Counterstream Radio is your online home for exploring the music of America’s composers. Drawing upon New Music USA’s substantial library of recordings, our programming is remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The station streams influential music of many pedigrees 24 hours a day. Keep listening and discover the sound of music without limits. Click here to open Counterstream Radio.
Dublab Radio DJ Chandler Poling of Studio Soundtracks interviews film composer Chanda Dancy about her musical upbringing, her inspirations, and her creative contributions to the Sony Pictures’ feature film Devotion. Together they discuss the public perception of what a composer is and how Chanda’s work challenges that perspective.
An alumnus of the USC Film Scoring Program, and the Sundance Composers Lab, Chanda is both an accomplished film and television composer with over 18 years of experience and an emerging classical concert composer. Arts Boston named her one of “10 Contemporary Black Composers You Should Know”. She is known for her work on the Sundance award winning documentary Aftershock (Disney/Onyx Collective), the hit Netflix TV Original The Defeated starring Taylor Kitsch, the Korean War era epic Devotion starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell, and the Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody, directed by Kasi Lemmons.
Chandler Poling is the Co-Founder of White Bear PR, a Public Relations firm specializing in Publicity for Composers, Songwriters, Music Supervisors, and Film & Music Festivals around the world. Throughout his career, Chandler has run successful Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy, BAFTA and Emmy campaigns securing nominations and wins. His clients have been featured in national and international publications, such as Time Magazine, Vanity Fair, New York Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, LA Times, and Rolling Stone Magazine to name just a few. He created the first ever composer-focused panel at Comic-Con San Diego, the World’s Largest Pop Culture Convention. These panels are now an ongoing tradition – a platform for composers to discuss their craft and meet their fans. In addition to producing and moderating panels, Chandler has been invited to give lectures on PR for Composers at Berklee College of Music, Royal College of Music, NYU, USC, and internationally in Prague, Amsterdam, Vienna, Krakow, Cologne, Ghent, and others. In Los Angeles, he is a radio DJ for the independent station Dublab where he hosts a monthly program called Studio Soundtracks featuring conversations with music professionals in the film, television and video game industries. He is proud to be part of the founding leadership of The Alliance for Women Film Composers and Vice President of Qweerty Gamers – a non-profit LGBTQ video game advocacy organization.
For this edition of dublab x New Music USA, join Elyn Kazarian and film composer Emily Rice as they discuss the process behind composing, collaborating with directors, finding your own voice, and ways to build a strong financial foundation. The first hour of the program will include a 30 minute mix of songs from various film scores composed by women.
This program is part of New Music USA’s web magazine NewMusicBox “Guest Editor series”, which aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation and will feature exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization. The series kicks off with dublab. NewMusicBox, edited by Frank J. Oteri, amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms, and has provided a vital platform for creators to speak about issues relevant to them in their own words since 1999.
The dublab partnership will feature new weekly content from at least 15 different voices through January 2023, presented in conversations, DJ mixes, articles, and live performances all exploring the current landscape of music composition.
The Guest Editor is the first such series in the magazine’s 23-year history and reflects New Music USA’s aim to deepen its impact across the many diverse music communities across the United States. This aim is also demonstrated by NewMusicBox’s ongoing “Different Cities, Different Voices” feature that spotlights music creation hubs across the nation.
“Life As A Carer” – Rachel Portman
“Eviction Notice” – Pinar Toprak
“Something to Believe in Again” – Pinar Toprak
“Main Title” (The Shining) – Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
“Rocky Mountains” – Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
“Defeated Clown” – Hildur Guðnadóttir
“Gallery” – Hildur Guðnadóttir
“Northwest Neighbourhood” – Emily Rice, Ro Rowan
“Smoke” – Lesley Barber
“Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings” – Lesley Barber
“Coco’s Theme” – Kathryn Bostic
“Rising” – Morgan Kibby
“When We Were Boys” – Morgan Kibby
“Ronsel Leaves” – Tamar-Kali
“But For Love” – Tamar-Kali
Kris Bowers is one of the humblest and most introverted composer/performers I have ever encountered. This is astonishing considering his accomplishments—winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at 20, a daytime Emmy four years ago, and now one of the most in-demand composers for film and television, most recently scoring the Netflix sensation Bridgerton. And yet it all makes sense when you begin exploring Bowers’s incredible versatility, his openness to all genres of music, and hear how attuned his music is to whatever project he is working on as well as all the musicians he has worked with.
“As a jazz pianist, one of the things that I fell in love with was accompaniment,” he acknowledged when we spoke with him about his music and career back in October. “I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.”
I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.
I’ve always been into different styles of music.
I always like giving myself limitations or rules, or a box, and then going wild within that space.
I have a lot of family members that I don’t agree with… But, at the same time, I have a profound love for them.
Until I started doing scoring sessions, I wasn’t able to have a group of musicians of a large size, play my music since college.
I felt just as much kinship with John Williams as I did Quincy Jones and Terence Blanchard.
I realized I would rather be up until five in the morning at home working on a score than getting on a bus to go to the next city.
I have maybe a week to ten days to turn around the score.
Whenever you hear a musician’s album, you know whose album it is by who’s the loudest on that album. … I didn’t want that.
Scoring films and television series might be the ideal medium for Bowers since it allows him to immerse himself in the characters and plots which should be foregrounded rather than the music. Nevertheless the music he writes is always attention grabbing and works well as a listening experience independently of whatever it was originally written to enhance, whether it’s the score for the 2018 motion picture Green Book, which was based on the life of composer/pianist Don Shirley, or the 2019 EA Sports videogame Madden NFL 20. Whatever project he is working on, Bowers always operates from a zone of empathy.
