Interview: Dynamic Music Partners
FIMUCITÉ celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and AsturScore couldn’t miss the opportunity. So both Eduardo and I embarked on an adventure that will be quite difficult to forget. On Saturday we were lucky enough to have a relaxed chat with the composer tandem Dynamic Music Partners (Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis and Kristopher Carter) and the orchestrator Larry Rench.
During the hour, well after midnight, we spent talking in Santa Cruz’s Casino, none of the four lost their smile. Not even Manuel Díaz Noda, our liaison with the organization, who patiently supported us in whatever was needed.
We are grateful to Michael, Lolita, Kristopher and Larry for their time and sympathy. But this wouldn’t have been possible without the good arts of Vanesa Bocanegra and the kindness of Sagri Hernández and Manuel Díaz Noda, who were able to arrange space and time for the interview to happen.
Finally, though not present physically that day, we need to thank Óscar Salazar, who remotely supported us with some insights and with the transcription you’re about to read.
And, now, ENJOY!
Emmy Award-winning composers Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis and Kristopher Carter, collectively known as Dynamic Music Partners, have created hundreds of hours of music for a variety of different genres, including TV series, independent films, video games and live performance events. They have collectively earned twenty-eight Emmy Award nominations and six Annie Award nominations as composers for Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, Batman: The Brave And The Bold, Justice League, Teen Titans, Batman Beyond, The Zeta Project and The New Batman Superman Adventures. Original concert works and suites of their scores have been performed in festivals and special events; from New York’s Lincoln Center to The Hollywood Bowl, The Kennedy Center, The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, Tenerife – Spain and beyond, their music has received critical acclaim. Their Prime-time Emmy Award nominated musical Batman: The Brave and the Bold: Mayhem of the Music Meister, starring Neil Patrick Harris was a historic first Batman musical to ever be composed.
They began their careers composing music for Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond, for which they each received the Emmy Award in Music Direction and Composition. As orchestrators they have worked with many of Hollywood’s A-list composers, including Michael Kamen, Basil Poledouris, Howard Shore, Carter Burwell, Elliot Goldenthal, Mark Snow and Shirley Walker.
Kristopher, Michael and Lolita work both collectively and individually. This remarkable and very contemporary trio of composers and performers is an example of creative collaboration, business savvy, and artistic expression of the highest, most original level. They are currently working in today’s industry and are examples and role models for aspiring film composers everywhere.
What’s your earliest memory about creating music?
[Kristopher Carter] My first thought of creating music was when I was 13 years old and my piano teacher said go write something and I said Ok and I did. I just had to jump in and find my own way. I think, probably when I was 13 one day, I decided this is what I needed to do.
[Lolita Ritmanis] My first memory really is the fact that I would make up piano music. I would not practice Mozart or Beethoven, I’d just play whatever I wanted to play. Luckily I will always say my mother did not stop me. So, that was a good thing, because I already was writing some sort of compositions maybe at age 5 or 6. Nothing very great, I’m sure, but it was the beginning.
[Michael McCuistion] My first memory of writing music was probably when I was 10 or 11 years old. I think it was my piano teacher, maybe like you Kris, asked me to write a piece of music. So I wrote a piece of music called The Duck. It was 4 bars long. I stressed over it the entire week before my next lesson. I thought that composition was just this awful, hard thing and I couldn’t imagine doing it. Then, years later, I came back to it, but I was like 17 years old before I wrote anything. At that time, it was like someone turned a buzz on in my head. I woke up one morning and music was just there and it’s never stopped since.
[Larry Rench] I think I was about 5 years old. I was at a concert of The Messiah. There was a woman next to me who was holding a book. Somehow I knew that what she was looking at, I was hearing. From that early memory, I knew music was what I was going to do.
Lolita, in your case, you even played in a Latvian popular music group…
[Ritmanis] Oh, yes. It’s called Dzintars, which is Amber, the stone amber. I was very young. My sister actually was the leader of the group. It was about 10 people. We sang, we did choreography dancing and I wrote some songs. I even played the bass guitar. It was fairly comical, because I wore it very high up. I didn’t have a long strap, so I always thought it had to be very high up.
