Tag: comfort zones

Six Great Film Composers Tell Their Own Stories in Music for Solo Piano

When planning a recital, or a recording for that matter, it’s important to me to commingle works by composers who have a reason for being together, who share a connecting link of some sort. In the past I’ve combined John Adams with Terry Riley, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Steven Stucky with Witold Lutosławski, and Olivier Messiaen with Kaija Saariaho.

It’s important to me to commingle works by composers who have a reason for being together

Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano was just such a commingling, and a collaboration that was bound to happen one day given my years of living in Los Angeles and working with composers. In the first article of this series, I sang the praises of L.A. as a place to live and work as a musician. Outside of our prodigiously enlightened Los Angeles Philharmonic that engages fulltime musicians, it’s always been possible here for freelance players to keep very busy in the city’s many orchestras, opera companies, chamber series, and film studios, and even to have solo careers. They’ve been able do all of it in a place where there is no cognitive dissonance in having worked with both Pierre Boulez and John Williams.

Montage had its beginnings in 2011, when Bruce Broughton, a composer best known for his work in film and television and the recipient of 24 Emmy nominations and 10 wins among other awards, sent me a substantial surprise gift: his Five Pieces for Piano. The suite comprises five boldly delineated character pieces written in the exceptionally pianistic language of a composer who happens to be an accomplished pianist.

Around that time, I was preparing a recital for Tanglewood’s 2012 Festival of Contemporary Music, and had asked John Williams, who is among other things an annual headliner at Tanglewood, if he might have time to write a little something for it. We had talked for years about the possibility of a new piano piece, and I now had a perfect time and place at which to program it. I assured him, repeatedly, that even just a single page of music would do, just so that I could represent him on my program. In due course, he produced a short piece for me to play as an encore: “Phineas and Mumbette,” a richly imagined conversation between jazz legend Phineas Newborn, Jr., and Mumbette, a Berkshires-based slave who sued for her freedom in 1781 and won. And the piece was indeed only a single page of music:

From the Twitter feed of music engraver Joanne Kane showing four people holding John Williams's one-page solo piano score with a closer detail of the score below.

John Williams produced “just” a single page for Gloria’s Tanglewood recital. (Kudos to his copyists at Joanne Kane Music…this copy is now signed and framed on Gloria’s wall.)

Following that summer, with the pieces by John Williams and Bruce Broughton continuing to virtually stare at me from my piano every day, an enticing theme for a future recital, anchored by two eminent composers of worldwide renown for their film music, was presenting itself, and I was finding it impossible to ignore.

There was one minor glitch. Because the timings of the two pieces were far short of a full program, I would need to somehow convince a few more composers of similar ilk—and similar illustriousness, I hoped—to write additional pieces that would flesh out an eventual evening-length recital.

I approached composers whose film music I admired, and about whom I couldn’t help but wonder how they might write for solo piano. This is how, in addition to the works by Bruce Broughton and John Williams (who composed three additional movements to form a suite entitled Conversations), three new pieces came to be written for me by film music luminaries Don Davis (The Matrix trilogy), Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up, The Incredibles), and Randy Newman (The Natural, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc.). Instead of a new piece, Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Argo, The Grand Budapest Hotel), offered me a recent suite that he had composed for the pianist Lang Lang.

Film composers are always telling someone else’s story, and typically writing for large orchestras.

At the time, these six composers had collectively garnered 72 Oscar nominations and 8 wins (the numbers are both higher now). All six had written concert works in the past, but all had largely bypassed writing for solo piano. That’s precisely what interested me. These composers are acclaimed and awarded for their brilliance at managing multiple parameters with regard to style, narrative, tone, and timing. But they are always telling someone else’s story, and typically writing for large orchestras.

What would happen if everyone just left them alone to write a concert piece—for the piano, an instrument that just about every composer regards as a consequential challenge given its monumental repertoire and potential to reveal one’s truest, unadorned voice?

Randy Newman with Gloria Cheng at the piano.

