Hometown: Wayne, PA
Activities: Penn FilmAid Club (co-president), Nexo, Penn Singers, Kinoki
Freshman Dorm Room: Ware, Butcher 116.
Move over, Pablo. There’s a new Escobar on the scene, and you’re far more likely to catch him writing scores for hit TV shows than becoming the subject of one. This English major, who wrote his first composition at the age of 12, has composed pieces for exhibits and events at the Arthur Ross Gallery and the Morris Arboretum, and rarely says no to a classmate in need of a new tune for a film project. This week’s Ego is the proof Penn needs that you can make a career out of doing what you love.
Street: When did your love of music start, and when did you first start composing?
Nick Escobar: I think it goes all the way back to when I was 8 years old. While my family was living in DC, I started taking piano lessons, which was my first exposure to playing music. From there I started playing flute in 5th grade. So I was playing two instruments, and for my 6th grade graduation, when I was 12, I just said, “Oh, I’m going to write a piece of piano music!” I don’t know why I did that or where that connection came from, but I wrote this piece of piano music. I called it “Leaving,” because I was leaving elementary school, but was also leaving DC to move to Wayne. I felt like I was taking that whole experience of leaving people who I’d known for my entire childhood and making it into a piece of music. I played it at the graduation. Looking back, it was very nice of them to let me perform it! I was just a 12 year old, the school was probably really confused.
Street: Did you keep composing when you moved for middle school?
NE: In middle school, I mostly just focused on being in the band and playing the flute. I took a sort of hiatus from playing the piano. Then we got a piano teacher in Wayne, in this little music shop, and I picked it up again. And that’s actually where I started writing music for film, which was an interesting way for that to start.
Street: Tell me about that. Had you thought about composing for film?
NE: I’ve always been a big lover of movies, so I was really aware of film music. I’d always ask for film soundtracks for Christmas. So I’d get Pirates of the Caribbean, the Harry Potter soundtracks… all the classics. The 6th Harry Potter soundtrack was one of the first albums I downloaded on iTunes, which makes me sound really old. But I would listen to these soundtracks constantly. I just loved that pop culture orchestral music. And I would always try and think, like, “What makes this track good? What does the composer do to bring out the themes, and the characters?”
And then one day, my piano teacher, for no reason, brought out this scene from an older movie and muted it, and said, “Just watch this scene with no music, and play something on the piano.” I didn’t know why she did that, but, looking back, I was always playing all of these movie soundtracks for my recitals. I’d made a suite of songs from The Lord of the Rings soundtracks at one point, which I wrote in all my own transitions for.
So when she showed me the clip from that film, I had never seen the film before, but I just started playing instinctively. When I was done, she showed me the scene again, but with the track this time. And my music was almost exactly like the score. So she was shocked, and I don’t think I really realized what I’d done. She sent me to her friend who was the composition coordinator at the Curtis, Daniel Shapiro. He was a PhD student here at Penn, in composition. When I started studying with Daniel, he and I would talk about film composition. At this point I was a freshman in high school, but he really got me thinking about that as a career path.
Street: So then you’re 18, you’re looking at colleges, and you’re in love with film composition…why come to Penn?
NE: When I was initially looking at colleges, I was looking at conservatories like Oberlin, NYU, and New England Conservatory. But eventually I realized that I didn’t want to just do music in college. I’ve always loved academics too much —I’m very into literature, and history, and art. I have all of these other interests, and I felt like if I went to a conservatory, I wouldn’t be able to focus on any of those other interests at all.
So I switched the type of colleges I was looking at. Penn is great— we have one of the best English departments in the country, and we also have a wonderful cinema studies program now, so it just kind of made sense. Penn is such a well-rounded institution, and I see myself as a well-rounded person in terms of academics. It’s also been incredible to take classes that I’m in from different fields, and try and relate them back to music. And to be honest, there aren’t that many composers on campus, and I haven’t met any other film composers here. I do think it’s really helped that when people want music they’ll come to me, because I feel like if I had gone to a UCLA, or an NYU, there would be more people like me, and I wouldn’t have been able to work with as wide of a variety of people as I have here. Doing what I’m doing here has just allowed me to just meet so many incredible people.
