A while ago we had the chance to meet composer and cellist Christof Unterberger at his home studio in Vienna. After reading quotes by big shots like Hans Zimmer, Jeff Rona, David Arnold and Peter Gabriel about his work we were really excited to meet him in person. Even though he has already received a couple of awards including the “Moondance Columbine Award”, he came across as a humble person who prefers to create music rather than talk about himself. Before we delve into his work and opinions I’d like you to enjoy one of his pieces first:
From MC Cello to MC Award
So there we sat. Arkady Asuratov, Emil Dubielecki (the two creators of TrailerMusic.info) and I – willing to start off with a supposedly witty question: An Austrian TV station had introduced Christof after winning the Moondance Columbine Award as a former DJ. Therefore we wanted to know what his DJ name was. In the end he has never been a DJ but if he would have chosen this path, his name would probably have been “MC Cello” he told us jokingly. Starting to play the cello at the age of 5 (“trying to get out some noises”) by picking up his fathers instrument, who used to play for fun, Christof got his first real lessons at the Conservatory of Graz. After receiving his cello diploma at the Conservatoire national superieur de musique in Paris, things went so well that it led him to being solo cellist at the Vienna Chamber Philharmonic, the Vienna Schubert Ensemble, the Wiener Kammeroper and the Ensemble Reconsil Wien.
Playing a cello solo in an orchestra is really exciting because suddenly you are in the focus of everybody and after the solo you are one of many orchestra people, so you have to switch instantly. In 2010 I played the cello concerto by Schönberg in Vienna. It’s the most difficult piece I can imagine for cello and it turned out quite good. That was the biggest challenge.
Because this was obviously not enough he scored Stabat, a short movie by Luciano De Fraia receiving the Moondance Columbine Award 2006 in the category “best film score”.
Between cellist and composer
When we asked him spontaneously about his feeling when he plays the cello – in one word – he answered “It’s Joy”. Although he really enjoys playing the cello, he more and got caught up in composition and found himself working with the aforementioned big shots:
[When I won the Moondance Columbine Award] I was just composing as a hobby. It was not my main profession. I wanted to stay a cello player. But things turned out differently so I still play a lot of cello but it’s not my mainstay anymore. Perhaps I do 80% composing and 20% cello now. In 2008, I uploaded one of my first compositions to MySpace and Jeff Rona happened to listen to it. He was looking for some new music, so he got in touch saying: “That’s a crazy piece of music, would you like to do more for me?” And that’s how it started for me. He owns the music library “Liquid Cinema” and I did some tracks for him. I also record my cello when he does a movie score. Just a few weeks ago I did something for him. [The first movie was] “Phantom” with David Duchovny and Ed Harris I think. Then it was a TV show. He sends me the cues and I record my cello and I send it back.
Of course we wanted to know what the collaboration with a guy like Jeff Rona is all about:
At the beginning it was really exciting and he was really friendly. He tutored me, because I had never had any formal training. I had never studied composing. He told me things like “Keep it simple” or “Never look back when it’s finished.” He has great respect for me and that’s what I like. He treats me like a colleague, and I appreciate that.
Furthermore we were curious about the quote on his website where Hans Zimmer says that he “really enjoyed listening to his pieces. I think the orchestral stuff is really gorgeous. I would recommend him for any score.”:
That’s a good question. I was surprised because [it was in the] composer’s forum “V.I. Control”. Almost everybody is on this forum. [Back then] I didn’t know he was in this forum as a member. He is posting almost every day something and he reads actively. I posted a thread at a time when I had no jobs. Something about 1 ½ years ago. I was quite frustrated and posted a thread with the subject, “No jobs so far” and many members replied: “Yes, it’s nice but your show reel is much too long. Nobody will listen to 50 minutes of music.” And then another one wrote: “I don’t like your music it sounds too generic, I don’t like it at all”. Then Hans Zimmer wrote something. Ever since we’ve had a few interactions, sometimes it’s a Facebook chat and when I have a question he is available to answer. Although he is extremely busy, I got the sense he was also human and humble. He is, what we call “Mensch” in German, very nice to others. All these big people are very human because they don’t need to gain attention. They have it all day long. They are happy to hang around with small fish like me for a change of scenery.
Working at VSL
Many of you might have heard of or worked with the Vienna Symphonic Library – one of the oldest sample libraries in the world helping composers to create the music we all love. Christof Unterberger has been working for VSL for 12 years now and we were eager to know how it all came about:
It started with one of the guys who gave me a phone call and he asked me if I had time on two days: They were recording some notes and transitions. I thought it would be just a weekend job – that was 12 years ago and today we are still recording!
