When Laura Karpman says her first Oscar nomination is "beyond belief," they aren't empty words.

It's been a long road to get here: Karpman began writing music at the tender age of seven. She got her master's degree in music composition and doctorate from The Juilliard School before leaving New York City behind for Hollywood. As she established herself in the world of film scoring, Karpman founded The Alliance for Women Film Composers in 2014; in 2015, she became the third woman inducted into the Academy's music branch, and one year later, the branch's first woman governor. Still, she found herself striving for more.

"It was just unavailable to me and every other woman. Now, we don't have to hide and pretend like that's not the case," explains the composer. "Here I am, a woman proudly in my 60s, getting these fantastic opportunities to show the stuff that I've been preparing for my whole life."

Last year saw Karpman release two of her most high-profile projects yet: She wrote the score for Cord Jefferson's American Fiction, for which she is nominated for Best Original Score at the 96th Oscars. An adaptation of Percival Everett's novel Erasure, the social satire stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a Black novelist wrestling with identity. Karpman's accompanying compositions are vibrant, jazzy and full of heart.

She also composed the score for the blockbuster superhero movie, The Marvels, and upon its release, took herself to the theater to see it. Sitting in the darkened cinema, listening to her music soundtrack the intergalactic adventures of Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau and Ms. Marvel, the composer had an epiphany. "I realized that this had been my dream all along," she says.

"But it was so impossible to think that I could be scoring projects of this quality and this stature that I had literally suppressed the dream," she tells A.frame. "Looking back, I now realize that I had always wanted this, and I just never let myself want it. To work on projects that really let me do my thing, and where that craft is evident, it means the world to me. It's everything."

Erika Alexander, Laura Karpman, Cord Jefferson and Jeffrey Wright.

A.frame: These are very different movies, and very different scores. Is your approach to a film always the same? Or does it change based on the project?

There are some things that are the same and some things that radically change. For The Marvels, I started from script and wrote some themes and met with Nia [DaCosta]. For American Fiction, they were further on in the process when I was brought on. We already had a director's cut, so I actually screened the film, and it's such a great movie and such a significant movie. So, you come on and collaborate with people where they're at, where the project's at, and what it needs. Music always plays this magical role, that is almost indescribable. It's an important, important tool in filmmaking, and how you wield that tool depends on what is needed and what the taste of the filmmakers are, honestly.

When you watched that cut of American Fiction, was there temp score or no music?

There was temp score, and they temped it with all jazz from the late '50s, early '60s. It was wonderful and evocative, but didn't really work from a scoring perspective. They didn't temp it with film scoring cues, so it all had a really good vibe, but it wasn't smooth to picture, let's put it that way.

I know you have deep history and love of jazz. What were your early conversations like with Cord about his vision for the music of the movie?

We talked about Monk right off the bat. The lead character is Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed Monk, so you can't walk in there and say, "Well, let's not do Monk." I had a number of ideas to start with. I thought we could take a [Thelonious] Monk tune — I pitched "Ruby, My Dear" — and we could kind of adapt it. The thing about Monk, the musician, is there's beauty in a lot of this stuff, but there's also tons of edge. It's very much his musical personality. But ultimately, we decided to go with an original tune of mine, that certainly lived in the style of Monk. The thing about jazz that's so interesting is, of course, it lives in improvisation, but film requires incredible sonic control, right? So how do you do that?

I wrote several original themes, but the most notable is Monk's theme, which does have that [Thelonious] Monk feel. And then the family theme is kind of Monk-ish, but it is just this lovely thing. I had my father's Steinway completely restored and it was literally delivered the day that I started American Fiction. I sat down at the piano and just started improvising this thing, and my wife, Nora, came in the room, and she said, "Press record! Press record!" That became the family theme. I didn't even feel like I was writing it; I felt like my father was speaking to me, on this instrument that I had just saved, and it became something that was very important to me.

Cord has talked about how personal the movie is for him, and how he felt like this book, Erasure, was written as a gift for him. It's beautiful that you were able to make it as personal to you, too.

I think the film is about two things. It's about what it is to be an artist, what it is to be known and identified and properly viewed, and how do you write that really commercial thing and then where do you find your own individuality in the edges? And then the film at its most radical is about this beautiful family. And the thing about the theme is, I use a wonderful flute player, Elena Pinderhughes, who's a scoring intern in my studio. She's this awesome musician — she just played with Herbie Hancock last night — and we play together, but we don't play at the same time. And that's very much, I think, how families are. You move in the same way, but sometimes not at the same time.

