Aural Fixation

Bon Air composer John Keltonic’s music has found its way to Ken Burns films, CNN specials and even classified government screenings.

John Keltonic’s name may be unfamiliar, but chances are you’ve heard his music. The Emmy-winning composer has written scores for Ken Burns, the Olympics and dozens of PBS and Discovery Channel programs.

In the living room of his Bon Air home where he works, the tall and gregarious Keltonic explains how his three-decade career seems to have been decided by fate.

As a psychology student at the University of Richmond in the ’70s, he was passing through the school’s music building when he heard strange noises emanating from behind a closed door. Inside he found music professor Alan Stein playing the first synthesizer he’d ever seen. With 20 minutes till his next class, Keltonic began chatting with Stein about the intriguing device.

“We left that room 13 hours later,” Keltonic says. “We became fast friends.”

Aside from two years of piano lessons as a child, Keltonic’s only formal musical training was Stein’s mentorship. When UR asked Stein to write music for a film about the university, he passed it along to Keltonic, giving the 20-year-old his start as a composer.

Graduating with a psychology degree, Keltonic spent the next nine years working for the state, all the while building up his composing career. Early gigs included providing music for CBS-6 and Theatre IV, which is now Virginia Repertory Theatre. But these days he’s all over national television.

Before he writes a note of music for films, Keltonic sits down with a project’s director or producer to discuss what they’re looking for. Usually, Keltonic does post-scoring, meaning he writes music to fit an already edited film. From his initial viewing session to providing a finished product, Keltonic usually has three to six weeks to write and record a score. Though technological advances in sampling have lessened the need for musicians, he tries to incorporate them.

“I’ll use live players whenever I can,” Keltonic says. “There’s something about live players — either the consistencies or the imperfections — that makes it sound better.”

Occasionally he must scramble at the last minute, like he did with CNN’s documentary “President Kennedy Has Been Shot.” Just seven hours before it aired, Keltonic was informed that the documentary had been changed and he’d have to rescore it.

Keltonic scores as many as four projects at a time, writing two minutes of music each day. Companies and directors often come back to Keltonic with more work, but he starts from scratch each time and refuses to use musical templates in composing software to make the job easier.

Sometimes, companies come to him for particular styles. For a while, the Discovery Channel used him for shows about Africa. He handles everything hip-hop related for a production company in Philadelphia.

Once he completes a job, he rarely listens to the score again, and sometimes forgets the projects he’s worked on. Once while watching TV, he remarked to his wife how he liked the program’s music. She laughed at him in disbelief. “Honey, you wrote that,” she said.

One of Keltonic’s oddest jobs was scoring a highly classified government project. Keltonic scored the film — which was screened once for 160 people — without seeing it. He never saw the finished product.

His favorite projects have included working with Ken Burns on his recent PBS series “The Roosevelts” and an NBC Olympics broadcast with Tom Brokaw. Keltonic’s now at work on scores for films about Egypt, India and the Auschwitz museum. Though he works on entertainment projects too, he favors documentaries.

“If people can learn about Auschwitz or Egypt or the homeless guy, I prefer that,” he says. “I prefer stories that haven’t been told, that need to be told.”

Near the end of an interview, Keltonic remarks that I haven’t asked to see his Emmy. He points inside a bathroom, where the Emmy sits on top of the toilet tank lid. A roll of toilet paper rests on the figurine’s wings. “The roll just spins on there so neatly,” he explains. S


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