Jordan Plotner ’17 — an American Studies major concentrating in film — used to spend his childhood car rides listening to the Beatles. Today, he composes for commercials, Yale productions and Hollywood films. “Harold,” the opera he composed during his freshman year, won Best Narrative Film at March’s Yale Student Film Festival. Raised in London, Plotner took a gap year to compose for a band in Malaysia and spent this past summer studying under American film composer Marco Beltrami, the composer of “I, Robot” and “The Woman in Black.” Excelling beyond the scope of his instrument-building class at Yale, Plotner used his 3D-printed beer bottle instrument to score a job with Ikea.
Q: When did your journey with music begin?
A: My parents are big music lovers. They both played instruments when younger. Neither have kept it up but they are both avid listeners and we always had music playing in our house. From a very young age, I was quizzed on the Beatles and I quickly became an expert on the Beatles. On long car rides, my parents would ask who is singing, who wrote this song, not in a competitive way but in a this-is-really-fun music sort of way. Jump forward a little bit, I started learning guitar and double bass at the same time and I became more interested in music. When I was 13 or 14, I was given a notebook, a nice big empty notebook and later I had a chat with my dad and he said, “You know, you can practice guitar, but there are always going to be people who are technically more proficient and technically better. But no one else will have your mind and the ability to create,” and he really encouraged me to start writing songs in this book. When I was 14 or 15, I started recording myself playing these songs that I had written. I wasn’t very good but I was just going with it. Eventually, I started trying to make these songs more complex and interesting.
Q: Tell me about the biggest parts of composing a piece of music — where do you even begin?
A: I think the most important part of a piece of music is the melody. So sometimes I’ll just be walking — I know this is cliche — but I’ll be struck with it, it will just pop into my head and I will write it down or whistle it. [Harold] started as a sticky note when I was boarding a plane. I have numerical values assigned to notes and I wrote out the numbers of the main theme of the opera. So that is one way where it just pops into my head, which is nice because I don’t have to work too much at it. Another piece I was commissioned to write was for a concert band in Shanghai and they wanted it to be based around a traditional Chinese folk melody. So I had to take that melody and adapt it to form the basis of the piece. The key of film music is to serve as and to enhance the emotional response of the visuals of what is happening on the screen. Just how it’s important, when you want to become a good writer, to read a lot, to be a good film composer, you have to watch a lot of movies. I also have a condition called synesthesia that causes me to visualize music and numbers as shapes, and it helps me compose and think of music in my head. It is a visual process that helps me approach things in a different way than I would otherwise.
Q: Can you tell me about “Harold”?
A: I was taking a composition seminar, and they told us in the first class about having to do an end-of-year project. I had never written a piece just for choir before, so I decided that was what I wanted to do. I was in the shower one day and I decided I would try writing an opera, and that was in September of my freshman year. Thinking back, it was not the smartest thing to do. I don’t think I realized how much work it would be. I wanted to do it a little differently than a traditional opera, which is on stage. I wanted to do a film portion of it, through which the action of the opera was acted out through silent film. My roommate happened to be a filmmaker and another suitemate happened to be a writer so he wrote the libretto. I wrote the opera in two weeks over winter break … I was set on having a four-year-old as the main character, so I literally went to every nursery school in New Haven with fliers. And to find the grown-up, we were looking for an age range of 60–80 years old. Someone responded to an ad on Craigslist, and that’s who we used. It was kind of guerilla filmmaking and the music was challenging but really fun to work on … and so it was originally just voices and then I added other instruments.
Q: What is the biggest difference in composing for movies, productions and commercials?
A: So, there is a certain amount of freedom in each. I’d say on the spectrum of creative freedom, you have independent productions on one end and commercials on the other. For example, this past week I was doing a commercial for Intel and they had two different bits of music I had to compose. One was a little five-second opening, and they wanted it to be in the style of certain talk shows but not certain other talk shows, so it was a very specific style that they wanted. You oftentimes go back and forth with the producer in charge, which is a great process because obviously I’m just starting out in this field, so I have tons and tons to learn. So working on such a small piece of music that is in the heads of the people hiring me that I have to then translate into music is phenomenal practice: It helps me to translate emotions and intellectual ideas into music. I’ll put [film] in the middle of this spectrum, because it can be completely free or it can be similar to commercials. … Sometimes you have to emulate [the director’s temporary idea] in great detail and sometimes you don’t. Then, in independent projects, I do what I want.
I don’t have a general preference to do one or the other. Sometimes I’ll be in the mood to be very independent and sometimes I enjoy working under people with constraints because it forces me to be creative within a certain domain and it can be fun and challenging, sort of like a puzzle.
Q: How does it feel to hear your music being played by others, and then in movies and in commercials?
A: It’s an odd thing because I feel, by the time I finish working on something, that I’ve listened to it so many times and I’ve seen and heard it in so many different iterations. For example, I’ve heard “Harold” so many times now that I can’t hear it as real music. It kind of seems like an idea I once had. There’s a massive disconnect but also such a close connection. So, I tend not to go out and listen to things I’ve composed unless I’m feeling nostalgic or if I’m trying to search for an emotional place that I was at in past times.
Q: Can you contrast your experiences in Hollywood and Malaysia for us … what were the most striking parts of your experiences at each place?
A: In Malaysia, I was commissioned to write in this festival and it was a great experience. I was able to travel there and work with the band but I had creative freedom with what I did. There were other performances that have been disastrous. One of my school’s ensembles had a tour in Luxembourg and we premiered one of my pieces. [The piece] was pretty complicated and it was beyond the technical proficiency of my band, and I should have known that but I was not quite as experienced. So, that was a complete train wreck; we literally stopped and people just kind of looked at me and I was like [laughs] “What do you want me to do?” There was another film I was working on, and when I showed up to the premiere 80 percent of the music I had written was cut out. There have obviously been really amazing experiences too. This summer I was working in Los Angeles with Beltrami, and he was an incredible person and composer. Seeing how a master works was an enlightening experience and being able to work with him and create things and get feedback on it was invaluable. Another musical experience — this is slightly different — I recorded a song in a bomb shelter once during my gap year. I was in Israel picking avocados and I was with a friend right on the Gaza border and a war broke out and we had to take cover since we were pretty close to where missiles and shrapnel was falling and we had to make use of the bomb shelter.
Q: It seems your talents span more than just composing music. Can you tell us more about your 3D printer invention?
A: That originally started for this instrument-building class and I wanted to do something a little different. I love the sound of blowing across the bottle, and there is a computer process called “sampling” in which you take a sound, record it and then transpose it into different keys on a keyboard. It’s all digitally done on the computer and I wanted to do that in physical form. I 3D printed the shape of my mouth and created a mouthpiece for each bottle because that was the way to optimize the airflow across the bottle, and then I did all the electrical wiring for it.
Q: Who have you learned the most from?
A: That’s really tricky … so obviously my parents and family have been incredibly supportive. While I might not have had formal musical training from them, they gave me the tools to figure it out for myself. I had a really inspirational guitar teacher in London who got me into composing, and got me excited about composing electronic music and different types of music. I also had a really great band teacher who came my senior year and worked with me on my piece. The Beatles — definitely. They are the best melody writers of all time and they have inspired me more than any other group.