MOORHEAD — Stephen Letnes won’t know if he is taking home an Emmy until Tuesday, Sept. 24, but he knows he’s already a winner.

The 2001 Concordia College alumnus scored a short documentary, “Beneath the Ink,” which is up for an Outstanding Short Documentary Emmy. The winners will be announced Tuesday, but Letnes knows just being nominated is the real victory, as a friend told him that being nominated means the work was recognized by peers.

“People are paying attention,” Letnes said last week over coffee.

The Minneapolis resident is taking advantage of that attention and making the media rounds talking not only about his work as a composer, but also his Able Artist Foundation.

“When something good happens to me, I double down and try to reach as many people as I can,” he said.

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The Able Artist Foundation helps special needs musicians get otherwise expensive professional tools they use in their career. So far the foundation’s work is limited to musicians, but he wants to see it grow to aid other disciplines.

“I want to help the whole world,” he said.

Letnes is legally blind, so when he scores a movie, he stands 4 inches from a screen to see the action. That, he said, is the only difference between himself and a composer with perfect vision.

He doesn’t always tell the filmmaker that he is legally blind until after the score is finished, because it doesn’t have anything to do with how he makes music.

He is quick to point out a disability is not a liability, but rather a potential benefit for the employer.

“People will ask me, ‘How can I help you?’ People with disabilities are natural problem-solvers because we’ve done it our entire life. You’re not helping us. We’re helping you,” he said. “I have the luxury of seeing the world in a unique way. That is a huge asset.”

A physically challenged employee offers perspectives others never thought of, he says, like thinking outside the box.

“Even when you can’t see the box,” he added.

Even with impaired vision, the rough cut of director Cy Dodson’s “Beneath the Ink” left a mark on Letnes.

“I watched it and fell in love right away,” he said.

The short documentary follows a tattoo artist in Ohio who offers to cover up racist and hateful tattoos in order to help people get over their hate.

The short was shown as part of this year's Fargo Film Festival.

Letnes worked with ideas Dodson had and collaborated with fellow composer Charlie McCarron on the project.

“One thing I learned about filmmaking, you take out the ego and work as a team,” Letnes said.

When he got started about seven years ago, he wanted to work in all different kinds of genres. Now, with more than 70 film projects under his belt, he has his favorite types.

“If I spent the rest of my life doing historical narrative films, I would love it,” he said, adding that he recently scored a documentary on the World War II Battle of the Bulge.

He also enjoys composing for family films like the recent “Santa’s Boot Camp.”

“Those tend to be full orchestra, very whimsical, fairy tale-like. I like that,” he said.

He’s more wary of scoring horror movies, which often focus more on spooky sounds than songs.

“What’s fulfilling to me is to find the notes in each character and help them tell the story without people knowing what I’m doing,” he said. “If people walk out of a movie talking about the score, I haven’t done my job. I like supporting the stories. I like supporting people.”

Stephen Letnes gets a laugh from students as he recalls the story of his parents telling him that he would be attending Concordia College after high school. David Samson / The Forum
Stephen Letnes gets a laugh from students as he recalls the story of his parents telling him that he would be attending Concordia College after high school. David Samson / The Forum

Greg Carlson, a local filmmaker and director of film studies at Concordia College, invited Letnes to speak at a film production class last week, and the students were taken with the composer’s firsthand accounts of working in the industry.

“The great quality of Stephen is that he understands that the film is there to support the story, in service of the story. Less is more,” Carlson said. “The silent spaces between the notes are the ones speaking with as much impact as the music cue that guides the viewer along. He’s savvy about that.”

When he’s talking to filmmakers before writing, Letnes avoids asking them about music because it may lead to miscommunication if they aren’t speaking the same musical language.

“What everybody does know are feelings, moods, passion. I get them to use adjectives to talk about their film,” he said. “Some people think in colors. Some think in shapes. I think in notes… The film will tell me the notes and the timbre, how to write and what to write for.”