All through school I played in a Jazz band, in an orchestra… I played the flute (not very well, piano was my main instrument) and sang, participated in musicals. Lots of music influence in my life.
Do you miss all that?
[Ritmanis] I don’t really miss it, because I’m still doing it. A week before Tenerife I was touring with a Latvian musical review for which I am the musical director. I have not been home very much. Luckily I have wonderful partners that were covering for me back in Hollywood.
And what about the rest of you? Do you also have a similar background?
[Carter] Oh, certainly. I wanted to be a rock star. I played the bass and the keyboards in rock bands all through high school and college. But I also played in the orchestra and a band and really as many ensembles as I could to try and get different experience.
[McCuistion] When I was young, I lived in the middle of America, we didn’t have any strings there, so I played in bands mostly. You know, brass band type of things and wind ensembles. But what I really actually loved doing the most was playing piano in the pit orchestra for theater productions. Every time they would do a musical theater thing, I would be down, in the pit, and I would accompany all the songs. There weren’t many piano players in town, so I did that from when I was pretty young. That’s what I enjoyed most. I didn’t really get to work with the orchestra until I came to Los Angeles. So, yeah, different background.
[Rench] I’ve played musical instruments my whole life. A little bit of organ, trumpet, piano, guitar… Elec guitar. Classical guitar; I studied very seriously that. As well as cello. When I was 45 years old I began playing cello as an adult. Music is just a part of, I think, all of our lives.
Yes, it really seems you’ve got music in your blood.And, then, somehow, you’re also in a point where you use all that background to convey feelings to moving images…Speaking of which, we’ve read that Lolita even received lessons from such people as Lalo Schifrin, Allyn Ferguson or Henry Mancini.
[Ritmanis] Well, the teachers you mentioned, except for Allyn Ferguson, I had many classes with Allyn Fergusson, but Lalo Schifrin and Henry Mancini came in for a master class. So it was not for a whole year.
Lalo Schifrin’s biggest influence was the fact that he made me think of music in a visual way. It wasn’t so much about write this chord or write this melody. I’ve told the story, but I’ll tell it again. The assignment was to compose the orange color. Some people composed orange like the sun, some people composed like naranja, like an orange that you eat… To me that was really interesting. It really changed how I thought about things.
Henry Mancini was all about orchestration. He was there really for 2 classes and it was all about flute, writing for the flute, believe it or not.
And, of course, Shirley Walker. How did you meet her?
[Carter] I met Shirley Walker through her son. He and I both played in the orchestra together in college. We both played the double bass. He, very graciously, sent an introduction to her. And that’s how I met her.
[Rench] I knew about Shirley Walker and I wanted to meet her, but I didn’t know how. Until I saw that she was having a session at Warner Brothers. It was the pilot for The Flash. I didn’t ask anybody, I just knocked on to the Warner Brothers lot. I said I was a musician and I just showed up. I didn’t actually meet her then, but afterwards I wrote her a letter and she remembered. Later on, she invited me to a session and, then, to become one of her orchestrators.
[McCuistion] I met Shirley through her husband Don; but I didn’t know that Don was her husband. He was a friend of mine for a couple of years, while I was working for a keyboard player named Mike Lang. He asked me for some music of mine one day, because he’d found out that I was a composer. I gave it to him and he said I’ll give it to my wife. I said, that’s great, if she’s a composer I’d love to hear her feedback. But I didn’t hear anything from her for a few months. And, then, one day she called me up and she asked me to work on her show with her, because she’d heard my recordings. I kind of met her in a very interesting way through her husband.
[Ritmanis] There was a music contractor, by the name of Patti Zimitti… Basically, Shirley had asked her what young, aspiring composers you know. Patti recommended me to Shirley, as did Joel Franklin, who was a music copyist. I sent her my demo and I was one of the lucky ones that was chosen for her massive experiment, which was working in Batman: The Animated Series. And that’s where I met Michael. We drove out to her house together many times. We were very nervous: showing her our music, working for her and having her critique. I think that, ultimately, the reason why we survived the big experiment was because we were really, really passionate about doing a good job for her, but also very frightened.
