Laura Karpman is one of very few composers who has made a genuine difference in the scoring community. A five-time Emmy winner, she co-founded the Alliance for Women Film Composers, which is widely credited with helping to propel the nearly invisible community of female music writers into prominence. No one asks “why aren’t there any women film composers?” anymore.
As the first female music-branch governor in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Karpman implemented sweeping changes on the diversity, equity and inclusion front and was largely responsible for the admission of dozens of previously underrepresented voices.
But this year people are talking about her music as much as her advocacy, with notable scores for both “American Fiction” and “The Marvels.” She has just finished scoring the second season of the animated Marvel series “What If…?” with her wife, fellow composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum (who also conducted all of “The Marvels”). It’s slated to debut Dec. 22 on Disney+.
2023 has been a banner year for you, having music played at London’s BBC Proms, two talked-about film releases and a couple of television projects. What’s it been like?
As unbelievable as it all is, it felt like something I’ve been ready for, for a long time. So it’s this combination of pinching myself and feeling deeply satisfied, gratified, but more than any of that, seen. When I recorded at Abbey Road and Nora conducted, these people got my musicality and Nora’s musicianship. They got what we were trying to do. I felt like I caught up to the world and the world caught up to me.
Tell us about your music for “American Fiction,” in which Jeffrey Wright plays an author named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. I recall that, back when you were studying classical music at Juilliard, you were also playing in jazz clubs on weekends.
Well, there were discussions in the beginning about doing [jazz great Thelonious] Monk. I wrote a Monk theme, but then I also did an arrangement of the iconic Monk tune “Ruby, My Dear.” I wanted to put everyone in the same room and just play jazz, but there was no way it was going to work because everything had to be so specific to picture.
My late father’s 1927 Steinway was delivered to my house on the same day I was doing the spotting session for “American Fiction.” So I would sit down and play piano, and then [jazz artist] Patrice Rushen came over, so we’re both playing on it. And then Elena Pinderhughes, this incredible flute player who is also interning in our studio, came in to play. John Yoakum did a lot of the saxophone work.
I understand that piano has a connection to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
One of my dad’s and mother’s closest friends was Sydney Guilaroff [legendary hairstylist, who created Louise Brooks’ bob and Vivien Leigh’s look for “Gone With the Wind”]. I knew him since early childhood, and my father always took care of him; as Sydney got older, he just didn’t have that much money. And when he died, he left this piano to my father, and everybody including Vladimir Horowitz played it. My dad died in February of 2022, and I called my stepmother and said, “Listen, I really would like the piano.” We had it completely restored. It’s like a player piano: you put your fingers on it and it practically plays itself.
“The Marvels” hasn’t done well at the box office, but your score is getting noticed by the critics (one called it “a triumph of a superhero score”). What was your experience like?
It’s the best work I’ve ever done in my life. [Director] Nia DaCosta wanted a new theme because it’s not a sequel, it’s about a collaboration. So you write a theme that’s singable, that everybody likes, and once you have that, you have tremendous freedom. Nia said she wanted a “space opera,” so I started recording voices a year ago. I had seven counter-tenors, 10 basso profundos, Carnatic singers, African singers, people from South America… every vocal tradition was brought to bear. The idea was just to have them sing what they sing, and not necessarily to have a blend.
Then I rented all this space junk, stuff that had fallen out of the sky [for strange percussion noises] and I went to [Scottish percussionist] Evelyn Glennie and said, “show me what you’ve got that’s weird. Let’s figure out what space sounds like.” And the orchestra was really big, about 100, with 12 French horns. Every day [of recording] was heaven.
What’s up next for you?
I have licensed the rights to Dorothy Arzner’s film “Dance, Girl, Dance,” and we’re making a musical out of it. It’s a hugely, secretly feminist film, and I’m just fascinated with her because she was able to make these genre films straight up—ballet dancer turns burlesque dancer to make money—and then she infuses it with all this feminist stuff. [Arzner] lived her life out loud as a lesbian, and everywhere you look there are these corners.