Bio

 

“Writing about music,” Martin Mull famously observed, “is like dancing about architecture.”  A great quip, even if it dismisses all the worthy, durable, even timeless words – from Hector Berlioz and Peter Guralnick, to Maynard Solomon and Lester Bangs – that have ever come to bear on that incorporeal and temporary phenomenon we call music.

Nevertheless, Mull had a point: there’s really no substitute for the thing itself. Hence this website, and for you, a chance to sample my music first-hand, unmediated by anything but your own sense and sensibility.

But first, some obligatory words from the, um, composer.

I have been involved with music as long as I can remember – my earliest memories are of stretching out on the carpet of a dark living room floor, listening with awe to the burnished tones radiating from my parents’ Silvertone console hi-fi (Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, the wonderful golden glow of those vacuum tubes!), or hearing the mournful strains of my father’s violin as he played his romantic German violin pieces.

In other words, the hook was set pretty early on, and since then my life’s pursuit has been to apprehend that vast sense of the sublime I experienced lying on the living room floor in our home in suburban Buffalo, NY.

I began studying violin at the age of eight and will never forget the first time I heard a symphony orchestra (the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in Kleinhans Music Hall led by Lukas Foss). I grew up in Buffalo during those heady days of 1970s contemporary music. Buffalo was and is a great place to have a passion for music. It’s where, without too much effort, you could rub elbows with some great American composers like Aaron Copland, John Cage, Elliott Carter and Morton Feldman, and hear ear-popping, mind-blowing performances by such esteemed artists as Kyung-Wha Chung, Steve Reich, Isaac Stern, and the young Michael Tilson Thomas.

Buffalo was also a place where you could slip into a bar under-age and check out jazz masters like Stanley Turrentine, Johnny Griffin or Lee Konitz for not much more than the price of a couple drinks.  Or have your angst slam-danced out of you by a pack of howling, over-driven guitars in some forsaken downtown punk club. Now that was a sentimental education.

In middle school, I was fortunate to be selected as a member of the Erie County Orchestra, which convened every year for one week, during which the best and brightest of the region’s young musicians met and vied for supremacy. For violinists, it could be a nerve-wracking experience, but the good part was that we all got to perform in an orchestra many times larger than any we’d ever played in before. To be part of that wall of sound was, for a 12-year-old, an unforgettable sensation.  I remember one year, the music was Tchaikovsky’s moody and turbulent “Marche Slav,” and like many of the tone poems and programmatic symphonic pieces of the Romantic era, it was soundtrack music before soundtracks were invented, which is to say it was intensely cinematic, and I’m sure many of us in that junior high ensemble conjured up vivid images in our mind’s eye as we gave expression to the music’s grand narrative arc.

In college, I studied America literature. Afterward, and for many years, I worked as a music journalist – a truncated career that nevertheless brought me to the unlikely destination of Bakersfield, CA, which is where I discovered Bob Wills and Buck Owens, and found possibilities for the violin I scarcely knew existed. This led to my current occupation as leader of the Western Swing band, the Saddle Cats.

I perform country and western music, and the Cajun music of French Lousiana, and continue to play classical violin in various regional orchestras around the San Francisco Bay area.

When I first began composing music for films, I found it to be a liberating experience. Because it is intrinsically a collaborative medium, film is a much richer environment for musical ideas. Rather than beginning with the vast infinity of silence, you begin with the image on the screen. And just as I, as a boy, happily reverse-engineered a Cinemascope narrative from the mournful strains of “Marche Slav,” I find it just as easy now to come up with musical correlative to, let’s say, a Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange.

I find that I’m able to combine the totality of my musical experiences, from Bach to bluegrass, in the music I write for film. You could call me a poly-stylist, but that’s just where my career has brought me. Every composer starts out as something of a mimic, and movie music especially requires a composer to whip up pastiches and replicas of historical styles. Still, I like to think that whatever its influences or reference points, my music speaks with inner conviction and possibly possesses its own authenticity. If I may quote Duke Ellington by way of Peter Schikkele, “If it sounds good, then it is good.”

Like I said, writing for movies is a license to do anything. But you have to observe one imperative: to create music whose principal concern is not process or system, but emotion. Film composers return musical expression to its original purpose, as a signifier of human feeling. That’s a lot easier to do than trying to divine an avenue out of post-Serialism — or post-Minimalism, for that matter.

So we are freed from the necessity to be a  “Capital-C” Composer – who strives to stay one tick ahead of history, who writes to the academic gallery, or who strains simply to be au courant.  Capital-C Composers — think Brahms and Schoenberg — constantly have the weight of tradition bearing on their shoulders, but a film composer has only to serve the moment at hand, and to make his audience experience an emotion – sadness, elation, love, fear, awe, amusement, grief, aspiration – whatever feeling might be intended for that image. If I can, on behalf of the filmmaker, locate that emotional trigger inside of my listeners, if I can jog loose an unbidden sense memory or animate a deep, long-hidden feeling – then I feel like I’ve done my job.

 

 

 

3 Responses to “Bio”

  • I was saddened to learn about your father’s death. I read about it in a Buffalo News obituary. Although words cannot do much to abate the loss you and your family must have felt, please accept my sympathy.

    Your father and I were colleagues in Nuclear Engineering at UB. I was on my way back from an 18 month leave to work on a nuclear reactor test in Idaho when I read about Three Mile Island in a Chicago newspaper in O Hare airport. What should have been a trivial incident was turned into a major problem by human mismanagement. If you are curious, I could tell you more about that.

    Three Mile Island essentially killed nuclear power in the US and almost killed Nuclear Engineering education, except for a few very strong schools such as MIT and a few other schools where deans had some foresight.

    I remember well your own career as a music critic for The Buffalo News.

    If this reaches you, please reply and I can tell you more about my children, Karen and Bill, whom you knew.

    Sincerely, Stephen G. Margolis

  • Big ol HOWDY from Bakersfield, Richard. Being one of the many musicians to take the stage with you will always be high on my list of life’s pleasures. We sure gave those dancers something to swing about.

  • As I asked after today’s music festival @ the Melody Ranch … after being part of the throngs of your two days of standing ovations, it’s time for another recording – please ~ We are enthralled by your range of tastes, have already worn one CD almost down to a “nubbin” !

Leave a Reply