Catherine Grealish on Life as a Film Composer
Catherine Grealish is an award-winning composer for film, games and live performance.
Originally from Tasmania, Australia, Grealish moved to the United States in 1998 to pursue a career in music. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Music at Cornish College of the Arts and has a Masters of Music from Boston University. She completed the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring program in 2011.
Grealish is a classical and jazz singer and plays violin, piano and guitar. Her music has been featured in award-winning films and she regularly scores independent films and video games.
Recently, Busted Buggy Entertainment got to chat with Catherine Grealish.
Busted Buggy Entertainment: We checked out the music samples on your website. They’re fantastic! How did you get your start as a film and video game composer?
Catherine Grealish: In early 2009 I was in the teacher lounge of the school where I taught music to grades K-5. All the kids were on a field trip and I was using the time to compose. In that moment I realized that I was experiencing more fulfillment than any day of teaching had given me. While the kids were lovely, teaching left me empty. Composing just kept filling me up. I knew I needed to do it full time. About that time the Pacific NW Film Scoring program was about to start its new cycle so I decided to sign up. I had a feeling things were about to get real. The first night of that program the instructor, Hummie Mann, talked about everything involved in film scoring. Not just the composing, but the business/entrepreneurial aspect, communicating with filmmakers, networking, etc. I realized that this occupation ticked every single box for me. It was all my strengths. At this point I was 31. I had been a musician my whole life, composing and performing and teaching, but I had never felt like I had fit perfectly in any musical situation. I could play violin in an orchestra, I could sing jazz with my Quintet, I could teach music, but none of it felt right. Suddenly I realized I was facing a career choice that fit me perfectly!
This all sounds very dramatic but you have to understand seven years later I am still high on this feeling of finally coming home!! Nothing is better than figuring out what you’re supposed to do with your life. After that I continued with the scoring program but I also went out, bought the software I needed, read everything I could, talked to every film composer I could find, and started reaching out to filmmakers via networking events and organizations and scoring any films or games I could get. I jumped in with everything I had. By the end of 2009 I left elementary school teaching and started freelance teaching and film scoring. At the end of 2012 I left Seattle and moved to Los Angeles. It has been a brilliant journey and I know I am just at the beginning!
BBE: Did you always know you wanted to work specifically in film?
CG: I really like working in film, but also games, commercials, and really anything that is collaborative. I have worked with dancers to create an original work that develops as they develop the choreography. I feel like all these things work similar muscles and ultimately make you better at doing what you do.
BBE: In terms of composing, who inspires you and which scores do you love?
CG: I am inspired by great ideas. I love watching a rough cut that a filmmaker sends me and thinking, “Wow! That is such a cool concept!!” I love working with amazing visuals and creative shooting.
Scores that I love include (but are not limited to) Starship Troopers by Basil Poledouris, Desplat’s scores — Moonrise Kingdom, Philomena, Imitation Game, Carter Burwell scores — Olive Kitteridge, Carol, In Bruges, Rachel Portman’s scores — Never Let Me Go, and Thomas Newman — American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption, so many others. Of course I like John Williams too and the other greats but the composers above really resonate with me. They often have a chamber music approach which I really dig.
BBE: Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on. Is there a certain type of project you look for?
CG: I don’t really gravitate to a certain type of project. The great thing about working in film and games is the variety you experience. All the composers I mention above do comedies, dramas, sci-fi, historical pieces. This allows you to work different compositional muscles. I am mostly scoring Indie Film which means pretty consistently I am dealing with smaller budgets. That allows me to get really creative with how I spend the budget. I really do enjoy working with chamber music groups. It creates an intimate sound and is a nice change from a full orchestral score. As a rule I try very hard to bring live musicians into my all scores, no matter how challenging the budget, even if it means recording myself playing various instruments!
Most recently I finished scoring the feature documentary Gold Balls which has its next screening at Calabasas Film Festival on Sept 24th. I also scored the short Virgin Territory which is written, directed by and stars Emily Robinson, a young hollywood rising star known best from the Amazon Prime show Transparent. That is screening next at Outfest on the Road at Smith College on Sept 17. It also screened twice at Outfest LA in July. The web series I scored, Capitol Hill, is now on television in Europe and Canada thanks to distribution through OutTV.
