Light and Licensing: An Interview With Composer Jordan Critz

As accomplished as composer Jordan Critz is–producing records for Green River Ordinance and licensing music for the likes of Disney and National Geographic, to scratch the surface–it’s rare to see his name on a standalone project.

That’s just one thing that sets apart his new EP, Edge of the Light. Here, Critz enlists a string orchestra to accompany his piano on a series of five original compositions, recorded live at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville. It’s easy to visualize dramatic film sequences for these pieces, but they also hold up as an independent listening experience.

The central melody of “Aperture,” which builds through the orchestral sections before falling back on solo piano, is guaranteed to play in your head for hours. “Eclipse” pivots between moods, passing melodies from piano to strings as it moves from a desolate intro into a buildup bursting with nervous energy. Throughout the project, Critz’ themes are vivid, emotional, and as catchy as any pop song.

We’re no experts on classical music at The All Scene Eye, but we took the opportunity for a Q&A with Critz’ covering his work on Edge of the Light and his experiences in the world of music licensing.

It’s been about a week since you officially released the Edge of the Light EP. How was the release, and what have you been up to since then?

It’s funny, because I recorded it in April, so it’s been a few months, and then it was in the licensing world a little bit, but never released. All that to say, it’s good to get it out in the open, let people hear it. When things are just in the licensing world, it’s fun, but it’s only there for filmmakers to use. It’s not really there for people to digest and enjoy. I love when music gets released for people to just listen to.

Is it being licensed for films? Will we be hearing it in that world as well?

I actually need to look at the licenses. It’s probably been licensed 100 times or so, I’m not sure what yet. [laughs] I know it’s on a good amount of stuff, but I’m not really sure what.

I used to look at every license and be obsessed with it, and it wasn’t good for me to do that. I would worry too much about, “oh, what’s this for? And what’s this for?” And then, with my music in the past as well, I had songs that really were successful in the licensing world, and then it’s overwhelming. I basically stopped looking. [laughs] I’ll look at the end of the month to see what was going on, but it helps keep my head out of it.

You used the word “songs,” which is interesting to me. To be totally up-front, classical is not my area of expertise. How do you conceptualize these tracks? Are they songs? Pieces? Movements?

You could really think of them as all of those things. For me, I call them songs, because a lot of them have stories or ideas behind them, and I think melodies can tell a story just as much as words can. I think they tell more of the universal type of story, because they’re not in constraints of a language, like words in a vocabulary.

In a way, music is a vocabulary. Melody is too. So I do think of them as songs. You could think of a normal song as a movement as well. The verse is a movement, the chorus is a movement, the bridge is a movement. So really, I call them songs. They were in that format, where I had a verse. I called it A-B-C, or verse-chorus-bridge.

You’ve got five tracks, about three minutes each, so it feels very similar to sitting down and putting on something from the pop music world. How much does the structural vocabulary of pop music inform what you do?

Oh, so much. I’m a songwriter and a producer as well, so I’m around that form a lot. It informs me a good amount in my writing, but I will say, when I’m just putting out music like this, and it’s not for a film, I do keep a format that’s a lot like the pop songs you would hear.

If I’m scoring to a film, it’s completely different. What informs my writing is the scene. It has no specific structure, unless I’m doing themes for characters in a film, and then that’ll be the only structure. When I’m just writing for licensing, where you’re not writing to picture, it’s very much in that song format that you would be used to.

When we’re talking about Edge of the Light, can you tell me more about the over-arching theme or idea behind it?

I heard this quote that said “darkness is only the shadow on the edge of the light.” For me, it was about perspective. Not everything happens to have that type of vision reference, but you have “Eclipse,” and “Aperture,” and basically, it was this idea of how you see things in the world. You can look out and be like, “man, this can be a terrible place we live.” With the media, and its sensationalization of everything, you can look out and be like, “man, there’s so much awfulness in the world,” or you can see that as this shadow on the edge of all the greatness in the world.

