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North Country

The Composer Next Door

USA Today recently published a list of the fastest growing professions in the United States.  Music Composer came in at #3.  Everything, in this digital age, needs music.  With advances in technology, today's orchestras are more often found on hard drives in basements than symphony hall. NHPR's Sean Hurley has this profile of music professor and film composer Rik Pfenninger of Holderness.

It's 3:30 AM in Holderness and Plymouth State University Professor of Saxophone RikPfenninger is practicing in the soundproofed basement of his house. 

My kids are used to it so they sleep through it. So you play for an hour and then it's 4:30 and then what? Then I compose till about 7.

On this particular morning, Pfenninger is putting the finishing touches on "The Rising" for a production company that requested a Hans Zimmer-like track. 

When Pfenninger began moonlighting as a Film and TV Composer, he wasn't sure what to make of his first success on the Weather Channel.

Are we looking at like temperatures across the nation here? Well it's funny cause I turn the Weather Channel on all the time I never see or hear my music on there. One day somebody posted on YouTube a Tornado warning forecast for Tampa, Florida and my music was going underneath it. And I was like "Oh they do play it."

Independent films followed.  Video games.  Music for iPhone apps.

I've done a couple of em I'm not proud of. All Star Strip Poker 1 and 2. They used a lot of my jazz and blues stuff.

While Pfenninger writes his own music and plays a half dozen instruments, he doesn't operate in a vacuum.

When I do the weather channel stuff my piano player's in Philadelphia, my guitar player's in Rochester, New York and my drummer's in Texas.

Compromise and collaboration, Pfenninger says, are the simple facts of the composer's life.

As a film composer you have to have very thick skin and you have to say, Look my whole goal is to make the movie better and to please the director. If you don't like my stuff I can't take that personally. I have to find something that you do like. And it may be that I don't like it at all.

It works the other way too.  

5,000 miles away in Istanbul, 36 year old Stare' Yildirim had just finished editing the first of a planned 26 episodes for one of the main cable networks in Turkey.

I thought I need a composer for this and I was really desperate because this show was very problematic. I had some cinematography problems. So it was a mess and I was very depressed.

Yildirim tried working with local Turkish composers, but kept running into the same problem.

I tested a few people you know. I sent little clips to see what they can do about the images. Whatever I was receiving it was just off. It didn't have anything to with the scene, the mood, the emotions. Nothing. Nothing at all.

But then Yilidrim remembered a bit of stock music she'd used for an earlier short film. She contacted the stock music company and that's how she found Pfenninger.

So then I got an email saying I have this series of films and it's all about the supernatural and the paranormal and here's the first film I'd love you to score it for me.

Yildirim sent him a draft of the hour long pilot.  Not only did Pfenninger not understand the language the first 6 or 7 times he saw it, but he still isn't sure what the film is called.

I forget the Turkish translation. It translates loosely into "Tales from the Other Side". The cinematography just blew me away. I said I really don't understand some of this but just the way you filmed it and the way it flows, oh my gosh this is a good movie.

As he watched the film he took notes, particularly of scenes that would be hard to score.

This is when she's meeting the Sep Seps and she wanted this scary.

Music can't make a bad film good, but it can make a good one better.  When Yildirim finally sat down to watch the problematic film that had depressed her now with Pfenninger's music -

When I saw it with the music for the first time I felt like "Oh my god it's not that bad!" So with Rik, his music actually fit perfectly to my scenes and gave me whatever I wanted.

Pfenninger says that the internet combined with the universal language of music means the composers these days can work with anyone, anywhere on anything - all of which means more gigs for people who write music.

I mean talk about a weird world! And I'm living in New Hampshire, you know?!

For NHPR, I'm SH