“What makes me optimistic about the future in the US is the radically open and even blunt discussion currently present in the United States. We sometimes assume this means people in this country are more extreme, but the truth is, the thoughts expressed openly here are present everywhere, although elsewhere they are often more suppressed or hidden. Having them out in the open at all times means they can be questioned, addressed, discussed. The only way out is through — so this openness is far preferable than a veneer of false civility. Even though it can be difficult at times, to say the least.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kubilay Uner, a film music composer and the director of the Music Composition for the Screen MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. His credits include a number of narrative and documentary feature films, record productions for soul legend Bobby Womack, music for a theme park ride at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA, and music for video art installations at the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I’m the middle child of three to a Turkish father and a German mother. I was born in Germany where my parents met. When I was two years old my family emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where we stayed for three years. When things didn’t pan out as planned for my father, we returned to Germany, then briefly back to Canada, then back to Germany, and soon thereafter my parents divorced, leaving us in Germany and my father in Canada. At sixteen I spent a year in Brazil, living with a family as an exchange student through an organization called AFS, and I didn’t want to leave — I loved the country and spent a lot of time playing with professional musicians while I lived there. I returned to Germany to finish my high school degree and began researching options to study music in the United States, but could not figure out a way to pay for that. As one of three kids raised by a single mom with no child support, I had very little money. So I began my composition studies in Germany and paid for my living expenses conducting church and community choirs. When after a few semesters I was awarded a scholarship that included the possibility to study abroad for a year, I pounced and ended up going to CalArts in Los Angeles. I never went back to Germany after that.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
All through my late teens there was a steady trickle of “mini-triggers” that cemented my desire to move to America — films, albums, and all the American musicians in Munich who arrived there with the US Armed Forces that I got to either hear live or play with. But I do remember one moment that really stood out. I had decided to go see a movie by myself — something I would really never do back then, you would see movies with your friends. I went to see “Moscow on the Hudson”, about a sax player at a Soviet circus who defects while on tour in New York. I remember coming out of the theater and deciding right then, I am going to move to America. Of course my situation had nothing in common with the film’s main character who was trapped behind the iron curtain, but his story of escaping to a place that is all about fulfilling your own dreams resonated with me. After that, this decision got reinforced a number of times, but that was the first moment of clarity.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
When I came to study at CalArts it was supposed to be limited to a one-year scholarship, but after three months I knew there was no way I was going to return to Germany. A very ambitious young immigration attorney, Bernie Wolfsdorff, himself an immigrant from South Africa, came to campus to give advice to international students and told us about the green card lottery. By that time I had already learned how impossibly hard it would be for me to stay. In my field there are hardly any full-time positions, all the work is project-based freelance, so regular work visas are usually out of the question. Artist visas on the other hand require an advanced professional track record, and I was just a student with no credits worth speaking of. So I was very interested in participating in the lottery, and with Mr. Wolfsdorff’s help I ended up winning. I remember my knees buckling when I heard the news. In the first years after CalArts I pieced together a living from freelance gigs as a freelance audio engineer, mostly for a recording studio and for a film composer. I would simply say yes to any opportunity to work, as long as it paid something and was connected to my field. I couldn’t afford a car so I drove a small motorcycle, and to save money on rent I got a room that was the front third of a two-car garage, separated by a single sheet of drywall. My landlord rode a Harley and worked in a print shop. I often returned from work at three or four in the morning, and he would leave for work at six or seven. Of course first he had to idle the Harley for ten minutes, his tailpipe only a few feet from my head, separated by a single sheet of drywall. But I loved my new life — I was in LA, working on films that featured actors I had seen in the movies, and on records that featured musicians I had admired from afar for years. I remember one year early on watching the Oscars on my thrift-store TV set, and two films I had mixed the score for ended up winning awards — one for documentary feature, and the other for live action short. Sitting there in my garage I felt like I had won these Oscars myself. To this day I keep a photo in my recording studio that was taken in my garage room the night before my green card interview. Whenever I feel like complaining about some minor inconvenience I look at it, to remind myself how far I have come, and what an exciting journey it has been. And it continues to be.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My guardian angel is a composer by the name of David McHugh. After I had won the green card lottery, I had six weeks before my student visa ran out to find a person who would guarantee me employment. But that person had to be willing to wait some two or three months until the formalities were completed before I could actually get started. So I did some desperate power-networking, and the husband of a fellow student, a film editor, connected me with David. David interviewed me, decided I was better suited for the job than the young man he had already promised the position a few days prior, and so only a few weeks before my visa ran out he ended up enabling me to stay. As it turned out, he had scored “Moscow on the Hudson”, the film that earlier in Munich made me want to emigrate to the USA, so it all felt very much like destiny. Years later it was again David who connected me to my current position at Columbia College Chicago, so he had a big hand in my life.
So how are things going today?
