Careers: Composer Cindy O'Connor
Issue: September 1, 2018

Careers: Composer Cindy O'Connor

Cindy O’Connor is a prolific musician who has been writing music since the age of five, and who has spent most of her adult life working as a composer for film and television. She’s created original music for NBC’s The Black Donnellys, Starz’s Crash, The Conjuring 2, The Hangover Part III, and Wreck-It-Ralph, and recently was nominated for an Emmy for her work on the hit ABC series, Once Upon a Time

O’Connor has been creating music for the show since its beginning. Here, she shares with Post her background and inspirations, as well as insight into her Emmy-nominated work on the popular ABC series.

What is your background? How did you get into composing?

“My background in music has been pretty eclectic. I studied classical piano from a young age, and I was always interested in telling stories with music. As a kid, I wrote a suite of piano pieces about circus animals and I wrote songs about everything — my family, my pets, my classmates. My piano teacher, Frank Sanucci, was also a composer and he taught me the basics of music theory and composition.
“When I got to high school, I heard the score to West Side Story and I fell in love with musical theater. I read every play and listened to every album I could get my hands on. In college at UCLA, I started writing musicals. It was there that I met my longtime collaborator, book-writer and lyricist Larry Todd Cousineau. We wrote a musical called All That He Was, which won the American College Theatre Festival and was performed at the Kennedy Center.
“At the same time, I was playing keyboards and singing in bands because I’ve always loved pop music. I also took classes in the film scoring program through UCLA Extension. Not long after this, I was hired as Mark Isham’s assistant and I learned an incredible amount about the craft of film scoring by being in that environment.”
What are some of your credits?
“My feature film scores include Forgiving the Franklins, which is a black comedy feature that premiered at Sundance, and Not Forgotten, a thriller starring Simon Baker. I’ve written additional music for many films, including Warrior, The Mechanic, Dolphin Tale, and Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia. In television, I scored the Starz series Crashin, a collaboration with Mark Isham, and contributed music to NBC’s The Black Donnellys. In 2017, I was selected as a fellow in the Sundance Composer Lab at Skywalker Sound. And in the theater world, I’ve had several musicals produced in LA, New York, and Chicago.”

What inspired you to become a composer?
“I’ve had several moments where I sat in the audience and thought, ‘Wow! That’s what I want to do!’ When I was five, my family was living in Japan and my parents took me to a dance concert that was all in Japanese. I couldn’t understand the language, but I was so captivated by the sets, the costumes, and the stories being told through music and dance. I felt like I was stepping inside a magical world and I wanted more! I became a lifelong theater lover. The first film score that had that effect on me was Francis Lai’s beautiful piano-based score to International Velvet, with Tatum O’Neal. I loved that music so much, I saw the movie four times and snuck in a tape recorder so I could learn the music at home on the piano. In a way, that was my first study of arranging and orchestration, as I listened and discovered the ways the composer developed his themes and used instrumentation to achieve different emotional colors.”
Tell us about your Emmy-nominated work on ABC’s Once Upon a Time? How did you get involved with this project and how has it evolved musically throughout the series?
“I had co-scored another series with Mark Isham for two seasons — the Starz series Crash — and I was writing additional music for some other projects of his when he was hired for the pilot of Once Upon a Time. I read the script and fell in love with the story and characters! It was such a creative concept and so well-written by Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis. Mark scored most of the pilot and wrote the foundational themes for all the main characters, which we have developed throughout the run of the show. Since there was so much music every week and we were recording with live orchestra, Mark brought me on board to write additional music along with Michael Simon.
“When we started the first season, I was still on staff at Mark’s and had a writing room at his studio. This turned out to be the perfect time to go out on my own and work out of my own studio because it was definitely a full-time job. In the beginning, Mark would assign us certain cues based on our musical strengths; so, Mike would get most of the action and fighting scenes and I would get the heartbreaking emotional scenes or soaring romantic moments. But, we both wanted to branch out and score a variety of scenes, so we started doing a little bit of everything and it has grown into a wonderful collaboration. In later seasons, Mark, Mike, and I would do a phone call every week and decide who was writing what and we would each get to work on.
“We’ve kept the sound of the score in the orchestral fantasy, adventure style that the fans have come to know and love, but the individual themes for the characters have evolved a lot over the years. That is one of the most rewarding things about doing a series with a long life like this one — as the characters grow and change, you can illustrate this musically. For example, Regina started out as the Evil Queen, with a deliciously over-the-top evil theme. But as she revealed more of her humanity and strove to redeem herself, we created other versions of her theme that were subtler, with more emotional depth.”

