When it rains, it pours. April has me in a variety of cities at work in a variety of mediums, from symphonic to opera to club. California’s big rainy season very much seems, to me at least, to be accompanied by a storm of notes.
The Philadelphia Orchestra performed Alternative Energy at the start of the month under the baton of the astonishing Yannick Nezet-Seguin. This exceptionally gifted maestro designed an entire program around my ‘energy symphony,’ and performing with this legendary orchestra one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.
Yannick wove Alternative Energy’s subject matter and compositional approach throughout the program. Bookending the concert were two pieces about Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus. Both Beethoven and Liszt depict fire in their own ways, with Liszt especially effective in using novel orchestral effects to evoke the imagery. He staggers violent accents across the strings, for example, to create an explosive musical surface.
These pieces not only relate to my work’s depiction of energy, but they also relate to my narrative approach. The great programmatic symphonists of the 19th Century – Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner – pointed to Beethoven as the first to integrate extra-musical content into symphonic form. The 9th Symphony does this most dramatically with the inclusion of a chorus; at that moment, with the appearance of text, a symphony could suddenly be about something.
Those 19th Century symphonists were drawn to imaginative forms because they often needed to invent new sounds to bring the stories to life. While the composers draw from literature and mythology, the medium of course is music – and the goal always is always create wild new sounds to move the listener. The 20th Century saw this approach discarded in favor of process-driven approaches such as serialism and minimalism, which spin small cells into large forms. As I’ve revived the narrative approach, I’ve looked to the sounds of the 21st Century to tell new stories in new ways.
This makes my music a natural fit for Yannick, a master musical dramatist who, in 2020, takes the helm of the Metropolitan Opera. I was amazed to see how vividly he brought Alternative Energy to life, conducting it as joyfully and naturally as if he’d been living with it for years. He pulled all the subtleties out of the work while also intuitively understanding its techno heart. I love this dude.
Next up was the Guggenheim Museum’s sneak peak of my opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Santa Fe Opera brought most of the cast to the “Works & Process” series for two nights of performance and discussion. Now that the heavy lifting is behind me (mainly), it was such a pleasure to chat onstage with the librettist Mark Campbell and director Kevin Newbury.
We discussed the fundamental challenge at the heart of Jobs’ life: he changed human communication by shrinking it onto beautiful sleek devices – but people are so complicated. Life is does not operate with one button. You can’t swish away an unacknowledged daughter or pancreatic cancer with the swipe of a finger. Jobs’ journey to a deeper understanding of human relationships was guided by his wife Laurene, who is the critical character in this story.
I next head to the Kennedy Center, where the National Symphony Orchestra performs Liquid Interface, my ‘water symphony,’ on April 20 & 22 under the baton of Cristian Macelaru. This is especially meaningful for me because, ten years ago, the piece was premiered by the very same orchestra. It’s exciting to bring back a work that was written well before my post began as composer-in-residence of the Kennedy Center, and with a rising star in the conducting world. I’ve fallen in love with the place and all its possibilities, and the NSO lies at the heart of it. Many NSO musicians play on my KC Jukebox series, which presents new music in fluid, immersive formats. It’ll be cool to join them onstage.
And finally, on April 28, Mercury Soul returns to the San Francisco’s DNA Lounge for a “California Mystics: From Reich to Burning Man.” This classical/club show has gathered strong momentum in SF, presenting the city’s finest indie classical ensembles alongside awesome DJs. This show examines visionaries of California, from Lou Harrison to Terry Riley to Steve Reich, with special appearances by DJ Derek Hena and electric violinist Homer Hsu from Pink Mammoth. Burning Man very much exemplifies the maverick, iconoclastic streak in West Coast music history, and we’re very thankful for the participation of two energizing Pink Mammoth members.
That’s April. Tune in next month for a preview of my new JFK piece.
Can orchestras do lean? Can they be the musical equivalent of a Special Operations unit, dropping into strange spaces to project power in asymmetrical ways? Can the great behemoths of classical music act as disrupters? Let’s hope so.
Orchestras are, by definition, big institutions. Like an army, their scale offers unique powers and opportunities. Nothing competes with the sonic blast of a big orchestra, and there’s no canvas as huge as a symphonic piece. I love the gargantuan scale of the medium.
