Tag: collaboration

Composers Collaborate!

In the beginning of August 2018, I was in Montpelier, Vermont, preparing to give a talk to the students enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition Program. My talk was titled, “How Many Hats Can a Composer Wear Successfully?”. I looked out at my colleagues in the room. I knew what the response would be: one of beleaguered pride, the pride of a warrior who knows the score and has survived despite the odds against him or her. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t really want to talk about how many hats we wear as a badge of pride. The point I really wanted to bring home was how much we lose when we choose to write, arrange, perform, and produce in our own solitary creative bubble.

Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves.

Early on in my career, I discovered the professional advantages of collaboration quite by accident. During the late 1990s, I was writing music for several dramatic reality TV shows when I got a request for some hip-hop music. My first thought was, “I can do that.” I knew I could, although it certainly wouldn’t be very authentic. But I did have several colleagues at the time who were more than capable of producing authentic hip-hop tracks. I made a decision that forever altered the course of my career. I brought in these colleagues to write and produce the hip-hop tracks. The reason this is so important is that as composers, especially at the beginning of our careers, most of us are, to put it plainly, broke. Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves. After all, we have been laboring for years and have never been fairly compensated for our efforts, right? The idea of sharing the credit/fee or hiring help hasn’t crossed our minds yet. My good friend Paul Chihara has many stories of his early days in Hollywood as a film composer. In most of those stories, he talks about having to spend the entire fee on union contractors, arrangers, music editors, conductors, and players. Often, the expenses would be more than the fee. The results for Paul now include a long list of Hollywood film-scoring credits, including collaborations with the likes of Louis Malle, Arthur Penn, and—most notably—a long working relationship with Academy Award-nominated director Sydney Lumet. It was during one of those projects that we met, and Paul hired me to edit and prepare tracks for him.

Elaborating on the concept of collaboration, I’d like to share several examples that have stood the test of time.

In the not so distant past, any one of the following categories would have been considered a full-time vocation. Most of these people were composers themselves, but focused on one area of music production.

role chart of composers, lyricists, arrangers, producers, instrumentalists, and vocalists

Other related fields often not credited (except on the inner sleeves of record albums or the super tiny type on CD jackets):

Recording Engineer – Mix Engineer – Mastering Engineer

I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration.

Here are several instances of truly inspiring collaborations over the years. Notably, most of these examples reach back into the past.  I believe there are several factors that contribute to this. First and foremost, the advent of digital technology was a game changer. Personally, I wasn’t able to participate in the pre-digital era of recording and producing. It was simply too expensive to work in the medium without the deep pockets of a record company.  For better and for worse, the era of digital technology levelled the playing field. Many of us were finally able to jump in and start making respectable sounding recordings. However, with the levelled field (which ultimately led to the demise of the record industry as we had known it) came a new breed of musical autocrat. I have never heard it better expressed than by Molly Sheridan who dubs it the “Absolute Great Man” syndrome. While the “Absolute Great Man” can now achieve what used to take several people to do, the loss of the collaborators and their different perspectives is, I believe, sorely felt. I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration. Because although much of the music is dated, there is no argument on the high quality of the craft inherent in these examples.


It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort, but the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones.

Let’s take a look at the track “Thriller” from the hit record album of the same name. It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort and because of that, he is much revered for it. However the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones. To quote Alan Light from Rolling Stone October 30, 2009:

When asked today about the album Thriller, Jones points out – taking care to insist that he is not minimizing Jackson’s role – that it requires an entire brain trust to make a classic album. “Michael didn’t create Thriller,” he says. “It takes a team to make an album. He wrote four songs, and he sang his ass off, but he didn’t conceive it – that’s not how an album works.” Jones gives particular credit to the contributions of engineer Bruce Swedien and especially songwriter Rod Temperton, who had become a trusted Jones collaborator, contributing three songs for Off the Wall, including Rock With You and the title track.

Temperton had already written hits such as “Always and Forever” and “Boogie Nights” when he was in the band Heatwave during the mid to late 1970s. Quincy’s credits are too numerous to mention. But early on, he was in Elvis Presley’s backing band during his early TV appearances, played trumpet in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and studied in the late 1950s with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. Whew! And this doesn’t even include his film scores, among which are The Pawnbroker and In the Heat Of The Night (which earned him an Oscar for Best Original Score). Bruce Swedien, the engineer for the track, was the engineer for many Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons records, not to mention recording and mixing records by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Herbie Hancock.

Upon listening to “Thriller,” even by today’s standards, it stands out for the excellent quality of the recording, arrangement, and—most especially—Michael Jackson’s performance. The opening bass riff is probably Quincy. At least four people are credited with bringing the synthesizers to life. In our current paradigm, it would probably have been just one person putting together the entire track. The production of the Thriller album really marks a turning point in the production of popular music. Not only is this the beginning of the digital era, MTV was launched less than a year before Thriller was released. Suddenly pop music writers, producers, performers and audience members were confronted with an evolution from what had been largely an aural experience, to a hybrid aural/visual experience. Now we watch the Buggles video of “Video Killed the Radio Star” and take its truth for granted. At the time however, the very idea of the visual component becoming part of the music production process was terrifying to many composers and musicians. Many careers did not survive the transition. The generation that springs forward starting in the early 1980s, encompasses this entirely new phenomenon. The evolution of digital technology has fundamentally changed the nature of collaboration. More recent collaborations might now include Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan’s “Heartland” 1993 (written through exchanges by fax) and the Kanye West- Rihanna-Paul McCartney composition “FortyFiveSeconds”. The new level of inter-connectedness provided by the ever-evolving technology has forever altered the landscape of collaboration. Now we can trade session files in a way that makes it possible for collaboration without even being in the same country, something unimaginable in the not so distant past.

Listening to “Thriller” today, the sound is still awesome in the truest sense of the word. Given all of this combined experience, what you get is a recording of a song that stands the test of time—a true collaboration by four heavy hitters, all at the top of their game.

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

I recently watched the PBS American Masters interview with Carole King during which she talked about bringing in a song to a publisher when she was working in the Brill Building in Manhattan. “That’s great kid. Here’s 25 bucks,” says Carole, quoting the publisher. She went on to write dozens of songs with her husband Gerry Goffin during the ‘60s, including “Chains” (covered by the Beatles on their first UK record), “Locomotion” for their babysitter Little Eva, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees, and most notably, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” recorded by Aretha Franklin. Listen to this Atlantic single (preferably on vinyl or CD, but for expediency you can also experience it through this YouTube Embed below):

Here is a divine melody, a unique POV (few pop songs had been written from such an emotionally confessional female point of view up to that time), sterling production by Jerry Wexler, a pared-down precision performance by Spooner Oldham on piano, and of course Aretha in top form.  The track is a true collaboration and meeting of many top talents. Keep in mind that Aretha was only 25 years old at the time, as was Carole. Spooner was 24 and Gerry was 28.

“Mack The Knife”

Another famous collaboration is that of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill on “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (which most people know by the title “Mack the Knife”) which was originally written for Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) in 1928. Grab a listen to an original version performed with organ accompaniment and a vocal by Brecht himself.

It’s written in an eccentric “Singspiel”-type song form, which lends itself to storytelling.

Fast-forward to 1959 and find the “big band” arrangement with a superb interpretative vocal performance by Bobby Darin. What really makes this record special is the addition of the arrangement by Richard Wess.

It’s as classic as it is unlikely during the era when rock and roll was taking over the airwaves. It was a collaboration among many talents across many years.

“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers”

Charles Mingus has always been a favorite of mine, and if you haven’t taken a deep dive into his material you might check out his 1972 record on Columbia Let My Children Hear Music—specifically “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers.” When I was younger, I thought it was written and arranged/scored by Mingus. But it turns out that Sy Johnson is credited with the orchestration, transcription, and arrangement, as well as the conducting. And the ubiquitous (at the time) Teo Macero produced the record. Teo wrote, produced, and arranged for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Gato Barbieri. He later went on to produce for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, and Tony Bennett. This collaboration is unique in that the complexity of the composition calls for a high level of familiarity with the fusion of European classical harmony, blues, jazz, and extended song form, which gave birth to the newly emerging form of extended jazz compositions such as this one. (Mingus spent five years studying bass and composition with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, Herman H. Rheinshagen, while Miles Davis attended “The Institute of Musical Art” now known as The Juilliard School). Both Sy Johnson and Teo Macero were more than up to the task. The result is a recording that takes Mingus’s composition (in the Ellingtonian tradition of “symphonic style” jazz) and elevates it to heights heretofore never achieved.

“On Broadway”

Four writers were listed on the record.

Another example is “On Broadway” by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (with kibitzing by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). Cynthia and Barry originally wrote the song from a female point of view.  After a couple of attempts to get the song recorded, they had the chance to present it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (their idols at the time) who were the principal writers for the Drifters. Leiber and Stoller both liked the song and gave Cynthia and Barry the chance to either rework it themselves, changing it to a male point of view, or to collaborate with them. The result was four writers listed on the record. It has been recorded and arranged multiple times—first by The Cookies in 1962 and very soon after that same year by The Crystals. The first “definitive” version was recorded in 1963 by the Drifters, with a guitar solo by budding songwriter (at the time) Phil Spector and an instrumental arrangement by Gary Sherman.

Fast forward again to 1978 when a second “definitive” version was recorded by guitar virtuoso George Benson. George’s version ended up in the movie All That Jazz and later Benson performed it with Clifford and the Rhythm Rats for the 1994 Muppets album Kermit Unpigged.

Another time-traveling collaboration suitable for “all ages.”

“Eleanor Rigby”

Most readers are likely familiar with “Eleanor Rigby,” written primarily by Paul McCartney but attributed to Lennon/McCartney. This recording was an interesting project for many reasons. It was an early example of the Beatles’ transformation from a rock and roll act to a more experimental, studio-based band. But it is George Martin’s arrangement for double string quartet that makes this recording really stand apart from the rest of the Beatles’ canon. While many previously recorded rock ballads had utilized string arrangements, this was arguably the first to feature a classical-style quartet on a song that actually rocks. This opened the door for the likes of The Moody Blues, ELO, and later Queen, Kate Bush, and Arcade Fire, to name a few. It is one of many collaborations between producer/arranger George Martin and the Beatles. It’s hard to even think about this song without imagining the staccato eighth notes pumping and driving this recording.

“God Only Knows”

Lastly, let’s consider the production and recording of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows.” It is a stunning example of a collaboration between peers. Brian wrote the melody and then ad agency writer Tony Asher wrote the words. The tracks were performed under Brian’s direction by the now famous “wrecking crew” of top flight LA studio musicians. At the 11th hour, Brian decided to have the vocal performed by his brother Carl. According to “The Making of Pet Sounds,” an essay in the booklet notes for The Pet Sounds Sessions, Brian originally intended to sing lead vocal on “God Only Knows,” but after the instrumental portions of the song had been recorded, Brian thought Carl could impart the message better than he could.

Brian reflected in October 1966, “I gave the song to Carl because I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice. He brought dignity to the song and the words, through him, became not a lyric, but words” (From “Brian Behind The Beach Boys” Hit Parader 11, Oct. 4, 1966).

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These are some great examples of what can be gained when one lets go of “Absolute Great Man” control.

In recent years there have been many outstanding collaborative efforts, especially in the field of film and TV scoring. The score composed by Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman for the TV show Heroes is one of the most original-sounding and effective scores for TV I’ve heard, especially the first season. Another standout collaboration is the score by Peter Nashel and Eric Hachikian for the Netflix series Marco Polo. My collaboration with Chicago-based composer Renée Baker on the re-score of Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul screened at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art and Ebertfest in 2016; Renée’s score was performed by her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and is outstanding for its vibrant originality and free jazz style. In the pop arena, one super standout is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love. My favorite cut is “Apeshit” and the video kills it.

