Subject of interview is Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was published in August 5th 2010
Matt Patches After bowing down the greatness of Avatar: The Last Airbender's musical stylings at Comic-Con, I was able to have a lengthy follow up with composers Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn about the creation of Airbender's score, bringing non-traditional, ethinic music to an animation, their work on DC's animated short films and, of course, the upcoming Avatar: The Legend of Korra.

Before There Was Avatar

Matt Patches So tell me about how The Track Team assembled. What's the origin story?
Benjamin Wynn We both went to California, CalArts. We both studied music and I remember Jeremy was teaching a class in mastering or something like that. I took it and Jeremy struck me as one of these people who had a lot of good knowledge that I wanted to get. We started talking and hanging out, then I got a job, sort of like an internship at a music studio/house in Hollywood. They did a lot of commercials and trailers. I was doing that while I was going to college and generally we kind of talked about working on projects together and then eventually I started to get some. I asked him to work on it with me and he would come over to collaborate with me. It was a good, fun process.
Patches Was Airbender one of the first, big, creative projects for the team?
Wynn Yeah, it was the first big creative project that we did, and actually got us to form the company.
Jeremy Zuckerman At the time it was a bit of a risk, because we didn't know what was going to happen with Airbender. There was no guarantee. At first the network was only going to pick up six episodes, but then they changed it to thirteen. It was a risky decision, but at the time it didn't feel like a risk because we were young and shooting off intuition.
Patches For me, the music of Airbender is unlike any cartoon or animated show's music. Was there an unusual amount of freedom while doing the show? Were you able to do whatever you wanted?
Zuckerman If you track the style of the music, you'll see that it kind of changed throughout the seasons. The first season to the second season was probably the biggest change. A lot of the style was determined by the fact that we had no idea what we were doing. [Laughs.] We weren't really fans of cartoon music. I watched all that crazy anime in college, like the really perverse stuff [Laughs.], but I never really watched Nickelodeon shows. I really wasn't even into film scoring at the time. We were kind of just figuring out as we went along. That lack of experience was a really good thing in the end.

Airbender's Global Soundtrack

Matt Patches So what did [creators] Mike Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko bring to the table?
Jeremy Zuckerman Yeah, I was going to say we really have to give credit to those guys. Especially with the music, Bryan knows a lot of music. He's a big fan of every style. He would bring a lot of really cool references to the table. From the beginning, he came up with the idea to use ethic instruments. The idea was to use all non-Western instruments.
Benjamin Wynn Right, I think that originally, I remember the four of us going to dinner when they sort of asked us if we wanted to do it. Actually it's funny, I remember before that Bryan was asking me ... I was living with Bryan.
Patches Wait, you were shacking up with Bryan?
Wynn Yeah, I was his roommate.
Patches Oh wow! So when Bryan started Airbender, he said, 'come do the show'?
Wynn [Laughs.] Basically he was working on the show Invader Zim and it ended. He got asked to pitch a show to Nickelodeon. I remember seeing the very first drawings of Appa and Aang, all this crazy stuff. I was there and remember when it seemed like it was all going to happen, he asked me if we wanted to do the music. I said, 'Yeah, of course!' Then he said, 'No seriously, are you sure? You just got to make sure your going to want to do this.'
Later, I knew what he was saying; he said it was going to be an insane amount of work. We went out to lunch and started talking about the show, how the story takes place in an alternate world and the characters. Everyone is ethnic ... Asian, but not from any specific Asian country. It was kind of like a non-descriptive ethnicity. At the same time, Jeremy and I had access to a really good World music program. We got exposed to a lot of really amazing players and instruments. They had an Indian music department, an African music department and just all kinds of amazing things. I got to take a class in African drumming and a lot of this cool stuff. We knew that these instruments were out there and we really loved them. We sort of had access to them. I think that is one of the things that Mike and Bryan liked about us actually.