That’s just using one example, but it’s this idea of how you see things, and what lens you filter it through. “Edge of the Light” starts out dark and mysterious, and then at the end, it moves into this more major movement with the piano. To me, that was pushing through this idea that it takes work to see beyond what you’re fed, and see, like I said, the darkness is the shadow on the edge of the light. All these songs have a very specific story; I have to have something that’s inspired me. It’s really about shifting perspective.

Can you tell me the story of “Aperture,” the first track?

It started with a melody. I wanted it to be this idea that it just builds and builds. “Aperture” was just something that feels softer and nicer than “Edge of the Light”. It has to do with the EP theme, but it was more built on this melody. I think it can tell different stories to whoever listens to it. For me, coming out with that made me feel something. I just built on it and built on it, honestly. But it is with that theme of shifting perspective and fighting for focus–fighting to see more than what’s on the edge.

When you’re working with an orchestra, writing harmonies for different instruments, is that something that you develop an ear for over time through trial and error, or is that something you have to sit down and learn?

I think it’s both. There are some people that have never had any training, and they just go with the feeling of it. But always, when you’re writing for strings, especially if they’ll be played live, there is that element where you have to have some skill set to say “ok, what are the ranges of all these instruments, and how am I going to put them together?” Growing up, doing classical music, I was able to dive into that world, and I’ve learned more of it over time.

Even composers that don’t know that world very well, they’ll hire orchestrators. A lot of composers will just sit at the piano and make their themes, and then an orchestrator, the guy that’s trained in all the ranges of instruments and what goes where, he’ll take it from there and actually get it ready for the orchestra to play. I really enjoy that part, so I do it all. It’s just fun for me.

A lot of it is trial and error. I’ll sit there and have a melody, and I’ll say “ok, how does this sound on the violas? Well, no, let me try it on the violins now. Now let me have it on second violins while the first violins are doing a different theme. What are the cellos doing, and the basses?” A lot of it is kind of a puzzle. I’ll hook it up to MIDI in the very beginning and I’ll do trial and error and see what feels right, honestly.

I’m also interested in the live recording process. How long, overall, did that part take?

The recording took about three and a half hours for five songs. The musicians are so great, the engineers at Ocean Way were awesome, and also, while you’re writing it, if you get all the articulations right, and how you want the string players to feel, it’ll go really fast. I spent about a month writing and articulating the sheet music for the players.

The players are amazing. They’ll play anything you put. You can be super specific with everything, and if you get that right, then you roll into your session. They go through it one time to get a feel for it, and the second time they go through it is the take.

There were thirty string players involved. Was there also percussion?

Yes, there was a percussionist as well in the room, and I was playing piano live in the room, which added a whole other element. [laughs] Normally, I’m in the tracking room the whole time, but that added another element of performance. It was pretty fun though.

Was there a separate conductor, or was everybody following you?

Since I was playing piano, a good buddy of mine, Brandon Collins, conducted that session. He just recently arranged strings for U2, and Paul McCartney, and he’s amazing. He’s mostly an arranger, so I asked him to come in on the project to conduct it.

After you’ve done that live session, how much production work is there to do?

Since I didn’t add anything to this project, literally, I pulled it up, and I was like, “well, that sounds good.” [laughs] Because I didn’t edit anything. Sometimes, if I’m working on a film, you’ll get a track together, then you’ll have strings on it, then you’ll bring it back and mix in other elements. Sometimes you’ll add sampled strings with the live strings, but this one, I wanted to set boundaries and say this is a live recording of piano, strings, and percussion.

Setting those boundaries, you’re able to say, “ok, this is it.” There’s not any question of if I should add or take away anything. And it’s recorded well, too–the engineers at Ocean Way are great. I do mix as well, but the mixing process just took a few days, and it was done.

Is it something you would do again? What would you want to try next?

I would totally do this again. I love doing this, and I’ve been able to do some stuff with orchestras in the past, but it just depends. I set pretty specific parameters with this one, and it was fun. Next one, I probably won’t do the same.