Randy Newman with Gloria Cheng

Over the course of 2012-2013 the pieces arrived. In the cases of Don Davis and Michael Giacchino, all at once; with Randy Newman and John Williams, one movement at a time. The final steps prior to the November premiere were to coach with each of the composers and collect a program note in their own words about their pieces. The concert, presented by the Piano Spheres series, drew not only our loyal new music attendees but throngs of the composers’ fans. Except for the Paris-based Alexandre Desplat, the composers were in attendance and being surrounded like rock stars. I began the program with Bruce Broughton’s bracing Five Pieces, followed by Michael Giacchino’s wistful Composition 430, Don Davis’s modernist Surface Tension, Alexandre Desplat’s impressionist-tinged Trois Études, Randy Newman’s songful Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil, and Lionel Newman, and John Williams’ jazz-spiked Conversations. Many listeners found it fascinating to note whose piano pieces resembled their film music and whose did not.

Given the prominence of the six composers, it seemed inevitable and necessary to document their pieces on a recording. Harmonia Mundi took an interest. Two days of recording were booked with Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman in Herbert Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, the venue in which I had performed the concert.

As it turns out, the recording dates of Easter Sunday 2014 and the Monday after proved to be unexpectedly auspicious. Five of the six composers would be in town and said that they could and would attend the recording sessions. Only Alexandre Desplat was scheduled to be away from Los Angeles on those dates, but would be back soon afterwards.

When would a convergence of such celebrated composers working on the same project ever occur again? That’s when I got the crazy idea to make a documentary film. I imagined a film that would capture our interactions during the recording sessions, offer interviews with each of the composers, and chronicle the arduous process of getting our record “in the can.” A Kickstarter campaign drew close to 100 supporters whose generous donations provided major funding for the enterprise. Credit for coming up with Montage as the title for the project, encompassing both the album and film, goes to John Williams.

Gloria Cheng Montage CD Cover

The full story of recording this CD and ending up with a documentary about it would take many more paragraphs. It was an immense undertaking, and if amassing and practicing the collection for concert performance had been a challenge, managing the CD recording along with a film shoot presented multitudes more.

I had recorded four CDs already with Judith Sherman and knew how that would proceed; she would be tough and meticulous, and would work tirelessly with me towards a final edit for the CD release. I had engaged the noted film music authority Jon Burlingame to write a liner booklet essay that would accompany the composers’ own notes. My CD agenda was predictable and all set to go. But I knew nothing about making a film, and knew few people who did.

When one lives in Los Angeles, one finds “industry” people on every corner.

Luckily, when one lives in Los Angeles, one finds “industry” people on every corner. Not quite knowing how or where to start, I applied my Kickstarter funds towards hiring a next door neighbor, a different next door neighbor’s nephew, and that next door neighbor’s nephew’s friend! They organized the film crews for the recording sessions and also covered the follow-up interviews at Amblin Entertainment with John Williams and at my home with Alexandre Desplat, who had missed the recording sessions.

John Williams with Gloria Cheng

John Williams with Gloria Cheng.

In all, the crews had generated hundreds of hours of footage from multiple-camera shoots. Given the brilliant direction by my neighbor Joey Forsyte who supervised her crew as a fly on the wall during those long hours of recording takes, the film was assembled and polished over the course of two years by the gifted team at Breakwater Studios. Much precious, one-of-a-kind footage did not make it into the final film as it was edited to less than a half-hour; a quiet tête-à- tête between Randy Newman and John Williams reminiscing about the old days at 20th Century Fox sadly got cut. Nonetheless, our documentary won numerous festival awards, has aired on PBS SoCal six times, and, to our immense shock and joy, won the 2018 Los Angeles Area Emmy for Independent Programming.

The documentary broaches a wide range of topics. How do these composers vary their creative processes when writing for the concert hall instead of for a movie? “If a director wants you to turn left,” remarks Bruce Broughton in the film, “you’re advised to turn left. Writing a piece like this, I am the director; the piece is the film.” Most of the composers confess to being decidedly challenged by writing for piano. “There’s no hiding…you do worry more about every single note,” says Michael Giacchino. “It made me nervous,” confides Randy Newman. “I’m not ready to write again for piano,” vows Alexandre Desplat, with a laugh. “It took me a lot of time to figure it out!” The film also exposes the laboriousness—both onstage and in the booth—of recording a CD. We had a few laughs during those two days, but there was mostly fierce focus from us all and, in one of the film’s most talked-about moments, occasional frustration.

John Williams sums it up by saying, “Gloria has broken the mold by inviting film composers to be exactly not that, to be simply composers.” It is indeed the music itself that reveals a lesser-known but vibrant, expressive world inside of these six composers—an alternative, more intimate side of them that is often eclipsed by the spectacular popularity of their film music.

