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H. Scott Salinas Stays Busy Composing Through COVID and Beyond

Posted in News on June 3, 2021 by

A native of St. Croix, H. Scott Salinas played guitar in high school bands, but never seriously considered a career in music until he got to Princeton University. While studying economics, Salinas took a few music classes and jazz guitar lessons and decided to switch his major to music composition. After scoring a student film during his senior year, he realized he had discovered his career path.

After graduating from Princeton, Salinas studied at Berklee College of Music, where he was awarded the prestigious Berklee College of Music Segue Internship Award which included an internship in Los Angeles at film music editing company Segue Music. In LA, he joined a collective of like-minded composers and artists, which fed his desire to collaborate and experiment.

Salinas is coming off a busy working year, when streaming content was in high demand, leading to a high volume of scoring projects. Here, he discusses some of his successful collaborations over the years, why empathy is important to his craft, and how he found his footing in the entertainment industry.

You’ve been very busy scoring multiple series, including Hulu’s documentary Sasquatch, CBS All Access’ Coyote, and HBO’s Tiger Woods documentary miniseries, Tiger, all of which came out in early 2021. How did you work on these projects simultaneously throughout the COVID pandemic?

An interesting result of the pandemic in the early spring of 2020 was that as it became increasingly clear that production would be halted, anything that was even halfway in the can (as in Coyote, which didn’t even get to finish shooting all episodes) was rushed into post so that at least it could survive and get to an audience. The net result of that was that I was inundated with projects that under normal circumstances would probably have been a lot more spaced out across the calendar year. Our industry is feast or famine, and these were all fantastic projects. So, I just had to buckle down and get it all done — and if there’s a will, there’s a way.

Besides just managing a lot of work at once, I’d say the biggest challenge was getting used to the Zoom workflow. Suddenly, instead of just sending a link with QuickTimes and getting an email with notes, many directors or showrunners would want to review all the music through Zoom in real time with me. This was especially hard with episodic TV as you can imagine how this could grind the process almost to a screeching halt. So, you found yourself spending most of the normal workday on Zoom and then writing late into the nights. That, coupled with the fact that my first child was born in February of 2020, meant sleep was a scarce commodity, but all in all I was grateful to be working in such uncertain times.

You studied music at Princeton University and Berklee College of Music. When you started college, how did you envision your career in music would unfold?

When I went to Princeton at 17 years old, I had been playing guitar for five years in bands in my hometown (St. Croix, USVI), but I had never taken a lesson of any kind. I was going to be an economics major and thinking about becoming an international corporate lawyer even though I had no idea what that meant. I was NOT planning on a music career at all. I started taking a few music classes in addition to many economic classes, and also started some serious jazz guitar lessons. I really quickly became fascinated with jazz guitar and classical composition and so I decided to change my major to music composition.

For my senior thesis I scored a student film and that’s when I thought maybe this could be a career path, but if so, I needed more education, especially on the technical side. My guitar teacher, a Berklee alumnus, recommended Berklee College of Music as a place where I could continue studying jazz and also concentrate in film scoring. Once I got to Berklee, I was sure I was going to be a professional musician of some kind and started really considering a career as a film composer.

You’ve worked with fellow Princeton alumnus Jackson Greenberg to score multiple documentary projects, including City of Ghosts and Cartel Land. How did you two initially meet, and how has your working relationship evolved over the years?

Jackson was actually my intern back in 2008 or so. He was a music major at Princeton, and he reached out to pick my brain about the industry. Being the brilliant person that he is, he managed to talk me into having him intern for the summer. He was already a very talented multi-instrumentalist and vocalist and seemed miles ahead of where I was at his age. We quickly became more friends than employer/employee.

We really hit it off and stayed in close touch. Not long after he graduated Princeton, we wound up co-scoring the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, and then “got the band back together again” for City of Ghosts a few years later. We have a blast working together, even though we both have our own film scoring careers. I personally enjoy collaborating not just with other composers but other like-minded musicians, whether it be performers or arrangers.  Composing can be a lonely occupation, and any time you involve super talented people that are on the same page it can be a synergy that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

You’ve also worked with composer Reza Safinia on multiple projects (Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon and the HBO Max series Warrior). What’s your advice for cultivating a strong working relationship with another composer?

