ways than I can count.

Frank John Hughes is also a writer, but also actor and producer. He came into my life via one of the best films I scored (called LEAVE, directed by the superhuman Robert Celestino) and became like family thereafter. A man I could entrust anything to, who has pushed me and whose work has transformed me.

Andy Schatz has made two games which have formed cornerstones of my artistic development (MONACO and TOOTH AND TAIL) and been a deeply cherished friend along that path. We’ve shared personal moments in the course of those that come around once in a lifetime.

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With Andy Schatz at the 2017 Game Awards

Justin van der Lek is a globe-trotting visual effects artist with fingerprints all over seemingly every modern blockbuster (SW: FORCE AWAKENS, BLACK PANTHER, THE HOBBIT, etc) who I sadly see more rarely than I’d like (damn you Weta!) but whose friendship (along with his wonderful wife Jacqueline Makkee-van Der Lek) has proven transcendent of physical location. Someone who’s shown how much of an anchor they can be, even in choppy waters.

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With Justin and Jacqueiline at the unveiling of their newly-commissioned gift by Angela Bermudez

Fred Thompson is a dear friend whose work as an engineer and programmer in the game industry has been a parallel track to my own, though our friendship began in high school. Our bond has survived multiple cross-country moves, internships at Blizzard and stretches of relative quiet. The epitome of a friend who, even if a year has passed, always feels like you just saw yesterday.

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With Fred at the recording sessions for THE RENDEZVOUS in 2015

Shay Weiner came to my life as a producer but our life quickly pivoted into an endless series of long conversations and mind-enriching lunches (seemingly never less than 4 hours). Shay is also my go-to adventure partner for strange immersive theater, experimental music or other less conventional cultural outings.

(PS I have virtually no photos with these people! I need to fix that!)

January 18

Gratitude Day 18: Two perfect films.

I know this series has focused almost exclusively on people, but I feel intense gratitude for so much else also. While I have so many “favorite” films, from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK to PSYCHO, etc, two have consistently spoken to me: Zemeckis’ CAST AWAY and Brad Bird / Pixar’s RATATOUILLE. It’s very difficult for me to make an all-time favorite films list but those two must surely top it off.

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A single frame about life

Both films, on some level, are about searching. Yet it manifests so differently in each. The former forces us to confront life’s endless succession of crossroads, and to embrace that we can’t ever have any idea what’s waiting for us at the end of our choices. The latter celebrates us finding a passion and giving ourselves completely and totally to it. Both films study notions of love, and its sustaining power, even while it simultaneously presents itself destructively.

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Among cinema’s most perfect moments

I don’t know if I could think of any line that’s stuck with me more than these, from Ego’s review:

“In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: “Anyone can cook”, but I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

How wonderful it is to live in a world where these two films exist.

January 19

Gratitude Day 19: The games of Tim Schafer.

Tim’s work not only helped shape my appreciation for games’ artistry, but actually gave me real insights to life itself. His games ran parallel to my own coming of age, as I spent countless hours with the now-classics of the 90s LucasArts games like MONKEY ISLAND, DAY OF THE TENTACLE, and FULL THROTTLE.

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Meche y Manny

But then came along GRIM FANDANGO which deeply influenced me. From Peter McConnell’s perfect score, the unbelievable voice cast and gorgeous Mexican-noir art direction, everything seemed to just click. But the story and characters, the longing and humor and romance of it all, just hit me. I will, for my entire life, never forget the first lines of Meche Colomar:

“You’re not the nurse…”

“No, but I am here to ease your pain.”

“I guess they couldn’t save me, huh?”

I know it doesn’t seem like much, but those three little lines (part of a scene that can’t be even 1 minute long), of hearing a confused woman come to terms with the fact that’s died, now finding herself in a strange afterlife, crawled into my conscious and helped define for me what storytelling can be. How such simple words can be beautiful, yet also still dig into genuinely profound ideas. Writing something complicated often requires lots of training and experience, but something simple requires insight and inspiration.

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Tim’s work hasn’t just entertained me for a few decades, but it legitimately helped frame for me what art, particularly in games, can be.

Also he’s hilarious.

January 20

Gratitude Day 20: The films and friendship of Amin Matalqa.

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Addressing the orchestra during the scoring sessions for CAPTAIN ABU RAED

Over 10 years ago I had a surprise encounter with a man who would come to completely define my 20s and early 30s. Amin Matalqa was looking for a composer for his AFI Thesis short “Morning Latte,” proclaiming it had to be epic and grand and gothic a la Goldsmith’s THE OMEN. The film is strange and silly and making the score birthed a very special bond.