But times are a-changing, and orchestras are starting to deploy their musicians in intriguing, small-scale formats. I’ve brought this approach to the Kennedy Center’s KC Jukebox series, which is a kind of ‘new music disrupter’ that takes a highly adventurous and experimental approach to concert presentation. In many of these concerts, we use a mix of musicians from the Center’s two orchestras alongside local players, and most of them appreciate the opportunities and challenges of working in an intimate and hip environment. We let the audience roam free in most concerts, which are immersed in dynamic lighting and projected program notes. People love coming up close to the instruments as they’re being played; it’s a different acoustic experience, it’s a different human experience.
Another example is the MusicNOW series at the Chicago Symphony. It’s a great example of the Swat team approach: CSO musicians, often supported by local freelancers, bring to life one of the best new-music events in the country. Everything about MusicNOW is different from the mainstage identity of the CSO, from the sleek Harris Concert Hall to the production to the rep. The audience is different, too: a younger, more diverse crew than at Symphony Center. When I curated the series with Anna Clyne for many years, we felt that our experiments in concert presentation very much benefited the larger organization. Given a leaner format, we could take more risks with, say, the music we chose or the way we designed the cinematic program notes. The series is alive and well under Sam Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek.
Other orchestras are going lean and mean, notably the SF Symphony on its Soundbox series. Here you can watch, up close and personal, principle percussionist Jake Nissly perform the music of Christopher Rouse or Lou Harrison. Isn’t it nice to see the percussion section escape the back of Davies Hall once in awhile? Or you can hear Robin Sutherland play Bach, a wonderfully crystalline experience if you’ve only heard him play within the SFS.
The LA Phil Green Umbrella and the NY Phil Contact! series fit into this trend, with the LA crew offering more traditional concerts in their home hall while the NY Phil gets out to National Sawdust. The more old-school seated format is fine, but I think it’s most interesting when the lean-and-mean approach is paired with an imaginative rethinking of the concert experience, an ethic I’ve developed on my own Mercury Soul project.
Since 2008, we’ve been scattering chamber ensembles around clubs all over the country, integrating classical music into DJ sets and immersive production (here’s a nice overview of our recent show pairing baroque music with EDM). The point is to make the experience more social, with ambient information and videos replacing the stodgy program book. We’re careful not to lard up too much stimulus when the classical musicians are playing; we save the lasers and haze for the DJ segments. But it’s amazing how much more adventurous your programming can be when the format is more inviting.
Is there a downside to the Swat team approach? After all, disruption does have consequences. A recent lively discussion on Twitter pushed back on these efforts of orchestras to colonize new spaces. The thread went a number of directions. Some composers emphasized that orchestras shouldn’t use chamber events to alleviate any obligations to program new music on their symphonic series, a sensible argument to me. From the local freelancers came the feeling of encroachment – ie, here comes the 800-pound gorilla trying to take over ‘our spaces,’ equipped with more funding and staff. That one’s a bit more complicated.
No question: orchestras should perform more new music on their mainstage symphonic series, and the Swat team approach shouldn’t replace new-music programming. That we can agree on.
As far as turf-invasion, I can understand the knee-jerk resistance to big institutions trouncing out into the field. Say you’re a local chamber ensemble that’s spent a lot of effort building a concert series, and here comes the big dog barreling into the neighborhood. I know that feeling because, as the founder of a small non-profit (Mercury Soul), I’ve seen several institutions use our format as a model. But honestly, it’s only good for the local music scene when more music happens, and anyway, the whole point is to change the field by example. Furthermore, no two series are going to be identical. For example, Mercury Soul hits more of a literal club angle than SFS Soundbox, and we both enjoy a lot of audience overlap because people appreciate the different experiences. We happily coexist.
Most importantly, we have to remember that orchestras are made up of people – local musicians, yes, who also like to let their hair down in different venues and formats. These people are all important members of the musical community, and in many cases they perform outside the concert hall very rarely. I’m sympathetic to the concerns of some local freelancers who feel encroached, but I really believe that any music scene is better with more music.