When we collaborate, we can also expand our audience.

So when we collaborate, not only do we create situations for a cross-pollination of musical ideas, but we can also expand our audience. A recording of one can certainly appeal to all of one’s established audience. However, collaboration among artists increases the potential and broadens that reach exponentially. I advocate for collaboration whenever possible. I have found the composer’s career to be a long, slow, and bumpy ride. It often helps to have some company at times. There is plenty of time for “solo” composing. I try to keep an open mind, and by all means possible, experiment! As Marcel Proust once commented, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” In this case, it’s “new ears”!

Sound, Architecture II: Fog, Ruins, and Ellington

My last post, “Sound, Architecture, and Necromancy,” shared thoughts about recording at ancient sites in Greece and Italy. This post examines the development of Lavender Ruins, a four-channel sound composition created in collaboration with artist Fujiko Nakaya and experimental lighting designer Shiro Takatani. (Lavender Ruins plays simulatneously with Nakaya’s fog sculpture Fog x Ruins at Franklin Park, Boston, through October 2018.)

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, curator Jen Mergel commissioned Nakaya to create five site-responsive fog sculptures to be installed along Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a five-and-a-half-mile chain of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO). Experiencing the sculptures is immersive and wet. Changes in the wind, humidity, temperature, and light transform the sculptures. Speaking of her work, Nakaya says, “The atmosphere is my mold and the wind is my chisel to sculpt in real time.” The exhibition, titled Fog x FLO: Fujiko Nakaya on the Emerald Necklace turns the 1,100-acre Emerald Necklace park system into a platform for artistic creation, celebrating both Olmsted’s foresight to connect the city with greenspace and Nakaya’s fifty-year practice. The exhibit included an open call for artists to propose on-site interventions, in response to Nakaya’s sculptures. Fog x FLO is a first for Boston and Nakaya’s most expansive exhibition in her 50-year career. It is expected to attract more than 800,000 visitors over twelve weeks.

I experienced Nakaya’s work before we ever met. In 2014, I wrote about the futuristic Pepsi Pavilion which was covered by a fog veil of Nakaya’s design and created by the group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) for Expo ’70, Osaka. In 2017, I saw Nakaya’s mesmerizing performance collaboration with Shiro Takatani, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and dancer Min Tanaka at Ten Days Six Nights at the Tate Modern. Nakaya also saw my performance with Phill Niblock the following day at the same festival. On the eve of her arrival in Boston from Tokyo in February 2018, Nakaya came to my concert at the ICA Boston called “Sounding the Cloud,” with Scanner and Stephen Vitiello. By April, when Nakaya again visited me, we already had a clear understanding of each other’s practice. She invited me to create sound for her Fog x FLO fog sculpture at the Overlook Shelter Ruins, a pavilion designed by Olmsted that was destroyed by fire in the 1940s, leaving only the stone remains.

Overlook Shelter stone steps

For me, the Overlook Shelter Ruins are the Necklace’s most evocative site for an installation. The remaining stone archway feels like a timeless relic. Three stairways that once flanked the building’s entrance now lead to open sky. The corner walls are overgrown with wild foliage. An added allure is that, beginning in 1966, the ruins were used by famed Bostonian Elma Lewis to host annual concerts by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I imagined the sound of Ellington’s reed section lingering in the air. Lead alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, both born within miles of the ruins, probably played with Ellington on-site. I’ve spent countless hours in Franklin Park and the nearby Arnold Arboretum. These are parks where I fell in love, taught my son to bike, and still visit to replenish myself. The commission became an opportunity to revisit the personal importance of Olmsted, Ellington, and E.A.T.

Nozzle array

The size of this installation, production logistics, and changing weather presented a number of challenges and opportunities. For Fog x Ruins, Nakaya designed a 96 x 40-foot rectangular structure comprising scaffolding and an array of 900 mist nozzles perched atop the perimeter. A nearby fire hydrant emits a 90-PSI stream of water, regulated by computer-controlled pumps, to produce cycles of fog that intensify for a minute or two and then stop entirely, allowing for the fog to dissipate. When visitors walk into this pavilion, they see their friends disappear in the mist, strangers emerge, a ceiling of fog above obscures the sky. Takatani’s lighting design gives the sculpture a spectacular presence as night falls.

Creating sound for a large outdoor installation has been a dream of mine for years. This installation was a challenge because there were a lot of unknowns, including elements that could not be tested until the sculpture was finished and I could hear my audio on location with the fog. I also knew that the timing of fog and light projections were subject to change, even after I finished the music.

As composing started, I sought to link Ellington and Nakaya’s work. I listened to related themes by Ellington, including Lady of the Lavender Mist, The Kissing Mist, Atmosphere (Moon Mist), A Blue Fog That You Can Almost See Through (Transblucency), and The Fog That Clouds It (Schwiphti). I chose the first three ethereal chords of Lady of the Lavender Mist as a point of departure for writing the music.

The Tank, a 65-foot-tall empty metal water treatment tank in Langley, Colorado

For this project, I booked a five-day recording session at the Tank, a 65-foot-tall empty metal water treatment tank in Langley, Colorado. The Tank has a convex floor, concave roof, cylindrical walls, and a 40-second reverb. A container just outside the Tank is outfitted with recording gear. The size of the Tank expands and contracts based on temperature changes. Heat, windstorms, howling dogs, and the noise of trucks dictated when I could record. However, when conditions were right, I heard saxophone notes linger in the cavernous space above like a cloud of sound, with specific harmonics coming in and out of focus. The room responds like an old band mate who knows your music well and plays your performance back in harmonic variations.

Engineer Bob E. Burnham came on the final day and set up four stereo pairs of microphones surrounding the saxophone. We multi-tracked both alto and tenor parts to get more of an ensemble sound. I thought of the audio recording process as something like a four-camera shoot. The four mics could be used to construct a 360-degree panoramic sound field, or used individually to highlight specific angles of listening. My thinking was to create a quadraphonic piece surrounding listeners inside the fog, where the alto saxophone played from one end of the sculpture and tenor played from the opposite side. Much of the actual sound of the saxophone would be edited out, and the resonant harmonies of multiple notes lingering in the Tank would be emphasized.

In the end, I composed a fifteen-minute quadraphonic piece to play at the Overlook Shelter Ruins. I used waterproof JBL speaker arrays placed in the four corners of the structure. There are no electronic effects on the saxophone and, as visitors wander freely inside the structure, there is no “best” listening point. In that way, the listening space is designed after my experience in the Tank.

At our first sound check, presenting the draft with pride, Nakaya responded, “It is so serene. Should I make the fog more serene?” At first, I admittedly took this to be her way of saying, “Not turbulent enough.” During the same auditions, Mergel pointed to the perimeter of the scaffolding where nozzles cut a line of fog upward and wondered if the sound could reflect the contrast of solid architectural shapes and soft ethereal droplets. Listening to Nakaya and Mergel, I added vignettes of impulsive computer-regulated clicking and noise bursts that gave a sense of turbulence, which Mergel equated with “an Arctic icebreaker cutting through.” In the end, Nakaya requested that the sound be extended from the originally planned sunset hours and be heard for the entire day as an “integral part” of the collaborative work. It also turned out that the music was not subordinate to the fog. As Nakaya noted, when the cloud is thickest, “the sound gives a form to the installation.”

Despite having done a number of outdoor projects, this was my first opportunity to create sound for a long-duration, outdoor piece in a widely accessible urban site. As much as any work I have been involved with, the audience is in dialog with the art. Some visitors return daily, while others make a single pilgrimage to the site. I hear them talk about their experience amongst themselves. As Mergel has noticed, “While Nakaya’s fog is set at the former roofline of the building to float like a cloud dome that fills the space, Leonard’s clarion sax sounds in Lavender Ruins reverberate on invisible walls, surrounding us with echoing generations of genius: of Olmsted, Ellington, Nakaya, and Leonard, the past and future fading into each other.”

Fujiko Nakaya and Neil Leonard

Fujiko Nakaya and Neil Leonard at the opening
Photo by Jen Mergel

Quotes are from an email exchange with the curator on Oct 7, 2018

Knowing the Characters in Your Opera, Literally

As a composer of vocal music—opera, choral, solo—I am always on the prowl for texts for vocal works and for stories which have potential as operas. Very often, as I read a novel or hear some fascinating true tale, my “operatic mind” starts imagining what the story would be like on stage with music, thinking about both the creative aspects (what opportunities are there for cool vocal ensembles in this story?) and practical ones (would this need too huge a cast to make it work as an opera?).

There are such a variety of types of stories that could conceivably be transformed by composers and librettists when creating an opera; many recent operas have been based on well-known movies or novels, or on recent events in history. But sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life—and the close personal connections in such stories can be significant in generating the emotional energy needed to create and present a new opera.

Sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life.

In addition to my life as a composer, I am also a synagogue cantor and have had the great privilege to be a part of the same vibrant community for the last 30 years—Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, New York. I knew from childhood that I wanted to be a composer and pianist, but it was only after several years of working as a cantor, while in graduate school as a composer, that I came to realize that I was so fortunate to find an occupation that is a profoundly meaningful complement to my composing life. Being a cantor combines my love of music, community, and spirituality. It allows me to sing in public every week, with room for improvisation, and for the deep expression of personal and communal emotions. Judaism has a rich tradition of poetry and storytelling that have inspired me in my composing of liturgical music, concert music, and opera.

My experience as a cantor has also taught me a lot about the power of music in a setting other than performance—the immediacy of reaching out to people with music (both as a soloist and as a leader of communal singing) that certainly is about the music, but is even more about our lived experience as a community. And, through my long connection to my congregation, with its diverse intergenerational population, I have gotten to know many wonderful people and have had the opportunity, both through music and in our personal relationships, to help them celebrate joyous occasions and to find ways to grieve in difficult times.

Two of the most remarkable people I had known since my first days in the community were Jaap and Ina Polak, who, like several other members of our congregation, were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Jaap and Ina were from Amsterdam. I gradually became more aware of their story as Jaap spoke to us about the Holocaust, his and Ina’s personal experiences in the concentration camps, and the need to learn from the example of the Holocaust so as to guard against all forms of discrimination and racism, as well as the importance of speaking out against these and other injustices.

In the 1970s, their daughter Margrit found in their attic and began translating the letters that Jaap and Ina had secretly passed to each other while imprisoned in the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Until this point, Jaap and Ina had not spoken much to their children about their painful concentration camp experiences. After this, they both began the process of relating their experiences, so much so that Jaap became a devoted Holocaust educator, speaking to groups, especially of schoolchildren, all around the U.S. In 2000 they published these letters, in a book entitled Steal a Pencil for Me. Director Michele Ohayan was inspired by the letters and their story to create a documentary film of the same title, which was released in 2007. This excellent documentary can be found on Netflix, but here is the trailer.

In reading the book and seeing the documentary, I realized that the story of my friends Jaap and Ina was more complicated than I had known. Jaap fell in love with Ina at first sight when they met at a friend’s birthday party before their internment—but Jaap, 30 years old, was already married. He and his wife Manja had a difficult marriage and were planning to eventually separate, but were staying together during the war to protect each other’s lives. Meanwhile, Ina, 20 years old, was deeply in love with her boyfriend Rudi—but Rudi had been seized in a raid by the Nazis, and Ina had no idea of his fate.

I am the child of immigrants—my parents both left Europe in the 1930s because of the threat of persecution and war. My mother lived through Kristallnacht in Germany as a teenager, and my father’s mother and many other relatives and friends were killed by the Nazis in Poland. So I had, over the years, given thought to writing an opera set during this time, but had not yet found the right tale to tell. Now, as I became more familiar with the biographies of Jaap and Ina I realized that a perfect operatic idea had been right under my nose for more than 20 years. Ina and Jaap Polak’s story was about intimate romantic complications between good people who were very clearly human, brave in their own way, but not heroic. Their personal narrative was set against the larger historical tragedy of the Holocaust, and so was a way of dramatizing that overwhelming historical period, while inspiring a strong connection to the main characters.