“That’s the only way that I can really get to something honest,” he explained. “I think that it’s more likely that it will reach other people if it’s something that came from an honest and emotional place for me.”
Considering his need to relate to the characters he creates music for, it’s somewhat surprising that Bowers also composed the score for Mrs. America, a 2020 Hulu series about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I actually really loved needing to represent this human side to this character that I didn’t agree with,” he admitted. “It even helped me understand or remind myself that those people that I might disagree with politically, especially in a time like this, that they’re humans at the end of the day. And that’s something to keep in mind and to really remember.”
As a Black composer who works in a medium that is still overwhelmingly dominated by White composers, it is also important for Bowers that his music not be typecast and the fact that he has worked on such a wide range of projects, in which he has explored an extraordinarily broad range of musical styles, is testimony to his music being impossible to typecast at this point.
I still vividly remember my very first encounter with Julie Giroux. It was in 2015 during the first time I attended the Midwest Clinic, a massive music conference/festival/expo which is heavily but not exclusively devoted to wind band music held annually in Chicago right before the end of each calendar year.
Though I knew some wind band repertoire and had even attended a few wind band concerts over the years, nothing prepared me for how huge the wind band community is—comprising school-based ensembles, community groups, and musical units that are the pride of each of the branches of the military, plus wind bands from around the world. I was not only floored by the sensitivity and virtuosity of performance at what were basically showcases at a conference center which normally might not inspire such a level of commitment, but also how devoted these musicians were to newly composed music. There were so many new composers I discovered that first year, mostly all men, with one very noticeable exception—Julie Giroux, whose works were featured on several concerts. I still remember two of her pieces I heard that week—Riften Wed and Just Flyin’. Both took the audience on a journey that was a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, both were—dare I say it—fun.
Who was this Julie Giroux? I had to meet her. I tracked her down in the giant exhibition area of McCormick Center, which is where Midwest Clinic attendees congregate in between concerts and panel discussions. In fact, it’s a giant marketplace where attendees can and do buy sheet music, recordings (fancy that!), instruments, and even band uniforms. Giroux was holding court by the stand of her music publisher, Musica Propria. There was a line waiting to get her autograph that was longer than two city blocks. I waited. When I finally got directly in front of her, she was laughing uproariously, perhaps at something someone had just said. I was not sure. It’s very loud in that space. I didn’t have much time since there was a line just as long behind me by that point, but I told her how much I liked her music and handed her my business card saying that I hoped we’d have a chance to have a longer conversation at some point for NewMusicBox. I learned that she was based in Mississippi and began plotting ways of traveling there to chat with her. It proved challenging. Then I thought maybe we could record a convo with her during next year’s Midwest Clinic. That proved impossible since everyone else there wanted to talk to her, too, but at least I managed to say hi briefly again and hear some more of her music. And the cycle repeated itself in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
But strangely in this crazy year of 2020 when no one is able to go anywhere, we’re actually able to go more places than usual—virtually—since almost everyone is online all the time. In fact, this week (December 16-18), the Midwest Clinic, which typically attracts well over 15,000 attendees, is also an exclusively web-based experience and, as a result, might even break their previous attendance records. So, I thought I’d take a chance and reach out to Julie Giroux and see if she’d be willing to talk over Zoom. It took a while to set up, but it was well worth the wait.
“I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way,” she commented at some point during our sprawling conversation in which we explored the ins and outs of the wind band (including an in-depth discussion of her own wind band symphonies), her career in Hollywood (which led to her being the first female composer to win an Emmy), her wacky arrangements of Christmas songs (‘tis the season after all), and how she’s coping with life in quarantine. “I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games,” she quipped.
When I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was.
Julie Giroux, composer
Because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring.
Julie Giroux, composer
Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games.
Julie Giroux, composer
I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. … . I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it.
Julie Giroux, composer
The band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does.
Julie Giroux, composer
Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing.
Julie Giroux, composer
It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12.
Julie Giroux, composer
There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.”
Julie Giroux, composer
I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite Giroux’s interest in a broad range of music making, she is not terribly interested in writing chamber music. “It’s because I am just a spoiled brat,” she confessed. “It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, ‘No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.’ … I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do.”
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
Every time I’ve ever interviewed a TV or film composer (mostly for a website called NerdSpan), I’ve asked if they can pinpoint a moment when they fell in love with music. I’ve gotten the same answer so many times now that I’ve considered just asking, “Which moment in Star Wars made you want to be a composer?” I had my Star Wars moment, too. For me, it was the twin sunrise, with the “Force Theme” swelling up in the strings after that horn solo. That was the moment I fell in love with music—though my mother tells me that I used to dash into the living room and start running in circles when the NBC Nightly News fanfare came on (which, as it turns out, is also a John Williams theme), and she claims that “Put Down the Duckie” on Sesame Street propelled me into my choice of instrument.
Mom says I had a habit of putting a toy candlestick on the piano and saying I was “going to play a little Beethoven.” I blame the Muppet Show.
My story looks similar to those told by a lot of musicians—up to a point. I came up through an education system with plenty of opportunities to play, but very little in the way of a meaningful theory education. Even if it had been offered, I was zooming down the Type-A hellroad that is the province of the “gifted student,” and so arrived at college extremely well-prepared to take standardized exams, but with precious little else going for me.
My own hardwired pragmatism steered me away from music and towards psychology.
I had a wildly supportive family and the full faith of my girlfriend (now my wife). And yet my own hardwired pragmatism steered me away from music and towards psychology. It wasn’t a decision borne of academic ambivalence. I had genuine interest in the field, and a powerful drive to help people. And I was good at it. My first paid job was through the National Science Foundation. I wrote for an educational website about two prominent local behavioral scientists—both students of B.F. Skinner—who had settled in Arkansas and quietly turned behaviorism on its head with their research. I helped a professor edit a study on the ways that in-group bias expresses itself across the political spectrum, and we wound up getting it published. I won presentation awards at state conferences and executed an undergraduate thesis attempting to map models of real-world behavior into virtual worlds. I was doing well. But I was ignoring another need. The whole time, I relegated my musical life to simply playing in the college jazz band every semester.