The field is demanding that orchestras adapt to changing times and tastes. So if they air-drop a special op’s unit into a club somewhere, let’s give them a chance.
Thud. Did you feel it? That’s the sound of an opera being turned in.
Last month I sent in all three-hundred pages The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiering this summer at Santa Fe Opera, and rarely have I felt as if such a giant weight was lifted from my shoulders. With both opera lovers and Jobs devotees now grabbing tickets and planning their trips to the high desert, now’s a good time for an update on what this opera is all about.
Over the past few years of composing this piece, I sometimes get asked “Why an opera about Steve Jobs? Well, opera history is full of powerful yet surprising subject matter, from St. Francis to Richard Nixon, and Jobs’ story is beautifully suited for opera. It exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication – and the collision of those topics is something that opera, in particular, can explore.
This piece explodes one of the quintessential operatic techniques, leitmotif – a Wagnerian invention that attaches a theme to a character or idea. With an opera about a man who changed human communication, I wanted to give every character not just a leitmotif, but a soundworld – and see what happens when they collide.
Imagine, for example, the possibilities for bringing to life Kobun, the spiritual advisor to Steve Jobs – an important and overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by librettist Mark Campbell. A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drift across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely ‘acoustic,’ sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo. Think of how beautifully and eerily those sounds can blow across the mystical textures of a low bass voice.
Or imagine the music of Steve Jobs himself : quicksilver textures in both orchestra and electronics, with the latter being built by samples of early Mac gear. His expanded soundworld also includes an acoustic guitar – an instrument whose predecessors appeared quite often in early opera, but one that has scarcely been heard in opera houses since. Jobs loved the guitar, and the energetic sound of finger-picked steel-string will be an interesting way to illuminate the busy inner world a restless man.
In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of this opera – which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again. The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acts as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs. His buzzing inner energy made for a visionary of Jesus-like charisma, but he could quickly become a cold tyrant. Laurene is a soulful and strong woman who convinces Jobs of the importance of true human connection, the person who reminds him that people don’t have one button: they are beautifully complicated.
Imagine her slow-moving, oceanic harmonies colliding with the frenetic music of Steve. How does one music impact the other? How do they merge? How can Laurene slow down the busy inner world of Steve? In an opera about a man who revolutionized human communication, this technique of “musical worlds colliding” will be key.
The primary roles in this work – Steve Jobs, Laurene, confidante Steve Wozniak, girlfriend Chrisann, spiritual advisor Kobun – will be associated with highly distinct music. As they interact, their musics will blend almost like on a DJ rig. I’ve always looked to exotic forms to pull new sounds out of me when writing symphonic music – from my ‘energy symphony’ to a new piece about mythological creatures – and for me in opera, that will happen on the level of character.
A crucial inspiration has been the singers who will create these roles, and the creative team that’s bringing the piece to life. Ed Parks is one of the most powerful and clear baritones I’ve heard, and he also has stellar acting skills. While many people know of Ed within the field, he will become a sensation after this piece, which has him onstage almost all the time. Sasha Cooke, our leading lady, has been a singer I’ve been fortunate to hear for many years in San Francisco, whether at the SFS or the opera. Her unique warmth has the power to melt metal, and that’s exactly what she does in this opera.
On the creative side, there’d be no opera without the words of Mark Campbell, who’s created a wonderfully non-linear libretto that so masterfully creates the key characters in Jobs’ life. Director Kevin Newbury has played such an important role in the workshops that have been so crucial to the development of the piece, as has maestro Michael Christie, whose experience in the medium makes him an extremely valuable part of this.
So if you have a few days this July or August, come to Santa Fe Opera. It’s the perfect example of a world-class arts institution in a beautiful, unique setting.
Sending a satellite into space takes vision, madness, collaboration, and patience. These are also important elements, too, in the less celestial field of classical music – for this is a world of long gestations and late payoffs. Much time is required to compose a new piece, and years may pass before it enjoys widespread appreciation or is released on CD. And then one day, many years after the work’s conception, some happy news might come beaming back: for me last month, this came in the form of two Grammy nominations.