Cord walks a tonal high wire with American Fiction. It's a comedy, it's a satire, it's a family drama, and it all fits seamlessly into one movie. How did that manage those varying tones in your music that can live as one unified score?

You've got to be able to turn the emotion on a dime, so you have to be musically gymnastic. But what you also do is you lean into the same instruments. So, I had saxophones, piano, bass, drums, flute and strings, and then for Sterling Brown's character, we introduced the guitar later on in the film. We had a consistent instrumentation, so you're always hearing the same instruments, but you're hearing them rendered in different ways depending on the story.

Laura Karpman in the studio with 'The Marvels' director Nia DaCosta.

You also scored The Marvels this year. Nia is pretty esoteric in terms of how she wanted the sound to feel. Do you remember what she told you she wanted the music to feel like?

A space opera, with space chanties instead of sea chanties. She had these really wonderful ideas that she wanted tons of low, basso profundo voices. But she also wanted a really commercial superhero theme, and she wanted me to create a new theme, that was about the collaboration of the three of them. So, it wasn't coming from any particular character standpoint. It wasn't Carol, it wasn't Monica, and it wasn't Kamala. It was a new theme for the three of them.

What was your approach to crafting that theme?

With Marvel, you need something that's instantly recognizable. It needs to be a two or four bar phrase, but you also have all this with an orchestra, and with an orchestra of that size, you have all these ways in which you can build suspense, build power, build incredible energy. And then the biggest swing was the vocal work, and I wasn't sure it would work. When you do choral singing, the idea is for these massive voices to blend and create one sound. But I wanted to see if I could take a small group of singers from diverse vocal traditions and keep them in their own musical tradition, keep in the places that they've been and what they've learned musically. So, I had like Indian carnatic singers, South African singers, Black American singers, these basso profundos. I had seven English countertenors, which are men singing in their falsetto, and the idea was to try to record that early and put those in, as well as the sonifications, which are basically taking space data and then making that music.

The featured percussionist you worked with is Evelyn Glennie, who is deaf. What did it mean for you to collaborate with her?

She just creates sounds like you've never heard. She's profoundly deaf, but she's an incredible musician. And you think, "Well, how do those two go together?" She feels sound. And what Nia told me is that you can't hear anything in space, but sound literally vibrates off of a body, or a spaceship, so you can feel sound. The idea of bringing Evelyn in to help create some of these sounds, it was very organic. And inclusion was the mandate for me in every step of this process. We had all-female chairs in the orchestra, for the most part. We have an all-female studio here, for the most part, and we very much leaned into all kinds of diverse voices in our recording process, as well. People who come from different places, and different traditions, and different ways of hearing, they all have something to bring. I only have my point of view, but when I collaborate with other people, you have the richness of their experience, too. And I think it just makes things better, I do.

When you hold these scores up, they are so different, but they both come from you. Do you have a sense of what makes a quintessential Laura Karpman score?

That's such a kind question, and the reason why it's a kind question is because, I too, like Thelonious Ellison, have tried to establish my identity as an artist. And I don't think a lot of people have heard the continuity, necessarily. And with these two scores, it's really there. Because I grew up doing classical music and jazz simultaneously. There was no differentiation. And I think if you look at the history of film scoring, you see this a lot. You see John Williams — he was writing jazz as Johnny Williams — and Leonard Bernstein, of course. On the Waterfront is a very jazzy score, even though it's got the heroic stuff. André Previn is a perfect example. He conducted the LA Phil, played jazz, and wrote film scores. So, all of it goes together.

If you're going to find two tracks from each of those films that have a continuity, listen to "Dar-Benn's Theme," who is the villain of The Marvels. Elena's playing on that, and the end of it is literally jazz. And then "Bookstore" from American Fiction. You've got the big mama and the little mama. You've got the big, hundred-piece orchestra at Abbey Road, and then you've got the little mama recorded in and out of my studio. So, you'll hear the continuity between those tracks if you listen in. They're not that different. But I'm comfortable with the orchestra, and I'm comfortable with the jazz ensemble, because that's the musical language I've spoken my whole life.

By John Boone

This article was originally published on Dec. 7, 2023 and has been updated throughout.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Original Score category for an interview.


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