Like many composers, Tony Morales discovered his love for music as a child, taking up guitar when he was 9 years old. After studying music throughout high school and playing in different bands, Morales attended the Berklee College of Music, where he completed a degree in film scoring. He then moved to Los Angeles to study in USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program, which led to freelancing with Cyberia Inc., a division of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures, writing music for TV commercials.
Through this experience, Morales was offered a staff position, providing him with an incredible learning opportunity through observing legendary composers like Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. As Morales started composing and arranging for film and television projects, he strengthened his skills as a dramatist and storyteller, developing a more cinematic sound.
Morales became known for his majestic symphonic scores, working on a variety of films, documentaries, animated projects, video games and television shows, including the hit Netflix series Bloodline (co-scored with Edward Rogers) and the CBS drama Scorpion (co-scored with Brian Tyler). He received an Emmy nomination for co-scoring the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries with John Debney and multiple Emmy nominations for his scoring of Disney’s animated series Elena of Avalor. Most recently, he composed music for two projects on the new streaming service Quibi, The Fugitive and Benedict Men. An avid sports fan, Morales has also composed music for multiple ESPN docuseries and sports documentaries.
BMI caught up with Morales, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters, to discuss how he approaches collaborative composition, how he’s stayed creative during the pandemic, and the most important lesson he learned from Hans Zimmer.
When did you know you wanted to make music your career and how did you start out?
I started playing the guitar when I was 9 years old. By the time I was 12, I had started playing in bands and was really taking music seriously. I studied privately, and benefited from a strong music program in high school. I went off to Berklee College of Music in Boston with the plan to become a career musician.
As a student at Berklee, I discovered film music. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in film scoring, I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program. After that yearlong program I decided to stay in Los Angeles to give this career a shot. I had a day job that had nothing to do with music to support myself. After three years, I eventually came across an opportunity to get my foot in the door as a freelance composer writing commercials for Cyberia Inc., which was a division of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures.
My first few years working as a composer were spent writing music for TV commercials at Cyberia and then another company, AdMusic. At the time, it was less about who I was as a composer and more about what the client was looking for musically, and whether I could write it convincingly. The commercial world was a great training ground for me to learn how to adapt as a composer and how to quickly produce music with live musicians or on my own with computers.
A few years later, when I began to compose and arrange additional music for other film and TV composers, my style evolved to more of a cinematic sound. That was what I always wanted to be writing, but I didn’t have the opportunity to do it consistently when I worked in ads. My cinematic styles have ranged from action-orchestral hybrid music to more intimate guitar-centric music to minimal ambient and textural scores. Working under composer mentors such as Harry Gregson-Williams, John Debney and Brian Tyler was a gift for me to fine tune my skills as a dramatist and a storyteller.
You’ve worked with your friend, composer Edward Rogers, to score many projects, including the hit Netflix series Bloodline. How do you establish a strong collaborative relationship with another composer?
Edward and I first met as classmates at USC and we quickly became friends. Having stayed close over the years, it was a natural fit when we had our first opportunity to collaborate on the indie film Hide Away. That was born out of a schedule conflict on his end, so I came on board to co-score that film. We really enjoyed working together. Having had my previous experience of being an additional composer/arranger for other composers, I was prepared for the give and take that comes with collaborating on a score. Ed and I ended up getting more calls to work on a variety of projects together, including Bloodline for Netflix.
When collaborating with another composer, it’s important to be open to ideas and know how to balance when to adapt versus when to assert your voice. In a sense, it’s similar to collaborating with the filmmakers. You’re both there to achieve a common goal through a shared vision. It can be hard at times, but always ends up being very rewarding overall.
You have a couple of projects on Quibi, The Fugitive and Benedict Men. How did you get involved in these shows, and what was it like working on shows for this new platform?
Benedict Men came my way through its director, Jon Hock. Jon and I have collaborated on several of his documentary projects over the years. He submitted my name to the producers as someone he’d like to work with on this docuseries, and that’s how I was brought on board. For The Fugitive, I was contacted by the show runner Nick Santora, who I had a previous working relationship with from my time on Scorpion for CBS. Nick requested me to Warner Bros. Television, who was producing the series, and after some vetting I was hired.
I was very excited to be able to work on two of Quibi’s initial slate of releases. Scoring these projects was very much like working on standard television series. The schedule and workflow was relatively the same, but the obvious main difference was the shorter episodes of serialized story lines. The Fugitive is really a movie that is broken up into 14 chapters. Benedict Men also feels like a documentary film that plays like a series due to the format of Quibi’s platform.
On the Disney series Elena of Avalor, you combined the classic orchestral Disney sounds with elements of various Latin music styles, earning an Emmy nomination. The series finale of Elena of Avalor airs this month in a special movie event — how does it feel to complete this series you’ve been working on for four years?
