Wheelhouse Profile: Karen Altman, Composer of Magical Universe


This month we’re profiling Karen Altman in honor of the theatrical release of Magical Universe.

Karen Altman is a talented composer from Virginia who has teamed up with Wheelhouse Creative’s Jeremy Workman to compose an original film score for his documentary, Magical Universe. Not unlike the film, Karen’s music is both enchanting and mesmerizing. In an interview with Karen, we got a glimpse into the creative mind behind the music.

Click below to read the full interview!


How did you get into composing music?

I have been composing music in my head for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t truly feel that it was something I could share with the world until about 5 years ago.

As a kid, I would occasionally attempt to compose but it wasn’t something my piano instructors encouraged. I took piano lessons for 8 years, often distracted by parts that didn’t exist in the sheet music — what a violin should be doing here, when an oboe is needed there — while I was trying to focus on simply playing the piano. I thought I was musically inept and I lacked the self-confidence at the time to pursue anything more than learning and memorizing sheet music.

Discovering composition software (thanks to my husband) motivated me to compose. It was amazing to be able to create a song with at least 10 different parts and actually hear everything come together. I realized that I was not musically inept, just musically misguided!

 The first featurette for Magical Universe, featuring Karen’s music.

How did you get involved in “Magical Universe”?

It started when Jeremy contacted me a couple of years ago about a wreath in my Etsy shop.  Jeremy was making a holiday video for Etsy and the theme was “Dress Your Door: The Modern Wreath.”  I was happy to have one of my wreaths featured in his video and I mentioned to him that I also compose music.  After sending him a few samples, he included some of my music in the Etsy video and he mentioned to me a film that he had been working on for 10 years.

A few months after the Etsy video, Jeremy contacted me again and asked if I would like to audition to score his film, “Magical Universe.” I was honored that he would ask and I knew even before previewing that it was a very special project. When I watched it for the very first time, I was overwhelmed with just how beautiful this film really is. I knew right then I wanted to be a part of it.

What was it like working on this project?

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 11.52.28 AMThis was my first film score and I could not have asked for a more gratifying project. Jeremy is awesome to work with and it was pretty amazing to watch the film come together. It reached out to me from the start — it was weird, it was magical, it was wonderful. The music just came… it was almost like I was responding to something in the film. Maybe I was responding to Al. I really wanted the music to adorn the film, as well as the experiences that Jeremy and Astrid had with this remarkable person.

I had to watch this film so many times while composing the score. Honestly, I never got tired of it and each time I seemed to notice something new. When I finally got to see it in a theatre (at the Woodstock Film Festival), it was an unbelievable experience and watching the audience respond and realize just how delightfully “Magical Universe” delivers this strange, beautiful story… that was brilliant!

How would you describe your style or approach to composing?

My approach is usually to just write down what happens, when it happens. I rarely just make myself compose.  Usually, I am jotting something down as it comes to me or recording a voice memo in between chopping carrots, running errands, sleeping. For every song I have written down and recorded, there are at least 10 that disappeared into thin air. So… it’s kind of like hearing voices, except I hear music.

As a far as methods go, I like to start out very simple. I usually compose at the piano and use pencil and paper, then I enter everything into a very basic program I have been using for years (Notation Composer) to make sure everything works. When I finish the entire song, I export it into Logic Pro and work on instrumentation and sound. My process is a bit more time consuming but I have never been one for efficiency and practicality.

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 12.06.51 PM

Where (or who) do you get your inspiration from?

I have always loved music and depended on it for sanity. When I was a little girl, I was horrified of ghosts so my dad placed an old radio in my room that played classical music. My favorites were Saint Saëns, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin. I became convinced that classical music kept the monsters away. As far as inspiration, that comes from a lot of musical sources including classical, Celtic, electronic, bluegrass, and at least one of my songs was totally inspired by Radiohead.

While music is definitely an inspiration, I would have to say that literature and experiences are equally influential. The sweeping landscapes of Middle Earth, the magic of “The Nutcracker” ballet, the unearthly genius of Poe and Blake, the poetry of a friend, old love letters from World War II (I found in my grandfather’s closet)… I could spend days describing literary influences.

Nature is my favorite muse.  Leaves, steams, crickets, trees creaking in the wind — I love being out in the woods with no sounds of cars, lawnmowers, or cell phones.  Okay, sometimes cell phones aren’t so bad when you misread a topographic map and you’re still hiking at 1 AM with no clue where you are.

How can people hear more of your music?

You can hear samples of my music on iTunes and Amazon. I also have a few free downloads on my website. Most importantly, you can hear my music in Magical Universe!

Magical Universe premieres on October 31, 2014 at IFC Center.  It’s available on VOD starting this Friday.  You can follow the film and Al Carbee on Facebook and Twitter.

Written by Jordan McCray for Wheelhouse Creative.