Multi-award-winning composer, Pinar Toprak, brings an invigorating and moving sound to the scoring stage with a range of works that span film, television, and video games. You may recognize her work from Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel or the well-known video game Fortnite.
At age five, Toprak started her musical journey with classical music education in Istanbul, Turkey. When she moved to the U.S., she studied jazz in Chicago, and earned her degree in film scoring at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She now resides in Los Angeles, where she completed her master’s in composition at CSUN and now creates incredible works for Hollywood productions.
Let’s start with talking a little bit about your studio. What does this space feel like to you?
This space really is a reflection of me. It’s my safe space and I find it incredibly calming to be here. I think having this studio really encourages me to enter into a creative zone and enjoy the process.
Do you find yourself reflecting on a past experience or memory that guides you when you write?
Sometimes when I compose it requires very intentional thinking. Other times, themes happen organically and they seem to pour out in a very organic way. I have the type of that cherishes being present in the moment. When I experience life that way, typically rich memories are made that inevitably affect the way I write.
In your composing process, how big of a part is creating virtual instrument mock-ups? Can you tell me a little bit about what that looks like for you?
This is an incredibly important part of the compositional process! When working with a filmmaker, it can really dictate their impression of the score and ultimately influence their approval. However, in addition to a full mock up, sometimes I also find it helpful to share the theme in a simple way, just with a piano. There’s something about a melodic concept working simply on a piano that tells you immediately if the idea resonates or not. Often, I’ll share a piano reduction of the theme along with the full orchestration to emphasize its integrity and that it can stand on its own.
How do you start your compositional process?
Usually I start on my piano. It’s great because it has a midi-out so I can be in my organic compositional world on my piano while still capturing the ideas that come from those creative sessions. With starting on an acoustic piano, I can hear the overtones with different voicings and it allows me to really begin to identify how the ideas are going to fit together in the final product.
What is the best musical or compositional advice someone has given to you?
Not really an advice per se, but an important thing I’ve realized early on is trying to say as much as pisslbe with as little as possible. Being intentional with each choice and every note. While teaching at Berklee, I realized that we often forget to hone the basic concepts of composing. We get excited about sharing what we’re working on and the main thing sometimes falls to the wayside. What I’ve learned is that making truly artful and well-crafted music comes by learning to say a lot with as little as possible. Once that’s mastered, all else falls into place.
When you reach blocks in the road of creativity, is there anything specific like a routine or meditation that helps you move through that block?
Sailing is a huge part of working through those blocks. It’s helpful to leave the studio and get into a fresh mindset. Another practice I use regularly is Transcendental Meditation. I’ve found that the practice has yielded results that have compounded over time. The more I meditate, the higher my tolerance to stress becomes. Of course this doesn’t mean that stress goes away completely, but my ability to stay focused and creative under pressure has become noticeably better over the years.
The other constant in my life is walking. Every single day I go for a walk and I’ve found it almost always positively fuels my approach to other areas of my day.
What are some life-giving parts of your life that keep you filled-up?
My two boys and the other people in my life I love are my life force. No professional achievement would mean anything if I couldn’t share them with the people I love.
I also use my sons as my theme filterers… They are always brutally honest. After sharing a musical concept, I’ll ask them the next morning to see if they can sing the themes back to me. If they can still remember it the next morning, I generally know the theme works.
With what you’ve been exposed to and a part of in the music and film industry, what do you appreciate about it? Are there any elements of the industry that you would change if you could?
I don’t think I’d change anything. Though there’s room for improvement in every area, I think that’s expected. So I’m just here in the moment doing what I do best. Looking back at my life, I often appreciate the difficult situations even more than the good moments of ease.
Of course I enjoy lighter moments and seasons, but in any challenging situation I’ve come across in work, I’ve always been grateful for the lessons. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without exposure to the more difficult elements of working in such a high-demand industry.
And I also think enjoyment comes in the creation process for me. I love discovering the needs of a project and finding ways to meet them. It’s a joy seeing those parts of the journey come to life and to be a part of that is an incredible experience.
We’re all starting to see light at the end of the tunnel with Covid-19. If you could go back right before lockdowns started in 2020, what would you tell yourself?
I wouldn’t tell 2020 Pinar anything. I value life as it comes so I wouldn’t have done anything differently. So for me, the past year was also exactly how it needed to be.
What have things been like for you this past year?
Of course It’s been heartbreaking to see how much loss and pain has come from this year for a lot of people. I think most of us have gone through similar phases and I certainly reflected on a lot of things.
Once the world opens up again, if you could pick who would be the first person/group/band you’d see in concert?
I’m so deprived of live music like most of us. I don’t even really mind who it is at this point, I just want to see someone in concert! I love the Hollywood Bowl. It’s such a lovely part of summers in LA, I’d probably go there the first chance I get.
I noticed you like to sail. When did that become a part of your life? What is your experience like when you’re out on the water?
I grew up near water my whole life. Sailing isn’t something I learned when I was younger learned later on in my life. I wanted to do something that was just for me. Sailing became what I did that wasn’t for anything else or anyone else. Since I get to do my hobby for a living, it was crucial to have something else that had none of the expectations or pressure.
What are some of your biggest influencers of music?
So many! From classical and early music, funk, jazz, and rock. I wrote my master’s thesis on John Corigliano. I was obsessed with his music for some time.
In terms of film composers, the first one I was ever aware of as a little kid was John Williams and his Superman score. Others like Jerry Goldsmith, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, and more have deeply influenced me. I’ve always loved Ennio Morricone’s work, too. There’s something so masterful about the way he constructs themes – he has a way of constructing themes that might be unpredictable at first but then where every note lands is so welcome and satisfying.
We live in a really wonderful time in history where not only do we have huge amounts of access to many genres, but we see creative ways where everything is blending in together into one vast world of music.