Things are great, thank you! My wife Jen and I have been happily married for twenty-two years. A couple of years ago we bought a beautiful condo in downtown Chicago overlooking the lake and the downtown skyline. Two more films with my music were just released: a Western, “Gone Are the Days”, which is out on Lionsgate, and “Cold November”, an intimate story about an eleven year old girl in present-day Minnesota about to shoot her first deer. Another film, the dystopian sci-fi ghost story “The Outer Wild”, is being released later this fall. I am working on a surreal science-fiction drama right now, and am about to undergo my three-year tenure review as Assistant Professor here at Columbia College Chicago. My position as Director of the graduate Music Composition for the Screen program is a fairly recent addition, we’ve been here only since 2014. I love helping young media composers develop their own artistic voice and career, and at the same time being able to continue my own work as a film composer. And as much as we both still love Los Angeles, after more than twenty years there it is very exciting to get to explore a new city and lifestyle here in Chicago.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I like the American system of each person choosing what they want to support and then putting their money where their mouth is. Most of the things Jen and I support are cultural — museums, libraries, cultural institutions like the Sundance Institute, etc., and we mostly support by donations. But I also also have been producing composer salons in LA for the past seventeen years as a service to the composer community, and currently serve on the board of the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the premier non-profit organization for music for visual media. However, I do still believe that we do the most good in the world by simply doing the right thing in all our day-to-day dealings — treating everyone with utmost respect, paying people generously, giving people opportunities to prove themselves where we can, passing on opportunities to others without expecting anything in return, being generous in public praise of others, refraining from gossip and bad-mouthing, etc. If everybody’s acts are good, the world becomes good.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
All of my dealings with immigration fall before 9/11, so I have experienced a very different system from today’s. Overall I think we are heading in the wrong direction — immigration should be made simpler, not harder. This is too complex a topic for this interview, but I think a far more generous immigration policy would benefit everyone in this country immensely, and if the whole system were designed to allow for it, the market would regulate the numbers all by itself. Unfortunately I am somewhat pessimistic about the short-term prospects of immigration in the United States, so I try to help those navigating it wherever I can. We have a good number of international students in our MFA program and I am always happy to help those who want to stay in the country by writing recommendation letters and referring them to legal help.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
The dream can be so many things, so I’ll focus on business and work:
The first and most important key is love and joy. Any path worth taking is intense,with way more disappointments than successes, so unless you absolutely love and enjoy what you do the whole experience will be hell. When I started out I did everything the way I thought “one had to do it”, and at some point after the first few years my creative batteries ran dry and I got quite depressed. It wasn’t until I refocused on the kind of projects that gave me profound joy that I got myself back on track. That insight and step ultimately led to real success.
The second key is simple — outwork everybody. I’m not big on work-life balance. I love what I do, so my work is my life to a very large degree, and there is no need for “life-life balance”. Any big endeavor requires a lot of work, so the more you put in, the more likely it will succeed. However, I am a big believer in regular “micro-vacations”, i.e. a two hour walk to the lakefront and a quick boat ride, to clear the head. I also know it’s vital to get enough sleep.
Third key — be active in your professional community. A number of years ago, I expressed the desire for a regular composer forum in LA where I could hear what other composers are working on — our profession can be very isolating. I was challenged to put one together myself. This turned out to be one of the best things I ever did, personally, creatively and professionally. This series is still ongoing — I now regularly return to LA for it — and it continues to inspire and connect me.
Fourth key — be honest, gracious, and kind to everybody. Besides being the right thing to do, it makes your life more enjoyable, since kindness is generally met with kindness and grace with grace. And honesty makes life easier because the easiest thing to keep track of is the truth, since there’s only one thing to keep track of. Also, you never know who you will be working with in the future. Before you know it, the person who needs something from you becomes the person you need something from. So it’s best to have been kind and honest to everyone.
Fifth — stay curious and humble, and keep making big plans. I study as hard now, after a couple of decades as a professional, as I did when I was a student. I get just as much delight out of exploration now as I did then — it keeps my work fresh and my enthusiasm stoked. And knowing that there’s always way more that I don’t know than what I do know keeps my feet firmly on the ground while my head can be in the clouds.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
Above all else, American optimism makes me optimistic about America’s future. I do believe we are currently in danger of losing some of it, but it is a big part of what drew me here, and I know that this unique American brand of “of course we can do this, why are you even asking?” is the essential first step to any problem. There’s no improvement if you doubt the very possibility of improvement.
The other thing that makes me optimistic is how diverse this country is. There are more wildly different perspectives and experiences present here than anywhere else in the world that I’m aware of, and while few regard them all equally, now more than ever they are beginning to assert themselves equally, and thus contribute to how this country manifests itself.
Which leads me to the third thing: the radically open and even blunt discussion currently present in the United States. We sometimes assume this means people in this country are more extreme, but the truth is, the thoughts expressed openly here are present everywhere, although elsewhere they are often more suppressed or hidden. Having them out in the open at all times means they can be questioned, addressed, discussed. The only way out is through — so this openness is far preferable than a veneer of false civility. Even though it can be difficult at times, to say the least.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch, because he is one of the greatest cinematic minds alive. Although, instead of breakfast or lunch, I’d prefer to have him walk me through a film of his choosing. Or better yet, let me watch him edit.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.