For film and TV composer Laura Karpman, versatility isn’t merely about alternating between comedy and drama.
Her landmark concert work “Ask Your Mama,” based on poetry by Harlem Renaissance figure Langston Hughes, is just out on CD. Her multimedia piece “Siren Songs,” a symphonic tone poem about the relationship between women and the oceans, was unveiled last month by the Pacific Symphony.
She is just starting work on “Underground,” WGN’s new series about the Underground Railroad starring Christopher Meloni, and on a children’s opera based on Oscar Wilde stories for New York’s prestigious Glimmerglass Festival for next year.
And she’s founder and president of the Alliance of Women Film Composers, which is helping to promote her fellow female composers by calling widespread attention to their work in films, TV and video games.
“I live a beautiful life of daily musicmaking,” she says in her compact, efficient studio just steps from the beach. “It is not genre-specific. Today it’s working on a choral piece for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, plus finishing up some jazz cues for (PBS’) ‘Craft in America.’ Then doing another documentary for the Jewish Film Festival and a theater piece with a fabulous Chinese artist named Sa Dingding.”
Karpman is a four-time Emmy winner with nearly 100 credits, mostly in TV. But in the past decade she’s also scored several videogames (“EverQuest,” “Kung Fu Panda 2”) and features (“Black Nativity”) while maintaining an ongoing career of concert commissions and theater pieces.
Last year’s creation of the Alliance of Women Film Composers, however, has placed her in a leadership role. Just two months ago, she was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Women songwriters have long been in the music branch, but rarely if ever has a femme film composer been tapped. (Acad membership rolls are secret.) Karpman’s female colleagues aren’t exactly an endangered species — they range from the established (Rachel Portman) to the experimental New Guard (Mica Levi) — but compared to their male counterparts, they are very much under the radar.
“Laura is a bold, strong and fearless advocate,” says Emmy-winning composer Lolita Ritmanis. “Her tenacity as president of the Alliance has led to several victories this year, including opening doors that in the past were closed, most often due to lack of awareness that this talent poolof exceptional women composers even exists.”
Karpman has always moved in several directions at once. “It may just be who I am,” she says. “You never know where things will lead you in a career.”
Case in point: “Ask Your Mama” combines jazz, classical, blues, gospel, hip-hop and more, earning raves after its 2009 Carnegie Hall debut with Jessye Norman and the Roots.
“You want to be able to deliver a satisfying experience to all kinds of people,” Karpman says. “You want an orchestra subscriber of 20, 30 or 40 years to enjoy a symphonic concert, but you also want to engage a younger audience who is used to, and expects, a richer multi-media experience.”
“Ask Your Mama” led to her collaboration with Raphael Saadiq on the 2013 musical film “Black Nativity” (and now also on “Underground” also with Saadiq). “It’s surprising how working on ‘Ask Your Mama,’ and becoming so enmeshed in the history of America as told through the lens of the African-American experience, has influenced my commercial career,” she admits.
As for the Alliance for Women Film Composers, Karpman says it is about to launch a website with a roster and lists of credits; is planning a concert; and continue holding networking events, both public and private.
“There is sexism, a lack of information, a smell of exclusivity,” says Karpman. “We hear, all the time, ‘there are no women composers.’ We do exist and we do have credits.”