Laura Karpman has spent her life in pursuit of music, never creating a hierarchy that places one style above another. "I grew up doing classical music and jazz simultaneously," she says. "There was no differentiation. I would sing opera and then I would sing jazz, literally in the same day, or play classical music and then play jazz. For me, it's the same."
While pursuing her master's degree in music composition, and doctorate at The Juilliard School, Karpman played in jazz clubs on weekends. When she began scoring films, she looked to composers throughout history who embraced jazz in their work: Artists like Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, André Previn, and John Williams, who released several jazz albums as Johnny Williams. "Think of Catch Me If You Can, that score is all jazz," Karpman points out. "All of it goes together!"
Her most recent projects are a perfect example of her duality: For The Marvels, Karpman crafted a literally out-of-this-world film score, complete with an epic superhero theme; for American Fiction, she embraced her roots to compose a Thelonious Monk-inspired soundtrack, albeit with a modern twist. For the latter, Karpman received her first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
"I have tried to establish my identity as an artist, but I don't think a lot of people have heard the continuity, necessarily," she explains. "With these two scores, it's really there if you listen. I'm comfortable with the orchestra and I'm comfortable with a jazz ensemble, because that's the musical language I've spoken my whole life. They're not different."
Below, Karpman shares with A.frame five of her personal favorite film scores.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock | Music by: Bernard Herrmann
You've got an iconic theme, right? And that theme works for the most tense scene up on Mount Rushmore, and it works for a comedic scene like when Cary Grant's driving drunk along that highway. So, you've got one piece of music put in two different situations, functioning completely differently. It's a genius score.
Directed by: Bo Burnham | Music by: Anna Meredith
Anna Meredith is a British composer, and her score for Eighth Grade knocked my socks off. It is so completely unique. She has a way of a blending electronic and acoustic music that is really, really fascinating. The thing I love about that score is, it's completely heroic, right? So, this young woman, this eighth grader, is like the hero of her own story. It puts you right in the mind of that particular character and keeps you in her head — or at least, the person that she wants to be seen as. It's a remarkable score.
Directed by: Elia Kazan | Music by: Leonard Bernstein
Again, you're talking about a hero story, and you've got the iconic French horn — which you hear in The Marvels, which you hear in every superhero movie — but here, he's an antihero. Of course, Leonard Bernstein was a brilliant composer, and it's a brilliant score that really looks at the loneliness of the protagonist's life.
Directed by: Richard Brooks | Music by: Quincy Jones
In Cold Blood is a perfect example of jazz and modernism. You've got the grooviest jazz in the world, but it's also a thriller. These two worlds collide beautifully.
Directed by: Dorothy Arzner | Music by: Edward Ward
Sadly, a lot of people don't know who Dorothy Arzner was. She has been erased, and that is a bloody shame because she was a great director. She was the first woman who was in the DGA, and she was making films in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I just think she's iconic. The fact that she even existed, and was able to work at that time, is really extraordinary.
What Dorothy Arzner did in that film is she took a genre film and she made it feminist, and you see both the queer eye and the female gaze in Dance, Girl, Dance. I just think it's so significant, and I've actually optioned the rights to make it into a musical.