First WEDNESDAYS with Joe Kraemer

Dec 13 • Blog, First WEDNESDAYS Highlights

Reacher of a Mission:  Joe Kraemer—Film Composer

By Adam Dachman


When Joe Kraemer tells you he is a film composer—believe him.  

Surgeons have licenses, board certifications, diplomas, continuing education requirements, academic degrees and piles of recommendations, committee approvals, appointments and privilege permissions.  You get it.

In L.A. and abroad, “film composers” exist around every corner and in every community.  With the advent of powerful home computers, sample libraries, synths, scoring tools, on line courses, seminars, books, and magazines students of the craft have an abundant supply of information.  Film music programs at every high school, university, community college and the like create ample input for aspiring artists.  But, the offerings are building blocks…pieces of a grand puzzle made of the collective history of this craft.  And many of today’s films aren’t even using the historical devices of soundtrack production taught in education programs.  Directors and producers are often looking for something new—the next sound.

I have a dual background in medicine and music.  I have been formally trained in both throughout high school, college and beyond.  But I didn’t get my inspiration for film composition until I had completed my training as a cancer surgeon.  I was a pianist and song writer going through my medical training.  My life’s mission was either to be a rock star or a surgeon.  I chose surgery.  I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to help people in profound ways.  I am grateful.  But when one mission is accomplished, sometimes another appears in the view ahead.  This is a common tale in our modern society—it is a side effect of the modern information age.  For me, composing has been a natural outgrowth of my whole life’s background.

For Joe Kraemer, growing up in New York, he had a friend who created Super 8 films.  Joe spent hours figuring out how to synchronize music to the film imagery.  He caught the desire to compose soundtracks as a young man and pursued that dream at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.  Joe obtained his degree in Film Music and moved to L.A. right out off the bat.  He tells the story of hanging out with cats like Jude Law, Chris McQuarrie and Benicio Del Toro before anyone knew who they were.  Leo Dicaprio was even spotted around now and then.  Joe didn’t realize it, but he was becoming part of his generation of famous names.  This is a common tale told by many famous film industry folks as they look back on their careers.

A journey through multiple television shows and ongoing relationships with his peers led Joe to scoring “Way of the Gun”.  While the film has been widely criticized on many levels, the score became a source of unintended consequence.  The Way of the Gun soundtrack became a favored temp track for multiple films and by some notable directors.  Joe’s use of orchestral instruments, motifs and thoughtful timing made for useful temping.  Perhaps the term “temp-love”, in part, arose from Mr. Kraemer’s abilities.  Forgive me, Joe, I had to throw that one out there…

Joe wore a few hats while working on his portfolio of film and television.  Scoring nearly 40 Hallmark Channel films he developed a knack for creating thoughtful musical scores that blended his experience with his passion for music.  Honing his approach to the use of computers, DAWs, samples and orchestration he mastered the craft of building templates for production to a finely tuned level.

What is clear when attending a Joe Kraemer session is his love of the craft.  The desire to compose thoughtful work using a depth of tools far beyond sound design, synthesis, electronics and technology shines through in a way that truly stands out.  What exists far beyond these external tools is the human being Joe is—a warm, funny, refreshingly intelligent person with an incredible amount of musical soul.  When he plays examples on the piano he literally transforms into the embodiment of the music.  

Kraemer has an encyclopedic knowledge of films, television shows, composers, directors, and film techniques.  On top of this he has an incredible recall of music terminology, theory, harmony, counterpoint and the ability to share it with his student audiences.  He is a master of the craft, truly.

Through a series of life events and relationships built, Joe was signed to score the Tom Cruise production, Jack Reacher.  Apparently, John Williams was unavailable.  Really.  Cruise loved Joe’s thematic writing especially for the Jack Reacher character stating, “The Reacher theme is my favorite character theme since Born on the Fourth of July”.  Not too shabby.  

Joe went through the various versions of his Jack Reacher opening scenes which are entirely without dialogue.   Each of the versions demonstrated subtle differences, strengths and weaknesses (in comparison to one another).  The process of composing music for a director’s film unequivocally produces differing reactions psychologically and emotionally.  This is a natural part of the dynamics related to most creative endeavors.  As a musician and composer myself, the differences in tastes between a director, producer and composer set the stage for uncomfortable disagreements about a cue’s effect on the visuals and the audience’s experience.  Setting the ego aside and honoring the director’s vision for a film is a necessary skill when hours of your work get discarded, overlooked and under appreciated.  

Joe made it clear to all of us how the ability to revise cues is essential.  He went further to enhance the learning experience by adding how valuable the unused cues can be to future projects.  None of the work need be wasted if not included in the film score.  in other words, store your left overs for another day.

We took a short break and were back with a session on Mission Impossible 5—Rogue Nation.  By this point in Joe’s career he had been honed into a tested, capable and honorable composer with a sensitivity to the musicians playing the scores, the directors and producers steering the process and to the masters who inspired and taught him the craft.   Taking on Lalo Schifrin’s thematics for Mission Impossible would demand all of his wits and talent.  Now, Joe was among Hollywood elite composers with Hollywood elite actors and producers involved in a franchise nearly a half a century old.  The task at hand was gigantic and had to be handled with the utmost care and dedication.  And on top of that—throw in Puccini’s Nessun Dorma which was not only part of the script but one of the most recognized operatic themes on the planet.  No pressure…

Joe gave us insights about his approach to scoring the opening scenes of the film where the team is in Belarus trying to stop a cargo plane from taking off with some really devastating weapons.  Everything is going wrong and then Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) enters the film jumping onto the plane’s wing and grasping onto the side of the hull as the plane takes off the ground.  Amazing visuals, amazing action, improbable (if not impossible) events all scored with a powerful homage to Lalo’s iconic themes.  But the energy, the timing, the use of instruments and attention to every beat grabs you and keeps you all the way through the end of the opening credits.  Awesome!

No easy task, no simple mission, this scoring job really was as challenging as a mission impossible.  Joe Kraemer is the real deal, a genuine reacher of his mission.  I was thrilled to attend this ASMAC First Wednesday event and look forward to more in the near future.  Special thanks to Milton Nelson, Chuck Fernandez and Kim Richmond for their ongoing dedication to this amazing series of educational events.  And a very special thanks to Joe Kraemer for coming out during a terribly stressful situation with the fires blazing.  Joe you are a mensch.  


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