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Interview: Composer Jay Wadley on the Score for ‘i’m thinking of ending things’

Jay Wadley

With a hefty amount of experience under his belt, Jay Wadley has emerged as one of the most exciting composers around. Most recently having composed the ever-exclusive score of i’m thinking of ending things, his work on the film has been praised as some of the best of his career and has become hot with much awards buzz. Recently, we had the pleasure to speak to him about his work on the film, his musical influences, and what the future holds in terms of upcoming projects among much much more! Read on for the transcription below:

Awards Radar: What first inspired you to get involved with music?

Jay Wadley: It was definitely part of my family growing up, like my mom played piano and sang, my grandma was a church organist and my other grandma was a pianist, and, you know, it was part of my family’s thing growing up. So I took piano lessons, sang in choir and was into theater and all that stuff. And so that’s kind of how I initially got into it. In high school, I started getting into it a little bit more seriously. I was playing in bands, like punk rock bands and producing my band and my brother’s band, and was still singing in choir and started composing classical music, and then went on and studied it in college, and in grad school, I studied classical music composition. So, its kind of always been a part of my life in one way or another. 

AR: I know that you also had an extensive background in other fields apart from just film scoring. So what was your journey to where you are today like?

JW: I was planning on doing the academic route and going and studying, getting a PhD in classical composition, going and teaching at some point in time, but I quickly realized  that it wasn’t as secure as it seemed, I think I was always a little nervous that I would be able to make a living as a composer, just out there writing and getting commissions and whatnot. That’s kind of the way that academics do it, they get commissions but they also teach. So, once I decided composition was my thing in college, and then went to Yale for grad school and studied classical music composition there. I saw what the landscape was like, I met my business partner Trevor Gureckis, and created my company Found Objects. We started talking about doing film scores and TV scores and wanted to kind of go down that path, which kind of led us to New York. Trevor was Philip Glass’ music assistant for six years and through working with him and me helping him out on a few things here and there and going into the studio, we ended up meeting other composers like Nico Muhly who ultimately introduced me to Rufus Wainwright. That was kind of like one of my first day jobs, working with Rufus Wainwright as an orchestrator. So I worked with him on his opera, prima donna and his sonnet song cycle, while I was also  an additional music composer on a Fox TV show with a composer named Doug de Angelis. So that was like my first foray into actually scoring to picture was that TV show. Then my other day job was working with Rufus and then I managed the recording studio in the basement of the School of Music at Yale for a few years, and taught composition lessons. So definitely, juggling a lot of different things, but through watching Philip Glass and his trajectory and how he has all these different facets of his business. He has a publishing company as a label, he has a recording studio, he has film and TV scores, he does classical music. It’s just a very diverse, sort of background, but he also does advertising music, so that really pays for a lot of the studio costs, so, we started getting into advertising and kind of basing our model off of Philip Glass’s operation, and within a couple years, we were able to build a studio and buy the equipment that we needed in order to start producing at a higher level, and the rest is history! We started about 12 years ago, and we’ve had a studio for about eight years now. We just moved into this new one about a year ago, but we’re eight people full time, about to be nine and the company itself sustains a lot on the branded work. Then  Trevor and I get to do our film and TV work and continue to pursue that stuff. But we still work with artists from time to time to do orchestrations. We’ve done some stuff with Kanye. And we’ve done some stuff with Calexico and Mark Ronson. 

AR: I’m also curious to hear, what drew you personally to exploring classical music?

JW: Well, it’s funny, because  the things that actually drew me to classical music wasn’t really Beethoven and Mozart per se, like, that stuff was cool, but what really piqued my interest is when I started getting exposed to sort of the modern living experimental composers of the modernist period, post 1913, essentially. American composers and Russian composers, German, the new Viennese School, and kind of getting exposed to a much wider range of stuff. Also, when Bang on a Can was doing a lot of stuff in the late 90s and early 2000s, and releasing albums and, David Lang [too]. I was interested more in the experimental side of concert music than I was the classical stuff. So, when I say I studied classical music, I was really studying modern concert music. So the experimental side of that, and so the film and TV comparison would be like, essentially, horror scores. Every horror score is essentially influenced in some way by, like, Krzysztof Penderecki, and those types of composers and more modern, atonal composers. So that was the kind of stuff that I studied and wrote to a degree. 

AR: Working with a strong creative force in Charlie Kaufman must have resulted in an incredible creative process as well. Would you be able to tell me a bit about how you worked with him to develop the score into what it became?

