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SYMPHONY NO. 7 and the YEAR in REVIEW
14 Nov 2018
Kerwin Young

2018 has been a very busy year for composer Kerwin Young, who is now in the midst of writing his seventh symphony. The year has seen the completion of Symphony No. 6 (The Plagiarist), his ballet suite Dumas-Pushkin Suite, the revised Reclamation, and three new orchestral fantasies: Chasing El Diablo, Over 200 Films, and American Caravan; attributing to more than one hour and thirty minutes of performance time. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerwin Young during a recent Ethiopian celebration in Washington, D.C.

Interview conducted by Namhiya Ati

Ati: Mr. Young, what drives you to compose so much music, and why for symphony orchestra?

KY: Since high school, I’ve always wanted to write music for film. I’ve faced so much rejection and intentional refusal that I chose to compose for orchestra until that day when I finally breakthrough as a media composer. I enjoy writing for orchestra, as I can paint sonic pictures, and remain creative at a high level. Also, I wanted to destroy the stereo-types associated with someone who’s produced a large body of work as a recording producer, mainly hip-hop.

Ati: Prior to your beginnings as a recording producer, did you have any music training?

KY: Certainly. I began as a musician at a very early age; it came natural to me. When I began grade school, I played alto saxophone in the school’s band for four years. Then it was 1984, and I was knee deep in the happening culture; I became a disc-jockey doing parties. Then, I became a professional disc-jockey, and then a recording producer.

Ati: At what point did you begin to study music composition, and why?

KY: 1994 was the year, and I had grown tired of making beats for rap artists. It didn’t challenge my creativity. Much of the lyrical content wouldn’t get any radio airplay, and I felt it a waste of energy creating music for someone’s personal gratification. And as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to compose for film, and so I began that process by studying orchestration and instrumentation at home. I would transcribe music from recordings, as well as visit the local university library. And, of course, the study of filmmaking.

Ati: Now you are composing Symphony No. 7; a pinnacle very few composers achieve in one lifetime. You’ve had quite a busy year composing several orchestral works; including Symphony No. 6. Is this work a commission? 

KY: No, Symphony No. 7 isn’t a commission. Like all of my orchestral works, they are born out of my love of symphonic writing. I write a lot of large works; works that exceed the standard instrumentation for even the top orchestras like the New York Phil or the Berlin Phil. I write really fast too. I write on the bus, the subway; away from the piano. I can compose a fifteen minute work in 3 days. I write all the time; I’m really comfortable composing for the orchestra. Of course, every once and awhile I have to check a few things out concerning fingering or register, but that’s common, and one never knows everything. I’m always learning new things. This is also why and how I’m able to compose so many orchestral works in a year.

I think if I were a college professor or busy scoring films, I wouldn’t have the luxury of composing for the orchestra. But, since neither of those offerings have yet to come my way, I remain busy writing. I don’t see anyone else writing as aggressive as I am, so why not do it. I’m almost half way into Symphony No. 7, and it’s going to be a lengthy, kick-ass piece. It also conforms to the standard orchestra; give or take two extra musicians: 3233/4331, timp+4, hp, pno-cel, strings. I would love to be commissioned to compose for orchestra, and I know it’ll come.

Ati: Wow! You also have a vast background with several accolades. As a member / producer of Public Enemy for 30 years, you guys are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You also served as a Next Level / US Cultural Ambassador to Egypt last December. Why is it so difficult for you to acquire work as a film composer? Don’t you have an agent?

KY: That’s a handful Namhiya! I wish I did; seriously! I do not have an agent. I’ve been trying for over 25 years now; and I’m always made to wait or told that I don’t have enough credits or this and that. Makes me kind of sick to a point. Then there’s the spiel about not accepting any unsolicited material. I’ve mentored guys fresh on the block who have agents. It’s almost as though I’m invisible, but I won’t quit.

Ati: How do you manage to keep abreast without any scoring gigs; besides composing for orchestra?

KY: Each day I compose music to a film clip; many times the same bunch of clips. I work out different scenarios each time; trying different methods. Then I mix the music; rendering it out as an mp3 or wav file for my score reel, and as an mp4 for my show reel. And, I’m always learning new software; working in different DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations). I remain a student of the craft.

Ati: Have you any experience scoring a full length feature?

KY: Absolutely; though quite infrequent. I’m quite comfortable scoring an 80-minute film or a 6 minute short. I’m just not getting any work. I really do need representation; it would help my hustle just a tad-bit more. I find a lot of work opportunities, and I get close to it; but if I had proper representation, I could close those deals.

Ati: What is your DAW of choice? What DAW’s do you work with?

KY: My main axe is Digital Performer. It kicked my ass getting over the learning curve! There’s a few shortcuts I can still learn, but I’ve got it down now. I’ve tried Cubase, but I’m not a fan of it. I did most of my old Kasuf and the Mazz Muvement albums with Cubase; with much success. Depending on the project, I may work in Studio One or Pro Tools. I’ve got lots of options here. I may sit at the piano and sketch into one of my Moleskine’s, and then input that either into Sibelius, or via step record into DP or Studio One. It depends on how I wish to work. I may also start in Sibelius and then spit out a music XML file into DP, or sync Sibelius via rewire with Pro Tools. When I’m scoring to one of those film clips I mentioned, I can choose any of these options. Then there are my options as to how I want to stream the video. Do I want to run it in DP, or do I want to slave Pro Tools to DP? Do I wish to run picture in Sibelius and compose? In Studio One and compose? I’ve got choices, and I love the flexibility of choosing, because when presented with a real scenario that might force me into a corner, I can at least remedy the situation quite fast. At least I want to think so.

Ati: Are there any sound libraries that you prefer, certain instruments? With your background as a hip-hop producer, it was customary to build your own, unique sound palette. Do you maintain that practice now as a media composer?

KY: Absolutely! When I think of all the composers whose work I admire, they each have a unique sound/style. I’m a big fan of “self-borrowing”, because that sound, that repetition of tonal/sonic identity is one’s style. So, maintaining the long practice of creating unique sounds for oneself remains important. There are so many libraries out there too. I really love Spitfire Audio! I’m a Spitfire junkie! They’ve created the perfect community for media composers in my opinion; not just sound libraries. Other sound libraries I really dig are Strezof-Sampling, 8Dio and ProjectSam; oh, and East/West. I’ve always been big on synths too; so I’ve got a large arsenal in that department. I also play several instruments, which contribute to my overall sound as well.

Ati: Are there any film directors whose work you admire?

Ahh…I thought you’d never ask. I always think on this. Here’s a few, but definitely not my full list; just the top of the stack: Antoine Fuqua, Tomas Alfredson, Denis Villeneuve, James Cameron, and Dan Gilroy.

Ati: You may be closer than you think as far as your film scoring pursuits go Kerwin. It’s been a great honor interviewing you, and I’m certain that this is the first of many to come.

KY: Thankyou Namhiya. It’s been an honor to share with you a few hours of our life.

Kerwin's IMDB

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