Communique: Wilmington Composer Pursues Film Scoring In L.A. | Elise Seifert

Jun 21, 2018

Elise Seifert kind of stumbled on music when her parents won an auction for piano lessons. It's hard to imagine this young composer's life without music now. She's a Wilmington native, but making a break for Los Angeles this summer to pursue her passion for film scoring.

Elise is also a WHQR native ... she grew up listening to the station, completed a classical music internship here in high school, and has been volunteering since she graduated from UNCG a little over a year ago.

Listen to our conversation with Elise above, find our extended conversation below, and listen to her music.  Elise also has a blog, Film Scoring Prompts, geared toward composers interested in practicing film scoring. She posts film clips without the original music; emerging composers are invited to post original scores for the clips.

Gina Gambony:  I know that you started playing piano when you were 10 and then it went from there. Is that the starting point?

Elise Seifert: That's the starting point. My sister and I won piano lessons as part of a silent auction at Gregory Elementary. Then, I kept doing piano lessons through middle school, started in middle school band playing flute, and was asked if anybody in the middle school band wanted to play bassoon or oboe. The band teacher told me that my hands were large enough to play bassoon, and I thought that sounded so cool. Then, I changed middle schools and couldn't play the bassoon because of funding. So, I ended up getting my own instrument.

Gina: Did they no longer have band at that school?

Elise: They had band. I was at Cape Fear Center for Inquiry. So, they had bands, but it was a very small group. It was all student provided instruments for the most part save for percussion and the chairs. My parents actually bought me a bassoon as a Christmas present in seventh grade. I played that instrument for about 10 years, well into college, used that to get into college. Bassoon has been my primary instrument. Piano is what I mainly use to compose on nowadays.

Gina: What do you like about the bassoon?

Elise: I love its tone. It's such a warm sound, but also raspy and it imitates the human voice. It can be so melodic and all of these things. It's got such a wide range.

Gina: Do your compositions often include bassoon?

Elise: Not as much as I would like. I tend to find performers for my classical pieces first. So, if I find a bassoonist who wants to play a piece of music or wants me to write a piece of music, sure. I'll write it for bassoon. Not in the habit of always playing my own pieces. 

Gina: Tell me about how you started writing music.

Elise: It was about the same time, but my sister and I got to copy a free copy of finale, which is a music notation software, maybe two or three years into taking piano. We used to write these impossible pieces - pieces that only the software could play. While we were learning how to play Für Elise on the piano or whatever, it was so incredible that the software could play 64th notes or 128th notes. It was all over the place. That was incredible to us that the computer could read the music and just spit it out right away. So, we'd do that on road trips or instead of playing the Sims we'd go in and mess around on notation software. So, it was that that started my love going in that direction. I was learning some music theory while playing piano, but that the possibility of writing it down myself was started with some weird, impossible music that only a 12 year old would write.

Gina:  When did you write a piece that a human could actually play?

Elise: [Laughs] So, I started taking proper music theory classes in high school. I was playing jazz band, marching band, the concert wind band, all of every part of music in high school that I can be involved in. I was involved in a pep band. So, some of my first pieces that I wrote down that people could play were arrangements of pop tunes for the high school marching band to play in the stands. That's not original, but it moved on from there. Then, I was figuring out what ranges the instruments had, what was possible, and what sounded melodic - that kind of thing. Throughout high school, I was figuring out on my own how to arrange things for different instruments and have some people play them at least.

Gina: Yeah. And you went to college for music?

Elise: I did.

Gina: Tell me about your journey to college and what happened with your composing then.

Elise: I sent off three audition pieces to several different colleges - a couple in California, a couple in Boston. My favorite was probably Berkley College of Music. I actually got in there, but sadly couldn't go because it costs $60,000 a year to attend. They gave me some funding but not enough. UNCG was always pretty high on my list because it was affordable, and they have, in my opinion, one of the best music schools in the state. I sent my pieces there and interviewed with the two a composition professors. They were very nice. They showed me all of their recording studio and their setup and impressed me with all of the cool gadgets that they had.

