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Interview with Joel Douek

Joel Douek

Joel DouekTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TV Series) and Sharkbite Summer

FSC:  What inspired you to compose film music?

JD:  Two things:  Im my twenties I was struggling with how to make a positive difference in the world, my role and my career.  I’d done some years at medical school then studied Human Sciences and Neuroscience and was now working in Humanitarian Affairs at the UN, which I did for about 8 years.  I found myself getting more and more miserable dealing with humanity’s worst on a daily basis: another war erupting up here, kidnapping of aid workers there, tens of thousands exiled or starving because of despots, political and religious rivalries. It was really getting to me, and I think my view of human possibility was gradually getting poisoned.   A friend and colleague one day said to me: “Instead of trying to take the bad out of the world, why not try putting the beauty into it.”  I think it’s the best advice I ever got, and it made me turn 180 degrees. I realized that was the better path for me.  I quit my job and went full-time into music.  I found a vehicle to dilute the bad by championing the good.  The music which I had dabbled with all my life became a way to express beauty, and this beauty became a way to tell a different story of humanity to myself and others.  One where the people were not malicious, but scared and bullied, indoctrinated into destructive ways of thinking and communicating, and yet replete with hope and energy and creativity, once we appealed to them on that level.  So that led me back to music.

The second thing was a concert I went to at Lincoln Center in NYC where Kurt Masur and the NY Philharmonic were showing the wealth and wonder of 20th century film music as the home of immense and legitimate musical expression. Korngold, Hermann etc… Masur was very deliberately making a point: that if you want to follow the thread of classical brilliance from the great composers of old, you’ll find it in film music.  I am convinced that if Mozart were alive, he’d be scoring films. Just as he and his contemporaries worked by commission, we modern day composers explore the film and media paradigm, which has replaced opera and concert as the main vehicle to compose, get paid and reach people.  Michaelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel on a whim, but as a commission, fraught with all the boundaries and limitations and overbearing supervision that film composers work under too: “paint my wife’s face as the Madonna and I’ll give you your fee”.  Anyway, that was Kurt Masur’s message and I received it loud and clear.   Working in film also suited me because I’m a bit of an introvert and never felt comfortable on stage in bands.  In film scoring I could be behind the scenes and explore threads of all my musical loves and influences – classical, world and jazz – in ways that I couldn’t do behind a drum kit at CBGB’s.  I really found a home in film music.

FSC:  You’ve done movies, television shows, shorts, documentaries, and all sorts of stuff.  What about video games?

JD:  Having written the music for so many animations: Yugioh, TMNT, Sonic X, F-Zero, Ultimate Muscle, Shaman King etc, many of them offshoots of games, I have a great curiosity for video game music, but I am not much of a gamer, except for the odd driving and flying game.  I thirst for information and knowledge so I find I don’t have the patience to inhabit the fantasy worlds in any free time. I don’t need to escape because I think the world we live in is the greatest fantasy, in both the good and bad sense. I’m trying to find ways to join the world, not escape it, as I already feel too far outside the line of conventional sanity!  Similarly I tend not to read novels, but factual books on cosmology, neuroscience, quantum physics etc.  Because I’m always on this (probably misdirected) hunt for meaning, I’m on the fence about video games even though could certainly enjoy composing for them.  That said, I deeply appreciate their value to others and I organize and champion as many video game music events as I can because of the creative and musical freedom that they engender.  Where working on Indie films gives us a marimba, a kazoo and a mandolin, video game music composers get a 100 piece Russian choir and seemingly unlimited time and money to explore and experiment, and that’s very enticing.

FSC:  What other composer do you see yourself most like, musically, and why?

JD:  I’m probably the last person to be able to answer that, but I can tell you who I admire, aspire to, who I resonate with.  That would be Alberto Iglesias, David Arnold, John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, John Powell, Roque Baños, Harry Gregson-WIlliam and of course the maestro – John Williams (particularly in his more lateral scores such as Memoirs of a Geisha).  There is an unashamed romance and emotionality in their work.  It’s as though they’re saying “somebody else can do the avant-garde – I’m going to speak about the human heart”.  In my listening, I am always drawn to the power and romanticism of Mahler and Bruckner and the subtle descriptions of Debussy and Ravel.  I can feel them taking their angst and darkness and transforming into beauty, and this is a theme that resonates strongly with me.  Although I’m a pretty positive person, I still tend to write the darker stuff, perhaps in the hope of transforming it too.  I struggle to write a cheerful commercial or light-hearted TV theme, yet requiems and musical eulogies seem to roll off the tongue.  So much so that I’ve thought of compiling some into an album called “Music to Die For”.