From there 3 features followed CAPTAIN ABU RAED, STRANGELY IN LOVEand THE RENDEZVOUS. As per Amin’s taste, each was lushly orchestral and unapologetic in how they sat within the films’ narratives. It was like traveling back in time to score films in a prior era. To call these experiences joyous is both to over-simplify, and grossly understate. And that is to say nothing of the life experiences we’ve shared through the course of them (which could fill another 30 days’ worth of posts).

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Playback with the Colorado Symphony during the recording sessions for THE RENDEZVOUS

Life goes through crazy twists and turns, and the future remains forever cloudy but these experiences and this bond permanently changed my course in life. I’m a better person for this friendship, and a better composer for these films.

January 21

Gratitude Day 21: Paul Solet

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With Paul at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, premiering GRACE

Paul was the first person I met on moving to LA in 2005, and for almost 15 years now I’ve been working with this absolutely amazing and relentless director. I often liken him to a personal trainer: he will completely kick your ass and then afterward you realize how much better and stronger you’ve become as a result. My best music, which pushes me far deeper than I could imagine, always comes out on his projects.

Our adventures have led to my doing field recording on-set during shooting, my first time scoring at Abbey Road in 2008 (with 8 contrabass clarinets!), trumpet fanfares deep inside a parking garage, and a premiere at the Sundance film festival in which two people fainted. And much, much more.

Paul loves to say “the only rule is that there are no rules” and always advocates that I wrote an “Option C” score. Option A is something only a top-notch professional would write; Option B is what some special top-tier sliver therein would write; but Option C is what a top talent writes, while owning the idiosyncrasies that makes them THEM. In other words, BE YOURSELF. It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker with more appreciation for the artistry of his collaborators.

As it turns out, he’s also one of the kindest and most soulful human beings I’ve ever met. He also manages to pull off lovingly call me “shitmouth,” so he might also be some sort of next-level poet …

January 22

Gratitude Day 22: Music itself.

I know this one might be so obvious as to seem unworthy, but when I began this series the entire idea was to shine a light on that for which I am truly grateful. And what could fit that more than the pursuit I’ve given my life to?

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Some manuscript of an unfinished piece from college

As a kid, before age 10 when I met my childhood piano teacher, music was simply never a part of my life. I never listened to bands or classical music, didn’t have favorite recording artists or radio stations, etc etc. Storytelling was my love: movies, novels, games, comics, and every other way I could consume that let me experience character and narrative. At various times I was sure I would grow up to be a novelist or a game designer.

With music suddenly I had a way of storytelling that gave me more freedom to express than anything I had dabbled in before. All the intricacies of crafting a story could still come into play, but now there was also this sort of abstract ‘4th dimension’ to play with and explore. It’s kind of crazy really: manipulating sound, often in rather crude ways, can reach into someone’s chest and yank their heart out, or make their hair stand on end, or draws tears from their eyes! I know I’m barely scratching the surface here, but figured I should try to justify why I would put such an obvious choice in this series.

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Conducting some fellow students during high school, in the garage!

It’s utterly remarkable that I can make a living, with all sorts of creative opportunities, doing nothing but this rather absurd act of tinkering with acoustical physics. The fact that music exists at all is something to be grateful for. It’s really rather strange!

January 23

Gratitude Day 23: The amazing recording/mixing duo of Steve Kempsterand Kevin Globerman

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With Steve and Kevin at the Denver International Airport, about to start work on THE RENDEZVOUS

Both of these men have been alongside me for the adventure the past decade and I really can’t imagine making music without them by my side. Peter Rotter very generously introduced me to Steve at an RMA party back in 2009 and we quickly dove into our first film together, A LITTLE HELP (one of still-favorites I’ve ever worked on — thank you Michael Weithorn, Joe Gressis and Dena Cornejo!!!). I think with Kevin it dates back even further, though I honestly can’t even remember now when / where it began!

I should specify that Steve is a brilliant engineer, mixer and masterer, with fingerprints in one (or all) of those categories on almost everything I’ve written. Kevin is a ProTools genius, who has prepped every recording session I’ve had, comped nearly every take and helped bring basically every mix home.

We’ve traveled to foreign lands (aka Colorado) together multiple times, and enjoyed countless gallons of Kempster Koffee ™ . Beyond incredible talents, both (as evidenced by these photos) make my life incalculably better through their friendship. No session or mix passes without lots of laughter, reflection on life, good eating and copious Pellegrino. AKA: dream team.

January 24

Gratitude Day 24: Richard Kraft and Laura Engel.

I like to joke that Richard Kraft is my spirit animal, except that that is no joke. Few people inspire me as he does, leading by incredible example in all he takes on. His partnership with Laura has created one of the most incredible hubs of creative talent in Hollywood, and being part of their roster is something I wear as a badge of incredible honor.