Off the Beaten (Musical) Path

Zuckerman What was interesting is that they wanted us to use these instruments, but not necessarily use them traditionally. We didn't want it to be like, 'this is an Indian technique, this is Chinese technique or this is Japanese.' It got a little more specific later, but it still it wasn't quite traditional
Matt Patches When you say using them in a non-traditional way, is that like playing guitar with your teeth or playing piano with your toes
Jeremy Zuckerman No, it was sort of like not abiding by the rules of traditional music and not using the scales they use, the natural rhythm. We played with instruments and experimented with them, playing with timbres and new sounds. That really appealed to me because at college I was studying computer music mainly and experimenting with non-traditional timbres. I was really extreme, during the period I started playing with pitches and harmony. The heart of the music isn't about breaking every rule in the book. We both used electronic music and it's funny because in some ways we both feel like that was our root. Avatar was a stretch for both of us. It was something very different, but it was cool. But now people know us as the Avatar people and we have to say [Laughs.], yeah, but that it was very different from what we do.'
Patches Were there specific types of music styles that influence your work on Airbender?
Zuckerman There was definitely presence of Chinese music there. You were at the panel right [ a composer's panel at Comic-Con ]?
Patches Indeed.
Zuckerman "So I talked a little about how I was studying guqin [Chinese zither-type instrument] and pipa [Chinese flute]. As I learned more about that, the Chinese traditional music probably did seep in a little bit more. That is probably the most developed of the different ethnic styles. There was some Armenian music but that was used non-traditionally. The credit music, we were inspired by the Indonesian kepyak.
Benjamin Wynn And then there was the African kalimba [a type of thumb piano] and African drums. And the Japanese taiko drum [giant drum].
Patches Jeremy, I recall you mentioning on the panel that you used to do the sound design on the show?
Zuckerman Yeah, we eventually split the duties, I took over the music and Ben took over the sound design.
Patches Were you able to work together and integrate the two?
Wynn At CalArts, we were basically studying sound. My degree was music technology – so basically sound synthesis and digital processing. Those are all very fundamental, theoretical skills on how to treat and generate sound. They didn't teach you exactly – CalArts is a very theoretical place, so there wasn't a class where they taught you how to do sound design, but they give you all the tools necessary to do so. Jeremy and I both had this knowledge. We both had these skills and when we did the pencil test, to see if we could pull this off for Nickelodeon, we did both, together in the same room.
There would be certain moments in Avatar where had to think about, 'what was the focus? Music or sound?' and not try to step on each other's toes. The fact that we did both, I think we were always thinking about both. There would be certain scenes where they would be equally important, so some of the dream sequences, the light battle in the finale where Aang takes Ozai's bending away ... we sort of collaborated to make sure everything was working together. I think its cool that we both sort of had equal imagination in that right.
Patches Collaborating!
Wynn And knowing the other person well.

A Mountain Divides Them Apart

Matt Patches I have to bring up one of my favorite moments in all of Avatar: 'Secret Tunnel'. Why is it the most amazing thing I've ever heard in my entire life?
Jeremy Zuckerman [Laughs.] The way Avatar works, is that we work about thirteen episodes and we get a nice long break. The night of one of those breaks, summer vacation, we got a call from ... Bryan or Mike. They said there were going to be thirteen songs in this next episode. I figured I'd just knock them out because I wanted to enjoy summer vacation.
We got the script with all of the lyrics, but there was no music. I used a Chinese flute called the pipa and recorded myself playing around. I tried to be really spontaneous and not think to hard. So I just knocked it out. The lyrics were so awesome and cute, so it was clear what needed to happen musically. That was it, we got the lyrics and set them to music before we could see the picture. They needed it early because they needed to animate it to the music. They wanted the instruments to correspond really well. That was important to Mike and Bryan; when people are playing on screen, for it to look very realistic. That was really fun episode, it was completely different then anything we'd done.

The Masters of Music

Matt Patches I know you guys weren't involved with The Last Airbender film, but did James Newtown Howard [the film's composer] ever contact you looking for inspiration or questions?
Benjamin Wynn I would've loved to talk to him, but we never talked to him. In the credits in the end, you can hear very subtly three notes of the main Aang theme. It plays very quietly on some sort of keyboard instrument. A little nod, which I appreciated. There were other moments, unless I'm convincing myself, where it sounded like a nod to the show. I'd love to talk to him about it. I thought it was really cool!
Patches Are there film composers that you guys admire or look to for inspiration?
Jeremy Zuckerman For me it's Takemitsu. He was a Japanese composer and I love his music. I also love him because he's also a concert music composer and didn't seem to compromise in his film scores.
Patches What movies did he compose?
Zuckerman He did a lot of stuff with ...
Wynn Kurosawa.
Zuckerman Yes, and he also did Rising Sun too, I think. I don't know if that was a great score, but it might've been when he was getting old and bored. [Laughs.]
Wynn I'm a fan of Cliff Martinez. And Clint Mansell does some good stuff too.
Patches Is there something about their music that works as a film score? What makes a great film score? What is successful?
Wynn I think the score to Solaris is one of the best scores I've ever heard. For one, it works completely on its own as good music. [Cliff Martinez] used this really beautiful and different instrumentation for it. I forgot the name for it, but it's basically a custom instrument with glass bowls. It's just gorgeous and he made a lot of beautiful music. He had really beautifully orchestrated lush sounds. That was basically it, and it was really captivating.

Track Team Goes Superhero

Matt Patches Just looking ahead at some of the other stuff you guys are doing, you guys worked on some of the DC animated shorts. Was that a total shift on your workflow working on a new scoring project?
Jeremy Zuckerman Well, they were different in the tone. The tone was a bit darker. They were for a more mature audience and it was fun to get a little meaner.
Patches They're kind of PG-13 border almost ...
Zuckerman Yeah, they are. We worked on a PG-13 one and they would just cut it down. Also it's different working with different people. Mike and Bryan work in a very specific way, so it was interesting coming in and working with the other people. Like Bruce Timm, who is more, hands off with the music. It was nice to go and make it right. There weren't a whole lot of references; it was more like which moments need to be supported. Also, each sort was a completely different style which was really cool. The Jonah Hex score came out amazing. We worked with really good violinists and were able to step it up.
Patches Are you well-versed in the world of comics?
Zuckerman I'm totally out of that loop. I had no idea who any of those people were. I'm definitely nerdy in other ways, both Ben and I.
Benjamin Wynn That's true.
Patches I mean you did come to Comic-Con and survive, so you deserve some credit. What else is coming up on your plate? I see Kung Fu Panda. I could see how that could be sort of similar to Airbender.
Zuckerman The similarities are mainly the use of Chinese instruments but the difference is that it's specifically Chinese culture that we are referencing. We're going to go a little farther into the use of these instruments and the use of the traditional Chinese styles. It's also much lighter then Avatar. There are sort of more of those cartoony moments. It's cool because it's something we haven't done a lot of. There's room for some Carl Stalling-esk type of approach but you have to be careful and not over do it. I think the mix of that and the Chinese music influence will be a cool combination. That's the plan at least. We're going to bring some players. I think were really going to find the depth in Chinese music.

