I recently had the pleasure of writing music for first-time filmmakers Caitlin Carroll and Brad Forder for their documentary on Washington DC’s murals, Painted City. It is an unusual look at the amazing artworks that appear on walls all over this beautiful city, as seen through the eyes of Perry Frank, a historian whose mission is to document as many of these as she can before they either self-destruct or are laid to waste via urban revitalization.
Two things made this a particularly fun project for me:
1. I got to use classic go-go grooves throughout the score. If you’re not familiar, go-go is a style of music unique to Washington DC that incorporates elements of funk, R&B and hip-hop. It hit its highest spot nationally with Chuck Brown’s 1978 hit “Bustin’ Loose,” but here in the DMV it’s still going strong.
2. I got to record Vince McCool, one of my favorite trumpet players. His playing is something of a throwback—he reminds me of Al Hirt, Jonah Jones and Louis Armstrong. I never miss a chance to record with him.
I re-arranged my symphonic composition, Postcards from the West, for symphonic wind ensemble. This is my first foray into the world of wind ensemble music—and I love it. It think this might be the most exciting area of composition that is happening the US right now. When I took on this arranging challenge, my first thought was “What will I do with all those clarinets?” But after a week spent (mentally) in the middle of that lovely bunch of reeds, I ended up thinking that maybe one can’t have too many clarinets. The fact that most wind ensembles exist in colleges means a composer can also feel free to write for extraordinarily large and weird percussion set-ups. Most colleges will have full concert marimbas, chimes, lots of timpani etc. These are elements that I am usually very careful about including in my orchestral writing, because they often require rentals and cartage fees that the orchestra must underwrite. I’ll never abandon orchestral composition, but I must admit that writing for wind ensemble felt liberating in a way. I feel certain I’ll turn to it again soon. If you’re curious, you can find the score and synth realizations here.
I don’t teach for a living and I’m not a student (except in the interest of improving my chili recipe), but I still organize my life in semesters. Maybe you do too. For me, it’s a good way to divide up the year. One 12- to 14-week period seems to be just enough time to write one large(ish) piece of music, score a few films, write two or three songs for my jazz band, and acquire perhaps one new skill. This semester, that new skill was learning to play the ukulele. I had been hearing the Hawaiian instrument on the radio and TV a lot, and now I have this wonderful sound in my quiver of musical arrows. Of course, if I need a master uke player for a recording, I will still hire one, but for a few chords in a pinch, I’ll do. If you divide your years the way I do, I hope you had a fruitful fall semester and that you’ve got big plans for the spring.
One of my favorite museums is the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which features amazing works by self-taught artists. Years ago, I brought a bit of that museum home (via its gift shop) in the form of several retablos. These are paintings, mostly from Mexico, each commissioned by someone who has had a brush with death and wants to honor the saint who saved them—often the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their messages are both dramatic and heartfelt.
I recently received a grant to write and record a piece for strings, harp, and percussion with Latin rhythms. When I sat down to write, I took inspiration from these moments of danger on my walls—and from these life-saving saints. I’m pleased to say that the piece is now written. Naturally, I called it Retablos. It’s a 20-minute work in three movements, which are called “Songo,” “Fandango,” and “Cumbia.”
The most challenging aspect of this piece, for me, was the dialog between the harp and the vibraphone. My worry was that the sound and the effect of the two instruments was too similar in timbre and likely to get lost in each other’s sonorities. Luckily, I was able to figure out a way to use that to my advantage. I gave the vibes and the harp a duet section in the middle of each of the movements. I feel very fortunate that there is already a performance planned for this work. The redoubtable David Fanning, conductor of the National String Symphonia, has decided to premiere Retablos in 2017. If you’d like to hear it in the meantime, you can find a synth version, along with PDFs of the score, here.