Five(ish) Questions: Duncan Thum
Duncan is a film composer who is best known for his Emmy-nominated work on the Netflix series Chef's Table. He and I spent a few hours one rainy Los Angeles morning navigating our way through tall, dew-covered grass, dirt paths, and bushes full of bees. Our destination was Murphy's Ranch which is believed to have been a commune for Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s and 40s. It's now just a handful of broken-down, graffiti-laden buildings that offered a unique backdrop for our Five Questions photo session. We also got lost when we veered off the beaten path. So we both got soaked. And dirty. But we had an awesome time regardless. Meet Duncan.
What’s your greatest fear?
It’s something along the lines of going through life and not making myself open to all of the possibilities, not being in tune with myself, not being aware of the many things that are intriguing and difficult and the challenges I could throw myself into, and thus not discover that I had more to offer than I ever imagined.
Me: Do you feel like you’ve seen that in your life so far?
Duncan: To an extent. It’s natural being alive, making mistakes, and you think back upon them with regret or you have a doubt. But I don’t think so. In a lot of ways, I’ve taken a lot of risks in choosing this career, in a good way. In a way that I feel motivated by the risks and the results of always engaging in this ever flowing creative process that hook you to always want to keep going. But there’s always a fear element. It’s a very motivational thing so long as you’re aware of it being…
Me: …motivational and not debilitating.
Me: Have you had moments where you’ve felt just done. Times when you just wanted to throw in the towel?
Duncan: I don’t feel like I’ve ever felt that way. Maybe I’m lucky to be able to say that. There have been moments in my life that have been very challenging for sure. Some of them have been on a musical level and some have been on an emotional level. But I’ve never felt that the answer was to not persist. That’s in the air right now. You hear that word a lot. But it’s relevant to everybody in their own spiritual journeys or non-spiritual journeys, whatever they may be.
How do you define being “in love”?
I think it’s effortless. It’s a community that you have with yourself and with another person. It’s so easy and you can share and challenge and discover together, and it’s always fun. The things that are in relationships by default that seem like they may be chores stop feeling like they’re chores. You could have that with a lover or a friend—these things permeate between things and create a bigger context for your life that makes you small and happy within yourself.
Me: Have you been in love?
Duncan: Yes, I have.
Me: What did it look like to you?
Duncan: It’s exactly like—effortless is the word. These times in my life when I could describe that would be like you’re almost floating out of yourself in a way. It just kind of happens. And then you stop and you’re like, “Whoa! What’s happening?!” But that’s so good. A good poem or a good story or anything, a hike, trampling through the woods, if you have those moments, they keep you young. It keeps you fresh and excited that you could create that rapport with a person in a long-term perspective. What a gift.
What's one piece of art, music, film, etc that has profoundly affected your life?
Albert Camus has a line about this where there are five or so things that you’ll experience that just impact you in this way, that define you in the way that you see things. I feel like I’m always being on the lookout for that thing—I’m totally dodging your questions right now. [Laughter]
I would say that learning about things that weren’t music. I had a really wonderful English class in high school. The theme of the class was destiny. The books that we read—one was Joseph Campbell’s Interview with Bill Moyers [The Power of Myth] which was a really pivotal one—and we also read Dante’s Inferno and a few other books. But I remember at the end of the class the professor, in his wisdom, had us write an omniscient perspective—what do you imagine you are going to become in your life and now you have to look back and say what was this whole thing. And experiencing your life from the end of the road when here you are in this precious teenage existence.
So I wrote this essay and it ends up as a massive diary entry of teenage folly and emotions, and it was such an amazing experience to think of yourself in that way. Not in an egotistical way, but just to force yourself to confront yourself and really look at yourself with that perspective is really difficult. And it made me think, “Wow, I can be more than I thought I could be.”
Me: That’s awesome that you got to do that in high school. I feel like in high school it was like, get a job, get married, have kids, then die. That was it. I never knew anything else. That’s such a good perspective of—you look at your life instead of as a series of events but as a life worth living. That’s super important and an awesome exercise. Because when you look back on your life, you’re telling a story. That’s cool and that’s fun, but when you look forward you get to create one. And it really gives you a perspective of who you are today.
Duncan: Yes! And that whole idea of dreams becomes something that’s tangible rather than, “Oh that would be great.”
Me: “That would be great” period. Moving on.
Duncan: Exactly. Full stop.
What's one thing you don't know now, but feel compelled to know before you die?
What came to the front of my mind is languages. I hate that I only can speak one language. You understand the way that we can conceive experience and the way we can articulate is very much programmed by the vocabulary that we’re comfortable with and the syntax of English. It would be just an amazing exercise of opening yourself up to possible ways to talk about something. That’s such a simple thing, but if you go through that process you’re discovering so much about a thing.
Me: What would you learn if you could learn one language right now? Matrix style.