I called up Ina and Jaap to tell them I was interested in writing an opera about them. Their first reaction was great astonishment; then Jaap, who was 97 at the time, told me, “Well, write it quickly!”—he wanted to be sure to have a chance for them to see the opera!

Ina and Jaap

Ina and Jaap

My friend and mentor, the dramaturg Cori Ellison, suggested that playwright Deborah Brevoort would be an excellent collaborator for this project—Deborah and I were both recent alumni of the superb Composer-Librettist Development Project of American Lyric Theater. Deborah had many other projects going on, but once she read the letters, she felt that she must be part of telling this story as well.

Normally in writing an opera, one does not get a chance to have direct contact with its principal characters.

Then began one of the extraordinary parts of creating the opera. Normally in writing an opera, one does not get a chance to have direct contact with its principal characters (especially if they are fictional!). We, however, had the very special privilege of spending many hours speaking with Jaap and Ina, getting much rich detail about their lives, the world in which they grew up in Amsterdam before the war, and their experience of deprivation, loss, love, and hope while in the concentration camps. They spoke very openly and honestly about the emotional complications of their story. It was clear that Ina, 70 years later, still deeply felt the loss of her boyfriend Rudi—who had indeed been killed almost as soon as he was taken prisoner, though Ina did not know this until the end of the war. Jaap always had great affection for his first wife Manja, who also survived the war, and he and Ina kept in touch with her for the rest of Manja’s life. They told us about the details of life in Westerbork, where even in their imprisonment there was still a sham normalcy to life, but from where every Tuesday a group of prisoners were selected to be sent away “to the East” never to be heard of again; and about their life in Bergen-Belsen, where prisoners were made to stand each day for hours of endless and senseless roll calls, and many died of disease and from the effects of the hard labor that they were forced to perform.

Deborah and I worked on a scenario of the story, which Jaap and Ina approved, and then Deborah wrote the libretto. Our plan was to present the complete opera in a semi-staged concert version at our synagogue in the Spring of 2013, to celebrate Jaap’s 100th and Ina’s 90th birthdays. And since I only finally began the composition of the music in early 2012, I did indeed need to “write it quickly.” It was very inspiring, while writing the opera, to have regular contact with the “real” characters of the opera. Ina had, in spite of her 90 years, become a quite steady user of the internet, and I would quite often send her email questions about historical or personal details, which she quickly answered.

In writing the opera, I incorporated several musical ideas related to their Dutch and Jewish heritage, including a key scene in which the prisoners’ longing for freedom, while standing in endless roll calls at the concentration camp, is expressed through a collage of music built up from the chanting of the Torah passage about the Jews being freed from Egypt. An important consideration throughout the composition of the opera, both musically and dramatically, was balancing the romantic (and even comic) aspects of the story with the dramatic and tragic—this was a wonderful compositional challenge.

Writing an opera is a big challenge; getting an opera produced when it has not been commissioned by an opera company is another, and perhaps even bigger challenge.

The workshop semi-staged performances were performed in April 2013 at Shaarei Tikvah and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Cori Ellison again was key in this, acting as a casting director and finding a superb, dedicated cast, and in Ari Pelto, a superb conductor. And once again, the presence of the Polaks at this time transformed the process into something quite extraordinary.

The cast met them early in the rehearsals; Jaap and Ina told them many stories and totally charmed everyone (and Jaap flirted with the singers playing his two wives). At the performances, Jaap and Ina sat in the front row. There was a special electricity in room and emotions were heightened as they watched their story portrayed on stage, and for the performers, as they felt Jaap and Ina watching them. I saw Jaap weeping, not surprisingly, at a scene showing his parents being sent on a train to Auschwitz—a scene that he had often described in his talks.

Ilana Davidson, Ina and Jaap Polak,Gerald Cohen, and Robert Balonek

From left to right: Ilana Davidson (who sang the role of Ina), Ina and Jaap Polak,and Robert Balonek (who sang the role of Jaap) with the composer Gerald Cohen in the back.

Writing an opera is a big challenge; getting an opera produced when it has not been commissioned by an opera company is another, and perhaps even bigger challenge. We created this opera knowing that it would have this very special workshop performance, but with no specific path for it to have its premiere production. Ari Pelto, the conductor in 2013, found the opera compelling, and when he soon after became music director of Opera Colorado he championed our opera, and the company decided to mount the premiere production. (Opera Colorado, under the direction of Maestro Pelto and General Director Greg Carpenter, has lately shown a deep commitment to producing new works. The plan for the premiere gave us the opportunity for major revisions and an amended orchestration. As often is the case, the size of the pit determined the size of the orchestra; we decided on a chamber orchestra of 14 players: 6 winds, 6 strings, piano and percussion.)

I had so wanted Ina and Jaap to see the opera in its fully produced form, but unfortunately, Ina and Jaap were no longer alive. Ina, who was a radiant, young 90-year old at our 2013 performance, developed cancer the next year and died in 2014; Jaap died at age 102 in 2015. I am so grateful that they were able to experience the workshop performances.

The Opera Colorado production in January 2018 was everything that Deborah and I could have dreamed for in a premiere production of the opera, with the brilliant musical and directorial leadership of Ari Pelto and Omer Ben Seadia, the beautiful and haunting sets and projections by Francois-Pierre Couture and Hana Kim, and the evocative costumes of Jessica Jahn. The lead roles (Jaap, Ina, and Manja) were movingly portrayed by Gideon Dabi, Inna Dukach, and Adriana Zabala. Opera Colorado’s decision to produce the opera in the 400-seat Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center meant that this staging was a very intimate and immediate experience for the audience, which felt very appropriate for this opera.

A scene from the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me depicting prisoners at Bergen-Belsen (Photo by Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado)

A scene from the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me depicting prisoners at Bergen-Belsen (Photo by Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado)

Though Ina and Jaap were not able to be present for the production in Denver, their daughter Margrit, who had first brought the letters to light, was there, and spoke at several panel discussions we had in conjunction with the performances. Her presence gave the audiences there the chance to deepen their connection to her parents’ story.

The generation of survivors is growing old, and fairly soon it will be up to subsequent generations to continue to share and remember.

For those Holocaust survivors who have felt able to share their experiences publicly, the motivation is usually to bear witness to what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, so that their stories would be passed on—among other reasons, in hope that this could not happen again. Deborah and I, and so many others, had the great privilege of knowing Jaap, Ina, and other survivors of the Holocaust, but the generation of survivors is growing old, and fairly soon it will be up to subsequent generations to continue to share and remember. We hope that our opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with its tale of everyday survival in the course of the horror of war and imprisonment, and its special origins from a deep personal connection with its main characters, will help to continue to pass on the lessons of that time, the humanity of those who suffered through it, and the memory of those who lost their lives.

Margrit Polak (center) with composer Gerald Cohen (left) and librettist Deborah Brevoort (right) on opening night of the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me

Margrit Polak (center) with composer Gerald Cohen (left) and librettist Deborah Brevoort (right) on opening night of the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me.

Comments from Margrit Polak, daughter of Jaap and Ina Polak:

Being at the first opera workshop with my parents in 2013 was a life highlight for me. My father was fairly deaf then so he followed the libretto with his finger, looking up and down between his reading glasses and the stage. I had the feeling it was a life fulfillment for him. The movie gave him so much, but he was an opera lover and felt that opera was the perfect conduit to express the horrors of the concentration camps because of its permission to be big and bold.

With the generations of survivors slowly diminishing the stories must be kept alive, and my mom and dad’s is unique. These are dark times again. We hope they don’t turn darker, but hope keeps us going, as it did them. And it’s a beautiful reminder that love and optimism and life passion can keep you vital even in the darkest times.

Gerald has worked tirelessly to bring the opera to a wider audience and has refined that work to a point where I just hope and pray that it can have many, many more stagings, reaching a large platform of people. And hopefully, it will bring opera into the lives to some who hadn’t appreciated it before. It is such a beautiful work.

How We Pick Rep and Keep Surprising Our Audiences

How does my string quintet Sybarite5 pick the music we play?

People ask me this all the time.

First of all, it’s important to know a little about how we program and perform. We program in modular fashion. What do I mean by this? Selections are usually three to eight minutes long, so we have great flexibility. It’s easy for us to slip newer works and experiments in and out of a set. This also allows us to tweak programs on the road. Much like a rock band, there’s an element of excitement and surprise in not knowing exactly what’s next, and we use that to create dynamic concert events as much as possible. If someone writes us a 30 to 50 minute piece, chances are slim we’ll play it often. Sometimes composers send us multi-movement works, and often we treat each movement as its own piece.

This happened recently with a new piece written for us by the just-announced 2018 Pulitzer finalist Michael Gilbertson. We commissioned a three-movement, 20 minute work using awarded funding from BMI and Concert Artists Guild. Once we got the music, we realized it was just going to be too much for one show. We decided that the best way to premiere the piece was to break it into three separate works—Endeavor, Outliers, and Collective Wisdom—and to premiere each piece individually over the course of 18 months or so. At first we were freaked out by the idea of splitting it up, but once we talked with the composer, we realized what a blessing it was. This gave us three world premieres to talk about instead of one, while also providing the space to get to know the composer and the flexibility to experiment with his music over a longer period of time. I believe wholeheartedly this approach gave us more focused and higher-level performances, all the while fitting with our modular program. (Wanna hear it? We’re premiering Endeavor on May 3 at the cell theatre in NYC. Event info here.)

Also important to know: all of the works on a Sybarite5 concert are announced from the stage. Anyone who knows me knows I feel strongly about this. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the last thing I want an audience member to be doing is checking a program for what’s coming up next or studying how to spell the composers’ names. I want them 100% listening and watching, not reading and researching. I want them in the moment with us as much as possible. We do recognize that the composers are VERY important to us and our fans, so we publish our setlists with precise titles, composer names, and links on our blog right after each show. That way, people can get the info they need without being distracted during the show. Here’s an example.

Also, everyone in the ensemble speaks with the audience. This also gives us a chance to talk about the music, what it means to us personally, and where the audience can find it directly.

Don’t worry, we don’t leave our audience completely in the dark. Our printed program generally describes the show and mentions key composer names. Here’s an example:

Outliers: Sybarite5 is always on the lookout for new tunes and composers that speak with a unique and relevant voice. Outliers is a celebration of works written for us by our favorite composers and friends we’ve made traveling the world performing music we love. Sybarite5 plays the music of its friends Andy Akiho, Shawn Conley, Jessica Meyer, Marc Mellits, Brandon Ridenour, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Steven Snowden, and Dan Visconti paired with the group’s favorite works of Armenian folk music, Piazzolla, Barber, and Radiohead.

Regarding talking with the audience, I want to be clear here: I believe in engagement before information, so we don’t give a lecture about sonata form OR the polyrhythmic structures in our music. That is not gonna happen at our shows. Why? Because ~93% of the population does not want to hear about that; they cannot actually process that information in a performance-enhancing way.