One of the nominated recordings, the San Francisco Symphony’s Bates: Works for Orchestra, includes two works that are almost ten years old. When I started Liquid Interface, I was living on Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in 2006, a less seasoned composer and human than I am today. But the piece nonetheless demonstrates many topics of ongoing fascination for me.
The most obvious is the addition of electronics, and my approach to this new element has evolved significantly over the span the pieces on these recordings. Certainly the influence of downtempo electronica can be heard in Liquid Interface’s opening movement, which conjures the calving of glaciers by shattering huge blocks of symphonic textures over massive trip-hop beats; but the more important element of the electronics is the theatricality it brings to the symphony’s form. That was an early revelation for me.
Actual recordings of glaciers hitting the Antarctic open the work; samples of water droplets become a quicksilver beat track; and processed recordings of a hurricane explode in the climax. This is where it becomes impossible to separate form and content – ie, the narrative of a work, and the sounds used to articulate that narrative – and where an expanded soundworld enables more imaginative forms. In Liquid Interface, I pushed the electronic sounds to behave with the richness of orchestral sounds, to carry not only rhythm and harmony, but place and context.
That approach underlies both of the other works on the SFS CD in different ways. The B-Sides uses a completely different form: five brief touchdowns on surreal planets, from the north shore of Kauai to the outer atmosphere of Earth. Each movement uses specific musical techniques to realize a mini drama.
For example, “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei)” imagines a melody that evaporates at cadence points. The woodwinds sing a bending melody that, at each pause in the phrase, is enveloped in a cloud of string harmonics that float upwards. The central movement, “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” sets an actual NASA spacewalk to music, and I found it to be the most challenging but also the most rewarding movement to compose. The human ear behaves peculiarly when it hears speech; it kind of relegates everything else to deep background. At first I was a bit distressed at moving the orchestra from being the primary focus, but I eventually realized that this created a magnificent opportunity to surprise the listener by having the orchestral reassert itself. In this movement, you hear the astronaut exit the spacecraft – and then the orchestra takes over. Michael Tilson Thomas has been a key mentor in my exploration of form and content, and his commissioning of The B-Sides gave me a big opportunity to try a new approach.
The final work on the SFS CD, Alternative Energy, exploded this narrative approach to the orchestra. The piece is an ‘energy symphony’ that moves one hundred years ahead with each of the four movements, from Henry Ford’s scrapyard to a post-energy future in Iceland. The key in the great programmatic music of history, from Tchaikovsky to Berlioz to Corigliano, is to make the musical materials as vivid and memorable as the narrative. This requires highly distinctive musical materials that push the orchestra into new territory. Alternative Energy requires a small junkyard to be assembled in the percussion section, haunting the concertmaster who plays a bluesy fiddle concerto. As the piece unfolds into the present day and then an imagined future, you can hear the idée fixe melody and the junkyard rhythmic motif transform into larger and more extreme versions.
Both in its theatrical use of orchestral sounds to articulate extra-musical narrative, and its connection the Chicago Symphony that commissioned it, Alternative Eenrgy is worth considering alongside the other Grammy nominated recording, Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.
Riccardo Muti premiered both works, and his highly attuned approach to musical drama certainly informed both works. Having led the opera house at La Scala for several decades, Muti knows how to wring the most dramatic sounds out of an orchestra. I wrote him a purely acoustic piece that was highly informed by my years working with the power and drama of electronics.
Anthology of Fantastic Zoology is a setting of the book by Luis-Jorge Borges, a master of magical realism and narrative puzzles, who created a marvelous compendium of mythological creatures. My musical realization of this is eleven interlocking movements, an expansive form inspired by French and Russian ballet scores. In between evocations of creatures familiar (sprite, nymph) and unknown (an animal that is an island), brief “forest interludes” take us deeper into the night, and deeper into the forest itself.
Each narrative puzzle prompted novel musical solutions. In “Sprite,” the riffs hop from stand to stand, shattering the normally monolithic string section into several dozen soloists; a musical palindrome conjures a serpentine creature that slithers up and down a tower; and “Sirens” are evoked by two offstage violins who seduce their colleagues one by one.