Even that piece fell by the wayside when I moved to Massachusetts to help my wife pursue her Master’s. My grad school applications had been received lukewarmly, so I thought that working in the field for a while might be beneficial. And so it came to be that my first job out of college was at a for-profit, acute-care, inpatient psychiatric clinic. It was for people who posed an immediate danger either to themselves or others. The problem was that being for-profit, budget surpluses rolled over into administrative bonuses. You might imagine what that looked like. Staffing skated by on the bare legal minimum, occasionally dipping below it. Patients would come in who had been homeless for weeks, and we would learn while preparing their toiletries that we had run out of shampoo. The phlebotomist who came by in the mornings once found a bottle of medicine that had been expired for two years. (These are a few of the less-horrifying, safe-for-work examples.)
One evening in 2010, I walked into the diner on the corner. My routine was to buy a giant cup of the last of their coffee and nurse it over the course of my night shift. (Funny enough, hospitals aren’t too keen on calling it the “graveyard shift.”) The coffee wasn’t typically great by midnight, and half the time they didn’t charge me. One night the cashier saw my nametag and said, “Oh, you work at the place that caught fire?”
I stammered a bit.
“I, uh…I sure don’t think so?”
As I rounded the corner, the strobe of emergency lights immediately proved him right. A patient had stuffed his mattress with newspaper and lit it with a lighter he’d snuck from a cigarette break. In a bizarre moment of clarity, I suddenly realized why my grad school applications hadn’t been going well. My desire to help people was earnest, but my whole heart just wasn’t in clinical work. That night, we trudged through waterlogged hallways bringing patient belongings out to another building. As I looked at the clinic, ruined by sprinklers and smoke, I decided to burn the rest of my life down along with it, and finally, fully accept all of the encouragement and support that my family had been offering me for so long.
I fell in love with theory. I loved that the moments that invariably made me cry had names.
I contacted my saxophone instructor from undergrad, the incomparable Jackie Lamar. She helped me figure out a path back to getting a music degree. Once I dug into the program, I fell in love with theory. I loved that the moments that invariably made me cry had names. You could understand them, you could master them, even. I was delighted. I hopped onto the (fairly new) composition track, studying under Drs. Paul and Stefanie Dickinson.
I was what they called a “nontraditional” undergraduate student. Functionally, that meant that I was attending college with my little sister and her friends from high school. On top of that, I was an odd duck for a music student in the 21st century. I was studious, but decidedly tonal. When I absorbed a new nuance of quartal harmony or tone clusters, I immediately started bending it back towards euphony. Dr. Dickinson graciously put up with my goofball operettas and spy jazz suites, but I had no idea whether I’d be so lucky in finding a graduate school.
I’m writing these words from my basement studio in a peaceful sector of Harlem, New York, looking west out over the trees of Riverside Park. The word “peaceful” is, of course, relative, because this is Manhattan, which buzzes with energy wherever you are, any time of day or night. But compared to Midtown, where I had four studios over the past 25 years, this is an oasis: a raw, stone-walled space with gentle, refracted afternoon light, filled with old sofas, oriental rugs, artwork, my Chickering baby grand, and the “brains” of my production activity—the workstation. I needed a place which I could really call my own, where I wouldn’t have to worry about the sublet ending and would have enough space to correspond with all the spaces in my mind devoted to film scoring, concert composing, and teaching—a home where I could park my music library and my instrument collection, and could set up stations as needed for multiple simultaneous projects without losing my mind. It’s not without its challenges, especially the street noise, but I find myself embracing that: periodically throughout the day people stroll past my four Riverside Drive windows, blaring boom boxes—usually salsa or reggaeton—and often singing loudly in accompaniment. The stereo movement is like its own timekeeper, slowly sweeping from one side of the studio to another. It’s a gentle reminder that life goes on outside my urban retreat, moving in its own never-ending cycles.
The largest space in my mind lately has been taken up by the revising, rehearsing, recording, editing, and mixing of several chamber pieces that are slated to be released on CD this spring on Innova Recordings. Two of the pieces—my string quartet Chthonic Dances and my percussion quartet with live electronics Hall of Mirrors—were composed in the last few years, after almost two decades of focus on media scoring. The third piece, Into Light for clarinet, viola, and piano, pre-dates my film music years, yet connects conceptually to the later pieces. One of the reasons I rented this uptown space was to gain the focus to finish the CD. As of this writing, the finish line is clearly in sight; it’s a good moment to take a breath and consider where this CD fits in my artistic trajectory.
Frankly, I’ve never understood why there has—until recently—been such a demarcation between genres in music. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enormously responsive to music, independent of genre. I know I’m not alone in this, especially in today’s eclectic musical environment, but for many people, classical music’s vaunted tradition excluded an appreciation of popular or folkloric forms—and heaven forfend that any classical composer should write something as shallow as film music! Fortunately, my open nature allowed me to at once love rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Brazilian samba, and South African popular styles such as mbaqanga (township music), and hold a particularly reverent fascination with Indian forms, while immersing myself into the vastly diverse realms referred to as concert or classical music. I believe this enabled me to survive the shark-infested waters of the classical establishment, especially at Columbia University, where I received my doctorate in composition, and Tanglewood, where I studied with 12-tone icon George Perle. Of course, these institutions weren’t fatally dangerous, and I basically ignored any insinuation that my love of “non-classical” forms was a kind of intellectual or artistic weakness, because they were wrong: it was a sign of creative strength and somehow, in my heart, I knew it.
American society wasn’t built to accept an artist who crossed between such divergent musical fields.
So it was not really that much of a leap for me, soon after completing my DMA at Columbia, to move into film composition. I knew that I was taking a career risk, and that American society wasn’t built to accept an artist who crossed between such divergent musical fields. It was not like Japan, where composer Toru Takemitsu was revered as a deity in the film community and equally worshipped for his stature as a concert composer; nor was the USA like France, where composers from George Auric to Jacque Ibert and Arthur Honegger moved seamlessly between the movie house and the concert hall. Yes, there were notable exceptions, such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, but their film scoring activity was seen more as a diversion from their classical music career than as an integral part of their artistic output. And some highly acclaimed concert composers, most prominently Arnold Schoenberg, tried to make a go of film composing and fell short; he legendarily met with MGM producer Irving Thalberg in 1935 to discuss a possible scoring assignment for a movie based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth. Schoenberg devised themes and composed some sketches for the story, but ultimately was turned down by the studio; some anecdotes recount Schoenberg’s feeling of relief that he was off the hook.
So I knew that I was venturing into somewhat unknown territory when I decided to throw my hat into the film scoring ring. But one thing I was pretty sure of was that I would not be sacrificing my artistic soul in the process. I knew that certainty may be tested, but because of my conviction that ultimately both activities would be drawing on the same creative source, I felt that I could maintain my identity as an artist no matter which direction—film or concert—I was pulled in.
This is not to say that there are no differences between film and concert composing. The point is, it is all composing. Nonetheless, let’s discuss some of those differences—and similarities—here.
One difference is that media scores are often made up of small snippets, sometimes only a few seconds long. When woven together, as they were in my recent soundtrack Emmett Till for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, they may constitute a longer entity (see my first post in this series, “Requited Music: Anatomy of a Scoring Gig”), but as often as not, a film cue makes its brief statement and is gone.
I felt that I could maintain my identity no matter which direction I was pulled in.
This discussion of the difference between film and concert music brings up a question: what defines concert or classical music? (You can see that I’m using the terms interchangeably.) For me, it has nothing to do with style, musical language, or instrumentation, and everything to do with structure. In classical composition, works tend to be in forms long enough that they are able to take you on a journey within a structure that is integrated unto itself, unfolding with a feeling of inevitability and providing an ending that brings one to a sense of completion. Of course, one can go to any number of new music concerts where these traditional elements are subverted or avoided. Or, one can find uncounted pieces of music from any other system or culture, be it hip hop or bebop, that can be said to fulfill those expectations. But hey, that’s the trouble with definitions, especially in music—they define, they de-limit. So, I’m speaking here in generalities, and I’m happy whenever a creative person redefines the parameters.
But as I indicated in “Tearing Down The Wall,” concert music develops out of its own materials; it unfolds and transforms from its first statements forward. Even music written for dance, opera or art songs will usually follow the conventions of Western composition, taking the listener on a transformative journey within the musical plane, and in those cases, music’s role is typically much more prominent than the subliminal role it often plays in film. Conversely, the structure of film music must be responsive to a myriad of stimuli: the sound, pitch, and rhythm of the dialog and Foley; the narrative that is being depicted on the screen (and the feelings that go along with it); the lighting, editing, even the overall tone and mood of a film are contributory to compositional decision-making. In addition, there may be stylistic considerations for the composer to adhere to. Thus film music includes techniques not normally taught in composition class: selections may end on an unresolved harmony—in fact, they usually do. There are abrupt, unprepared key changes, and/or changes of texture, instrumentation, and rhythm. Depending on the situation, there may be no development at all, just…sound. Some say film music should not have more than three layers going at once; the observer’s mind can’t apprehend any more than that at any given time, what with picture, dialog, and story flying by. True or not, it is something for the film composer to be aware of.
Film music also has its own conventions, its own tropes. I’m sure you’ve all heard the ubiquitous use of the Lydian mode in Hollywood scores, used for every sentiment from wonder to quirkiness. Perhaps in this way film music is similar to concert music, which, depending upon which world you live in, has its own conventions and clichés as well. They’re just different from film music clichés, for the most part. And although I tend to avoid cliché in any of my music, concert or film, I realize that you can learn from them, and if the scene really calls for it, try to make them your own.
What do the fields of film and concert music have in common? Primarily, the essence of the compositional process. In both, you are imagining and creating themes, harmonies, rhythms, meters, and orchestrations. You are functioning, musically, at a very high level, with a heightened sense of time and flow. To reiterate the Michael Giacchino comments I paraphrased in “Tearing Down The Wall,” what’s ideal is when film music can achieve the sense of formal integration that one finds in the most compelling concert pieces; therefore, the film composer, at his or her best, is working with antecedent/consequent phrase and sectional relationships, with a global sense of registral and harmonic direction, flexibly moving in the moment while keeping an eye on the whole (and all in service to the film). A good film score will connect thematically and structurally from the beginning to the end as an integrated piece, as does a good concert score.
But for every item on my list of what film and concert music should or shouldn’t do, one can give examples of the opposite. There are some extremely short concert pieces (such as Webern’s Op.11, #3 for piano and cello). Some concert composers operate according to structural concerns that may be foreign to the classical canon. Who says a concert piece can’t have unresolved harmonies or unprepared key changes? Who says it has to be integrated and have a sense of directionality? Why can’t a concert piece just…be? Can a composition just be a texture or a rhythm, with no real beginning or end? Steve Reich or Dan Deacon may have interesting answers to that question. (Dan Deacon, by the way, scored Francis Ford Coppola’s last feature film, Twixt.)
