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BWW Interview: Composer & Sound Designer Jonathan Snipes Talks A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX, Working With Daveed Diggs & More

A Glitch in the Matrix, which premiered at Sundance, delves into the theory that humans live in a simulation and the world as people know it is not real.

BWW Interview: Composer & Sound Designer Jonathan Snipes Talks A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX, Working With Daveed Diggs & More

Jonathan Snipes is a multi-talented composer and sound designer for film and theater, whose recent projects include scoring the 2021 Sundance horror documentary hybrid film A Glitch in the Matrix, and collaborating with Daveed Diggs on Rappin Ced in the credits and album of Pixar's Soul, as well as on Disney's Puppy for Hannukah song. On top of all that, Snipes also teaches a sound design course at UCLA, which is ever-evolving due to the changes and challenges brought on by creating theater through a global pandemic.

The Sundance film, A Glitch in the Matrix, delves into the theory that humans live in a simulation and the world as people know it is not real. In addition to scoring the film, Snipes also worked as the sound designer, sound supervisor, and re-recording mixer.

Check out the trailer below!

We spoke with Jonathan Snipes about creating the score for A Glitch in the Matrix, his collaboration process with Daveed Diggs, what he loves about teaching, and much more!

Let's start out by talking about A Glitch in the Matrix. How did you go about finding the sound that you wanted to create for this film?

Honestly, I heard the title, the words glitch and matrix, and the correlation to the 90s film, the Keanu Reeves movie, kind of led me immediately to some sort of key points that I knew I wanted to hit in the film. I knew it needed to be an all-electronic score, I knew I wanted to reference those compilation, electronica soundtracks of the 90s like The Matrix, and Hackers, and Pi, and Spawn, and Blade and Blade II. There were all these movies with these really big soundtracks full of what American labels branded as techno at the time that I have a fondness for. And I thought that was a really fun place to start, in addition to the actual sound of technology breaking.

There's a sort of rich tradition in electronic music of making sounds with broken equipment. There's all these artists that use their broken and failing equipment and I wanted to continue in that tradition and think of ways to contemporize that. What are the glitches in the sound world that we encounter in our everyday lives all the time? Most of the interviews in this movie were recorded over Zoom and Skype and video conferencing technology, which is now is how we experience almost literally everything. That audio is full of these errors and unwanted noises and hisses and watery, squelchy sounds. Because I also did the sound design as well as the score, I would find myself asking Rodney [Ascher], "Hey, can I have the full audio recording of this person's interview?" and I would just go through the full hours-long calls, looking for the little noises and errors and artifacts to have more in the interview, as opposed to trying to make them sound cleaner, or better. And that influenced the music too, I was like, how do I take these sounds that we're now becoming accustomed to, but also that we've been programmed to think of as ugly and unwanted sounds, and how do I make them musical and beautiful?

You just mentioned that you were not only the composer on this film, but you were also the sound designer, as well as the sound supervisor, and re-recording mixer. Typically, on a film, those roles are filled by multiple people working as a team. Tell me what the process of running the whole sound operation was like for you?

I mean, there's a few things I didn't do, it's impossible to do literally everything! I had some great help from a former student of mine, I had her do some music editing, Yasmine El-Tayeb was great at doing the music editing. And I had an effects editor, Kirsten Carey, who was another former assistant of mine who moved out of town. I had her work remotely doing some sound effects. Then, the Foley artist on this film was Joan Rowe who has an unbelievable credits list since the 80s, and she's the Foley artist on Speed, and RoboCop 2 and she performed all our Foley. And also, there was a dialogue editor, Ben Whitford. That's almost enough for me to kind of do everything else. If I have a thesis in my life, of what my work is about, it's about that line between music and sound. Like, what is music as opposed to sound? And at what point does a sound become musical, and at what point does music become noise? Playing with that line and figuring out a way to make an audience unsure of where they are in that continuum moment to moment.

The first thing Rodney and I did together, Room 237, which is a documentary about conspiracy theories relating to Stanley Kubrick's movie The Shining, I didn't do the sound, I just did the music. By the time the second movie rolled around, I had already cut my teeth on a feature film for a theater director I had worked with, who was making his first feature, a movie called Excess Flesh, and I ended up doing the music, and then co-sound supervising it with a friend of mine who had more experience in that realm. And, we did that film, and that gave me the confidence to say to Rodney, "Hey, Rodney, I think you should let me do the sound design for your next movie, The Nightmare, because I figured out I can do it, and I think we could do some really interesting things here." So, we did that, and we've done that ever since. This is now, I guess, the third feature that I've done with Rodney, filling both roles. But we've done a handful of short films this way as well. I wouldn't necessarily sign up for this much work on every project! But it helps that Rodney and I, our aesthetics are so similar, and we've developed this sense of trust.