The trick of the piece is that all of the animals fuse together at the end, when the preceding 25 minutes collapses in a thunderous 10-minute finale that occurs at the witching-hour moment between midnight and dawn. The sprites bounce around the stage, the palindrommic animal flashes forward and backwards, the Gryphon shoots tongues of fire – and the Zaratan, an animal that is an island, devours them all.
Heard together, the works on these two CDs show a decade of exploration of symphonic sounds and form, and as much as I appreciate the Grammy nominations, the biggest honor was simply having these pieces recorded to begin with. Recording new symphonic music is a very big leap for any orchestra, and it’s nice when their efforts can bring some recognition. These two orchestras, the SF Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have been essential partners in my musical development, as have their maestros.
If you want to take a listen to either CD, you can find both here. Enjoy!
Always interesting to emerge from my dark composing cave and encounter the bright flashing lights at a DJ gig. Last week I stumbled blinking from my studio, where I’ve been editing and orchestrating The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, and dropped into a pumping club-meets-classical show on the Kennedy Center’s Jukebox series called Mercury Soul. Here’s an overview of those two projects:
My opera is in its final stages after two years and two workshops. The primary things I learned from the workshops were simple on the surface: where to tighten, and where to give more space.
Tightening is almost always needed in new opera. Often I love the arias of new works, but the oversetting of plot-driven passages always makes me impatient. I like to move rapidly and naturalistically through these sections to create a huge contrast with the big singing moments, which are usually when a character dwells upon one idea while the plot takes a pause. This opera is driven by an Information Age kineticism, so the scenes were already fast-paced and less needing of cuts. But we did find a few places to tighten. There are a few Tarantino-esque scene reprises that, on the second time through, needed less of a literal repeat. It’s amazing what a few nips and tucks can do.
On the other end of the spectrum, more space was needed on a micro-level around key words and phrases. This was primarily because I kept the scenes moving so quickly, and also because of my aforementioned aversion to over-setting of plot text. Conductor Michael Christie and librettist Mark Campbell suggested a bit more air here and there around a meaningful word or two. Just a beat or so significantly helps the singers be better actors, and it helps the audience understand what they’re singing. The accumulation of these details can make a big difference over the course of 90 minutes.
With the workshops behind me, I set about the herculean task of orchestration. These days it’s my version of cave-painting: whatever you’re doing, you can be sure that I’m deep in my hole orchestrating this piece. An opera is something like a concerto in its orchestration approach, since you always need to hear the soloist. I’m doing the best I can to imbue the orchestra with visceral punch without overpowering the singers.
Interestingly, the most important element in opera orchestration is how you handle the one thing not in the orchestra: the singers. The better a composer understands the tessitura of each singer, the higher likelihood they’ll project no matter what’s happening in the pit. I think of vocal writing as kite-surfing in micro-climates: each voice becomes a different instrument with every interval of a third (whereas instruments tend to change by the octave). I’ve gotten to know all the wonderful things about Ed Parks and Sasha Cooke’s voices over the past year, hopefully I’ll do them justice.
I emerged from my studio and headed to the Kennedy Center to mount Mercury Soul there, a refreshing change from the minutia-obsessive world of opera orchestration. Mercury Soul show intersperses DJing and club production with sets of classical music, and it primarily occurs in commercial clubs out in San Francisco where the non-profit is based. But we’ve done many institutional events over the years with groups as far-flung as the Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New World Symphonies, and bringing this hybrid musical event to my current artistic home was exhilarating.
The Kennedy Center can go big like few other organizations. I’ve seen in my position as composer-in-residence that the place has the ability to create large, immersive experiences in stunning ways. My new music series KC Jukebox takes format exploration as a key ingredient of every concert, using projected information and fluid environments to reimagine the concert experience. So I knew our crackerjack production team could turn the top floor of the Kennedy Center into a club and set about finding the repertoire.
For this show we complemented Bach, Stravinsky, and Adams with composer and hip-hop violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose energetic string quartets were a perfect fit for the club-meets-classical collision. A big added bonus was Daniel’s improvisational abilities. This guy not only has stunning chops on the fiddle, but he understands the nuances of grooving over electronica. Whenever he would sense a mix from me, he’d start evolving his jam accordingly, so that we both transitioned together. This may sound obvious but, in fact, playing an instrument over a DJ set can be punishingly difficult. The harmonies migrates so quickly; the tracks vary greatly in their density level; and, at the end of the day, records cannot react to the live player as in a jazz trio. Daniel mastered all of these challenges with the confidence of someone who truly understands both worlds.
