Meet the Emmy-winning composer who’s inspired by the Manila band scene

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Emmy award-winning composer Denise Santos talks about the joys of working from home, the difference between scoring a film vs. a documentary, and how the right timing helped her find her footing in a foreign industry. Photo courtesy of DENISE SANTOS/Illustration by JL JAVIER

We often forget that when it comes to music, the operative term is “play.” We play music in order to listen; we play instruments to create rhythm. But for someone like composer, film scorer, and musician Denise Santos, it can sometimes be a challenge to bring out that playfulness when she’s hard at work.

“I often forget to play,” Santos says from her Los Angeles home over video call. “It’s just that the stakes are so high most of the time, (Laughs) so I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s just get to work!’”

And in the last few months, the stakes have never been so high for the Filipino composer — having co-scored the BBC One documentary “Primates,” a three-part series about humanity’s closest relatives in the animal world. Working in tandem with composer Adam Lukas, their “Primates” score bagged them the Outstanding Music Composition prize at the 42nd Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards. Santos has previously lent her scoring skills to local feature films such as “Baka Bukas” and “Billie and Emma,” both directed by Samantha Lee. She also continues to work as a composer for scoring company Bleeding Fingers Music, which is co-owned by the Academy and Grammy award-winning film composer Hans Zimmer (“Inception,” “Dune”).

While Santos is well aware that music is a job, she still sees that there’s a lot of fun to be had in it. “My husband [composer Josh Atchley], he’s really the one who brings me back to that headspace,” Santos shares. “He’s such a playful person. I always confide in him when I’m stuck with cues, and he reminds me to get my mind out of the formality of this whole thing and just play. I’d pick up an instrument that I haven’t been playing for the last few hours. If I’ve been on the piano this whole time, I’ll pick up a guitar in the back or a djembe. I switch it up just to break the monotony. And also, that discomfort of being on a new thing allows me to just have fun.”

Fun, for her, brings back memories of the band scene in Manila, where she used to play keyboard for three different bands: the jazz-alternative Hidden Nikki, the Broadway-inspired Carlo Lava & the Lingababes, and with singer-songwriter Kai Honasan. “Different genres, different experiences,” Santos says. “We played in all sorts of venues. The music was so exciting, because I looked up to all of them, all of my bandmates, so much. Every time I played with them, I’d get goosebumps. I’m giddy. I can’t believe I get to play with these people because they’re so amazing.”

The dichotomy of her music work in both Manila and California is part of what Santos believes is what gives her sound distinction. (“It’s hard to explain,” she says, “but I can hear it in my music.”).

In a video call with CNN Philippines Life, the Emmy award-winning composer talks about the joys of working from home, the difference between scoring a film vs. a documentary, and how the right timing helped her find her footing in a foreign industry.

Congratulations on an amazing win! What was going through your mind during your Emmy-winning moment?

There was so much going on. I think the first one was that I felt so loved. When we were sitting there, and they were announcing the nominees, our bosses and the team were actually in the room with us. It felt like such a peaceful moment, because everyone had to be quiet. It was just an overwhelming feeling of being supported by these people. And I also knew that my family was watching it live, a lot of friends from back home were watching it live, so that was the first feeling among a hundred more that I had. (Laughs) That was the most prominent feeling that I could describe. Loved and supported.

Before I ask you more about your process, I just wanted to mention that you have such a beautiful home. I love the doors and all the openness of it. Is this room your office right now?

My husband and I just moved in, we just bought our house. It’s been a big year! (Laughs) We’ve been here for about a month and a half, and this is a temporary studio space because we’re building one in the back. Right now I’m in the den, which also [alludes] to my name. But it’s kind of like the office room. I love it; it’s got a Mediterranean design. My husband is also a composer but he has his own studio area.

"A lot of people have actually come back to the studio, but I chose to stay at home," says the Emmy award-winning composer. Photo courtesy of DENISE SANTOS

So it truly is “The Den.” I love that. Do you find yourself working at home a lot? Or was this only because of the pandemic that you find yourself doing so?

It only started during the pandemic. I work for a company called Bleeding Fingers, and we have a studio space in Santa Monica. Each of us have our own little room, but because of the pandemic, we’ve all had to work from home. And then I kind of realized that I actually prefer working from home. A lot of people have actually come back to the studio, but I chose to stay at home. It’s just so much better for me, I think. There’s less pressure to finish at six. (Laughs). Normally if you’re coming in, you wanna be home for dinner. So there’s just a lot more freedom [working from home.] I mean, psychologically, that does so much, knowing that I can just keep working. I can take a break from dinner and keep working without making my day feel really divided. I think I’m gonna work from home for as long as they allow me.

That’s interesting, because a lot of people say that they work better in an office space, but that’s different for you.

I guess we all have our different ways of working. The kind of projects we get are so different. Some of them I can do within a 9-to-6 schedule. And even if I’m working from home, I try to be done by 6 p.m. I like to keep that routine. But there are just some projects, like “Primates,” for example. We were pulling 14-hour days, and we would be at the studio until 10. It’s much better doing that at home, where I can be in my pajamas all day, and I don’t have to drive myself home all tired. But if I’m not working on a heavy project like “Primates,” I still maintain my 9-to-6 schedule. I get to compartmentalize my time and my day.