You have also done extensive work in the theater world. How does your process differ when creating the music or doing the sound design for a theater production as opposed to working on a film?

Theater has this extra layer of site-specificity. I mean, film does too, if you want to be perfectly honest. A movie theater is a site, a home theater and a television, everything is site-specific, which is something we are all too aware of now during lockdowns, when there is no more live theater. But Zoom is a site, Skype is a site, YouTube is a site, and doing work in those, you have to sort of address that. But, theater to me, I like making theater because I don't ever have to consider what it's going to sound like outside of that room, and I can really play into all of the eccentricities of that room. For example, if I do a play and I notice that the air conditioner in the theater makes a weird noise sometimes and the facility can't turn it off, it's going to do that every 20 minutes, it's going to make a weird little groan, chances are that I will go record that little weird groan that the air conditioner makes, and find a way to integrate it into the sound design and music.

Andrew Schneider, who's a brilliant theater artist who I worked with on a show recently, he said this about lighting design, but I think the same is true about sound, he was like, "I don't want it to feel like anybody ever took a light cue, I just want it to feel like the lights are happening. That that's what's happening in the room at that moment, but nobody hit a button to make that do it." I feel the same way about sound. The sound can be an embodiment of memory and space and time. Lean into the site, into the space, let's not fight it.

You also teach sound design course at UCLA, has this time during the pandemic, with everything going virtual and the medium of theater changing so much, shifted the way you teach?

Yeah, a little bit! There's just some things you can't do anymore. Doing theater in this pandemic, doing theater virtually over Zoom, a colleague of mine put it, "Well, nobody can ignore the sound design department anymore!" I'm teaching a class, it's a class on field recording, it's also a class on listening, and thinking about sound as much as anything else. We're not reading any plays, we're not talking about acoustics so much, beyond the acoustics of recording. The assignments are like, "Take a piece of paper, and make every sound you possibly can with that piece of paper."

I used to tell my students, the impulse when you're starting out in a freelance career is, you get a job that you're not getting paid well for, that doesn't really matter, that nobody is going to see, and you don't really like the play, or the movie, or whatever it is. So, you're like, "Well, I'll just do this really quickly, and I'll wait for the thing I really love to come along, or the thing with more money, or more prestige..." and the impulse is always to phone in those lower budget, lower stakes projects, and then save your really big tricks for the big ones. But, what I've learned is to kind of do the opposite. The lower the stakes, the lower the budget, the fewer people are going to see it, that's the time to put the most work in and go absolutely crazy, because that's how you grow your talent. And then, when you suddenly get the big money project, the big stakes projects that everyone is going to see, you have all these new tricks that you've developed on these little projects. You can say, "I know it sounds crazy, but I know it's going to work because I did it on this other project, and it worked there. So, we can try this!"

That's why it's so important for me to stay in a University environment. I always felt like I wanted leave and just focus on having a freelance professional career, but I realized that that's what's so valuable about teaching. This quarter, I'm doing all of my assignments along with my students, I'm doing the projects with them, my own versions of them. I learn so much, I get better every time I do that! It's so helpful and important and necessary.

You also have a music partnership with Daveed Diggs and produced Rappin Ced in the credits and album of Pixar's Soul, as well as Disney's Puppy for Hannukah song. Take me inside of your partnership, what was it like working with him these projects?

We've been working together for so long, I've known him for almost twenty years. Our bandmate, William Hutson, is how I know Daveed. Bill and I were roommates in college and he and Daveed had known each other since third grade. And since Daveed's school got out a little earlier than ours, he would just crash on our couch at the end of the year and we'd all go to the record stores together and hang out. It was ten years later that we started a music project and actually started working together, and then Hamilton happened a few years after that. The only thing that's changed as he meteorically shot into fame, is just how difficult it is to schedule things. He's always been the smartest, most talented, hardest working person I've known, and nothing has changed about that. He's super humble and easy to work with, and he's still just my friend and we make songs together.

Rappin Ced we made so fast. I think Daveed was even in Vancouver shooting Snowpiercer when we made that. He sent a really rough demo, and then I filled in a bunch of music, sent it off, promptly forgot about it, and then it showed up on the soundtrack! It's always nice to hear things that you made very quickly and forgotten what they sounded like [laughs]. Puppy for Hannukah was kind of different, that was really hard actually. A lot of care went into that, because he had a very specific needle to thread to make a kids' song about Hannukah that wasn't just a novelty song, that was also about getting gifts, but it wasn't super materialistic... That was a hard one, but really fun. And it turns out that I really like writing Klezmer!

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