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As a professional composer for more than 30 years, David Kitay has collaborated with some of Hollywood’s most celebrated comedic directors, such as Amy Heckerling (Clueless), Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa), and the late Harold Ramis (The Ice Harvest).

He was on campus last week teaching a special workshop on creating soundtracks for film and television. The workshop culminated in spectacular fashion on Sunday, as DigiPen hosted members of a local professional string quintet to record music the students had written during the class.

We caught up for a conversation with David to ask him some questions about his career and any advice he might have for aspiring soundtrack composers.

Q. You’ve worked on a large number of films and projects over the years. Do you have any personal favorite moments?

I really liked Bad Santa a lot. A lot of people really liked that. Ghost World was another one people really liked. Clueless was a good one. So I don’t know. There have been people’s favorites, and then some of my personal favorite moments have been when I’m in front of an orchestra on a smaller project that was maybe a Disney movie or something where I got to really spread my wings musically.

Q. How closely do you get to work with the director when you’re writing music for film?

It’s all about the director, so you’re basically co-writing with the director on some level. The good projects are when you have a collaborator like an Amy Heckerling, where it starts with Look Who’s Talking and it goes through Clueless and other movies, or a Terry Zwigoff, where it was Ghost World, Bad Santa, and Art School Confidential — where you’re working on three projects with somebody. You start to have a shorthand.

A lot of the best writing happens away from your workstation.”

There’s always that day when you’re playing the music for them, and it’s nerve-racking and you’re nervous. And admittedly the more you’ve worked with somebody the less nervous you are, but you’re always a little nervous when you’re playing your stuff for the first time.

Q. How would you describe your creative process? Is there anything you do that helps to foster your own creativity?

One of the things I find is really important is not chaining yourself to a keyboard and trying to pound something out that’s good. I like the idea of having a walkaway recorder that you can sing into when you’re not at your workstation, because I think as people we get into the idea that, ‘Okay, it’s writing time, so I will sit in front of my keyboard and write.’ But a lot of the best writing happens away from your workstation, when you’re just thinking. So I think there’s that, and I really like the idea of a bike ride. I love bike rides.

Q. Word has it you were trying to organize a group bike ride with some of the workshop participants?

That was the idea, but we got rained out. But today might be the day that we do it. I just wanted to throw out the idea that when you’re sitting there and you’re in that weird haze, just get out and exercise. Just get that blood flow happening. All of a sudden things will come to you.

DigiPen music professor Lawrence Schwedler laughing with David Kitay in the DigiPen sound lab
DigiPen music professor Lawrence Schwedler (L) and David Kitay

Q. What advice do you have for young people who think they might be interested in scoring?

One thing that’s really great to do is take the kind of films that you really like and score them — like grab a piece of Harry Potter if you really like Harry Potter, and score it. Grab an action scene from The Bourne Identity and score it. Actually learn how to do it if you’re interested in doing it. That also gives you a demo representation that you can actually play to somebody and say, ‘Here, this is something I worked on based on my interest in this film.’

Q. What about discoverability? Who do you go to in order to get noticed?

Well, I think the first thing you do is go to DigiPen and learn the basics of music and scoring. I think video game technology is really important. I think the idea of video game music is where a lot of things are heading. It’s permeating the style of film music in a way that’s interesting. If you look at Inception or any of those kinds of movies with repetitive-style scoring, it’s very video game-based.

Q. As someone in Hollywood, have you been paying attention to the rise of the video game industry?

How could you not? It’s a real prevalent part of the industry now. I mean, Austin Wintory just got a Grammy [nomination] for a video game last year. So it’s just really coming to the fore. It’s really cool that that’s happening.

The soundtracks workshop was made possible through a partnership between Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and DigiPen’s Department of Music.