Interview with ScoreRelief 2021 winner Denizcan Aktaş
We caught up with Denizcan Aktaş, the winner of our winter film scoring competition – Score Relief – to find out more about his background, his time at Berklee, his inspiration, his approach to creating music and his ambitions for the future.
When did you decide to enter Score Relief, what was your main motivation, and what was the process, in general terms, for creating your piece of music?
I liked pretty much everything about this competition, the positivity, openness, the challenge to rescore the existing soundtrack, plus free for everyone to enter not to mention the star judges. I really resonated with the charity work being one of the competition’s highlights – no doubt that the majority of musicians in our world have suffered a tremendous loss of opportunities during this pandemic. And the animation itself intrigued me by its colour, the characters, and overall how well it was made. I thought that the composing process for this animation would be very fun and that my style could blend with it well. I tried not to be connected, musically with the sound design but still have enough room for it to speak and also to hit the most important sync points in every section of this animation. After watching it several times without music, and even sound effects, I started outlining the tempo map and writing themes for the little girl, the giant trees, the chase scene, and for the final part of it where everything unfolds. After sketching themes on the piano I started orchestrating everything and then the music led me to the end of the process.
Do you think that taking part in, and winning, scoring competitions, can help you to develop as a musician and to develop your career?
It definitely helps you to develop your skills as a composer. But for me the most valuable thing about taking part in and winning scoring competitions is the network. You might have an opportunity to make meaningful connections and this will definitely help to develop your career.
How did you feel when you won and how was the experience of the orchestra session when you were connected via zoom to the auditorium?
It was my first time connecting to a recording session online. The quality of the sound that I heard was great, so it actually felt like I was there.
“It was an amazing feeling to achieve something like this!”
The moment Denizcan found out that he had won Score Relief 2021
Of course, the best way would be to conduct your piece in front of the orchestra but, I was lucky to have a conductor like Melvin Tay. We have had a conversation about the score a day before the session. He seemed to be aware of everything that I could possibly ask, so I was watching the session with confidence. Everything went so well, Northern Film Orchestra did a fantastic job!
Score Relief Grande Finale Orchestra Performance
What kind of feedback, if any, have you had as a result of winning Score Relief? Anything from peers or from any of your teachers/mentors?
What about family? They must be super proud!
I was prepared for every sort of feedback but honestly was surprisingly overwhelmed with the overall positivity of so many people. I’m genuinely amazed how much kindness my fellow composers of Score Relief have in their hearts and all the very inspiring comments I received — I read them all, thank you all so much. It is important to receive constructive criticism for me and I noted everything I read, and of course, my friends and mentors and most importantly, the judges of the competition gave me very valuable feedback. I know I have a lot of work ahead to improve but…
“I’m very grateful that my work was recognized by the people in the industry.”
I’d like to highlight the article written about Score Relief by Nathaniel Jones, active composer himself and a moderator of the film composers group on Facebook. It was very helpful for all of us the participants to read his thoughts knowing that he was also one of the preliminary judges of the competition. I’m glad so many people got involved in this and that it was so transparent all the way through.
You weren’t aware of The Cue Tube before Score Relief, right?
How did you find out about it and do you think that it can be useful for composers to participate in a community like this?
Yes, I wasn’t aware of The Cue Tube before ScoreRelief but I found out about it while scrolling in one of the Facebook groups. I think it’s a much-needed source for a lot of us to be able to learn and grow. I remember how I was searching for good quality video clips to rescore when I was a student at Berklee (besides our study video clips).
“Feedback is important! The Cue Tube gives us this marvelous opportunity and also connects composers, inspiring us to share our music and get some feedback from other composers.”
Plus the community may connect the composer/audio team with the filmmaker, which can create meaningful connections!
Other than Score Relief, what has been the highlight of your music life so far?
Although I consider Score Relief the biggest highlight in my so far short career, last year I have won second prize in scoring for animation category in another competition, ScoreLive London. The competition was great as well, and I’m looking forward to hearing my piece being performed by an orchestra soon. Also, one of the pieces that I wrote while still being a percussion student in Turkey, got commissioned by percussion and wind orchestra and I’m looking forward to hearing it live soon.
