Ivan Kanaev – Challenges and Satisfactions in Music Composing Process

Tell us about yourself. When did you start composing?

 I was born into a large and not really well-off family in Perm, Ural Region. Even though we never had issues with getting food and clothing, we couldn’t afford a TV set. So, I had plenty of time for music 🙂 When I was in kindergarten, I was doing auditions, and a casting woman said I had a flair for music (when I grew older and started teaching in a music school myself, I figured out that it was a standard recruiting procedure). My Mother took good note of these words, so I got into the House of Culture of Railway Workers’ music studio.  My professional music education is rather general: a music studio (functions as a kindergarten before a music school), piano classes in a music school, a classic piano course at college. Then an act of rebellion and a rejection of endless learning of Czerny, Bach, Mozart. Thankfully, I enrolled in an experimental group where I took improv classes. We learned some things about jazz and composition, and I started gaining interest. That is why the time has come for me to choose whether to abandon my music aspirations or transfer to the pop and jazz department; I chose to learn some jazz. Once again, I became interested in the subject, thanks to my tutors. I successfully graduated but did not make it to university. The reason was I had to work. I liked the idea of making music via a keyboard or computer, but for a long time, I had no opportunity to get equipment for it. I paid for keyboard lessons on the other side of town once a week. In the summer, I worked at the construction site to gain money for my first PC. And then everything was off and running. I hadn’t written my own music for a long time: I thought no one would be interested in it.

Things changed when I talked to Ulrike Haage, a professor from Germany. She was doing an open composition class; I participated somehow and then got a chance to talk to her. First, I learned a lot about the mental aspects of music. Second, I realized that I could convey my emotions through the sounds of music. In 2007 I moved to Moscow, where I was granted a job as a musical director in a musical comedy show on TV. In 2009 I wrote my first soundtrack for TV series “Dayosh’ Molodezh” and signed the first contract with the production company “Yellow, Black & White.” I am still working there as a director of the soundtrack department.

When did you realize that you want to write soundtracks?

 I am not sure. Watching movies has always been one of the best ways of getting entertained. When we finally got a TV set and a videocassette recorder at home, I watched 3-4 movies each night. I was stunned by various music involved in the climax. Obviously, I wanted to do something as monumental so that people watching the protagonist’s monologue, along with the sounds of cello, would feel their lives turning around (as did my many times). The most important, I think, was the change of attitude towards writing soundtracks. When I heard tracks for “American Beauty” or “Amélie,” I noticed that emotions are far more significant than the technique. Therefore, one can write top soundtracks without featuring a full orchestra. I do recall sitting around drinking beer while discussing my plans with my brother-in-law. “I will start writing soundtracks,” I said. He answered: “Let me know once you finish”) It struck a nerve back then because he didn’t believe in me. But now it feels different. Sometimes I mention this story; it’s always hilarious)

What movies were your early passions and influences in becoming a composer? Do you feel that your work was inspired by the history of the cinema or world culture?

 Some soundtracks have the same artistic value as the movies they were composed for. For example, “Terminator,” “Lion King,” (so do the majority of Disney movies from the same era), “Twin Peaks.” But my most important inspiration was not a movie but a person, Thomas Newman. His choice of harmonic capabilities and instruments makes me jealous. It is no exaggeration to call him the grandmaster of both soundtracks and music in general. The way he creates the texture of the music is impressive: not a single sound, not a single chord has sounded yet, neither the tempo nor the tonality is clear, only violins hit the one high note, and one is on the brim of bursting into tears. I guess he is profound in psychology! My knowledge of the history of the cinema is mediocre as I have no special education in cinematography. World culture, for sure, has influenced me but mainly the musical part of it. It is a challenge to come up with a melody, form, or harmonic sequence that would be easy to understand for an unprepared listener. So everything created by composers until today is a great help; one should study these works and put them in one’s pipe. Hans Zimmer wrote one of the greatest film scores of all times for the movie “Inception” based on the opening bars of the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” As my arrangement teacher used to say: “If you think that you’ve invented something brand new, you haven’t studied the history of music,” it would be strange to neglect this knowledge. I am still learning composition, orchestration, arrangement, voice leading from the great masters.

What musical project was a jumpstart for your career?

 “The Kitchen,” of course!  Firstly, it was a real improvement in the quality of music. From that moment on, one could no longer make poor phonograms using virtual instruments; otherwise, one would be ‘executed’ and ‘expelled’ from the soundtrack production (A real case: an intro of one of the compositions never aired as the producer called the sound of a drum “unnatural”). J Our phonograms were surrounded by hits like Earth, Wind & Fire, Nina Simone, Enya, and Bob Dylan, so we had to work hard. Secondly, we were on a tight schedule because we had to record music for two 24-min episodes every week. The amount of original music was not much, only 10 percent, yet it was a challenge. It was also a challenge in terms of the range of genre: we worked on jazz and electronic, on 60’s rock and Balkan folk.  Our efforts were not futile. Sometimes you go big, and the result is modest. We were lucky, the project has become a massive hit, and even though eight years have passed, it’s still going. Perhaps we also succeeded because the project team was made up of professionals. I learned a lot from them.

