Rolfe Kent is a composer with unique musical personality, as evidenced by the popularity of his most recognizable work - opening sequence of "Dexter". Kent was born in England and graduated in Psychology from the University of Leeds in 1986. For two years he taught psychology at Leeds Polytechnic, before moving to London to concentrate on composing film music. He's been scoring movies for over 20 years now, including titles like "Kate & Leopold", "Sideways", "About Schmidt", "Up in the Air", "The Man Who Stare At Goats", "Thank You For Smoking" and many, many more. Recently Rolfe won Satelite Award for his score to "Up in the Air". A few weeks ago the composer agreed to answer my questions. It is my pleasure to invite all readers of MuzykaFilmowa.pl to enjoy an exclusive interview with Rolfe Kent.
Łukasz Waligórski: How did it start? You graduated psychology but eventually became a composer? Did you want to score movies from the beginning?
Rolfe Kent: From the age of 12 I wanted to score films. I was composing from a few years before that, but it was then that the idea of film music started appealing to me. I loved films, simply adored them, and of course you only saw a movie occasionally as there were no videos or DVDs. So the movies were always very special, very exciting. And while you couldn't own the film on video, you could own the LP of the music, so the music was the great souvenir, the reminder of the film.
"Kate & Leopold" was the first score of yours I had an opportunity to listen to and it just amazed me! It’s melodic, dynamic, diverse and very entertaining. Could you describe the process of scoring this movie? What were the challenges, ideas and inspirations?
"Kate & Leopold" was scored very fast - in just 1 month. James (the director) wanted the film to have the innocence of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson romance, so the music has some of that nostalgia to it. It feels slightly as if it's from the late 60s. The main romantic theme is a little Gershwin or Cole Porter-ish, to give it a bit of timelessness. I came up with the theme while walking around the hills, and I was whispering the title of the film "Kate and Leo-pold" and it suggested a waltz rhythm. And from that came the first phrase of the theme as a waltz. So whenever we were in the 1880s the theme is a classic sounding waltz, and when we get to the present day the theme is rearranged into 1930s romantic swing. So the same theme connects the two time periods.
James came over to my workshop everyday at 9pm to listen to the work and make comments. He is very talkative and works one very hard! But I was so delighted by the film, and I got to meet Hugh Jackman at the premiere which was great fun, and he's cool as he likes to make friends and share a drink.
You created Main Title for "Dexter", which gave you few awards. But the most important, it’s just outstanding. In my opinion you perfectly combined latin and gothic stylistic with detective story and black humor. Could you tell something about process of making such short but significant piece of music? Was it timed to match this opening sequence? What was your inspiration and were there any other ideas for "Dexter’s" main title?
"Dexter's" title is actually a combination of 2 ideas I had for the show. I had one piece in a straight 4/4 time with the quirky tune, and then another piece in a reggae-swing and a different tune. The producers asked for something witty yet dark, cuban yet not, and when they heard the 2 themes they liked one tune, but the rhythm of the other! At first I didn't think it would be possible to change the square rhythm to become the reggae-swing, but somehow I got it to work and that's what we now have as the theme.
Daniel Licht is scoring the whole show. Did you meet him? Was he interested with citing your theme in his music?
Dan Licht and I go way back to a different show many years ago. So we met a long time before, and he's a fantastic composer, but I hadn't seen him in a few years. We didn't meet on Dexter until after we'd both been working on it for a while. He does a great job, and his ending theme is gorgeous and creepy. He doesn't usually reference my theme, but he did a great twist on it at the beginning of the last season as Dex wakes up to married life.
Your score for "Sideways" is simply beautiful. How was the process of composing and recording this music?
"Sideways" made me very nervous at first because I had not composed such an exposed jazz score before. But when Alexander made it clear he really wanted to hear my themes, I realized I should compose themes first, and make them into jazz second. So that is what I did. We recorded in 3 sets of sessions, so there was a chance to experiment and change direction. The players are all great, and I simply played some melodica, clarinet, guitar, and sang a little too. But the real spice in the music comes from the other players, and I gave them room to improvise to bring more of their own character into the music.