Only 7% of Americans are in the “art club.” Meaning they self-identify as people with the arts as a central part of their lives and identity, and function according to understandings and abilities its members have developed. We make two big mistakes in trying to expand the reach of art beyond the club members: 1. We make false assumptions that those not in the Club think and function the same way as people in the Club, and they don’t. For example, we assume everyone can read a composer’s bio in a program and turn that into an enhanced experiencing of the performance—that is usually true for Art Club members, but not true of those not in the club. I based it on several studies from the UK, Canada and the U.S.—psychographic research mostly, but the interpretation is not a hard research finding, but interpretation. 2. We focus way too high a percentage of our creative energies on the Club, to keep them happy, to prevent anything they might find unsettling. Eric Booth

I agree with Eric. At best 7% know the difference between terms like baroque, classical, romantic, neo-classical, minimalism, serialism, or Gustav Mahler vs. Antonio Vivaldi.   So the minute you use a term such as “rondo,” “looping,” “allegro,” or “G major,” you lose 93% of the audience! No bueno. So, we often speak about what the music means to us personally, or—if there is one—tell a story about how the music came into our repertoire. We rarely talk about what the music is literally about because I want the audience to decide for themselves. At the end of the night, the audience leaves knowing us and the music better. In the end, I find this to be a powerful performance tool. And it also means we need to know the music and the composers on a more profound level.

Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

To much energy for the camera to capture: Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

How do we select our rep? Sometimes we have loose parameters, simply deciding it would make a great opener or a great closer. Sometimes a piece just speaks to us or fits like a glove. Sometimes it’s a very personal experience, and I like that aspect of it because it tends to give deeper meaning to our programming.

Truthfully, there’s really only one way we can add new rep: we do it together and in person. We read it together. We play through it in person. Sometimes we talk about what it means to us as individuals and what it may mean for our ensemble. Sometimes it’s a short talk; sometimes it’s a long discussion. There is trust involved. I have to respect my colleagues. I have to believe that if they are going to bring an idea or composer to the table, it’s important to them, and therefore important to the artistic growth of our ensemble.

Is this a quick process? No. Often it takes six months to two years before we can read a new work. Part of this is due to our huge pile of “to consider” music. Also, our touring schedule can be insane.

Do we have an open call for scores? Nope. Should you just send us music out of the blue? Probably not, unless you’ve got some mad street cred, or <gasp> we know each other. So, get to know us or have a mutual friend introduce us.

Before I end this post and as a reflection of how our ensemble actually works together, I wanted to include some thoughts on repertoire choices from the other people in Sybarite5. In the spirit of our collaborative efforts, here are some quotes from my bandmates:

Sami Merdinian, violin

Choosing new rep is one of the most thrilling aspects of being in Sybarite5. We look into composers that have a unique voice, that have a fresh and visionary approach, that are interested in expanding sounds and techniques for us, that are willing to grow and develop together during the collaborative process.

A lot of the composers that we end up choosing are acquaintances or friends, and they are aware of the programming we do, so seamlessly we incorporate their works into our repertoire. I feel mutual admiration ends up being a key component for a successful commission.

Laura Metcalf, cello

The musicians of Sybarite5 choose our repertoire in the most organic way possible: we play the music that we love. When considering composers with whom we build relationships, we look for a unique, authentic voice, and an aesthetic that makes sense with the rest of our programming. Many of the works we end up loving and playing again and again are by our instrumentalist friends who are new to composing – we don’t look for the most accomplished composers “on paper,” but rather find sounds that resonate with us.

Angela Pickett, viola

If I discover a piece that I love and that I think would complement the other works in our current rotation, I’ll bring it to the group. Recently this was Josef Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas”, op.35a, which is a rich and lush romantic work with versions for string orchestra and string quartet. Had the idea of a string quintet been popular in Suk’s time, I don’t think he would have objected to a third version!

Sarah Whitney, violin

In SYB5, we love to surprise our audiences. Since we don’t have a library of existing repertoire to choose from for string quintet, we get to create our own repertoire with very few rules. I bring music to the group that is unusual and engages an audience in a new way. We challenge the definition of classical music, and it’s even better if we can present something in a way that’s never been done before.

(Okay Ladies Now Let’s Get) In Formation

Three years after the events in question, I wrote a song cycle about the arrest and trial of members of Pussy Riot. Even as I did so, it seemed both ill-timed and too late. It had been two years since I had written my opera about the housing bubble crisis, however, and I felt like my overall output (especially my political output) had been pathetic. Plus, I wanted to write something cool and distantly relevant for the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, a female a cappella quartet that commissions new music.

My introduction to Quince came through soprano Liz Pearce. I met Liz at the 2012 Bowling Green New Music & Art Festival thanks to my friend Jonn Sokol, who had recently written a piece for Kayleigh Butcher, another member of the group. He mentioned that Liz liked singing contemporary works, and since I liked writing vocal works, maybe some kind of collaboration would hopefully work out. (Actually I was hoping something would work out, too.)

Later on Liz asked if she could stage my Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens during the 2014 BGSU MicrOpera show. I enthusiastically said yes, and she staged a brilliant show. I loved working with her, and she loved working with me, and I told her that I would love to work with her again, and that maybe I could write something for Quince. (More like, I strongly hinted that I would like to write something for Quince.)

It was good timing—they were looking for new repertoire at that time, so I quickly texted my librettist Kendall A and asked if she would be interested in a project. She responded with “Pussy Riot song cycle” and I instantly Facebook-messaged Liz.

Me: HOLY S***. Librettist is leaning toward basing a piece off the Pussy Riot story in Russia.

Liz: Hyperventilation commence AWESOME

So we began work on this piece in 2015. Granted, I thought maybe my librettist and I were three years too late: three years after Vladimir Putin was re-elected despite widespread accusations of vote-rigging; three years after Pussy Riot released “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away”; and three years after Pussy Riot was put on trial, deemed “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, and sentenced to serve two years in a penal colony. A year later, Vladimir Putin signed a bill imposing jail terms and fines for—get this—insulting people’s religious feelings.

But I still wrote the piece. My librettist wrote eight poems, and I told her how cool I thought it would be to juxtapose songs influenced by punk music (since Pussy Riot is a punk-rock band) and those influenced by church motets (since Pussy Riot was arrested in a church). She tinkered with her words. I listened to The Clash and Hildegard for inspiration. And so, the song cycle Prisoner of Conscience was born.

I’m proud of this work, despite its lateness. It was one of those pieces that needed to be written, even if Pussy Riot had started to fade in our political memories. I didn’t care, and I was able to get funding from my institution to record this song cycle. But Quince was told by a record label that the song cycle was no longer relevant; nobody cared about Pussy Riot anymore. Ultimately Quince found a record label, and fortunately the album will be released on April 6 of this year.

In the back of my mind, I couldn’t quite fathom how Kendall was able to come up with the idea of the Pussy Riot Song Cycle so quickly, especially since this idea came about two years after they were front and center in our political consciousness, so I asked her. It turns out she had been following the punk band for years, way before they were arrested and put on trial. She was fascinated with the elaborate stagings of their anti-Putin protests and how they were drawing huge attention with these performances. And Kendall thought that’s what both art and punk should be about—if your surrounding overarching hierarchy is so corrupt, your art should find a way to cut through that. So when members of Pussy Riot were brought to trial, Kendall wanted to create art in honor of the spirit of the punk group, especially since they went as far as to sacrifice their own freedoms to expose the degradation of freedoms around them. She was thinking about writing an opera libretto about this and producing this show with NANOWorks Opera, but she felt that the timing wasn’t right and was waiting for an opportunity to share this work at the national level. It needed to be done right.

Now that we live in a time where there are rumors of Russia meddling with U.S. elections and the White House is doling out Fake News Awards, the piece is surprisingly relevant again. (I never thought it would be, nor did I want it to be.) Maybe my initial timing was off in creating this piece, but what I do know is this—we creators have been tasked with creating art. And if we creators are present and attuned to what is happening, we as global citizens will speak up via our music for what is right and just. If you are waiting for the right moment, the right moment is now.

I was going to give a few examples of what performers and composers have been creating in the past year, politically speaking. I was going to mention how Laura Dixon Strickling has been raising money via her recitals to support hurricane recovery awareness, since the government hasn’t helped out much. I was going to point out the Thompson Street Opera company’s production of Joshua Bornfield and Catlin Vincent’s Uncle Alex, an opera about immigrants coming to America, and note a performance of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit along the US-Mexico Border. But when I asked my friends via social media what music they have been creating since the 2016 November election, the response was overwhelming—it looks like you guys have been creating art this entire time.

You all have been so enthusiastic and forthcoming about your current projects that I thought the best place for this forum (outside of my Facebook wall) is via this database. Here is a public forum where we can share our works, and share with performers who also want to express how they are feeling during this time. Through our works and performances, we can be aware of what is going on around us, breathe, and collectively create something beautiful.

Tearing Down The Wall

All of us, as composers, have origin stories.  For some, it may have been one cathartic moment when the light bulb snapped on and you knew what you were going to be.  For others, it may have been an accretion of experiences, of formative musical events that added up to being a composer.  Or, if you’re like me, it may have been a series of revelatory moments, like an unseen hand guiding you down a path—to where, you may not have known until you got there.

Baitz playing a guitar and leaning on the back of a van in Durban in 1972

Baitz in Durban in 1972

In 1972, when I was seventeen, I got a job as a deckhand on the Bontebok, a dredger operating out of Durban Harbour in South Africa.  I’d moved to Durban from L.A. with my parents and younger brother earlier that year; my dad was transferred by his multinational employer, the Carnation Company, to manage their South African branch.  From the start, South Africa seemed completely bizarre.  From the moment we stepped off the plane, with “slegs blankes” (whites only) signs directing you to the terminal, every single action and interaction reinforced the impression that this was a country consumed by a collective mental illness.  Apartheid, a kind of race-based slavery enforced by a byzantine series of laws, governed every aspect of everyone’s life.  It was illegal for “Europeans” (their term for whites) to socialize in any way with “non-whites,” comprising tribal Africans, “Coloreds” (those of mixed race), or “Asians” (those of Indian or Pakistani ancestry).  Strangely, though, since non-whites made up the enormous working class that supported the Europeans’ comfortable lifestyles, there was a lot of interaction between races—although most of it was governed by our economic and social positions.  I felt uncomfortable all the time there, especially having spent two years, from the age of 14 to 16, living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which, although by no means free of racial inequity, was as miscegenated and passionate a culture as South Africa’s was segregated and repressed.

On my first day on the Bontebok, a Zulu deckhand who spoke almost no English was assigned to show me the ropes.  The black deckhands actually lived on the boat; the whites showed up at a launch on Durban Harbour at 6:45 a.m. every morning to be ferried across the bay to the dredger, which would cast off at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, to spend the day on the water, dredging the seaways so that larger ships could pass into and through the harbor.  My silent teacher showed me how to place the fenders that hung from the side of the boat, to put the giant anchors on the foredeck into gear and operate the motors that lowered them to the sea floor, to swab the deck, to paint (and re-paint) the chimneys and vents that were placed throughout the boat, and tie a bow-line, which I had trouble with.  Nonetheless, a day came when I had “graduated,” and instead of continuing with his instruction, my maritime mentor stood to the side and just stared at me, waiting.  I remember asking his supervisor—the boat-tribe’s Zulu “chieftain” named Silas—what I should be doing, and he said, “Tell him what to do.”  Now that I knew the job, my role became that of the boss, and my responsibility was to order my former teacher to perform the tasks he had taught me.  That’s how distorted that place was.

Up on the foredeck, I was put in charge of the anchors, which was kind of a big responsibility.  I would spend my free time there, while we were out in the middle of the harbor dredging, watching Silas, who carried a whip, cursing and pretending to whip the Zulu deckhands, while they would pretend to run away from him in fake terror.  They knew how to have a good time on that boat.  But mostly, I was alone up there at the front of the ship, surrounded by the sea with the hills of Durban in the background, watching the gulls battle for air supremacy and the dolphins frolic in the waves.  It was during one of those solitary moments when I had a kind of auditory epiphany.  We were anchored in the middle of the harbor for a few hours, sucking up clay from the seabed.  I was sitting in the sun.  On the shore, miles away, the dry dock’s ceiling cranes whined in a kind of overlapping polyphonic stereo filter sweep; nearby, the gulls were singing their war cries; and on the boat, the Zulu workers were hammering in a strange, repetitive, asymmetrical syncopation.  It was a true, 360-degree multi-textured composition, replete with ambient motion, polyrhythmic grooves, and exotic melody.  Of course at that time I had no vocabulary to describe it—I’d not yet heard of John Cage—but I sat in sensory amazement, thinking, “This is music!”

