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An insight into a screen composer’s world

Tip Published Saturday 14 April 2018
Screen composer Pru Montin. Photo by Justine Longweb

Pru completed a double degree in Arts & Music which gave her a theoretical understanding of culture and media in all forms

She credits her mentors as ‘guiding lights’ down the unknown path that can be film composing and developing your unique voice

Your intellectual property makes you and your work unique

Australian screen composer and sound editor Pru Montin is an emerging name in the industry whose style of minimalism is striking. With a creaking chair, a random flute, or a sampled trumpet sound she can set a distinct mood.

Currently based in LA and working on projects with composers Michael A. Levine and Cliff Martinez, Pru is an AFTRS graduate and a recipient of the prestigious Brian May Scholarship, which supports a promising young Australian film composer to complete a Master's of Film Scoring at New York University. Pru generously answered our questions about a career in film, music, innovation and the role of Intellectual Property.

Q: How did you find your way into the field of screen composing?

I always seemed more fascinated with how music worked behind the scenes, preferring to practice piano accompaniments for my sisters rather than solo works, or watching the orchestra pit rather than the action on the stage, so screen music always seemed a natural fit for me. After high school, I completed a double degree in Arts and Music, specifically to develop a theoretical understanding of culture and media in all forms in which to apply my passion for music, and spent a lot of time working in student theatre or with student filmmakers, putting those theories and ideas into practise. I’m still on this same pursuit. Every project and idea leads to another whether directly or indirectly.

Q: Is there a person (s) who has encouraged or mentored you on your career path? Can you tell us how they helped you on your way?

I’ve been fortunate to have had several mentors and champions over the years, but 2 that have been the most influential are Martin Armiger (my AFTRS Screen Music Lecturer) and Hollywood composer Michael A. Levine (Siren, Cold Case).

Many a time I remember presenting ideas to Martin that seemed far fetched or a little too unconventional but he always encouraged me to give it a go and more importantly when others were dubious, he fought for me to have the creative space I needed to explore. Being both a realist and a dreamer he was always available to discuss the results in a down to earth way which as a developing young artist is immensely valuable. Without that support I wouldn’t have the confidence to continue to explore and develop my unique voice.

Michael was a mentor I met at a summer workshop run by ASCAP and NYU. Having now the confidence to use my “voice” Michael has been the mentor that has really helped me find a place to use it. He invited me to LA, encouraging me to make the move since he was sure I would be a good fit in LA, putting his name on the line when introducing me to his colleagues which have led to fruitful collaborations and further mentors. You just need one champion, and when things start to look like it’s not going to work out, Michael will call me to remind me to hang in there and keep doing what I’m doing because he believes in what I’m doing. I hope everyone is lucky enough to have such a relationship.

This journey can be a lonely one, with hours working in a darkened studio, not sure you are making an impact, so mentors and champions are a guiding light along that unknown path.

Q: How does Intellectual Property (IP) play a role in what makes your work unique – from the sounds you create to the samples you use and beyond?

IP in my work exists more in the way I use and manipulate sounds rather than the sounds/samples I use (although theoretically I have IP in the specific recordings I make and the sample libraries I build). It’s what I do with these sounds and samples that I believe sets me apart and where my real IP lies. Any composer could copy my library of samples but it won’t affect my unique “brand.” My brand as an extension of my IP extends from the sum of all my experiences. My fundamental years as a composer learning musique concrete, reading Roland Barthes' “Death of the Author” and studying indeterminate music has bred a strange fascination with how to score a film using nothing but that one sample of a chair squeak I recorded or that really interesting flute gesture I captured when the performer was still warming up. I actually enjoy taking minimalism to the extreme and limit my music parameters to use only one sound palette, it’s amazing what you can create. However, not many people have my level of patience or the luxury of time in film, therefore I am able to market my approach and skill set and be recognisable in my treatment of sounds.

It’s what I do with these sounds and samples that I believe sets me apart.

Q: How can the IP system support innovative and creative women (like yourself) in their quest to bring amazing ideas to market?

Today’s musician has easy access to all of the same sample libraries, digital audio workstations, plug-ins and sounds as each other which has made it much easier to enter the industry. I dream of scoring an entire feature length film using nothing but my iPhone from conception, recording to delivery- anything is possible now, the barriers of entry are not as high as back in the day, when you couldn’t consider making a record without investing significantly in “gear.” The downside to this is people can listen to 100’s of demos, many sounding rather similar to the 10 played just prior. So, how can the IP system support innovative and creative women? I wouldn’t recommend trying to sound like anyone but yourself. You’re IP stands in what makes you, you. Are you a singer? Is your range different to the singer next to you? Do you play the bassoon and have a passion for jazz? Do you have a philosophy or approach that you came to through your personal life experiences? Use this uniquenesses to create and get it out there. The more you work at it, the more you be identified with your brand and the more sought after you will be due to an association of your IP.

Q: What impact on or elements might change in film if there are more women composing and sound editing for the screen?

This is an interesting question. There are many women composing and sound editing for the screen but they are less visible. So the more that women know they aren’t on their own, the more they support each other to stay in the game and to become more visible, the more I hope to see women getting higher profile gigs thereby leading to more gender parity and a public awareness that it’s a possible life pursuit for young girls watching films. I don’t believe there are any inherent differences in the sound of women composers to those of our male counterparts, the difference is historically people hire who they know and in many cases, who they’ve worked with before so let’s break in to that chain.

Q: Who else that is in composing, film, and sound design is out there really pushing artistic and/or technological boundaries?

Cliff Martinez, Charlie Clouser, Mac Quayle and Nathan Barr each have their own unconventional approach to film scoring which breed fresh scores that push artistic and technological boundaries. Cliff treats every project as a new learning experience. Every project stems from a new toy, or a new series of restrictions in his parameters which builds a creative space to discover music he may not have envisaged. Charlie must be the most knowledgeable in all things samples, synths and technology. He’s inspired by new combinations or new instruments out of the ordinary that push the envelope. Listening to his scores is usually a game of “what and how did he make that sound?” Mac Quayle has one of the most unique voices in TV today- none of his scores sound like the last, so he rarely starts a project from a pre-existing template and Nathan Barr is proving you can work in TV without using any samples from start to finish with his unorthodox solo recording/ performance based approach. What they all have in common however is that “the sound of the show” is paramount and this creative pursuit keeps their ideas fresh and identifiable.

I’m also loving the Aussie composer Jed Kurzel who keeps blowing my mind, I look forward to hearing what he does next and no one is scoring films like Mica Levi. VR and immersive cinema is the new place to really push narrative boundaries since this is still yet new territory being explored especially with it’s use of sound and music. This is something I am keeping close ears on.

Q: What is one tip you can give to a young woman in 2018 who wants to pursue screen composing?

My one big tip for a young woman in 2018 who wants to pursue screen composing is find what excites you, take risks and don’t give up. It’s a great time to be female and in the industry as the landscape is changing. If you don’t stay true to what makes you you, it’s difficult to stand out. You are the sum of your experiences so use that to your advantage.

But I can’t leave out another tip: always remember that people hire people. Be authentic, yourself and connect with people you resonate creatively with. Hopefully this will keep you both busy and creatively fulfilled.