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A Daytime Emmy Win And Primetime Emmy Nom Makes “Sofia The First” Composer Kevin Kliesch A First

Finding instruments that evoke setting creates magic in composer Kevin Kliesch’s “Sophia the First” score. Photo credit: Disney Channel

This year, composer Kevin Kliesch did something that hasn’t been done before: he became the first person to win a Daytime Emmy and receive a Primetime Emmy nomination – for the same show. His Daytime Emmy was presented for his score for hit Disney Channel series “Sofia the First.” The Primetime nomination – Kliesch’s first – is in the “Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special” category and is presented for his score on “Sofia the First: The Curse of Princess Ivy”, a prime time special that aired on the channel last year.

A graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Kliesch is a multi-instrumentalist who plays piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, French horn and saxophone. His success in film and television came not from performing any of these instruments directly, but in large part to his vast knowledge of how to capture their qualities perfectly. He became an orchestrator, and worked on over 100 features including hits like “The Hangover”, “Date Night” and this summer’s hit “Ant Man” (as supervising orchestrator).

Kliesch had the desire to shift into composing but had a challenging time breaking out of a position he excelled in. In 2006, when he was working on “Enchanted” he had the opportunity to work with Disney songwriting legend Alan Menken. Their process began to open doors that extended Kiesch’s career.

“He wrote the score on the piano. He’d share his concept, then I’d take his demo and turn it into a fully orchestrated score,” said Kliesch. “Disney saw I could do a lot more than orchestrate.”

Kliesch continued to build a strong relationship with Menken, working with the composer on “Tangled” and “Mirror Mirror.” Kliesh also worked with many other great composers including such as “Ant Man’s” Christophe Beck who he also worked with on “Frozen.” While enjoying the creative freedom these artists encouraged, Kliesch continued to explore his composing skills, working on a few TV movie specials. His big break came in 2011 when he became series composer for “Thundercats.” In 2012, he received an Annie Award nomination for the “Thundercats” score.

After “Thundercats” concluded, Kliesch learned Disney Channel Animation Music Department Head was looking for someone to score “Sofia the First” through an editor he worked with on “Tangled.”

“They were looking for a traditional Disney score, reminiscent of harmonies we all love. It wasn’t writing for the 2-7 year olds but covering a story arc,” said Kliesch. “They wanted high quality with a big lush orchestra.”

While the score is written with full orchestration in mind, Kliesch assigned specific instruments to represent the main characters of Sophia (flute), the King (French horn) and a sorcerer named Cedric (muted horns) who is always trying to take over the kingdom. Kliesch will create musical themes for the characters that will re-occur through a particular episode – however he adjusts the themes according to the situation. Kliesch is also very focused on adding musical influences determined by settings that mirror real world counterparts. Certain locations in the show have Spanish, Asian and Arabian aspects. Kliesch will use indigenous and specialized instrumentation to evoke the flavor of these locals.

Kliesch receives the episodes when they are roughly 99% complete. Sound is the last element to finalize. He has less than two weeks to complete the score. Every season has 26-32 episodes with an extended version that airs in prime time. With 49 episodes under this belt, Kliesch has grown comfortable with the fast pace required to complete each episodes score, and he does this all without the use of an actual orchestra.

“They are all samples. From time to time, I may bring in a player to get authenticity,” said Kliesch. “People are blown away by how realistic it sounds. Technology gets better and better, but you need to know how to work with an orchestra.”

While Kliesch creates wonders with samples, he loves having the opportunity to work with a live orchestra. He recalls the excitement of using a full orchestra when scoring the special “Tangled Ever After.” He’ll soon be returning to the “Tangled” universe to score a series set to follow the characters at a point between the end of the “Tangled” movie and the beginning of “Tangled Ever After.” Until then, he will continue to enjoy the flood of emotions that have been flowing since his recent Primetime Emmy Nomination announcement.

“Nobody is more shocked than me,” said Kliesch. “To be included amongst the group of composers in my category is amazing. I’ve never imagined it. It is definitely an honor.”