It was Comic Con 2016 and the composer Tom Holkenborg was stumped. Not by the nit-picky questions of some uber-fan, or the pretentious musings of a self-declared cinephile — those come with the territory — but by something more innocuous. He was there for the 4th Annual Musical Anatomy of a Superhero panel, and a young fan had asked him about his lengthy history creating kickass themes for heroines.
Was that how people saw him? The designation shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to the guy who composed Imperator Furiosa’s “Brother In Arms” and Wonder Woman’s “Is She With You?” but for some reason it did. He’d just never stopped to think about it like that.
The (rather sexist) question posed by the Wonder Woman theme’s title is actually what Batman asks Superman in the movie when she shows up. But it’s answered almost instantly by Holkenborg’s track. No, scream the piercing chords of an electric cello, accompanied by an army of drums. I’m not “with” anyone. I’m here alone.
Not too long ago, the world knew the 50-year-old Holkenborg, who hails from Holland, by a different name entirely. He rose to prominence as Junkie XL, the electronic artist famous for the sort of slapping beats we shove under the label of EDM nowadays. He was catapulted into superstardom after his cowbell-ridden remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” became a worldwide hit. That is, until he gave up his life as an electronic artist to move across the Atlantic and sort files in an L.A. basement.
To the shock and horror of his fleet of agents and managers, “A Little Less Conversation” made Junkie XL realize he didn’t want to be Junkie XL anymore. He wanted to be Tom Holkenborg, film composer. “They were looking at me like, ‘Are you an idiot?’” he said. He’d gotten a taste of the industry in the late ‘90s working on tracks for Blade, Resident Evil, and the Matrix films (though his specs didn’t actually end up making the final cuts), but he struggled to break through. Though he only abandoned his stage name in spirit, it didn’t matter; both Junkie XL and Tom Holkenborg were the same in the eyes of composers and directors alike. All newcomers had to start from the bottom, famous Dutch artists included.
For Holkenborg, this meant an assistantship — the first step for any wannabe composer — in which he learned to check the monstrous ego he’d built up as a solo artist. While “A Little Less Conversation” was topping the charts of 24 different countries, Holkenborg was stuck underground, organizing files for a veteran composer. It took him about 10 years of pouring his heart and soul out into a number of (unpaid) samples before he even fully understood the job description. But once it clicked, it clicked, and his career took off, landing him gigs like Divergent (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), among many others.
Holkenborg’s latest project, a reboot of Tomb Raider starring Alicia Vikander, challenged him to bring the film into the 21st century. “The director and the studio wanted a very modern score and they didn’t want an orchestral thematic score… like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, a super identifiable melody that comes back when he does his heroic stuff,” Holkenborg said. When we first meet Croft, she’s a courier in the streets of London, biking to and fro, carrying delivery orders and mail. “So when we see Lara for the first time, I’m not even playing the theme, it’s just like a beat...You would never score that with an orchestra,” he said. “She’s becoming a woman. You don't score that with a 90-piece orchestra. You just do something playful and something modern.”
“But then, at the very end of the film, when she turns into a heroine [and] she actually starts saving a group of 60 people and everything around her is exploding and she manages to get out in time,” he said. “Well, that will be perfectly suitable to do with an orchestra, because that’s big and it's dramatic and it’s epic.”
When it comes to determining the finer details of a composition, Holkenborg often falls back on mathematics. “Certain things feel like a logical progression,” he said, “and the way that music moves feels like a logical answer to the question you just posed.”
“That comes back in the way that you mix — like how many frequencies are represented in the top range of the frequency spectrum, or the lower range, and how they interact with one another How you design rhythms. It's all about question and answer, and that's where the mathematics comes in,” he said. “So with Croft’s theme, the first part of the theme basically asks the question and the second part of the theme answers the question.”
Though he’s worked on a range of films, and composed many a bumping track, his heroine themes have become consistent crowd favorites. Nearly three years after its release, Furiosa’s theme, “Brothers In Arms,” is still his second most popular track on Spotify. “Is She With You?”, his theme for the character Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, was heavily sampled to create last year’s Wonder Woman movie soundtrack.
The irony that Holkenborg — a middle-aged white man from Holland — is the person responsible for composing these banging female anthems seems a bit lost on him. Holkenborg is skeptical of the idea that a composer’s gender matters at all. “You know, music is, at the end of the day, music. And that’s the only thing that counts. I think that a woman would be completely suitable to write like a kickass score for a [reboot] of Rocky… Why not?” he said. “You don’t need to be a guy to do that. It’s funny, one of my assistants is a young talented female composer, and most of the aggressive sounds in the building that I work come from her room, not from any of the guys’ rooms.”
Regardless, Holkenborg recognizes the film-scoring industry has its share of sexist bullshit, and actively worries about the impact it has on young women. The industry is full of men who simply think women aren’t capable of composing.
“I speak to all these students that sometimes are as young as 18 when they’re studying, and [in these classes] there's maybe like 30 students and one woman, you know? So it starts there,” he said. “A lot of women are afraid, I think because it’s dominated by men — the film industry, that [is] — that they won't have a chance. And some of them are not sure if they want to put up with all the bullshit that potentially comes with this profession.”
Holkenborg attributes his belief that all education — even the teaching of highly specialized skills, like composing — should be available for free. He decided to do something a bit crazy in the world of bigshot composers: Publish a series of high-quality, in-depth instructional videos on YouTube.
His YouTube channel is stacked with “ask me anything”s about the industry (topics include how to get a gig, what your first meeting with a director should look like, and how to deal with stress ), step by step breakdowns of his most popular compositions (which is part of a series called Studio Time ), and gear tours.
Holkenborg hopes his videos will light a fire in viewers who otherwise might have given up on their composing dreams. “I hope that all of the female aspiring composers are looking at that and you know conclude like, ‘Hey, you know, if I see these videos from Tom it’s not all that bad after all,’” he said. “‘Maybe I should give this a shot.’”