Joanna Karselis – film composer (#117)


Jo is a composer and singer-songwriter living in Birmingham, UK and is a proud honorary Brummie. She specialises in scoring plays, games and films, and particularly enjoys writing for piano, violin, electronics, and orchestra. She collaborates closely with the directors she works alongside. The features REUNIFICATION and THE BELLWETHER that Jo has scored are available to stream via Amazon Prime.

Listen to her work on Spotify and SoundCloud

Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

The thing that has amazed me most during Covid-19 lockdown has been the overflowing of love. It’s ranged from the everyday, with book boxes and toy giveaways at the ends of drives, free access to online resources, and NHS rainbows in windows, through to the world altering, as the global demand for justice and change has risen after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. My own community here in Birmingham, both strangers and friends, have overwhelmed me with kindness in the last months. It’s been a very powerful and inspiring experience, and it’s definitely restored some of my hope in humanity.


Why is music so powerful and how can elicit a range of emotions in the listener?

Music is powerful because it has the ability to convey the entire range of human experience. No other art form can span such heady highs and appalling lows, can excite us and calm us, can make us laugh and weep, in the way that music can. Its intangible nature allows us to absorb it into ourselves as it speaks directly to our souls. There has been a lot of research into why music has this power, but ultimately, it is a mystery. It works on a level we can’t quantify or describe or fully explain.

A definite component in the way music can evoke emotion in us is through memory. There are certain pieces and songs I connect with a certain experience or time. The memory, the emotion associated with that memory, and the song often feel like one thing. Towards the end of her life, when my grandmother was struggling with dementia, one of the things that would always bring a smile to her face and get her singing was hearing an old song she knew, even if she couldn’t have named the person playing it to her or remember many of the words. That’s the magic of music. It bridges the gap between physical and emotional response, says the things we can’t, and reminds us of the things we’ve forgotten.


If you had the challenge of conveying the emotion of wonder as music, what would it sound like?

It would sound light and ethereal. It would be ever morphing and growing into something different, yet routed in the familiar. It would be textural, and there would be sounds always slightly out of earshot but just on the edge of what could be comprehended. It would have snippets of tune, but they’d always be changing and moving. The instruments would be indefinable, like a synthesiser, or maybe a flute or violin that’s been altered in some way to sound recognisable but simultaneously unfamiliar.


What’s the composition process for writing a film or play score? Or does that very much depend upon the creative team? (I can imagine some films are made and music added later, whereas others, the music composed early on really influences the tone and edit of the filmmaking.)

You’re totally right, it depends entirely on the project. In film, the majority of projects bring a composer in once the film has been shot and roughly edited. In theatre and game, the composer is often involved from an earlier stage as the project develops. Some film directors like to have composers attached earlier too. I personally prefer to be involved from as early a stage as possible, and to be writing from the script stage throughout the filming and editing process. That tends to happen more with directors I already have a relationship with, as we already have a creative bond and trust. When it happens, it makes the whole process more organic and becomes far more collaborative between the director, composer and sound designer. It also gives plenty of time for ideas to ruminate and circle round my brain; I like thinking about what I’m doing, so the more time to consider things the better!


How much does a films music affect your enjoyment of a film? Do you find it hard to switch off as many professionals do?

It definitely plays a role in how much I enjoy a film, and I really struggle to switch off! I find that if I’m paying too much attention to the score whilst watching a film, either the film is bad and losing my attention, or the score is bad and is interfering with the film. The best scores should gently support the visual image and only draw attention to themselves at key moments. A really good recent example is Thomas Newman’s score to 1917; the score only became prominent at a few key points, and the rest of the time it underpinned the drama. I do find that I notice more detailed things at key moments in the film if the score is particularly good (for example, the incorporation of found sounds such as typing into Daniel Pemberton’s score for Enter The Spiderverse, Craig Armstrong delaying a beat so a piano chord lands on a kiss in Love Actually, or Anne Nikitin’s unsettling string and percussion combinations in The Imposter.) The flip side of that is I notice when things maybe aren’t quite as polished or refined as they could be, which is annoying when I just want to relax and enjoy a film!


What’s your all-time favourite film score?

That’s a really difficult question, and the answer changes on an almost daily basis. There are so many scores I adore. However, one score I’ve been drawn to constantly since its release is Nicholas Britell’s score to Moonlight. Britell and director Barry Jenkins collaborate so wonderfully together, and Britell’s music is always the perfect accompaniment to Jenkins’ visual image. Britell experiments with texture and melody in the Moonlight score, and there’s a simultaneous lightness and melancholy to the music. He mixes and matches familiar and unfamiliar elements, including using hip hop techniques throughout the score, and it’s a great example of utilising techniques from one genre in another context. I also love the way he’s collaborated with the violinist Tim Fain on the virtuoso sections of the music. It never fails to move and inspire me.


Are there any films that you think have been ruined by a bad score?

Not that I can think of. Modern film scoring generally has a very high quality, so it’s rare for a “bad” score to slip through the net. Sometimes a good film is hindered by a mediocre score though, for example Crazy Rich Asians or Little Women. I like both those films, but I found both the scores to be a bit ordinary. It’s good when composers try to think outside the box, even in a small way, and I’m always disappointed when a score plays it too safe.


You have quite a collection of instruments, can you tell me about some of your more obscure ones and why you like them?

I trained as a Western classical musician, primarily as a violinist and pianist, but as time has gone on I’ve become more interested in instruments from around the world. There are so many different musical traditions, and here in Europe and America we ignore almost everything other than Western art music. I think we can be quite narrow minded, and I’ve found trying to understand more about other musical cultures very rewarding, even though it can be very difficult to understand them without being fully immersed in them.

Although I’ve been interested in other musical cultures for a while, I actually only started collecting world instruments last year. The first instrument was a sarangi, which is a bowed Indian instrument. Instead of using the pads of your finger like on a violin, the notes are produced by pressing your cuticle against the string. It has around 40 strings, but only three of them are played whilst the rest resonate in sympathy, creating a beautiful, resonant sound. In the West we often say the trombone or violin is the instrument most like the human voice, but some musicologists with a more global mindset say the sarangi is actually more similar and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a really evocative and versatile instrument with a totally unique sound, and I’ve used it on many scores. It’s also really hard to play well, and I’m enjoying the challenge of learning it!

I’m also privileged to have a mvet, which is a traditional Cameroonian string instrument. The mvet is becoming more rare in Cameroon, and there are very few of them in the West. It has four strings, with a bridge in the middle, and four calabash resonators. The strings are tuned by sliding the bands of reeds that hold them up and down the central dividing stick. It’s a simple instrument with a beautifully rich sound. It was a real effort to get the instrument imported from Africa, and took months of work, but it was totally worth it!

My birthday is next week and my lovely husband has bought me a Chinese pipa, which is a form of fretted lute. The pipa’s sound is light and delicate, but can also have a real force behind it. I haven’t been allowed to see it yet, but I can’t wait to get learning this one too!

(If anyone is interested in playing instruments from around the world, the following websites are good places to start:


If you were forced to choose between composing or performing music, what would it be and why?

That depends on what kind of performing. When it comes to solo performance, I get really bad stage fright, so I’d happily give that up! Ensemble performing is more fun though, because you’re on stage being creative with your friends and collaborating together. It becomes a shared experience. I’d still probably give up performing for composing though. I like curating sounds and creating musical landscapes too much to ever walk away from it. Recording myself playing and singing is a huge part of my compositional process though, so in a cheeky way I would still get to perform, just not live!

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