Creating the “New” with Emmy-winning Composer Michael Whalen

Michael Whalen is a two-time Emmy Award winning composer and music supervisor (with eight nominations) who has worked in advertising, television, film and video games for over 30 years.

Michael Whalen workstation

Some of his best-known work: “Veronika Decides to Die” (2014), “What the Bleep Do You Know?,” “As The World Turns,” themes for HBO, CBS News, ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” dozens of specials for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, The BBC, NHK and the History Channel and television films for Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. Michael Whalen is also an internationally known recording artist with 32 solo and soundtrack recordings to his credit. Well-known for his beautiful and thematic music, he performs when time allows. He has also produced and executive produced over 100 recordings for other artists. His work as a executive producer resulted in a Grammy Nomination in 2000.

As well as his music work, Michael is an expert on copyright law, music monetization, and digital rights. He consults with major technology and music companies and mentors artists around the world. As a teacher, he has been an adjunct professor at NYU, The Berklee College of Music, The City College of NY, and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Michael is also an author/thought leader on the future on digital copyrights and panelist at dozens of major conferences and festivals. Currently, Michael is the general manager and head of A&R for myndstream (a division of the Cutting Edge Group), which is a leader in mindful music.

Check out this video on the Making of Sacred Spaces

An Insightful Chat with Michael Whalen

Chuck Schiele: You have a flourishing career as a true creator and inventor of sounds as it applies to the keyboard. And it looks like you’re having a blast doing it. Please tell us about your approach regarding the success of this.

Michael Whalen: I think as artists you can never be content with where you are now. It’s about creating the next wrung of the creative ladder for yourself and creating a new bar to jump over. The learning never stops. The process never stops.

Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?

Michael Whalen: I think it’s about always honing your craft and living the life as a creative person. It’s a commitment to the process of being creative. It’s about always searching for new ways to getting my music out to the world.

Chuck Schiele: Please tell us about the ambient style of playing the piano.

Michael Whalen: On an album like “Sacred Spaces,” there is a deceiving amount of piano on the recording along with dozens of synthesizers. For me, piano is foundational from a composition standpoint and sonically. Ambient piano is about creating the negative tension between notes and the sonic environment (with processing). It’s about evolving the sound of the piano behind the conventional ways that people record on it.

Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist or project?

Michael Whalen: I want to do things and create music  in a way that I have never done before. So, the newness of that has to be in place before I agree to working with anyone. From there, it’s about creating a new vocabulary sonically and yes, even musically.

Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your piano-keyboard, and the gear associated with it.

Michael Whalen: I have been a Yamaha artist for 25 years. I love Yamaha pianos on my recordings because they record so beautifully and so consistently from instrument to instrument.  My favorite was the S6. Gorgeous handbill perfection. Right now, I have a Yamaha Clavinova CLP-665GP. It sounds great and it has USB on it so it can talk to the rest of my studio easily.

Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your non-music life that factor into your music world?

Michael Whalen: Everything. Any moment in life can inspire music.

Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you compose?

Michael Whalen: Usually nothing… I write the titles of my pieces first. I like to meditate on the titles and I create a programmatic narrative that inspires me. However, I like to have my mind totally clear when I write. Composition is the ultimate meditation.

Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you practice?

Michael Whalen: The word “practice” is a word I never use. I play a piece until the music feels like it’s being composed off my fingers at that moment. It’s all about energy, emotion and authentic performance. The design of your performance must be completely transparent to the music. They cannot be at cross purposes.

Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the piano and music in general?

Michael Whalen: Be patient. Learn all the rules. Master your instrument. Then, break all the rules.

Chuck Schiele: The importance and art of listening. Please discuss.

Michael Whalen: Every great musician and composer I have ever known are great listeners. They listen to people. They listen to music. They have access to the (Zen) art of stillness. It’s something I am still trying to cultivate in myself. It’s a good and wise thing for me to aspire to for the rest of my life.

More videos from Michael Whalen

“Ordinary Miracles”:
“In the Footsteps of the Blessed”:
“Rise” (an improvisation):

Michael Whalen Gear

Yamaha gear: 
Yamaha Montage 8 workstation synthesizer, Yamaha CS-40M, Yamaha DX-5 Digital FM synthesizer, Yamaha Reface CS & DX synthesizers, Yamaha Clavinova CLP-665GP digital grand piano, Yamaha TF-1 digital mixer. Yamaha CS-15 analog synth. Yamaha KX-5 keytar. Yamaha RX-5 Drum Machine. 
Everything else: 
Schmidt 8-voice Synthesizer, Non Linear Labs C-15 digital synthesizer, Moog One 8-voice synthesizer, Moog Minimoog Model D synthesizer (reissue), KORG/ARP 2600 (reissue), Korg MS-20 synthesizer, Mellotron Mini, Sequential Prophet-6 synthesizer, Sequential Pro 3, Kyma Workstation, Synclavier Go digital synthesizer, Waldorf Quantum digital synthesizer, Waldorf STVC String Synthesizer and Vocoder, Pittsburgh Modular Lifeform 4 modular synthesizer, Rhodes Mark V 73 electric piano and Roli Seaboard Rise 25 MIDI controller. 

CD, LP and streaming links:

Video Quick Tip from a MasterPro

How to create pads on “Scared Spaces”:

Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, producer, editorialist, artist, activist and music fan. He still plays every day.

Related posts

Leave a Reply