BBE: Can you give us a little insight into how you compose (methods you use, how things come to you, equipment used, etc.)?
CG: I have a Mac desktop setup, two quad cores. Generally I compose using the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) Cubase, although I also work in Digital Performer and Pro Tools. I work with a lot of sample libraries like Komplete Ultimate, VSL, Spectrasonics & Sonokinetic. I like to try and write in my head before I start putting anything down. I try to hear melodies, harmonies and hear what instruments would sound good playing them. I also try to still work with pencil and manuscript paper, if I can afford the time, at least to sketch out ideas. But if I am working on a deadline, I just try and hear things and then jump into my DAW session and just get going. I try to just work an idea out without judging it too much. Write first, edit later. Give it a chance to work before killing it off. All this is happening, of course, after lengthy chats with the filmmakers about what they are hearing, the vibe they want to create and a spotting session where we figure out where we think music would go best.
BBE: What type of video games do you compose for? Does the composing process differ from film?
CG: I scored the puzzle game The Hole Story with Girls Make Games and now I am working on a fun arcade shooter-type game called Alicorn Princess Blast. In some ways it is the same, you are providing music for a situation, but then it is very different in that you often loop the material you have created, or you have it build along with developments within the game. In some ways it is more open - you are providing music for a game going on rather than trying to hit things in an action or dramatic sequence, for instance. In other ways it is more limiting — if you are looping you have to make sure you get back to a key so the loop works, for example.
BBE: Which piece of music are you most proud of?
CG: Wow. That’s hard! Every new score I do I feel like I have pushed myself a bit further or done something I wanted that I had not previously accomplished. In some ways you are only as good as your latest composition. I did have two orchestral premieres in 2011 and 2012. One was for full orchestra — Artist and The Muse — and the other was for Didgeridoo and chamber orchestra — For Those Who Have Walked Ahead. I wrote that in memory of my late Aunt who did a lot of great work with the indigenous community in Australia. Writing a work for a live orchestra and having it performed in front of a packed audience is pretty freaking special. I want to do that a lot more, please!
BBE: When you go to the movies, do you find yourself re-scoring the film?
CG: Depends. If I am really enjoying the score or, even better, not noticing it at all because it serves the picture so perfectly, then not at all. If the music is so bad that I notice it and am pulling my hair out: absolutely.
BBE: What’s next?
CG: I have a number of shorts going right now as well as two documentary features and two narrative features currently slated for late 2016/early 2017. I am continuing to work on Alicorn Princess Blast as it is developed. I also support a number of established composers in L.A., including Miriam Cutler (The Hunting Ground ), helping them out when they need it. It looks like there will be a lot of fun stuff coming my way with that including film and TV work. I am always on the lookout for new projects. Often they come my way very abruptly and suddenly a month disappears in a flurry of awesomeness. I love that about this business. You never know what opportunity is just a phone call or email away!
BBE: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
CG: When you ask people to name a composer they will say Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. If you ask for a film composer they will say John Williams or Hans Zimmer. Most of the examples of composers people are familiar with are men. Wonderful men! But it is really important to note that there are, and have always been, great women composers. Women have historically had to fight social restrictions along with outright discrimination for the opportunity to compose. The great composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) literally had to go on a hunger strike in order for her father to allow her to continue pursuing composition as an adult. Now there is a lot less discrimination and restriction but still people generally are not familiar with women composers. We do exist, there are many of us actually, and we’re doing great work along with our wonderful male counterparts.
Many filmmakers now are committing to diversity and equality as they crew-up for a project. Please let that not just be about crew in production, let that happen in post-production as well. If you don’t know any women film composers check out The Alliance for Women Film Composers. They have a whole database!
It is great to talk to you about the world of film composition. It is also exciting to see the great work coming out of Busted Buggy Entertainment!
Visit Catherine Grealish’s website at CatherineGrealish.com.