From making short films as a teenager armed with a camcorder, Tangelene Bolton found inspiration from the likes of Jon Brion, Thomas Newman, and Rachel Portman. After college, she interned for two-time Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (Dune, The Lion King) and was later hired to work for the composer.
Bolton has since built her own brand of score and sound, and she’s one of the most in-demand composer with a versatility that’s rare in an industry that likes to keep talent in a specific “lane.”
In the last year, she’s scored Netflix’s “Warrior Nun,” the indie horror film Unseen, and the third season of “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens.” Bolton spoke to Awards Focus about her landmark year, building a unique sonic world for each project, and scoring the Iceland episode this season.
Awards Focus: You’re having an incredibly high profile run of projects, from Unseen to “Warrior Nun” and “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens.” How are you balancing scheduling with overlapping projects and how do you decide when the plate is too full to accommodate new offerings coming in from your reps?
Bolton: Navigating the industry is definitely a balancing act but I’m lucky that the projects I’ve been a part of align with my inner instincts. I utilize my time efficiently and master my music and technological tools so that writing is efficient and streamlined.
I also try to get involved early, craft together my music template before projects begin, craft new sounds and thematic ideas, and sometimes give the picture editors music early so that when we have spotting sessions we already have a musical language in play.
I always want to do my best because of the mutual respect and admiration I have for my collaborators. I only want what is best for the project and that’s what keeps me inspired and what keeps my energy and spirits up.
AF: When you’re working on “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens” what’s the typical schedule like and do you get to record with a live orchestra? How has the pandemic affected your scoring process on this series as well as Warrior Nun?
Bolton: The schedule was quick and I was lucky to have brought on an amazing collaborator, Hotae Alexander Jang for “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens” who is deep in the record world. Bouncing ideas off of one another kept things fresh and fun along the way. All the instruments were played by us and the score and needle drop moments tended to be more contemporary in terms of approach.
Additionally, I would sometimes add orchestra, vocals, magical and Icelandic instruments, epic drums, etc. depending on what was happening. We traveled to a lot of fun locations in each episode which required switching up the instrumentation and genre of music constantly. But the vulnerable undertone of season three is what remained consistent and bridged everything together.
For “Warrior Nun” I produced a hybrid-based score and a combination of orchestra, choir, ancient and individual solo instruments, distorted guitars, and aggressive percussion. I was also fortunate that during the pandemic I was still able to have regular recording sessions with my amazing violinist, Abby Abdel-Khalek.
Abby always gave amazing and empathetic performances of my intimate melodic themes. I love to feature solo instruments whenever I can because I love how the ear can recognize the individual textures and timbres more clearly and have a direct emotional response to it. I also manipulated a lot of ancient instruments and would often bow them very aggressively. Analogue synthesizers and dusty pianos were utilized for the supernatural elements as well.
AF: How do you approach each new season in terms of a consistent sonic landscape while finding room for lots of new cues in season three? Were there any specific instruments you wanted to utilize for the latest season?
Bolton: I wanted to make sure that in season three, I was able to maintain the fun and quirky essence that Nora from Queens brings through the use of the OP-1 and the OP-Z. I focused a lot on sound manipulation and chopping different drum patterns with the OP-1.
For the OP-Z, it is very generative so I would create arps and it would spit out complex and unique patterns. For this season, vulnerability was also something I noticed quickly after receiving and reading the scripts and I definitely kept this in mind while approaching the score.
Each character has their own unique arc and I wanted to make sure that the score echoed that. Guitar, piano, and synths were used during these vulnerable moments but I also stayed open creatively, especially because each episode has a humorous new setting or scenario that requires a different style of scoring.
AF: What episode this season was the most impactful for you and what did you find most engaging to score?
Bolton: The Iceland episode titled, “þetta reddast”, was my favorite to score. Nora and Edmund travel to Iceland because Edmund realizes, after taking a DNA test, that he is part Icelandic. Nora also comes across a magical elf named Alfur the Elf (Lea DeLaria) that she starts to have a relationship with.
I had a ton of fun experimenting with different Icelandic instruments, incorporating magical elements, guitars and themes to accentuate this new landscape and scenario. I also focused on building upon the growing relationship between Alfur the Elf and Nora with: warbly keyboards, the Langspil (part of the zither family), fiddles, and dulcimer.
The magical elements came from xylophone, harp, woodwinds, bowed dulcimer, toy piano, and chimes. Edmund also gets himself into a very interesting predicament that I built around using acoustic guitar and fast moving organic percussion.
I don’t want to spoil too much about what happens but it’s hilarious and I really recommend everyone check it out. I also connect with the last episode which is about Nora confronting Awkwafina. Her introspective nature is something that I really leaned into and related to from an artistic point of view. It’s an intimate moment and we get to see another side of Nora that isn’t normally displayed. She is getting real with herself and her hopes and dreams for the future, herself, and her family. I utilized synths and electric guitars while still giving breathing room for the dialogue and emotion to shine.
AF: I’d love to touch on Unseen and your work with director Yoko Okumura. It’s such a diverse score and one that separates from your previous work. What conversations went into that project and how early did you start writing the music for it?
Bolton: I got on board Unseen during pre-production and was able to read the script and start having conversations with Yoko and hear her ideas in terms of approach and aesthetic for the film. When she told me that they casted Midori Francis and Jolene Purdy as the leads, I was ecstatic because I’m a fan of both of their work and the idea of having two Asian-American female leads made me excited and proud as an Asian-American myself.
Yoko and I share the same ethos in terms of the projects and topics that we gravitate towards; women led stories, empowerment, finding one’s voice, Asian-American stories and more. Yoko shared her love for metal and punk music and how she would love a score derived from this grittiness. My 8-string electric guitar was something I showcased a lot.
I played it traditionally, but I also bowed it to represent Emily’s abusive, lurking ex-boyfriend who is trying to hunt her down.
A handful of my score ideas were written to earlier cuts that our editor Michael Block would send over. This is where a lot of experimenting came into play. Yoko would come over to my studio and I would lay down ideas, we would chat about the characters and their backstories and go from there. Then we eventually had our spotting session and went into great detail about each scene and discussed how the score would come into play for each moment.
I love the director and composer relationship because it is ever-changing and getting the chance to experiment and take new approaches to storytelling through music creates an inspiring landscape to explore.
AF: You’ve mentioned how you manipulated sound to create the texture of anxiety, would love to have you expand on that.
Bolton: Emily (Midori Francis), a nearly blind woman, is running through the woods from her crazy murderous ex-boyfriend Charlie (Michael Patrick Lane), so I wanted to create a score that submerged us into this setting.
I did this by capturing electromagnetic landscapes of trees, leaves, and our natural world and turned those noises into gritty, metallic, synth pulses to act as a bed for the anxiety we feel on screen. I also manipulated my voice using a vocal algorithmic processing unit to create a muffled and distorted effect and signify the dualities of the Asian-American female voice being suppressed in our society.
AF: What’s next for you this year and what can we look forward to in 2024?
Bolton: I’m on multiple projects at the moment and while I can’t share too many details, what I will say is that I’m continuing to push myself sonically, musically, and creatively every day.
You can read about the composer here — www.tangelenebolton.com