Michael Cohen '99 (Composer for Film, TV, Commercials, & Video Games)
By Cristina Slattery '97
"You have to be prepared for luck,” Hollywood, Florida born-and-bred Michael Cohen ’99 advises those eager to succeed in Hollywood (California). An almost-chance encounter with a Mather House tutor helped Cohen change his professional focus post-Harvard from law to music. The tutor persuaded Cohen to apply to USC’s Thornton Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program, for which he turned down Harvard Law School. However, he explains, he had been mastering instruments (bass guitar in 9th grade, guitar in 12th) since his childhood in South Florida.
"I didn’t take any music classes at Harvard, except a core class on music in fin de siècle Vienna,” Cohen acknowledges. He had taken the Advanced Placement music theory exam in high school without having actually enrolled in the class and continued to follow his passion in college as a composer for three Hasty Pudding shows. A naturally-gifted musician who started writing his own pop songs at age twelve, the Hasty Pudding performances allowed Cohen a chance to branch out into writing for more traditional musicals with a ‘40s and ‘50s type of style.
Cohen has worked on music for video games, commercials, reality TV shows, films and other projects since graduating from the USC program. USC had not initially accepted him because his undergraduate concentration was psychology and not music specifically, but a letter from Hasty Pudding Music Supervisor, Allen Feinstein, ’86 helped convince those in charge that Cohen had the requisite background to succeed. Now, Cohen spends his days working from home in L.A., thrilled that his professional life as a composer doesn’t mean he needs to endure L.A. traffic jams. He talks about his profession with an undertone of humor in his voice – like he can’t believe that he gets paid to do something so fun. The film score that he most enjoyed creating was for the 2003 film, "The Hebrew Hammer,” for which he had to combine Jewish Klezmer music with ‘70s "Blaxploitation” funk sounds. Other films for which he has written scores include "Higher Ed” (2001), "Spider’s Web” (2001), "Go For Broke” (2002), "Old Coaches” (2002), "Guns and Roses” (2003) and "Broken Fences” (2008). In addition to these feature films, Cohen has composed the scores for over seventy short films.
Not all projects leave room for the creativity that "The Hebrew Hammer” required, Cohen admits, and much of his time is often spent putting together more routine scores, or reaching out to people to find out about new work. Networking is a facet of his professional life that Cohen says requires time and some finesse. Harvard contacts have helped him get in front of directors who went on to hire him. According to Cohen, the difficult part is not so much getting the project once he knows about an opportunity, but finding the opportunities in the first place. In the best case scenario, an organic process takes place – once you work for someone and do a good job, he or she will be more likely to hire you in the future. Most of the time, Cohen is composing multiple scores. He could be creating a score for a feature film – which typically takes six to eight weeks from start to finish – and simultaneously composing shorter pieces for TV or video games, for example.
Even in his spare time, Cohen doesn’t let his creativity go to waste: one hobby, cooking, he takes very seriously, and it has become a lucrative pursuit for him. He competes in cooking and recipe contests, including one coming up this Sunday, April 4 called "Ultimate Recipe Showdown,” in which he hopes that his burger recipe will be the winner. (You can catch it on the Food Network, Sun. April 4th at 9 p.m. Eastern time.) Even if you don’t see him on TV touting his skills as a chef, remember to listen carefully next time you turn on the tube – it could be that Cohen’s music is the accompaniment that makes the film, show or commercial you are watching truly memorable.