"I've been watching the Oscars since I was six years old," says the composer and conductor Pinar Toprak. "I grew up in Istanbul, so that meant that I had to wake up in the middle of the night to watch. And I have not missed a single Oscar ceremony since I was six."
During this year's 94th Oscars, Toprak conducted Billie Eilish and Finneas' performance of their Best Original Song winner, "No Time to Die." "When I first stepped foot onstage, I had this moment where I turned back and looked at the entire theater and I just remembered my younger self. It was a really big deal for me to stand on that stage and take it in."
The stage at the Dolby Theatre is a long way from Turkey, where Toprak was born and raised, and where she began her classical musical education at the age of 5. Still, she didn't dare to dream of becoming a composer. "My love for film scores started ever since I could really remember," she recalls. "But it wasn't a profession you heard people say they were going to become when they grew up. Everyone was telling me you can't get a job scoring."
"In Istanbul, I got my degree in classical guitar, and then, I was at Berklee College of Music as a piano performance major. And I was thinking, 'Why am I so unhappy if I'm at Berklee and I finally made it here'? Because I kept looking at the film scoring majors and I was so envious of them. I was like, 'They get to do what they love to do. Why can't I?' I got out of the practice room one day and I went to Tower Records, and Prince of Egypt had just come out. I listened to that soundtrack and that was it. That next morning, I changed my major to film scoring and I never looked back."
Toprak has continued to defy the odds, becoming the first female composer to score a billion-dollar film with 2019's Captain Marvel. (She was also the first woman to score a Marvel Studios film.) Her latest compositions are for the Francis Lawrence-directed fairy tale, Slumberland, and the Jennifer Lopez-starrer Shotgun Wedding, two films that couldn't be more different but that contain the element that defines a Pinar Toprak score.
"It's always about finding the heart for me," she shares. "I'm going to paraphrase Maya Angelou's quote very poorly — it's the one where she talks about, after time passes, you don't remember what people have said or done, but you remember how they made you feel. That's what I think about scores. Once someone watches a film, they may not remember all the dialogue and every single frame that they've seen, but they remember that feeling. And that's what the score does."
Below, Toprak shares with A.frame the five film scores that have inspired her the most throughout her career.
Directed by: Richard Donner | Music by: John Williams
Superman was one of the first films that I remember noticing the power of the score. I remember I watched it on TV and the sound was off, and then, we brought the volume back up and there was this amazing score. And it was just like, 'Oh my God!' It was completely different watching with this score. It was majestic, it was emotional, it was very thematic. I must have been maybe six or seven the first time I watched it, and that's when I remember being completely mesmerized by the score and realizing, 'Oh, that's what the score is.'
I remember recording it with my Walkman so I could listen to it again, not realizing I could actually buy the soundtrack. I remember thinking, 'Oh man, wouldn't it be great if there was a version of just the music without all the talking?' So, that was a very special score for me.
Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore | Music by: Ennio Morricone
To this day, that film just warms my heart. It's the themes, because they go straight to my heart. This was one of the very first ones where I thought, 'Oh my God, these themes are absolutely timeless and gorgeous.' And as a cinema lover, the film was really sweet. That relationship between the two of them, it still makes me cry at the end.
Directed by: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells | Music by: Hans Zimmer
That score was a turning point for me. I was quite broke at the time and I only had about $20 and this CD cost $16 or $17. It was pretty much most of my budget, and I had to survive with that $20! There is a particular track on that soundtrack called 'Deliver Us.' I started listening to that track, and I could not stop. It was in the time where you have to listen in those listening booth stations with the headphones, and Tower Records was about to close. And I just couldn't let go of the soundtrack.
I bought it with my last money, basically. I went to my little place and I listened to that particular track, 'Deliver Us,' on loop the whole night. There was something about the melodies, and the production was massive. You could hear everything. I looked at the liner notes and I saw that Alan Meyerson had mixed it. And I said, 'One day when I can do a good score, I'm going to have Alan Meyerson mix it.' And lovely enough, Alan mixed my Captain Marvel score, and he's been mixing pretty much everything for me since then. So, that's a nice little full circle story, and I have not written a single note of music without that CD next to me since '98. That CD has been with me forever.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Music by: John Williams
That theme is one of my most favorite themes, and John Williams is an absolute master. I remember thinking if I wrote that theme, I would probably just leave my earthly possessions and move to Tibet or something. And I would consider myself done. You can't top that theme. It's very touching. That is a phenomenal score, and I still listen to it very regularly.
Directed by: François Girard | Music by: John Corigliano
The Red Violin came out when I was doing my Masters in Composition. It's a very special film. It's one theme that is written that travels through time with this violin on its journey through the people that have owned it. It's a really beautifully crafted score. It actually won the Academy Award. And John Corigliano hasn't really done a lot of film scores, so this score was very special to me.
I was already familiar with John Corigliano's work — his classical compositions — and I did my master's thesis on him. I studied this score inside out, and I remember six months after finishing my master's thesis, I ran into him at some event in L.A. I never get starstruck, but I remember seeing him and I think my IQ dropped like 40 points the moment I started talking to him, because I was just so excited that I was talking to him. Because I had studied his life and every single note he wrote. So, I would have to say The Red Violin was very impactful for me.