A strong turnout for the event confirmed that DC is hungry for immersive and challenging artistic experiences, and the Kennedy Center is uniquely positioned to make those happen. Maybe some critics and bloggers may not want to hear classical music presented this way, I passionately believe that creative formats are the next frontier in our field, and our audiences have encountered a lot of challenging music in the most entertaining social platform. And anyway, I kind of like the experiment of moving from Stravinsky to Prince to techno within ten minutes (they play well together).
Now I return to my California composing cave, grateful for the time in the sun but ready to take a fresh look at the opera. If you have any interest in seeing The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs lift off next summer, tickets just went on sale here.
It’s been a nice summer composing and performing in beautiful places. I began with Liquid Interface and Mothership in Rio, continued with The B-Sides under Marin Alsop in Santa Cruz, and ended with several visits to Santa Fe to work at the opera house. Otherwise, I was at home chipping away at the silence around the opera itself, as well as preparing for a full season of visits to the Kennedy Center, my artistic home. Here is an overview of 2016-17, including performances of works new and old; info about my coming opera debut; and info about the debut of Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, a film starring Matthew McConaughey for which I scored the music. Enjoy! Mason
Kennedy Center: National Symphony
My duties as composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center touch on the wide variety of artistic endeavors there, from chamber music to jazz to opera to theater. The most natural fit is with the renown National Symphony Orchestra, which is performing three works these season: Liquid Interface, Garages of the Valley, and a new work celebrating the life of John F. Kennedy. Scored for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and electronica, the work will set the poetry of longtime JFK confidant Robert Frost. The premiere occurs on a star-studded concert on May 24, 2017 – the centennial of JFK’s birth.
Kennedy Center: KC Jukebox
A primary focus for me at the Center is the KC Jukebox series, which presents new music in new formats, with immersive production, imaginative stagecraft, and integrated social platforms. Last season took us from a walk-through of a century of ambient music to a “geographical concert” ending with an eco-themed post-party. This season is even bigger and wilder, including the choral superstars Chanticleer, who will be premiering a work of mine in May, and the Thievery Corporation – famed pioneers of electronic-jazz fusion. We begin next month with Mercury Soul, my classical-club project that intersperses classical sets throughout an evening of DJing. Also on the Jukebox are two large works of John Adams, who turns 70 this year.
Philadelphia Orchestra and beyond
Equally as important to me as the premiere of a new work is the life of older pieces, and it is always exciting to forge a new relationship with a great orchestra. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performances of Alternative Energy under Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin will bring the visceral soundworld of my ‘energy symphony’ to the Kimmel Center, and it will be thrilling to hear those sounds brought to life by such a storied ensemble. Other big happenings this season: the New Zealand Symphony touring my Violin Concerto with the amazing Anne Akiko Meyers; Forth Worth Symphony’s performances of Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, which was just heard at the Britt Festival under Maestro Teddy Abrams; and the Cello Concerto at Memphis Symphony under my longtime collaborator Robert Moody.
Opera and film
Last week marked a new step for me with the premiere of a film that I scored. Legendary filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees starts Matthew McConaughey Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe in a mystery-drama set in Japan, and it tells the beautiful and haunting story of marriage and memory. The symphonic score was recorded at Skywalker Studios outside of San Francisco and features some new sounds from me, including an elaborate solo for shakuhachi (bamboo flute). Click here for info.http://theseaoftrees-movie.com.
Sometimes the Big Break airdrops into your life like a helicopter kill squad. In mid November 2014, I had never written a feature length film score; three months later, I’d scored 50 minutes of swirling symphonic textures for a film from director Gus Van Sant, the visionary behind Goodwill Hunting, Milk and many other films. Coming out today in select theaters and on Amazon, The Sea of Trees marks the exploration of a new medium for me.
Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe star in this mystery drama about a man searching for meaning in Japan’s Suicide Forest, known locally as “Aokigahara” because of the many people who go there to end their lives. Here’s the backstory on the score for this film.
The movie opens with McConaughey booking a one-way flight to Japan, then being driven to the edge of a vast forest. In a strangely detached state, he walks past eerie personal memorials and human remains – and almost ends his life. But out of the trees emerges a man muttering in Japanese, with blood dripping from his wrists. McConaughey’s death mission gets interrupted as a he leaps to help the man, and the two go on a mystical journey through the sprawling wood.
With many beautiful, dialogue-free forest scenes, The Sea of Trees presented intriguing challenges to me as a composer. This began with my tryout for the job itself, the scoring of the 7-minute climactic scene of McConaughey searching the forest for Watanabe. The assignment came from Gus, who had become interested in my music and wanted to see how I would respond to a huge, visually-driven scene. Gus was mum when I asked what temp music he’d been working with; he wanted me to start from scratch.
I responded not with the ambient pads that might have too literally matched the picture, but with kinetic symphonic music that mirrored the inner emotional energy of the main character. There is a burning, quiet intensity to Matthew McConaughey, and the way he was seemingly pushed along by the forest itself suggested swirling, almost liquid textures. You can hear the energy of the strings subside as McConaughey approaches each clue in the forest – an old package, a piece of string, a coat – and then rekindle as he moves again. I sent in the demo.
A few days later, the phone rang. Gus was all in – and I had to be in LA the next morning. And so it began.
The experience was captivating from the start because, like the narrative forms my music animates, film focuses on imaginative storytelling. Turns of dialogue, a slow tumble shot, even a subtle focus change can suggest a musical response. You have to think about what is perceptible, what is working in the background, what the expectation is – and how to play with it.
One of the most interesting things I learned about was the role of the editor. Working with Gus Van Sant and legendary editor Pietro Scalia, I had a front row seat on the dynamic duo behind many stunning films. Gus has a disarming quietness; he rarely speaks, and when does, everyone listens. He has a powerful faith in his instincts. Pietro has an expert way of sensing where Gus is going and gently pointing others in that direction.
One example concerned the Japanese setting. How to set the scene without, well, becoming too kitschy?
I started exploring a soundworld of symphonic strings, percussion, and woodwinds, with a special focus on the shakuhachi. I’d never written for this Japanese instrument, and my experience over the next few months a revelation. While the shakuhachi has an earthy and haunting tone, it can’t really play chromatic notes (black notes on the piano) without a lot of effort (finger or lip bends). So I made a kind of hybrid ‘super flute’ consisting of shakuhachi and alto flute. Being able to bend reality in the studio is one of the interesting things about film work that a composer misses in the world of live performance, as much as I love the classical space.
Working with such a legendary director on a film starring so many captivating actors was one of the most exciting and daunting experiences of my life. The composer is the absolute last piece of any film, and everyone is sitting in a den of offices in LA, eagerly waiting for your music. You have to deliver. New vocabulary, new techniques, and (yes) new software is required – as well as the important realization that the composer is serving the film.
In my primary world of the orchestra, the composer has such strong creative input – the musical equivalent of “final cut” on everything from the piece to its performance – so it’s nice to change your creative method sometimes. In not only film but in opera, one draws real power from working with others. From editor Pietro Scalia to music editor Ryan Rubin, the team was incredibly inspirational. I’m very grateful to Gus for his vision and for his faith in me. I am so grateful to be part of this beautiful film.
Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell talk about making of Bates' opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Tickets for this July 2017 world-premiere production are on sale now at https://www.santafeopera.org/operas-and-ticketing/the-revolution-of-steve-jobs
Indigenous grooves intersect with techno in this high-energy work for percussion ensemble.
• April 28 in SF: Mercury Soul “California Mystics”
• May 2: Chanticleer premiere on KC Jukebox
• May 15: w/ Thievery Corporation on KC Jukebox
• May 24: Kennedy Center premiere celebrating JFK
• Philadelphia Inquirerer profile (David Patrick Stearns)
• Santa Fe Opera tickets for Steve Jobs opera on sale
September 21st, 2011