JW: Charlie is one of my all time favorite filmmakers. So it was certainly a dream come true to be able to work with him and, and sort of understand his process of filmmaking. But I think what really excited me about the project is that it did need to draw from a very diverse sensibility, It required a lot of different types of music, But it also required a little bit of a conceptual approach in its in its construction, because the film is very self referencing and meta, and it’s got, like, all these layers to it, and I wanted the music to accurately reflect that type of approach and filmmaking in the score itself. I can talk for hours on that. But, the chance to write a ballet was amazing. I had to do some standard score stuff, write a ballet that could have been reminiscent of the classics, and then some rom-com score for the movie within the movie, a 1950s style jingle, and then produce a couple songs from the musical Oklahoma. There were just so many different layers to it, and I have a little bit of a background in musical theater as well so that was familiar, and I’m from Oklahoma, so there were a lot of serendipitous things about this, about this project that were really wild.

AR: How do you view the composer’s relationship with the director in terms of the collaborative process, both overall and in your larger body of work?

JW: It’s a bit of a different approach than concert music, because in concert music, you’re sort of an auteur, you’re able to kind of control your own forces, what instrumentation you’re going to write for, there really are no limits and you can kind of explore anything with that. And what I, really do love about the filmmaking process is the collaborative process of working with a director who also has a particular vision and a particular aesthetic, and how I can sort of bring my own artistic voice to something else and be able to adapt to it, and make something that feels like it was meant to be part of that all along, so it’s a little bit of a chameleon task, because each film kind of requires a very different and unique approach. In my opinion, I don’t ever approach a film the same way, and I’m not really that interested in just repeating myself over and over. So, I love the diversity of the projects I’ve gotten to work on. And I think that, it’s an intimate experience like working with a director, and kind of getting to know their sensibilities. But, I would say I have a pretty consistent approach in how I come to a project and the openness which I come to and a perspective that I have in how I approach it.

AR: In terms of specific musical influences for the film, I did notice some nods to classical composers like Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival Of The Animals as well. With such a unique score, I’m also curious to hear what were some of the most important musical influences for you when composing for this film?

JW: The first thing that I had to approach were the ballet and the jingle. So I was writing that because I had to write that prior to the shoot because they were actually going to shoot those things. So with the ballet was very much Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, those were the things that I was looking at. I was studying a lot of Stravinsky’s orchestrations and Debussy’s orchestrations and things like that. It’s kind of funny, it’s like, I might have shot myself in the foot  on this one, as I really wanted it to feel like something you could have heard before. So that it’s so in that vernacular that it sounds so familiar, that [you feel like you] know this piece, but you’ve never heard it, it’s new. It’s in their language and that plays off of the concept of the film, and that this character takes references from films, literature and art and all these other things and takes them in and presents them almost as his own idea, right? So that’s the concept of the music too. This is an imagined ballet, he’s imagining his life playing out in this beautiful ballet and the music that he would imagine would be influenced by things he could have possibly heard. So therefore, it needs to be in the language of these other composers, but it needs to be new. So that’s such a unique and sort of academic challenge that I really, really loved. Because that’s the type of work that really gets me excited.

AR: Yeah, I feel like this is very much a film that crosses into multiple genres. But the fact that this score overall has a lighter tone, building that surreal atmosphere, when juxtaposed with the hidden darkness of the film, like when I first heard the ballet I noticed cues here and there, but no, it was all you, so that was really impressive as well.  Anyways, regarding influences throughout your whole career, has there been anyone you’ve looked up to who has had a great influence on your overall body of work?

JW: Yeah, especially early on when I was in college, I was a big fan of John Corigliano [who] won the Oscar for The Red Violin. He’s only done a handful of films, but he’s mostly a concert composer. But, I really enjoyed his approach. I loved Steve Reich and Philip Glass and John Adams and all the minimalists. I’ve been a Stravinsky fan my entire life, and I did love Debussy. I play a lot of Debussy, that’s the stuff I enjoy playing on piano. So that was already kind of like in my fingers, if you will, when I was trying to write that initial part of the dance at the beginning was sort of the more beautiful aspect of the ballet, it’s finding that those sort of shapes in my fingers and kind of playing out those types of melodies was really cool. I’m a big fan of this Krzysztof Penderecki. So it’s kind of funny that so many people are doing very similar stuff these days, but it’s cool. But yeah, it was mostly classical people more than necessarily film scores growing up when I was still learning music.

AR:  So was the ballet the most complex part to score of the film for yourself?

JW: Definitely. I probably didn’t spend as much time on that as I did on other things., and funnily because I just didn’t have the time, I wrote it in the span of two weeks.

