Cory Perschbacher: Music and Film Score Composer

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Cory Perschbacher is an Oklahoma artist.  He plays multiple instruments and composes music for many diverse outlets, including scores for chamber settings and a multitude of films.  A member of a rotating number of bands, Cory balances his passion for music with his love for his wife Erin and his two boys. I've worked with Cory on some very amateur, student-made films, and have the honor of calling him my friend.

Cory, let’s go back to the beginning: what got you started in music and where did you learn what you know?

Growing up, we had a piano at the house that I loved to sit at and play. I was an only child, and since I didn't have brothers or sisters to play with (or nag), I drew and played the piano. My grandmother, who raised me, tried getting me into piano lessons, but I was far too stubborn to be shown the "rules" of music. 

Later, I got into guitar, but once I got a drum kit, I wasn't as interested in guitar. I loved the drums and still do.

The big turning point for me, though, was when I got a Fostex 4-track recorder when I was 15. It really changed my life. I could record a drum track and then layer a melody over it. It fascinated me. Soon afterward, I graduated to a Roland 1880, which allowed up to 18 tracks at once. I then spent most of my time recording all different styles of music. Even though I was playing drums in many local bands, recording music by myself was what I loved most. I could tune out everything around me and create my own world. 

Eventually, I went to school for audio engineering and retired my Roland 1880 for recording software on the computer. 

How did you get into film scoring?

I've always enjoyed film music. The most impacting scores to me as a kid were Superman (1978) and Batman (1989). I couldn't get enough of the fantastic music from these movies. 

Later, after years attempting to sing in the songs I was recording, I realized that I do not have a good singing voice, and that I better stick to instrumentals. When I would play my music for my friends, they would always tell me that it sounded like it belonged in a movie or a video game.

In 2010, while contacting Ted West to do a photo shoot for the band I was in, The Grown Ups, I found out that he was directing a movie. My eyes lit up and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try out music for film for the first time. When I say I had no idea what I was doing, I really mean it. I hadn't a clue. I recorded the score by watching the film on a TV while simultaneously recording the music on an old version of a software called Reason. I didn't have the film on my computer at all. I cringe when I think of the way I did the music on this production.

While at the premier of Ted West's film, I met Adam Hampton and the guys with Outsiders Productions. They told me they were in the post stages of their film The Unusual Calling of Charlie Christmas. This is the project that made me fall in love with composing music for film. 

After that, I reached out a lot to filmmakers all around the country and networked like crazy. 

Can you give us a little more insight into how you compose for films?

I try to approach each film differently. Each one makes me feel a certain way and I try to have the music reflect how it made me feel. Sometimes, I am way off, though, and the filmmaker will tell me it doesn't fit the tone. Establishing the tone is the most challenging part. Once I get it, the rest falls into place quite easily. I don't like to read scripts because I don't get the tone from them like I do when I actually see footage. I once read a script to a film I was trying to get hired onto and I told the writer I thought it was hilarious only to hear him say that it was a serious drama. Needless to say, I did not get that job. 

One thing I always do for each score is lock myself into the studio and try to tune out everything else around me. Sometimes, everything just makes sense and the creativity flows like a river and other times it just doesn't. I haven't quite figured that out yet. 

There are many programs out there to record all your stuff on and they all pretty much do the same thing, but I find Logic to be the most comfortable for me. I just like the way everything is set up. I even like the darker color scheme. I am a big fan of what Heaviocity puts out. Pretty much everything they offer is awesome. I use their product Gravity in almost everything I've done recently. I also use the Cinesamples packs, but nothing beats having live instruments in the studio. I use as little software instruments as possible. 

Like me, you have a family to think about. Does this impact your work and, if so, how?

I think the best artists are the ones who have felt a wide variety of emotions, and when you have a child, you experience all these new ones you'd never felt before. The way you see the world changes. The way that your art comes out changes. 

Still, it is challenging when you're really into a score, just feeling it like crazy, and then into the studio walks your 6-year-old son wanting your attention. There is definitely a balance there that isn't always the easiest. It makes it even more difficult when you work a full-time job during the day and still try to balance studio time with family time. There aren't enough hours in the day sometimes. Family comes first, so I try work on music when they are not there or after they've gone to sleep as much as possible.

What is your favorite film score and why?

The first one that comes to my mind is Danny Elfman's score for Batman (1989). It's just such an amazing score. It's dark, sexy, and heroic. It has a tragic sound to it. Even during the lighthearted, playful cues, there's an element of sadness in it. I think it perfectly fits with Tim Burton's vision of Batman. This also has a special place in my heart because I loved the score as a kid too. The movie came out when I was 4 and I remember getting it on VHS and having the toys (I still have almost all of this stuff). 

I also have to mention the score for Superman (1978). Where Elfman's music fed my inner dark side, John Williams' Superman gave me an uplifting I-can-do-anything feeling. The music in Superman is very dynamic. I could listen to this and the Batman score anytime of the day and it will put me in a good place.