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With Richard Kraft at LA’s Disney Concert Hall

My friendship with Richard began about a decade ago, when (after being his USC student, relishing the school of hard knocks lessons he gave us) I became his back-alley illicit soundtrack dealer. Many shady exchanges were made, such as for Jarre’s ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD and Waxman’s MY GEISHA. In the years since I’ve seen him conquer so many new mountains, driven always by this need to create something / go somewhere new. It has pushed me to do the same, recently helping birth A LIGHT IN THE VOID (a show Richard was *sure* he would hate, by the way!)

Later he did something for me for which I could never repay: bring Sarah Kovacs into my life. More on that later :)

Meanwhile Laura is a walking masterclass in the *actual* Art of the Deal. She probably strikes fear in the heart of many but frankly I find her tenacity and intensity awe inspiring. She can size up a situation faster than anyone I’ve seen, and has a 6th sense for how to make something work. Both of them are the very definition of unstoppable.

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With Laura, Bear McCreary, Sarah Kovacs and Richard at the ASCAP Awards

How do I properly express gratitude for getting to befriend AND collaborate with two such forces of nature who, among so much else, also give me a living link to some of my greatest all-time heroes like Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Henry Mancini, etc??

January 25

Gratitude Day 25: The amazing team of Steven Juliani and Nick Fevola.

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Steve Juliani and Nick Fevola

Most people have no appreciation for how INSANELY crucial and make-or-break a great copyist is a for a composer. It’s not a job that gets enough attention or praise, yet their work is often the dividing line between successful recording / performance, versus disasters.

I first met Steve when I (and Nick!) learned from him at USC. I was very lucky to land a pretty big project within a few months of graduation and needed a copyist for the session. I didn’t know who to ask so I basically just asked my professor :)

Now well over a decade later and we’ve worked on countless projects since, recording all over the world. They are a dream team and have pulled off MANY miracles for me over the years, and always with this wonderful, cheery ‘can do’ attitude. I owe them more favors than I can count!

I worry that this praise sounds generic. These guys, and the rest of their team, are anything but. They are essential to my career’s victories, and I can’t imagine ever working with anyone else.

January 26

Gratitude Day 26: The indispensable Michael Miller.

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Mike Miller, gazing wistfully

A few years ago, while working on the first BANNER SAGA, my orchestration and copying pipeline started to bottleneck and Susie suggested bringing on this young guy Mike to help her as a go-between from my MIDI data to the conductor scores.

I know this sounds perhaps a bit technical to any non-composer, but basically, we needed to move faster and she knew a guy. Flash forward to today and Mike has become 100% irreplaceable in my life. He is gifted composer, pedigreed software engineer(!), solid orchestrator/copyist and has among the deepest and most commanding knowledge of technology of anyone I know.

He also manages to jump in to help ALWAYS with a big smile, unafraid to work obscenely late into the night, and *while* juggling the reality of a newborn child at home. He is no ordinary member of the team. He is the kind of guy emblematic of the sort of team I will forever aspire to build.

January 27

Gratitude Day 27: Susie Benchasil Seiter

Some people make you grateful for how they come into your life and spice up some give chapter; an important but ultimately fleeting companion. And others enter your life and immediately you feel “I’m never letting go of this person!”

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With Susie at Abbey Road during the scoring sessions for ASSASSIN’S CREED SYNDICATE

Susie and I first met 8 or 9 years ago, when she told me she was an orchestrator and (quite crucially!) was NOT an aspiring composer. We immediately hit it off, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to collaborate with her. I’d always done everything myself. Honestly, I think it was simply trust issues, from being a control freak. She very patiently accepted very small tasks, well below her skillset (like on JOURNEY, copying out the harp parts alone, while I tackled the orchestra), gradually taking on more and more.

By the time of THE BANNER SAGA in 2013, deadlines were too tight and I had to hand it all over to her. And frankly, from that moment on my workflow, efficiency and honestly my artistry began to increase. Since then we’ve done countless sessions together (in LA, Colorado, Nashville, and London, plus remote sessions in Macedonia and elsewhere), and already had lots of adventures. Many more to come.

Far better than the caliber of work, she’s repeatedly proven herself to far above some mere team member. She has pulled off superhuman feats in the face of immensely difficult personal situations, such that 99% would have bailed out and been forgiven for doing so. In other words, there have been times where she’s had plenty excuses to tell me she’s unavailable, but just plowed through anyway. With a smile. And probably underpaid.

I can not fathom a better right hand and dear friend, for she truly brings out the best in me as both composer and man.

January 28

Gratitude Day 28: Tina Guo

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Tina Guo in her natural state

I can’t think of a single musician that terrifies me more than Tina. Every note I’ve written for her in the decade+ since we first met has been borne of a fear of not doing justice to her talents. She is, seriously, superhuman. We’ve done countless film and game scores together (she IS the score to JOURNEY), concerts, improvised duets, albums and charity projects. She is nearly always the first thought I have when a new project finds its way to me.