Street: What’s been your take on the arts and film community at Penn?
NE: It’s really thriving. We have incredibly talented filmmakers here, and organizations like Kinoki (Ed. note: the film–focused senior society), which is an amazing network to have. But overall, I think art is just thriving so much here, especially the film community. We have a wonderful cinema studies department that really promotes incredible creativity and wonderful projects.
Street: You visited Kenya this past summer to work on one of these projects. What was that like?
NE: I’ve loved working with Peter Decherney (a Cinema Studies professor), and when I found out he’d gotten a grant for Penn in Kenya, I knew I had to go. So we went to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya. I didn’t know a ton about what refugee camps were like, I’d just pictured a small area with tents, but Kakuma is like a small city, and it’s been around for 25 years or so at this point. I met some people who had grown up there.
We were there to make a documentary about Kalobeyei, which is a new settlement that’s located about 14 kilometers from Kakuma. The documentary basically talks about different aspects of the settlement like health, food distribution, education, sanitation, and protection. We were covering all of these in small segments of a larger 40-minute documentary how-to video. It’s going to be be shown in their reception center as a welcome video for new residents of the camp, so that they can get a sense of where they are living.
The biggest help was that we were also working with FilmAid, which is an international organization in places like Kakuma. They have classes that residents can apply to be in, and they can learn how to use film equipment, how to make movies, how to use cameras for photography. In particular, we were working with alumni of FilmAid’s program, with people who were quite successful and had come back to work on the documentary with us. It was incredible to have them around on each of the teams, because they could tell us what it was like there. They knew what daily life was like, which helped incredibly, because it was just such a different framework to adjust to. I would feel uncomfortable coming in as a foreigner to make the documentary without them. Working on something like that brought up a lot of questions and ideas I’d had about agency, and about telling other people’s stories.
Street: You’re starting a club at Penn this semester inspired by FilmAid. Why did you decide to do this, and what kinds of things will the club do?
NE: I think all eight students who were on the trip wanted to do something when we came back. I didn’t know that much about the refugee crisis before leaving, and I feel like I know a lot more about it now. We want other people to understand it as well. That’s what our films are really doing – I feel like they’re breaking down these stereotypes of refugees. I feel like a lot of people’s view of refugees right now is that they’re malnourished, they’re sick, they’re unhealthy, and that’s definitely true in some cases, but there’s also another side to it. In Kakuma, they have a premier league soccer team, where people are competing with other teams in the area. They’re living lives there. I met a lot of people who were around my age, they were all really healthy, and they were all very alive. And I think the films we made helped show that.
On the other side, we want to expand on what FilmAid does, which is help refugees tell their stories. We’re still figuring out how this is all going to work out. We’re not sure exactly yet what we’re going to do, but we have a lot of ideas.
Street: You’ve worked on so many different kinds of projects at Penn. What’s your process when you compose for a project or film?
NE: I try to start out with a synopsis, just an overarching idea of what the creator or director’s project is about, and what characters are there. Then I try to figure out in the tone for the music, and so we’ll just start talking about the emotions, the characters – how they are feeling in certain moments. That helps me as the composer, but I also think, in a way, it helps the director to really think about the project in a more overarching way. From there it just happens really organically. I’ll be improvising music, seeing what works, playing away with different sounds. I usually don’t sit down and say “I’m going to write a theme right now.” It’s something where I’ll be playing for 5, 6, minutes on the piano, and suddenly, something will happen and a theme will just come out of nowhere.
The composer who I’m most inspired by is Michael Giacchino (composer for Lost).
My music composition style can be described as late 19th century romantic.
My favorite building to study in is: Van Pelt. I love the new area on the 5th floor.
Before I was eight, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. Loved dolphins. Still love ‘em. But I think dolphin training is going out of fashion, which is probably for the best.