Composers like Leo Birenberg have a tough, but rewarding job. Making music for movies and television shows can prove a tricky task. The films and shows we consume have many moving parts, and often times it is the soundtrack that keeps the machine well oiled. Whether carrying an emotional scene, adding extra oomph to an acrobatic fight scene, or simply punctuating comedic zingers with appropriate swells; Music plays an important roll.
Often times songs fade into the background, relatively unnoticed by no more than our subconscious. If you were to remove the music from a film like Lord of the Rings for example, you’d be left with a strange hollow feeling. While you may not notice the sweeping score when the camera pans over Rohan, if you take the song out, watch how quickly the majesty of that moment fades.
Born in Kentucky and raised in Chicago, Leo Birenberg has music running in his blood. Like most composers, you may not know his name, but you most certainly have heard his work. Leo has worked on geek approved films like: Ant-Man, Edged of Tomorrow, and has even contributed to Disney’s Frozen.
DHTG recently had the chance to chat with Leo Birenberg (via Email). He was able to provide some insight into what it’s like composing for a hybrid show like Fox’s Son of Zorn, his “fearsome” beagle Napoleon, his inspirations, and whether or not he’ll ever do a video game score.
Leo Birenberg and Son of Zorn
DHTG: What/who was it the solidified it in you that this was the field you wanted to work in?
Leo: I grew up wanting to make movies and back in the early days of iMovie used to make some (at-the-time) pretty impressive creations with my friends. When I was a little older and had become a hardcore band-geek, film and TV music seemed like a natural way to combine those two passions.
I was also very inspired by Howard Shore’s sweeping scores to The Lord of the Rings, which came out just as I was becoming a teenager. The music is great, but what really made an impression on me was how in-depth the world-building component was. That’s one thing I absolutely love about this job– you get to add so much depth to the characters, cultures, places, even if you don’t see everything on-screen. It’s something I relish doing in the music for Son of Zorn, which has the constant off-screen presence of Zorn’s homeland, Zephyria, lurking in every episode.
DHTG: Son of Zorn is certainly a unique show. Is it weird creating music for a cartoon living in the real world?
Leo: Surprisingly not. The show is grounded in reality: real human emotions, real human interactions. The story is one we can all relate to in some capacity father-son relationships, divorced parents– so musically I try to engage with the audience on that level. That being said, Zorn is a cartoon from the animated country of Zephyria and that has majorly influenced the palette I work with. Lots of big percussion, chanting, ethnic instruments, and occasionally some very epic music worthy of The Defender of Zephyria.
Leo Birenberg’s Inspirations
DHTG: I saw that you enjoy the pennywhistle, I love the sound of it too. Is Irish music in general an inspiration for you?
Leo: Major inspiration, bit of a hobby even. I love playing whistle and have an ever-increasing collection in all keys from a bunch of different makers. I just bought a beautiful low whistle from a maker in Scotland that I am in love with (the whistle, not the maker).
DHTG: What is it about woodwinds in particular that you like so much?
Leo: Well I think it was more of a “wand-chooses-the-wizard” moment. One day I picked one up and they just liked me. But I like the color variations you get with woodwinds. Strings and brass (as much as I love them), are much more homogenous timbre sounding across the families. With winds, things are so colorful– a flute sounds nothing like a clarinet, which sounds nothing like a bassoon, etc. It makes for a lot of fun when writing.
DHTG: Your work spans quite a few genres. There are flavors of classical, rock, and country throughout. What is your favorite genre to work in?
Leo: They all provide different challenge and thus different outlets for ideas and enthusiasm. I get bored if I do too much of one thing, so I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in projects that span everything under the sun. Absolute favorites? Sweeping Disney orchestra or pieces that blur the lines between folk, jazz, and classical.
DHTG: Which is most difficult?
Leo: Hmmm… They are all tricky in different ways. Some orchestral music can take a lot of brainpower to just work it all out. You end up with thousands of notes distributed across very section. But with purely electronic music, you are frequently making sounds from scratch, which takes a different sort of focus and knowledge base. I’d say that’s a little harder for me, just because I don’t have the same fluency in synth programming that I do writing for acoustic instruments, but I’ve done a lot of electronic projects recently so it really doesn’t make too much of a difference!
DHTG: What is the difference in approach to documentaries, animated film, live action?
Leo: Documentaries are a little more broad stroke. You are setting a mood, emphasizing a build, constantly thinking in larger arcs. Animation is just the opposite; there is much more emphasis on hitting individual gestures and mimicking motion on the screen. A completely animated world can support much more music without feeling overpowering. Live-action sort of splits the difference. There are important things to hit, because it’s narrative story-telling, but it needs to feel natural and relatable at the same time, since it’s set in a world we know (at least conceptually).