For some of you, we could say that Batman: The Animated Series was a turning point in your careers. What may you tell us about it?
[McCuistion] Well, it was my first job. Shirley hired me, as I said, she called me up and said hey, you wanna work on this show with me? and it happened to be Batman: The Animated Series. I’d never worked as a composer professionally before, so I had no track record and there was no way for her to know whether this was gonna work out or not. It was only through that experiment that she did, where she started us orchestrating and later, if that went well, we might compose a cue or two for her and then we might split an episode and, eventually, she would give us our own work. But there are many stages there. It all had to feel right for her. And for me too.
I was just so excited that I was working on a show and, then, for it to be Batman… I don’t think any of us really knew how that show was gonna take off. I mean, we really had no idea that that was gonna become such a sensation. And it’s stood the test of time, too. Now I look back and I think to myself how lucky I was, you know, to work on something with such high quality. It’s fond memories for me.
[Ritmanis] I’ll start more with the present. This year the three of us, with Larry orchestrating, scored the movie The Killing Joke with Mark Hamill. That project was such a success… It played in the theaters, while it wasn’t even initially intended for it. We had a soundtrack, we had a song with Mark Hamill… It’s just a marvelous project.
When we had the session, many of the same musicians that played for Shirley and for us 25 years ago were there. And also Ian Walker, Shirley’s son, playing bass. On the day of the session we found out we didn’t remember that was actually the anniversary of when she passed away.
There was something so powerful about Batman: The Animated Series that then could bring us into present day, where she’s been gone so many years already, but her influence and the magic and that show is still such a great show. It’s pretty amazing.
[Carter] When Batman: The Animated Series began I was actually still in college and it was something that was immediately popular with kids my age. It was always on in the common room and I was one of the students watching it. When I graduated Shirley called and asked if I would come and work with her on the series with Michael, Lolita and Larry. That was just an amazing opportunity to come out and see the show that I was such a fan of being made. And, then, eventually to get to do a little orchestrating and finally a little bit of composition.
[Rench] My experience was a little bit different from theirs, because I’d been orchestrating on everything Shirley had been doing up to that point as a composer. So I got a phone call from her saying: Larry, I have a TV show I’m going to do something different and I’m not to be hiring you, but I want you to hear from me. It’s nothing personal, but this is the procedure I’m going to be doing to help train these composers. So I actually took a backseat and let these other wonderful musicians come into the room.
It seems you feel comfortable working in animation. Do you have any special preference for this genre?
[Carter] To us we don’t see any difference between animation and live action. It’s all about having the music tell the story. If it’s live actors or drawn characters, there is a feeling, there is an emotion, and we want the music to support that. We do in fact a lot of projects outside animation.
I recently completed a horror film, called Siren, which will be released in the theaters December the 2nd of this year and, then, VOD. We have done other live action series. We did a show called Tower Prep for Cartoon Network.
[Ritmanis] We had a documentary called An Act of Love, which is a real powerful story about a minister who performs a wedding for his son, who is gay, and gets kicked out of the church for doing that. It’s a very today topic kind of thing. But it was all about love and the family and the father’s love for his son. It was very powerful. The movie’s actually been playing all across the country.
I personally will be doing a film in Latvia, sometime in this next year. It’s the biggest budget film in Latvia. It’s a war story, there’s a love story. I’m also using some of the war songs of WWI, performed by very, very old men, who heard the songs that their fathers sang. Those have already been recorded. I’m excited about that. But who knows when that will happen exactly, the postproduction.
[McCuistion] I can’t even count the number of different genres that we’ve worked in. I know we’re going back to work in a virtual reality type of genre for a thing that we’re doing right when we’re back from this festival. We have long-form projects on the books, we have series on the books for the future… This is all throughout next year.
