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by Rob Scher / 06.10.2015

Andrew Orkin, a Jozi-born musician arrived in New York three years ago with a dream to compose music for film. Pursuing this goal, Orkin received a Fulbright scholarship, allowing him to complete his Masters at NYU’s Steinhardt School prior to joining Fall On Your Sword (FOYS), a leading independent film, commercial and television sound composition company. In his time at FOYS, Orkin has contributed music to a number of high profile commercial and independent projects and in the next few months is also set to release his debut album, Tiger + Man, produced and written alongside local NYC singer/songwriter/girlfriend, Tiger Darrow.

As the only young South African to be pursuing this specific career path in New York, Orkin is a cultural ambassador, forming part of a new generation from the global south, set to redefine the future direction of film. Before Orkin gets too big for his boots though, we caught up with him at his studio to learn more about the journey he’s taken to reach this point and get his thoughts on film scoring as it pertains to African cinema.


Andrew Orkin and Tiger Darrow in studio.

Rob Scher: What’s your earliest memory of playing music and when did you know music might be something you’d want to pursue?

Alex Orkin: It was playing ‘Mama Tembu’s Wedding’ in the school play at Parkview Junior  – I was eight or nine at the time. I stopped though, until I was about 16 and began playing guitar because I realized it was cool and girls dug you, like most teenagers who segue into guitar. After that it was just a road of sad and unfruitful band journeys playing at house parties. I realized it was something I wanted to do because it was something I couldn’t understand, I was always good at maths and science but music was a thing that couldn’t be written down. For me, it was something I’d been self taught so it was this mysterious thing that really interested me.

You started a B.Mus at WITS but then at one point decided you might switch to med school, right?

When your passion becomes your career, it goes from being a thing you escape to, to the thing you do full-time. Music had always been the thing I’d skip cricket practice for, but now it was my life and homework and it started making me doubt music and what I loved a little bit. But you realize that you’ve got to find the light and dark of everything, you have your music work and music passion which is kind of like my career now: I have music I do to make money, and music I do for fun.

What was your plan for your music career at that point?

I was going to be a guitar player and I was studying Jazz at the time. But the thing with Jazz is, it’s the kind of music that when you’re studying it you either love it, or you don’t. You can like it though, I definitely liked it, but I didn’t love it and if you want to be good, you have to LOVE it. I’d squeeze in maybe three, four hours a day but there were guys pushing nine or 10 and those were the guys who loved it. I realized in my third year that whenever I’d sit down to practice, I’d end up writing for eight hours, rather than practising. For me, that was when I realized that writing was what I wanted to be doing.


Andrew Orkin kicking keyboard.

How did you get your introduction to film scoring?

It was the typical, ‘I’ve-got-a-music-degree-what-the-fuck-do-I-do-now?’ situation. I went over to my cousin who works with final sound mixing for film, not music. I realized then that this was a world I wanted to be in because it was one where you could sit and write all day and I’ve always been a bit of a technology geek. I figured getting to work with technology and sit in a studio and write all day seemed like the ideal life.

So that was it then?

Well, there also seemed to be this gap in the market, where South African cinema is growing in leaps and bounds, but South African film music isn’t. There’s still the same three or four guys writing film music in South Africa and none of them are young. There are so many great stories to be told through film and I feel film is doing it so well, but the music in the films is often a let down.

In 2011 I did my first feature, a national geographic thing about the white lion, a Kevin Richardson documentary. That was my first time writing for film and I really enjoyed it and the money too of course. That was the first time I got paid as a musician.

So what lead to your decision to study in the States?

I realized pretty quickly that if I wanted to do this I needed to come to America. After I did my first feature, I had a couple of other things lined up that fell through. That for me was a big indicator of the state of the industry in South Africa, where big projects would fall through. That happens here too, but if I wanted to work to the best of my potential, I had to come overseas. It’s never good when you can see the ceiling at 22 years old. I wasn’t at the top but I could see myself being there.


Andrew Orkin in studio.

What was it like coming to New York as a foreigner?

I arrived super cocky, like I got this. When I arrived and met some of my classmates though and saw their level of technical proficiency, I shat. It’s a lot of stuff that you don’t encounter at home, like three year old piano prodigies who are now in their 20s and are just ripping. So, that made me terrified for the first two or three months. I told one of my lecturers that I was worried I wasn’t on par with my peers and he sat me down and very confidently told me that what they’ve got in the technical world, I had in my creative freedom, that lacks their technical constraints. I guess that’s reflected in the place I work now, which is founded on breaking the rules and doing weird esoteric stuff, away from the technical.

How then would you define your composition style?

Since Trent Reznor did the score for The Social Network, film scoring has taken a completely different turn. The world of electronics and synthesizers are coming in and the fusion of those two worlds is where I find my niche, coming from my classical background and love of electronics. There are composers who are much further on either end, I try to straddle the middle.

You like straddling?

I love straddling.

What project do you feel you’ve left the strongest mark on?

I’d say Alex Gibney’s new Steve Jobs documentary, Man in the Machine, which I got to write a few pieces of additional music for – while working under composer Will Bates, head of FOYS. There was a lot of dark subject matter, which really allowed me to experiment with the electronic side.

Apart from your work at FOYS, you’re also currently pursuing an independent music project?

I started writing with my current girlfriend three years ago, which is how we met. We wrote folk songs together and pretty soon moved in the electronic direction, influenced by the David Byrne/St. Vincent album. Once again, like the film world has that melding of the acoustic and electronic, we started going down that avenue and writing stuff in that vein. My role with our most recent project, Tiger + Man, is as songwriter and producer. It’s a pure collaboration and amalgamation of our styles with cinematic elements to it and a lot of electronic stuff, which I’d often use in film scores that I’m now using in songs.


Tiger + Man album art.

What’s it like carrying the torch as a young South African film scorer?

Like anything where it’s a South African adapting to world standards, it’s about integrity and authenticity. I find a lot of the film scores I’m hearing coming out of South Africa are losing that element, nailing clichés. When I’m working on projects back home I’m deliberately trying to tap into an authentic vibe.

How do you define that authenticity?

A melding of worlds. I did music for a documentary called Mandela Redrawn – a History Channel doc that needed to have global appeal. I took a traditional folk song called “Hamba Kahle Mkhonto” but then made it into a film score and I think that’s it, taking things that are uniquely South African and bringing them into dialogue with that international standard – the film scoring lexicon.


Visit Andrew Orkin’s website at: www.andreworkinmusic.com

Image Credits:

Lead Image © Tiger Darrow
Image 2, 3, 4 © Chi Chi Agbim.
Image 5 © Nir Arielli
Image 6 © Allan Hayslip

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