When not working, I spent most of my time with the Fataar family, playing rock ‘n’ roll.  Steve Fataar had recently arrived back in Durban after several years in L.A., leading his rock band The Flame, made up of himself and his two brothers Ricky Fataar and Brother Fataar, and Durban musician Blondie Chaplin.  The Fataar family are Malay—yet another racial distinction, stamped “M” in their passbooks—and lived in the “Colored” section of Durban.  (All non-whites were required to carry a “passbook” at all times, declaring their race and what neighborhoods they were allowed to enter.)

The Flame had made it about as big as you could in South Africa—in fact, they were kind of like the Beatles of South Africa in the late ‘60s and had decamped to London where they were discovered by Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys.  The Beach Boys took the Flame to L.A. and set them up in a big house at the top of Outpost Drive in the Hollywood Hills.  The Flame became the Beach Boys’ opening act and toured with them, recording on their label, Brother Records.  When The Flame broke up, Ricky and Blondie joined the Beach Boys (about 1971); Steve Fataar moved back to Durban where I met him in early 1972.  We hit it off and suddenly I was breaking the law with every breath I took, hanging out in the Colored district with Steve and a group of amazing musicians of all races  and playing music all day.

Baitz with Steve Fataar in Durban, 1972

Baitz with Steve Fataar in Durban, 1972

This friendship continues to the present day.  When I came back to the States I became friendly with Blondie and Ricky, and as I became a composer, have been fortunate to be able to work with them from time to time, occasionally contracting Blondie—in between his tours with the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and most recently, Brian Wilson—to play guitar and/or sing on my theater or film scores.  He’s got those African styles down cold.

Here’s the theme to Heart of Africa, a National Geographic mini-series I scored in 1996, with lyrics (in Swahili and Kirundi) sung by Blondie Chaplin:

Later in 1972, I made my way to Georgetown University, where the Jesuits fed me loads of science, philosophy, and theology (and where I learned about Taoism and Buddhism for the first time; it was worth it just for that)—but no music.  So finally, at the age of 20, I hit the reset button, ending up at the Manhattan School of Music where I got my bachelor’s and master’s in composition.  There, I began to feel the barest inkling of an aspiration that animates my creative energy to this day: that of becoming a whole musician.  By “whole musician,” I mean one who can function in multiple settings: the chamber ensemble, the recording studio, the orchestra, the jazz ensemble, the rock band.  One who can compose in varied idioms without diluting the authenticity of his or her own voice.  One who has professional skills as a player, producer, arranger, editor, orchestrator, engineer, even as a copyist and composer.  And whose music is meaningful and provocative in all situations.  Of course, this goal is the journey of a lifetime: the joy of being a composer is that you never really get there.  Or perhaps better put: the journey is the destination.  And in that sense, it’s a gift to be a composer.

The joy of being a composer is that you never really get there.

As an undergrad at MSM, I scored a few short films, but ultimately got caught up in my conservatory studies and left film music behind in 1980.  I had a fledgling voice as a composer, very much trying to process the cathartic feelings I’d had in Brazil, hearing 100,000 people playing and dancing samba in the streets during Carnaval, and in South Africa, with its earth-rumbling, emotionally transformative percussive, vocal and township music.  But as a classical composer, studying with the ambient electronic composer Elias Tanenbaum, then with Charles Wuorinen and Ursula Mamlock, and later with George Perle at Tanglewood, and Mario Davidovsky and Jack Beeson at Columbia, I was pretty much surrounded by modernism, which intrigued me for its coloristic and harmonic complexity and variety. I was open to everything, yet most, if not all, of my concert music had Brazilian and South African patterns in it, even the serial pieces.

Starting in the late 1980s, my younger brother Jon Robin (“Robbie”) Baitz, who is a playwright, invited me to provide incidental music to several of his theatrical productions.  Like me, he was processing his expatriate childhood in his art and several of his plays took place in Africa and other tropical locations.  This gave me a chance to directly channel many of the influences that I absorbed while living in Durban and Rio.  Here’s the overture to his play A Fair Country, produced at New York City’s Naked Angels Company in 1994; kudos to the amazing mbira playing of Martin Scherzinger, Thuli Dumakude’s heartbreaking Zulu vocals, and Cyro Baptista’s tasteful percussion work:

In 1991, just as I was finishing my DMA at Columbia, I scored Robbie’s PBS teleplay Three Hotels (which won the Humanitas Award, and was later produced as a stage play at New York’s Circle Repertory Co.).  By then I was really getting the bug for composing for drama, especially the screen, and that year I took the BMI Film Scoring Workshop in Los Angeles, taught by the eminence grise Earle Hagan (who had not only composed, but whistled, the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show).  And I came to a couple big decisions.  Despite my newly minted doctorate, I hadn’t gone to Columbia for the teaching credential; I’d actually gone to learn and be inspired. In fact, this was at the height of the updown-vs.-downtown culture wars, and I wasn’t completely at home with the judgmentalism that at times hovered around the new music world.  Even though my composition teachers mostly gave me space to explore my own path of integrating folkloric elements into concert music, most of them just didn’t really speak that language.  Inasmuch as my concert music was, and is, formally within the classical tradition (and was suitably complex for my teachers’ cerebral inclinations), I received some encouragement, but—with a few notable exceptions—true nurturing was hard to come by.  Instead, I sensed a kind of repressed disenchantment within academia, as if its composers secretly regretted that the world didn’t shower them with acclaim and riches. So while finishing my doctorate, I wasn’t sanguine about the prospects of battling for academic stature as a life path, and I was enjoying scoring for film and theater.  I determined that I would go all-in, throwing my hat into film music and seeing if I could survive.

I sensed a kind of repressed disenchantment within academia, as if its composers secretly regretted that the world didn’t shower them with acclaim and riches.

The other important decision I made, contemporaneous with my first TV broadcast of Three Hotels, was to join BMI.  I will not, in this forum, belabor the eternal debate in our community about whether ASCAP or BMI (or SESAC) is the better choice.  Honestly, after all these years, no one has been able to definitively say which one will support you more or make you more money.  I do know this: at about that time, Ralph Jackson, then the head of BMI’s concert music division, took me to lunch and said, “I don’t care which one you join, but just join one, now.”  And that is what I tell everyone who asks me the same question. I know people in both organizations and they are all really cool.  At the time I took BMI’s film scoring workshop, I began to develop close ties with the people within their film and concert music divisions, and they have remained extraordinarily supportive throughout my career.

For example, while hanging out at BMI’s L.A. offices in the spring of 1991, Doreen Ringer-Ross, head of their film music department, suggested that I return in August of that year, and she would introduce me to people in the film music industry.  But when I showed up in August for my meetings, Doreen was nowhere to be found.  Even the people at BMI didn’t know where she was.  I cooled my jets for three days until I found out that she was in the hospital giving birth to her daughter Chelsea.  When she heard I was in L.A. for my meetings, she dictated 10 letters to studio music department heads and music supervisors from her hospital bed, signed them and had them faxed out.  And I had my meetings.

Rick Baitz and 12 others at the BMI Earle Hagen Film Composers Workshop

Rick Baitz (far left bottom row) at the BMI Earle Hagen Film Composers Workshop in 1991. Also pictured (L-R, bottom) are: Bruce Babcock, Earle Hagen, and BMI’s Doreen Ringer-Ross, plus (top row) Jonathan Sacks, Steve Chesne, Danny Nolan, Ann Moore, Wyn Meyerson, Steve Edwards. Daniel Freiberg, engineer Rick Lindquist, and Jim Legg.

In 1991, I knew that being a composer for media would entail a huge learning curve, and I would have to devote myself to it pretty much exclusively if I wanted to get anywhere.  It was not that I was giving up concert music, but that I was ready to bet on myself to the extent that I could afford to take a hiatus from concert composing while building my film music career.  I also knew that I needed access to the technology and to a studio.  Fortuitously, right around that time I met a composer with a very extensive studio, who needed arrangers for a huge recording project he was producing.

Buryl Red was a unique person; in one side of his life he was a luminary in the Christian music community as a vocal and orchestral composer and conductor—but he wore many other hats.  He had worked as an orchestrator, and eventually, a producer, on Broadway.  And in his capacity as a music producer, he was directing a massive educational recording project of ethnic folk songs for children, Silver Burdette’s The Music Connection (later called Making Music): 160 CDs worth of songs; 1600 tracks in all, with new editions every five years.  Buryl put together a team of arrangers and producers, and built up a studio that wrapped around three apartments at the top of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper.  There, we worked non-stop, churning out folkloric recordings from every locale on the planet.  Along with Jeanine Tesori, Mick Rossi, Joseph Joubert, and other talented musicians, I learned how to arrange, record, engineer, edit, and mix music, and worked on hundreds, if not thousands, of tracks from 1992 into the early 2000s.  Buryl also tossed us some film work that came his way, allowing me to further hone my film scoring chops.

Meanwhile I embarked on an intense self-study, choosing several composers whose work interested me: Thomas Newman (whose score to The Player was like lightening striking), Jerry Goldsmith (what a joy to revisit Our Man Flint, Chinatown, and Basic Instinct), and many others.  I kept a sketchbook where I transcribed themes and took notes on the films I watched. I was particularly taken by alternative, non-traditional approaches to film scoring, from Zbigniew Preisner’s scores to Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, to Tôn-Thât Tiêt’s atonal Vietnamese soundtrack to Scent of Green Papaya.  Even back in the 1990s, I found that there were examples of composers who brought a fresh, original approach to film scoring—and a significant number, like Toru Takemitsu, who maintained careers in both film and concert music.  I counted Takemitsu, whose music I love, as my model on how to live as a composer.

In between deadlines researching, arranging, and producing recordings of folk tunes from Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, Polynesia, South Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Native America, I took on several short films to score, mostly pro bono, just to learn.  One such collaboration was with Caroline Kava, who I had met at the Edward Albee Foundation in 1983 when she was in residence as a playwright.  She also had a successful career as an actress for stage and screen, but had returned to school for an MFA in film; in fact, she was at the Columbia University School of the Arts, as I had been.  The film division was right downstairs from the music division, although in typical siloed fashion, the two programs didn’t talk to one another.  After graduating, I returned to the School of the Arts to put up signs at the film division, asking if any graduate filmmakers needed a composer, and Caroline got back in touch.  Our first of three collaborations, Polio Water, won her the IFC Grand Prize and the Princess Grace award.  It was about a girl who grew up above a funeral parlor during the polio epidemic of the early 1950s.  This is an example of a partnership with a filmmaker who really understood music.  Caroline taught me, among other things, that you could have random-length, aperiodic sustained tones as background; that the Bach cello suites make great getting-stuff-done music; and that the Agnus Dei of a Requiem Mass just repeats the same text over and over.

The film division was right downstairs from the music division, although in typical siloed fashion, the two programs didn’t talk to one another.

Here’s the Agnus Dei from Polio Water, with Beth Blankenship’s heavenly vocals:

Between the music for my brother’s plays and films, the short films I was scoring, and, especially, the ethnic folk tunes I’d been arranging, by 1993 I had a strong demo reel to pass out to filmmakers.  That year, Doreen Ringer-Ross came to New York for the Independent Feature Film Market (now called IFP Film Week), which takes place every fall.  There, she passed on my cassette tape to a film music supervisor who happened to be married to a National Geographic executive producer, who happened to be looking for a classical composer who could do African music.  Suddenly, I had my first high-profile gig: Nat Geo’s upcoming special, The New Chimpanzees.

