Todor Kobakov doesn’t think of himself as a jack of all musical trades, but the range of his work suggests otherwise. The multi-talented composer, musician, and producer has scored films and TV shows of many different genres; released Pop Music, a solo album of devastatingly beautiful piano melodies; created gorgeous string arrangements for the Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire; enjoyed a pop radio hit with Major Maker; and produced Odario’s recent hip-hop EP Good Morning Hunter, to name a few highlights. Even during the pandemic, Kobakov has been busy writing scores, including for the comedy Faith Heist – on which he’s collaborating with emerging composers TiKa Simone and Iva Delić – the “indie/artsy” Peppergrass, and a documentary on artificial intelligence (AI).
Kobakov’s upbringing in a musical family in Bulgaria, his studies in classical piano at U of T, his early jobs working on music for commercials, and his friendships across Toronto’s music scene have all contributed to his skills in using sound to enhance visuals.
“It’s not a talent, it’s a lot of hard work,” he says. “I’ve been working on music for a long time. I think my classical training has given me good discipline. In my solo work I’m more into electronics, which helps with film production, and being in the music industry helped me produce other artists. It’s nice to jump from project to project. It doesn’t matter what genre it is; I’m just trying to bring out the best in an artist and help with their vision.”
Helping realize a director’s vision can be complicated, of course. “It’s always different,” he says. “I try to extract the most important part of the story early on, and enhance it. I’m trying to help navigate the flow, and there’s a lot of repair work if the flow lacks energy, or a scene is not romantic enough, or too romantic.”
The Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue (starring Ethan Hawke) was a unique challenge for Kobakov and collaborators Steve London and David Braid: creating a score about a jazz trumpeter without using jazz trumpet. “Figuring out what my lead instrument would be took a long time,” Kobakov recalls. “It ended up being a Rhodes piano going through a pedal that makes it sound like a broken record. That added a nostalgia element. And everything was very slow and dreamy, because he was always high. At the same time, the director didn’t want it to be too dark, so that was an interesting balance to achieve.”
“Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it”
Kobakov often works under the radar to subtly transmit atmosphere and mood. “I don’t want the score to jump out at you, I just want to support the story,” he says. For the TV series Cardinal, he wove the sounds of the northern landscape into the score. “I’m always trying to find elements to subconsciously enhance the story,” he explains. “It was filmed in North Bay, and I went out and banged on some trees to get sounds for the score’s percussion elements. I’m trying to get into the fabric of the story as much as possible sonically, so the work reflects the surroundings.”
And for Faith Heist, Kobakov created percussion sounds with fellow composer TiKa Simone’s voice. “Instead of a shaker and tambourines, we used the human voice, which adds a whole other dimension,” he says. “It’s tangible, you can relate to it.”
Sometimes he works against preconceptions – in the score for the CBC-TV Indigenous comedy/drama Trickster, for instance, which leaned on electronics. “We wanted to blend the worlds,” he says. “We wanted it to feel like things are normal, but something is not quite right. The score helped, especially in the first episode, when nobody was sure what the show was about. Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it.”
Kobakov enjoys the challenge of finding a balance between the instruments, the background sounds, the visuals, and the expectations of the listeners. “Film is an interesting thing,” he says. “It’s like a band where everybody’s got their part and if everything works you have a great piece of art, but if the drummer is soloing all the time, it’s distracting. The risks I’ll take or the experiments I do might be a little different, but I tell clients I’m not changing the rules, just the sounds. That seems to be working for me.”