You make music both for movies and TV. What is the difference, if there is any?

 It’s a matter of understanding the movie genre. There is no easy way, but the music for comedy movies is the hardest thing. There is not much freedom in the choice of music genre when working on the drama. There is nothing new with the usual stylistic base and preset parameters (e.g., tense music played by a string quartet). In a comedy movie, the music varies within an episode: something symphonic, trap, little ditties. One has to learn fast. In a movie, one can gradually develop a character’s theme reflecting changes in a protagonist or scene. In a TV series, this technique is used far less. People have different watching speeds: some skip 2-3 weeks between watching episodes. In the meantime, the melody is already forgotten, and viewers cannot recognize it if the arrangement changed.  On TV, deadlines are more severe. In the company, we write music for 8-10 episodes each week. Under the circumstances, for sure, full-length production is possible with a big team and smart task management only.

Before the rapid development of streaming platforms (Netflix, Start, Amediateka), there was a condescending mindset towards the quality of phonograms for TV shows. Broadcasting is over, might be a rebroadcast, whatever, who cares? What goes on the Internet stays on the Internet. Viewers no longer watch anything on an old TV set with mono audio. They watch content on their smartphones with headphones on or in a home theatre. I heard comments on the sound mixing in a TV show. A viewer pointed out the great production of a stereo panorama in which the sound of violins passes from one ear to another simultaneously with the action in the scene. So, in terms of technique, the workflow is the same for both a movie and a TV series.

Do you have any preferences for musical instruments when composing?

I wish to say I prefer the grand piano, but no. PC is my absolute favorite these days. As a pianist myself, I note my ideas on keyboards. Yet one cannot make music without special software. Even if 100 percent of the parts re-recorded with acoustic instruments, the melody itself is made on a PC anyways. It’s always cheaper, faster, and easier. One can show a draft to the team and make changes before the studio recording.

Mind to share your creative process?

 I don’t really believe in things like “inspiration” or “muse.” It doesn’t mean that I am only into a calculated rational approach. I am creative, but I keep in mind that my job is not to write masterpieces for future generations. My job is to create a layer for a movie, which is a complex piece. That’s my craft, my profession. I am aiming for the best time management possible. As soon as the music theme challenge is clear, I work on a round-the-clock schedule. I usually get down to work only if I can imagine the result.  I think on melody, tempo, and time signature while getting stuck in a traffic jam, watching the news, smoking, going to sleep, reading a book, and so on. When I start composing, I just write down whatever I invented earlier. It’s not that hard. I take notes on everything I see and hear in a movie or a TV show; is this choice good, what is to strive for, what instruments used, and why. Then I implement these findings in my own pieces. So that is the core of my creative process, I guess. Writing down observations in an audio form takes not much time. I get a movie scene without any music; some action is taking place. I count tempo, think of where should be development, “turning point” and climax. Then I take these points into account and start composing. 

How do you describe your typical work week?

I work in the studio and nowhere else. I used to work from home but stopped eight years ago. I cannot cease myself from working, can stay up, and work half of a night. When I wake up after this, I feel almost dead. So I have neither instruments nor sound equipment at home).  On Mondays at 10 AM starts my working day. I work in the studio until 7-8 PM. I hardly ever spend all day writing music. There are many different tasks, but I mostly listen to music and watch TV shows. They say it’s a dream job! In the evening I come back home and switch from these compulsory TV shows to other TV shows and movies. The process of music writing usually differs. I compose a piece for the 90-sec final scene within 15 minutes. Previously, writing a 4-min 20-sec song featuring a guitarist, trumpeter, singer, piano, and electronic drums was a challenge. The whole working process from recording to final mix for this song took about 20-22 hours + 5-8 days of my spare time to come up with an arrangement.

What is the most challenging part of your work? And what makes you feel satisfied?

 Understanding the task is the hardest. Our team of producers, directors, technicians, editors consists of professionals, but misunderstandings may occur. As the saying goes, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” For one “touching” melody is a barely audible oboe solo, for another – frenzied electric guitar overdrive. We spend minutes, hours, and days to agree on what we want to achieve.  Somehow we need to satisfy different tastes (always causing terrible fights), combine backgrounds and visions within one genre, and pre-set parameters (here is the intro, this is the main theme, the tempo is like this, here is the climax).  There are two situations when I feel satisfied. It is either an ingenious music solution for a scene (e.g., no one expects slow and soulful melody in a fight scene, but it works, blends with the accents nicely, and improves the original design) or emotionally engaging music. I am really into emotions; I can re-watch the same scene 10-15 times to understand how to evoke the desired feeling) Sometimes funny things happen. I watch a rom-com, a “grave monologue” that inspires me that much, so I write a nice piano piece for a dramatic scene. Suddenly someone enters the room, asking out for a smoke. So here I am in a mood, sitting in the dark, watching a scene on the cemetery, piano playing on the background. No doubt, I am writing a comedy.

Is it important for you to get along with the director? Do you prefer the freedom of actions or strict instructions while composing a soundtrack?