It is bittersweet to complete a project that has been so rewarding, and a constant in my life over the last four years. It’s disappointing that, due to the pandemic, I can’t celebrate this milestone in person with the crew. That being said, working on Elena of Avalor has been a dream come true and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of it. I never in my wildest hopes thought that I’d be able to say I was a composer on a Disney animated production. I’ve learned and grown so much from scoring this series, and am beyond proud to have been a part of the show, which has been a voice of representation to the Latinx community.
You began your career working in Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures just over 20 years ago. How did that shape your career as a young composer?
I had minimal experience in the real world as a composer at the time I joined Media Ventures’ commercial division, Cyberia Inc. I had written a Blockbuster Video commercial for them as a freelancer, which then led to the offer to be on staff. It was an educational year for me, being around and observing composers such as Hans, Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell and others. It was overwhelming as a 26-year-old kid, to be honest.
The one thing that I still strive for, to this day, is something Hans taught me. He once asked me during a feedback conversation, “What is your musical voice?” I didn’t have an answer at the time, and I was confused why I didn’t. In hindsight, I had been so focused on trying to emulate my composer heroes as a writer that I neglected to also develop my own voice. I’m forever grateful for that conversation, which has been crucial to my growth as a composer.
Now, you, yourself have been an advisor at the Sundance Institute Film Music and Sound Design Lab. Can you share a little about the lab, what it’s like to mentor other aspiring composers, what advice you give them, and what you may have learned through this experience?
The Sundance Institute’s Film Music and Sound Design lab is a magical experience. It’s a two-week intensive program where aspiring composers get to work under the guidance of composer and filmmaker advisors. You’re welcomed into a space of outside-the-box creative thinking, which they make a point of nurturing. My role focused on advising during the collaboration between composer and director at the orchestral recording sessions they worked towards over the course of the second week. That entailed advising the composers on how to produce their music in the sessions, strategies to handle any last-minute changes to the music on the fly, tips on working though the challenges that arise during the recordings and, in general, how to enjoy creating under pressure.
In return, I got to know some really amazing people and walked away with new friendships. The one thing I learned about myself was that I really enjoyed my role as an advisor, which isn’t something that was on my radar. I had never thought before about being a mentor/teacher, but would love to continue doing so in the future.
You’ve done multiple projects for ESPN’s 30 for 30 docuseries, and you scored the baseball documentary Fastball. Are you a big sports fan, and if so, did you ever imagine you’d be able to combine your passion for music and sports this way?
I am a huge sports fan! I used to balance playing sports and music when I was a kid until music became my passion. I never lost the sports fan side of me. My first sports-centric project was a 30 for 30 documentary by Jon Hock called Unguarded. It was the story of a rising basketball star whose career was derailed by drug addiction. Composing for sports documentaries has been the best of both worlds in that they are both creatively rewarding and personally of interest to me.
What are you working on now, and how have you stayed creative during the pandemic?
Right now I’m enjoying a little breather from work and am using this time to reset. I do have a few projects coming up that, gratefully, I’ll be able to work on. The first will be scoring Jon Hock’s next project, Legacy. It’s an eight-part docuseries that follows the lives of three athletically gifted young adults. And I will be continuing work on an indie documentary feature that I started this past spring.
Staying creative during the pandemic has been a challenge at times. For me, it’s been more of an ability to stay focused through those days where you just aren’t able to. My studio is at home so my work environment hasn’t changed, but — like everyone else who’s able to work from home during this time — balancing life between work and my family takes a lot of patience. And on top of that, just trying to create and get into that mental space is tricky when you’re very conscious of the chaos going on in the world right now.
Where do you find your inspiration and what influences your creativity?
My process changes slightly from project to project. But, generally speaking, I always start out by gathering as much information as I can before writing the first note. From brainstorming conversations with the director and producers to reading a script to visiting sets while in production, or — in the case of animation — looking at early animation tests and character sketches. Once I’m ready to write, I plan several days of isolation in my studio and work on a variety of ideas until I run out of momentum. This is the best time to experiment when it comes to making sounds or testing simple melodic ideas.
I especially love to work with musicians early on if the budget allows. Sometimes the best ideas come from those experimental sessions. The project will dictate what sort of sounds I explore in the music. Such as, is the score something that will utilize an orchestra? Or maybe the direction calls for music that is made with electronic synthesizers and other types of textures. It’s never the same process.
Why did you join BMI?
I joined BMI because of their personal approach to working with composers and artists as well as their ability to advocate for us when needed. BMI staff are very accessible; someone is always available whenever I have a question about royalties, cue sheets or even career advice. They champion their members and do everything they can to help. I’m very grateful to be a member of the BMI family.