Life of a composer is fascinating as composers are intimately involved with everything we see in the entertainment world. Whether watching anything online or on television, or experienced in the movie theater or live performance venue, what we see is a visceral experience elevated by the music that accompanies it. If you close your eyes and listen, you can feel just how powerful and resonate musical compositions are in creating that emotional connection to everything we see. It is fluid art — art which touches our soul. In an exclusive interview, composer Adam Lastiwka reveals the fortuitous journey that lead him to the opportunity to compose for Netflix’s drama series TRAVELERS.
What do you recall being the spark that pushed you into the incredible field of composing for the visual arts, whether it is for film or television?
ADAM: When I was still in high school, I wrote some music for a dramatic stage play. I really had no idea what I was doing. After I wrote my first batch of ideas, I went to see them rehearse with it. I was really moved by how they had adapted their performances to the music I had written, as well as how they responded to certain timing cues and brought things out in my ideas I hadn’t even been aware of. I learned so much about how to musically respond to an actor’s performance by seeing how they responded to a musical backdrop. To this day, I think it has just added a lot of richness and appreciation to how every individual artist and craftsperson on a TV or film production does their job with such care and perfection.
What led to you getting your first opportunity to compose for the visual arts (film/television)?
ADAM: I was very fortunate to meet composer Shawn Pierce [composer for Syfy’s HAVEN] while I was working at a music store in my early twenties. I had been doing some tech work for him through the store, and we just got to talking and really hit it off. The rest of it just felt like a very natural growth into a mentorship that lasted over seven years. What’s interesting is that my music store job was the result of me thinking, “I cannot be a composer. I need a real job.” But in the end, the practicality of that ended up leading to my most fortuitous opportunities. By a few strokes of luck, I got hired on a Food Network show created by the very talented writer, producer and director Peter Waal. We had a really great time collaborating, and between work we did together or referrals from him, I’ve gotten to score hundreds of TV episodes. Once you establish trust with your colleagues, there is little else more rewarding than becoming “their guy” and getting the opportunity to be a part of all their subsequent projects.
Looking back at your very first visual arts composing opportunity, what stood out for you from that experience?
ADAM: The very visceral feeling of looking at the project I’d been given and saying, “I am absolutely one hundred percent incapable of doing this,” and then three days later (sans sleep) somehow having a pretty decent useable final product. It’s another moment I’ll never forget as it reinforces that you are rarely ever ready for the big opportunities when they come up, but the process of facing them is where you grow. I’ve seen many people turn down excellent opportunities because they say, “I’m not qualified” or “I’m not ready” or something along those lines: Just take the gig, study up, and learn as you go!
When you compose for a film or TV shows, what instruments do you like to use or rely upon to create specific sounds?
ADAM: I think the concept and tone of the series really dictates this. There are some instruments I’m more comfortable on (most stringed instruments), but they don’t always have a place in every project. I really enjoy playing with sound design and sometimes a whole concept can be inspired from fairly random sound exploration.
Were there any specific challenges that you encountered when you first began professionally composing for the visual medium?
ADAM: I think the anxiety of being constantly aware of how exposed a freelancer is to variability of an enormously wide berth. Every working and functioning person has exposure to this, but the infrastructure they are a part of can shield them from the awareness of it. As a freelancer, you are constantly reminded of the uncertainty in everything, and you adapt to it. I don’t necessarily think the anxiety is a negative thing, and is probably necessary for continuous survival in your field.
Then how did you get the opportunity to compose for the Netflix series TRAVELERS?
ADAM: I’ve always made albums in parallel to my scoring projects, but they tended to be a little bit too forward for most scoring projects I was getting hired on. I would always post them on my SoundCloud page and present it all as an idea collage that ranged just about every genre I was capable of producing, spanning almost ten years of work. When Brad Wright and Nick Hurran were searching for composers for TRAVELERS, someone linked them to my SoundCloud and they apparently heard exactly what they were looking for. I was hired immediately. The situation felt so lucky that I was in disbelief for weeks after.
So far, what is your favorite part about composing for TRAVELERS?
ADAM: I work with such an incredibly talented cast on that show, it’s just an absolute treat to compose to all their inspired performances and ideas. Brad is incredibly encouraging about experimentation and his trust in my instinct really elevates the amount of effort I put in to everything.
Do you have any type of favorite scenes that you can share that are cool or were fun to compose for in TRAVELERS?
ADAM: In a lot of the episodes, you get that big ending cue where all the shows themes can culminate. If the structure allows, it can sometimes be very efficient and fun to start scoring the show at the end, and then sculpt away pieces back to the start of the episode. It enables you to avoid certain pitfalls and traps in the dynamic structure of the episode that might pull a viewer out of it.
It is said that you work with 25 different instruments to create the sounds we hear in TRAVELERS. Do you play that many instruments yourself, or is that just the total number that were used for the sounds we hear?
