"It's always important to know what your role is in a given scene," composer Leo Birenberg reveals the tricks of a soundtrack

In an interview with MEAWW, composer Leo Birenberg talks about the "musical rules" of each project, his current preoccupations and future plans


                            "It's always important to know what your role is in a given scene," composer Leo Birenberg reveals the tricks of a soundtrack

Knowing the importance of a composer's role in a given scene has helped Leo Birenberg create memorable music in many beloved movies and TV series.

He has been acclaimed for his recent work on DreamWorks’ new series 'Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny', which follows Po from being a student to a master as he trains four young students who are determined to discover their 'qi'. 

Leo’s music has also been featured on some of this generation's most memorable film and series soundtracks, such as Disney’s 'Frozen', Marvel’s 'Ant-Man', Comedy Central’s 'Big Time in Hollywood, FL' and Fox’s 'Son of Zorn'.

He has also composed the score for the critically acclaimed series 'Cobra Kai', based on the iconic film 'The Karate Kid'.

In an exclusive mailer with MEAWW, Leo talks about the Chinese culture which helped him shape the composition for shows like 'Cobra Kai' and 'Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny'; the challenges he faced while composing for new characters and the extended Kung Fu Panda universe, and finally his plans to work with 'Pen15' on Hulu, 'Tigtone' on Adult Swim, and the romantic comedy film 'Plus One'.

Leo Birenberg, the composer who created some of the most iconic soundtracks of our times. (Getty Images)
Leo Birenberg, the composer who created some of the most iconic soundtracks of our times. (Getty Images)

What was your approach like while composing for the show?

This show was so fun because it draws a lot of influence from both spaghetti westerns and B-kung fu movies. For me, that meant finding a way to weave together the gravitas of a western score with some fun retro-funk and cinematic orchestra, all while using Chinese instruments as a core part of the palette. It was an opportunity to write and develop strong themes for the characters that develop through the series.

How would you say your track is different from the one we hear in the movies?

The music in the movies is incredibly big and cinematic, and while the score to the show is too, our goal was never to use more instruments than we needed to. I wanted the whole thing to have this slightly limited and lo-fi approach, like some of the great Spaghetti western scores. If all I needed to tell a story beat was one intense guitar line, why use any more (except, in this case, I might use a Chinese ruan instead!)

The music is what defines Po's journey from being a student to a master. (IMDb)
The music is what defines Po's journey from being a student to a master. (IMDb)

Were you nervous that the likes of Hanz Zimmer composed for 'Kung Fu Panda' movie?

At first, I was nervous because the Kung Fu Panda universe has so many established characters that I would need to create new themes for. But quickly I became absorbed in the creativity of contributing to such an elaborate web and all the worries melted away. Especially with Po, the main character from the films, who in this series takes on the role of teacher to the young pandas. One of the first things I did was work on a theme for Po that I felt was strong and identifiable enough to be worthy of continuing the Kung Fu Panda story.

How important do you think music is when it comes to on-screen storytelling?

Incredibly important in guiding the audience’s feelings. But as a composer, it’s always important to know what your role is in a given scene. Each project is different and ends up with its own musical “rules” so to speak. It’s important not to get too focused on your own music and accidentally lose sight of what the broader goals of the scene are.

For Leo, music is important to guide the audience's emotions. (IMDb)
For Leo, music is important to guide the audience's emotions. (IMDb)

Given that the story is chiefly based out of China, was it difficult for you to reflect the culture in your music?

Not at all -- traditional Chinese music has a wealth of instruments and techniques that I was able to draw on. The fun part was using traditional Chinese instruments in untraditional ways, like substituting a pipa guitar for a traditional electric in a funky fight scene.

How would say your music has helped the show?

A huge part of this show is how much it expands the Kung Fu Panda universe, and it was my job to help with that. New characters, places, cultures, etc. all of which needed music that fit into the larger world. Overall, I saw my goal as to thread the line between drama and fun, as this show has some very mature storytelling, but still needs to make you want to cheer during an epic kung fu fight.

The show brings in new characters and a whole new universe. (IMDb)
The show brings in new characters and a whole new universe. (IMDb)

Could you tell us what can be expected from the series? Will it be another origin story, or Po setting out on a new adventure?

Po’s role in this series flips from student to master, as he trains four young students who have inherited the qi of the legendary Four Constellations. The series expands the universe of Kung Fu Panda immensely, introducing new characters and places and even drawing from Chinese mythology. Each season has its own story arc, rather than a “villain-of-the-week” type of show, which makes watching the tale unfold very gripping!

You have composed for 'Cobra Kai' as well. Could you share the experience a little?

Cobra Kai is a very different approach to a martial arts universe. That story is much darker and more grounded in personal drama. It’s been so much fun to bring the Karate Kid universe back to life after all these decades.

For 'Cobra Kai' Leo had to compose the kind of music which is more personal in tone. (IMDb)
For 'Cobra Kai' Leo had to compose the kind of music which is more personal in tone. (IMDb)

What future projects are you working on?

I have a few things coming out next year: 'Pen15' on Hulu, 'Tigtone' on Adult Swim, and the romantic comedy film 'Plus One'. Everything else is under wraps!