"Composer David Ludwig will premiere The Anchoress, a song cycle for soprano that explores the medieval mystic tradition of anchorism and its relationship to contemporary society, set to poetry by Katie Ford. Ludwig will channel the voice and inner life of an imagined medieval anchoress—a Christian who lived in extreme confinement in a quest for spiritual perfection. Largely forgotten today, the practice of anchorism grew in popularity in late medieval England, particularly among women. Bridging Renaissance and contemporary musical languages through the combination of modern saxophones and ancient instruments, the composition will serve as a medium to discuss contemporary issues of “gender, faith, self-determination, and social power,” as Ludwig explains. The premiere of this new work will be presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society."
Last December I scored Michael Almareyda's film "Cymbeline" – the play by Shakespeare that nobody knows about but everybody should, and I think Michael took that opportunity in making his film, which is so beautifully and elegantly realized. It stars an A-list cast of Hollywood actors: Dakota Johnson, Milla Jovovich, Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Penn Badgely, Bill Pullman, and many other actors you'd know. The producer of Cymbeline is Anthony Katagas, who won an Academy Award this year for “Twelve Years a Slave.” You can check it all out on IMDB, but suffice it to say it was my first true encounter with such major figures in the film industry. I had done some music for shorter documentaries and animated films, but nothing on this scale. Composing for the big screen is about as humbling and exciting as it gets (in equal parts!). I want to share some of what I learned in the process with anyone who is interested or is looking to write a movie score, themselves.
Now if you’re going to score a film, read this article, which features an interview with some of the most influential film composers out there. Reading it will save you...oh, endless anxiety, knowing that these guys—the biggest in the business—have already gone through (and frequently go through) what you’re about to go through many times over. The title of the article didn't apply to my experience at all–everyone I worked with on Cymbeline was super professional, collegial, and warm. But there was also a directness in communication that one doesn't see so much in the concert music business. When there's a tight timeline on a project that costs what these films do, there isn't a ton of room for servile flattery. Your music is a part of a much bigger picture (pun pretty much intended), and it's got to work for the director and everyone else who has the say–not just for you. Flexibility and humility are key to making this happen.
The process of composing a film score usually starts with a “spotting" session, which is where you sit down with the director and others to watch the movie and talk through what each scene is trying to communicate (and how that could be reflected in the music). After that, you start off on your own–in my case I was sent a link to download the movie and that's when the party started. I'd watch the movie on my iPad and would improvise at the piano until something compelling took shape, and then I'd make a note of what I wrote to see if it was worth exploring further. I don't usually work like that, but I realize now that I forgot to mention my deadline (which was very typical) where I had about three weeks to write forty-five minutes of music (it's really ninety minutes of music, since half of it is discarded in the process). Many concert music composers write that much music in a full year.
I'd get the timings pretty well down and then use the computer to find the right pacing; nipping and tucking along the way so that when Milla and Ed* appeared, the music reacted exactly in sync with the image. It's got to be down to the fraction of a second: if something happens too late, it feels awkward...too early and you're tipping the hand of the drama. There is a sound editor who will fit your music in, but it's got to be pretty much exact from the get go. (* I'd like to think we're on a first name basis now...)The cycle begins once you submit your "cues" (sections of music for the parts of the film) to the director. An engineer syncs your music to the film based on the exact timings you give, and then you get a phone call from the directors with "love it!," hate it!," or "feh..." Michael was very patient with my gear-shift to film composing, but never compromising with what he wanted, which ultimately is infinitely more helpful as a guide.. It's a special challenge when you're using computerized MIDI samples to represent your work to others. I must admit that as a “pencil and paper” composer, I wasn’t setup with great synth sounds on my computer for it to render my music…I’m guessing that my initial tracks probably reminded them of something from “Lost in Space,” so crappy was my computer’s wheezy and mechanical attempts to play the score. Since I don’t really use computer playback in my regular composing process, what came out of my speakers sounded more like a dozen vuvuzelas than the oboe, for example...a dozen vuvuzelas played by robot monkeys in a robot monkey band.
