“I’ve recently been learning how to be bold and be confident to share my ideas and to try them out, because there is obviously space for me here,” says composer Denise Santos, who recently won an Emmy.
Along with writing partner Adam Lucas, Denise bagged the “Outstanding Music Composition” prize for her work on the BBC documentary series “Primates”.
Denise, who describes herself as self-doubting 24/7, believes that the Emmy nod is a sign that she’s on the right track, now a decade after originally studying business in university.
Below we talk about inimitably percussive Pinoy sound, the case for self-advocacy, and ticking off that special item on every composer’s bucket list.
You’re part of the company Bleeding Fingers Music founded by Hans Zimmer. What’s it like? What are conversations like among a community of composers?
“It’s very nerdy! I would say it’s the nerdiest room you’ll ever be in. It starts with, Hey, what have you been working on? How’s that project going? Anything interesting that you’re using technically, or a cool instrument that you’re using? And it always evolves into, what sample libraries are good for this? What’s your favorite trombone patch? In general being part of Bleeding Fingers really catapulted me as a musician, as a composer. There’s nothing like being thrown into the fire.
“I didn’t feel like I was ready to be a full-time composer and true enough I wasn’t. I started out as an assistant. No, actually, I started out as an intern and then got hired as an assistant. And it’s those assistant years that became really helpful because I got to shadow the composer that I was assisting and other composers, too, and I got to see how they managed work. There are so many aspects to this work, there’s the technical side of it, which is so hard to master, and there’s also the discipline side of it, and it’s always good to see how the more experienced composers do it.
“That assistantship really gave me a good idea of how people do their work. Not just their writing, but also the scheduling, the designation of tasks and all that stuff. It’s a really good place, we’re all friends. I met my husband there! So that’s telling of how good a community it is. We’re such a small community so we gravitate toward each other.”
What’s a regular day like for you in LA now during the pandemic?
“I’ll wake up at 7:45, that’s what the alarm is. Pre-pandemic, it would maybe be 7:00 because I would have to get dressed, take a shower, put on makeup, but now I don’t need to do that, which is great! Now I just have my breakfast. I cannot start my day without a plan. The first thing I do is clean up my emails. Stuff come through overnight and priorities change, too, overnight. So I just need to have a clear head. Actually, I should backtrack, I meditate. The first thing I see in the morning are my emails, so my head gets so clouded, I’ve so much to deal with, I meditate and it calms me down. Then I go through the emails, reply when I need to, and just plan my day.
“For the most part, you’re just writing all day. I like to also listen to inspiration. But it’s just been so weird lately, the schedule has been so weird lately. Also we just moved into a house, so there’s a lot of other things in my mind that take me away from just sitting, listening to music. It’s a mixture of writing, listening, checking if I have new emails, cleaning the house.
“That’s my favorite part about working from home now because when I need to take breaks, and I take a lot of breaks, instead of maybe going next door to grab a snack, which was what I did at the office, or bother another composer and ruin their day! At least here I can only bother my dog or my husband. And I’ll clean.”
Working among colleagues from diverse backgrounds, have you noticed a uniquely Filipino style or perspective of composing music?
“I don’t think in terms of composing that… Well, you know what, I think Filipino music is very romantic, now that I think about it. I take a lot of inspiration from harana and kundiman. I do think I bring in a lot of that emotional pull because I come from the Philippines.
“But then we’re so percussive as well. I used to always attend Fête de la Musique. My favorite memory is the drum circles. There’s this one pocket where people have their djembes and they have cajons and everyone’s just dancing and clapping and stomping. Our language is very percussive, too, so I think I bring in a lot of that into my music. I love writing action cues. I think I get a lot of that background of rhythm from the Filipino music and I grew up listening to and experience.”
When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you grow faster, when you allow yourself to show your weaknesses and just not be afraid of criticism.
Great that you mentioned Fête because I know you were also part of bands. How would you compare making music in a band and film composing and the kind of work you do now?
“They’re not that different, I mean one of the main difference is you’re alone, versus you’re with four or five other people. Musically, if you’re in a band, you have to make music that stands on its own, right? So arrangements are different when you’re writing songs as a band. You have to always stay interesting with the songwriting, which I think I’ve brought with me to the film scoring world. But with film scoring, you cannot stand on your own, you have to support the film.
“It’s not about the music, it’s about the film, and sometimes it means being subtle. That’s the thing. It means being very subtle because if you get too much of the attention of the audience and you take away from the film, I think I’ve failed if I’m trying to upstage the real star, which is the film, the story, the acting and all that. That’s the main difference. There are some times when we get to write big music that isn’t against dialogue. So you can be less subtle and it almost feels like you’re writing a song because you’re more featured. That’s where I bring my band mindset of, Let’s keep things interesting, every four bars let’s add something new.”
That’s a great segue to what we’re celebrating, which is your work for Primates. Can you talk about that, its being a nature documentary in particular?