"Up In The Air" is one of your latest scores, which gave you Satellite Award – congratulations! The score is really, really simple and minimalistic. You used small number of instruments and I could swear hear ehru there – am I right? Could you describe process of composing this music and why did you choose this Chinese instrument?
The Erhu is an instrument I often use- it's so plaintif and beautiful. Jason likes music to be very clean and specific in what it contributes to a film. So it has to be minimal or it'll get in the way of the film. I proceed very deliberately and show him everything I am doing, and he very frequently has me make changes and adjustments. He's a brilliant filmmaker, and so realizing his vision is the most important thing to me.
"The Man Who Stare At Goats" is also one of you recent scores. I found few great ideas in your music - for example sound of knifes / blades in "The Echmaer Technique". There’re "jedis" in the movie. Did you consider citing John Williams’s theme? Please, tell something about composing "The Man Who Stare At Goats" and the instruments used in this score.
The knives in the Echmaer cue are actually from my own kitchen. I simply got hold of a couple of long cutting knives and started recording a rhythm with them. And no, I did not consider using the Star Wars theme. It's a brilliant theme, but if it isn't in a "Star Wars" film then it always seems rather lame to use it. And this film has nothing to do with Star Wars - it just happens that the soldiers in real life really did start calling themselves Jedi!
You have scored many comedies. Do you like this genre or is it just job you have to do and your dream project is completely different?
It's true- I have scored a lot of comedies. I really enjoy doing a variety of work, not just one thing. So recently I scored "Charlie St Cloud" which is a romantic drama, and it was bliss to work on because there is room for themes and emotion. I loved working of "Reign Over Me" for similar reasons.
What’s the key to composing music for the comedies? I noticed that you use lots of woodwinds solos and jazz stylistics, which makes music more entertaining and funny. Who’s your role model in terms of music for comedies?
I don't have a role model- I didn't set out to score comedy! I just found sounds that enable the mood to shift, and don't get in the way of the dialogue. The jazz flavors feel natural to me.
There are usually many songs in movies you’re scoring. Does it help in scoring process or simply you hate when the director prefers pop song, than your music?
I often don't know what the songs will be when I work on a film, so I can't hate them. But sometimes there is an important moment emotionally in a film, and if the director thinks a song will work I sometimes persuade her that score will be more powerful. If the theme has been developing all through the film then it really is wonderfully effective at the big moment when it all comes together. Movie score can make a powerful impression, and it's a pity to waste the opportunity to do that. Sometimes it's good to have songs in a film, but they seldom have a storytelling power. They are good for collages and for some groovy momentum, but not for the real drama.
I have an impression that film music in Hollywood is shrinking. I mean, there are less full orchestral scores than before. Composers seem to be forced to write music for smaller ensembles or simply use samples or electronics. Even legendary scoring stages are closed. Have you experienced that in your work?
No. I still get called on to do some big and some small. What is true is that there are few composers that can really emote in a personal way with an orchestra. Lots of people can compose generic "hollywood" style music, but very few can make the orchestral sound their own. Thomas Newman, John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, a few others have real personality in their orchestral writing. But so many composers all sound the same when the use the orchestra. So smaller ensembles can sound more personal and connect with audiences more directly.
Hans Zimmer in one of his latest interviews said that he’s not an artist but entertainer – what composers do in Hollywood is more like craftsmanship than art. Would you agree with that?
I think there's always a mix of authorship and craftsmanship in all arts. Not everyone is committed to their artistry, but those composers who are actually doing detailed original composing are certainly artists.
Which one of your scores are you extremely proud of?
I'm very pleased with "Sideways" and "The Hunting Party" and "Charlie St Cloud".
Are you familiar with polish film music composers?
A few… Jan A.P. Kaczmarek is a friend and a superb composer, and I am a great admirer of Wojciech Kilar who I understand was born in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) and Zbigniew Preisner who I have been a fan of for years.
If not a composer, you would be...?
Either a nature-sound recordist, or a psychologist.
What are your future plans? On which projects are your working now?
My immediate plan is to go to the Burning Man festival. Then… we'll see.
Thanks for all answers and your time! Good luck!
Author: Łukasz Waligórski
For more informations about Rolfe Kent please visit his website: www.rolfekent.com