Santa Monica composer Paul Bessenbacher creates music for film, TV and his band Opus Orange
By Bridgette M. Redman
After years of composing, performing, and scoring advertisements and films, Paul Bessenbacher is looking for one thing: resonance.
“When someone tells me that a song we made got them through something or it just resonated at a time when they needed it in their life, that person can make my world if they tell me that,” Bessenbacher said. “That is what I hope for when people hear our music — resonance.”
Just before the COVID-19 lockdowns, Bessenbacher and his Santa Monica-based recording project, Opus Orange, released “Miles from Nowhere,” an album about isolation.
“We made ‘Miles from Nowhere’ on the theme of isolation before the pandemic,” Bessenbacher said. “We can’t ever foresee this stuff, but we released it in February, then March happened, and all of our lives changed.”
Learning to play
Much of Bessenbacher’s career has been a series of happy accidents and his willingness to follow wherever the music takes him.
When he was 8, his father bought a piano for his mother as a Valentine’s Day gift. They then arranged for their children to have piano lessons. The music teacher was committed to encouraging her students to be creative and to not just learn the piano, but enjoy playing it.
Bessenbacher started creating music right away. The teacher held an annual composition contest for all her students and Bessenbacher wrote his first piece in C major. He fell in love with the beauty of the instrument and all that it was capable of.
“To this day, it’s still unfathomable — you have the whole range of sonic spectrum that we hear,” Bessenbacher said. “Not that I was thinking about this when I was 8. Playing these low notes when you cluster them together sounds like a weird rumble and the high notes are almost no tone and all percussive. Everything in the middle is what we know and are accustomed to; you have the full orchestra essentially at your fingertips within reach. It’s a fascinating and complex yet simple instrument.”
Bessenbacher’s love for the piano continued, and during his junior and senior years of high school, he found himself going deep into performing — a mix of classical, jazz ensembles and quartets, and playing in rock and roll bands. As he began to consider college, he felt it time to make a choice.
“I wanted to learn the roots of music, so I went to school for a classical piano performance degree,” Bessenbacher said. “I wasn’t thinking about a career at that point. My parents were gracious and generous, allowing me to go to school for a degree that was an unlikely career path. My goal was to learn the depths and the art of classical piano performance.”
Settling into a career
After college, Bessenbacher started to pal around music studios in Chicago. It was in those spaces where he learned how to record, how microphones worked, and the engineering side of capturing and creating music.
According to Bessenbacher, composers can’t just write notes on a page. They have to know how to do everything from determining the notes to delivering an audio file to the customer.
“It’s not just writing,” Bessenbacher said. “It’s hiring players and recording them. It’s mixing, mastering and all of that stuff I didn’t learn in college, but I did learn after college palling around studios and figuring out how to work all those very necessary tools to have music as a career.”
Creating musical scores
In 2002, Bessenbacher moved to Los Angeles and settled down in Santa Monica the following year. He was eventually hired as an in-house composer for Emoto Music, a music production company that created music for advertising, film and television. Bessenbacher began creating music for television shows such as “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” “Last Comic Standing” and “Bunk’d.”
He made music for advertisements and earned soundtrack credits for “Miss You Already,” “Prom” and “Humboldt County.” Bessenbacher also composed for “My Indiana Muse”, “The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle Earth – Dance Battle,” “Czappa” and “Red & Blue Marbles.”
“I fell in love with that art form and the speed and production of it,” Bessenbacher said. “Getting to work with LA session musicians, the best engineers, players and studios – it was really eye-opening.”
Bessenbacher said that advertising music lives in the 30- and 90-second world, and he came to love the pace and ability to tell a story with an emotional arc in that short framework.
“It was super fascinating and satisfying because it would happen fast,” Bessenbacher said. “Ideas would be thrown around, you’d get players in the studio. The clients would be suggesting things, you’d have to react to their suggestions and change and adapt. It was hyperfast in a high-adrenaline environment. Then when it was done, you might have made something that was collaborative.”
One of his early film soundtracks was “Mile…Mile & a Half,” a 2013 documentary about a group of artists that spend 25 days hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite down to Mount Whitney.
Bessenbacher and co-composer Bernard Chadwick joined the group for the final eight days of their hike, climbing to the summit. He brought a lightweight ukulele while Chadwick brought a toy glockenspiel.
“While we were hiking, we were writing with those simple instruments and banging on rocks and logs because we were out in nature,” Bessenbacher said.
Opus Orange is born
During his early days with Emoto Music, Bessenbacher had access to a large studio where he was able to bring in friends and make music.
Opus Orange became his “group” that was sometimes just him and sometimes a collective of musicians – a rotating door of his friends who got together based on when they were available and what they wanted to create.
The first recording under that name grew out of an outdoor trip. Bessenbacher had gone camping with a friend who had brought a ukulele. At that time, he didn’t know how to play it, but by the end of the camping trip, he was determined to get one and learn.
“I was screwing around in the studio with it, trying to learn how to play and flail away at it,” Bessenbacher said. “While I’m figuring things out, I like to set up a microphone and capture what I play. That first Opus Orange EP is born of that — playing an instrument I didn’t know how to play, underthinking the production and sort of letting it go.”
Bessenbacher and his friends went on to create several EPs before Emoto Music moved to a smaller studio, eventually closing the studio as costs grew higher.
For a time, Bessenbacher’s spare bedroom became his studio. During the year and a half before COVID-19, he found his own studio, an old industrial space near Bergamot Station, where he can be as loud as he wants.
“It’s not like the professional fancy studio with the big, thick walls I had years before, but it’s a place that really inspired me to figure out how to create in these new environments,” Bessenbacher said. “Being in this other new space has spawned another record we’re working on releasing. I love how environment can affect music creatively.”
He gave the example of one of Opus Orange’s releases called “Outside.” They recorded it in the woods in the Eastern Sierras, using solar power and entirely off the grid.
“I always want to be in the mode where I let things happen, where I’m open to adapting to them rather than forcing things to happen,” Bessenbacher said. “I want to follow the energy where it leads rather than dictate where I want things to go.”
Playing through a pandemic
Like most artists, the lockdown forced Bessenbacher to find new ways to connect with fellow musicians and audiences. There were no live shows and everyone was experimenting with livestreaming.
“Livestreaming became a way to play some songs,” Bessenbacher said. “I didn’t know if anyone would listen, but I was going to try to connect with people. I tapped into that energy and really enjoyed it for a bit.”
Then Bessenbacher started playing in his studio with a drummer friend that he’s been playing music with for 25 years. He learned a new set of skills including microphone placement and compression, which enabled him to engineer the new record that they are preparing for release. Bessenbacher said it has more teeth than some of his other work because he was following wherever the energy took him.
“There were a lot of things to be upset about in 2020,” Bessenbacher said. “I felt tension and I try to allow those things to work through me and come out as it needs to come out.”
Soon, Bessenbacher wants to release his latest record. He said being an independent artist is tough without the support of a label and a management and PR firm.
“We’re just kind of yelling into the voice of social media and hoping somebody listens,” Bessenbacher said. “Best case scenario: I want a lot of people to have ears on it and enjoy it. But there are hundreds of millions of artists who are doing the same thing and screaming into the same void. It feels a little bit futile, but if we can reach the people who already know us and know the music and can have resonance — if they like the new one, that’s great.”