You’ve worked in both documentaries and feature films. What would you say is the difference in your approach to scoring for either one?

The main difference is that with fictional films and TV shows, there’s dialogue, versus a documentary where there’s no dialogue. You’re looking at animals and nature, and there’s narration. But with dialogue… I think there’s more room for “tricks.” When you’re doing a fictional project, the way the music works is really… You can do a lot of trickery there. You can make music that’s contrapuntal. You can make music that isn’t necessarily matching with the scene, but then it makes sense because the director has this vision of confusing an audience. But with a documentary, you have to stay factual. You can only do so much musically. You can’t really change a scene that much. A big part of that, to me, is listening to the narration. For example, I’m looking at a scene that’s beautiful. It’s a landscape shot. If I didn’t listen to the narration, I would normally score that scene like a beautiful piece of music. A suite. But sometimes the narration is actually saying, “This is a land in Indonesia where monkeys are going extinct.” So you want to follow that train of thought instead of just going on your own. So I think that’s the main difference.

And then another thing, at least in my experience, when you’re working on nature documentaries, we get to be more “Mickey Mouse-y” about it. That’s like a scoring term — we think about Mickey Mouse cartoons where every movement has a sound. There’s an instrument for all the footsteps. I think we get to do a lot of that more. It’s closer to the way you would score an animated film.

A photo of Denise and "Primates" co-composer and (co-Emmy winner) Adam during the 42nd Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards. Photo courtesy of DENISE SANTOS

Do you bring your band experience to your work right now?

I do, and I think that’s one of the things that makes me different from some of my colleagues. I think there’s two groups — there’s a group of us that’s band-based, and there’s a group of us that’s more orchestral. But yeah, I use a lot of my band experience. Also because having played in bands, I listen to a lot of band music. I listen to a lot of that to bring it in. It’s hard to explain but I can hear it in my music. The band-playing is there. If I’m working on an orchestral cue, I will always try to put in electric guitar, I’ll try to put a drum kit in there, I’ll try to have electric bass in there, as opposed to just sticking to the orchestra. I can’t get that sound out of my taste, so I always try to plug it into my music.

Having experienced the music industries in the Philippines and in the US, how different are they from each other?

They’re quite different, because when I was in Manila, I was 50-50 a composer and also a band member. When I got here, I was focused more on the composing side. I was maybe 80%, maybe even 90% composing. So my experiences were different. I don’t think I can compare them very much. For one, I feel like the community back home is tighter. It’s a smaller city, and everyone knows everyone. It felt like every show was like hanging out with friends. That’s what I love and miss about it. Whereas here, when we were playing with bands, there were a lot of strangers, ‘cause LA is so big.

Denise Santos at Sound Creation Studio in Manila with Kai Honasan. Photo courtesy of DENISE SANTOS

Then in the film scoring world… The difference from back home is that here, it’s the heart of the city. Filmmaking is the heart of the city. So everywhere you go, you’re gonna meet someone who’s a creative, who’s part of a production team, who’s a director, a writer. So here, I felt like the creative juices flowed more for the film music side of things. That being said too, the film music community is so big here. And there is a community. I think back home, when I was there I only knew maybe three other composers. And we rarely really got together. It wasn’t so much a thing. But here, there are composer meetups, there are all kinds of societies for composers. All kinds of guilds. The resources here are so much greater just because there’s a long history of filmmaking.

Your Emmy triumph is definitely a point of pride for so many Filipinos, but on the other side of it is that sometimes it would take leaving the Philippines for Filipino work to gain global recognition. Based on your experience, what would you say makes creative work in the Philippines difficult to champion?

I think it all comes down to funding, and who is willing to take risks on more creative and edgy ideas. The talent is there. I talk with my Filipino director friends all the time, and the question is always funding. The market in the Philippines is different from a global market, and obviously people want to fund projects that are tried and tested. It’s such a big risk. Whereas here, I think people are more accepting of radical ideas in terms of filmmaking, and topics in filmmaking. That’s one of the bigger challenges — how do we convince big studios in the Philippines to support ideas that are not necessarily cookie cutter or tried and tested formulas. I think we’re getting there, with “On the Job” getting on HBO Asia, with “Trese” getting on Netflix. A lot of my colleagues and friends that I left back home are getting into international film festivals. I think with the rise of streaming, there’s more openness to different kinds of stories. With the diversity movement in Hollywood, it kind of trickles down to the rest of the world. I think it'll come, but the main problem is that how do we as Filipinos get into that motion of supporting our local talent no matter how different they are.

The film scoring and filmmaking industry in the US and in the world at whole is definitely moving towards a more diverse scene. But it’s still predominantly male and White. Have you had any challenges in breaking through the industry given this challenge?

I would say yes and no. I think when I started, it was at the cusp of that change, so I maybe had two years of struggling to break that ceiling. But at the same time, I knew that it takes someone five years to actually get work that is recognizable. I saw it as a challenge not just for me, but for anyone starting out. And then people started looking for more female composers, and people of color, and I guess my timing was just perfect. So when I was feeling ready, and I felt like I had improved, and I was ready to take on bigger stuff, the movement started happening. I got really lucky with that timing. Had I joined or started my journey in LA five years earlier than I did, I would have waited longer. The challenges are there, definitely. There are times when I felt like my male counterparts were favored. But I just kept going.