Careers: Composer Virginia Kilbertus
Issue: January/February 2021

Careers: Composer Virginia Kilbertus

Virginia Kilbertus is an award-winning composer working in the film and television industries. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Composition from McGill University, where she graduated with a citation for Outstanding Achievement in Composition, and a Masters in Scoring for Film, Television and Video Games from the Berklee College of Music. She has scored and worked on various films and television series, and has recorded with numerous prominent orchestras throughout Canada and Europe. 

Kilbertus mentored with Canadian screen composer Rob Carli and is a graduate of the prestigious Slaight Music Residency at Norman Jewison's Canadian Film Center. Her most recent accomplishments include original scores for the feature film Astronaut, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Seasons 1 and 2 of the Hulu series Endlings, as well as the orchestration for Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Kilbertus’s music draws on her own eclectic influences, fusing rich, classical orchestrations with electronics and jazz to create a sound that is uniquely her own.

Here, she talks with Post about her background and career. 

Tell us a bit about your background and training as a composer?
“I came to composition through the piano. When I was about four, I decided to upstage my older sister by mimicking the pieces she would perform for the family and playing them by ear.

“My parents decided to enroll me in lessons, and piano soon became the cornerstone of my life. As soon as I started playing, I started composing, and as my technique developed, so did my compositions. The realization that I wanted to compose music for films happened early on – the music that moved me the most was the music I heard in films. I loved being able to tell stories through music and many of my early compositions were set to readings of children’s books. I went on to study privately for seven years with Boyanna Toyich, an incredible professor at the University of Toronto, who had a huge impact on my life. After that, I completed a Bachelor of Music in Composition at McGill University and a Masters in Scoring for Film, Television and Video Games at the Berklee College of Music. Throughout these years I was able to hone my orchestration and composition chops, explore various genres, instruments and techniques, and work with some amazing orchestras and ensembles. After my studies at Berklee, I worked with Canadian screen composer Rob Carli and completed a residency at the Canadian Film Center, where I met many people and fellow creatives in the music and film world.”
Can you talk about some of your recent work?

“I recently had the pleasure of scoring Seasons 1 and 2 of the Hulu series Endlings, which was a dream project to work on because of the freedom it allowed me to explore and create new soundscapes and textures. The creator, JJ Johnson, wanted a score that was otherworldly and instruments that were not easily identifiable. To do that, I used a mixture of string extended techniques, which I sometimes used in their raw form and other times distorted through various means and plug-ins, along with some analog and modular synth sounds, which created some really great alien pads for the show, and some Ebow on electric guitar. 

“Basically, for every sound or instrument I used, I thought about how I could mess with it to make it different and interesting. The show strikes this beautiful balance between fantasy and real-life struggles and hardships, and also highlights some incredibly-important issues we face in the world today. I wanted the score to reflect that and to have a soundscape that was both foreign and intriguing, simultaneously familiar and comforting. One of my favourite moments has to be the Julia flashback in the pilot that leads into her escape from the cops and subsequent chase through the cornfield. I loved creating the blurry flashback textures and juxtaposing them against the more gritty, metallic and spunky palette of the present action scene.
“In 2019 I scored the feature film Astronaut, another favorite recent project. Richard Dreyfuss’ performance in the film was brilliant and it was a joy to musically explore the different facets and nuances of his character, Angus. The score comprises a soft string background, which echoes Angus’ nostalgia and longing, with foreground melodies in clarinet and solo strings. Punctuations of metallic and melodic percussion instruments, especially the celesta, also dot the score to reflect Angus’ childlike sense of whimsy. One of my favourite scenes where these various elements converge begins with Angus and Len (Graham Greene) sitting on the porch of their retirement home, witnessing a comet streaking across the sky. There is a sense resignation here, of regret, which then gives way to optimism, determination and mischief as Angus builds up the courage to enter his name into the space competition. Here, for the first time, the score introduces a recurring ticking clock texture, which continues throughout the rest of the score and helps drive it through to the end.

“The penultimate scene of the film – the liftoff of the spacecraft – was also a thrill to score. It provided me, as I hope it did the audience, with a sense of release, elation and closure.”
How did you get involved with these projects?
“For Endlings, my agent contacted me and asked if I was interested in pitching. I jumped on it, since I was immediately hooked by the story, the actors’ performances, and JJ’s initial directions for the score.
“With Astronaut, I was put in contact with the director, Shelagh McLeod, through a composer I met at the Canadian Film Center, Mark Korven. We hit it off and I immediately connected with Shelagh’s vision for the score and film. It was another dream project to work on and I was very lucky to be able to record with both a live orchestra and ensemble.”

What is your process as a composer? What is your first step?
“I usually start by thinking about what kind of sound palette I want to use. I try to create a unique soundscape for each project and always think about my instrumentation choices and how they reflect the story, the characters, etc. Often, I’ll do some recordings or create some sample libraries to work with. Then I think about melodies and themes, and look at the arc of the story and think about how I want the music to change or evolve – kind of like a roadmap for the score. I like starting with some sort of template, but also find that I adapt and add to it as I work.”
What is the timeframe for scoring a project?
“Each Endlings season took about six months, and Astronaut took about two months from conception to the final dub mix.”
For readers who want to know more about your work, can we mention your online presence?

“You can check out my website at, or follow me on Facebook (Virginia Kilbertus), Instagram (@virginia_kilbertus), or Twitter (@vkilbertus1). Bear with me on Twitter though – I’m a newbie!”