I'm always impressed by cool gadgets [laughs]. So, I went to UNC Greensboro for four and a half years. Spent time studying music theory, more bassoon, more piano, and taking composition lessons with Mark Engebretsen and Alejandro Rutty - the two composition professors there. I also spent a year studying abroad in France too.

Gina: During that time of being at UNCG, did you have to write music as a requirement?

Elise: Right. Part of the composition lessons were either several week long assignments to write pieces or weekly assignments to write pieces and get a critique on either the shorter or longer assignments. They choose a specific classical genre - maybe a string quartet, maybe a orchestral piece, something along those lines.

Gina: So, you were actually asked to write in a specific style? Like write this kind of thing for this kind of group of musicians?

Elise: Yup.

Gina: How interesting. What did you love? What did you learn going through that process? It's so interesting to me about teaching people to be composers. How can you teach someone to be a composer ... 

Elise: It's a crazy mishmash. I have friends who didn't get a classical music background and still continue to write music. For me, the hardest thing that I learned over the course of four years is that I can't sit at a computer and compose. Even though I'm very good at doing that, and I really liked doing that. Some of my best composition comes from when I'm sitting in front of a piano or when I'm humming in the shower or playing guitar or playing bassoon. Having ideas outside of just the I'm-sitting-in-my desk-chair-staring-at-a-screen-for-several-hours. It doesn't always work creatively. Even though it's easy.

Gina:  How would you describe the music style that you are now? How long has it been since you graduated? You must be, what? Twenty-three?

Elise: I'm 24. I graduated December of 2016. That's how it's been a year and a half now.

Gina: So, where are you now with your composition? How would you describe the music you compose since you got out of college?

Elise: I've been really trying to keep up my composition up. It's definitely harder outside of school. I was trying to do this in college too, but have a balance between my classical for-stage compositions and compositions for film, which require totally different things tonally and melodically, all of these things. My compositions for stage - classical, new music, whatever genre you want to call that - tend to be a bit minimalist, a bit avant garde. Sometimes they include electronics.

It's kind of hard to classify what exactly new music is - for me anyways. My film scoring a side of things, which I've been trying to focus on in preparation for the big move out to California to do that as a career - fingers crossed - try and focus on the genre of whatever film I'm writing for and apply that.

Gina: What kind of process did you go through to do that?

Elise: It's a process where I sit with the director and talk about their vision for the entire film. Sometimes, I've sat down before I even saw the first edit Sometimes, I sat down with them with a script and asked them what their favorite soundtrack was. Maybe they said John Williams or Hans Zimmer's "The Dark Night" and we were doing a romantic comedy or something  - and it's kind of ridiculous.

Sometimes, the soundtracks that they say doesn't really apply. When I see an edit of the film, we'll sit through together and talk about where exactly the music needs to hit specific scenes. Then, maybe I'll do some themes for characters depending on what we talked about. It's really a project by project basis and how communication goes with a director.

My most recent one for film is actually trailer music. It was a film scoring competition for -

Gina: Trailer Music: Epic Exploration.

Elise: Yep. That one.

Gina: Will you tell me a little bit about that piece? Trailer Music: Epic exploration.

Elise: Sure. So, there's actually a film scoring competition hosted by my favorite sample library. They do recordings of individual instruments as well as orchestral samples. So, I can have a full orchestra pulled up on my computer to immediately play whatever soundtrack film score I'm writing at the moment. It's called Spitfire Audio. They're based out of London. They do great work, and I was so excited to hear about a film scoring competition because that never happens. There are plenty of classical competitions. It's a very competitive field. Film scoring is just so small that competitions never happened. They were looking for some trailer music. That was the competition, and I wrote some.

Gina: How did you go about making this score?

Elise: I watched the trailer. There were some cool moments where they showed recording of the orchestra. I tried to include some piano and trumpet samples when they showed those moments in the trailer to give a very epic and the wide range of things that their samples can do.

Gina: With the film, you're going to go to California. You want to try to become a film scoring composer. Did I even say that right?

