Diversify or Die
‘We’re expected to write anything,’ says video game composer and John Lennon songwriting contest winner Joe Sanders
By Bliss Bowen
In October, the John Lennon Songwriting Contest announced its 2015 Session I winners in 12 categories — one of whom was 24-year-old Santa Monica native Joe Sanders, who earned grand prize honors in the World category. The international, corporate-sponsored contest was launched by Yoko Ono in 1997 to honor her late husband by offering up-and-coming artists an opportunity to be heard by industry professionals.
Sanders says entering the contest was “kind of an impulse,” one that supports a broader career strategy he’s been formulating since graduating from Cal State Long Beach last year with a degree in music composition.
“I thought that might be nice to have, not only for my resume but also my own confidence as an artist,” he explains. “In terms of an end result, I primarily write music for film and games; that’s my thing I’m pursuing and trying to break into. My hope is to take this to be licensed by somebody or be my portfolio piece for a while.”
“This” is “Kundiman,” Sanders’ cinematically orchestrated setting of a poem by 19th-century Filipino novelist and activist José Rizal, whose public calls for equal treatment of Filipino citizens and equal representation in Spanish parliament led to his 1896 execution at age 35.
In traditional Filipino poetry, a kundiman is a romantic poem or song form; in Rizal’s poem, written in Tagalog, the love in question is expressed not for a lover but his country: “We shall pour out our blood in a great flood/ to liberate the parent sod;/ but till that day arrives for which we weep,/ love shall be mute, desire shall sleep.”
Sung by CSULB classmate Kathleen Van Ruiten, “Kundiman” was created for use in the video game “Last Arrow.” Positive feedback from the game’s developers persuaded Sanders to submit the piece to the John Lennon contest.
“It knocked me on my butt, it was so beautiful,” Sanders says of Rizal’s poem. “It literally says the name of ‘the Tagalog race’ shall resonate throughout the world, and the plot of that went along directly with the super somber end of this game.”
The amiable freelancer warms to the creative challenges of composing for games; he’s currently working on a score for an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) in development. Lyrics are not his forte — “I went to school for music, not lyric writing,” he admits with a laugh — though he is working on some pop material that he may eventually release on an album, if he can hone it to the point where he thinks it’s good enough. He also teaches kids on the side and sings in choral groups.
It’s all part of a multipronged approach to what he sincerely hopes will be a successful career creating music for various mediums. The brick wall that once segregated “proper” composers of film, TV and Broadway scores from singer-songwriters has been replaced by a thinning curtain, as more and more shows license music by independent artists.
“We’re expected to write anything,” Sanders observes. “It’s the world we live in. People don’t specialize anymore; they specialize in groups of things. Most composers I know also write songs, and some of them are quite good at it. One friend of mine writes songs for a bunch of video games; he got into the iOS game market right when that came out. He supports his family on that still, and he writes amazing music.”
Sanders says he’s grateful for any industry doors that his contest win may help him open as a solo artist. But what he relishes most is teamwork, whether it’s musically illustrating a director’s vision on the stage or screen or singing in choirs.
“Writing music for games or film or TV — that’s a team spirit,” he says. “It’s not, ‘Here’s my symphony, hereyago.’ [Laughs.] I love that feeling when you’re working with a film director and you connect with them and you wow them with your music. It’s still their vision. … When you’re trying to write something for the screen, it’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Everyone’s got their own solutions. John Williams is going to score something different from Thomas Newman or whoever. Whatever your way of approaching it is, there’s usually a solution for anything.”
Still living close to the CSULB campus “in a house with a bunch of music guys,” Sanders is mulling over next steps. Priority goals include relocating to L.A. from Long Beach. “As soon as I do that,” he says, “everything I want to happen will happen twice as fast.
“I really want to score more games, of course, because I think that’s an amazing art form. I would love to get into the TV game, but that’s way harder to break into than films. But the big priority is to keep growing as artist and not get stagnant. I always want to be challenged and step outside my comfort zone. Because then you’ll write better and write what you feel instead of what you’ve done.”
To learn more about Sanders, visit joesandersmusic.com. Hear “Kundiman” at soundcloud.com/jpsanders91/kundiman.