Being a composer is not an easy career to find success in. But for Ken Joseph, it was the only path in life. Joseph is a film composer, orchestrator, sound designer and producer. He has scored over 15 feature length films, shorts and documentaries of all genres. One of the independent short films that he scored, “The Pitch,” was awarded the Gold Medal of Excellence at the Park City Film Music Festival during the Sundance Film Festival. Ken was also part of the music production team for the 2017 and 2018 Screen Actors Guild awards, working as an orchestrator. One of his recent scoring projects, along with fellow composer Alex Seaver, is the film “Soufra,” directed by Thomas A. Morgan and now being screened at film festivals all over the world, garnering the Audience Humanitarian Award and Best Arab Documentary at the El Gouna Film Festival.
We caught up with the composer recently to ask about his journey:
Ester: When did you know that you were a musician?
Joseph: At age 13 I committed to studying, but when I was 16 I played my first professional engagement with Johnny Trudell’s Big Band in Detroit and realized that this is what I wanted to do in life. I realized how much I had to learn about being a musician from each band member. Their dedication, discipline, and love of what they were doing was inspiring and eye opening for me as a young musician.
Ester: How did your musical training prepare you for a career as a film composer?
Joseph: In college I enrolled in composition and arranging courses. It was there that I learned about writing for various ensembles and proper orchestration. The education of being a working musician in Detroit also helped me develop as a Composer. Playing each night with a different ensemble in a different musical situation forced me to adapt in that moment on the bandstand. The faculty at Wayne State University stressed the importance of learning by doing. My piano professor always said, “The only acceptable excuse to skip one of my classes is to play a gig.”
Ester: Who were your biggest influences in music, and whom do you look to now for inspiration?
Joseph: My biggest influence was Matt Michaels, my piano professor. He was a role model to many of us in the WSU Jazz Studies program. Matt taught us to strive for excellence. Having grown up in the Detroit area, I was definitely influenced by local Motown musicians as well as Jazz legends Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock. When working on a film, the scene is the inspiration for that specific cue. I think about all the efforts of everybody involved to create the scene and then approach composition with the same dedication and intensity.
Ester: What are your favorite tools in studio or music technology and why?
Joseph: I love the technology we have at our fingertips now. The computer totally changed the way films are scored. The computer and sample libraries are amazing tools that allow the director to hear how the music will sound before the expense of a recording session with live musicians. But, as much as I love the technology, it can also make things difficult due to such a huge tonal palate to choose from. That’s why I still like grab a pencil, a piece of paper, and sit at an acoustic piano. This allows me to focus on the composition and not on the technology. Once I have the themes on paper I can then move to the computer to orchestrate and create a sonic palate for the film.
Ester: How do you see your role as a film composer?
Joseph: My role as a film composer is to serve the film to the best of my creative abilities. Music is so important in a film. I really enjoy seeing the reaction from a director when they see their film with music for the first time. The director has probably watched it hundreds of times through the editing process and now there is music to create and enhance the emotions throughout the film.
Ester: What do you think are the most important points to pass along to young musicians who want to make a career in the business?
Joseph: There is a dedication and discipline that has to be followed even on the days when you just don’t feel like playing or writing. It all becomes worth it when playing a show or conducting a session with “A-List” players that have dedicated their lives to being the best at what they do. These professionals bring your score to life before you eyes and ears. It is a truly amazing feeling. I would say that you should never turn down a musical opportunity because there is always knowledge to gain from those experiences. Persistence is key too. I had a director tell me “Don’t get off the bus. If you get off the bus you will never get where you want to go.”
Returning to where it all began, this April “Soufra,” executive produced by Susan Sarandon, will screen at Joseph’s alma mater, in Detroit during the Freep Film Festival. Friends and family will be in the audience, recalling moments of the long but satisfying journey that led him to this work.
“Soufra” is an inspirational story about a generational refugee who sets out to change her fate by starting a business, and winds up breaking down barriers with Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese women working side by side. Produced by Kathleen Glynn and Trevor Hall, with Alex Seaver (Frontman for Pop/Electronic project Mako) as composer on the project as well, this is a story of hope, grit, and passion.
Next up for Ken Joseph Music, he’s been asked to score a comedy about exceptional people trying to overcome big odds to find success. No, it’s not about musicians!