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A Little Bit of Soap Goes a Long Way for Gary Kuo

Gary Kuo says an open mind - and open ears - can help put you on the path to a successful career in composing for television.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on October 25, 2006 by

While composing for television is challenging, writing music for a soap opera can be even more so. Long gone are the stereotypical swells of a creaky organ to signify a melodramatic moment; today’s daytime TV composers are constantly working hand-in-hand with a given program’s music directors to deliver not only underscores and other cues, but also individual characters’ and storylines’ themes.

Five-time Emmy-winning composer Gary Kuo is part of the composing teams at both CBS’ As the World Turns and ABC’s All My Children. Here he discusses his background, how he more or less started his TV composing career by chance, and gives some advice for aspiring TV composers.

Were you always interested in a musical career?

I became very aware of music in media around the time that Star Wars came out, in 1977. That caused a huge resurgence in orchestral music at the time. But becoming a full-time composer was never a goal, at least not then.

What was your goal at that time?

I played well enough to pursue a career as a violinist. I learned to play in the third grade at a public school, back when public schools had plenty of funding for that kind of thing [laughs]. I really took to it like a duck to water. As I grew older I began to experiment with electronics?New Age was becoming a buzz term, and I liked the availability of new sounds that came with that. I really wanted to do something with that stuff, but I wasn’t sure what.

Were you able to achieve that as a violin performance major at Juilliard?

They had no program for composing for media at the time. I remember being told the stuff I was doing showed that I was “talented but sounds too commercial.” I thought, “Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?” I wanted to write stuff that was more accessible, but it took me awhile to find where I belonged.

So that’s when you went to the University of Miami?

Yes, they had a small recording studio and a two-year “Media Writing and Production” graduate program - and they had us writing everything: jazz, rock, pop, orchestral, big band, electronic music.

And after you got your Masters Degree, you headed to Los Angeles?

That was where the industry was, even though my image of southern California was not that positive: “Hey, I’ll have my people call your people,” and all that. I was extremely unprepared to live in L.A., where not having a car really limits you in so many ways. I relied on public transportation, and one time just the task of dropping off a demo reel at a production house was a four-hour round-trip. Just a colossal waste of time.

When did things click for you?

Some of my contacts at school came through for me, got me in to see the right people. I started working at a company that specialized in music for network television, editing music for General Hospital, One Life to Live, The Price Is Right?it was a good education, and I met a lot of people in the business. Eventually I started composing for a daytime drama called Loving on ABC, and they ended up using more of my music than they’d anticipated. [After Loving was cancelled in 1995] they asked me to join All My Children, and I’ve been there ever since. From there I was able to pick up work at As the World Turns.

So you just sort of fell into this?

Getting into daytime was definitely somewhat of a fluke. I didn’t know there was this whole world available.

How does the process of writing for a daytime drama work?

Every few days they send me scripts and breakdowns [story outlines] of shows that are coming up, so I have an idea of what’s coming in the months ahead. The music director and I talk about the needs of the show - what characters need a theme, or where we need to establish a sound palette or be sure to have certain instruments or sounds included. Sometimes they get very specific: “I don’t like such-and-such an instrument, so don’t use it.”

How much time do you have before you need to show them something?

It depends. I need to produce a vast amount of material, five days a week. In some cases I’ve had to e-mail files or FedEx material the following day.

We discuss what I’ve sent over the next few days, they give me notes on what works and doesn’t work, and why. The executive producer also has his notes - and he has final approval. And just as every homeowner wants to set up their house their way, every creative person on a show wants to tweak things for their own needs. Since I’ve been doing this for so long we pretty much know each other’s needs, but sometimes I’m just guessing (laughs).

Are you constantly starting from scratch?

Not necessarily. If you write a theme for a character or for a couple, there can be umpteen variations of it. For World Turns, I came up with a five-note motif that was then developed for all kinds of different moods - romantic in this cue, light tension here, heavy tension there, a dark, sinister side somewhere else. That can be a real creative challenge, how to take something and flip it to make it work almost anywhere.

Does working on two shows for two different networks leave time for anything else?

I still play violin on sessions or in orchestras, but this really is a full-time job. And I really like the work; there’s enough variation in the playing and the writing to keep me engaged, so I don’t take a lot of time off.

Is living in L.A. or another big city a must for someone looking to compose for TV?

Being in a large city certainly gives you more resources. I heard a variety of music in New York that I didn’t when I was growing up in Connecticut. Since a large city by definition draws more people, it can possibly increase your exposure to what’s available.

But it really comes down to the fact that people connect in different ways. Someone you meet at a small community college could be your creative partner later.

Have you identified any “Do’s and Don’ts” for prospective TV composers?

Don’t be a musical snob. I hear kids all the time dismissing certain styles of music because of a stereotype, or because they don’t like the demographic audience for that style. I never felt that way, and I’d encourage anyone to listen to as many different styles as they can, to notice how certain musical elements can be similar from style to style, and to discover what “works” in each style.

So basically I’d say, Listen to a lot, study hard?and try to do what you enjoy doing.

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