DHTG: Is there a project you feel a special or personal connection to?
Leo: Oh that’s a hard one– everything feels special! Son of Zorn is such a unique concept that I’m trying to imbue it with as much of m personality as I possibly can. I’ll always be a fan of my first show Big Time in Hollywood, FL on Comedy Central. Short-lived, but absolutely hysterical– I highly recommend a binge to anyone still reading. I love writing choir music, so am especially proud of a choir piece I wrote for Frozen. Did the text in Old Norse!
Leo Birenberg on Video Games and Tech
DHTG: Would you say you’re a tech savvy person? Why, why not?
Leo: Yes insofar that I built 3 of the 5 computers in my studio from scratch. No in that I cannot unlock my phone without screaming inside since updating to iOS 10.
DHTG: What is the newest piece of tech you own?
Leo: I’m not sure I have anything all that cutting edge in the studio. I just bought a sweet Rhodes electric piano and a Moog Sub Phatty synthesizer that I’ve been having some fun with. I tend to collect a lot of instruments, especially when I travel.
DHTG: What technology do you think you couldn’t live without?
Leo: Honestly? Coffee machine.
DHTG: I’m a huge video game nerd, so I gotta ask: Do you game?
Leo: I’ll confess I haven’t in many years. But I do think Metal Gear Solid 2 is an absolute masterpiece of both gameplay and storytelling. I like the whole series, but that one really stood out to me.
DHTG: Have you ever wanted or do you currently want to work on a video game soundtrack given how cinematic they’re becoming?
Leo: Absolutely. And some of the nicest people I know work in games. It’s a medium that is really only limited by human imagination, so it seems like an ideal composing experience.
Leo Birenberg on Collaborations, Music and Napoleon
DHTG: What music artist are you currently listening to?
Leo: I listen to a pretty broad selection, but pretty much only when I’m working out and running. Perennial favorites are the mandolin player Chris Thile, all of Wagner’s music, the banjo player Bela Fleck, ad guitarist Pat Metheny. Recent additions are the metal band Animals As Leaders, this J-Pop group called Perfume, and a lot of Taylor Swift.
DHTG: What do you listen to in your free time?
Leo: Actually, a lot of NPR. Big Garrison Keillor fan. I also love the podcasts Lexicon Valley and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.
DHTG: Do you have a dream collaboration? Someone you would really want to work with/for?
Leo: I guess this is the time to beg the universe to let me do a Star Wars movie. I figure by the time they make Yoda: Episode II maybe I’ll be on the shortlist… I have a really specific fantasy (yes, I’ll call it that) of doing a movie with The Rock and the two of us having a push-up contest on the scoring stage while recording. Also, this isn’t a person, but I’d really love to do an old-fashioned western. It’s a film genre I absolutely love and an inspiring musical palette to draw from.
DHTG: How’s Napoleon?
Leo: Above all else: lazy. This dog sleeps 22 hours a day.
DHTG: I love dogs, do you have any funny dog stories involving Napoleon?
Leo: When he was a pup, he jumped through a hole in the ice on Lake Tahoe because he wanted to chase some ducks. I completely panicked, but he pulled himself right out and despite being freezing and terrified, continuing walking after said ducks. I finally grabbed him, wrapped him in a blanket, and fed him warm soup. He hates getting wet now.
DHTG: Any fun/funny behind the scenes stories?
Leo: I’m not sure I have anything too crazy to share. But I do love trying to find funny, secret ways to incorporate my own voice on every project I do. It’s like a game to see just how exposed I can make it without anybody having a clue it’s me. On Zorn I’ve done some pretty funny barbarian tribal chanting/screaming (check out the third episode especially) and even recorded myself howling like a pack of dogs. Napoleon loved that. On Big Time, I once wrote an original song and sung it myself in French (and I zero French) just because I felt like the scene should have a French song in it. Movie magic!
DHTG: Are there any projects you have in the pipeline you can talk about?
Leo: I’m made of secrets, but I will say to watch Son of Zorn Sunday nights on Fox after The Simpsons!
Son of Zorn is a unique and hilarious show that’s well worth the watch. Not only that, but it’s the best place to hear Leo Birenberg’s latest works. You geeks can check out his other projects here. You can catch Son of Zorn Sunday’s on Fox after the Simpsons.
I want to live in a world where cartoons like Zorn exists alongside everyday people. What cartoon character do you wish were real and could be your roommate?