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.
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.)
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.
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.]