My point is that as one goes deeper into any musical realm, one discovers artists who break the traditional modes and who are crossing beyond genre with their own statement, their own voice. Jonny Greenwood is a legitimate contemporary composer who is also the guitarist for the band Radiohead; his first score for director Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, was like a marriage between Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Takemitsu’s soundtrack to Women in the Dunes, with disturbing textures of crisscrossing string glissandi. Today there are many more examples of concert, rock, and jazz composers working in film than there were 20 years ago; I do not feel like so much of a standout any more. In fact, in terms of pure creativity, I feel that we are living in a golden age of musical composition—and storytelling. I’m hearing more individual musical voices in film and television music, especially via such border-bashing platforms as Netflix and Amazon, than I heard even five years ago—and I’m also witnessing an extraordinary explosion of activity, beyond genre, in the new music world. And I think there is a reason for that: a deep, atavistic human need for fresh, cutting-edge music that reflects and relates to our current lives.
Film music’s freedom allowed me to often write and produce music that I truly loved.
So when I returned to concert music after years of just working in film, that was not too much of a leap either. In fact, I came back to it stronger than before. Doing film music, I’d spent a large percentage of my life developing musical and production skills that are not taught in the DMA program at Columbia. And film scoring brought about a new sensitivity to how music acts on the unconscious, showing me some different perspectives on how to structure concert music. Film music’s freedom from the expectations of concert form allowed me, as a film composer, to often write and produce music that I truly loved—at times with a rocking, cathartic groove. And that freedom carried over into my return to concert composition. So in the end, the names we assign to the different forms of music wind up being less useful than understanding that there is an interaction between musical forms on the societal level, and in my case, the personal level as well. And that diffusion creates new languages, which are tools for communication—for bringing people together. That is what is actively happening in music right now, and I’m lucky to be part of it.
Here is an excerpt from Hall of Mirrors, with Jeremy Smith, Brian Shankar Adler, Christian Lundqvist, and Brian Shank on percussion; Rick Baitz on laptop and MIDI controller:
In the spring of 2001, I found myself in a battle for my career. I was composing the soundtrack to a feature-length film version of the stage play The Vagina Monologues for HBO. My contact there was the film editor, with whom I’d had a successful collaboration the year before on another HBO show, Life Afterlife. The editor had assumed oversight of music responsibilities for The Vagina Monologues because HBO and the director had recently parted ways due to conceptual differences. As a result, the film had no director, and there was a two-week deadline for the music. The editor told me that Eve Ensler, who’d written the play and starred in the film, liked urban and gritty music, so I went for a kind of late Miles Davis vibe—sort of hip-hop jazz, with sultry female vocals. As I churned out cues daily, working in 16-hour stretches, HBO’s producers sent back approvals, telling me they “loved” my music. It was going smoothly until I was about ¾ of the way through the score and the executive producer called, saying that Eve Ensler did not like the music and that I really needed another approach. He asked me to start over. The editor suggested something more upbeat—in fact, she came to my studio and we spent a day re-conceiving the music, working to picture.
But we were at the deadline and I was pretty nervous. This was the most visible project I’d worked on, and I felt like my career was riding on it. The film and theater community in New York is extremely interconnected and everybody knows one another. My reputation was at stake. Trying to keep the panic at bay, I latched onto something I was very familiar with—a kind of rock/African township hybrid, major key, dance-like, and driving. Again, I FedExed videocassettes of my cues to HBO every night. For a while I was getting approvals, but then: silence. After 13 cues my phone rang: it was the executive producer again, this time calling from London. Eve Ensler didn’t like the music, and he once again asked me to start over. The HBO people were very nice, and it was a difficult situation for everyone. They agreed to increase my pay, and I requested that they send Eve to my studio so there would be no more intermediaries trying to convey what they thought Eve wanted. At first I was told they “would not subject” me to that; the producers evinced some discomfort around Eve because she was so willful. (Even though she was right pretty much most of the time.) But a couple days later I got a call from HBO: “We have a good idea. We’d like Eve to go to your studio.” We set that up for the next morning.
I was anxious about this meeting; time was running out and failure was not an option. About a half-hour before she was to arrive, I sat down to meditate. And before I even began to control my breathing, I heard a voice in my head: “She’s your friend.” Then Eve walked in, leather from head to toe, and said, grinning, with a strong New York accent, “So what’ve you heard?” And I heard myself say, “Should I tell you what they told me to say, or should I tell you what I’ve really heard?”
And from that point we had a fun session, just listening to different rock songs and evaluating how they fit to picture. She wanted some “celebratory, rhythmically infectious, warm-voiced chick-rock.” She particularly liked how Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” worked with TheVagina Monologues’ opening scene. I thought Lennox was a bit icy, though. My favorite was Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, but at least we had some common ground, finally, to work with.
The next day—the last day, really, before I probably would have lost the gig—I got lucky and woke up with a rocking guitar theme in my head. I mocked it up and Eve—and HBO—liked it. I was granted another two weeks and got the composing done. All that was left was to put together a rock band of session-level players and record the cues. The one uncompleted task was to find a singer who could read and had a killer rock ‘n’ roll voice. A friend suggested that I check out Cathy Richardson at The Village Theater, where she was playing Janice Joplin in Love, Janice. I did, and Cathy’s voice utterly stunned me. I felt that if you could match her voiceprint to Janice’s, they’d be identical. After the show, I approached Cathy on Bleecker Street and asked her if she’d like to sing in the HBO version of The Vagina Monologues. “Hell, yeah!” she answered.
For the session, I’d printed out everybody’s music, including the vocalist’s, but Cathy preferred that I sing her the parts, which were wordless. She learned them fast and sang them note-perfect. After a couple of takes, I asked her to just take my written melodies and “do her thing” with them. And she really let it wail, at which point everybody—the musicians, the engineers, the assistants, and I—were just sitting there helpless like the guy getting blown away by the speakers on that old Maxell tape commercial. And I had my soundtrack.
