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To The Musical Head of The Chef's Table With Composer Duncan Thum

Updated on August 18, 2015
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Introducing Duncan Thum

Not many people know who Duncan Thum is, but I will say that he is a very talented and unique composer that will be part of Hollywood's resurgence in fresh, original music scoring for both television and film. Duncan's talents currently are being showcased in the interesting and original hit Netflix series, Chef's Table, which features a unique approach on the culinary attributes of the most exceptional cooking chefs throughout the world.

Duncan's music lends a fresh and engaging musical ear that provides each special episode with its own style and musical substance. His music really provides not only a great backbone to popular series but also a refreshing listen on its own that is truly worthy of its own soundtrack.

For this very special interview and my first with Duncan, he candidly talks about the show and the process in which he scores each episode of Chef's Table, how he landed the opportunity and his other previous projects. So please sit back and enjoy our pleasant Q&A session with a future rising star.

Q & A With Duncan Thum

Hi Duncan, how are you and thank you very much for taking the time to conduct this interview with you today in spite of your really busy schedule. It really is an honor to do so.
DT: Nice to meet you Danny, it’s my pleasure.

Please tell the readers about who aren’t familiar with your work of what made you become interested in music and what led you to become a composer.
DT: I loved listening to my Dad play the piano growing up. Thinking back, he had a pretty incredible repertoire of jazz and old time folk tunes under his fingers. My sisters and I would gather around and chant for more. It had a profound influence on me! I always wanted to return the pleasure of dreaming along to the music, to create my own environments for people to enjoy. Film music is a perfect venue for that.

Let’s talk about the series, “Chef’s Table” in which you recently were nominated for an Emmy. How did you become involved with the project?
DT: I’ve known Chef’s Table's creator David Gelb, director Clay Jeter, and cinematographer Will Basanta since our undergraduate years at USC. More recently our dear friend and fellow filmmaker Drew Denny reconnected us as artistic collaborators. When Clay brought me down to the edit room to show me what everyone had been up to, I was blown away. It is a very inspiring team to be part of!

What was your approach after seeing the show musically?
DT: I was struck by Francis Mallmann’s aplomb. He was screaming electric guitar, rock and roll. What more iconic sound could capture his youth and rebelliousness? When Francis was romanced by French culture, I traded the electric for a nylon string to evoke the sound of Django Reinhardt's gypsy swing. In the final act, Mallmann describes his prodigal return to traditional Andean cooking. I chose a charango for this cue, which is basically a 10 string Latin American ukulele. The whole idea was to have the music travel with Francis, transform as he did, but always retain that underlying vim a guitar evokes.

Where the musical ideas there when you were ready to your themes?
DT: The initial stages of writing are relatively freeform and playful. Condensing those ideas into something more refined and poignant is one the most difficult parts of the creative process. Once I settled on the guitar as a motif from Francis, my work was cut out for me.

What’s the process that you go through musically for each show?

DT: Chef's Table is as much a show about culinary mastery as it is about the journey and ethos of each chef. It's fascinating to see how the chefs themselves are seasoned. Once you can put a finger on that pulse, a musical arc starts to take shape.

Do any of the producers of the show get involved in the musical process while you were writing your score or did he simply give you an idea and you just run with it?
DT: Clay, Santos (our editor) and I all sat down together and watched the cut 2 or 3 times before I started writing anything. Clay knew exactly how he wanted to Tell Francis' story, he pinpointed the significant moments in the narrative and the role of music was discussed in a philosophical way. Santos had picked some very cool inspiration music too. From there, I was given plenty of room to experiment, which was really fun and allowed me to find the most suitable ideas to underscore Clay's vision.

Is it difficult to come up with new material with each show that you do or does each show inspire you to get more creative musically?
DT: Chef's Table definitely has a cohesive sound as a series. The use of a modernized, edgier version of Vivaldi's 'Winter' in the main titles sets that tone. To me it says “here is the high culture of cooking”. It is at once classic but also provocative, wily and fresh.

Do you like to perform all of the music you’ve written on the show?
DT: As much as I possibly can! You want the music to breathe just like the chefs do. As a rule of thumb, the best way to get that effect is to use live performance. I'm a guitar player by training, so most of this score was in my wheelhouse. If I can't play it, I'll find someone who can. We had a wonderful string quartet come in and one of my collaborators, Tyler Sabbag, absolutely killed the percussion.

What’s your favorite part about performing it?
DT: Composing music is one step removed from playing it. It’s freedom from the constraints of technique. You can go as far as you want. Conversely you risk over complicating an idea, or worse. I like to use performance to keep myself in check, plus its fun to make noise.

Have you needed to use an orchestra for any of the episodes so far?
DT: So far just a string quartet, but I am hatching ambitious plans for next time!

Would you prefer to work with an orchestra when you can?
DT: The answer is a resounding yes, so long as the sound of an orchestra is called for.

How much music did you have to write for the show in total so far?
DT: I'd say around 45 minutes.