You just have to invest in the technology to get decent sounding instrument samples. It’s hard enough for a trained musician to hear through bad MIDI sounds—how do you expect the director to make sense of your lush and brilliant music through a dense thicket of bleeps and blips? I went out and got Garritan sounds, then decided those were just about as bad as what I already had on Sibelius. So I dropped a little more money on the EastWest sound library, which was a big step north. The Vienna Symphonic Library will be next, as pricey as it is. I used to trick my Curtis students in class by playing an excerpt from a computerized Firebird suite and would then ask them if they heard anything weird in the recording. Every year, just a handful knew it was a computer–but just a handful… If the computer can convince top conservatory students, that's a scary level of convincing.
As composers, we're used writing our music and handing it over to be played. Some make changes to accommodate the performers, some edit along the way and in rehearsals wanting to improve the music, and some do neither. But this is entirely different. As a film composer you are sending passages of music to be accepted, rejected, or sent back for alteration. For some, that's a massive compromise, but for me as a creative artist, I found the process totally liberating, fun, and challenging. I admit that when you spend hours writing, only to get the hand of "it's nice music, but not for this film," it's difficult to swallow. It can be what you think is your best music–the most bolt-of-lightning inspired writing you've done on the whole project, but if the director doesn't like it or likes it, but doesn't think it fits with the concept of the scene, it's out. And you have to just be able to turn it around and start writing the next attempt until something clicks. It's a difficult process psychologically, as exciting as it is frustrating at times.
But in three magic words..."that's the gig."
When I was approached to write a new violin concerto for Bella Hristova, I was thrilled at the idea of collaborating with this incredible artist whom I know rather well. But what can I say about her that hasn’t been said by people everywhere? The New York Times talks about Bella’s “lovely…soaring tone,” and calls her (just straight up) “the excellent Bella Hristova.” The Strad says it was “particularly struck by her commanding stage presence.” The Washington Post says she is a “player of impressive power and control.” I personally think she’s not only one of the great young violinists in the world, but one of the great violinists in the world of any age. I know that being engaged to someone might suggest that I’m biased (thus the strategy of leading off with whatother people have had to say), but I hold my opinion as self-evident. Go have a listen.
Alan Jordan, the executive director of the Vermont Symphony, proposed the idea to me to write a concerto for Bella in honor of us getting married, and as a natural artistic partnership between two individuals who had worked separately many times with the VSO before. I had a wonderful residency with the VSO from 2004-2008 funded by what was then “Meet the Composer,” and this felt like a great new link to a Vermont audience community that I feel so close to already. Bella has been a soloist with the VSO many times, and we both owe so much to music director Jaime Laredo who has been an impossibly kind mentor and friend. We’ve come to realize that in music (and probably everything else!) strong relationships make strong results, and we have had an amazing relationship with the Vermont community.
But Alan being a bigger thinker wanted to expand that community for this project, so he approached colleagues in other orchestras where there were appropriate connections. He reached out to Kansas City, Louisville, Quad City, Reno, and Westchester symphonies to see if they had interest, and we got positive responses from everyone. The plan was to build a consortium of orchestras to commission and present the piece. They then applied to New Music USA for further support.
To my great surprise and delight (and general “yeehaw!”) we got funding from New Music USA. There were nearly twelve hundred applicants, and only 2% of them received support. That number is humbling, to say the least, and if anything it’s a great motivation to make this project the very, very best it can be.
The project is a new violin concerto to be written by me for Bella, celebrating these relationships–and ourrelationship–and to use the piece to build bridges between these many audience communities, connecting to them through meaningful personal engagement, and sharing all of our collective stories with each other closely and remotely. Bella and I have already focused a lot on engaging audiences and will always work to cultivate new ones in the project-based careers we are so fortunate share. We are looking forward to all of it–getting to know people from the orchestras, audience, and communities who are a part of this consortium, and introducing them to this new and living music.
