Cue the Spooky Music

An interview between composer Matt Larson and company member Jen Rand.

While the Mad Munchkins are rehearsing for the upcoming garage tour of The Spooky Spectacular & Harvest Hullabaloo in the Twin Cities, I’m half way across the country experiencing a totally different kind of hullabaloo in Los Angeles, California. I can’t think of better way to get into the spirit of the Spectacular-Hullabaloo than to have a chat with the man responsible for amping up the kooky and spooky with all-new original music, composer Matt Larson.

Photo by Bruce Silcox

Photo by Bruce Silcox

For those not in the know, Matt, can you briefly describe how writing music for a Mad Munchkin Productions (MMP) show works?
“Writing music for a MMP show usually begins with [Artistic Director Laura Wilhelm] creating a music/sound outline of the show. This enables me to communicate with the creative team and get on the same page, prior to composing anything. From there, I generate audio samples that I usually refer to as “sketches”. The pieces that seem right get further developed toward final pieces. There’s usually a fair amount of tweaking and communicating to get the sounds just right.”

This is only your second show working with MMP, but you have a long history of writing and performing music with puppetry companies in the Twin Cities. How do you find writing for puppets differs from composing for dance or more traditional theater, if at all?
“Writing for puppets usually involves a bit more silliness and sound effects. It often requires more action scoring as well, somewhat like old cartoon music. Dance and theatre tend to be more about setting the mood with music themes, whereas puppetry needs mood and lots of punctuation to help bring the puppets to life.”

With your last MMP project, A Grimm Tale, you composed for live musicians. For The Spooky Spectacular & Harvest Hullabaloo you are composing and recording, with your recorded tracks being the final product for performance. Do you find this challenging? Or is it perhaps more freeing, allowing for more experimentation in the studio?
“Composing for pre-recorded audio isn’t inherently more challenging. Sometimes it requires more planning to fit in specific sound cues, but other than that it can actually be a lot simpler. I’m comfortable writing for myself, so I tend to work more quickly that way. Writing for a live band requires much more rehearsal time and the element of leading musicians, which is a big job. I prefer writing for a live band because I end up discovering a lot of interesting elements while collaborating with different musicians that I alone in the studio may not have come across.”

You are a multi-instrumentalist, but do you predominantly compose on any one instrument?
“I often compose on a piano/keyboard, although for A Grimm Tale I actually composed all of the themes on mandolin. That helped give it a much more authentic folk quality.”

MMP creates much of its shows in rehearsal, working collaboratively with performers. Is it difficult to write music for a show that doesn’t exist yet?
“It can be difficult to write music for a show that doesn’t exist. I’ve found that the best method is just to get enough of a vision going and dive in without looking back. Thankfully MMP is very organized and communicative from the start, which makes my job easier.”

You are not new to spooky puppet shows, having been composer and live bandleader for the Barebones Halloween Extravaganza. Do you find you have a particular affinity for scary music?
“I love creating dark atmospheric music! I’m also excitedly co-music directing Barebones again this year and having a lot of fun writing some very creepy themes. I was a huge fan of Redmoon Theater in Chicago when I lived there and they’ve had some great spooky shows scored by the terrific composer, Mark Messing.”

The company only went into rehearsal last week and you are certainly still making musical adjustments, but if forced to choose…and I’m forcing you to choose…what is your favorite contribution to The Spooky Spectacular & Harvest Hullabaloo and why?
“My favorite contribution so far is the theme song, because it is so important for setting the tone for both shows. I think we hit on something pretty creepy and yet fun for everyone.”

For someone whose musical style is as eclectic as yours, I imagine this will be a tough one…who is your favorite composer or songwriter? Whose music inspires you?
Tom Waits‘ theatre work is a huge inspiration. One of my favorite albums of all-time is the bass clarinet heavy Blood Money. Some of my other favorites are Philip Glass, Béla Bartók, and Arvo Pärt, although I have a boundless love for music and listen to far too many genres to narrow it down. I sometimes listen to music from the moment I wake up until I go to bed.”

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions during this clearly busy season of composing for you. I can’t let you go with out one last question, what is your favorite scary movie?
“Probably Rosemary’s Baby. I love the slow build and the element of suspense without gratuitous gore. Although I enjoy that as well.” 

And there you have it, some insight into the man behind the music behind the Mad Munchkins. Be sure to catch Matt’s latest compositions for MMP in The Spooky Spectacular & Harvest Hullabaloo coming to a garage near you this October, and don’t miss his return to the Barebones Halloween Extravaganza for the 20th Anniversary of this outdoor puppet tradition.