Yes, Reza and I are actually about to reunite for Warrior Season 3, which was recently announced and I’m very excited for. Our album for Warrior Season 2 just dropped as well, so there is a lot of buzz around that show right now. I think the most important part of any collaboration is to check your ego at door.  And, obviously, both parties need to have that quality. Once you do that, it really doesn’t matter where an idea comes from or how it’s formed. You just go with the flow and follow where the music leads you.

Reza has a very successful career as a music producer and artist that predates his film scoring career and which he is still very actively cultivating. So, when we collaborate it’s a bit more like making a record than maybe how a typical film score would be composed. It’s more studio based and we get together for three to four days in a row and sort of “lock out” the studio and lay down a ton of ideas that we then refine later to picture. These writing sessions are very intense, kinetic, and really exhilarating for me as they break the monotony of sitting at the desk every day and writing music.

Continuing on that idea, how do you establish and grow collaborative and creative relationships with directors and producers?

Fostering a great collaboration with a director/producer is really about trust. There tends to be a lot of apprehension around music, as most creatives feel that it’s an area where they maybe are the least comfortable discussing or feel that they don’t have enough education in music. They know lenses, shots, acting, film, etc., but often feel a bit ill equipped to discuss music. So, the first thing I try to do is establish a common vocabulary for how we talk about music. That vocabulary is either tactile or completely about things they have expertise in, such as story character development, mood etc.

So, if I’m describing the music instead of saying something like, “Is this part too staccato?”  I’ll say, “is this too sticky outie?” Or, if I’m making my case on why I went a certain direction, it won’t be a musical case — it will be a case about what I think the nature of the scene is. For instance, our main character is really upset but he’s trying to hide it because he’s embarrassed.  So, the music will give us that subtext into his mind even though we might not see that much distress on his face since he’s trying to conceal it.

I find that most creative disagreements are because maybe I misinterpreted what the purpose of the scene was. And it’s very important to be willing to kill ideas that aren’t working. In fact, it’s a great way to find out just how off you are. Sometimes if it seems like an approach isn’t working, I’ll just say, “Let’s try another idea.” Many times, then the director will say, “Oh no, I just don’t like that one sound, can we just get rid of it?” In other words, sometimes a critique comes across way more dire that it really is.

And if they don’t defend the cue, then it probably is worth just starting over. There’s a lot of music to compose for most projects, so if it doesn’t’t fit in one spot, maybe you will realize it works better elsewhere. Don’t get stuck on one idea, keep generating more ideas and keep the creativity going. Circle back to that first idea and see if it can live somewhere else, or maybe it just wasn’t right for this film. Keep it moving; don’t get bogged down.

I read that you once described yourself as a “catalyst for other people’s visions.” What do you think it is about your approach to composing that allows you to create music that enhances or fulfills another artist’s vision?

I think empathy is the key to this. I have my own thoughts, taste, and ideas, but you really have to listen to the filmmaker and understand that they know this project inside and out and have something in their head — even if they don’t realize it. I’m also not scared of using existing music as a reference point. Whether it’s scores I’ve created in the past or a favorite track that they like of some other artist, I think the best way to talk about music is to talk about an actual piece of music as a reference point, or several pieces of music at that.

And it can be very abstract. One of the best examples I can remember is the theme I wrote for Baghdad Central [BAFTA nominated and RTS winner]. The showrunner gave me two references: the sound of a metal worker in the streets of Baghdad and a classic film noir song. And to me, while that might seem like an absurd pair of references, I found it to be an incredible challenge. It pushed me to create a theme that they loved and that I’m also really very proud of. And if you listen to it, you will hear both those references married together in a very direct way.

You seem to effortlessly slide between genres and mediums, creating music for films, documentaries, television shows, advertisements/commercials, video games, even a classic silent film, Laugh, Clown, Laugh, which you scored after being named Turner Classic Movies’ Young Film Composers Competition’s Grand Prize Winner. What’s the most challenging project you’ve worked on?