At that point I began to almost live at Buryl’s studio (much to the ambivalent tolerance of my wife, who was still getting used to my insanely long hours).  Sometimes I would leave the studio and walk around Manhattan, or sit in a coffee shop, trying to invoke some kind of inspiration and drum up a music cue in my head.  It was during one of those walks that I started imagining a guitar theme, based on a repetitive slowed-down version of a Buddhist chant my older brother Jeff used to do.  (Inspiration can come from strange places.)  I turned my memory of that sutra into an African guitar pattern, and I had a start on The New Chimpanzees.  Much of the film took place in Congo, and I listened to a lot of Central African music as preparation and inspiration.  I hired the great New York session musician Kevin Kuhn, who had played guitar on virtually all of the songs from Buryl’s project, to handle the guitar parts.  But as my deadline approached, I wasn’t quite done.  I had one more day, and it was going to take an all-nighter to make it.  As I worked into the night, Buryl periodically came in to see how I was doing.  Eventually I realized he wasn’t going home either—Buryl stayed in the studio all night just to give me moral support.  The next day, the director called and told me that she’d bought me yet another day.  It turned out I needed it.  The music was very detailed and completion was coming too slowly.  I worked throughout the next day, and into the night, on no sleep.  I realized I was going to have to pull another all-nighter to get this thing done.  So I did: I pulled two all-nighters in a row.  And, amazingly, Buryl stayed the next night too, hanging out in his office, occasionally stopping into the little garret studio I had made my home, giving an approving listen.  At 6:00 a.m. on that last day, he finally saw that I was going to be all right and headed off to catch some rest.  And I made my extended deadline.

Buryl Red’s and Doreen Ringer Ross’s acts of good will are examples I carry with me every day.  Those moments were turning points in my career.  And I learned, and re-learned, that nobody can do this alone.  We need help to move forward in life.  Now, as an educator, a mentor, and an experienced composer, I pass on Buryl’s and Doreen’s generosity to the next generation, and try, when I can, to go that extra kilometer for those who need it.  I know that such a gift is priceless.

Nobody can do this alone. We need help to move forward in life.

I found, over time, that composing for film is as personally rewarding as writing concert music, although film music has definite unique challenges.  You have to have strong studio skills for film music jobs, including being able to sing or demonstrate your intentions to players, if, for some reason, they’re not apprehending its intent on the written page.  (Or, if they don’t read music.)  It’s helpful to have lots of harmonic, metric, and rhythmic tools in your toolbox; a delicate and unerring sense of timing; and the ability to adjust to the demands of multiple styles.

One example: in 2000, the director Geoffrey Nauffts asked me to quickly score the opening to his short film Baby Steps, starring him and Kathy Bates.  The directive: a funny, slightly Latino version of the James Bond theme. (Thanks to the amazing violinist Todd Reynolds and extraordinary sax player Andrew Sterman):

At its best, film music transcends any distinction between genres.

I once mentioned to the composer Michael Giacchino, who I met while sitting in on a scoring session for the TV show Lost, that while the form of concert music is self-generating, in that a composition develops out of its own materials, the form of film music is governed by the structure of the film itself.  “Yeah,” he answered, “but the best thing is when it can do both.” And I agree. While there may be formal differences between film and concert music, the challenge of film music is to make it work as music.  As Giacchino said, at its best, film music transcends any distinction between genres.  From Bernard Herrmann’s 1958 score to Vertigo, whose bitonal opening arpeggios in contrary motion, with polymetric texture, pre-date minimalism by years, to Mica Levi’s layered electric viola clusters in 2013’s Under The Skin, film music is a place where unique musical juxtapositions have a home.  And I have found that it is a place where I can do what I love, getting my music played, recorded, and heard by many in the process.

Requited Music: Anatomy of a Scoring Gig

I’m writing this in mid-December, on Opening Day of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.  The museum has been in the news a lot recently.  Years in the planning, developing, and building, it takes visitors on a comprehensive voyage through the devastating, sobering and yet at times uplifting stories of those who dedicated their lives to the fight for equality for all Americans, regardless of race.  Some, such as Medgar Evers, sacrificed their lives. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is a place to learn the history of those who preceded us in the ongoing struggle against racial tyranny and to pay homage to their courage as we continue the battle to this day.

Monadnock’s style was about the closest marriage between music and picture I’d encountered in over two decades of film composing.

In July 2016, I received a call from Monadnock Media asking if I’d be interested in scoring one of their short films intended for the soon-to-be-opened museum.  I had, in May 2016, completed my first assignment for Monadnock: the score to a film to be perpetually screened in the media room at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.  That film, titled 24 Hours That Changed History, is intense, with multiple simultaneous images flashing by for a few seconds at most; it is a concentrated, informative history of American military conflict from WWI to the present, with the attack on Pearl Harbor as the centerpiece. The entire story flies by within seven minutes.  My work was highly detailed and quite precise, and it was subjected to multiple layers of revision before a total meeting of the minds between composer and producer was established.  But the collaboration was ultimately a success.  It was a process for me to learn Monadnock’s style, both in terms of scoring and in terms of filmmaking.  Scoring-wise, it was about the closest marriage between music and picture I’d encountered in over two decades of film composing.  Notes and phrases had to fall within pauses in the voice-over, and the music had to dance in lockstep with the constantly transforming, evolving narrative.  Even the tightly scored National Geographic specials I composed in the 1990s and 2000s—with the rustling of the African trees accompanied by similarly sibilant-sounding cymbal crashes—could not compare with the molecular detail this assignment required.  As a film, the piece felt like a cross between documentary and branding: moving at speed, but telling a true story with a strong affective undercurrent, every note a signifier for the shifting emotions of the story.

Here’s an example of the FDR project. (There’s a moment of my music after the Space Race song.)

So after the FDR film, by the time Monadnock offered the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum gig, I figured I pretty much knew the lay of the land. But this assignment was a new world entirely.

Monadnock Media occupies a big barn in Western Massachusetts.  There, they develop and mock up dozens of projects, designing media rooms and creating films for locations around the country—from the Boston Science Museum to the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, Oklahoma.  Their approach is unique, with images projected on multi-faceted screens, often consisting of geometrical forms of varied shapes, sizes, and depths.  This allows them the flexibility to project as many as five simultaneous images on different planes, or several repeated images—or just one.  The voice-over and the music are often the elements that lend consistency and continuity to what is at times an almost non-linear visual narrative structure.

The new project that Monadnock asked me to score was the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who, while visiting rural Mississippi from Chicago in 1955, was brutally tortured and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman.  The story follows Till’s kidnapping and lynching, through the funeral, worldwide publicity, the trial and acquittal of the accused, and the ensuing national outrage, with boycotts and protests that led to what many consider the origins of the civil rights movement.  The producers and I shared the unnerving sensation that this piece of history is, sadly, very relevant today.

To prepare my compositional work for the Emmett Till project, I spent a few days in the summer of 2016 immersing myself in Mississippi Delta Blues.  I re-familiarized myself with some of the great singers, songwriters, guitarists, and harmonica players I’d heard all my life: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, and many more.  I reviewed how the blues of the Mississippi juke joints evolved, through migration, into the harder-driving electric blues of Chicago, and how some of the greatest artists of the rock ’n’ roll era—from the Rolling Stones to Bonnie Raitt—are living legends of that legacy.  I was reminded of how Mississippi gave birth to so much of the soundtrack of our lives.

The soundtrack of Monadnock’s Emmett Till story was not, however, a blues score per se.  Monadnock asked for a sparse soundscape, painted with drones, punctuated with rhythm—almost sound design, with a few precise hits on key moments.  The role of the blues was—again—a signifier, a recurring resonance of place and time, and, in a deeper way, of the emotion we as a culture associate with that sound: the bitterness of loss and suffering; the sweetness of moments of redemption. In this score, the blues surfaces as a kind of bloodletting, dropping into the texture as a subliminal reminder that you have to let yourself hurt in order to heal.

As it turned out, the score was not sparse, in the sense of spare; it was virtually wall-to-wall.  But it was truly underscore, lying beneath the voice-over and other sound effects, and emerging in moments of breath and cadence.  To avoid somnolence and animate the long tones that underpinned much of the story, I populated my drones with an active, shifting overtone structure; it was in the froth of harmonics that the real interest lay. In consort with the growing intensity of a scene, I allowed the overtones to emerge like the entrance of a violin section, subtly detuning some, emphasizing others, weakening the fundamentals.  This averted stasis and kept the score dynamic.

I kept a running compendium of re-usable themes: the “Emmett Till” theme; a “danger” theme; the “kidnapping” theme; a “mother’s grief” theme; etc.  I also kept my eye on the overarching harmonic development of the score.  Its basic key is in G minor, but it moves up through A minor, Bb minor and C minor and, at times of setback or resignation tinged with hope, down to Eb major.  (I’d toyed, for a moment, with the idea of structuring the show’s long-term harmonic progression to mirror, at a deeper architectural level, the blues, but the picture didn’t call for it so I’ll have to leave that conceit for another project.  However, the thought did increase my awareness of how the evolving keys related not only to one another, but to blues form as well.  With the key centers most prominently moving around a Gm-Bbm-Cm axis, there’s a tinge of that sub-structure in the score.)

Attach your ego to the collaborative process, not to how cool your music is.

Process-wise, this was also a close collaboration with the producers, which meant constant tweaking, many re-writes, and revision, sometimes requiring shifting on a frame.  Fortunately, mutual trust had been established through the FDR project, and through a strong opening cue I’d composed for the film.  So I didn’t worry too much about revisions.  The producers, director, and editor have a vision for the project; it’s the composer’s job to learn their perspective, and adjust when the music’s energy isn’t quite right.  And for the aspiring media composer, I would not say, as some do, “Abandon ego all ye who enter here”; rather, attach your ego to the collaborative process, not to how cool your music is. If you’re successful, the marriage of picture and story to sound is a greater high than the sum of its parts, and like requited love, returns to you, the composer, a sublime satisfaction in having given of yourself in the creation of a multi-dimensional, multi-sensory entity.

A screenshot of the final revisions of Rick Baitz's score for Monadnock's multi-media Emmett Till presentation at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

A screenshot of the final revisions of Rick Baitz’s score for Monadnock’s multi-media Emmett Till presentation at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Composing (and revising) the Emmett Till music took me into the fall of 2016.  Once we had a score that the client (the museum) was satisfied with, the project was set to the side until the final voice-over could be recorded. Meanwhile, I began work on a second film for the Mississippi museum: Freedom Summer, about the summer of 1964, when activists in Mississippi battled voter suppression by bringing in civil rights advocates from all over the country to help register local citizens to vote. Again, the sacrifice was unfathomable, with several people losing their lives. Yet the national attention that was brought to bear on Mississippi’s Freedom Summer helped lead to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Although there were similarities to Emmett Till, the Freedom Summer project had many new components.  The screen was set up in the shape of a church, with images projected on different parts of the altar.  The film itself began and ended with licensed recordings of gospel songs, with 11 songs interspersed throughout the film.  Because there was so much African-American music already in the film, the use of blues elements in my score was minimal; my role was to move the story forward and, moment-to-moment, embody the sentiment of the scene.  Again, I was asked for a sparse, drone-based score, punctuated with percussive pulsations, discreet melody, and in one case, my own gospel-inflected tune.  For continuity, I created a harmonic map, listing the keys of all the pre-recorded songs in the film, and carefully composed in relation to them.  My first cue follows a hopeful song in A major called “Welcome Table” featuring the refrain: “I’m gonna be a registered voter one of these days.” I enter in the relative minor, to images of intimidation and violence.  Although the entire film doesn’t cohere harmonically quite as much as Emmett Till, there is a lot of continuity, with the key centers of Ab and F#, and their close relations, holding the most sway.  Here, I roll with the story like a musical narrator, again with an active overtone presence, emerging into sonic prominence in moments of emotional intensity.  And again, there was strong hands-on involvement from the producers, with many detailed revisions.