AR: Oh, wow

JW: Yeah, I got the job, and then they’re like “okay, we’re shooting in two months”, but I needed to get the ballet at least sketched out in a real way, so that I could get it to the choreographer so that he could work out the choreography for the dance. So it was rather quick. So that that was like a challenge in just insofar as, like, it was a lot of work that I had to do quickly. And, it’s not like writing a typical film cue, in that it can be a little bit more of a backseat, it needs to be front and center and engaging and as active and complex as concert music, because it needs to feel like concert music. So that was a big challenge. 

AR: I was also surprised to find that the score tracks that were sent prior to the interview actually included some of those songs from Oklahoma, as well as like some other spoken word bits like the jingle, that incorporated other sounds of the film that you would normally not find on a typical film score. So how deeply did your collaboration with the sound mixers and editors go as you shaped the sonic aspect of the film?

JW: I mean, really, all of that stuff was just stuff from my score itself and was all done before we even got to the mixstage to mix and all of that. So, all of that was just from the initial concept part of the score, and that is along the lines of where I was trying to take it with, the conceptual approach to it, so it’s supposed to be representative of his memory,  being distorted and fading away, and, ultimately him dying, but him drawing from these different references and pulling them in, and they just  get lost in this in this kind of chaotic, strange world. Especially when it comes to, that whole last sequence,  when he goes to the truck, and starts, dying from hypothermia, that entire thing is just like, parts of the ballet reversed and stretched out and reverbed, and then, new elements on top of that, and then the, the jingle comes in, and then that becomes part of that fabric. And that’s reversed and stretched out. It’s all these sort of layered textural things that are supposed to be representative of his mental state.

AR: Yeah, on the Hypothermia track, that was something that really intrigued me because it has an eerie texture, that I’ve never heard before in a modern score, so how was that effect achieved? 

JW: So once I got to that point,  I had already written the ballet, I had already written the jingle, and I had already written some other elements for the score. Charlie was very adamant that he did not want a typical horror score, he didn’t want something that  leaned too far into the genre aspect of it, he wanted it to kind of stay in that sort of eerie, strange world and be more representative of our character. So, by that time I started that, I had all of this material, so once I had that concept of lots of memories passing by as he’s like, as he’s slowly dying, and he’s kind of going into this hallucinatory state, so how can I take all these disparate elements that bring them in into this weird woven fabric of  his life, in this super surreal way, and there’s actually a piece called Sinfonia by Luciano Berio, that was partially a little bit of an inspiration for this. It’s not in the same sort of way. But it’s  modern concert music where Lucas Berio takes pieces from Mahler, and a bunch of other orchestral pieces, and puts them all together and re orchestrates them together. It’s this like, super psychedelic, crazy piece.  I was thinking about how I could do that with like, pre-recorded things, and how I can maybe tie that type of concept into this final track. And so, you go in and out of song, you hear the orchestra come through for just a second, you hear other little textural elements jumping out, and then you go into a musical, and then you come out of a musical and you’re in a speech, a sort of heroic, uplifting, end of career speech, as he’s like accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on stage. It’s just this sort of, very psychedelic, fantastical, surrealist thing. So that’s pretty much how I approach that is in that sort of patchwork way, 

AR: In this past decade or two, there’s been a shift into a more digitized world and I’ve seen more creatives lean more on music production software over live recordings than ever before. So where do you land on that spectrum? How do you blend personally the use of those two different methods to create your work?

JW: Every project requires a little bit of a different approach, there are films that I’ve done, where there’s  barely any things that are not recorded live, for instance, my score for driveways, there’s two synths in that entire score, everything else is live piano and live string ensemble, because that’s what it required. Then I have a score, for a couple other things that are all 80’s style synths, and that’s all done like in the computer, you have to be I think, as a composer working now, you have to be someone who’s relatively versatile and can work, into computer and produce your tracks as if you’re an independent artists producing your own record. But also,  you need to be able to walk into a room and step in front of the orchestra and conduct. So luckily, over the past 20 years, I’ve learned to produce, I’ve learned to write for orchestra, I’ve learned to write for chamber ensembles, I’ve learned to make electronic music, I’ve  really honed all those different skill sets, that can now live together in the work that I do. So when something like this comes along, I have the wherewithal to know how to incorporate all the disparate elements into something cohesive.

AR: So, as someone who versatilely dabbles in a variety of scores, how did you approach mastering and writing for all of these various styles and genres?

