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From Garage Band To Emmy Nominated Composer: Duncan Thum Is Turning Stories Into Music

Teri Bildstein Last update: 03-01-2019
From Garage Band To Emmy Nominated Composer: Duncan Thum Is Turning Stories Into Music

Welcome to the Chef's Table -


Netflix has found a lot of success with their collection of original series. For many, the ability to binge watch their favorite shows made Netflix their go-to for watching tv. Now, the buzz around favorites such as House of Cards, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Orange Is The New Black has put the online service toe to toe with the traditional networks they were able to grow to fame carrying.  

This year, Netflix released a new series that many may be missing out on. From the cover, Chef's Table may be overlooked as just another cooking show. Yet the series is actually more of a glimpse into the world of famous chefs than it is a traditional How To Make This For Dinner program.

Viewers familiar with popular tv chefs know the personalities swing wildly from Gordon Ramsey to Julia Child. Like many artists, a lot of chefs are...shall we say...eccentric? Chef's Table takes us into their lives both in and out of the kitchen. (While still providing plenty of food porn for the genre's biggest fans.)


Introducing - Chef Francis Mallman


In one episode, Argentinian chef Francis Mallman has quite a story to tell. From his first cooking job on a tourist boat in Bariloche to leading his current empire; Mallman has lived a whirlwind of adventure and developed many strong opinions along the way.



Who is Duncan Thum?


As anyone who has ever thrown a dinner party knows; ambiance is just as important as the meal when you are creating an experience for your guests. You want to include mood lightingunique serving dishes, themed decor, interesting conversation, and of course, music. When prepared properly, these elements can help elevate the success of your gathering from a simple meal among friends to an experience guests will remember for years.

For Chef's Table, many of these details are already provided by the chef the episode is designed around. Their homes, tables, and experiences lend the backdrop, their stories create the discussion, but there is one factor still needed: the music. This key ingredient was provided by three studio composers for the six episode series; each in charge of providing the soundtrack for a specific chef.

Duncan Thum was the composer chosen to create the audio spice for Chef Mallman's nomadic tale. His efforts were rewarded this July when it was announced the episode's score had been nominated for an Emmy award.

Now before you start thinking this is the tale of a stuffy old man waving a baton, remember this is Netflix and we are RebelsMarket. The platform that brought you OITNB, Sens8, and Hemlock Grove did not suddenly wedge themselves in a box for musical expression. We would never subject you to the tale of a composer on an ego trip. 


Duncan Thum Emmy Nominated Composer


Like the stars featured on Chef's Table; Duncan is a character. He was kind enough to take time to talk with us about who he is and what being a composer is all about.


People are aware that tv and movies have music but what exactly does creating a score involve? Tell us about your job.


My job is basically to write music that you can close your eyes to and imagine exactly what the story might be about. The trick is leaving enough space so you can fill in your own thoughts and experiences.

I sometimes think of it like an an entry sign over a door, which leads you back to yourself. It's an invitation. When you open your eyes back up, you are immersed in the world of the film.

It's challenge to do that without holding the audience's hand, but a super fun one!

Normally, by the time I enter a project, it is already in post-production. Meaning the shots have been edited and the team has been using temporary music to give feeling to the scenes. I am like a musical problem solver. I take this mosaic of feelings and recreate the mood with a cohesive, original score. That is just easier to do than trying to source material from multiple locations.


Duncan Thum


How does that music get made? Do you work with the same team of musicians?


It really depends on what the piece calls for. If a full orchestra is needed; that's what I find. If it is a smaller arrangement, then I can work with people outside of a larger orchestra.

It is just like any other job that way. Sometimes you work with people, you really like them, and things come together well. Those are the people you try to build relationships with so you can work together again.



Tell us about your history playing in bands. We heard you have roots in the punk rock scene.


Yes, I did play in a band and I know some people describe it as punk music but that's not how I would describe it. It was definitely a DIY project but I think the term punk rock brings to mind Ramones and Sex Pistols. That wasn't our sound. We were experimenting and it was DIY all the way but it was punk in the classic sense of the sound.