ADAM: I definitely can play more than that with varying levels of expertise. A lot of my day when I’m not scoring is spent practicing. I’ve found that as you learn more instruments, efficiently picking up new ones becomes self-propagating. For example, I’ve recently tried to learn a Chinese bowed instrument called an Erhu, which essentially utilizes the same bowing technique as a GuitarViol, as well as the same fingering position shifts I was learning on violin. My playing capacity on a lot of these instruments is fairly basic but learning as many as I can is something I’ve decided to make part of my lifelong goals. Discovering things about other cultures by absorbing their music has become an absolute joy for me as well.
What specific instruments did you rely upon that you felt added to the fun adventures in the series?
ADAM: I found a fifteen foot long piece of sheet metal in my attic that became a part of a fairly essential percussion sound. In season three, I’m using a lot more cello and nylon guitar which is very familiar and intimate, and a lot of the themes adapt very nicely on them.
Is there a specific sound that you try to bring two life to make the show feel more futuristic?
ADAM: I think starting with very raw, organic folk instrument performances and then bringing them into the electronic world has really become the voice of the show. I’ve been producing electronic music since I was twelve (almost twenty years now), so I’m very comfortable in that realm of production.
What has been one thing you have taken away from your experience working on TRAVELERS?
ADAM: The thoroughness of how you spot an episode is critical in ensuring the score is functional and effective. It’s the time you sit back and ask all the pertinent questions like what is the motivation of the character, what are we trying to convey emotionally, how big, how small, how fast. Working with different producers and directors and discovering their process through inquiry like this will really sharpen your instinct.
What would you like readers to know about that particular project that may not be obvious just watching TRAVELERS?
ADAM: This show was my first dramatic TV project on my own as a composer. When it came up it was (and still is) a huge deal to me. I’m very grateful for all the work I got to do in factual, documentary and feature film world, as well as the hundreds of episodes I got to assist with that prepared me for it. But even with all that backing and preparation, it’s been filled with so many new experiences that you really have to more or less hold them in your hands to really understand.
You have also worked on the Syfy series HAVEN. What has stood out for you in working on that series as an assistant composer?
ADAM: Being able to piggyback someone through their projects, to work under them and watch them navigate the industry is a very powerful learning experience. Shawn was especially very gracious, patient and understanding with me, and without a doubt one of the greatest mentors and teachers I could have had. HAVEN was a very fun show and the score involved a lot of heavy lifting since it covered such a broad range of themes and tones. Being able to witness how a world-class Berkeley-trained composer approaches scene and episode structure, theme and motif variation and in-context composition—and then be a part of that—is very motivating and educating.
How does it feel to complete a project that viewers really respond to?
ADAM: It’s such a rewarding feeling to have people appreciate the show. Being part of something that entertains, immerses and inspires people is definitely adds to the drive to make your work better.
At this stage of your career, what do you think you have learned from the amazing variety of projects you have worked on?
ADAM: Always serve the narrative, first and foremost. You need to understand the characters and really be inside their head. I think working as a TV composer specifically, you are the narrator and a lot of the time your work is subliminal. Writing great music is very important, but writing effective, coherent and appropriate ideas is the first goal that has to be achieved in a project.
Are there any cool perks of where you are in your career right now?
ADAM: No wife or kids and the fact that I’m very comfortable being a bit of a hermit means I can endure some pretty intense work hours without it seeming like an unusual burden. I’ve really tried to simplify my life over the last couple years and it’s paid off by giving me the time to really enjoy what I’m doing.
Has there been any great advice you have gotten in working as a composer?
ADAM: Go on very slow walks often.
What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring visual arts composers?
ADAM: The absolute most basic advice for making a score work in context is don’t stand up when you should be sitting down, and don’t be sitting down when you should be standing up.
What do you consider to be one of your proudest accomplishments as a composer?
ADAM: I think the simple fact that I am lucky enough to be a composer and to wake up in the morning with that purpose and meaning is more than enough for me. It’s nice to have the respect of my peers, as well to be able to collaborate with such brilliant and talented people on regular basis. I’m very happy about where my work has taken me, and really excited about where it could go.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out for? ADAM: I have a new album coming out titled “Come Back to Earth with Me,” which is a bit of an aggressive but fun space-themed electronic project I was picking away at in between all my shows. Also a double album for TRAVELERS will be released when season three airs that includes both the season two and three scores.
To hear and appreciate the incredible sounds and scores that Adam created for TRAVELERS, you can check out the show on Netflix, where the first two seasons are available for binge-watching. You can also follow the show on Twitter @TRVLRSeries for more information about the show. In addition, you can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlastiwka to keep up with his career and be sure to check out his website for additional information about his composing projects: http://www.adamlastiwka.com/ You may also hear his work as showcased on his SoundCloud at: https://soundcloud.com/adam-lastiwka
TRAVELERS Season 1 Mixes:
TRAVELERS – End Credits Theme
Adam Lastiwka – Travelers Composer Interview (Official Video)