By the way—on the business side—by this time a clause was added to my contract that increased my pay after a certain number of revisions; the producers recognized that their process required a lot of extra work on the composer’s part. This clause was invoked after the voice-over was finally recorded on both Emmett Till and Freedom Summer—more than a year after Till had been put to one side.  Monadnock managed to contract Oprah Winfrey for the voice-over in the summer of 2017.  After editing Oprah’s contribution, both shows were sent back to me for final musical tweaks, in which almost every single cue needed some adjustment.  Sometimes one note got moved seven frames (about a quarter of a second), so everything had to be carefully shifted from that point on.  This took a couple of weeks to get right.

Meanwhile, I was sent one more film to score: Why We March.  This was meant to be a short assignment featuring two songs, upliftingly celebrating the power of peaceful protest.  This project, as unique as the others, is shown on S-shaped tabletops that are actually video screens that curve through the room, where kids can sit and watch the images roll by.  I will confess that this was the hardest of the four projects I’d done for Monadnock.  Perhaps I was burnt out. I had just moved my studio from New York’s bustling Midtown to a huge space facing Riverside Park in upper Manhattan, and had dozens of boxes to unpack.  I had also just finished recording three chamber and electronic pieces for inclusion on a CD to be released by Innova Recordings, and I was working nonstop on the mixes.  I had family responsibilities.

Plus, there was a temporary score in place that had to be overcome.  Also known as a “temp track”, it is often inserted by the director to give the composer an idea of what musical approach is desired by the film’s creators.   At its best, it provides the composer with an accurate guide, but it also can be deceiving.  Maybe the director intended it to give an idea of the rhythmic drive desired – but the composer mistakenly interprets the temp track as an instrumentation guide.  Sometimes the director drops it in as a placeholder, just to say, “we want music here,” so the composer has to be aware that he is not meant to musically emulate the temp cue. Film composers speak of the challenges of “temp love”, when a filmmaker is so attached to the temporary score that nothing the composer does is right. In the case of Why We March, the producers had differing ideas on what music would serve as a good model for what would work.  This is part of the collaborative creative process, and it eventually led to a mutual understanding.  Until then, approval for my songs was slow to materialize, and they each took several tries before I got them right.  I stuck with it and Monadnock stuck with me, for which I’m grateful.  And in the end, the client was happy.

Driving back from a 2017 summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I am a faculty member, I stopped in at Monadnock’s headquarters in Hatfield, Massachusetts.  At that time, I had not yet performed the final revisions on any of the Mississippi projects.  To my amazement, Monadnock had prepared all three projects for screening via virtual reality (with binaural sound).  They plopped the goggles on my head and the headphones on my ears, and I was transported, virtually, into the media rooms at the Civil Rights Museum, with my music prominent in the mix. When they showed the mock-up of Why We March in VR, I was literally inside the museum space, looking down at the tables that snaked across the room.  This was one of the trippiest, most immersive artistic experiences of my life—and it really let me hear how my music was going to sound in the museum.  In fact, I instantly recognized some weaknesses in one of the Why We March songs; it needed more oomphiness at the beginning and end. So I revised it immediately upon returning to New York.

Successfully completing any collaborative composing project requires substantial craft, persistence, and access to the great well of inspiration that resides in intuition.  In the interest of honesty, I’ll reveal here that at the beginning of the whole Mississippi process, with Emmett Till, I was relying more on craft and persistence than inspiration.  I’ve felt, ever since I began composing film music seriously, that my axe, so to speak, is my ability to emotionally empathize with whatever story I’m composing to.  I tell my students to imagine themselves in the scene, whether it’s under a tree in the African forest for a National Geographic film on chimps, or in the quiet kitchen of a pair of disabled women in Illinois, getting ready for their day, for a POV documentary.  And even though I’m experienced enough to know that craft will bring emotion along with it, I’d never personally had the experience of violent discrimination to the extent that I was seeing in the Emmett Till film, and I wasn’t sure I was feeling it enough.  But after uncounted viewings of that and the other films, the utter tragedy seeped into my psyche, and I felt tremendous sadness for the victims whose stories I was living with, and embodying musically, day after day.  And although I can’t say I could ever really know the extent of their pain, I did, finally, become much more emotionally connected to the story I was telling, and a circuit was completed.

The entire process of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum project reminds me of the title of a novel by the Argentinian author Manuel Puig, Blood of Requited Love.  Somehow, it took a lot of hard work—musically and psychologically—to get there (isn’t it often so), but the reward is what the work gave back to me: a deep experience, albeit painful and eye-opening, of the reality of our country and world.  A challenging journey, but a tremendously fulfilling one.

[Ed. note: Additional video excerpts of the Monadnock Media presentations for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum scored by Rick Baitz are available at the Monadnock Media website.]

Harmonies That Welcomed Imagination—Remembering John Abercrombie (1944-2017)

John Abercrombie set the template for me as far as how to play music with an open mind. His manner towards fellow musicians was one of total respect and equality. Through his playing and compositions, John embodied the essence of the truly great musicians that came before him.

While we all have spent/spend time practicing, John was more focused on using the process of playing as the main way to learn and get better. He loved it!  In his groups, he unselfishly provided an encouraging environment to grow and deepen as a musician / player.

Thomas Morgan, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron looking over a score during the recording session for the 2009 album Wait Till You See Her (Photo © Robert Lewis, courtesy ECM).

Thomas Morgan, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron looking over a score during the recording session for the 2009 album Wait Till You See Her (photo © Robert Lewis, courtesy ECM).

The special thing that stands out about John is his natural democratic manner as a player and writer. He could not help it—it’s just the way he was. John always welcomed his bandmates’ ideas and was a fearless team player. He had the whole package: energy, beauty, surprise, lyricism, soul, and swing.

The special thing that stands out about John is his natural democratic manner as a player and writer.

I never witnessed John having a “bad night.”

I remember he was a special guest on Jim Hall’s last gig (November 2013 at Lincoln Center’s Allen in New York.) Jim started the evening playing solo. John and I were backstage listening and John just started freaking out waving his hands up and down exclaiming, “Holy shit! That’s Jim Hall out there! He’s my hero! And he’s playing his ass off!!! What the hell am I supposed to do when I go out to play!!!!”

John made me feel that same way whenever I played with him.

An early ECM promotion photo of John Abercrombie (Photo © by Robert Masotti, courtesy ECM)

An early ECM Records’ promotion photo of John Abercrombie (Photo © by Robert Masotti, courtesy ECM).

In spite of the countless hardships that life as an artist in an oppressive society presents, John never gave up his commitment to making music the way he wanted. He wrote beautiful melodies and harmonies that welcomed imagination. What a gift!

I believe that when a person we love passes, despite the traumatic, deep sense of loss and sadness, we get to keep the best parts of that person forever through memories. I am forever grateful to have been part of John’s life and music. He was one of a kind. An incredible listener. A truly great artist. With tears on my face and a smile in my soul, I miss you John.

Drew Gress, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron (photo © by Bart Babinski, courtesy ECM).

Drew Gress, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron in 2013 (photo © by Bart Babinski, courtesy ECM).

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

Here’s a new music riddle of sorts:

How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera?

The answer: You don’t—you produce it yourself.

In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Steve Reich explained his rationale for self-producing The Cave, his and video artist Beryl Korot’s first video opera:

We are self-producing The Cave because the unusual nature of the piece demands it. Specifically, The Cave will be a new type of documentary music theater that could not easily be produced in existing opera houses…an opera orchestra would be totally overblown, unprepared, and unsuitable to perform it.

Operatic voices would be equally unsuitable, he wrote, and “the technical demands of [the piece] would be poorly served at best if produced in existing opera houses or concert halls.” Unlike his erstwhile colleague Philip Glass, who by then had seen his operas produced by established opera houses in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Houston, Reich seemed to view traditional institutions as museums for relics of the operatic past, unfit for truly modern music theater. But Reich took a less extreme path than the one proposed in 1966 by Boulez; rather than blowing up the opera houses, Reich decided to avoid them entirely.

Previously, Sasha Metcalf outlined how the creation of OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” initiative kick-started a flurry of operatic activity that has continued to the present. Supplemented with Rockefeller funds, many U.S. opera companies began offering commissions for new operas. But institutions have their own financial priorities and aesthetic preferences, so Reich—like many iconoclastic, entrepreneurial composers of the late 20th century—chose instead to create music outside the traditional structures of production and patronage.

To create their unorthodox opera, Reich and Korot wove together multiple threads of public and private aid. Support came in many guises: financial, artistic, logistical, emotional, to name just a few. What each of these has in common is that they arose from the personal and professional relationships that the pair had cultivated over the previous decades of their careers.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture. As last year’s NewMusicBox series on community demonstrated, the act of making music—or of creating the conditions that allow for that music—is frequently communal, dependent on a network of willing participants. Networking made possible Reich and Korot’s production strategy, which relied heavily on hiring a well-connected administrator who could help them assemble a consortium of co-commissioners and solicit financial support from public foundations and private donors. (And if the term “networking” too strongly evokes images of over-eager, suit-and-tie MBAs handing out business cards, perhaps it’s more pleasant to think in collaborative terms.)

The core aesthetic concept of The Cave—combining Korot’s multiple-image video art with Reich’s work with speech melodies—came about in conversation. In June 1980, Reich lay in a hospital, recovering from shoulder surgery. When Michael Nyman stopped by for a social visit, Reich hit upon an idea for what he and Korot, who are married, would later categorize as a “documentary music video theater work”—not an opera, per se. Writing just a few months later to Betty Freeman, a longtime Los Angeles patron who would go on to commission Different Trains, Reich confided:

I…have in mind to start a H*U*G*E project that will involve live music on stage plus multiple image film….It will go back to the kind of work I was doing with tape in the 60s (like Come Out) and will be my answer to what music theatre can be.

Reich’s answer, The Cave, premiered thirteen years later at the Vienna Festival.

The title of The Cave refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham (father to both Jews and Muslims) and his family are buried. The opera conveys the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah, her handmaid Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, using sacred Jewish and Islamic texts, even as it explores the contemporary relevance of these figures through interviews with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans. Reich and Korot synchronized the speech melodies and film footage from these interviews with live music to create a visual and aural portrait of each individual. The result is a far cry from Carmen or La bohème. Think Different Trains, but with video.

When Korot and Reich began thinking seriously about the project in the late 1980s, they decided that the scope of producing an opera exceeded what they could manage on their own. In April 1988, before they had even lined up a commission, the pair asked Renée Levine Packer to produce the opera. Although the Reich Music Foundation is listed on the program below as a co-producer, Reich has been quick to credit Levine Packer as the true (and sole) producer. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production whatsoever,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It was all produced by Renée Levine [Packer]. I did nothing except whatever she told me!”

Cave Program Page

Title page of the Vienna program booklet. Source: University at Buffalo Music Library.

Levine Packer and Reich first met in 1965 at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which Levine Packer coordinated and eventually co-directed. Later, she co-ran the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival and, more importantly, led the NEA’s nascent Inter-Arts Division. There, Levine Packer oversaw the agency’s funding for experimental, mixed media, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her stints at SUNY Buffalo and the NEA were twin qualifications, according to Reich: “She was somebody who really knew the new music field and she knew the funding field, and she was really sympathetic to what we were doing. So, it was a natural [fit].”