I find a strikingly clear voice in each of the pieces, each an unmistakable depiction of the person who wrote it. What I had hoped to learn by embarking on this project was: What happens when these composers, freed of the demands placed on them by a film, confront the challenge of composing for one of the most difficult instruments to write for? Although Montage: Great Film Composers couldn’t possibly provide all of the answers, we do get a little closer to finding out.

My Only Mentor, Butch Morris (1947-2013)

Marclay, Morris, Horvitz 1987

Butch Morris (center) performing with Christian Marclay (left) and Wayne Horvitz (right) at the Times Square-area bar Tin Pan Alley in 1987. Photo by Keri Pickett, courtesy Wayne Horvitz

I met Butch Morris shortly after moving to New York City in 1979. I am not sure how or when, but he was extremely gracious to me, became a lifelong friend, and I can honestly say he is the only single human being who I think of as a mentor. It wasn’t about music in any technical sense, but really more in a social sense: How music fit into his life, how he created community, what he cared about, what he didn’t care about, and so on. The fact that Butch was fun, charming, a great person to travel with, to dine and drink with, and to hang with is something everyone who knew Butch can speak to. I could go on for many pages, even chapters, but I will not. Instead I would like to speak to two singular aspects of Butch’s contribution to music since he came on the scene in the ‘70s: community and conduction.

When I arrived in New York, the city and the Lower East Side, in particular, was a diverse community. Punk rock and out jazz, improvised music and new classical music crossed paths constantly, as did people of divergent backgrounds. It was a racially integrated community as well, but only so far. Sort of like the high school where kids basically get along, but still the white kids tend to sit together in the lunchroom and so do the black kids. Butch was keenly aware of what being a black man in America meant. He had no delusions of living in a “post-racial” world, and he was vocal and articulate about racism. I myself had come to New York because of Cecil Taylor, The Art Ensemble, et al., but it wasn’t surprising that I quickly fell in with my more immediate peers: Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte, John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, and many, many more. We were white kids from the ‘60s. It’s important to remember that, like a lot of us, I came to improvised music more from The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane only to find Albert Ayler and Sun Ra later. Butch reached out to me, and to many others, without ever leaving behind his history and inspirations. He didn’t care if the jazz community approved of him, and he sure as hell didn’t care if the academy or the uptown music world approved of him, and he took chances, musically and socially. And he did it with such grace that as far as I can tell he rarely alienated anyone, which was not often the case in a scene where a lot of egos were involved and folks had powerful opinions with strong emotional attachments. In many ways this seems to me to be a crucial aspect of what led him to what he became best known for, which was the system known as conduction.

As a musician I got to play a lot with Butch, in small groups as well as some of his larger ensembles. I made three of my first five records with Butch, toured in his trio with J. A. Deane a lot, as well as the Horvitz/Morris/Previte Trio. Later I produced a record for Butch and was involved in the early conduction ensembles. The Horvitz/Morris/Previte Trio was a seminal moment in my own artistic evolution. To put it in its absolute simplest form, after a few years of wanting to be Cecil Taylor I remembered how much I loved Richard Manual, and something began to click that felt like my own. Many other influences helped along the way, especially the Chicago and St. Louis musicians, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago in particular. I made a record for Black Saint from a live recording at Studio Henry with Butch and William Parker, and I began to find ways to bring my own harmonic language into the palette of “free improvisation” (whatever that means), and also to use electronics with acoustic instruments and at acoustic volumes. Butch was particularly supportive and encouraging, often without really saying much. The trio I formed with Butch and Bobby allowed me to develop those ideas. We made two records that I still consider some of my best work, and Butch played beautifully. It is worth noting that they were also two of the easiest recordings I have ever made. Just set up, play, listen a bit, and keep playing. We toured Europe a few times and did concerts around the States a bit, and we had a lot of fun.
I remember years ago going to his apartment to listen to the mixes of a record we were working on. He had the left speaker on top of the right speaker, and I was furious. How could we listen to a stereo mix that way? He wouldn’t move the speakers, that was how he liked it. He didn’t give a damn. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I miss those times, often deeply.

