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An Interview with Emily Carmen

What inspired you to play the violin at such a young age?
When I was three years old, I watched an orchestra on PBS and Itzhak Perlman performed a solo.  I can’t describe what came over me, but I grabbed a pencil and crayon to mimic what Itzhak was playing. Then I ran to my parents and said “I want to do this” and held up the pencil and crayon and “played” air violin.  I was too small for the even tiniest violin, so I had to wait a couple of years and pretended to play by holding up a small plastic guitar to my chin. When I got a real violin at the age of five, I started taking lessons and have loved it ever since. 

Who were your musical influences while you were growing up?
Well, those were the ‘80s. So, I heard a lot of Pat Benetar, Chakah Khan, Michael Jackson and Prince while driving around in the back seat of the car with my mom. My dad played The Beatles, The Police, Gensis, Peter Gabriel, etc. so I was exposed to a lot of the popular music of that time.

I remember my dad gave me a cassette tape of “karaoke music” versions of 80’s hits without the words and I was obsessed with listening to that tape over and over again and acting out the musical parts, never even realizing that they were actual hit tunes with lyrics. That was my first experience with "performing", even though it was just in my living room with my parents as the audience.

In middle school (now we’re into the ‘90s) I liked the skater, funk and punk bands like Nirvana, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was mesmerized by No Doubt and especially Gwen Stefani, their lead singer. I remember when my cousin first showed me their music and said “you remind me of this singer”. Then she played “I’m Just a Girl”. We were about 11 or 12 and I remember how that moment changed me. I thought “I am going to do that too someday!”

My cousin also introduced me to the band Garbage and they blew me away with the electronic sounds and incredible production quality. To me, it was a whole new rock band style that I wanted to be a part of, and a some of that influence can be heard in my original compositions. Later, I discovered Queen. Freddie Mercury’s piano playing showed me that you don’t have to play rock guitar to be a performing artist with amazing tunes, which was my inspiration to integrate the violin into my songwriting.

What kind of music do you listen to now?
I listen to pretty much everything, from the same artists I grew to love in the 80's and 90's to the new artists of today's scene. I think it’s important to have a musical palate that enables you to find something enjoyable in every genre of music.  

Why did you decide to follow a career in film composition?
Danny Elfman’s music for Tim Burton’s film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, was an epiphany for me and sparked my interest in “movie music.”  I saw it when I was about five years old and had no idea that it moved me so much until later on in life when I looked back at how it affected me. I remember playing the main theme to that movie on our upright piano all the time.  Later on when I was about 14, I watched Black Beauty dozens of times, which turned out to be another film Danny Elfman scored.  I didn’t know what struck me about the music, but it reached me emotionally. I was hooked on Elfmanesque music! 

My dad got me a collection of Elfman’s compositions and I’d listen to the scores over and over again, analyzing them in detiail each time. Eventually, I began to realize that music is the emotional trigger for movie visuals, and it inspired me to learn more. Then, in high school I choreographed a dance performance and also composed the music. That's when it occurred to me...“wait…films have music…I can do that!” From then on, I wanted to compose music to visuals as a career.

Who are some of your favorite film composers?
Danny Elfman, of course. He has a distinct style that’s his unmistakeable signature and that’s what I love about his work.  His music has certain qualities and instruments that he applies in such a way that it works even when you’d normally think that it wouldn’t. 

Bernard Herrmann and his score for Psycho is a classic. Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story is one of the only musicals I can sit down and fully enjoy. He influenced my desire to compose original music for my theater arts course in high school.

Charlie Chaplan. Not many people are aware that he was a film composer. He wrote the music for his films by humming and clunking stuff out to an orchestrator. He also played violin. In fact, it was a left-handed violin, which is unusual. Few people were able to star in a movie, direct the movie, write the screen play and the music like Chaplin. I’d love to do that someday.

John Williams. But he gets so much recognition, Star Wars? Jaws? Home Alone? All blockbusters.

My friend and mentor Ira Newborn’s scores for the Naked Gun movies are fantastic. Ira has a knack for using big band instruments in his scores and the Naked Gun opening themes always impressed me. They pull you into the film…and that’s what film music is supposed to do. Enhance the film and make the viewer want to keep watching.

It’s a fine art to be invisible, and that’s what film composers have to do. We have to write music that works in such a way that the viewer doesn’t realize it’s there, even though it's moving you emotionally..

What’s it like performing live with bands? How much improvising do you do and how much of what you play is predetermined before the show?

It’s nice to play with other bands because you don't have the pressure of having to be the ring leader. Instead, you get to concentrate on the performance and not worry about the other details.  I like it because it makes me keep up my performing chops as a violinist. The thing I always keep in mind when I perform with someone elses band is that you have to put your own opinions aside and play what they want.  If they want a violin with an effect, fine, if not then don’t. You can’t have the attitude of “I’m the greatest you can’t tell me what to do.”  Granted, I will make a suggestion here and there, but I never insist. I respect other people's music and I’m simply there to add to their art.

In terms of preparation it all depends.  I  usually ask the band for the titles of the songs so I can listen to them a bunch of times and play along with the parts they want me to play. Sometimes though there isn’t a violin part so I’ll either be asked to mimic some bass or guitar lines or have to come up with my own part.  That’s where improvisation comes in. I listen to the song several times and just figure out where a few “sweeteners” or some violin would work, and where it wouldn’t. Then when I walk in to the gig I know where to play and where to keep quiet.  I’m usually told though that I compliment what’s going on and never take over…so I guess it’s working!

Any parting words for our readers?
Find something you love to do, then figure out a way to get paid for doing it. I was fortunate in that I knew early on in life that music was my passion. Even with a couple of roadblocks in my way, I was able to get around them and move forward with what I love to do. My advice to anyone with a passion is to go for it. Consider yourself lucky that you're inspired and make it your life. Everything else will fall into place.



(c) Copyright 2009 Emily Carmen Bonanno. All Rights Reserved. Contact: EmilyCarmen@gmail.com