What would be your ideal film scoring gig?

I enjoy working with different filmmakers and finding the "feel" of the sound they're going for. It makes you grow as a musician and as a composer. Once you and the director are in sync, there is a magical thing that happens. Each filmmaker is different and so is the communication and amount of freedom you have.

I'd love to work on a feature that allows me to just go all out with my weird musical ideas. No holds barred. Big, obnoxious, dark, and romantic. I could never do what Danny Elfman did to Tim Burton's earlier films, but I would absolutely love to be given the opportunity he was given with films like Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands. You can tell it is Elfman having an absolute blast with the score in these. 

I get a lot of freedom in the work I do, but I'd love to have someone say, "just go for it". 

If you weren’t a composer what would you be?

I thought I wanted to be a full-time audio engineer, but I found myself wanting to create my own stuff instead of recording other people's music. My favorite thing to do is to create and to build. If music were taken away, I'd still want to do something creative. Maybe I'd get into photography or videography. 

You recently did some composition work for the Edge Chamber Music series.  What can you tell us about that experience?

It was fantastic and a surreal experience. I have never written music for a live orchestral setting, so seeing my music performed by some of Oklahoma's best musicians was a feeling like no other. 

Erin Yeaman organized the concert and put on one heck of a show. She is an amazing cellist and she also thinks outside the box. The whole concert, which was focused on film music, was her idea. 

I use Erin in almost all my scores now. She is my go-to for strings and for finding musicians. During a session a while back, she mentioned to me about the concert and said she'd like to feature me as a local film composer and have me write a piece. Of course, I was thrilled and eagerly accepted. 

My job was to write a piece of music to accompany a monologue done by Alissa Mortimer. This was a first for me. Alissa recorded the monologue on her phone and sent it to me. I uploaded it into my software and started recording with virtual instruments. I sent the mock-up to Erin and after she approved it, I sent the sheet music. 

This is something that I would love to do more.

Do you have any advice for someone out there who may be struggling in pursuit of an artistic endeavor?

Don't have unrealistic expectations, don't let responsibilities dull your creative mind, network as much as possible, and stick with it. 

If you think that you're going to be a billionaire and be adored worldwide, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. The first few years will bring in almost nothing, no matter how hard you work. Even the ones who make a living with their art aren't usually rich. Have a big goal, yes, but also set smaller goals that are obtainable. Keep moving up one step at a time. Also, don't set timelines. Some people don't find success until way late in life. It's never too late work on your dreams.

Having a clear mind when starting a creative session is a must. It's hard to create something really good and something that gives you goosebumps when you have other things on your mind like bills, deadlines, and all the other stressful things in life. It's important, I feel, to not let your life water down how creative you can be. So many things get in the way of your art. Life has a way of stripping you from your creativity. Do whatever you need to cleanse the brain of these negative things. Sometimes, just putting on some headphones and jamming to something can reset your mind and prime you.

Networking is important too. Without reaching out to people, how will anyone know about you? 

It's easy to get discouraged. It happens to me all the time. Don't waste your energy and time on thinking you're not good enough. The important thing is to try and focus on moving forward. 

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What’s next for you?

I am eagerly waiting on a few projects to be ready for me. 

Hunter Perschbacher (no relation) and the Omega Pictures team are making a sci-fi/action film right now called "Day 7". It should be ready for me in the next month or so. Next up is Shawn Barfield's noir film "World of the Long Breath", which takes place in 1983 and will feature a synthy jazz score. Next year, I'll be working a Native American western feature by Kyle Harris called "Dark Horse. 

I'm also recording songs with various artists here in Oklahoma. I'll be recording an album with Goldie Lahr and the Union early in 2018 and I'm working with Clint Tharp on an untitled project. 

The ultimate goal is to work on one or two big projects a year. I've done one video game for smart phones called "Pocket Guild" and I'd like to do more of those too. 

Finally, a question many of us who know you have been dying to ask: what’s with the VHS tape obsession?

I'm a sucker for nostalgia. That feeling of walking into a video store on a Friday night and looking at the backs of the cases to read about the movie and see pictures is one of my favorites things. I'm still trying to convince my wife to let me convert one of the bedrooms into a retro room that would feel like a video store from 1996. No luck on that one yet.

Mark, I imagine you'd like to have a big library room full of books. I want that too, but just with VHS tapes instead.

You can learn more about Cory and listen to additional music he has composed on his website:

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Kim Ventrella: Author of Skeleton Tree

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Kim Ventrella is the author of Skeleton Tree, a children’s book about what happens when you find, and believe in, the unexpected. It is a finely tuned story exploring life, love, families and friendships, and the stirrings of the heart which define them all. Published by Scholastic Press, it was released in October.  It is her debut novel.

Hi Kim,

It is exciting seeing Skeleton Tree pop up in so many places on social media!  I just finished reading it this past weekend, and let me give you a well-deserved congratulation on a well-written, touching book.  I really enjoyed the book and loved the characters.

