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Film Score Composer Carlos José Alvarez ‘Breathes Life’ Into Movies

Carlos José Alvarez

Carlos José Alvarez conducting. Carlos José Alvarez

The sweeping or exhilarating music you hear as you are watching a favorite scene is a big part of the magic of movies. This is what Carlos José Alvarez does, and at 36, he's a prolific young composer in what is usually considered a more mature field.

Alvarez has already composed and arranged the scores for Hollywood films such as “Deadline,” “One for the Money,” the documentary "Cubamerican," and contributed to the Oscar-winning “Still Alice.” He arranged and wrote the music for the Lionsgate thriller, “Exposed,” starring Keanu Reeves and Ana de Armas, which recently opened in theaters.

Alvarez, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past decade and now considers it home, says his career as a film score composer chose him. He also gives his two grandmothers credit.

“My mother’s mother was bed-ridden, and I used to watch films with her,” Alvarez says. “That’s where my fascination with films began. My father’s mother, who is still alive, is an incredible musician. She was a musical voice in our family.”

Alvarez was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida to a music-loving Cuban family. Sounds of classical scores, Cuban folkloric and Beatles tunes often emanated from his house. By 12 years old, he started playing the congas and the piano.

He explains he always knew he wanted to compose music for films, because he had always been in love with cinema, as well as music, and it was a perfect marriage of both of his passions.

RELATED: 'Cubamerican' sells out at the Miami International Film Festival

Carlos José Alvarez
Carlos José Alvarez CJA Publicity

“I was always into music, the story, the characters, the setting,” says Alvarez. “The music is there to tell us what’s happening when nothing is happening on the screen. It’s like the poetry behind it all for me.”

His most influential moment in confirming his career choice, he says, was meeting Michael Kamen - the composer for films such as, “Lethal Weapon,” “X-Men,” Die Hard” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” while Alvarez was in high school.

“One of the things he did was come to West Palm Beach to give a concert, and I heard about it and I wanted to be a part of it,” remembers Alvarez vividly. “I auditioned for the timpani part, and I got the job... It was such a big deal for me.”

“Once the film is close to being completed, I sit with the filmmaker and we go through the entire movie. We decide where the music should start, stop - there’s a lot of problem solving,” he explains.

After the concert, Alvarez says he went up to him afterwards, and said, ‘You know I’m going to be in LA one day doing what you’re doing?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I believe you.’ He really knew I meant what I said, and I think that was a turning point for me.”

So after excelling in his high school orchestra, Alvarez received a scholarship to attend Florida State University. Not knowing anything about writing music for films then, he would put up flyers all over campus offering to score student films for practice.

“I’d pull all-nighters trying to make it work,” says Alvarez, who upon graduating, was honored with a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in film scoring.

Today, a typical day for him still involves up to 14 hours a day when working on a film.

“I cannot wait to be inspired, there’s no time for that,” says Alvarez, who works from a studio in his house. He was given six weeks to work on the score of “Exposed.” “I have to sit down and go. I have to shut out the world to get in the zone.”

Usually, Alvarez says his work starts when the film is at the end of the editing process.

“Once the film is close to being completed, I sit with the filmmaker and we go through the entire movie. We decide where the music should start, stop - there’s a lot of problem solving,” he explains.

Then, he begins writing the music by himself. He uses computer technology to create demos for the filmmakers to listen to, which ultimately are replaced by live musicians. Once the score is approved, then comes the recording process, and getting the sheet music ready for the musicians. Once it is recorded, it is time to edit the music, mix it then deliver it.

“‘Exposed’ takes place in Washington Heights [in NYC], which is very Dominican world,” says Alvarez about his latest film project, which he adds, has a large amount of Spanish in the script. “They wanted someone to be sensitive to that...Isabel [the main character who is of ambiguous Hispanic ethnicity] is surrounded by crime and corruption, and the score needed to pull us in there. The music that pulls us into Isabel’s world had to have mystery and playful innocence.”

He says he had this idea of using a female voice, so he sought out the Cuban-American award-winning Broadway star from “In the Heights” - Janet Dacal - for her very strong vocals, and gave her a scene.

“It was the most exciting part, because I knew I had found the heart of the score through her voice,” says the composer. “We really explored the mysterious, almost haunting, side of her voice. It really pulled us into Isabel’s reality and perspective...When I played it for everyone, we all thought this is it.”

Through the orchestral score, which was made up of 34 string players and piano, Alvarez says the main challenge was to connect the two worlds of Isabel and Keanu Reeve’s character, and express to the audience what the characters are feeling and experiencing.

“That’s what so magical about this job,” says Alvarez. “I wake up everyday hoping to create great music. I feel like I’m the first person that hears the film really come to life. If I do my job correctly, I’m breathing life into the film.”

(You can listen to compositions from Carlos José Alvarez here on his website.)

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