Ethan Spitalney: Getting into the Groove of Growing as a Dual Composer and Director

Photo by Johnny Pippins. Thumbnail by Olivia Juras

Photo by Johnny Pippins. Thumbnail by Olivia Juras

by J. Faith Malicdem

From EDM to indie rock to contemporary R&B, Ethan Spitalney, a freshman Visual Media Arts major at Emerson College, is expanding his musical knowledge while learning to incorporate it into his work in film. 

Once I set aside time to listen to a few of his tracks on Spotify. Ethan’s expertise in composing music and playing the piano left me completely taken aback by the magnitude of his talent. One of my favorite tunes of his are “The Origin,” a track featured on Fifth and Four, his first and only album released. It exhibits a metronomic melody, which later swells into layers of violins complementing piano melodies. “Windows Down,”  a song featured in the film Lose Yourself to Dance, is another favorite of mine as it exudes a vibrant indie chord progression, bassline and groovy downbeat. 

Growing up, Ethan was surrounded by music, with speakers in every room of his household. “You couldn’t escape, even if you wanted to,” he claimed. With a sister the field of acoustic music and a father who played trombone throughout high school and college, Ethan felt encouraged to continue the legacy in his own way, and it all began freshman year of high school with a Novation Launchpad. A device that blah blah blah helped Ethan get into music.  “You could program each one of [the keys] to make a sound and do a little light show. So I got very into making music and programming [the pad] to look and sound kinda neat.”

Over the years, Ethan’s work has shifted a lot. “I still take root in electronic work, wavetables, and synth and future bass stuff with big chords and a big chorus… Now my music has shifted to become more mellow, with R&B and synth-pop vibes.” Since then, he’s collaborated with lyricists, incorporated piano into his music, and has gotten a general gauge of what route he wants to take in regard to incorporating his musical talents into film.

“I took my first film class my junior year and got super interested in film scoring and writing music to accompany film, which started on the piano… I’ve always been interested in the behind-the-scenes aspect of everything– it’s one of the reasons why I like making films as well. The process of getting from Point A to Point B has always been intriguing.” He hopes to tie his love for music and cinematography together by delving into both directing and scoring his own projects. He’s already gotten a head start.

Ethan uses Ableton for recording, editing and producing audio files, which allows him to create an assortment of sounds with different textures and tones. “You can make just about any sound you want to. From a circular sine wave to what would sound like a lion growling, the array is super wide in what you can do with wavetables.” When he writes for film, he typically visualizes a scene and tries to come up with a tune that will be able to accompany it well. “When writing music in general though, I work very linearly.”

Despite having a full-fledged music experience resumé including a 21 track album and 9 film projects—which can all be found on Vimeo—Ethan doesn’t have a traditional music education background. “I had one piano lesson, I hated it. I was like ‘nope,’ so I left.” However, production classes allowed him to become familiar with Ableton and all of its inner-workings. “I’m more or less self-taught. It’s [taken] a lot of reading, researching, and watching people explain and play [music] in videos.” In terms of becoming well-versed in piano, Ethan would end up sitting at his piano for five hours a day, allowing his thoughts and feelings to spill over onto the keys in front of him.

Ethan is currently working on “The Ludicrous Possession of Andy Perkins”, a comedy-horror film he co-directed with Loyola Marymount University freshman Tom Bolles during their senior year of high school. He also takes on the role of the composer with help from Oberlin Conservatory freshman and musician Jasper DeBoor. The project comes out the last week of December this year. Along with the film, Ethan looks to release his own music in the coming months.

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