A Measure of Time: Interview with Composer, Jake Hull

Jake Hull, who has worked with us in the past, is returning to be our Composer for Oliver Twist! He's a CNU graduate with a degree in Music History/Literature and is a Norfolk-based composer, producer, and performer. To prepare for Oliver Twist, Jake did extensive research, including traveling to Kenya and London! Read more about that and his background in our interview with him below.

DONE _ Jake Hull Picture.jpg

Could you briefly describe your education?
I guess it started in middle school. I played trumpet. My parents got me this sheet music book of all the best movie themes for solo trumpet. I'd spend hours in my basement just playing those themes over and over again. Then in high school my music education came from video games and teaching myself guitar — there was a time in my life when I could play every single Metallica riff ever written. In college, I heard world music for the first time. I actually went to CNU to study foreign languages, but somehow was convinced after less than a week that I should become a guitar performance major. So I did. And somehow through my 5 years at CNU I went from Guitar Performance, to Music Education, and finally settled on Music History/Literature with a focus on Ethnomusicology. The highlights for me were studying Composition with an incredible teacher from Harvard and getting to be a part of a World Music Ensemble.

What got you into music?
Final Fantasy VII. The music from that video game changed everything.

What does your composition process look like? 
It's a bit different for each project. But it always starts with a conversation. Composition, for me, is as much about translation as it is pure creation. My job with every project is to translate the director's vision of a film, play, or whatever format the story takes. After I get a good understanding of the heart of the work, I start developing the sound. Everything hinges on finding the most representative and honest sound to support the story. After that it's just the physical labor of actually composing, arranging, recording, mixing, and in this case, performing the music.

How do you prepare/what type of research do you do before you begin?
The nature of the industry is such that research, generally speaking, is an excuse to watch as many films or projects I want to. So, that's great. I get to enjoy other incredible artists while I simultaneously get a window into their process and decision making. For a documentary, I recently did, I think I watched between 15 and 20 documentaries in the weeks leading up to actually receiving the film. It's important to work within the conventions of certain genres without ever letting those expectations control my process. For Oliver, I got to spend time in Kenya working on a music project with orphans in Nairobi, travel to London to do research, and draw from my rich and irrational love of Bollywood.

What is your favorite part of the process, from the idea to seeing it on stage? What is the hardest part?
That's tough to say. On a personal level, I love the feeling I have when I stumble onto that idea. When I finally find the sound or melody. The one that unlocks the rest of the score. I feel like an explorer in that moment. Victorious and intrepid. On a collaborative level, however, I love listening/playing through the score with the rest of the team/cast. It's a beautiful nerve-racking moment for me. What if they hate it? What if they love it? What if they say they love it, but they don't really love it? WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE? And that kind of leads to the last part of your question. That's also the hardest part: putting myself up on the chopping block with every project. But that's the point of doing it. Being vulnerable. Making mistakes. Relying on the process of collaboration, not just my own taste and discretion.

Is there a particular piece of art has influenced you the most?
Either Beethoven's 9th Symphony or the performance of Raga Piloo by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. 

Can you describe the unique style you've created for Oliver Twist and how that came to be?
Minimalist Cinematic Workhouse Pop... I'll explain, haha. As I was in concept mode, a few questions kept nagging me:

1. How do we create an immersive world for the audience to live in?
2. How do we create an immersive world that's also familiar?
3. How can we define a broad enough emotional range to capture the bliss and rage and joy and pain that exists in this adaptation?

Everything sort of boiled down to solving those problems. So I wanted to use instruments that would have been popular in the 1830s that are still relevant in modern pop music. I wanted to write songs that were simple and catchy. I wanted to tie things together with a cinematic score that soaks people in feelings without prescribing or broadcasting exactly how to feel. 

What was the most noteworthy thing you learned while working on Oliver Twist?
Ooooooh, that's a great question. I think I'm still learning it. I think this project is working on me as much as I'm working on it. I think it comes down to how we tell stories, as a culture. Whose stories do we tell? How do we tell them? Why do we tell them? What stories are we not telling? I think society is always at various turning points. So what do we as artists do about the turning points we're at? 

Can you tell us a little bit about the time you spent in London researching the story?
My wife is awesome. And she had an awesome work trip to London. Also, I have family there, and we just really love London, so I recognized that I had an amazing opportunity to do some serious research. I tracked down the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in North London and spent an entire day there reading everything I could from the early-mid 1800s. Newspaper clippings. Songbooks. Concert reviews. Popular stories. I felt that part of putting this score together in a resonant way would come down to pulling out familiar patterns in our history. Cycles of behavior. Cycles of thought. And those little threads of struggle that I discovered led to one of the primary lyrical themes of the whole score. So, it ended up being a great decision.

How has working with Patrick and Nehprii influenced this project? Are they fun to work with?
They are the dreamiest dream team. I've been fortunate to work with Patrick in the past (The Tempest, Jungle Book, Midsummer Fantasy Festival), and it's always been an incredible experience. With Oliver, he's given me an insane amount of freedom to explore and make mistakes and create something massive. When the process began, most of our conversations revolved around how we tell the story, not just that we tell the story. That was a huge paradigm shifter for me. And Nehprii, she's so full of such intimidatingly beautiful vision. This is my first time working with her, and I'm really hoping it's not the last. Her attitude and confidence to pursue big ideas has pushed me to reach a little farther and work harder to tell this story right. 

If there was one take away you'd like the audience to remember after seeing the show, what would it be?
The measure of our lives is to do right by those who are oppressed, weakened, or made mute by ugly systems built from the abuse and neglect of those very people.