FSC:  What is it like to collaborate with other composers, as you did on The Tall Man?

JD:  I love it. I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with such terrific composers, and I think we consciously or subconsciously encourage each other to reach a bit higher.  Although I didn’t have direct dealings with Chris Young and Todd Bryanton on The Tall Man, hearing their contributions provided guidance and inspiration and a bar I had to rise to. In my long time collaborations with composers Elik Alvarez and Freddy Sheinfeld we also pool resources, musical and other ideas, recommending musicians, orchestrators, studios, approaches and such.  Composing can be a lonely business and the demands of some projects can be crushing.  It’s great to have people you can rely on as honest sounding-boards or who can step in and share the work. And we also have an immense amount of fun in the process.

FSC:  What are the differences between composing for different mediums such as movies, shows, documentaries, etc.?

JD:  In very general terms, I find that movie scores inform in more thematic ways, creating a world around each character, their moods and actions. TV seems to emphasize transitions, helping the audience feel the change from one scene to another, keeping things moving and evolving.   Documentaries, at least the nature-type that I’ve done a lot of, are about bringing characters to life, whether they be places, plants, insects, animals, volcanos, weather patterns – we try to humanize them musically through the way they look and their activities.  There’s nothing, for example, that obliges a shark to be seen as evil and ominous. They may be eating someone, but really they’re just having their lunch.  So for nature docs it’s all about choices – how should this be perceived?  Another aspect of documentaries from a musical standpoint, which is why I love scoring them, is that we are often dealing with unknowns rather than clear-cut emotions. Journeys, landscapes, scientific explanations – none of these carry a particular message, so a composer has to steer very carefully not to box an audience into perceiving them in one way or another.  The audience should be able to feel their way in and come to their own conclusions.  Often the presence of music just says “this is important” and nothing more specific.  The music has to be ‘open’ rather than closed and unambiguous as it is in film and TV.

FSC:  What is it like to be a part of Discovery’s famed Shark Week?

JD:  I love writing music for Sharks having their lunch.  Seriously though, I’m happy to have worked on a few of these because for years they were the only thing I could mention to people that they’d actually heard of!  They are quite challenging in terms of keeping them musically original and not falling into Jaws stereotypes, even though audiences are probably looking exactly for that.  The human obsession with sharks is totally fascinating though.  I think we humans fascinate over things that suggest our fallibility, our inability to control – even when we are the supposed kings of all.  Tornadoes, Sharknados, wolves and asteroids carry this paradox of our supreme power yet total vulnerability.  They bring us back to a healthy sense of proportion, which reconnects us to the natural world around.

FSC:  Ok, we’re 10 years down the road, what director would you like to have worked with by this point?

JD:  I’m a music guy first and foremost and not a film buff (except for Star Wars), so I am somewhat ashamed to say I don’t really know.  I see possibilities everywhere and I suspect my ideal director is still fighting to get to the fore. Perhaps they’re among the new directors I am working with who are bursting with talent, and I can’t wait to see what they can do given a decent budget.  10 years from now I’d like to be still working with them.  As composers we need to nurture the relationships we have and grow together.  I admire many directors, but I want to form my own associations with those who speak to the present, to today’s and tomorrow’s sensibilities.

FSC:  What makes Joel Douek’s music different from other composers?

JD:  I like to think that being self taught, I don’t know the rules, so there aren’t any.  There are certainly pros and cons to figuring things out by myself, as I often feel I hear better music in my head than I can satisfactorily express… but I’m working on that!  Beyond this, the careers I’ve had before becoming a full-time composer have no doubt influenced the way I interpret the world around, and perhaps I see things a bit differently to those who have only worked in music all their lives.  I honestly see music as a beacon of light in our harsh and war-torn world. Not just a balm for our sorrows but a vehicle for us to grow individually, and as a species.  There seem to be a minority of psychopaths that maneuver themselves into positions of power in politics and industry, that hold so much sway they can contaminate everybody’s view of the world and human possibility, bring us to war and pit us against each other while they fill their pockets. Yet I am in awe daily of the enormous majority of people from all walks of life, and particularly the talent, creativity and altruism among musicians, composers, songwriters and our greater community of musical folk.  As mentioned before – we’re diluting out the bad.  So while I try not to take myself too seriously, I certainly see music as a lofty cause!

For more on Joel, visit his website at

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