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Q&A: Jasha Klebe, Composing Documentary Scores That Resonate

Jasha Klebe is a film composer known for creating heart-rending scores. His recent documentary works include Planet Earth II, Challenger…
Q&A: Jasha Klebe, Composing Documentary Scores That Resonate
Jasha Klebe

Jasha Klebe is a film composer known for creating heart-rending scores. His recent documentary works include Planet Earth II, Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes, and Diana: In Her Own Words, earning him two Emmy nominations as well as BAFTA and IFMCA nominations. We sat down with Jasha to ask him what it’s like to work as a composer on award-winning documentaries.

Storyhunter: When did you begin composing music?

Jasha Klebe: Freshman year of high school. I had played piano for sixteen years and I realized I didn’t want to just read notes, I wanted to create them.

SH: That’s beautiful. So what was your first big project as a composer?

JK: I got a job working under Hans Zimmer. That’s when I had my first feature opportunity writing on The Dark Knight Rises. My first independent job was for the documentary Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.

SH: How does it all work? What’s the first step in the composition process?

JK: I sit down with the director to figure out what the story is from their perspective. It’s better when they don’t speak in musical terms. We talk about what the audience should be feeling in the scene, if the music will guide the audience to feeling something, or if the music will take a backseat to the scene presented. I sit with the material, watch it all the way through, and formulate my own idea of the story and emotional arc. I approach scenes from an emotional level. I like taking something you’re seeing and making it something you’re hearing emotionally.

SH: What is your process like when you sit down to actually create the music?

JK: Once I understand how the music should be guiding the story, I lock myself in the studio and start creating ideas. I present the sample to the director and I know almost instantly if they like it, just by their face. Music either resonates with someone, or it doesn’t. It’s simple like that. I go back and forth between the director and the studio. It’s always trial and error — a puzzle — figuring out the right answer.

SH: What is the biggest challenge in working with a director?

JK: You face temp music as a composer. The director has placed temp music in the scene while editing. Sometimes they fall in love with that piece of music and it can be a real struggle to get the director to listen to something else.

SH: Have you ever had to defend your music choice to a director?

JK: I’ve defended my music a few times when I’ve felt strongly, but I’m always very conscious that at the end of the day my job is to help tell the story through the director’s vision. Generally, I’m presenting something that is straight from the computer and when you get players on it, you can get an entirely different feel. There can just be a certain lack of emotion because it’s a computer generated sound. Or, it needs to be played in a way I don’t have access to. I explain to the director why I’m doing what I’m doing and I encourage them to sit with it.

SH: Can you tell us more about that?

JK: It’s so much easier to have the conversation if you present the film to me. I need to sit with it for just a bit. I don’t want to be guided too early on. I don’t like to be told what instruments the director wants to use because it inhibits my creative process. I want to surprise the director. It’s within the first few days or weeks that I come up with what the sound is that will act as the heartbeat of the film.

SH: What is the impression you hope your music will leave on the audience?

JK: Every combination of notes has already been created. That’s how it is. I’m searching for new ways to bring the audience as close to what’s on the screen as possible. I want them to feel like they’re really in that room. I’m extremely driven by the emotional aspect of it. Music is the heartbeat that gets me up in the morning to write. I’ll always be trying to figure this out, trying to connect with a person I don’t know, sitting in a theater somewhere, in a universally emotional way.

SH: What’s next for you?

JK: I scored Diana: In Her Own Words, a beautiful National Geographic documentary that uses recordings of Princess Diana’s voice as the narrator. Planet Earth II is out on to watch on Amazon Video and iTunes. . I’ve signed on to a score a new documentary series that is under wraps; I am incredibly excited to begin work on this project! Look out for updates on my Twitter and website.

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By Lena Drake, Storyhunter Writer