Kevin Kliesch, composer of Disney’s Sophia the First, Tangled: Before Ever After, and Tangled: The Series, talks to Awards Daily TV about scoring animation.
When sitting down to speak with a prolific composer of Disney animated series, you tend to have a preconceived notion of the individual. I imagined an optimistic individual with an infectious enthusiasm for the work and sunny disposition. After speaking with Kevin Kliesch, I wasn’t very far off. Kliesch registers all of those traits and delivers something of a master class on composition.
What I didn’t expect, however, was that the same Disney-fied composer also dabbled in decidedly more adult titles. Kliesch also provided the score for such titles as Dracula II: Ascension, Dracula III: Legacy, and served as music arranger for songs on Sausage Party.
In fact, before working on Sausage Party, Kliesch also provided music cues for Disney’s blockbuster live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. That combination highlights a significant and delicious dichotomy.
But it’s his continued work on Disney’s Sophia the First and Tangled: Before Ever After / Tangled: the Series that merits strong Primetime Emmy® consideration this year. I had the opportunity talk to Kevin Kliesch about how he started in the business, how he built the Disney relationship, and what he strives for when scoring animation.
Kevin Kliesch, where did you get your start in music?
I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and I graduated with a dual major in film scoring and music synthesis, which was electronic music back then. I did the dual degree, and once I graduated, I stayed doing a teaching assistance position. After that, I moved out to L.A. in 1996 to try and pursue film scoring. Out here, I started assisting other composers. I was doing everything from the mundane tasks like getting their groceries and picking up their kids from school. In addition to those tasks, I did some technical support, helping out in the studio, doing some transcriptions. I was pretty much doing everything, and eventually, they would throw me a cue to write and orchestrate. That kind of got the ball rolling.
So, before Berklee, when did you figure out that you loved music and that’s what you wanted to do?
Man, that was back in 1977 when Star Wars came out. I got the original LP, and I think I still have it somewhere. I’ve actually gone through a bunch of LPs because I wore the original groove out. I listened to it over and over. The succession of John Williams scores – Close Encounters in 1978, Superman in 1979, E.T., Raiders – plus Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Tron by Wendy Carlos I would listen to over and over. I just wanted to try and make music.
Then, the AppleII came out. There was a program called Deluxe Music Construction Set for the AppleII back in 1986. It allowed you to actually compose your own music on the AppleII. It was kind of groundbreaking for 1986. You had to buy a card that went into the AppleII and a keyboard for it. You could write up to four lines on a GUI. It was really primitive back then, but it worked. Then, I stared writing my own stuff. That’s how it started.
As a composer, you have a lot of animation credits and then the occasional Dracula. Where does that dichotomy originate?
[Laughs] The Dracula thing came about because I used to orchestrate for Marco Beltrami. I worked on Scream and a few other things with him. He did Dracula 2000. When the director decided to do two follow up movies, he offered them to Marco who was too busy on other projects. He offered them to me. It came about because of my collaboration as an orchestrator with Marco, and he knew I wanted to be a composer as well. When I came out to Los Angeles, I was kind of type-cast as an orchestrator just to kind of get my feet on the ground and get my chops going as a musician. It’s kind of the way my career moved for the next 16 or 17 years just waiting for my break as a composer.
So, how did you get into the Disney family?
I started working with a composer named Richard Gibbs. Richard worked on 10 Things I Hate About You. That was my first Disney film. I became known around the live-action division through that film, and the first feature animation film I became recognized for was Enchanted in 2006 when I was recommended to Alan Menken. He was looking for somebody who could do mock-ups and orchestration for him – somebody that could take his piano demos and not only orchestrate the music for live orchestra but also create the demos for him electronically. The TV animation which led to Sophia came about through my involved with Tangled the film, again with Alan. The feature animation people recommended me to the TV animation people. It all started about 20 years ago.
With Tangled: the Series, how closely do you adhere to the original Alan Menken score?
I’m not at all. For the movie that originates the series Tangled: Before Ever After, I went back to my original orchestrations, and I tried to adhere to what I did 7 years ago. Tried to adhere to the tone originally set for the movie. For the series, I’m kind of going off on my own and blazing my own path. Going back to the sound I’ve developed as my own composer. I’m making that break from the film and just really doing what I feel is appropriate for the picture. I’m really kind of writing what I feel is appropriate for the picture.
How do you score an animated series?
If I were presented with a unique opportunity to score another franchise, that would truly be a challenge because I’d be starting from square one. I’d need to do my homework and try a bunch of styles to see what fits. With the two franchises that I currently score, it was a little bit easier knowing what already worked and what the producers and directors wanted. Those sounds grew out of what already worked and what they liked.
What about animation scores excite you most?
Well, animation gives you the chance to do a lot in a very cropped amount of time. You have to squeeze in a lot of musical ideas in a short amount of time. You have to hit a lot of what’s going on in the picture if not hit everything that’s going on in the picture. In live action, you don’t. Sometimes, in live action, you just have to back off and let the story tell itself. With animation, you have to be the exact opposite. You have to comment on everything. That’s what excites me about animation.
What’s your favorite cue in Tangled: the Series?
Well, we’ve only had six that have aired so far. I’m currently scoring our 14th episode. The one piece that comes to mind is an episode that just aired a few weeks back where Eugene (Zachary Levi) goes through basic training camp. I did a knock-off of the Stripes score by Elmer Bernstein. It really fit the scene well, and I really enjoyed that piece that I wrote. I got to play live instruments on that. I played trumpet, French horn, and clarinet. That piece really stuck out to me.
Tangled: the Series currently airs on the Disney Channel.
Cue from Sophia the First
Cue from Tangled: Before Ever After