Even when he was 12 years old, Daniel Semsen knew that he was destined to write music for film. He got his start taking piano lessons as a young boy and playing alto sax in a small town in Northern California. In 2001, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Music Theory and Composition. After beginning his Master’s Degree in Commercial Music from Cal State L.A, Daniel became active working as a freelance composer and orchestrator for film and television. Daniel has worked on several films, including the SyFy movie “Fire and Ice”, the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, “The Dictator”, the Disney DVD “101 Dalmatians (2-Disc Platinum Edition)”, and most recently the Mandalay Pictures/Sony Pictures film, “When the Game Stands Tall.” Additionally, he was a regular composer for the Emmy Award-winning TV series on PBS, “Travelscope” for several seasons. In 2013, Daniel orchestrated and conducted several pieces for the London Symphony Orchestra, and spent a week in London recording in the world-famous Studio A at Abbey Road.
Disney projects Daniel has worked on:
-Walt Disney Cruise Line show in 2011
-Tokyo Disneyland Parade 2010
-Tinkerbell Snowtime Parade 2010
-Walt Disney Cruise Line show in 2010
-Hong Kong Disneyland Parade/Show 2008
-Tokyo Disneyland Parade in 2008
-Tokyo Disneyland Fireworks show in 2008
-Additional Songs/Music on the 101 Dalmatians DVD (special features)
-Additional Songs/Music on the Tinkerbell DVD
On our most recent visit to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA, we had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Daniel Semsen over brunch to chat about his career in regards to Disney music. We appreciate him taking the time with us! Here’s a transcription of that interview.
DisneyMusicBlog: As a film composer, orchestrator and such, what were your earlier influences in regards to films and composers?
Daniel Semsen: Earliest influences were definitely folks like John Williams, Danny Elfman, and even Hans Zimmer, to a point.
DMB: If you had to choose just one, what would be your favorite Disney film score?
Daniel: Aww, man…that’s gonna take some thought. I think from the early films, the heyday of the 90s, I’d probably say Aladdin. But, recently I’ve really enjoyed Wreck it Ralph; which, I know isn’t one of the classic Disney films, but I’m a gamer and I loved Henry Jackman’s score. Even the non-video game part, there’s some great stuff in there.
DMB: What work have you done for Disney in regards to music?
Daniel: Mostly orchestration for special events or shows; typically they’re parades. I work with another orchestrator and we orchestrate the charts and go record them here in L.A.
DMB: Are those recordings live orchestra and such, or programmed?
Daniel: Yes, live orchestra. Everything is live, even the rhythm section. We get demos from the songwriters and the arrangers with initial Finale files, then we would bring in strings, woodwinds, percussion, etc. and record it all live.
DMB: Considering the angle of work that you have had the chance to work with Disney, can you tell us about that process and what it has looks like for you? Does the process you’ve just described change from project to project?
Daniel: Most of the time it is the same. When you work with the same people over and over, or when you get hired by somebody again and again, you’re getting hired in the same capacity. We, the orchestrators, are responsible for getting it all on the page for the orchestra – creating the big sweeping, Disney sound. A lot of that would come from the arrangement, the composition. There can be things in the piano mock-ups and in the charts that would be very Disney sounding; which, would make sense to us where to take it for the orchestra. You know, what would be strings, what would be brass, and then just make the charts happen.
DMB: More and more guys these days are orchestrating in the box. What are your thoughts on that process versus live orchestra?
Daniel: The guy work with is named Joe. He’d always say no one has any imagination anymore. You used to be able to sit down with someone at a piano and sing it for them and they could hear how that song could be a success. And nowadays, they want to hear the final product the first time. So, generally, we are now doing mock-ups of everything so they’ll have an idea of what the final song will sound like. Now, we’ll go back and fill out the orchestration with additional woodwinds, strings, brass, etc., not just the skeletal arrangement. Everyone wants to hear a demo right away that generally represents the final product, thus us working “in the box.”
Daniel: I’m excited to work on variety of projects. I’m not always just doing one thing. I’m not always just doing choral print work, although I love that. I get to work with Christy, my wife, and that’s different than the typical arrangement or orchestration. I’ll do work on films from a composing standpoint, or an orchestration standpoint – that’s exciting. There’s a lot of different stuff I can always do.
DMB: What is one fairly recent film and one old film by Disney that you wish you could have been the film score guy on? Why?
Daniel: I will tell you, being a composer on a film is much more daunting than being an orchestrator. That composing thing is very stressful – you’ve got to come up with everything. As an orchestrator, or even as someone who is writing additional music, you just have to take what someone else is doing and work within their scope of the project. You’re still not coming up with the theme and the style of the film – you’re working off what someone has started. But, I’ll say this, I’d probably have to say the same as my favorite one: Aladdin. The songs were fantastic, but it also had that Middle Eastern kind of theme. But then, there’s Wreck it Ralph too! I would have loved to have been on that.
DMB: What’s your education? What lead you to where you’re at?
Daniel: I got a Theory & Composition degree from Azusa-Pacific University, a Bachelors degree. I went there for the idea of being a film composer, as well as a worship pastor. Also, I went to Cal State a few years here in L.A. in the music grad program. I never finished because I was already really busy working.
DMB: Is the life of a composer and/or orchestrator tough to get into?
Daniel: It’s an incredibly cut-throat business. I am happy to contribute where and when I can, and I am grateful to my friends that allow me to work on their projects. However, I think this is one of the most difficult paths a musician could choose for themselves. It’s remarkably competitive, and you have to be willing to consistently work very, very hard.
DMB: You are obviously a musician, but what instrument or instruments do you play? What instrument or instruments do you wish you could play?
Daniel: I play the piano and I can play the bass guitar. I wouldn’t call myself a bass player, but I’ve played for many years in high school, in a punk band. When I was in middle school and high school, I played the alto sax. I wished I played the French horn in a big orchestra setting. I did play the crash cymbals for a year at my college. That was probably my favorite time of the week, playing percussion. I was probably the most excited crash cymbal player that ever lived!
DMB: Haha! That’s awesome! Well, we certainly did enjoy spending time with you here today in beautiful Burbank, CA. Thank you for spending the time with us and sharing your story with DisneyMusicBlog!
Daniel: I really enjoyed it. I hope your readers enjoy it too!
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON DANIEL:
In 2010, Daniel’s orchestrations were heard across the world during the Opening Ceremonies of the XXI Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada, creating the orchestrations for music featuring artists Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, and Nikki Yanofsky.
When he is not composing and orchestrating for film and TV in Hollywood, Daniel is busy writing for the Choral Print Industry in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a Dove Award-winning choral arranger and orchestrator, working frequently with Travis Cottrell as well as publishing companies Lifeway Music, Brentwood-Benson Music, Word Music, and Lillenas Music. Daniel has the incredible privilege to arrange and orchestrate music for his incredibly talented wife, Dove Award-nominated children’s music writer, Christy Semsen. They have collaborated on over half a dozen children’s musicals that have been performed around the world.