It’s funny how, as a composer, you carry these ideas around in your head as if they’re stored like little folders in a file cabinet. Four years ago, soon after Bella and I began as a couple, I started imagining what a concerto for her might sound like. I thought about her explosive playing, how it could launch out of an explosive sonority in the orchestra to start the piece. I thought about the ending (will it be three movements? will it havemovements?) and how that can highlight her extraordinary technique with flashing bow strokes and the electrical energy of her concerto playing. There are definitely new ideas and sounds swimming around in my inner ear…thinking about a new pieces is one of the sweetest times, but then you have to get down to the long and (wonderfully) challenging process of writing.
So I guess it’s time to open those folders…
Program notes for "Pale Blue Dot" commissioned by the Caramoor Festival for the Dover String Quartet
I am inspired by astronomy and always have been. I remember the first time I looked through a telescope as a kid: we were at summer camp taking turns looking at Saturn, a perfect marriage of icy rings and tiny diamonds for moons. And as a kid I first heard about the Voyager probes, launched thirty-six years ago; Voyager I now traveling in interstellar space; the space between the stars. It takes Voyager I 17 hours for its messages to reach us, sent by radio signal over the 9.5 billion miles it has traveled to this point. Awesome.
The Voyager project came from a time when, perhaps, we dreamt a little more and worried about material gain a little less. It was sent by NASA to study the planets of the solar system, but it had a second objective built sideways into the subtext: to leave our solar system as a message in a bottle, possibly received by some other intelligent species on some other side of the vast ocean of stars. To carry the message, Voyager is equipped with the “Golden Record,” an actual 12-inch gold-plated record that contains pictures and music electronically imbedded on it to describe our lives and history as a species. Amongst the sample images, there are scientific diagrams and photographs of elephants, schoolchildren, and highways. On the audio playlist are greetings to the universe recorded in 55 languages and music–some of the most glorious–by Bach, Berry (Chuck), Mozart, Stravinsky, and last on the album: Beethoven’s shattering Cavatina from his Op. 130 quartet, as recorded by the Budapest String Quartet. The people at NASA and the committee put an extraordinary document together in this Golden Record. In my experience, scientists have some of the deepest and personal connections to art of anyone.
In 1990, the visionary astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, (who worked directly on the Voyager missions) asked NASA to turn Voyager around and take a deep space portrait of Earth looking back on us as it was leaving the solar system from six billion miles away. When you look at this picture, you see first the long rays of sunlight refracted off of Voyager’s little narrow band camera (everything is small on Voyager compared to today–it has 69K of memory; this text file occupies twice that amount, and the laptop I’m typing this on has 2.4 million times Voyager’s computing capacity). In the bottom right of the photo is a bright little speck, not quite even a full pixel, and that is our home, the Earth. The photo is titled appropriately “Pale Blue Dot” and Dr. Sagan wrote beautifully about it:
"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
I’ve been watching the reboot of the TV show Cosmos, first hosted by Sagan and now hosted by Niel deGrasse Tyson, who is also brilliant. On the show, Tyson mentioned that it will take Voyager eighty-thousand years to get to the next star over from our own.
I like to fantasize about what that first encounter with Voyager will look like in eighty thousand, or eight hundred thousand, or eight million years from now. After so many millennia of lonely sojourn, I imagine intelligent life forms probing the probe, looking for the “on” button, debating with each other what it means and who we were? Is it a threat? A lost device? Or, most unlikely but true, a friendly introduction, a missive sent into infinity hoping to meet anyone at all that crossed its path. And what would that Cavatina sound like after all those years? Would it be warped and modulated, so distant in time and space from its source? And perhaps the aliens would learn what they needed to about us from Voyager and decide to send it back out into space, keeping its role as the most ancient and modern time capsule our civilization has ever assembled. Voyager could continue in the expanse to meet another civilization, as alien to them as they are to us, with a snapshot of ourselves at our most human, living on this pale blue dot.
Those thoughts and images are the inspiration for my new string quartet.
Pale Blue Dot was commissioned by the Caramoor International Music Festival, on behalf of the Dover Quartet, for A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century. World Premiere: July 11, 2014 at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.