I recently completed a challenging commission. Maestro Pat Miles asked me to write a fanfare for his student orchestra at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. The occasion is his upcoming retirement after umpty-ump years of teaching horn players and building the orchestral program into its current formidable state. (Pat plans to stay on as conductor of the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra.) It is hard for me to write music without having a picture in my head, and I had a tough time envisioning what a retirement looks like. But then I remembered the large photo of Maestro Miles that hangs in the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra concert hall along with portraits of some of the section leaders. He’s wearing a proper tuxedo with tails, carrying a baton, and perched on the ultra-light racing bicycle he rides as a serious racer. That image of Pat is all I needed. Like that photograph, music can be deeply serious and light-hearted at the same time. The two-minute piece is scheduled for premiere in May. You can download the score and an MP3 of the synth track here.
Young composers often ask me how to break into writing for film and television. One kind of work I advise them to pursue is a type I still enjoy doing myself: “industrials,” or non-broadcast films for corporate or nonprofit clients. I recently scored a piece on ethics for the Educational Testing Service; an exhibit piece for the Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, New York; and a labor of love by the director Cressandra Thibodeaux about a pair of art patrons in Houston, Texas.
The quality of these films is often very high. The directors are often very good. And, surprisingly, the music budget is sometimes bigger than it is on broadcast TV shows, which means more leeway to hire musicians for recording sessions. The trick to writing a successful score for these films is staying out of the way of the words. The right score will generally not have a prominent melody. It will be all about texture and pace. Films like these are a great training ground for any composer.
A few months ago, a friend told me a curious fact: In 1936, George Gershwin had a standing tennis date in Los Angeles with Arnold Schoenberg. Can you imagine a more incongruous pair? The seemingly effortless crowd pleaser, Gershwin, up against the cerebral Teutonic composer who probably would have been horrified if, during a performance of one of his challenging atonal works, the crowd had accidentally been pleased. I couldn’t get these two out of my mind, so while I was on vacation recently, I wrote a play about them. It’s not even a musical, though there’s incidental music in the script. The play is called Twelveness, after Schoenberg’s 12-tone serial technique, natch. It hasn’t hit Broadway yet…or off-Broadway…or off-off-Broadway…but stay tuned.
I just finished scoring an unusual documentary by director David Hanrahan. The film, called This Exists, is about a Brazilian spiritual leader and teacher named Prem Baba. It was a novel project for me—a biography combined with something of a feature-length meditation. The music is incredibly spare: a combination of solo piano, solo cello, and Tibetan singing bowls. The film also features tracks from Ashana, a new-age singer from Arizona. This score was an exercise in restraint for me. At every dramatic moment, I had to dial everything back to the emotional level of Prem Baba’s quiet message and let the tranquility of the scene resonate.