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Kevin Kliesch – Composing Music Fit for a Princess on “Sofia the First”

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Kevin Kliesch Sofia the First
Kevin Kliesch

Kevin Kliesch has worked as a composer and orchestrator on over 100 feature films including Enchanted, Tangled, and Frozen. His first Annie Award nomination came in 2012 for his work on ThunderCats. That same year, he went on to receive two more nominations from BSO Spirit for their Jerry Goldsmith Awards in Best Television Score for ThunderCats and Breakout Composer of the Year.

Earlier this year, Kliesch earned his first Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Direction and Composition for his work on Disney’s Sofia the First. He was recently nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special (Original Dramatic Score) for his work on Sofia the First: The Curse of Princess Ivy, a special which aired in primetime. He is the first to have won an Emmy for a Daytime Series and then be nominated for a special episode of the same show for the Primetime Emmys.

Toonzone News got the chance to talk to him on the phone about his career in composing and orchestrating.

TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve been credited as an orchestrator, supervising orchestrator, and a composer. What’s the difference?

KEVIN KLIESCH: An orchestrator doesn’t actually write the music. My job as an orchestrator is to take the composer’s music, whether it be in rough demo form like a piano or a rough mock up form like a virtual orchestra rendition, and make it playable by a real orchestra when it goes to get recorded on a sound stage. That’s what an orchestrator does. A composer actually writes the music.

TOONZONE NEWS: Were you interested in doing both when you first started your career?

KEVIN KLIESCH: I moved out here in 1996 with the hopes of actually composing, and it took quite a while to get going on that front. In the meantime, I had hooked up with an alumni from my school who was looking for an assistant. So I became his assistant for a while and was doing everything from keeping his technology up-to-date and running errands for him and occasionally doing a little bit of writing, a little bit of orchestrating for him. That just led into more orchestration, and I started to get known around town as an orchestrator. I did that for quite a long time — about 16, 17 years — and got to work with a lot of big names on a lot of big films, but it wasn’t really what I came out here to do. I came out here with the intention of writing. I had a few movies here and there, made for video movies. Check my IMDB credits you’ll see there are a few movies I did back in 2002, 2003, and 2005, but mostly it’s all orchestration that I was doing at that time.

ThunderCatsMy break came in 2006 when I met Alan Menken, who was doing a film called Enchanted for Disney. Disney was looking for somebody to take Alan’s piano demos and do orchestration from those and also to produce computer mock ups, so that they could hear what it would sound like before it went to the scoring stage. So I auditioned for that gig and got that, so I started working with him, and that lead to another gig with him back in 2010. We did Tangled together, and then we worked a little bit again on another film called Mirror Mirror, and then from Tangled, that kind of lead to the introduction to the head of music over at Warner Bros. I had told Disney I wanted to do more than orchestrate, so they introduced me to the head of music at Warner Bros. and they had a show called ThunderCats, which they were rebooting from the 80’s series. I auditioned for that and got that, so that was my first real composing job. That just led to where I am today.

TOONZONE NEWS: That’s cool that you got to work with both Disney and Warner Bros.

KEVIN KLIESCH: Yeah, I’ve worked with pretty much every film studio around town as either an orchestrator or a composer.  Before I got the job at Disney doing Sofia the First, I had done a lot of work for them in their feature film division and their animated feature film division, so the TV division was the third division of Disney that I hadn’t worked for yet. So I’ve actually worked for all three divisions. Most people in the music department in all three divisions know me and my work. It’s pretty cool to work for most of the studios.

Kevin Kliesch Sofia the FirstTOONZONE NEWS: Is there a lot of difference between working in live action, animated feature, and animated television?

KEVIN KLIESCH: Not for me. On Sofia the First I treat every episode as a live action show. My director had always told me not to write for two- to seven-year-olds. We don’t want to write preschool music. We want to write according to the story, according to the characters and their emotions. We want to write according to the locales, so from the beginning, it was never ever a show about writing down to kids. We always wanted to treat it as an actual film, a real film with a compelling narrative and something that even the adults would enjoy hearing.

TOONZONE NEWS: When creating the world of Sofia the First, do you assign certain sounds to each character?