How can one ever get along with the director? They fight for each frame; 15 minutes of silence in a parked car is the creative design, a 20-sec panorama of a table with a half-empty glass is the language of cinema and corrections for this part of already recorded and mixed music is the must. Just kidding. It’s a big deal to get along with all of the people involved in the process. The director knows the work best, knows difficult and good moments. They make creative decisions and determine the result. I always learn from them. Sometimes learning is fast and easy, sometimes it’s quarrels and struggles. In most cases, I offer several solutions as the director wants, as I want and the ‘weird’ option. I do not insist on what I want; if the solution is good enough, no one rejects it) The ‘weird’ option is what no one wants but might be the case. Sometimes we choose the ‘weird’ option, and I feel satisfied as was previously asked.

 As for my preferences from the second part of the question, it’s a complicated compromise. I prefer strict instructions, but I like them on the level of emotional, psychophysical tasks, without specifics in terms of tempo, instruments, form. I strive to offer my creative solutions. If the task is to rewrite an already existing piece because “it’s too expensive, we cannot buy it, so write something similar,” then hire a freelance composer. I am not interested in such work. If I were, I would be writing for advertisements. These tasks are everywhere in 2020. I am cautious about references to well-known music suggested for the tempo and mood (for example, “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack or Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” That’s a dead end. No one can write the second “Billie Jean.” And the second LOTR soundtrack is better than the original. 

You have to work with producers and directors during music production. But who else is important for the process? For example, a sound editor or audio engineer.

Everyone in the team matters. Sometimes even though there are professionals, productive teamwork does not work out. It is an issue for both people and the process. When we manage to solve delicate moments before filming, scriptwriters, editors, script supervisors, and the audio engineer on the site becomes even more significant in implementing the solution at each production stage. An audio engineer mixing the music is the most important person for a composer during the postproduction. They determine whether the music will be the artistic center of a scene or will be buried under the effects, dialogues, and the sound of the sea. I am not missing when something added to the final, but usually, I do not insist. Everyone should do their business and be responsible for their work. 

Do you use weird musical instruments or new technologies?

Everything now moves in the opposite direction for me. I played electronic instruments for so long that now I am more into live sound. I record a lot of strange things, but it feels original and alive. Once I recorded the rustling of a coffee beans packaging for a track. For another piece, I dropped a glass of coins on a chair. It sounded really strange, but I like such things. We are now thinking over a musical concept for a new vampire project. I want to write a melody with a sample from a mosquito squeak. Maybe no one will notice, but for me – it is the concept! It seems to me that no one is surprised by the keyboard sounds. So much has already been done in this area. When I watched “Chernobyl,” I worried about the music, whether they made all this horror atmosphere with virtual synths or a genuine sound. I was glad to hear that these are recordings of an actual reactor. I appreciate and respect this approach.  One cannot neglect new technologies either, but it’s about technical life hacks. For one of the projects, I couldn’t find an oboist in Moscow. The deadline was close, so I asked an oboist from Perm who happened to be my classmate 15 years ago. He recorded it with a simple microphone and a cheap sound card, and the version got to the final mix for the movie. Technologies are such a thing that should be used wisely and in limited quantities. Otherwise, it will quickly turn out that they are using you instead. You never thought about why you were buying more and more synthesizers, but it turns out that without them, you can write nothing. Does this sound like a good idea for a short film about a modern creative genius’ tragedy?

It can be difficult to get into film scoring. What advice would you give to a young aspiring composer?

 I receive lots of music pieces for movies. I noticed that there are not so many original talents among the musicians. The majority follow trends; this is the wrong way. Nowadays, production music libraries are big things. A large number of musicians, arrangers, and composers work for these organizations, having all the conditions for the production of music. To compete with them is a waste of time. Music from the libraries is not expensive for a film / TV producer, plus there are no problems with rights, and the catalog is unrealistically large. When I create a music folder for a new project, I listen to 800-1000 songs a month, and these are only new releases. And yes, for the most part, this music is written with a reference. The track may sound very much like ImagineDragons, but in fact, some guy just knows how to do “almost the same but not so.” Therefore my first advice is to write catchy music with its own character and sound. Seek, cherish, and develop it.  No need to chase money ahead of time; reputation is more important than a contract. Don’t do poor things well, and don’t do good things badly. I did my first work for a television pilot for free. Later the producer considered fair to pay me 20,000 rubles (at that time – about $700 for the job. Now I see that my work was no good, I wouldn’t have even paid myself 700 rubles for it. But the producer was a fair guy who saw me working hard. Be ready to complete challenging tasks (both emotionally and professionally) on time and qualitatively. The work will come by itself, and then you just do your best.

There are lots of opportunities to write music for ready-made scenes. Some film companies hold competitions where they publish parts of an episode with sound effects but without music. I would write music for the scenes from famous movies, but I would look for my solutions for the score, unlike the original composer. Then I would download it on a google drive or something and show it to the friends-filmmakers as a demo now and then. A high-quality showreel demonstrating the range of genre is also a big deal. And don’t forget about social networks. All the right people are already there. Not everyone gives feedback, and yes, there are crooks, but it’s an opportunity to contact 30-40 famous film and TV producers. I might have only dreamed of such an opportunity at my time.