Here’s a compilation of the three opening cues, with Kevin Kuhn on guitars, Tom Barney on bass, Tommy Igoe on drums, me on keys and MIDI percussion. Mick Rossi mixed and mastered the session.
(By the way, Cathy Richardson is currently the lead singer in Jefferson Starship, having taken over the Grace Slick role.)
This essay is about the challenges of being an artist. And, hopefully, about the process of finding the internal resources to keep going when things are really tough and to pick yourself up off the mat when you get knocked down (and everybody gets knocked down). It is about the variety of ways composers can survive and the joys, rewards, and responsibilities of being an educator. And finally, it’s about accessing a part of your being that is larger than the individual self: the unconscious—both personal and collective—and channeling that into musical creativity.
I try to limit my activity to three things: concert composing, film composing, and teaching. (That’s already a lot.)
The music business, in all its guises, is notorious for being difficult to navigate. Through trial and error—and a lot more error—I’ve found a few rules that have helped me carry on. One: it’s always a balancing act between focusing on a single activity, like composing, versus several activities, like engineering, copying, arranging, and/or teaching. Right now I try to limit my activity to three things: concert composing, film composing, and teaching. (That’s already a lot.) But over the years, I’ve used my studio as a place where people could record, working as an engineer and producer. I’ve also worked as an arranger of folkloric recordings for educational CDs. And, for a while, I kept getting calls to compose and produce people’s meditation CDs and DVDs. My advice, especially if you’re scrambling to keep your head above water, is to be open to multiple activities. You always learn from working in any kind of musical role, whether it’s educational, performing, or using your tech and musical chops to produce other peoples’ music.
There was a time when I did become disenchanted with trying to survive as a composer-on-command; I had encountered a series of difficult situations (including the Vagina Monologues gig), and it started to feel like the norm to me. I saw that some of my actor and writer friends were surviving by doing legal proofreading on the side. I decided to give up my studio and reduced my rig down to a laptop on a folding table at home, and I signed up for the proofreading course. I thought I could de-link my musical and financial lives for a while. But as I approached the school’s location on 57th Street in Manhattan, I began to feel a strange darkness well up inside of me, like kryptonite had infected my bloodstream. However, since I’d paid for the course, I pushed myself forward and attended the multiple two-hour sessions required to gain certification as a legal proofreader. The teacher liked me and afterwards recommended me for several jobs, none of which I took. Something inside was not letting me make the move away from music; perhaps unconsciously I knew that the diversion from that path would be too hard to return from. Yet somehow, just being willing to get off the treadmill of the constant job-search, taking any gig that came my way, seemed to release something in the universe and I began to get calls for film scoring jobs with really smart, musically knowledgeable, creative, and compassionate directors. I do think people can sense your anxiety, which can create a repelling energy. It’s always worked that way for me: when I stop worrying about money is when I make it.
When I stop worrying about money is when I make it.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, I used to regularly go to artist colonies. At one, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I met a poet who later introduced me to the filmmaker David Petersen. David introduced me to another pair of filmmakers, Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipshutz, who needed a composer for their new documentary, Live Free or Die (about a doctor who performed abortions, legally, in a conservative community in New Hampshire). I was at the earlier stages of my scoring career and decided to embark upon an experiment to compose one sketch for every cue in the film: mock it up, warts and all, and don’t edit or revise; go with my first idea. I challenged myself to do this for the entire movie in about a day and a half. The next day, Rose and Marion came to see my work, and nervously I explained my experiment and played the whole score for them, including mistakes. To my surprise, they were astonished that I’d scored their whole film so fast—and they liked the music! It took a few weeks to refine, revise, and finalize everything. Subsequently, this gig led to a series of jobs: Rose and Marion’s The Education of Shelby Knox (which won best cinematography at Sundance); Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy, which Rose edited; Power & Control: Domestic Violence in America, which the director of Body & Soul recommended me for; and Who Cares About Kelsey?, which Rose also edited; and – through the sound editor for Who Cares About Kelsey?, the entire sequence of soundtracks I completed in 2017 for Monadnock Media (featured in my first essay of this series).
Keith Lentin (bass), Rick, and Steve Holley (drums) at a recording session for Who Cares About Kelsey?, 2012
There are a couple messages here. The self-imposed challenge to go with my first impulse and record a sketch for every cue in Live Free or Die was a prescient act; nowadays, composers have much less time to complete a score than they did 20 years ago. Back in the ‘90s, I usually had a month to six weeks to do a 30-minute score to a 50-minute National Geographic documentary; now you may have 10 days or less to complete it wall-to-wall. So developing the chops to work so fast that you can compose, record, mix, and master a cue on the first pass is recommended. Another object lesson, albeit obvious, is that it’s really good to get out of the house and hang with people. If I hadn’t gone to the Virginia Center, I would never have gotten those gigs.
Here’s the opening to Body & Soul: Diana and Kathy. It’s about two women whose strengths and disabilities (Down syndrome and cerebral palsy) complement one another, and who live together and take care of each other. The music is meant to be unobtrusive, gently dancing with picture and dialog, then redolent of technology as we learn about Kathy’s computerized talking wheelchair. Vicky Bodner played oboe, Joyce Hammann played violin, and I played piano and synth.