A project that I did that has nothing to do with animation was the score for a planetarium show at Griffith Observatory, which played for about 3 years. It closed recently, but there’s a soundtrack for it. The show’s called Time’s Up. That was a completely different type of thing, because that show is performed with live actors and it’s different every single time, only the visuals are the same. Of course, it’s performed in a planetarium dome, which you can’t pop in your DVD Player and see the show. You have to go to Griffith Observatory and see it.
I think our love of film music translates to many different genres and we actively pursue many types of different projects. That’s what keeps us fresh as composers.
What’s your work method?
[Ritmanis] It’s the three of us, as composers, and, then of course, we have Larry sometimes helping us with orchestrations… We also have my husband, who is an engineer for us; we have another engineer… We have a big team actually, but the three of us are the core composers. We’re the only composers that there are actually writing.
The idea is that we didn’t want to have one person super busy and the other two sitting around. We were often competing for the same jobs and we decided to band together, as a team, to be able to share the work and to put three times as much energy into it. We do find that producers and directors actually like having that input when they meet with us and we watch their product; because, up till then, they have had most of the people that have seen their TV show or their film know all about it, but to us it’s new. So they have an audience of three that will laugh and cry and be scared. It’s great energy for them.
We watch the show together and then we decide how we’re gonna split it up. Sometimes it’s themes, sometimes it’s…
[Carter] Generally we write independently, so we split up the music. In an entire show there are several individual pieces of music that have to be written, so we each write one, but we do share each other’s themes. Michael might come with a great theme for this character and I’ll be sure to refer to it when I’ve a scene with that character. We’re connected almost like the Borg…. With the internet we share some files back and forth. That way the music, even though it’s coming from three separate people, is cohesive, works together.
[McCuistion] It’s interesting having three composers working together. I think that maybe, perhaps, the idea sort of came from Shirley, because she kind of took her Batman experiment and whittle it down to four composers. That was her doing. And, then, we were working with Harvey Cohen in Superman and after that he worked in other projects and he passed away. It was sort of her idea; but, then, it was sort of our idea to formulize.
There’s so many different ways we can work… We can split up a project so it’s equal in terms of minutes and musical cues. But we also can trade things around, while maybe two of us are doing an episode while somebody else is doing something else and, then, that person may come and jump back in and somebody will go away. It’s really flexible.
I think in today’s business model, as a film composer, you have to be extremely flexible and this gives us a lot more flexibility than if we were just one person working on a show. And we also write simultaneously, so it’s not like I’ll write a piece of music and then Lolita will write a piece of music. All three are writing at the same time.
This free sharing of information between all of us, all happening simultaneously, is a rich creative environment. We’re all inspiring each other as we write and we’re all each other’s biggest fans, so it works really well.
Lolita, you have written for the concert hall too: the symphonic poem Farewell to Riga, the cantata A New Day…
[Ritmanis] Those are kind of older pieces… I would like to write even more. I’m most proud of a symphonic work that I wrote about two years ago, dedicated to a beautiful library in Riga. It was called Castle of Light. I’m supposed to be finishing a choir piece for the Latvian Premiere Choir in October. So it’s great. I have this feeling like life is so short and I have an amazing focus right now to do all these things that I don’t wanna put it off anymore. Sometimes I’m really tired, because I’m doing so much, but I have huge energy right now for just write, write, write…
When we speak about film music, it seems that female composers are not in the foreground normally. What do you think about this situation?
[Carter] There’s no question about it that, primarily, film composers have been men. That’s just the way that it is. I think it’s sad that there’s been this perception, because, ultimately, I would prefer that it’d be just you’re a composer. It doesn’t matter if you are man or you are a woman. You’re just a composer. The fact that there’s this push towards recognizing that and trying to equalize that playing field and give women more opportunities, I’m very excited about it.
