Composer Crosstalk: PJ Hanke (Fight Club, The Thin Red Line)

PJ HankeComposer and producer PJ Hanke launched his career back in his hometown of Chicago. He studied studio production at Northwestern University, played local gigs and labored for several years at Chicago Recording Company. In 1996 he relocated to Los Angeles when he was tapped to work alongside Oscar and Grammy-winning film composer Hans Zimmer. He’s since composed for TV, commercials and film including Fight Club, the Prince of Egypt and the Thin Red Line. These days he oscillates between scoring film, composing for advertising and even producing the occasional record.

“I keep my feet wet in whatever seems interesting and with whoever is kind enough to collaborate,” Hanke says of his various work. “The way it breaks down is different every year. The beauty of the industry is that when I don’t have a movie going on, I more than likely have a few ad campaigns and vice versa. The movies can take anywhere from one to three months. Ads can take just as long but sometimes they can be turned around overnight, depending on the approval process.

“I enjoy both,” he continues. “I like the long-format stuff because it allows me to create much longer pieces. I can put together themes and story arcs. With ads, I need to be more of a sharpshooter. One day I might be simulating an entire orchestra and other days I might be creating a hip-hop, bluegrass or four-part harmony doo-wop track. I like that because it’s the best way to become a versatile producer.”

Few aspects of the industry have escaped the sweeping changes that are now part and parcel of the business. Indeed, Hanke finds that his amount of collaboration has waned. “It’s a complex formula of decreasing budgets and time constraints,” he explains. “The ability to spend more time in the initial stages of discussion is truncated. That’s created the necessity for a more efficient process. Where I don’t spend as much time up front collaborating with a producer or director, I’m creating vibes, ideas and musical strokes to which they can react.”

Hanke has used a range of gear in his years as a composer and producer. Some of his favorite pieces include Dangerous Music’s 2-Bus (an analog stereo stem summing unit), Monitor (an analog and digital source switcher) and MQ (a combination analog/digital metering, talkback and dual-stereo cue system controller).

All industries present challenges when it comes to breaking in. The music business is no different. Hanke advises young composers to know the fundamentals of their trade but also to discover and nurture what makes them unique. “When we think of our favorite composers, they’re all using the same instruments and notes,” he observes. “Yet you hear a voice that is uniquely that person. A great film composer can write in the various styles yet within them you hear his or her voice shine through. What sets composers apart is their perspective. That’s where great scores happen.”

Currently Hanke is doing a chunk of writing for French TV network TF1, prepping for a movie that began toward the end of December and continuing to compose with songwriters. His commercial work is administered through his L.A.-based company Sovereign. Past clients include Coca Cola, Nike and ESPN.

Contact Soundtrack Music Associates, 310-260-1023, [email protected]

by Rob Putnam