In my previous essay, I discussed my relationship with a beloved mentor and employer, Buryl Red, who oversaw the music for Silver Burdette’s educational CD project Making Music, consisting of 160 CDs, revised every five years. By 1994, I made his studio my film scoring home, staying there until 1998. By that point Buryl had rented three adjacent apartments in midtown Manhattan and had several production spaces going at once. In early 1998, I found myself in the midst of a challenging gig: Heart of Africa, a three-part National Geographic mini-series. Meanwhile Buryl, a driven, exacting, brilliant musician and businessman, had decided to break apart a wall in the tiny room I was working in—equipped with floor to ceiling modules, mixing consoles, computers and other gear—and open the room to the apartment next door, all while I was under tight deadline. People were drilling and hammering in the 10-by-10 space while I was composing. Although at Buryl’s studio I had learned to ignore people talking in the same room where I was composing—a total abdication of the expectation of solitude I’d depended upon as a classical composer—the loud construction noise exceeded my ability to concentrate. I managed to complete the assignment, bringing on another composer to help out, but afterwards was determined to find my own studio where I could have some self-determination. This was not an easy decision, but a necessary one; Buryl and I had a close, somewhat father-son relationship, and he was not at all pleased when I “rebelled” and moved out. Eventually, he got over that and we continued our collaborative musical friendship, closer than before. Meanwhile I found a wonderful shared space, with private studios, on West 30th Street with an old friend, composer and sound designer Dan Schreier, as well as a couple of filmmakers, Thom Powers and Meema Spadola, who had garnered some attention for their film Breasts, about breasts, and who were now working on Private Dicks, and you can guess what that was about. (Coincidentally, Thom and Meema later were contracted to film the backstage interviews for The Vagina Monologues. We were both working on it in the 30th Street facility at the same time, but had been hired by different parts of HBO’s production team.) Eventually, Thom and I wound up collaborating on several other projects, including the PBS documentary Guns & Mothers.
We kept that space until 2004, and when the lease was up I moved to another shared studio, the Manhattan Producers Alliance. One of the reasons I’d chosen the MPA was that the composers in residence there were actively working in children’s film and television, and they were well-versed in the business side of things; I felt that influence would increase my game, professionally. Also, this was the advent of the transition to streaming audio, and the MPA composers were on top of that; I wanted to be around people who were more technologically advanced than I, who I could learn from. That all happened, and I also had a team to work with when necessary. For The Education of Shelby Knox, I hired MPA composer Wade Tonkin, a wizard guitarist and producing ninja, to turn my sketches into completed cues, which he did as fast as I could send him the standard MIDI files. As usual, there was a severe deadline here: the film had been accepted to Sundance, which was to start in early January 2005; we had the month of December to complete a country rock score. We recorded a live band just before Christmas, with Kevin Kuhn on guitars, banjo, lap steel, and mandolin, Wade on guitar, MPA members Kevin Joy and Don Henze on bass and drums, and virtuoso Kenny Kosek on fiddle.
Rick and Wade Tonken mixing the score to The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005
Here is a cue from The Education of Shelby Knox:
The messages here are multifold: as an artist, sometimes you have to be protective of your environment, even if may appear to threaten a working friendship. It’s good to have a team available, consisting of people you trust, because ultimately no one can do everything alone. And always get the very best musicians. It wasn’t until after I’d gotten my doctorate at Columbia and started scoring films that I had the budget to consistently hire the best players in New York and get high-level recordings of my music. A wonderful side effect of that is that it expanded my family of musical collaborators; it is a great source of personal happiness to be a member of this community.
Wherever possible, keep the copyright and publishing rights to your music.
Both in Buryl’s studio and at the Manhattan Producers Alliance there were law books on the shelves involving entertainment contract law. I studied those chapters and photocopied the salient ones: those on work-for-hire. I operate by this principle, and so should you: wherever possible, keep the copyright and publishing rights to your music. (And be very hesitant about giving up your writer’s share.) It is true that in 2018 the means of production, distribution, and payment for music has changed drastically from even five years ago, but this bottom line still applies: in a work-for-hire—as virtually all media composing gigs are—the default ownership of copyright and publishing goes to the producer, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary. And that’s the operative, legal phrase; so if you can, get that agreement to the contrary. I always request copyright and publishing. I’m not always successful, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Often it takes multiple, patient explanations on the composer’s part, as producers and filmmakers usually don’t understand the royalty structure at all. But know that if you control the publishing, you double your broadcast and performance royalty, and you can control later use of your music. So learn the law and get good at explaining it. Note: sometimes, by offering to share publishing with the producer, they may be willing to relax their hold on your music; more often than not, they have no plan for further exploitation of it, and if you are motivated to market your music down the line, they’ll make a few bucks off it, too. So actually it’s a win-win situation.
One day while I was busy toiling on an animation score at the MPA, the string quartet Ethel showed up to do some recording. Ethel’s co-founder, violinist Mary Rowell, was an old friend I’d met years before when she was performing student compositions for Columbia University’s doctoral program. Over the years she’d played my chamber, orchestral, and film music, and it was a joy to run into her that day. “Write us a piece, man,” she said. And this was my gateway back into concert music, after a hiatus of almost 15 years.
Soon afterwards I was asked to join the faculty at Columbia College Chicago’s newly minted MFA program in film scoring and to take over the directorship of their undergrad composition department: a double assignment. I spent the summer of 2007 re-reading my original composition textbooks from when I was a conservatory freshman: Percy Goetschius’s The Homophonic Forms and The Larger Forms of Musical Composition, as well as Arnold Schoenberg’s The Fundamentals of Musical Composition. (They’re all great books, and the Goetschius volumes are downloadable; I assign them to my students to this day.) Every day that summer I read the Goetschius and Schoenberg in tandem, doing all the exercises in each. After 15 years of film scoring, I’d developed new compositional reflexes, but I didn’t have the old vocabulary to describe music at my fingertips the way I’d used to—and I had to teach it. So I reviewed my old studies, now with the experienced eye of a professional. As I began my academic year, commuting every week between Chicago and New York, I also started studying film scoring intensely. Like most film composers, especially from the time when there were few educational opportunities for aspiring film scoring students, I was essentially self-taught. Teaching at Columbia Chicago gave me the opportunity to pour over actual scores, analyzing them as if they were Beethoven symphonies. And I began to develop a new understanding, a context, for what I had been doing intuitively all these years: film scoring as a manifestation of the unconscious. I began to understand that film music operates at a symbolic, semiotic level, activating memory, sensation, idea, and emotion in correspondence to picture and narrative.
