We had the good fortune of connecting with John E. Low and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi John, what do you attribute your success to?
My career–and the moments of success I’ve enjoyed–are in large part due to my ability to listen, imagine and interpret. Listening is obviously a key attribute of any composer. As I write and compose I have to focus intently on what I am writing on a sonic level: for example, what kind of emotion or feeling will an Bosendorfer upright piano sound evoke and how might that differ from a Yamaha Grand; or how might an upright bass differ emotionally from a distorted electric bass. I also have to listen on a compositional level–how might I arrange the notes and what kind of chord progression might work to achieve what I am after for my client. Maybe there’s no chord changes at all? Or how can I play with note pattern to make it feel energetic, exciting and upbeat but without going over the top? The options sometimes feel endless but the more you work at it the more you get a feel for what works best. The second aspect of being an effective listener is paying close attention to the client’s brief or the filmmaker’s needs. Having a conversation about what the music should do (or not do) is critical to the writing process. This often involves interpreting what a client might have a hard time communicating. Music can be a tricky thing to talk about. Being able to “speak music” and offer up constructive ideas–instrumentation options, composers and song references–it all makes the process easier for the client and gives the project a shape and direction from which to work. Getting from the beginning of a project to the end is a creative process that invariably includes rewrites, edits and Eureka moments. Staying tuned and listening closely to the client’s needs is a crucial part of that process and has been key to my success as a composer.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
In many I view my job as a composer as no different from a trade like plumbing or carpentry work. The skill sets are different but the foundations of the craft are the same. They both require you to understand the tools and mechanics of your trade, understand how to problem solve when something unexpected happens, understand how to meet to your client’s needs and make they’re life easier. A successful career is really just the bi-product of taking your job seriously. Each composing job I take is an opportunity to build and bolster a relationship with a client. If I am able to exceed any expectation (working fast, offering multiple versions, working long hours) I aim to do it. If I’ve done my job correctly, the client will be happier than they expected to be with what I’ve done.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I would be hard pressed not to take an out-of-town guest to the beach. As a city, it really is our best asset. Especially come January when the rest of the world is cooped up indoors. And if we’re going to the beach I would get away from the city and head up to Malibu or down to Laguna. Paradise Cove is such a fun place to visit simply because it really exudes that ‘Endless Summer’ thing people sometimes associate with Southern Cailfornia. It’s hard to believe that people live in this trailer park, driving around in golf carts, surfing everday. Sometimes an outsider’s vision (or an insider for that matter) of Los Angeles gets crushed when you fly into LAX and you see the sprawl, the crush of cars and a thick layer of smog. Getting to these beaches often times reaffirms that Southern California ideal. Oh, and we’re definitely going to EK Valley for dinner, maybe more than once. A little on the pricey side but–for my taste buds–the best burrito in the land.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My Shoutout belongs to a man named Steve Audette. Steve is the senoir editor for the PBS news-documentary series Frontline. Steve and I were complete strangers when I met him as an intern at WGBH (the Bsoton production studio that produces many the PBS show) back in 2002. I was attending Berklee College of Music, studying film scoring and was able to ever-so-casually work that bit of information into a chance conversation I had with Steve in the WGBH cafeteria. He invited me to compose a few music cues for a film he was working on and, with the blessing of the estimable filmmaker Mike Kirk (another person who deserves a Shoutout), was later hired to compose for the film. I have since composed for over 80 films for Frontline and none of that would have happened without Steve’s generosity and willingness to give me shot. His advice to me was: ‘make yourself invaluable.’ I took that advice to heart and think about it on every job I take.