JW: I’ve kind of always been someone who is very hands on and tactile in a way, I started singing early on, I started playing piano early on, I started playing drums in middle school, started playing guitar in high school.  So I’ve always been the sort of one who picks up instruments and learns them pretty quickly. Not all of them I play all that well, but at least I can get around them enough that I can at least get by on most things a couple takes. And then if I need someone who’s sort of and especially for demoing, I’m  plenty good enough to play them when I’m just making a demo and trying to bring to life a proof of concept. Then if I need to get someone who’s a specialist in something who’s like, going to really crush it, then then I can hire them and bring them in. But, the things that I don’t know how to play myself, having studied classical composition for eight years, I learned to write for them all. So I know what their capabilities are, I know what the sound is, I know how to make them do all the various things, so then I can just work in notation and hand that off to someone and still get the result that I need. But when you do this full time for for as long as I have, because I guess I started composing, when I was 15/16, and it’s pretty much all I do.  I love doing it. and I’ve studied it for a long time, I’ve worked in it for a long time, and I work a lot of hours. So it’s just a lot of hours spent. And like, I don’t know that there’s any other way except for just doing the work and putting the time in.

AR: With your experience in advertising, how were you able to kind of bring that into  scoring this film with the different tracks and soundscapes being very different than most of the work needed in advertising.

JW: Yeah, with scores and advertising, every single one is different. And so I would say like, that’s one of the things I very much learned from the advertising world is how to produce a million different types of styles and work across genre and work with a bunch of different types of creative people, because that’s such a huge part of working in film and TV scores is collaborating with other people who have input on your work. So, I really learned how to talk about music and to work with people on visual media projects, when they weren’t necessarily all that comfortable speaking music language, so it really honed my craft as far as communication skills are concerned. The only thing that really translates directly in this film from the advertising world is just that I got to write a 1950s style, jingle. Charlie sent me some links to some videos that have these old ice cream jingles, and every project, I approach like this and every sort of cue that I need to do in this sort of way, I just do my research, I think about like, “Okay, what are the kind of harmonic concepts they’re using? What are the melodic concepts? What is the production style?” and really breaking it down into those various parts, and then focus on them one at a time. I wrote that jingle sitting at the piano and playing some chords and singing this ridiculous Tulsey Town thing. Then, from there, I start thinking about how I’m going to make it sound vintage.

AW: I actually caught one of your other recent films, I Carry You With Me, and once again, the highlight of that was the score, so I’m curious to hear, do you have any other upcoming future projects that you can tell us about? 

JW: Thank you! Yeah, I’m currently working on the second season of Modern Love on Amazon. So doing that, and I’m doing an episode of Into The Dark on Hulu, and I’m working on a sort of crazy experimental documentary called Light Darkness Light, which I get to do some crazy experimental choir stuff for which is really cool. And then my business partner (Trevor Gureckis) is about to start M. Night Shyamalan’s new feature Old, so I might help him out with a few things.

AW: So, everyone is wondering, do you know when the score is finally going to be released?

JW: [Laughs] that’s a question for Netflix. I really wish I had an answer for you. I know there is a lot of interest in it from audiences and labels alike. I guess we just need all the people [laughs] to just reach out and go “Hey, what’s up? So what about releasing this thing?” If it gets some awards attention, I feel like they’ll reconsider it. 

AR: What advice would you give to young composers who are hoping to break into the industry?

JW: Do lots of work and do lots of good work, that’s the thing, you can’t expect that just a bunch of work is going to come your way, you got to go out there, and you have to hunt it down yourself and find filmmakers that you like collaborating with, that you have similar sensibilities with, and start scoring their movies, nothing’s going to just make it happen for you, you got to get the experience, you gotta put the time in, and it’s gonna take time, you got to stick with it. I’ve been composing for  20 years, but I’ve only been in film for probably eight or so.  I’ve been doing it full time for eight years. While that seems like a good thing that it’s relatively quick, doesn’t feel very quick, it feels slow [laughs]. But like, you look back and like five years ago, if you would have told me that I’d be scoring a Charlie Kaufman movie, I’d be like, “yeah, right”, but you just got to stick with it and put in the time, put in the effort, do the good work, establish good relationships with people that are on the same page as you and stick with them, and and that’ll pay off in time.

AR: So once again, thank you so much for coming on board here. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. You’ve honestly composed one of the best scores of the year, a truly unique score for a super unique film. I love everything about the film, but just the uniquene texture of the score just really blew me away, and I truly do hope it gets all the awards attention it deserves.

JW: Thank you. I appreciate it, and thank you so much for having me!

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Written by Diego Andaluz

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