What can you tell us about the Emmy-nominated episode?
“We are nominated for the series finale, ‘Leaving Storybrooke,’ and what a bittersweet experience it was scoring the last episode after seven seasons! It’s a very intense episode where final battles are fought, a beloved character dies, and the power of love saves another character’s life. Because it was such an emotionally-charged episode, we had an extra-large orchestra of 40 players and the sound is glorious. We’ve been really fortunate to have a live orchestra every week — 26 players recording in Los Angeles — and despite the ever-improving technology of sampled instruments, there is just no comparison to the emotional colors that living, breathing musical artists bring to a score. We are very thankful to ABC and Disney for their appreciation and support of live musicians.
“There were so many wonderful scenes to score in this episode. Two of my favorite contributions were Rumple’s reunion with Belle in heaven, a very tender moment which we’ve been hoping for since the beginning of the season, and Regina’s coronation as the Good Queen, completing her evolution into a wise, mature, loving version of herself.”
What is your studio and equipment set up for Once Upon A Time?
“My studio setup includes three Mac Pro towers. One is running Logic, my first choice for composing, and another one is a Vienna Ensemble Pro slave running many instances of Kontakt, Play, Vienna Instruments and other sample libraries. The third Mac Pro is running picture in Pro Tools, slaved to the Logic machine via MIDI timecode. I also use Pro Tools to make QuickTime video demos and to print stems to bring to the orchestral recording session. I love my Dynaudio Bm15a monitors, I have an Apogee Big Ben keeping everything in sync, and my audio interfaces are an RME Fireface and an ancient MOTU 2408 MK III. I am upgrading a lot of this as we speak, as I’ve been wanting to max out these Mac Pros and move to a more recent version of OS X, but between Once Upon a Time and various summer projects, I haven’t had much of a break in seven years! Well, I did take two weeks off for my honeymoon, which my husband really appreciated.”
Do you have a particular approach when composing?
“For a brand-new project, I will do a lot of playing around with different instruments to find the musical world of the film or series. I will write a handful of themes and let them percolate for a while, listening in the car or around the house, letting the ideas develop organically and then trying new versions with picture to see what is working. If I’m writing in a genre that is new to me, I will listen to a wide range of examples for inspiration. If I have the luxury of time to play around, it’s nice to explore and improvise, finding the sound of the project along the way.
“For an existing project where I have already done all that, then it is all about the storytelling. Music has different functions in different scenes, whether it’s amping up the tension, revealing subtext, establishing a mood, or heightening the emotion — to list a few examples. So, first I will determine what the score’s ‘job’ is in that scene. If it is going to be a thematic cue, I watch the scene and find the best placement of the theme and how to develop it. Since I’m a singer, sometimes I’ll watch a scene and sing along with it, because that feels like the most natural way to find the sweet spots. Or I’ll play a theme on the piano or other instrument. Once I have the shape of the musical piece, I will get to work orchestrating it and playing with electronic sounds to get the emotional tone just right.”

What advice would you have for those pursuing a similar career?
“There are so many ways to get started in film and TV scoring these days. There are university programs where you can learn about the artistic approach to scoring and the technical skills required. There is the apprenticeship path of working under another composer, whether it is a short internship or a full-time assistant position, and this is a great window into the day-to-day life of a professional composer. Other composers have broken into the industry by collaborating with a filmmaker early in their career and going on to a successful working relationship. And many others start as solo artists, bandleaders, or DJs, developing a musical voice outside the film industry and then being sought out to bring that fresh voice to film scoring. I would encourage people to follow a path that you find fulfilling while you are pursuing it and find joy in the journey. It takes time to build a career in this field, so make the most of that time by devouring all kinds of music, learning, and exploring with your own musical voice.”
What is next for you, professionally and personally?
“Professionally, I’m (was) one of the featured composers in a concert at the Wiltern on September 4th called ‘KCRW Presents The Future is Female.’ It showcased the work of 12 female film, TV, and game composers with the Hollywood Chamber Orchestra and a choir. I wrote a new piece for this concert and looked forward to conducting it. There are so many exciting film music concerts these days and I’d love to get involved in something like that! I have taken a deep dive into studying conducting this year and I wrote a piece that will be fun and exciting to perform on the concert stage.
“I have an original musical, which just finished a run in Chicago to excellent reviews, and we are planning to bring it to LA and other cities. It is a parody of the classic novel, Lord of The Flies, and is called Flies! The Musical. It’s very silly and over-the-top. One reviewer compared it to ‘Glee Meets Waiting for Guffman.’
“Personally, I got married last year and became a stepmom to four teenage boys! I haven’t gotten into game music yet, but these guys are all gamers, so I’m getting more familiar with that world. And if I were to score a game, I’m sure they would think that was the ultimate in cool.”

Do you have any secret passions?
“I am fascinated with languages. The different structures and syntax, the sounds and musical tone of each language, are so interesting to me. The way language shapes a culture and vice versa. I spent part of my childhood in Japan and I learned a little Japanese. I also studied Spanish in school along with learning from my mom, who is bilingual (English and Spanish). I love to travel and I always try to learn a few phrases in the language of wherever I’m going. Just enough to try to communicate. And I think there is a huge parallel with studying different musical genres and learning to speak in them. In the same way that I’ll never speak Italian as well as a native, I won’t write a bluegrass or electropop tune in the same way as somebody who has studied it all their life; however, I can learn enough to communicate and say something in my own voice. That has been one of my favorite things about film and TV scoring, getting to try out many musical languages and learn to communicate through them.”