So you’re just completing studies in the USA, right? Could you tell us a little about your educational journey…when did you start studying music and where has this journey taken you?
Of course! I am coming from a musical family, my mom is a retired harpist of the State Symphony Orchestra in Izmir, Turkey where I was born and both of my siblings are musicians as well. I started my journey as an orchestral percussionist studying at 9 Eylul University in Izmir, but storytelling with music was always my dream. I learned orchestration by arranging well-known film scores to percussion ensemble and piano and started composing as well. In my last year of conservatory, I participated in Sandy Hook Memorial composing competition arranged by few organizers collaborating with Berklee College of Music, and my piece was chosen to be performed in the United States. That encouraged me to come and audition at Berklee College of Music where I was lucky to receive a full-tuition scholarship, and so my journey continued in the United States.
How difficult was it to move to another country, another culture, to study, and to build your career?
It wasn’t so easy. I was working in Izmir State Opera and Ballet as a percussionist and had quite a steady career as an orchestra player but I had to leave it all, my work, family, and friends in order to pursue my dreams. I had only a little knowledge of English when I first came to Boston, and it took me a while to adjust to a new culture. Basically, it was like starting life from the beginning. Studying at Berklee was hard but for that, I was prepared as a classically trained musician. I was amazed by how big the film scoring industry is in the United States so in my first years here.
“I realized you better be good at what you are doing in order to be successful.”
Tell us a little about your experience studying at Berklee and what you got from it? What were some of the highlights?
Berklee is an amazing school with a strong practical training core and incredible community as well. They give you all you need to thrive and be your personal best. I met many friends from around the world, learned about different music cultures/styles. It expanded my mind and added more vocabulary to refine my own style as a composer. Berklee also gave me a lot of opportunities to record and conduct my music with various ensembles. Truly valuable experience that prepared me for in-real-life situations and was very helpful when I arranging my piece for the Northern Film Orchestra.
How useful is the ‘peer group’ aspect of studying somewhere like Berklee – and what about the mentoring?
Berklee has this special vibe where you are being put inside this peer bubble of networking for classes, for personal projects, scholarships and real gigs.The mentors as well, the attitude of many them towards us was more of a “peer” quality, and I think it creates a great environment around where all systems were co-existing and students were just thriving by the opportunities. There always were people who would play for you and I would play for them in return and so on, and I have developed some great friendships out of this great school. I would consider it being a Hogwarts in music – we even played in a student club called Harry Potter Soundtrack Orchestra and were very successful – until we were cancelled due to the copyright issues.
Have you had any experiences working on commercial projects yet?
I’m currently working on my very first movie and got a few video games projects in the development stage so my experience in the US has just started but I’ve had an opportunity to write music for commercials on Turkish TV, scored a small video game for IOS and I also have this arranging and orchestrating job that I’ve been doing for state orchestras for quite some time.
What are your immediate plans after study and your ‘ultimate’ ambitions regarding your music career?
I’m planning to move to the west coast very soon, and start a new chapter in my journey. If speaking about ambitions, I just want to be very good at what I’m doing and create my own audio company in the future.
How crucial do you think this kind of study is, for someone who’s serious about becoming a composer and making money from music?
There are so many opinions about this topic, but I think it is essential. There are so many composers out there who are self-study and successful, yes, but it is important to have a music degree for someone who’s serious about this field. It is a preparation for real life. Assignments and deadlines will definitely prepare you for in-real-life projects. Your environment, friends, and mentors will help you achieve your goals better and faster.
Any final tips that you would give to someone who wants to develop as a composer?
I have yet to do so much for my own development as a film composer and the most important tip that I would like to say to myself as well as to my peers will be: try to expand your limits and master your writing in different styles as well your familiarity with different gear.
Denizcan’s score, for the special edit of the Blender animation Spring, won from an entry field of more than 1800 submitted entries and was carefully selected by our panel of judges Guy Michelmore, Sarah Warne, Jan Morgenstern and Tristan Noon. The score was performed by Northern Film Orchestra at the Stoller Hall in Manchester in February 2021. Full details on the competition and other winners, along with the orchestra’s performance of Denizcan’s score, can be found in our Grande Finale video here:
Interviewed by Bryan Waters
Edited by Yelyzaveta Dembovska