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Kameron Sheffield on making music for film

Imagine getting the chance to make background music for a short film. That’s exactly what UMKC student Kameron Sheffield did, but he wouldn’t quite call his compositions “songs.”

Sheffield is a fifth-year senior majoring in music composition. He recently composed the score for a five-minute short film called “This Is Not a Mirror.” He sat down with U-News to talk about his unique experience.

Could you explain exactly what you composed?
I wrote music for “This Is Not a Mirror.” The kind of sound that I went for was kind of atmospheric and industrial sounding. The filmmaker [Natalie Berger] had very specific thoughts for what she wanted for the music, so she didn’t want there to be any acoustic instruments. She really wanted that atmospheric and drone-y kind of sound.

Was it challenging to not include acoustics?
I think it’s challenging because a lot of musicians and composers will gravitate to the melody of a song. Even when you listen to a song on the radio, it’s what your mind is focusing on. That’s only one component that makes any song or piece of music function, and so what you’re kind of doing is just taking that element out, and further supporting the other aspects of everything.

How did you get involved in making the sounds?
[Berger and I] have known each other for a few years. We both worked together at a summer art’s camp, and afterward we were talking about each other’s work. She told me she had a film that she wanted new music for, and I told her I would love to write music for her. I sent her some samples beforehand, just to make sure it fit what she was looking for, and she liked what I sent her.

Since you weren’t allowed to use acoustic sounds, what exactly did you work with?
I had electronic samples. It was mostly just different electronic samples that I manipulated. I composed it all at my computer because when you write music for a film, it has to sync up with what happens on screen. So, for that level of precision, I stuck to just using my computer. Basically, there were two different sounds that I used. They were more like glitchy kinds of sounds, and the other ones were like atmosphere and ambiance.

How would you describe the song or sound of the music you composed?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a song. I think the best way to describe it is like right now, if you pay attention to all the sounds you can hear around you. I’d say it’s between noises and music.

Where did you get the inspiration to pick these kinds of sounds to incorporate into the film?
My music is played throughout the whole film. The film is about five minutes long, and there are no words, so it’s really focused on the visual element and the sound. When I started the project, Berger had a temporary soundtrack of music to go along with it, but she couldn’t use that for copyright reasons. I tried to capture the same feeling that was in the track that she already had, but also make it more specific to her film, and to add emphasis to things happening on screen.

How long did it take you to make the background sounds?
It took me about a month. I did it in the spring of this year, and I think it was maybe in February.
Could you tell me more about the film?
I guess the main point of the film is that we as people are unable to understand how other people see us, because the only way we can see ourselves is in the mirror, and we don’t have any way of externally experiencing ‘what is Kameron like?’ or ‘what is Basma like?’ Not only that, but also how the person that we are is shaped by society’s expectation of us, especially as a college student or especially as women. There are tons of beauty standards or societal expectations of what kind of person you’re supposed to be. So, just how all of those things kind of make you feel trapped.

Where and when is the film going to premiere?
The premiere of the film is on Dec. 2. It’s actually at a film festival in Pennsylvania, because Berger studied in Pennsylvania.

How did you first start getting into composing music and sounds?
I do compose more standard music and songs and things like that. I started composing seriously towards the end of high school. When I first started learning music, I would write short little tunes, but I wouldn’t think much of it or think of them as pieces of art until I got to high school. I had a teacher that really helped me cultivate everything and conceptualize how I thought about writing music. Now, I’m writing about a 50/50 mix of actual music and what I think of as “sound art,” or noises that are just arranged in time.

Are you currently working on personal projects or have worked on some things in the past?
There’s been some projects I’ve been involved in here at UMKC. Every spring we have a collaboration with the dance department, and I’ve done that two times. My more personal pieces that I write for myself, one of them got read by the orchestra in the spring. It’s for piano soloists in the orchestra, and I’m actually submitting that piece for a competition next month: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra EarShot Residency. It’s for black composers, and it’s a chance to have your piece read by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. I’m from Detroit, so it’s a really sentimental moment, especially if my piece gets chosen.

What do you hope to achieve with your music; where do you want to be in the next 5-10 years?
Well, one of my big goals in music is to write music for film and TV, so I would love to do more with that, and just incorporating music with other art forms like visual art and dance, things like that. Another thing that I’ve recently started becoming interested in is music and sound design for virtual reality, or for sound installations.

Do you play any instruments?
Yeah, I do. My main instrument is saxophone, but I also play clarinet and flute. I started learning how to play the saxophone when I was 8, and I started the clarinet when I was 13, and the flute was maybe three years ago.

How would you describe your actual sound or your sound aesthetic?
I think it’s really difficult to nail down with one word. As a composer, one of my main goals is to convey whatever emotion, even an object or whatever it is, as best as I can with sound.

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