Duncan: I might go with Japanese. I don’t know why. It’s so fun to listen to that language. It’s always caught my ear. It has an interesting cadence to it. There’s something angular about it that I really like.
Me: Have you ever scored a film or TV show that’s in a different language?
Duncan: Sometimes in Chef’s Table, the chefs are speaking in another language, but we have subtitles.
Me: Would it change your approach if there weren’t subtitles and you didn’t know what they were saying?
Duncan: I wonder that too. [Laughter] It certainly would be a very interesting challenge. As an exercise, it would be kind of cool to see if you could map out a musical form based on facial expressions alone. Using these these things that are just visual stimulus rather than intellectual stimulus of words would be a very cool thing. Composing a painting or something like that. Take something and make a musical shape out of it.
Me: I had an idea many years ago. I had a friend who was a painter and I was going to score her paintings. We were going to do a color series, write a piece of music for different colors. Have you ever done anything like that?
Duncan: No, I’ve not. One time I wrote a piece of music and for some reason it made me think of blue. And it was amazing. My dear friend Daniela Sherer who’s an animator based out of Tel Aviv, and she had animated to this piece that I had written back in USC, and it took it’s own life but in the opposite way of what you’re saying. I felt like it was blue and it became blue and she told this amazing story around it and built this universe out of this piece of music. It was really cool.
It was just amazing to see how much she was able to pull out of this universe. If I were tasked with doing the same thing, there’s no way I could come up with this content. [Laughter]
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
I think it’s kind of simple. These moments, like the one we’re in right now, and the one we’re going to be in so many more times, with people and plants and air and the earth below us, the experience of being alive is, with all of its ups and downs is so cool. That you can share—there’s so much internal dialogue and you’re always grinding through these thoughts and processing and discovering—so when you can share that with somebody, even if it’s unspoken, we’re surrounded by these puppies here, and they’re so in tune with you. We can’t use words or constructs of civilization to communicate with them, but here we are experiencing the same thing together. To be mindful of that is a precious thing.
But maybe there’s another adventure beyond our last breath.
Me: Do you think there is?
Duncan: I would never rule it out. It’s so amazing to think of what exists here, that if there was something to exist beyond our perception I just think it would be—it’s like thinking about life elsewhere in the universe. There’s a probability of life being somewhere in the universe. I’m not going to extrapolate to say there’s a probability of an afterlife, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something was happening in some form or another. Even if it’s just the transfer of energy.
Me: The afterlife could be scientific. What would that look like? Could the whole idea of life in the universe be the afterlife? We find life somewhere else and that’s all our dead relatives?
Duncan: There’s a famous Carl Sagan quote: “We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Maybe this whole idea of extinction and species and evolution is just a way for the universe to have a conversation with itself. Or being self-aware through this whole bundle of laws and stories and experiences. All of these things that are happening constantly.
Me: Do you know the blog Wait But Why?
Duncan: Yes! Oh my gosh, yes. So good!
Me: It’s amazing. And there’s one entry he wrote about what the math is on the potential existence of life in the universe. And there are these possible scenarios: The first is that there’s no life out there. Which is super scary. Because we’re by ourselves. Another is there is life out there, but there are reasons we haven’t heard from them. But in that scenario, there’s the idea that the life out there doesn’t want to contact us. Which is also scary because then it’s like, “What’s wrong with us?”
But that idea of tying to an afterlife… I’m going to have to think about that more, that’s really fascinating.
Duncan: I think I will too.
Me: Because that would be a cool concept for a story or book. It has to be out there already, right? Because matter can’t be destroyed, right?
Duncan: There’s a law in thermodynamics called entropy. But. Well, I can’t speak to what it means in this scenario. [Laughter]
Me: We should stop there. We don’t want to sound like total idiots, so I’m going to ask another question so we don’t have to end on one of us saying something that doesn’t make sense. [Laughter]
In what ways do you hold yourself back?
I have put myself out there which is mostly a positive thing. Sometimes it’s just fun to swim. But holding myself back… It ties in to the other response about thinking about your life from the reverse. We’ve spoken to it a couple times. I don’t think that I am self-aware enough to—maybe it’s as simple as having the right thing to say in a given moment, and maybe it’s as complex as not realizing I was doing something that was holding me back or hurting me in some way, physical or mental. The solution is practicing mindfulness more and being more aware of the things as they are forming in your experience. That would probably help me a lot in life.
Me: That’s one of those universal things. It’s not bad for ya!
Duncan: Yeah! Exactly. It’s amazing how you can get swept away. And it’s good! It’s so important to be passionate about things. There’s this double edged sword. You have to learn how to use the sword or not hold the sword by the blade, hold it by the handle. It does cut and it can cut you. But it’s also this amazing tool that you can create with and maybe make something that matters to somebody else, that makes a day better, or connects two dots. Like when we listen to a story and it makes us go, “Ah ha!” If that can be achieved then it’s great. It does have to come from a place of—you have to tend to yourself. You really do. I could do that more.