Elise: There are a couple different titles: film scorer, composer, film composer, whatever fits.

Gina: How are you going to do it?

Elise: Well, the plan is to leave Wilmington August 1 ish. Heading out to California with a little bit of money and a dream as all of the ballads. Talk about. I don't actually have a job already lined up once I get there. But, assistantship, internship, whatever I can do in music, I would love to do just to start my career.

Gina: When you hit the big time, are you going to come back and visit us?

Elise: Or just mention Wilmington when I get my Oscar.

Gina: There you go. Boom. Let me go to the "new music." It's very interesting - the realm of classical music nowadays. Because classical music generally makes people think of something that's classic, which means something from the past.

Elise: Dead dudes with white hair.

Gina: Yes. But then some people think of classical as a certain sound. Some people will say contemporary classical has the sound of that older music, but it's contemporary. Can you just give us some insight from the music world as a young person who composes classical music?

Elise: Sure. I definitely think of classical more as a sound than the classics - Beethoven, Brahms, or whatever. For me, contemporary classical  does fit in the realm of classical, but it's newer and tends to still use the same instruments as classical. Even for me, it doesn't necessarily have to sound like classical because, in the past hundred years, we've been experimenting with so many avant garde experimental sounds that instruments can do. All of these extended techniques, multiphonics on bassoon or putting a gong on top of a tympani that creates this really cool ringing effect. Thousands and thousands of sounds that classical instruments, instruments of the orchestra, can do that we're continuing to discover fit inside of contemporary classical new music. New music just kind of pushes the bounds of that.

We're including electronics, electro acoustic music that it combines acoustic instruments and electronics, but somehow it still performed for stage and for the sit down audience that classical music also has. That's why I sometimes refer to my music as stage classical or something like that. I don't always like how formal classical music can be - which is what I like about little lunch music, eh Gina?

Gina: Thank you! Speaking of that, you actually interned here at WHQR when you were in high school?

Elise: I did, yes.

Gina: What did you do?

Elise: I worked with Bob for a whole summer. he taught me all about how to pick out music for four hours of classical music on WHQR - choosing the right length of songs, what to end the hour with, how to make the list of what is currently on air on the computer. I got to sort through the CD library, which is seriously the coolest room ever. You're just like sit in there and meditate and look at the CDs. 

Gina: What has WHQR meant to you growing up? Did you listen to it since you were a kid?

Elise: I did. I have listened to WHQR, I swear, since I can remember listening to music in a car on the way to school. I literally grew up with Jamilla, Bob, Pat, and Cleve - all of that kind of thing.

It was the coolest experience coming in here when I was in high school though and seeing the people that these voices were attached to. Because, in my mind, they're almost celebrities. I was an elementary and middle schooler and listening to you guys on the radio. It's very cool to, "Oh, they're real people - and Jemila's eating a bowl of cereal." [Laughs]

Gina: Then you started volunteering here - what? A year ago?

Elise: Right. Yeah about a year ago now.

Gina: Tell me about the music that you feel like has influenced you in that is kind of your favorite music.

Elise: One of my favorite film composers, currently, is Johann Johansson. He passed away pretty recently. He wrote the music for "Arrival,"  "Sicario," and "Theory of Everything." He did a great job of adapting to each specific genre and really fitting the film. I'm always inspired by John Williams. Another contemporary who does a similar thing to Johansson, Daniel Pemberton, has written one of my favorite scores recently, "The Man from UNCLE," which is a sort of 60s jazz, action film that is mostly full of a percussive bass flute and an auxiliary percussion - which is really cool for an action flick.

Gina: For folks who love classical music and we wanted to expand their classical vocabulary with some new music or contemporary classical, what would you do? Do you have anybody - any musician or group - that you would recommend?

Elise: Maybe it's because I've played so much band music, but I really like John Mackey. He's a concert band composer. There's a whole bunch that are a similar age to John Mackey. John Mackey is now sort of going into orchestral music as well. Eric Whitaker does choral music, and I'm really excited to be involved in his 5th Virtual Choir. He does this thing where everybody across the world submits a single line for the choir.