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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.