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Underscoring The Trials And Tribulations Of The Soviet Red Army Hockey Team With Composer Leo Birenberg

Updated on April 26, 2015
Profile of Composer Leo Birenberg of the film, Red Army co-composed with Christophe Beck
Profile of Composer Leo Birenberg of the film, Red Army co-composed with Christophe Beck | Source

Composer Leo Birenberg is one of the rising stars in Hollywood. He has been working with Emmy Award Winning Composer Christophe Beck of the hit films, Frozen and Edge Of Tomorrow in recent years. A young, raw talent filled with great musical ambition who has collaborated with his mentor in the recent documentary film, Red Army directed by Gabe Polsky, which is based on the power house 1970s and 1980s Russian teams that dominated the international scene until many of their players defected to the NHL by the late 80's and early 90's.

This film features a fine collaborative score by two of the best and brightest and continues their musical excellence. For this special Q & A interview session with Leo, he happily talks about the film, working with Christophe on the score, the soundtrack album and working with director Gabe Polski. So sit back and hear the roar of the musical crowd. Just in time for the NHL playoffs!


Profile of Composer Christophe Beck co-composer of the film Red Army with Leo Birenberg.
Profile of Composer Christophe Beck co-composer of the film Red Army with Leo Birenberg. | Source

The Interview

Thank you very much for taking the time to conduct this interview with you today It really is an honor to meet you and I’m grateful to you for the opportunity to share your thoughts. What made you become interested in music and what led you to become a composer.

LB: Thanks for having me! It's my pleasure. I think I was interested in movies first. Spent most of my childhood running around with a video camera making X-Men and Indiana Jones spinoffs starring my friends and our dogs. I discovered music independently, as a woodwind player and musical theater kid, and then one day had the realization: "I should combine these things!" And film composing Leo was born.

Let’s talk about “Red Army” a very thoughtful and insightful documentary on one of my favorite sports, hockey and the famous Soviet Red Army team that dominated International competition. How did you become involved with the project?

LB: I was working with Chris at the time and Gabe got in contact with him because he knew he was a huge hockey fan. Chris had a lot on his plate at the time, so suggested we share the load.

You co-wrote the score with Composer Christophe Beck of Disney's Frozen. What was it like working with him on the film?

LB: Fantastic. I've had the pleasure of working with Chris in various capacities on a number of projects in the last few years. He's been a terrific mentor and friend to me and we have a great working relationship.

Was it difficult or easier for both of you to find a tone for that music after seeing the film or did that take a while for you to get where you wanted the music to be?

LB: We started working without picture. Documentaries can take an enormous amount of time to edit, as I'm sure you can imagine. So we worked our way through a few hours of footage that Gabe sent over and just felt inspired and started working on themes. Probably ended up writing about 25 minutes of music that just developed those early ideas, and went back and forth with Gabe discussing them. Then once the picture was in a place that was ready for us, it was a matter of seeing what worked and could be developed in a way that actually told the story.

Did Director Gabe Polsky specifically give you an idea of what he wanted musically for the film after spotting it with you and Christophe?

LB: "Russian Soul" were his exact words! Gabe really wanted to get at the pathos of the story, and wanted music that got at the core of the ideas presented without just sounding like he was cutting Russian music into the film. It's not really a movie about hockey, it's a movie about Russia-- hockey is just the lens Gabe used.

Was it fun for you to write a score to a film about hockey and in particular from the point of view of a former Russian and NHL player Slava Fetisov, who I saw played for the New Jersey Devils along with Alexei Kastonov?

LB: Very much so. I grew up in Chicago, so I have some hockey roots as did Gabe and Chris is a huge hockey fan. The viewpoint of the movie is really what makes it fun to watch. Slava's story unfolds like a narrative.

Did you both decide on who was handling a particular scene or did you just collaborate as partners on the project?

LB: Collaboration all the way through. We didn't really split anything up in terms of scoring. It was a lot of working on themes together early on, and then as the project progressed, I did a lot of the scoring-to-picture work.