[McCuistion] I’ve just have to say that my first job was working as a composer for a woman film composer, so for me it’s the most natural thing in the world and I never gave it a second thought about whether I was working for a woman or I was working for a man. It never really mattered at all and I’m sure it didn’t matter to Shirley either. I’ve never thought of it as a thing. I mean, as Kris said, it is a thing, which is unfortunate; but I feel very lucky that the environment that I kind of grew up in didn’t have that stigma attached to it. I’m hoping that would become normal very soon.
[Ritmanis] It’s been about a year and a half three women composers, Laura Karpman, Miriam Cutler and myself, founded a group called The Alliance for Women Film Composers. They invited me to be part of this group because I was one of Shirley’s students and Shirley had given me my start. I didn’t really want to do it, because I’ve never been discriminated against. I work with two extremely supportive men… We never think about that.
But the more I have been involved in this organization, the more I realize it’s ok to just talk about the elephant in the room. Were you to ask a film music fan: name female film composers. They would name Rachel Portman. Some will know Shirley Walker, not everyone knows Shirley Walker. And, then, they kind of ah, hum, ah, hum. They don’t know really hardly any. And some people don’t even know who those people are.
In this organization it’s really to just celebrate women, to raise awareness and to say hey, don’t hire someone because she is a woman, but at least consider her. We’re trying to get more women into concert programs. There are many producers and directors trying to have a little more diversity.
And the same goes for minorities. We have a couple of African American women composers. Talk about some discrimination… There’s quite a bit of discrimination there. It’s worth talking about and worth, at least, giving it a shot.
[Rench] And just recently a whole concert of women film composers and women composers was presented in Los Angeles downtown. It was just really well received. Just the amount of music and the styles and the variety, it was really spectacular. And it showed everyone that there’s not like a “woman sound”. It’s action, it’s suspense, it’s powerful, it’s romantic, at times it’s ethereal… Making be all over the map, just as we would expect from anyone composer.
Could you tell us anything about your present projects?
[McCuistion] Well, I can tell you that we are about to embark on yet another season of Avengers Assemble for Marvel. We love working on Avengers Assemble. We love the whole parallel between the movies and the animated series. It’s just rich in character, in story, in legend, in all those wonderful things that make film music fun.
[Ritmanis] We’re working on a new series, called Wacky Races, which is based in the old show. It’s brand new and it’s hysterical. So funny. That’s keeping us quite busy.
[Carter] We do have another animated Batman movie coming out, called Return of the Cape Crusaders. It is an animated version of the 1966 Adam West Batman show. It is wonderful. They have the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward and Julie Newmar. It captures the style and we did our best to try and capture the musical style too. It was so much fun to do.
[McCuistion] We know that in America it’s gonna be in the theaters for a limited run on October the 10th, through Fathom, the same company that did The Killing Joke screening. We’re hoping that is gonna be a worldwide Fathom event.
[Carter] And there is a soundtrack coming out of La-La Land Records.
And, finally, some quick questions. You only need to reply the first thing that comes to mind.
- A city
[McCuistion] New York; [Ritmanis] Portland, Oregon
[Carter] San Antonio, Texas; [Rench] Prague
[McCuistion] Hello Dolly; [Ritmanis] Both Sides, Now
[Carter] We Will Rock You; [Rench] A Time to Remember
- A movie
[McCuistion] Sunset Boulevard; [Ritmanis] On Golden Pond
[Carter] Amélie; [Rench] Casablanca
- A book
[McCuistion] The Reflexive Universe; [Ritmanis] Charlotte’s Web
[Carter] Watership Down; [Rench] Wounded Healer
- A composer
[McCuistion] Franz Waxman; [Ritmanis] Ennio Morricone
[Carter] Lolita Ritmanis; [Rench] Sergei Rachmaninoff
- An instrument
[McCuistion] Bass clarinet; [Ritmanis] Cello
[Carter] A melodica; [Rench] Cello
- A TV show
[McCuistion] Thanks to Fimucité, Manix; [Ritmanis] House of Cards
[Carter] Dragnet, just the facts; [Rench] Well, my wife is watching Survivor right now, without me, so I would say Survivor (laughs).
Thanks so much for your time!
[All] You’re welcome.