For a variety of reasons, including my move to Seattle, I did not perform in Butch’s conduction ensembles much after the early ‘90s. For the most part I stopped being involved in what really became his life’s work. Nonetheless, as a composer, I have given “conduction” a lot of thought, and I find it a singular and momentous achievement. It has been interesting, and honestly a bit disheartening, to see just how much attention Butch and conduction have been given by the media and social media since his death, considering how much it was essentially ignored in his lifetime. There are many stories of its success and positive reception but nothing close to what, in my opinion, many artists have received for much lesser contributions to the very essence of how music evolves. I believe that this is for the most part a result of how Butch liked to live, and what his priorities were.

I was on a music panel in the late ‘90s selecting the first round of musicians and composers who would be in residence at Civitella Ranieri. Unlike a lot of panels, we arrived a day or two early and were given copies of all the work samples from the artists. On the second evening, after food and wine, I went back to my cell and braced myself for hours more of listening through work samples. The residency very much encouraged improvised music, jazz, and international artists, as well as more traditional contemporary composers. I listened to the work of a lot of experimental composers and jazz composers, many of whom I was already familiar with, as well as a lot of new music composers, some of whom I did not know. I knew Butch had applied, and I assumed I would support his application, but it occurred to me that if I was going to articulate my position I should listen to the work sample he submitted. In fact I had yet to hear any of the ten-CD box set he had made for New World Records, but whatever I was then listening to seemed to answer all the questions and even feelings of discontent I had been having all evening. First off, the music didn’t sound anything like jazz or “improvised music,” it sounded like vital contemporary music, possibly composed but also unlike so much of the “new music” I had been listening to. How should I say this? Like it didn’t have a stick up its ass? It sounded comfortable in its own skin—soaring, living, glorious. Granted it was three in the morning, I was tired, maybe even a little drunk, but I still remember it to this day. George Lewis and Jonathan Harvey were also on the panel, and as I walked in the next morning I heard Jonathan Harvey talking to Gordon Knox, the artistic director, saying, “It was quite interesting listening to many of the work samples, but there is only one CD I would like permission to keep, and that is the music of this Butch Morris fellow. I must find out how he creates this incredible music.”

I was in Nashville shortly thereafter, producing a fairly traditional record with some Nashville session guys, and I started thinking about comfort zones. I don’t mean an aesthetic comfort zone, I mean physical comfort. Music sounds good when the physical relationship between performer and instrument is good. Technique and expression come from this. Which is why I think that when you take a classical violinist with great chops, conversant in modern music and with experience playing in great ensembles, and he or she spends two weeks with Butch, their improvised language often sounds brilliant, with flow and grace.

A problem in contemporary music, especially of the through-composed variety, is that often the composer creates situations that aren’t comfortable for the performer. I suppose that in itself has its place, but it can get old fast. A composer creates a new work with extended techniques and writing that “pushes the envelope” and all too often it sounds like work, not play, and after all we try to play music, not work it. Musicians improvising, even if they aren’t “improvisers,” will usually make choices that are within their physical comfort zone and within their technique. This creates music that has the same level of physical logic that these same performers possess when they are playing Mozart or Hank Williams. Meanwhile Butch found a language that created structural integrity, something sorely missing in so much so-called “improvised music.” Cecil Taylor and many others have spoken eloquently about the logic inherent in the body, that the logic of our physical relationship to our instruments has an innate intelligence. Butch never wanted to lose sight of that, but he also insisted on never assuming anything about structure, and he developed a methodology that allowed the music to turn on a dime. Of course one can argue that his music was also, like Ellington’s, personality dependent. With Butch, his conductions were, of course, an expression of his entire being. There will never be another conduction by Butch, with all that he brought to the music. That being said, and I think Butch would be pleased, I truly believe that his system is significant enough that it will live on in many forms, will transform and evolve, and have great influence on the music of our times.

No matter how far out the music got, Butch always wanted it to feel like a song, like a singular piece of music, and his system and his presence allowed him to create that. It didn’t always work. No music always works. But the potential was phenomenal, and it created a music that simply couldn’t exist any other way.

Butch’s humanity was phenomenal. Every one of us who feels like Butch was one of our dearest friends knows we share him with hundreds of other people, if not more.

People work so hard to be present, to live in the moment. I know Butch loved to be alone, and I know he loved to be with people. To me he seemed to live less in the past or future then anyone I have ever known. On the street, in the park, in an airport, even waiting for a cab, he was always there for you, and now he isn’t.