Composer Jeremy Zuckerman adds dramatic heft to Avatar: The Legend of Korra.
Fox isnt the only one with a stranglehold on cartoons. Jeremy Zuckerman, mostly known for composing the critically acclaimed Avatar: The Last Airbender has returned to television with a killer one-two punch. Horrible puns aside, in addition to composing for Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness on Nickelodeon, the composer has also returned to the Avatar universe with Avatar: The Legend of Korra. While story and character is always at the forefront, its not as if Zuckerman and frequent collaborator Benjamin Wynn arent getting recognition.
Topanga Messenger: Congrats on your Emmy nomination! How does it feel?
Jeremy Zuckerman: The great thing about the Emmys is that the awards are based on what the judges consider to be artistic merit versus popularity or earnings. So to be recognized in this way is particularly satisfying. I think Ben and I both feel that just to be nominated is an achievement.
TM: Both you and Benjamin Wynn were nominated. Youve worked together for so long, how you describe your collaboration?
JZ: We have varying levels of creative interaction depending on the project. For instance, with Kung Fu Panda we divide the scenes, go and write in our separate studios and then bring our work together to fine tune and ensure cohesiveness. With the Legend of Korra, Ben is responsible for the sound design and Im responsible for the music. We consult when we think a scene will benefit from a mutual awareness of each others work but usually we're on our own with Korra.
TM: For writers the essence of writing is rewriting. Does the same theory apply to composers?
JZ: I really think it depends on the composer. I think that is the case with many composers but for me, I like to hear the music with as much detail as possible. It's just too much of a leap of faith otherwise! The details are what usually get me excited. When Im writing, I often spend a lot of time on a very short section of music to ensure the idea has the ability to do what I need it to. That being said, if Im working with live musicians, I have to do whats called a mock up (a rough draft without the live instruments). If I spend too much effort in making the mock up sound good, it usually will be too complete and there wont be enough room for the live musicians. So, the music may be nearly complete compositionally but not sonically, meaning it may not sound all that good because the live instruments have yet to be recorded but the writing is done.
TM: Both Airbender and Korra are so conceptual, where do you draw inspiration going forward?
JZ: With shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra inspiration is all over the place, ready for the taking. Its in the story, its in the acting, its in the backgrounds, the character designs, etc. And the fact that the creators dont use temp music and allow me to find the musical style makes it really easy to be creative. The show is just so utterly unique. It demands something unique musically.
TM: Do you feel that you have to maintain a certain theme with Korra because of Airbender or do you feel you have a certain level of carte blanche?
JZ: 98 percent of Korra has been completely new musically and conceptually. We really didnt want to repeat ourselves and try to recreate Avatar: The Last Airbender. So I can honestly say that Ive been given carte blanche. That being said, Bryan Konietzko and Mike Dimartino (the shows creators) had some excellent suggestions regarding musical direction early on. It was their idea to find a way to incorporate traditional Chinese music and early Jazz. That is one of several musical elements in the show and it led to some of my favorite cues.
TM: Tell me about Orpheus and Euridice.
JZ: Ha! Thats going way back. That started out as a collaborative project when I was attending CalArts. It was for a class called Comparative Dynamics! I miss art school. I dont mean that facetiously. I really do! Anyway, it was a short collaboration between me and a writer, ex-boxer, songwriter/singer named Juli Crockett. We developed it into a one-act musical theatre piece (or opera if you want to use the term loosely) for the Redcat NOW festival. The musical ensemble was comprised of two violins, double bass, electric bass, three electric guitars, pedal steel, harp, drum set and two sopranos. Probably the weirdest instrumentation Ive ever written for. Stylistically, it was sort of post rock minimalism. Aside from the strange instrumentation, one of the most interesting challenges was writing under the constraint that half of the band was from the rock band background and didnt read music, while the other half was more traditionally trained... I wish we had a good recording of that one. Maybe someday we'll all get in the studio and try to do it again.
TM: So Whats next?
JZ: Well be busy with our two series for a while but, in addition, I would really like to work on something in live action. The right indie movie could be a blast. And of course Im a HUGE fan of pretty much everything AMC and HBO put out. Its really a golden age of TV right now and its an honor to be working in it during this period.