Incidentally, she’s also an amazing soul. For years I always would book a minimum of an extra hour in each session, to allow enough time to talk about life, love, music, dogs, food, travel, stock portfolio, and ex-boyfriends … probably in that order. The only persistent challenge is keeping up.

One of the most hilarious memories we have together is an incredulous call from her saying that “some guy” was calling her to work on this Sherlock Holmes movie, and she wasn’t sure if it was legit or not. I asked what his name was and she said “I think Hans something?” Needless to say the partnership that exploded into being that day has been immensely inspiring to behold.

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Typical day in the studio

No one deserves their hard-earned success more than Tina, and it’s stupefying to me that I get to call such a Wonder (👏) a close partner and very close friend.

January 29

Gratitude Day 29: Sarah Kovacs

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The immense classiness of Kovacs-Wintory

As a kid / composer longing to join the business, one of the things I admired most about my heroes was the way they had these lifelong, close-knit partnerships. For example, the 90+ film partnership of Jerry Goldsmith and his music editor Kenny Hall. Or, the career-spanning collaboration of Danny Elfman and Richard Kraft.

As such, I was (and remain) forever on the lookout for people to grasp onto with the plan to never let go, through thick and thin. Ironically, Richard and Laura represented my dream agents since time began. And one day, out of nowhere, Richard’s then-assistant Sarah called me to lunch. We’d only met once before that, at his 50th birthday party just a couple weeks earlier, and I couldn’t fathom why she wanted to meet.

Turns out Richard knew what the world was about to find out: Sarah is a fucking badass. He had challenged her with a pathway to becoming an agent, and suggested meeting me as her prospective first client (Which I could never EVER thank him enough for). I instantly loved the idea. I had had different representation prior to that, but this was a totally different approach: joining forces such that success for one would beget success of the other. A *true* partnership. Bonus that we were close in age and could ride this rollercoaster for the long haul.

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With the mother of “my” child

It ended up being possibly the best decision I’ve ever made, professionally and personally. I ended up with a spectacular agent, and extremely close friend (and possibly the mother of my child? (If you don’t know what this is referring to, don’t bother asking)).

I truly could NOT be more grateful for this remarkable human being in my life.

January 30

Gratitude Day 30: Angela Bermúdez

My penultimate post, and the sort of grand finale. The last several years have seen massive (and often tumultuous) changes in my life, but amidst it all has arisen a partnership and relationship I could never have predicted.

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Viajeros forging ahead into a Mexican desert

I’ve long had a special passion for interdisciplinary collaboration, and that is precisely where this all began: an improvised concert in which I would play and she would paint. Neither of us had ever attempted anything like it, and it was revealing to me that Angela was so willing to dive headfirst into the unknown. Without going into any detail here, that time period was by far the lowest in my life and I was deeply wrecked by depression. Our meeting and co-creating was like this unprecedented bolt of lightening that brought me back from the brink.

Now, and in the last several years we’ve traveled to many spots across the world, performed for thousands of people, and created a body of work that (most excitedly) feels like just the beginning.

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No caption required

It’s impossible to summarize here; I couldn’t possibly overstate my gratitude for this wonderful partner, hilarious and ridiculous potato, inspiring dragon, Viajera and muse. I’m so much better of a man and artist with her in my life, to the point of shuddering to imagine myself without her.

January 31

Gratitude Day 31: My own flaws and weaknesses.

I hope this isn’t too cheesy of a note to end on, but I was thinking of a sort of epilogue to this series and kept coming back to the same idea: there seems to be no better teacher than life itself, and nothing drives a lesson home deeper than learning it the hard way. The last 34 years (and 5 or 6 in particular) have revealed a LOT of flaws, and the growth needed to survive that discovery has undoubtedly made me a better man, composer, friend, son, brother and everything else. It’s an incredibly painful process sometimes, but I’m so grateful that as a result I never manage to be deluded about myself. It’s really difficult to overestimate one’s strengths, intelligence, talent, patience, etc when life serves you constant tests of all of them.

I’ve always felt more excited about the road ahead than the one behind. Even in the last few years, as I endured some whips and scorns both personally and professionally, the road ahead has felt promising. But now, as 2019 is just getting rolling, that feels all the more true. I can only hope that my flaws continue to be a source of wisdom, instead of an excuse for feeling sorry for myself. There isn’t time for that anyway! Too many unwritten notes, adventures to undertake and fun to be had!

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PS I wasn’t sure what photo use, so I used this “failed” shot with Angela Bermúdez taken late at night in Croatia last year… a hopefully obvious demonstration of my point here

Professionally curious about music. Composer for Journey, Abzu, Erica, John Wick Hex, The Banner Saga 1–3, AC Syndicate, Tooth & Tail, etc. Fan of humanity!

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