I'd like to start with a couple questions about you, so the reader can get to know you a little.

Knowing that you are a librarian and a writer, I feel confident saying you must love books.  When did that love start and who/what helped that passion for reading grow?

I’ve always had an eclectic taste in books. When I was younger, I adored Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Bunnicula, biographies and Agatha Christie. I love discovering a story world that I want to inhabit long after the book ends. Harry Potter definitely did that for me. I also love books that help me understand the world in new and surprising ways, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Tell us a little about how you got started writing? 

In second grade, I entered my version of Roald Dahl’s story “The Landlady” in a writing contest and won second place. It’s the one where the mild-mannered landlady kills and taxidermies her guests. I don’t remember what made my version different (obviously, my second-grade self wasn’t too concerned about copyright law), but I loved the experience of creating something magical with nothing but words and punctuation.

On the topic of writing, do you have any advice to give aspiring novelists?  

Absolutely! Two things. First, the success-fail cycle. Before you can be good at something, you have to try, fail, learn from your failure and then start the cycle all over again. It might take five failures before you have one success, or ten, or twenty. So, if you really want to sell your work, you can’t be afraid to fail. Second, as you go through the process of failure, rejection and eventually success, take time to remember why you love writing. That strong conviction in why you’re doing what you’re doing can carry you through the inevitable hard times.

Can you share with us what works to keep you motivated?

Every time I read a great story, even if it’s so good I know I could never write something to match it, it inspires me to create. Writing is a magical process, especially in the beginning stages, and knowing that I get to live that exhilarating experience again and again keeps me motivated through the less fun parts, like revising.

Where do you look to for new ideas/inspiration? 

For me, discovery writing is the best way to find new ideas. Outlining is a useful and probably necessary part of the process, but I find that it’s the actual act of stringing words together that sparks my creativity. So, if I try to come up with a story idea in a left-brained, outline-y sort of way, it always feels forced and unoriginal. But if I sit down in front of a blank page and just start writing, I can usually come up with something that feels weird and fresh.

There are lots of things that grow in backyards. Bones aren't one of them.

All the characters in this book are well fleshed-out (and I don't mean that as a poor pun). Ms. Francine is a real riot and great sage-type character.  How did you come up with her character? 

I lived in Kyrgyzstan for over two years during my Peace Corps service, and I met so many wonderful, wise, amazing people. I never encountered anyone exactly like Ms. Francine, but I did have an amazing teacher named Bakyt (who shares a name with Ms. Francine’s goat).

Speaking of characters, I found myself, as a dad & step-dad, personally appalled by the behavior of Miren and Stanley's father.  I really liked how you had Ms. Francine talk about his behavior towards the book's conclusion and felt his character did work well as an antithesis to some of the themes in the book.  Can you share why you chose to write him in the manner you did?

The thread with Stanly’s father was definitely something that evolved a lot during the revision process. Some of it does come from personal experience. I’ve only met my father twice. When I was around Stanly’s age, I sent him a letter after one of our visits, and he never responded. I didn’t worry too much about it at the time, but it’s one of those things that’s always stuck with me in the back of my mind. Several of the experiences that Stanly endures in this story are dark and difficult, but I try to temper that with humor and light. I think it’s important that children encounter tough topics like this within the safety of a book, so that they feel better equipped to tackle real-life hard times. I also had one adult reader, who grew up with a distant father, let me know that the storyline with Stanly’s father made a huge positive impact on her life, more so than years of therapy. That made me feel like this whole process has been worth it.

Books that have that "moment," that emotional tug that makes you take a minute to breathe and clear the tears from your eyes, whether they are happy or sad tears, are the ones that stick with me.  Without giving anything away, I can say Skeleton Tree has that moment.  Was that something that you knew would happen from the earliest ideas of the book or was it a product of the writing? 

I definitely didn’t know if that would happen, or if I would be capable of creating that kind of emotional response in the reader, but that’s the magic of storytelling! A novel is greater than its author and greater than its individual parts.

What advice can you give as a writer about the pacing to set up that moment? 

You definitely want your character to go on a journey of highs and lows before reaching the emotional climax of the book. Even if you’re discovery writing, at a certain point you probably have some idea of where your character will end up. In that case, ask yourself what it would take for you to reach that same emotional point, and use that to guide your writing.

Will we ever hear more from the characters in Skeleton TreeIf so, is there anything you can share with us now?

My second novel, currently titled Bone Hollow, is set to come out in Spring 2019. I can’t give out many details, but it definitely focuses on a similar theme as Skeleton Tree, with a stronger fantasy element.

What's next for you?

I have a lot of projects in the works, but nothing I can officially announce. Stay tuned!

Thanks Kim!  I really appreciate the opportunity to interview you. I look forward to seeing where Skeleton Tree takes you, and I will be one of the first in line for Bone Hollow. Congratulations again on your debut novel.

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