“It’s a feature documentary about primates, so think monkeys, macaques, lemurs, gorillas, bush babies — they look like little tarsiers, super cute! — and I just love this project. I love how we got to be conceptual about it. It’s hard to convince producers sometimes, that you’re trying to be different. A lot of the time producers entertain the idea, but then in the end they’ll feel like, Okay, let’s stay safe, let’s stay with what has been done because it’s a tried and tested formula. But with this one, we got to try different things musically.
“So my writing partner Adam Lucas and I, at the very beginning, we did some research on primates, just fun background stuff, and found out what makes primates special is their dexterity. They get to grip things, they use their hands to live. Not all animals get to do that. We incorporated that idea into the music. We have a lot of snaps, claps, a lot of random hand sounds. I remember I was rubbing against my denim jeans to create a kind of snare sound.
“That was a really nice concept that we had and then we paired it with pop-sounding instruments. Because we were still pretty orchestral, but under that we had some pop elements. We had some electronic drums here and there just to keep it interesting, and some synths that are more pop-inspired, and guitars. I don’t think I can ever not have guitar in my work. I just love the sound of it, I always look for it. So that’s in there, too.”
Thinking back to when you were studying business in college and deciding whether or not to go do music full time, what does winning the Emmy mean for you at this point in your career?
“I’m still processing it! It’s like day two and I still wake up thinking, Was that real? Did that really happen? Even getting nominated, it means a lot. There were a lot of reasons in the past, for me to quit. It’s hard to always believe in yourself. Maybe that’s just my personality, self-doubting 24/7, but that’s who I am. The recognition is like a sign. I take it as a sign that, Hey, you’re on the right track. Honestly, just getting jobs, constantly getting work is also the sign that you’re on the right path. I think that the Emmy is just a bonus, really. A lot of people reminded me that they always said, “I told you so!” or “I’ve always known!” I had no idea! This was the last thing that I aimed for.
“It’s really cool, and I feel like it will lead to more work, which is really cool because then I get to keep doing what I like to do. And I think especially in the industry, it means that when producers and directors want to hire you, the Emmy is like additional reassurance for them that they can trust, that you’ve done something that is recognized. It’s more psyche, that the trust is there. The talent is there, but it adds a layer of, Okay, this person can handle a demanding project, so we can throw something their way and know that it will get done.”
Can you give us a glimpse of what’s in the horizon? What are the next steps in your mind?
“I can’t say what the project is, but I’m really excited about this thing I’m working on, because I will get to record a full orchestra. That’s been in my bucket list since day one and the time has come! It’s just starting so the recording might not some until a month or a month and a half from now, but that’s huge for me. A lot of people have already done it. I think it’s always huge. People are always looking forward to that moment, so I don’t think anyone ever gets sick of that opportunity. So that’s next. That’s going to be my main focus for the next few months.”
Let’s talk favorites. What are for you some excellently scored films?
“Wow, so much. One of my favorite scores is The Hundred Foot Journey by A.R. Rahman. He’s an Indian composer, he’s like the John Williams of India. I used to listen to that score every day going to work. I just love that score. I love Kajillionaire! It’s by Emil Mosseri who also did Minari. It’s very quirky. The way Emile wrote the score, it’s one of my goals, what kind of film I want to do and what kind of score I want to do that with.
“One of my favorites even from a long, long time ago is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The movie, the writing, the acting, the cinematography is great, but the music on its own is so good. It’s by Jon Brion. I’ve seen him live, he played some of the music in the movie and I was balling. I was crying the whole time! I think the score of Kajillionaire has that same sentiment as Eternal Sunshine.
“What else? WandaVision, Christophe Beck, amazing, I love his work. I also love his work for Frozen. He’s more orchestral so it’s educational for me but it also makes me feel a lot of feelings. It’s not just study, it’s also a study on emotion and writing. The Queen’s Gambit, really awesome, love that one. Hillbilly Elegy, the score is by Hans Zimmer and my friend David Fleming. It has a very Americana sound, the score. Since starting on Americana I’ve since loved the genre. I love what they’ve done for it. I can talk forever about this!”
Lastly, what is something you have learned along the way, something you know now that you didn’t before?
“Advocating for myself is something that I’ve learned pretty recently. I used to always just try to be a people pleaser. So I don’t try to be too radical in my ideas. I try to play safe, which I think was fair, I was trying to get into an industry. And not just an industry, I was trying to be an adult, wanting to be accepted by society, but through the years — I’ve been out of college 10 years now — I’ve recently been learning how to be bold and be confident to share my ideas and to try them out, because there is obviously space for me here.
“I’m not good at asking for things and I recently been trying to be more vocal about my needs. Because before, if I need something, I kind of like work with what I have, but it takes so much longer to get to the finish line because I’m limited and I’m learning that it’s okay to ask for help, for example, or it’s okay to show something that I’ve done that’s weak. I used to always be so afraid of showing weak work, because it would be a judgment on me.
“But now I’m realizing that it’s actually when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you grow faster, when you allow yourself to show your weaknesses and just not be afraid of criticism. I think I was just always afraid of criticism. So now I’m learning to [say], Okay, this track is not perfect, but I would appreciate ideas, suggestions. That’s made one of my biggest takeaways in the past few years.”
Jed Gregorio is the Creative Director and Associate Editor of INQUIRER.NET Lifestyle
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