Film music activates memory, sensation, idea, and emotion.
The combination of teaching film and concert composition, all while composing a string quartet, was a potent moment for me in that it helped me begin to integrate the seemingly opposing forces that made up my musical life, from the Brazilian and African influences to my classical training and commercial experience. I believe the act of teaching—of organizing my thoughts and having to verbalize them—helped me consciously understand the elements of my own creative voice. Meanwhile, my memories of my own teachers began to re-emerge from the buried recesses of my mind with surprising clarity: as I stood in front of my string quartet composition class at Columbia Chicago, I found myself visualizing my undergrad form and analysis professor, Ludmilla Ulehla, talking about “directional tones” and Schenkerian structure. In my creative work, I had embarked upon a large-scale string quartet that integrated African, Brazilian, and other grooves into a refracted sonata form, and I was encouraging my diverse student population to “write what they know and love” as well; so my Greek student was putting Greek folk music into his quartet, and the North African composer incorporated maqam modes into hers. As my old composition teachers came out from under their hidden sectors of my psyche, I realized that many of their teachings were still influencing my compositional process, to positive effect. For instance, Mario Davidovsky, who had pioneered the integration of electronic sounds with live players, used to say, “I’m the grandson of two rabbis. You know what a mitzvah is, right?” (Its literal meaning, from the Hebrew, is “commandment,” but is also used to mean a good deed or a gift.) Mario would continue, “Every piece should be a mitzvah. Every measure should be a mitzvah. Every note should be a mitzvah!”
Another one of Davidovsky’s aphorisms that influences my composing and teaching to this day, is this: “The intensity of the energy of creativity must be constant at all times, including silence!” Whether or not you agree with this edict (which I don’t, exactly), it does point to the compositional technique of compensating for stasis in one element with activity in another. For example, how do you keep music interesting if it has no harmonic motion? (A lot of African music may fit that bill.) Well, one way may be through rhythmic, metric, and timbral interest, not to mention the community element, the storytelling—and the stimulus to dance, which is an emotional healer.
A development that I did not anticipate was the influence of film music on my concert composing. Composer Mychael Danna’s 1997 score to The Ice Storm is one example. By employing Native American flute and Indonesian gamelan as backdrop to a story about the discontented residents of an American suburb, it resonates on a more mythic and spiritual level than the specific tale the movie is telling. The Indian flute points to historical transformation; the cyclical patterns of gamelan may activate a semi-conscious awareness of nature’s larger cycles, from birth and death to the movement of the planets. This principle can be applied in non-film music as well—a process I explore in a recent percussion quartet, Hall of Mirrors.
Back in New York in the fall of 2008, after a year commuting between New York and Chicago, I was asked by Doreen Ringer-Ross, head of film music for the performing rights organization BMI, to create and teach a film scoring workshop and mentorship program under BMI’s auspices. Thus began “Composing for the Screen,” which recently completed its 10th season. There I emphasize the unique, individualized quality that characterizes the work of some of the most interesting film composers. We analyze scores, study composers’ influences, and see if we can channel some of their techniques into our own creativity. Most of all, the participating composers learn by doing, writing music for a variety of situations, using multiple musical languages, from romantic jazz to 12-tone to post-minimalism and electronics. Rather than teaching students how to parrot other composers, though, I want to inspire a kind of sensitivity to how film music works, and for the students to apply that knowledge to their own voices.
Recording the final project for BMI’s Composing for the Screen, 2017, at Shelter Island Sound, NYC. L-R: Owner/Engineer Steve Addabbo, Rick, and composer Mandy Hoffman
In 2011, I also began teaching composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an intensive low-residency graduate arts college in Vermont’s capital city of Montpelier. I had the privilege of serving as chair of the MFA program in composition from 2012 to 2016. This small school is playing a major role in the development of composers: it is completely progressive in that it is post-genre. Its extraordinary faculty is experienced and successful across platforms, and provides mentorship in contemporary composition, songwriting, music for media, jazz, and electronic music. Many of the students cross between arenas within their pieces, which I think is an accurate reflection of how today’s musical culture is currently evolving.
As a teacher, one has a tremendous influence on our students, sometimes more than we are aware of. A word can make or break a fledgling artist’s confidence. While at Columbia for my DMA, and even as a Tanglewood fellow, I felt at times in conflict with a field that promoted a kind of cerebral competitiveness as a marker for artistic strength, rather than the kind of nurturing that supports the discovery of an authentic musical voice. My teacher Jack Beeson at Columbia once said to me, “I think you’re terrifically talented.” It was only then that I finally felt I wasn’t alone in the compositional firmament. So I urge those of you who are teaching to judiciously and carefully choose your words, and to encourage your students to discover themselves through their music as they discover their music through self-knowledge. Help them find themselves, and give them the encouragement to move forward when confusion reigns or insecurity strikes.
And with your experience and perspective, you may offer them the guidance to be patient with themselves. After all, the very commitment to the artist’s life is itself a victory. It involves a soul-deep involvement in your work; the heart to move forward in the face of adversity; and a continual, renewed sense of becoming. And for that, you have to allow yourself the space to grow.
I thank my friend Doreen from BMI for posting this quote on occasion, as a reminder to all of us who are in the composition game for the long haul:
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
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 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
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 (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.
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
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.]