Laugh, Clown, Laugh was probably the most challenging project. It was essentially my first feature film on my own, and it was a silent film from the 1920s that Turner Classic Movies commissioned me to create the score that will forever live with that film for posterity. First off, it’s 80 minutes of wall-to-wall music. So, how do you create a satisfying ebb and flow without being able to use silence? Furthermore, everyone involved with the making of the film was long gone.

Turner Classic Movies, much to their credit, didn’t give me any creative mandates or approval, it was 100% my vision. This meant I was the director and the composer for all intents and purposes. So, I had to make sure to honor the story and the characters and not just use this as a platform to write whatever music I felt like writing. Finally, they gave me an orchestra to record in Hollywood and that’s a lot of music for a twentysomething-year-old to have to handle all alone. Luckily it all came together, and I wound up doing a couple more silent films for them in the years that followed.

Circling back to your college years, you were awarded the prestigious Berklee College of Music Segue Internship Award during your final year at Berklee, which included a paid trip to Los Angeles for an internship at film music editing company Segue Music. How did this opportunity impact your career development?

When I got to Berklee College of Music, I was quite sure I wanted to make a living with music, but I hadn’t completely decided if I wanted to be a film composer or more of a touring jazz guitarist/sideman. While at Berklee, a friend of mine wound up going on tour with Herbie Hancock and I remember seeing him play at Smalls jazz club in Manhattan. My overwhelming sentiment was just happiness for my friend — I didn’t even feel a twinge of envy.

Shortly thereafter I received an internship in Los Angeles at Segue Music Editing company. One day I was on a film scoring stage at Todd-AO Radford, just being a fly on the wall for some big-time composer’s session. Not only did I feel some serious envy, but I said to myself, “I gotta get back here and be the one whose music is being recorded.” So, that really solidified for me that I wanted to follow the path of film music as a real career. A year later I was on that same stage recording a score to a silent film for Turner Classic Movies. So, that internship was incredibly instrumental in cementing my career path.

After moving to Los Angeles in 2004, you joined a collective of composers, electronic artists, and sound designers. What was the purpose of this group, and how did it affect your approach to composing or your career growth?

When I moved to Los Angeles, I joined a collective called Machine Head — a super interesting group of composers, artists, music supervisors and sound designers. My next-door neighbor was Jason Bentley, music super, DJ, artist, tastemaker; members of Depeche Mode were artists-in-residence, and here I was, by far the youngest person there, with an orchestral score to a silent film and not much else to show for and just trying to fit in. 

My neighbor across the hall was Tom Holkenborg, also known as Junkie XL. He worked so loud; I would just always write in the same key so as not to give myself a headache. When he was around and not on tour, he was very cool to me and sort of a big brother/mentor. I learned a lot just watching how he would put one of his amazing tracks together.

For me it was very fortunate to arrive in L.A. and immediately be part of something where I was treated as an equal, as opposed to just grinding on my own or perhaps working for another composer. I think it gave me the confidence to forge my own path. Ultimately, I moved on, but I’m still good friends with all the folks I met, and I was exposed to so many very different ways of producing and creating music. It made me understand there is no one path — you just have to find what resonates with you.

Can you share a little about your relationship with BMI, and how it’s impacted your career over the years?

BMI has been very instrumental in the development of my career. I’ve been very fortunate to win a couple BMI Awards, which really helped propel me more into the mainstream after working on a lot of indie films. Whenever I’ve reached out to anyone at BMI to go to lunch or meet (pre-pandemic) to chat about my career, they’ve always been there for me and gave me great advice, whether it comes to agents, publishing, or thoughtful ways of how to promote my music.

I can honestly say how much I appreciated BMI’s rock-solid performance and attitude during the really uncertain times of the pandemic. I never had a doubt that BMI had my back and that was one area I didn’t have to worry about. Recently I’ve cultivated a really great connection with Reema Iqbal, who’s been helpful on a variety of matters, whether it be hunting down a cue sheet lost in the bureaucracy of a studio, helping me understand the landscape of network TV versus cable TV versus streaming, or just having someone I can bounce career ideas off of.