Levine Packer brought to The Cave a wealth of connections to individuals and foundations. But her support cannot simply be measured in terms of how many grants she secured. Her support was also aesthetic in nature. Levine Packer has spoken enthusiastically about Reich’s music, and one of her most cherished possessions is Etty’s Rosetta, a painting by Korot. Moreover, she is drawn to the very nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. In my conversations with her, she reflected, “I knew how difficult [these collaborations] were, but I also knew how they transcended boundaries and were larger than the sum of their parts. And that was very exciting to me…I felt perfectly at home with that kind of aspiration. In fact, I loved it.” The Cave represented, in her view, “everything I tried to accomplish at the National Endowment for the Arts…a wonderful collaborative work that goes beyond the art form of either and comes out totally new.”

In lieu of relying on a single company to produce the opera, Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot created a network of co-commissioners. They began in the fall of 1988 with Klaus-Peter Kehr at Stuttgart Opera (this commission later transferred to the Vienna Festival), then quickly added Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with whom Reich had worked before. Over the next four years, they assembled seven co-commissioners from Europe and the United States (listed at the top of the program above). These festivals and presenting institutions provided financial support via their commissions, but perhaps more importantly, their commitment to programming The Cave lent support to Levine Packer’s search for funding from public and private sources.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms.

These sources (listed at the bottom of the program above) ranged from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller to music-specific organizations including Meet The Composer and private patrons like Freeman. Together, they eventually furnished around three-quarters of the $1 million or so that it cost to produce The Cave. Support was not always monetary; Levine Packer was able to acquire computer hardware from IBM for Korot and Reich thanks to connections that her husband had made during his career as an economist. Although it is easy to highlight the successes that Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot achieved in securing financial support, it risks overstating the difficulty of their endeavor and the challenges of self-production. The Cave was built on five years of sustained fundraising and networking, and Reich and Korot’s devotion to creating The Cave necessarily limited their ability to earn income from other commissions or performances. Given the irregularity of grant funds, at one point they had to borrow money from their extended family. And for every “yes” the team received from a commissioner, organization, or patron, many more said “no,” including the Kennedy Center, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (which had at one point been a co-commissioner), the Pew and Mellon Charitable Trust Foundations, and the philanthropic wings of multinational oil companies.

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians that brought The Cave to life.

There are many other ways in which the development of The Cave could show how support is built on personal and professional networks, but I will offer just one more example, which reveals support of an artistic kind. In selecting their collaborators, Korot and Reich tapped their networks of immediate, once-removed, and twice-removed contacts in the music and theater worlds. Their search for a director, for instance, lasted more than three years, with almost a dozen potential candidates. The director they eventually selected, Carey Perloff, had worked with David Lang and brought with her what she described as a “real aesthetic kinship.” Tod Machover connected Reich with one of his students, Ben Rubin, who created the opera’s typing instrument and served as technical advisor. Indeed, in his interview with me, Reich recalled:

Each case was pretty much a question of trying to find somebody who knew somebody…Richard Nelson had done the lighting for Sunday in the Park [with George], and I’m an old friend and huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, and particularly Sunday in the Park. And, I figured, anybody who can do Sunday in the Park is welcome in our production. We wanted people who would get the basic idea, which was that the basic theater was the video.

Networking remains just as crucial to independent opera production today as it did in the early 1990s. The most recent performances of The Cave this past March, for instance, took place only through the combined efforts of St. Louis arts organizations and faith communities, as well as the longstanding relationship between Alarm Will Sound and Reich.

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave at the John Burroughs School in March of 2017. In addition to the performances, AWS joined with Arts & Faith St. Louis to engage the community in conversations regarding the shared histories of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms. Rubin and Nelson gave technical and artistic support, Levine Packer provided administrative and aesthetic support, Korot’s and Reich’s families offered emotional and financial support, and even Nyman and Freeman arguably presented a kind of social support. What these and other manifestations of support for new music have in common, though, is that they develop as a result of connections between and among individuals. For most readers of NewMusicBox this probably borders on being a truism, and in recognition of that I’ll counterpoint my opening new music riddle with a new music adage: it takes a network to produce an opera.

Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach. More of his work on the production history and politics of The Cave can be found in the most recent issue of American Music and in Rethinking Reich (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising—Why I Keep Doing This

A still from the Cadillac Super Bowl ad scored by COPILOT featuring a n almost robotic-looking female model with prominent silver lipstick and eyeliner as well as a silver earring

Revision & Expansion

In my previous post, I looked at the very thorny issue of how we communicate with clients to understand what they are looking for and why. Communication is probably just as important as composing chops when it comes to successful collaborations with clients, but I often tell my students that what really makes or breaks a relationship with a freelance composer is the revision process. Composers who can make changes in a quick and friendly way rise to the top of the list, whereas those who constantly present resistance and debate fall to the bottom of the list.

I certainly believe in taking a stand at times. There’s a basic level of respect that artists deserve, and clients who don’t listen to their vendor’s ideas are only limiting the creativity of their own work in the end.  If I feel strongly about an approach, I will also advocate to at least include it as an option alongside the client’s preferred approach. But similarly, composers who assume they always know best and can’t possibly improve their work by incorporating client feedback are closing themselves off to expansion and growth.

Composers who assume they always know best are closing themselves off to expansion and growth.

While in the heat of the moment I’m often loathe to admit it, hindsight makes it abundantly clear that there have been many counterintuitive feedback requests that have pushed my work to new places, opened up creative doors that I assumed were closed, and revealed to me things I didn’t know I could do. When the artistic voice in my head screams “that’s impossible!” after receiving a request, it’s the business voice that mutters “just try for their sake” that pushes me forward, often into a better place.

Take, for example, the music I wrote for a Cadillac Super Bowl commercial. The original demo included the key elements of the final music that the clients loved, such as the tremolo lithopone and lullaby synth melody.

Cadillac Chrome Couture Demo Mix from COPILOT on Vimeo.

But the original drum and percussion section was more tribal sounding with a quarter note pulse, pushing the whole piece slightly into the world of dance music. One of the big gut-check issues with the spot was whether it was skewing too far towards a female-only demographic given its fashion show milieu. So this eventually made its way into anxieties about my music, and I was tasked by the agency’s creative director with revising the drums until they got more muscular, primal, live, and raw sounding, with less of a groove. There was no time for studying these hunches. (There rarely is.) Revisions like this one just happen when creative people are motivated by a deadline and an open-ended problem.

These and other changes to carve sections out and create more surprising moments (perhaps they worried about the visuals not being impactful), and edits to follow changes in timings, which seemed like an arbitrary hassle to me at the time (my original demo was perfect, couldn’t they see that?), pushed me to write something that was ultimately weirder and more attention-grabbing. Boy did I appreciate that when it came on in the middle of the biggest TV slot of the year, with no voice over or additional sound design cluttering up the final music.

Here’s the final version:

Cadillac “Chrome Couture” from COPILOT on Vimeo.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent countless hours executing bad ideas. Many come from clients that know just enough about writing music to cause trouble. They need to hear the idea not working before they give up on it. Many others are simply compromises between two strong creative positions with different motivations and stakeholders. “Splitting the difference” or “finding the midpoint” usually means watering down in the end. Nonetheless, I’ve grown to really embrace feedback as a moment where I get pushed and challenged, and I’m ultimately grateful for those moments as they make me learn new tricks. You can’t get too possessive about your music in this industry. You have to be completely 100% emotionally invested in what you are doing when you are doing it, because that is the level of artistry that’s required to be successful. But once the music leaves your computer, it takes on its own life, and you must simply wish it luck and offer support when needed.

As a young composer, I got down about having to try ridiculous things mentioned by folks with no idea what the process would entail. Now I see it as a challenge: a great composer can take any note on a piece and address it so well that the client feels like a genius for suggesting it. Many clients, after all, want to feel like they are adding something creative to a project, that it wouldn’t be the same without their ideas. If you show your client that you care about their ideas and won’t leave them hanging, you have a pretty good shot at another project.

Sometimes as a composer you are creating notes for musicians to play, sometimes you are creating a space for collaborators to play in.

There’s another very practical advantage to bringing the client’s ideas directly into the piece and making them work. In situations that involve a lot of stake holders and layers of bureaucracy, and when agency teams have listened to many other options for a spot, you can turn that person into an advocate for your composition because of the sense of ownership that comes with contributing ideas. Sometimes as a composer you are creating notes for musicians to play, sometimes you are creating a space for collaborators to play in.

Why I Keep Doing This

If you are reading NewMusicBox, it is likely you’ve seen rumors about our new president eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. We could be entering a dark period for federal arts funding.

I’m going to use a controversial economic term, but stay with me: music for advertising allows money from companies to “trickle down” into the arts community. These projects provide us an income and hone our skills while we continue to pursue our passion projects. The year I scored that Super Bowl spot, for a product I personally disliked (due to its poor fuel economy), was also the year I wrote and produced my band Charming’s third album, without the need for label support. Not only was I able to live comfortably in the midst of recording an album that was at best a niche product, but I had free studio time at the jingle house.

What I do could easily be seen as a selling out to corporate interests. By definition it is. Yet it doesn’t feel that way.

The greatest joy I get from my job as lead composer and creative director at COPILOT is being able to bring work to my talented friends. What I do could easily be seen as a selling out to corporate interests. By definition it is. Yet it doesn’t feel that way when I’m also hiring a diverse group of composers, musicians, singers, and engineers for projects.

Session work took a real hit when high-quality sample libraries became ubiquitous, production schedules shrank, and budgets imploded. Live recording became thought of as a time-consuming luxury. But now, when I meet a musician, the first thing I ask is, “Are you set up to record yourself?” With a good computer, quiet room, microphone, audio interface, studio headphones, and software, a musician or singer can be available for session work at a moment’s notice. While I love working face-to-face in the studio when I can, the ability to work remotely has opened many smaller projects up to live recording, mostly due to how much quicker things can get done.

What’s Ahead

In the ensuing debate following the election, I heard many pundits talking about how it’s not trade deals and immigration that will kill American jobs, it’s automation. And lo and behold, last week The New York Times published a piece about a company called Jukedeck. Apparently they’ve developed an artificial intelligence system for writing original music for media projects. There were rumors for years in the jingle industry about composers and programmers dabbling in this area, so it wasn’t a complete shock.

I’m not terrified yet. In some ways, an AI system for cranking out music doesn’t seem like a far leap from the crowd-sourcing scale of library music. Can an AI system keep up with current trends in composition and scoring? Can an AI system make the kind of mistakes or breaks from convention that create new trends? Can an AI system understand comedy? Can an AI system move beyond a single emotion or style and combine things in new, unexpected ways? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “We’ll see.”

A composer’s job is not just to crank out music.

But if I’ve tried to communicate anything through these posts, it’s been that a composer’s job is not just to crank out music—it’s to understand a problem, understand the trajectory and context of a project, and to build relationships and trust through communication.

If AI figures out how to do all of that, its final hurdle would be authenticity. As a “jingle composer,” I know this challenge well. No matter how inspired my work is, if it’s coming from a company that specializes in jingles and a guy that does that for a living, it will seldom carry the weight of any artist’s work for a certain percentage of clients. Having written music in both contexts, I don’t believe that my spirit suddenly dies on commercial projects and soars on my passion projects, but I do believe that in the razor thin margins of subjective judgement about music, perception becomes reality. In fact, it became common for jingle houses to sign a few well-known artists to their roster to add luster, or—even more cynically—to invent identities for successful underscores to lend them more credibility. With the proliferation of sync licensing, I certainly see this bias going away down the road, but I have to imagine that when it comes to AI, most human beings would like to know that another human being wrote the music they are using. At least for now.


It’s been really fun trying to form coherent sentences around a half-life of instincts and lessons from the trenches. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them here, and wherever your career is headed, good luck and be yourself. One last bit of advice: Attaching files to emails… please… just stop. The kind folks at WeTransfer, Dropbox and the like, would love to offer you some free services.