Asking about what makes the work at VSL so interesting for him he told us that “you are playing things you never play when you play a piece of music, a composition. For example you play a hundred times short notes on the same string and things like that. It’s a very good practice. After the recording session you are really in a very good state. You have to be more precise than in the orchestra because we are more than one cello player, up to 8, and everyone has to play exactly the same thing at the same time without noises – and that’s challenging but very interesting. We have a schedule and sometimes it’s one week everyday, sometimes it’s just half a day in one month, so it’s very different. Depending on their schedule because they are recording whole instrument groups. From voice to flute, everything. I still enjoy it. It’s a new challenge every time.” Compared to the first years he said that the group of cello players he’s part of is now much faster in the recording. Another thing that has changed since then is that VSL has been using a new method for their recordings lately, called Vienna Dimension Strings. “At the beginning we were recorded with one microphone. The whole group in a dry studio. Now they changed it.” As it says on VSL’s website all represented strings “were recorded in homogeneous groups with individual microphones for each player [separated by acoustic walls, as Christof told us]. Human Performance Control allows for slight changes in dynamic levels, vibrato, intonation and timing of each player in the ensemble, revealing the “magic” of a live performance.” As Christof told us the advantage for composers is that “when you use the software you can adjust every single instrument and not only the whole group.” Here’s how the VSL samples sound like compared to the live instrument:
Next we wanted to know more about how VSL is different to other sample libraries:
Most libraries in the United States and in England record in famous studios. Like the Sony Scoring Stage or the Air Studios and the good thing is, when you use it then you instantly have the film music sound. Because when they record their samples in the studios where Harry Potter was recorded you have exactly the same sound. Sample library Spitfire records at Air Studios, so you have this wonderful sound there. But you can’t take anything of the room away, you have to live with the sound. VSL is recording very dry, so you can add some room if you need. And that’s good. VSL records in every imaginable articulation with each instrument. You have everything you can do with an instrument. Other libraries use the common articulations: Long notes, short notes and pizzicato and these things but when you want special things then you have to take the VSL. VSL was the first library which really did the entire orchestra with everything you can imagine. So it’s really big.
Thoughts about (film) music nowadays and the composers behind it
As the epic music scene grows constantly we needed to know how he likes it and what he can recommend to young musicians in general:
I like [Epic Music], I like it very much because if it’s well done it can sound incredible. Especially for trailers and especially Two Steps from Hell they are I think the best team who came into this music. But I have a problem with composers who compose epic music because that’s the only thing to be successful. When you look at someone’s soundcloud and you listen to the music you hear 90% epic tracks – with nice images of planets and fire. It needs more than just doing drum loops and, I don’t know, 20 French horns and 100 violins. The result often is like a bad copy of Hans Zimmer or something like that. And often in forums you read: “Listen to my cool new epic track” and then you listen to it… It sounds like something from the Hans Zimmer sketch-book, some draft or something like that. It should be more original. People are concentrating too much on this epic music. I think they can’t write a piano tune and if you can do that then you can do everything. Or if you can create nice music with just one melody line, without chords. That’s very important to know I think.
I think the most important is not to try to be someone else. Because when I started I wanted to contact big people like Jeff Rona, or Hans Zimmer, but I never wanted to sound like them. Sometimes you have to sound like them because you are asked for it. The director says: “We need this piece, it has to sound like ‘Dark Knight’. Do this for us, please.” You have to be able to do the same styles. But when you compose something for your own you have to try to be yourself. And compose everyday. Everyday. Even if it’s the shittiest piece of music. You have to do it. And even if it’s on a plastic piano, just 20 bars. That’s I think what is really important. Yet it’s very difficult to stay individual. [You have to] find your own musical language [via] practicing and trying to find your inner voice. These days it’s very difficult because the history of film music is so old. And there are so many pieces written and so many styles created. And I mean John Williams and all these people. It’s hard not to sound like them. It’s really hard.
This lead to the question of what he thinks about film scores these days:
I hope that they restart writing themes. I miss the big themes in movies. Sometimes, not always. Hans Zimmer is a fabulous composer and an incredible Sound Designer but I miss themes when I listen to ‘Man of Steel’ for example or ‘The Dark Knight’. There is not really a theme. It’s very good and it’s very effective and it’s perfect for the movie but when I go out there is no melody I can recognize. That’s also a problem with the directors I think. It’s really good film music anyway but I personally like to write themes and melodies and not only patterns and sounds and sound scapes.
Working in Vienna
Until the end of the year Christof is working on a three-part documentary for the Austrian ORF, the Austrian documentary series “Universum”, a TV series and an animated motion picture from Hong Kong, the German telenovela “Sturm der Liebe” as well as he is busy as a producer for a pop/classic crossover album (Warner). In the end we were curious what he thinks about living in Vienna – and not in L.A. – regarding his career:
I think it’s an advantage to live in L.A. because it’s easier since you live in the center where everything is happening. Sometimes it’s important to be in the same room with some people and not only with a camera and video call. But anyway it’s possible. There are so many possibilities to do music – for the internet, for concerts, for movies, for TV shows, for commercials, for jingles, radio. I just did Sound Design for a radio station and I used dubstep and things like that. Very funny. [I now work with clients from] Hong Kong and with Australia and Germany and some clients I never met. So it’s possible with the internet. It’s not a problem, but sometimes it’s better to meet people face to face – maybe. So maybe one day [I will move to L.A.]. I don’t know. There is a project coming up, but it’s too early to talk about.
To stay updated about this upcoming project and more you can follow Christof Unterberger on his soundcloud, on Twitter and find more info about him on his website. All the tracks featured in this article you find in a playlist on our soundcloud.