What were the recording sessions for the score like and where was the score recorded?

LB: We did some session early on recording some ideas on balalaika, violin, flute, and clarinet. It's always inspiring to get actual players involved as early as possible and you learn a lot about your material by hearing it performed. But that was the extent of the recording on the score.

Did you guys use a live orchestra for this score?

LB: We did not. Unfortunately, the budget didn't allow for it. So everything you hear is a mockup I programmed. I work in Cubase and use a large mix of sample libraries commercially available.

How much music did you end up writing for the film?

LB: I don't have the official list in front of me, but I think it came out to a little over an hour of original score.

Did you get any input from the Director while you were recording it, if you should change a note here, a bar there or even an entire track?

LB: Not during recording, we didn't do that. But we did have a very open dialogue with Gabe over the months we were working on the film. He's a big picture guy though "never makes a comment on a single note or chord" it's always about much more abstract storytelling ideas.

The score album which will be released by Milan Records in a few days can you please tell the readers how you put the album together and what made you decide to put on the CD together the way you did?

LB: First off, a big thank you to the guys at Milan. They've but together an absolutely beautiful album. They got in contact with us saying they were interesting in releasing the score and we were more than happy to oblige.

Was it hard for you to put together a soundtrack of your work for this film?

LB: Not really. Because the story is so narrative, the soundtrack sort of just came together by putting all the cues in order and then trimming some things as I would with any soundtrack. In some cases, I went back to the original suite of music and used an excerpt from there if I felt the structure made for a better listening experience than it's corresponding score cue.

What is your favorite film that you have scored to date?

LB: That's a bit like picking your favorite child. Not sure I can genuinely commit to one. Red Army is definitely near the top of the list though. Just a very engaging and powerful story and I'm very grateful to have been a part of telling it.

Do you have a dream project you would love to do?

LB: A western. Like an all-out gunslinging americana epic in the tradition of High Noon or The Magnificent Seven. And I guess now that they are making Star Wars movies again, I couldn't possibly turn that down. Maybe by the time they make "Yoda 2" I will be on the list!

Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects you may have.

LB: Just finished a very, very funny new series for Comedy Central called "Big Time in Hollywood, FL." It's their first venture into a serialized show and is an absolutely wild and crazy ride. It just started airing so I highly recommend everybody tune in.

Thanks so much Leo for granting me the time for this interview! I really appreciate it and I’m looking forward to your work in the future.

LB: Thank you!

Very special thanks to Leo Birenberg for being so gracious with his time to do this interview and to Milan Records' Stefan Karrer.

The film Red Army is now playing in limited release

The Red Army Soundtrack is now available on Milan Records

Album Cover for the Red Army Soundtrack Music By Christophe Beck and Leo Birenberg
Album Cover for the Red Army Soundtrack Music By Christophe Beck and Leo Birenberg | Source

Leo Birenberg's Biography (Courtesy of Leo Birenberg.com)

"Leo Birenberg is a Los Angeles-based composer for film, television, and video games. Originally from Chicago, Leo grew up as a performer, studying saxophone, clarinet, flute, piano, and voice. He received his undergraduate diploma in Music Composition at New York University studying with Justin Dello Joio. Leo has also studied at the Juilliard School and at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, Italy with Composition Chair Riccardo Riccardi. In 2010, Leo was accepted into the prestigious Scoring For Motion Pictures and Television program at University of Southern California, where he studied under Jack Smalley, Pete Anthony, Garry Schyman, Christopher Young, and Emmy Award-winning composers, Joel McNeely and Bruce Broughton.

Leo has worked on numerous projects in the film, television, video game, and concert world. With influences that span the musical spectrum, his music encompasses a broad range of styles, including jazz, classical, musical theater, pop, and more. Currently, Leo lives in Los Angeles, California and works for Grammy-nominated composer and orchestrator Tim Davies and Emmy-winning composer Christophe Beck (The Hangover, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)."

© 2015 DANNY GONZALEZ

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