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 The Vagina 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit