Monday morning, composer AJ Hochhalter was settling into his new workspace at The Livery, a downtown Lexington space he shares with four other artists.
Moving into a cool downtown location is an exciting step for the 24-year-old University of Kentucky graduate, still wading into his career. But a lot more excitement for Hochhalter lies west this week, in the mountains of Utah.
Hochhalter, above, composed music for Blood Brother, a documentary about a man who gave up a design career in the United States to run an orphanage for children with AIDS in India. It is an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival.
“Every year, something I have been a part of has been submitted,” Hochhalter says. “And honestly, anyone can submit.
“But I watched it for the first time with the group that made it in Pittsburgh, and after we were done watching it, you know, everyone thinks whatever they’re involved with is the greatest thing ever, and I try to take a step back and say, ‘If I wasn’t so closely attached to this, would I think this was a great movie?’ The answer was yes a hundred times. We thought it had a lot of potential.”
That means Hochhalter’s trip to Park City, Utah, this week has a lot of potential to get his own name out there as a film composer for hire, certainly a non-traditional career path for a business major.
Hochhalter was born and raised in Louisville, spending his entire school career at Christian Academy of Louisville. There, he got into a variety of musical endeavors, from school ensembles to bands, and he knew he wanted to pursue a music career.
“I had gotten into Belmont,” Hochhalter says, referring to the Nashville university with a prestigious music program, “and I thought, do I go into music or do I go into business? And business made the most sense. Everyone thinks they’re going to make it in the music industry, and it’s a very small crowd that actually gets in, so I knew most of the bands and that they were businesses, and you need to know how to market yourself and do stuff like that.”
So the lifelong Wildcats fan came to UK and majored in business marketing. At the same time, his market was being defined.
“I wanted to make rap beats at one point, and people would hear them and say, ‘That sounds too much like a movie to be a rap beat,’” Hochhalter says. “I used to get frustrated with that because I wanted it to sound like rap. I didn’t want it to sound like a movie.
“But in college, I started to meet people who were involved with nonprofits and needed music for the trailers for their Kickstarter campaigns,” he says, referring to the popular crowd-funding website. “I said, well, people always said my music sounds like a movie, so I’ll try this.”
In retrospect, he says the movie interest came naturally to him. Like many children of the 21st century, he messed around making videos with friends, and says he always paid attention to the way things sounded.
“Between loving music, loving movies and growing up when I did, when it became easier to record your own music and manipulate sounds and do things you thought only the big guys could do, … I definitely had it in me to love film music,” Hochhalter says.
His own tastes run from traditional film composers such as Hans Zimmer, who scored many of the big movies of his youth like the Batman and Pirates of the Caribbean films, to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar in 2010 for their score for The Social Network. Right now, Hochhalter leans more toward small ensemble music and manipulated sound like Reznor and Ross, though he says he would love to work with a big Hollywood orchestra someday.
One of Hochhalter’s thrills is that Ross has endorsed Blood Brother, saying, “In this age of hyper-self-obsession, Blood Brother exudes the awesome dignity of the quietly selfless and reminds us how beautiful, and tragic, the human condition can be. I found it an incredibly moving, humble and brilliant piece of filmmaking.”
Hochhalter is part of that.
He started doing composition work by writing jingles for Lynn Imaging before he graduated from UK. Then he acquired more clients including Notre Dame University and General Nutrition Center, as well as short-film directors. None of the work has prompted him to move to Los Angeles, which he says he has visited a couple of times, or any other entertainment hub. Work can be done and shared online, which is also where people find him.
Blood Brother came about when director Steve Hoover found some of Hochhalter’s music online and used it as a temporary soundtrack to a trailer for the film. He contacted Hochhalter about using the piece and getting more music.
“I’ll never forget the feeling of watching scenes from Blood Brother cut to AJ’s compositions for the first time,” Hoover said in a quotation on Hochhalter’s website. “His work brought the deep cinematic quality that I was longing for and emotionally guided some of the most crucial scenes in the film.”
At Sundance, Hochhalter is looking forward to meeting other composers, directors and producers. Blood Brother is getting a strong reception; the film is also going to the Big Sky Film Festival in Montana, the Santa Barbara Film Festival in California and several others.
“We don’t know what will be next,” Hochhalter says. “It could stop here, and we’d all be happy, but then little documentaries get nominated for Oscars all the time.”
So this time next year, who knows where Hochhalter’s career will be with Blood Brother and other projects?