Composer Meiro Stamm on Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum
Meet composer Meiro Stamm. In this interview, we discuss Meiro’s entrance into the composing world, his experiences working on Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, and more.
What has your musical journey been like that led you to compose for so many different kinds of projects?
I started out playing guitar when I was ten. Just casually at first, but once I heard Jimi Hendrix, I got serious about the instrument and about music in general. I was very musically curious so I started to study and explore many genres of music from around the world.
My mother was really supportive and happy to get me as many lessons and instruments as we could afford. I was also really fortunate that my hometown of Toronto was, and continues to be, very diverse, so it’s easy to hear and study music from many countries.
After a few years, I realized that being a composer rather than a musician was my calling. I wrote and recorded an album that mixed Western classical orchestral music with elements of Indian, Indonesian, and rock music. It was the calling card that helped me land my first scoring job. Having wide musical knowledge enabled me to compose for a variety of projects. I love the storytelling aspect of media composing, so this has really turned out to be the perfect career for me.
What is it like composing for animated kid’s shows like Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum? What does the creative process look like for you, and how does it compare to composing for audiences of more mature content?
Animated children’s shows are generally in 11-minute segments, and the music and audio post are done within about a week or ten days. There will usually be a music spotting session for the first few episodes, but once the musical direction is set, the spotting is left up to the composer and music editor. On Xavier, I worked with Ryan Eligh, who I’ve known for years and is a fantastic music editor.
We’ve done a lot of projects together, so we have an established workflow. When an episode comes in, we both watch it and make some rough notes about which scenes can be edited and which ones need new music. There are certain stock sequences in Xavier that have signature cues, such as the museum run, the time travel moments, and the opening and closing.
Ryan will edit those, plus anything that can use a fairly generic cue, such as the characters walking and talking. He then sends me his edit, and I’ll write new cues around it. The music is then delivered, and a premix of the episode goes to the creative team for review. We’ll address any changes as we start the next episode, but they are usually just minor tweaks that can be done very quickly.
The main difference between composing for an animated series like Xavier and an adult drama or romance is pacing. You really have to get to the point quickly in the story and in the music as well. There isn’t time to linger or slowly develop themes, which means that composing short, recognizable motifs is key.
The other thing is that animation thrives on exaggeration. Taking the score over the top is, in most cases, a desirable thing and, in fact, one of the best ways to bring out the humor in a scene. Generally, that means that there are a lot of notes per second to be composed and produced for an 11-minute show, whereas in a 90-minute movie of the week, the music can be much sparser and simpler to be effective.
The workload in TV animation is much higher than most people realize, not just for the composer but all departments. I don’t think we’re really given credit for the quality we’re able to produce in a very short amount of time and with budgets that are significantly more modest than for a prime-time drama.
Can you walk us a bit through the elements of the score on Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum and how they supported the show’s narrative?
The creative team on Xavier wanted an orchestral score along the lines of what John Williams did for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and so forth. That was great for me because I grew up on those movies. In fact, the first album I ever bought was the Star Wars soundtrack in the summer of 1977.
The idea was to treat each 11-minute episode as a mini-feature film with musical themes that would carry through and develop rather than have a bunch of short, cartoony stingers. Our characters meet real historical figures, so the stories often deal with difficult subjects such as racial and gender discrimination and sometimes real danger.
Since Xavier is a pre-school show, of course, everything is age-appropriate, so Cory Bobiak, the show’s director, really wanted me to play the emotion seriously while never taking things to too dark of a place. Each story is an adventure, so there is also a big element of fun in the score as well. The challenge was to have the score be epic, emotional, and fun but stay thematic and flowing rather than choppy with lots of stylistic jumps.
My musical starting point for the score was actually a couple of cues from The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, in which I noticed, even as a kid, that Williams wrote surprisingly light music for some of the action scenes. The asteroid field from Empire and the chase to the floatplane in Raiders are great examples. In both cases, the heroes are in danger, and yet there’s an overall sense of fun and adventure to the scenes rather than dread.
The first cue I wrote for Xavier was the museum run when Xavier, Brad, and Yadina go from the regular museum to the secret museum. It’s exciting and fun because they’re going on an adventure, but there’s a thread of tension too because they can’t be seen by any museum patrons or staff as they make their way to the secret passage. Once I had nailed down that theme, it set the tone and became the basis of the entire score.
You were a nominee for a Canadian Screen Award for Best Original Music, Animation. What is that nomination process like?
The Canadian Screen Awards are special because nominations are determined by peer voting in each category. In the case of music, that is, of course, composers but also music editors, music supervisors, and sound supervisors. It’s a great feeling to have one’s work recognized by collaborators but also by competitors. I think we have a unique situation with Canadian composers in that there’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie.
We help each other on a daily basis by co-writing, providing tech support, discussing industry practices, and even moral support. This past week when the animation music awards were presented, I was sitting in a pub with three fellow nominees. Due to COVID, the awards were online so we made our own celebration. It was a ton of fun as we cheered each other on with a pint in one hand and our phones in the other, watching the awards.
Any insight or advice for anyone wanting to be a TV and film composer?
I think the most important thing to understand is that composing for TV and film means that the story and not the music is the focus. Every time you sit down to write, the question is not “what’s the best music I can write?” but “how can my music best support the story?”.
Sometimes that means composing something very simple or making changes to a cue that you really like. It sounds obvious, but I encounter so many beginning composers who think they can write a piece of music and that it’ll somehow just fit into a scene. That rarely happens. The other complaint is, “I worked really hard on this, and now the director wants me to change it.” Yeah, well, that’s the job.
You also need to be really organized as a media composer. It’s a weird combination of left and right brain thinking that’s required. You need to keep your files organized, computer and equipment well-maintained and reliable, and also be instantly creative and quickly come up with musical ideas.
And you need to be able to do all this consistently for long stretches without a break. For example, the first season of Xavier was 38 half-hours produced over 22 months. Episodes move quickly, but overall, it’s a marathon rather than a sprint, so knowing how to pace yourself is key.
Lastly, I would say simply be nice and supportive to those around you. It costs nothing, and people will like working with you. Nobody wants to be stuck with a jerk on a project that lasts two years.
Any exciting upcoming projects?
I’ve been working on a really fun animated series called Rhymington Square for the past few months. The first episode debuted in March as part of the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International, but the series won’t launch until 2023. The show features comical poetry with a jazz score.
I’ve been fortunate to have a couple of great jazz musicians on the score, and it’s been a real treat and a fantastic learning experience to be able to work with them on a regular basis. I’m also really happy with the theme song. There’s a feature-length version of it that will be released separately as a music video that I’m very excited for people to hear.