Aural Reports

Atom heart. Photo by John Gilhooley

Shohei Urata knows his place.
As a composer for film and other media, the multi-instrumentalist understands his work is primarily meant to support someone else's artistic vision—and he's okay with that.

Did you go to school for composing or music?I went to UC Berkeley. I actually studied biochemistry. I took music classes, but I took molecular and cell biology with an emphasis in biochemistry.

Did you wind up working in those fields?Yeah, for a couple of years, I was working at labs doing chemistry work. I even moved down here for a job related to the sciences. After a while, I figured out it really wasn't for me and I needed something else. My heart is with music.

Do you work in music anywhere other than film composition?I used to perform a lot in several different bands, but once you cross that 30-years-old threshold, you see where that goes. When you're in a band, you have to worry about other people—what they do, what their ambitions are. When I'm writing for film, I don't have to worry about anyone else or baby-sit anyone else. I'm still in a couple of bands, but I consider them side projects.

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What kinds of bands?I play keyboards for a hip-hop band—Phashara. It's very fun to play in something like that. I play electric bass in a rock band called Imported From Nowhere. I'm also playing keyboards for Natalie Martin. I play a number of instruments for a Jewish wedding band called the South Coast Simcha Band. I play violin, saxophone, keyboards, bass, whatever's needed at the time.

That's a pretty diverse list.It really helps open your mind to different kinds of music from all over the world. I used to be in a Brazilian jazz band, too. I was the only non-Brazilian. Whatever you can learn from anyone I consider a big plus. It makes you a well-rounded musician, but as a person, it gives you more tolerance and acceptance. You learn how everybody lives. I only see pluses to that.

What did you learn in your transition from regular composing to film composition?Whatever the director wants, you do. He may give you complete creative freedom, or he may give you none. Most directors hear a soundtrack in their mind, and you have to come up with something they want to hear. If you don't write a cue that's satisfactory for the director, they make you write it over. Sometimes you think you've done your greatest work and they make you write it over. And you really don't get to express your full musical palette with a two-second cue or one note here and there for atmosphere. You have to know your place. You're not it. It's the characters, the dialogue. You're writing music that adds to the scene. The cues that are supportive and unobtrusive are the ones that get accepted.

Is there anything most people don't know about film composition?Most of the public doesn't really pay attention to the music, but that's basically what good film composition is. Most people I tell I write music for film say, "I don't really pay attention to the music unless it's really bad."

What kinds of films do you compose for?In LA, every other person you meet is a band member. The other half are filmmakers. There are a lot of people making short films and low-budget features that get played once in a theater or maybe never. I mostly work with those people.

What are some of the weirder things you've composed for?I was asked to compose for a film that was a satire of '50s educational filmstrips about masturbation. There was a movie that was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes with oranges. I've worked on things I didn't think would go anywhere. As many filmmakers as there are, there are a number that don't make it for a good reason.


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