I am going to do an EP of really in-your-face music for film trailers, so I’ll probably go back to Ocean Way and actually add horns. I’ll probably do a 60 or 70 piece orchestra there. I might go to Europe and do it as well. I’m still trying to figure that out–that’ll be a lot bigger process.

If I do something else as well, like I’m working on an album right now for licensing and just for myself, it won’t be the same. I’ll definitely record live strings, but I’ll add other elements, like some synths, guitars, ambiance, and things like that. Wherever you wanted to go with the project, I just want to make sure everything I do fits that lane.

You mentioned Europe, and you’ve talked a lot about Nashville, and how that’s a great place for this kind of music. What are the other hot spots for composition work?

It is being done in Europe. The only reason I would go to Europe is to get an orchestra that’s 80 to 100 pieces. [laughs] Ocean Way can hold 60. Europe is great. a lot of guys go to Prague, they go to the Czech Republic, and Vienna is where I’d want to go. The Synchron Stage is a great place. A lot of big composers are doing work out there.

Really, it’s that area in Europe, and then Nashville. When I was talking to the contractor who contracted the string session for me, he was saying they did over 200 dates last year for film and TV here in Nashville, flying composers in from all around the world. So it’s really cool that it’s becoming this spot known for great players, and a spot to record your stuff.

A bigger question here is that to the layman, when you think about contemporary classical, you think about a few household names for film scoring. What is the landscape really like beyond that?

It’s really interesting, because I think the composing world has changed a lot. There’s a bigger world of composers, and not just the Hans Zimmers, the John Williams, or the Thomas Newmans. Those guys are amazing, but they’re in their own world doing films.

Since licensing is growing so much and turning into something really cool, there are lucrative ways to make money outside of having to do film after film after film. Now, composers like myself, they’re more artists. I’m putting out songs like I’m an artist instead of just having music that’s for a film, and then you can license the music to use in a film. There’s a group of composers rising, and I’m sure they’ve always been around, but I think there’s a lot more opportunity now.

For me, the licensing world is lucrative, and it’s really fun, because you can be super creative. When you’re writing to a film, the film basically tells you if it works or not. When you’re not writing to a film, you’re just writing whatever you love. That’s been able to be amazing. And then, if it licenses, there’s this whole other world to make money doing that to support yourself. I let that fund what I love to do with music, and just keep pursuing art.

Can you tell me about the composers who inspire you?

Composing, John Williams is one of the greatest. Jerry Goldsmith. Thomas Newman is one of my favorites. Michael Giacchino, James Horner. Basically, all the movies you grew up watching. Those guys are heavy hitters, and all of that inspires what you do. Every composer has their own thing, which is cool.

They can do films that sound different, but a lot of times, you can tell that it’s them just by the type of themes they write or the type of chord structures they go to. They’re kind of like artists as well. Even though they’re writing for a film, you can always be like, “oh, that’s John Williams.”

I wouldn’t know how to talk about it in terms of theory, but I could definitely hear a piece and know that it’s John Williams. It’s unmistakable.

A lot of that is the way they write. He’s very theme-based; every one of his characters has a theme. He’ll pull that theme back in different ways during the movie and change the instrumentation. A lot of it, too, is the way he utilizes the orchestra. It’s not just string-heavy or horn-heavy. He uses everyone, and the way his chord structures are, the harmonic content between the instruments gets really detailed. The way that he writes, you can tell instantly that it’s him.

You’re a multi-instrumentalist. If you could play any instrument in the orchestra, what would it be?

I think playing cello would be pretty cool. I used to take violin, and I play a little bit, but those kinds of instruments are so precise. You either suck at them, or you’re really good. There’s no in-between, and to be really good, you have to practice every day. [laughs] I learned enough violin to write for it, but I think being really good at cello would be pretty awesome. I love that instrument. A little harder to lug around, though.


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