Will there be a soundtrack for the show? Do you want to have one?
DT: There isn't an official release currently, though I would love to make it happen. The music has had a positive reception, I've heard from incredibly nice folks around the world. It’s so meaningful to hear people are enjoying the tunes and Francis’ story, but also to know if I'm doing my job properly. Composers don't always get audience reactions in that way.

Is it difficult to work in television as a musician? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
DT: I treat scoring for television no differently than I would a film. It's a case by case scenario. The advantage of episodic work is the ability to establish a musical palette, which can be helpful when you are under a deadline.

You also did the film “Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana!” working with Steve Gernes on that film. Please talk about that project.
DT: Bodyslam, not unlike Chef's Table, is a profile of personality as much as it is about its subject matter. The film documents the micro-culture of semi-pro wrestling in Seattle through the eyes of the wrestlers themselves. When John Paul Horstmann and Ryan Harvie (the film's directors) approached me about writing music for them, I knew Steve would be a perfect collaborator. We had just worked together on Chef's Table, we already in a groove.

Did you have fun working on the film? What were the memorable aspects of working on Bodyslam?
DT: It was awesome! I think the main character, while something of a misanthrope, exudes humanity. It's hard to justify some of his decisions, but you really end up feeling for the guy given his various misfortunes. We had to carefully balance the music so it highlighted his idiosyncrasies while not making him appear overly dour.

The score is very unique and engaging, was it easy for you to come up with the material that you did for the film or did that take a little time as the film was being put together?
DT: Thank you! I'd say it took us about a month in total to score it. John Paul and Ryan came in with some really cool time stretched circus music as inspiration. Steve and I were able to build our whole score off that. In a sense it’s still classical theme and variation scoring, but with a punky-raw musical palette to evoke the burlesque subculture of the wrestlers.

Did you get to utilize an orchestra for this film?
DT: Does a garage band orchestra count? I'd say this is much more a bathtub gin aesthetic. We were ebow-ing broken mandolins and making percussion beds by rattling the keys of a harmonium. We did manage to fit a clarinet choir in however!

How much music did you write for it?
DT: Around 60 minutes or so.

Would you like to see a soundtrack for it released?
DT: 100% yes! It would be lovely to share the music with those who are interested in the film.

Is it harder or easier for you to write for television as opposed to film? Do you think the process is a lot simpler for a composer or just as difficult?
DT: In some television scoring cases, such as 'Francis Mallmann,' it is necessary to treat the music as a film score. We wanted it to feel as cinematic as possible, which required live strings and percussion in addition to all the guitars. For the finale, we orchestrated and recorded 4 separate string quartets and stacked them on top of each other to create the effect of a larger, wilder sounding string section.

Which composer do you think has had an effect in your career personally?

DT: I'm a huge fan of Arvo Part, Messiaen, Debussy, and Toru Takemitsu among many others. I love these composers because they really respect the space between the notes. I‘d like to also acknowledge my professors at USC's Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television graduate program. Their generosity of knowledge and collective experience is an enormous service to the students of music and film alike.

Your all time favorite film score?
DT: Perhaps too tricky to narrow it down, but for now I'll go with "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" or "Vertigo." If you throw those records on and close your eyes, you can basically watch the movie.

Do you have a dream project you would love to do?
DT: A Coen Brothers film. #BucketList

Please tell the readers about future upcoming projects you may have.
DT: I have some exciting things in the works, but I can't mention anything yet. Stay tuned!

Thanks so much Duncan for granting me the time for this interview! I really appreciate it and I’m looking forward to your work in the future. Thanks so much!
DT: Awesome!! Glad to have the opportunity, thank you!

Very special thanks to Duncan Thum for being so gracious with his time for this interview. Very special thanks also go to Ashley Moore for her support.

Duncan Thum's Bio

"is an Emmy nominated composer and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles, California.

An early exposure to music from his father and an active imagination lead Duncan through a host of sonic explorations during his youth. The muse crystallized in the study of guitar at Interlochen Arts Academy and USC’s Thornton School of Music. Duncan's career as a composer also began at USC, where friendship and collaboration with his filmmaker counterparts in USC's School of Cinematic Arts would prove long lasting.

Upon graduation Duncan honed his skill as a songwriter, performer and producer in experimental art rock band Pizza!, as well touring nationally with electro pop acts Walter Meego and Evan Voytas. Turning his full attention to film music, he scored his first feature in 2012, Drew Denny’s “The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With My Pants On”, and in the following year earned a certificate from USC’s prestigious Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television graduate program.

At SMPTV, Duncan developed a signature style of writing that would play out over subsequent scores and additional music for Lego’s “Ninjago” animated series, feature film “Thou Wast Mild And Lovely” and feature documentary “BodySlam! Revenge of the Banana”.

In 2015, Duncan grabbed his collection of guitars and teamed back up with USC contemporaries David Gelb and Clay Jeter for their profile of Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann, part of Netflix’s docu-series “Chef’s Table”. Duncan's score for the series was recognized by the Television Academy and nominated for an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Music Composition For A Series (Original Dramatic Score). In the same year, his score for the short film “Restoration” was awarded Best Original Score by the Long Island International Film Expo."

© 2015 DANNY GONZALEZ

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