Using Pencils, Nails and Hammers, Music Composer and Sound Artist Juan Cortés Captures the Essence of Hollywood Cinema

Written by Manuelita Maldonado

Watching a film with the sound off might be just as disappointing as walking through an art gallery with no color. One might be able to discern some forms and shapes, but the emotion that comes with a shade of yellow, black or red is gone. Juan Cortés, a young Colombian composer, producer and orchestrator for film and television, believes that the identity of a movie relies entirely on the color of its sounds, which is why he spends most of his time looking for the perfect melody that captures the essence of each scene.

Based in Los Angeles, California, Juan is a musician with a promising future in the entertainment industry. He has worked as a music composer, producer and orchestrator of important films like “Neruda” (2016), directed by the Chilean Pablo Larrain and nominee of the Golden Globe Awards for Best Foreign Language Film; “Anywhere with You” (2018), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival; “A Twelve-Year Night” (2018), premiered at the Venice International Film Festival; “Loving Pablo” (2017), starring the renowned actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz; and “Life Itself” (Amazon Studios, 2018) starring Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde.

“My biggest passion in life is to find a film’s identity and recreate its personality through music and sounds,” says Cortés. “To do so, I go from recording orchestral ensembles and my guitar, to finding quirky utensils in my kitchen like spoons, nails, pencils, and even hammers to create unconventional sounds that give the film a touch of originality.”

With a smile on his face, Cortés remembers the process of finding a tribal chant that would give “Loving Pablo,” a film by the Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa, a touch of tension and suspense. “With Federico Jusid, my mentor, we were trying to look for something primitive and tribal, so we decided to play with a piano. In essence, a piano is a set of strings being hit by tiny hammers, so we thought: why don’t we use a real hammer instead? Even though we ended up ruining the piano, we were able to achieve a new, original sound no one has ever heard before.”

One of Cortés’ most meaningful projects was the film “Anywhere with You,” (originally titled “We the Coyotes”) directed by the French directors Hanna Ladoul and Marco La Via. The film tells the story of a young couple, Jake and Amanda, who run off to L.A. trying to build a new future. “The movie shows what most people experience when they come to a city like Los Angeles. Everyone comes with their dreams, looking for the people they look up to, but the truth is that there are little opportunities for young people like myself. When I first came, I was confused about my future and I had to do a lot of exploring before I could call this place home” says Cortés.

During the making of the film, Cortés worked in collaboration with the singer and song-writer Adam Brock, who worked on the music for the Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner “Lady Bird.”

Under the direction of the distinguished Argentine musician and composer Federico Jusid, Cortés has had the opportunity to compose and make musical arrangements for both national and international television series. Some of his most important projects are the miniseries “Watership Down” (2018), which received the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Animated Program; the Colombian series “Wild District” (2018); and the Spanish series “Cathedral of Sea” (2018). All of these television shows are being streamed on Netflix: a professional milestone in Cortés’ career as a music composer and sound artist.

“Watership Down,” an animated miniseries directed by the Israeli film producer Noam Murro, was one of Cortés’ most ambitious projects. “It’s a four-episode miniseries, but each episode is a movie on its own. We recorded over four hours of music when a normal project only requires 40 minutes of recording,” says the young music artist. “We did that because we were trying to make sure that we were finding the right personality for each episode. We wanted the music to be more authentic and recognizable, and we were also trying to make songs that not only work for the series, but that could exist on their own.”

Cortés has a double major in Film Scoring and Electronic Production & Design from Berklee College of Music. At the beginning of his studies at Berklee, he believed that he was destined to become an acclaimed guitar player. But a hand injury forced him to rethink his future and consider a different professional path. “Since I couldn’t play my guitar anymore, I looked for an option where I could make music without using my hand. This is when I started writing and composing my first songs,” says Cortés. “I also realized that there were more opportunities for my music to be performed at the Film Scoring program than in any other compositional program. This is when my passion for film and television first started.”

While studying at Berklee, Cortés also explored the world of the music business. Along with his classmates Richard Ludlow, Richard Gould and Andy Forsberg, Juan founded Hexany Audio — an audio production company for videogames, virtual reality and interactive media. Hexany Audio was described as one of the most groundbreaking companies in the fields of art and technology by Forbes.

Cortés believes sounds and music have the power to connect people with their own emotions. “The first step when I watch a movie with no sound is to observe and understand my reactions and feelings toward each scene. It’s a process of self-exploring and curiosity. I often ask myself what’s the purpose of the film. Is it supposed to make me feel sad, angry, or even opinionated? Then I go on and create the sounds that capture the essence of that emotion,” he says. “Sometimes a pencil, a nail and a hammer are the only instruments I can use to translate those emotions into a truly captivating sound.”