The Legend of Korra composer Jeremy Zukerman recently chatted with Hypable about composing for television, an unexpected soundtrack, and the times when he just has to freak out.
What is your process of composing a piece of music for The Legend of Korra?
We start with what’s called a spotting session. Ben Wynn (lead sound designer for Korra and my business partner), Aran Tanchum (foley recordist for Korra), Bryan Konietzko (co-creator) and Mike DiMartino (co-creator) meet at Nickelodeon where we analyze the episode we’re about to begin working on. We talk about the music and sound design needs simultaneously which is fairly uncommon in the industry. It’s a good way to make sure there’s cohesion among the audio elements though. I leave with a good understanding of the music needs of the episode.
After the spotting session, I have two weeks to hand in a music preview. Of course I really only have about four solid days to compose as I’m finalizing the previous episode. That involves any revisions that have come from Bryan and Mike, prepping the music notation for recording sessions (thankfully I have a couple good people help me with that – it’s a ton of work), proofreading and tweaking the notation, recording strings, recording Hong Wang (Chinese multi-instrumentalist), editing recorded material, mixing and prepping the session which goes to the dub session (where all the audio elements are brought together – dialog, foley, sound design and music).
The actual process of composing might be very boring to watch! It’s a lot of me freaking out about how time is running out and then writing due to having no more time to freak out. I work at a computer and sometimes work with pencil and paper when it makes sense to do so. I’ve even recorded my voice to picture and used that as a map. I recently did that on a very orchestrally dense, fairly long action cue. First I recorded my voice, then I made an orchestral sketch on paper using the voice as a map. And finally I fleshed it out on the computer. There are many processes that work for me. It really depends on the type of cue and my mood…
What is your favorite part of that process?
I think it’s hearing the music come to life when we record the musicians. The simplest compositional idea will really spring to life and it’s really satisfying to record something that wasn’t mocked up in the demo because it can only be done by humans… Experiments or ideas that are realized. It’s especially nice when those ideas actually work. Ha!
Also, composing is a very solitary task and I really, really like the musicians on The Legend of Korra. Interacting with them breathes life into the process and gets me fired up.
What is the most challenging aspect of composing for The Legend of Korra?
Definitely sustaining the work flow. TV is brutal in its relentlessness. And Korra is very ambitious in every facet. It demands something way above and beyond and to not deliver isn’t an option to me personally. So there are many days where the energy and the inspiration isn’t there…but you still have to bring the A game.
Has working on The Legend of Korra been different from working on Avatar: The Last Airbender?
Very different. The nature of the anxiety has changed. It went from ‘how do I do this?’ to ‘how do I do this in time?’
I think I’m much better at what I do now. I feel more in control of the work and when I experiment it feels more specific and satisfying.
Also, The Legend of Korra tone is quite a bit more mature and with the live musicians (something I didn’t have for Avatar: The Last Airbender.) I feel like I can sometimes score Korra more like it’s a live action show, more minimal and subtle. Of course there are still plenty of grandiose epic moments.
Has working on Book 2 been different from working on Book 1?
Yeah, again I’ve learned a lot about working with the string sextet and Hong. In the beginning there was a lot more searching around in the dark (which can be really useful). And now with Book 2 there is a musical history and aesthetic in place. Still, Book 2 is very different than Book 1 in story and tone so it requires almost entirely new material. There are new instruments, themes, techniques, etc.
Is there anything special that viewers should listen for in the music of Book 2?
I wouldn’t want to color anyone’s experience. Viewers have made connections and noticed things I wasn’t even aware of as the composer! I’m excited to hear from them.
Do you have a favorite musical moment in the show so far?
Not one in particular. There is a recurring canonic idea based on gamelan that’s been fun to explore. I think episode 1×20 has some special musical moments. It’s also beautiful visually (no big surprise there, though it’s a stylistic departure).
Fans were really excited to see The Legend of Korra soundtrack released, and the response has been amazing. What has that been like for you?
I knew there was a fan base but I was not prepared for the reception. I’ve been flooded with email, tweets and Facebook messages from people who have had extremely profound experiences with the music. It’s incredible to me. I feel awful that I haven’t been able to respond to everyone but I am beyond grateful and touched.
Do you think we might get our hands on an Avatar: The Last Airbender soundtrack at some point?
There’s a decent chance of that happening. Especially because of the success of the Legend of Korra soundtrack. But it will be a TON of work and take a while to do. All that material was done on old computers and no longer supported software. And I would have to re-record some material, get some live musicians in, etc. If I’m going to do it, it has to be awesome… I think I may need to assemble a small team to put it all back together but I think it needs to be done.
If you could be a bender, what would you bend?
I thought I was an airbender… Isn’t making music airbending?
Jeremy Zuckerman grew up in New York and first worked in music as a CD shrink-wrapper. One half of the music and sound design team The Track Team, Jeremy plays many instruments, including guitar and something called a duduk. You can connect with Jeremy on Facebook and on Twitter as @JeremyZuckerman. For more information, check out his personal website at JeremyZuckerman.com.