Korra in the Big City

Matt Patches I know that the Airbender follow up isn't until 2011, have you guys started chatting about that with everybody and preparing to work on that show?
Jeremy Zuckerman A little bit, very briefly. A very brief stylistic conversation. We really don't know too much.
Patches I know Mike and Bryan had a few conversations with people at Comic-Con about where the show is going, it's seventy-five years down the line and takes place in a metropolis big city. So I was very curious about, as of right now before you dive in, where stylistically it will be going and the evolution of the music as time has passed in this world. From your point of view, how is this show going to change from the original?
Zuckerman When we talked to them about how they were pitching this show, we thought it was a great idea because it was a way to continue the story with all new characters and you kind of see how those other characters influenced this world. It's pretty genius, you know? We talked very briefly about the music and it seems exciting because it sounded like they wanted the environment of this big city to influence the music of it. I think I remember Bryan mentioning industrial or somehow it sounded like we might be able to use some of our electronic ... know how or whatever ... to enter it into some the score, which sounded pretty cool. That was a long time ago when we had the conversation so I'm not sure if that still really applies, but I think at the very least the industrial nature of that city is going to influence the music some how.
Benjamin Wynn There's also something about referencing the sort of feeling of the roaring 20's because it's sort of around that period I guess. Is it, is it not? We don't know.
Zuckerman It sort of sounds like it's going to be around the industrial revolution.
Wynn Right, and so it's like, how do you use the Roaring Twenties with an Asian feel? It'll be an interesting challenge. That's one of the ideas that have been thrown on the table. Who knows what will actually happen in the end, but it was one of things that Bryan mentioned and seemed like an interesting idea. It's not like these traditional instruments will be abandoned but I'm sure the instrumentation will be different. It all really depends on the storyline and the motions that we need to convey.
Patches Story comes first.
Zuckerman Exactly.
Patches Music to my ears. Are you guys going back to work soon or are you kinda of just waiting for ... I don't know, has Bryan come over to your room and told you to start writing?
Wynn No, [Laughs.] we each got places of our own.
Patches Congratulations! So is there a time table?
Zuckerman I think we start post-production early next year. The cool thing is that it's going to be twelve episodes ...
Patches Right, only a mini series.
Zuckerman Right, I think it will be very tight and emotionally compact and probably pretty deep because of the ...
Wynn Yeah I think that's a really good thing. It'll probably be really cool.

Track Team Doin' Their Own Thing

Matt Patches Are you guys doing any independent stuff?
Benjamin Wynn I make electronic music and release it. I released a record in March called Say Goodbye To Useless.I release it by the name Deru and I play live.
Patches Where can we find it? iTunes?
Wynn Yeah. And Jeremy just got a grant, which is pretty cool.
Zuckerman Yeah, I got an American Composers Subito Grant to record a flute piece that I had written about a year ago or so.I haven't heard it yet, so I'm excited. I tried to write a little differently, write away from the computer, so it may or not be a terribly awful piece. [Laughs.]
Patches How does that work? Someone selected your piece to just be recorded by ...
Zuckerman Kind of, the Subito Grant is a grant that American Composers offers about four times year. It's offered as, sort of, like quick cash. The application process is kind of intense, there's a bunch of questions and then they want you to submit a CD of your work, and scores if you have them. I had the score of this flute piece that had already been written, it had to be recorded. I wanted to be able to properly higher some flutist and be in a really good studio with a really good sounding room. I probably could've funded it myself but there's something about getting a grant that really motivates you.
Patches Right, you have to deliver.
Zuckerman Yeah, it's just sort of speeds things up a little bit, you can't really procrastinate to much.
Wynn And you wrote it at your artist retreat, didn't you?
Zuckerman Yeah, so we sort of had some time off after Avatar, which is really nice. I took a month and went up north to this artist resident called Djerassi. That turned out to be an incredible month. It was in the forest and you're sort of treated like loyalty for a month. You really get spoiled. It's so peaceful because there are no real phones or Internet. So I came back to Los Angeles and wanted to ... kill. I thought it would be positive but it worked the other way around. [Laughs.]
Patches You mean L.A. isn't quiet and peaceful?
Zuckerman I think I ended up breaking my GPS. Like I punched it.


Persons Interviewed

Persons Interviewing

  • Matt Patches


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