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Whispers of the Plains: Interview with Laura Karpman


Congratulations on recently completing the soundtrack to the game Kung Fu Panda.


Now the projects finished, how do you feel about it as a body of work? Is there anything that stands out as a particular piece you’re proud of?

I am really pleased with the score – I love a lot of the music, but I guess I really adore the music for the rickshaw race – it’s fun, and I conceived of it as an erhu concerto for Karen Han, who is a knock-out erhu player.

In scoring Kung Fu Panda 2, how much of an influence has the film itself (and the original) had over your creativity. Were you set specific tones, instrumentation or a set of rules to work with or were you given free reign to arrange music how you like?

I certainly listened to Hans Zimmer and John Powell’s score for the first Kung Fu Panda and it absolutely had an influence. Prior to my score for the Kung Fu Panda 2 video game, I wrote music for A Monkey’s Tale. This project is a film about three mischievous monkeys in their quest for an ever-elusive peach. It’s installed in The Monkey Tale Theater, situated next to the Tian Tan Buddha, the world’s largest outdoor bronze Bhudha, Ngong Ping 360, Hong Kong. The music for A Monkey’s Tale received a 2006 Annie nomination for Best Music in an Animated Feature Production. That score featured Erhu soloist Karen Han as well.  (Ironically, she had played on the original Kung Fu Panda).

The score for the Kung Fu Panda 2 video game features solo performances recorded with Karen Han on erhu, renowned multi-instrumentalist Craig Stull on pipa, guzheng, yuet chin, dan tinh and chin chin, knock-out percussionist M.B. Gordy on Chinese percussion, myself on Chinese flutes, and orchestra. I worked closely with Griptonite Games to create a rich, cinematic sound as Po and the Furious Five: Tigress, Monkey, Crane, Viper and Mantis, go out to save Kung Fu from another evil enemy.

I was pretty much given free reign, although the score is loop-based, and so timings and construction were predetermined by my wonderful audio lead from Griptonite, Jaclyn Shumate. She also did an incredible job at organizing a tremendous amount of material and delivering coherent direction.

You’ve been prolific in video game music for many years now with credits such as RPG’s “Everquest II” and “Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom” right across to tense shooters such as Field Commander. Does each genre have its own challenges and how do you change your style and/or approach to each music project?

In terms of my approach, I like to really get into the dramatic heart and soul of each project. I always want the music to feel organic to the game, so that the player has a truly immersive experience. For games that have strong narrative elements, like Untold Legends, I’ve often worked with choruses and texts that are conceptually connected with the drama. For a work like Kung Fu Panda 2, I spent some time studying traditional Chinese melodies and the ways those tunes are built and developed before I started writing.

You have also recently scored a movie too called “Last Man Standing”. Tell us how that came about and what we expect to hear in this film.

Last Man Standing is a film directed by Ernest Dickerson and executive produced by Gale Anne Hurd. It’s the first action movie that Lifetime has ever produced. I encourage everyone to tune in on June 6, 2011 at 8pm. The crazy part is that I had to compose, record and deliver the score, 80 minutes of driving action music, in 13 days. So writing it was like being in the film. It was a ride!

In another string to your bow you also compose concert music which has been performed most notably at Carnegie Hall. That must have been a great moment to have your works performed in such a renowned venue!

Yes, thanks. ASK YOUR MAMA was commissioned and premiered at Carnegie Hall with Jessye Norman, The Roots, de’Adre Aziza, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and George Manahan. Setting this epic text of Langston Hughes’ had been a mission of mine for a number of years, and I was so glad to be able to realize his vision. The piece went on to play at the Hollywood Bowl in August of 2009. Currently, I’m completing ONE TEN, an opera commissioned by The LA Opera, and a large-scale multimedia work for the Cabrillo Festival, in collaboration with The Kitchen Sisters.

You’re also a professor for the UCLA. Tell us what that entails for you – it sounds like a very rewarding responsibility!

At UCLA I’m on the faculty of the School of Theater, Film and Television. We are implementing a curriculum that I created. It is a truly cross-disciplinary concept in film and music education, bringing together filmmakers, theater directors and designers with composers to invent and explore every facet of their disciplines, while breaking boundaries in collaboration. This philosophy is a direct result of my experience in the last twenty years as a professional working composer. I teach film directors about film music, and mentor their collaborations with composers. I also teach a wacky class called Gesamtkunstwerk in the theater department, where we explore the state of multimedia in performance today, and I also oversee the development of interdisciplinary works. All of this taps into the cross-genre work that I do as a composer working with visuals both in my daily film scoring work and in the concert hall.

So with your fingers in so many pies, what do you do to keep yourself inspired? Is there anything in particular that gets the creative juices flowing?

Well, I live on the beach…need I say more? [Ed: *envy eyes!*]

Do you remember the first song you composed? How old were you at the time?

I was seven. It was called “Man In The Moon.” I do remember it.

If you could pick up and play a new instrument perfectly tomorrow, which one would you choose?

Great question. I can kind of play woodwinds right now, but I do fantasize about waking up one day with unbelievable woodwind chops.

What’s next for Laura Karpman?

1. Sleep training my seven month old baby.
2. A solo violin piece for Tim Fain
3. A chamber music piece for viola and guitar about the California/Mexico border
4. A 21st century response to Milton Babbitt’s All Set
5. The score for To Kill A Mockingbird for Denver Center Theater Company
6. Another episode of Craft in America for PBS
7. Did I say sleep train my baby?
8. And various other big projects…


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