Duncan Thum


So who are your influences?


My dad was a classical piano player and music lover. So I picked up everything over the years. When I was playing in those bands, I actually liked to bring in a little classical and jazz with the rock and roll thing.

If I had to pin down some bands, I would say David Bowie. I love David Bowie. I love so many bands, it is hard to say off the cuff, but definitely David Bowie.


Music has always been part of Duncan's life


Do you see yourself getting back into a band or are you happy with your current gig?


I think there is a line between the two. There's a lot of artists who have had success in the pop or indie world that are starting to score films. I think a lot of directors these days are a lot more interested in contemporary sounds than more traditional, orchestral, John Williams kind of sounds.

Really, I think the two worlds are getting closer every day.


Duncan Thum



I know Trent Reznor has been involved in similar projects.


Absolutely, and I love all of it. I think that is part of the draw to this type of work. You have the chance to be classic in your sound and also be contemporary. You don't have to choose and that is a large part of the draw for me.



We took a peek at your Instagram account and it seems you have other artistic interests outside of music.


Yes, absolutely. I think you were seeing pictures from a cross country road trip I took with a friend of mine over the summer. We drove from Montreal to Seattle. Photography is definitely an interest.


Always ready for travel


You have worked on great pieces with images from all over the world. Do you get to travel often or are you chained to the studio?


I do what I can to get out of the studio. I wish I could say I was on location Chef Mallman's piece, which was shot in Patagonia. All I could do was salivate at the scenery on the screen. 

Travel is such an important thing to do. To get into other cultures and mix up your own thoughts. Get excited over road signs that look different, or a menu with a funny English translation. Little details that keep your brain fired up and keep you inspired when you have to go back and sit in the cave to write music all day.




Chef's Table had beautiful scenery and so did Keeping Country.


Absolutely! That film was made by my brother in law, Andrew Quinn. He's a brilliant filmmaker and he shot the whole thing basically by himself. He was hanging out the side of a helicopters and did all the editing. He became friends with various Aboriginal Elders he was interviewing, he met artists, he was able to visit ancient art sites nobody else had visited for thousands of years. It was just a wild adventure and such a fun project to work on. 



KEEPING COUNTRY trailer from Andrew Quinn on Vimeo.



Is it ever hard to find the terminology to talk with filmmakers about what they are trying to convey?


Absolutely. That is where the problem solving portion I discussed comes into play. 

It is like the old saying 'Talking about music is like dancing about architecture' but you have to find a way to figure out what they want the moment to feel like so you can make the music that expresses the emotion.



You have worked on some pretty controversial pieces, Keeping Country and Broadly in particular. Is that something you think about before accepting a project?


One of the first lessons you have to learn as a composer is that you are there to serve the film. Your job is to help the director realize a vision. I love collaboration and I love watching visions come together so I have no problem checking my ego at the door.  

It is part of the process to subvert yourself and you can't take things personally. But, if you are hired onto a job that you have huge moral issues against, I would say 'Don't do the job'. Just pass on the project. There is always another idea to be pursued. 



Broadly takes a look at the debate in America over access to the abortion pill. (Commonly known as the Morning After Pill)


Netflix has a lot of interesting original pieces coming out right now. I would imagine it is exciting to be involved with them at this time.


Absolutely. I agree. I love that they are not afraid to try something new. Chef's Table is such a good example of that. They embraced the idea of reinventing the classic cooking show and really made it about travel, philosophy, and really humanity; almost more so than just 'This is how you salt this dish and how you source that ingrediant'. It is a new twist on a familiar topic. 

They took time to show the spirit of the chefs; the true artistry of it.



Do you have any other projects coming up?


I have projects on the table table but they are in early development. More collaborations with my friend Drew at Vice. Also, with the guys who made Chef's table; they have a frew projects in the works.

So stay tuned!


You can find out more about Duncan and hear more of his work here.


Have you seen any of the projects Duncan has worked on? Leave your feedback in the comments below!


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