Composers Jacob Yoffee & Roahn Hylton Explore Robert Downey Jr.’s “The Age of A.I.”

Recently I spoke with Composers Jacob Yoffee & Roahn Hylton as they prepare to explore Robert Downey Jr.’s “The Age of A.I.”
1. How did you get into composing?
ROAHN: Recently, we were asked this question and the quote that came to mind was: “Composers are not born, they are created,” and in my case that is 100 percent truth. After years of producing for Urban and Pop artists I was excited to try new things which led me randomly and fortuitously on a trip to Israel, where Jacob and I met. Fast forward a year or so and Jacob and I had just finished producing a GAP commercial featuring Janelle Monae when got a call to demo for “Best Shot,” which was our first series together. The content and sound were a perfect fit for what Jacob and I do well. We like to say it was the “next logical step.”

JACOB: I’ve had an interest in composing from the beginning—for my very first piano recital at 8 yrs old I actually performed an original piece, along with the assigned music from my teacher. Storytelling is also a big love of mine and I fell in love with film music while watching movies with the family. Music and the moving image has a real power to it and the creative possibilities are endless. I was hooked! I studied orchestral composition and Jazz at a Music Conservatory, toured full time as a Jazz musician for ten years after that and then returned for a Master’s degree to study film music in particular. I made the jump to L.A. immediately after graduating. Once Roahn & I met we knew we wanted to work together and it’s been an amazing collaboration. It’s always felt like we were meant to write music with each other.

2. Where do you find your inspiration when composing?
Every project is its own unique world, so it varies but the one thing that is common is we try and draw from the raw emotion that the story gives us. The idea is that we want the audience to be fully engaged in their experience, so we get inspired by the same experience the viewer will have. This approach has helped us create our sound palette much more quickly and effectively than temping with another score or any references we may get.
3. What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced and what have been your greatest triumphs?
ROAHN: I would say the biggest challenges for me have been creating a healthy distance from the content. It gets easy to want to move fast and create from a place that is obvious. Sometimes the first idea is the best idea, but I’ve found most often that letting the story help us make musical decisions is much more effective than throwing a bunch melody in a cue until something sticks. I would say my greatest triumph has been using my pop/urban and songwriting instincts in a way that serves the score, while not distracting from what is onscreen. When I first started I thought it would be easy to do, but that challenge has proven to help me grow as both a composer and producer.
JACOB: Composing for film is incredibly stressful due to the time constraints and sheer amount of music needed. It demands you flex every creative muscle you have but also time organization, extreme planning and team management. These days we’re also required to record, mix and produce everything as well. These skills are all housed under the title of ‘Composer’ for any of our projects. It’s extremely challenging to keep a level head throughout it all, while also experimenting and pushing your own creative boundaries. The triumph for me personally was when I realized that my role was two-fold: composer AND music producer. That simple breakdown helped me to understand how much I needed to BE an artist, but BEHAVE as a business. From that point forward, I thought about things much more clearly and was able to balance the conservatory composer mentality with the modern world of film and television.

4. How much leeway do you have with the creation of a score?

Complicated question lol. It depends on the project and how much trust we have developed with our shows’ producer and editing team, as well as the network. In some cases, the powers that be give us a pretty long leash because we have worked together in the past and they know that eventually we will end up with a sound palette that fits the story; they will use what we created to aid in their efforts to tell the story no matter how crazy the musical piece is. In other cases, we are asked to simply follow reference ideas we are given and are basically asked to follow guidelines previously decided before we were hired.
5. Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing?
Again every project is its own process but usually we start by watching & taking notes. We spend a lot of time producing different ideas to see how they feel. How distinct are they from our other projects? What makes this a signature sound for this particular story? Once we get a sense for what’s working we craft themes and melodic shapes that can hit the most important ideas that we are trying to express. From there, we rinse and repeat until we are done. Sounds simple, but this basic process can take months. Often the central idea takes a long time to create but seems so obvious afterward. Then it’s the challenge of producing to work with picture.
6. When scoring/music editing for a series, do you have the opportunity to watch several episodes prior to working on the score or the music editing?
Usually we are given a few scenes or episodes at a time. I actually prefer this because the more you get at once the easier it is to get overwhelmed before you even begin. We often start away from picture or even write based solely on conversations or a simple brief from the producers. Once the process really begins though we are always writing and finishing to picture, down to the frame.
7. Do you find certain genres more interesting or challenging work on? Does your process change for different genres?

Not particularly. But we prefer to work on scripted content because the process allows us to have a bit more organization from the outset.
8. Is there a particular piece of music that you are most proud of? Or a project that you worked on?
Maybe its recency bias, but we love the music we created for Kevin Hart’s “Don’t F**k This up”. It was right in the sweet spot of music that we love to listen to and create and the musicians we worked with were phenomenal. And of course, getting to watch Kevin Hart’s work ethic in the middle of an epic run was inspiring and genuinely fun.
9. What sorts of composers inspire you?
Composers who are able to enhance the emotional experience of the content by being unexpected. We loved what Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury did with the score for “Annihilation,” as well as Hildur Gudnadóttir with “Joker.” With “Annihilation,” you are constantly in a state of unease with sounds that you can’t quite place while others are familiar. Even though it’s super haunting and alien the score is tasteful in the best way. With “Joker,” there’s this intentionality behind the melodies that gives you the sense that we are just about to go over the edge at any moment.
10. What do you like to do in your spare time?
ROAHN: I love watching sports, I’m a huge football fan so I’m watching the playoffs. Hopefully my Texans take it this year.
JACOB: My son just turned 1 and, in all honesty, any time I’m not working on music is spent with him, my wife and the rest of the family. Before that though, we loved to hike around L.A. and enjoy all the ridiculously amazing restaurants in the city. We are spoiled with the food scene in this town.
11. What do you have coming up?
We’re working with director Michael John Warren again on a cool project. Not sure we can get into specifics yet, but it’s been a lot of fun so far. We’re also developing our first duo album, bringing in a lot of our favorite collaborators, vocalists and musicians. We want to explore some musical territory that’s been bouncing around in our minds the last few years.