Welcome to “Composers Corner,” Subito’s series of composer talks…a way to better get to know our composers. During this unsettling COVID-19 pandemic, they’ll share how — as creators — they’ve been affected by it, what projects they’ve been working on, along with some of their personal interests. They’ll offer a glimpse and some insight into what they’re doing to continue to create music as they look forward to moving ahead and beyond these challenging times.
Today, we’re chatting with Michael Abels, composer of celebrated concert works Global Warming and Delights and Dances, and noted film scores for Oscar-winning director Jordan Peele’s record-breaking thrillers “Get Out” and “Us.” Abels’ most recent work – Salute in Solo — premiered in June in a virtual performance by violist Christian Colberg. The work was commissioned as part of the Cincinnati Symphony’s recent Fanfare Project of new solo instrumental works for our current age of global disruption and social distancing.
S: How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
Abels: Film and television production has stopped, so there aren’t many projects reaching post-production, the point at which music is needed. Luckily, I was scheduled to write concert commissions during February through April, so those projects continued even though the premieres have been delayed. I’ve also had other concert music commissions which I’ve been able to begin immediately, rather than next year. I’ve been writing and arranging on a couple BLM video projects which should be online soon, and I’ve done a few webinars and fundraisers either as a moderator or a notable talking head.
S: Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?
Abels: Most of my writing collaborations were already remote, over Dropbox or FaceTime or even text. What’s changed is recording music, and because I wasn’t in the middle of a film score or series, it didn’t fall to me to have to solve that problem under deadline. But many composers, engineers and musicians are solving that, and, so when my turn comes there will be some standards and experience to draw on.
S: What technology have you used to continue to do your work in a virtual world?
Abels: Everything a composer does prior to recording music with musicians is virtual. So it’s all the same audio apps, plus lots of Zoom meetings, or on similar platforms.
S: Your film score for “Us” received numerous critics awards, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, and was even declared “Film Score of the Decade” by The Wrap. What was special about that project for you?
Abels: “Us” gave me a chance to demonstrate my abilities combining virtual soundscapes, live strings, and chorus in ways I never have before, and also allowed me to do a horror arrangement the 90s hip-hop classic “I Got 5 On It.” So I got to stretch my creative muscles and raise awareness of my music in an entirely new audience. Plus, I got to continue to work again with Jordan Peele, who is such a visionary.
S: Your latest film score was for HBO’s “Bad Education,” starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. What was your process with that one?
Abels: “Bad Education” is about the biggest school embezzlement scandal in US history. It’s a dark comedy, and its fascinating to watch the story gradually reveal itself. The director, Cory Finley, knew from the start that he wanted a very classical-sounding score, both because Jackman’s character, Frank Tassone, loved classical music, but also because “classical’ lends itself to the “hallowed halls”-sense of academia that pervades a very competitive school system. So, in this score, I got to go back to my earliest training, and write as if I were living not only in the Classical period, but also the Romantic and the Baroque. There is some very Minimalist music in the score that represents the gradual unraveling of the mystery as the high school journalist begins to investigate the scandal. Huge fun to work on, and nothing like my other scores.
S: You work in several idioms. How do you tackle a movie score versus a ballet? Are there similarities between composing for these two mediums?
Abels: The difference is that in film, the composer is writing to help the director tell the story sonically. The approach to the way you interpret the events and emotions on-screen is determined by the director. However, for a ballet or any non-media format, the composer is given direction up front, and is then left to solve how to “tell the story” by him/herself. It’s great to feel more autonomous, but ongoing feedback often improves artistic work…What is the same in any medium though, is that music is storytelling, taking an audience on a journey. Regardless of how much creative direction a composer is given, in the end the listener needs to feel like the journey was worthwhile. That’s what I’m striving for in my ballet, my film scores, in all of my music.
S: Has it been a challenge for you as a black man to work in a trade that has been controlled by white men?
Abels: I always try to keep focused on what doors I can open and are open to me, rather than the ones that are deliberately closed. In 2018, after “Get Out,” I co-founded the Composers Diversity Collective to help producers, directors and show runners have access to composers from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
S: Racism has been a persistent issue in the country since its founding. What made the current “Black Lives Matter” movement more significant in 2020? In your view, what has changed?
Abels: It’s simply that the racism was filmed and put in people’s faces. A moral person can’t watch the George Floyd video and not conclude, “this is murder, and this is not acceptable.” Everyone had to see the world through black eyes, and they were appalled. It’s very encouraging to see white people demonstrating for racial justice. That happened in the 1960s, but the change is that people seem willing to acknowledge systemic racism for the first time, and acknowledge that it isn’t fair or right. That really is a first, and it’s very inspiring.
S: Of your popular works, do you have one piece that you are most proud of?
Abels: It’s always the latest one! I’ve just completed At War With Ourselves — a 75-minute song cycle for chorus and string quartet. It was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, and the text is by National Book Award-winner Nikky Finney. We’re extremely excited about it. Kronos is now determining how/when/under what conditions it will be premiered. I’ve also co-composed the opera Omar with MacArthur Genius Rhiannon Giddens. It’s about Omar ibn Said, a black Muslim who was enslaved in the Carolinas in the 1800s, whose autobiography is now in the Library of Congress. The opera is slated to premiere at SpoletoUSA in May 2021.
S: What would you say to other artists/musicians that are craving ensemble work, and want to continue to perform as part of their mental health during this pandemic?
Abels: COVID has been the greatest challenge performing artists have experienced in my lifetime. It’s normal to feel sad, restless, isolated, and depressed. I’ve had periods of great productivity during the shutdown, but also periods of lack of focus and laziness. It’s important to keep practicing, to keep writing, to participate in online fundraisers or solo concerts, and to exercise. It’s a time to make yourself do all the things you never have time to do otherwise! For example, I created concert band arrangements of my Subito-pieces Global Warming and Liquify, and may do even more. One surprising thing I did is create a huge light display in a tree in my front yard. It’s white and gold, and it lights up in the evening as families are out for their walks. I wanted to bring beauty to my neighborhood in a summer that is in need of some moments of joy.
Learn more about Michael Abels.