KEVIN KLIESCH: Sometimes. I’ll assign certain sounds to certain characters. Like Sofia, I usually represent with the flute. The king I usually represent with the French Horn, and then I also assign recurring themes to either characters or situations that I like to use from episode to episode. But I don’t actually repeat myself in terms of the actual composition itself. I always like to keep it fresh for every episode. So the answer is yes, every character has their own sound to them and most of the characters have their own themes.

TOONZONE NEWS: And that’s true for the locations too? Do they have their own sound?

KEVIN KLIESCH: Yeah, there’s a few. There was a place that they went called Tangu, which was heavily Arabian inspired, so I broke out my Lawrence of Arabia tribute to that. And then there was a place called–I can’t remember it now–it’s the Asian themed one where they met Mulan, so I broke out a lot of the Asian themed instrument for that episode as well. So the locale determines the type of instrumentation that I use.

TOONZONE NEWS: How do you keep it fresh? There’s a song in every episode.

KEVIN KLIESCH: I usually have nothing to do with the song, since I don’t write the songs. My friend John Kavanaugh does that, and from time to time, Disney will ask me to kind of spice up the song by adding extra instrumentation on top of it. Like strings and brass and woodwinds. I used to have to do that a lot in the beginning of the show, but not so much anymore. But usually I don’t have anything to do with the songs.

Kevin Kliesch Sofia the FirstTOONZONE NEWS: What was your role on the “Curse of Princess Ivy”?

KEVIN KLIESCH: I was the composer on that.

TOONZONE NEWS: Any specific challenges when doing a special like that?

KEVIN KLIESCH: For every season of Sofia, we’ve had one episode which is a double episode that airs in primetime. In the first season we had a show called “The Floating Palace.” In the second season we had “The Curse of Princess Ivy.” In this season we also have another double episode coming up, which is actually going to be a little bit longer. Going to be more like a triple episode, which will also air in primetime. But I don’t treat them any differently than the series. They’re just a longer narrative to tackle. I tend to usually get a little bit grander in those because I’m given more time to do that kind of thing, and usually those shows have more of a greater story arc than the TV series does.

TOONZONE NEWS: They’re bigger.

KEVIN KLIESCH: Yeah, it just feels bigger. Most of the double episodes so far feel bigger than the TV series.

TOONZONE NEWS: What was it about this special in particular that got the Emmy attention?

KEVIN KLIESCH: You got me, man, I have no idea. I gave it my all. I put everything into it that I have been doing for the series as well, and I just enjoy doing things that haven’t been done in TV before in terms of composing music, so I think it had a lot to do a lot with the way I chose to do harmonies. There was a lot of unusual harmonies going on in this episode. Also my instrumentation coming from an orchestrator background. I like to vary my instrumentation and my orchestration, so I think a lot of people caught note of that. The orchestration was very full. It had a nice Disney sound to it. It was all orchestra based, but it wasn’t actually using live orchestra, It was all samples. So I think when you hear these nominations that the Academy had to listen to–because I, as a nominee, I’m also an Academy member–and I had to listen to some of the nominations and a lot of them were rock and pop based. I think once the Academy members heard my entry, it was a refreshing return to hearing an orchestral score rather than a rock and pop based score, so I think that’s also maybe what caught their attention.

Kevin Kliesch Sofia the FirstTOONZONE NEWS: I can see that. Is there anything upcoming on Sofia or anything else that you’re working on that you can talk about?

KEVIN KLIESCH: Sofia not really. I’m just going along, I’m still doing the episodes. I just started a big episode that we are very proud of, started that today, but nothing really out of the ordinary on that. One thing I can talk about is that I was hired to score the new Tangled series for Disney. It’s a continuation of the Tangled story from where the movie left off but before they get married in the short. So there’s going to be, I think three seasons of that. At least three seasons. I haven’t started on that, I’m just about to start contributing orchestrations to one of the songs that Alan Menken wrote. He’s writing the songs, I’m doing the score, and I think there’s going to be an introductory movie much like Sofia the First was. I think they’re going to do a 44-minute, maybe even a 60 minute movie, to introduce the series, and I don’t start on that probably until maybe sometime next year, but that’s my next job.

Toonzone News would like to thank Kevin Kliesch for taking the time to talk with us as well as Ashley Moore at Krakower Poling PR for arranging the interview. The latest Sofia the First DVD, Dear Sofia: A Royal Collection, will be released on September 29, 2015.